When asked why she became a historian, Deborah Cohen mentions something she noticed about her mother’s and father’s families while growing up in Louisville, Ky., in the 1970s and ’80s. Though both branches of the family tree stretched back to the Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia, one side was “all about the Betamax,” she says with a laugh, “while the others were really nostalgic, and spent all their time thinking about the past. I think I was drawn to the backward-looking people.”
Speaking over Zoom from her handsome, book-lined office at Northwestern University, where she’s chair of the history department, Cohen says she went to college thinking she’d wind up in public health. “Then I found archives, and I was like, ‘Man, this is where I’m meant to be.’ Though, I have to say,” she interjects, shaking her head in disbelief, “never, never, never have I worked in a set of archives like these.”
The archives she’s referring to—250 boxes of journalist and novelist John Gunther’s letters, diaries, and notebooks—form the backbone of Cohen’s new book, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War (Random House, Mar.). Sweeping in scope yet saturated with a startling intimacy, it’s the story of a close-knit circle of American newspaper correspondents who reported on the global tumults of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Largely forgotten today, Gunther and his friends H.R. Knickerbocker, Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean, and Dorothy Thompson were celebrities of their era, the sources millions of Americans turned to for up-close views of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the Spanish Civil War, and nearly every other international imbroglio of those turbulent decades.
Cohen first visited the John Gunther papers at the University of Chicago after rereading Death Be Not Proud, a poignant, taboo-breaking memoir about Gunther’s teenage son’s death from a brain tumor. Among the hundreds of boxes, she opened the miscellaneous correspondence from 1937 “just for the hell it” and found a private letter from Indian nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru describing his feelings for his late wife. Another set of files contained a note from Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk joking about the abdication crisis in Britain.
It was “crazy” and “unimaginable,” Cohen says. “For me as a European historian—it was riches and riches and riches.”
Just as remarkable as the candid view of the era’s political power brokers was Gunther’s intense, no-holds-barred chronicling of his private life. He left notes on the affair he had with Knickerbocker’s wife, dream journals he kept at the behest of his Freudian psychoanalyst, and even a confession from his wife, Frances Fineman Gunther, a fellow reporter, that she had been faking her orgasms.
Cohen’s three previous books—on the treatment of veterans in Germany and Britain after WWI (The War Come Home), the Victorian obsession with homemaking (Household Gods), and shame and secrecy in modern Britain (Family Secrets)—are linked by the depth of their archival research and their close attention to the relationship between the individual and society and to the nature of private life. Her dip into Gunther’s papers, which, she says, soon “exploded” to include the equally “riveting” archives of his friends and fellow correspondents, had revealed a group of people for whom the very same questions about the correlation between the geopolitical and the personal were at “the core of their thought.”
“I fell in love with them from the very start,” Cohen admits. In an era before jet travel and U.S. global hegemony, they were “young people stuck out at the end of the world, in American terms,” who became the arbiters of an international competition between democracy, fascism, and socialism. Sheean filed the first detailed reports on the 1929 Palestine riots. John and Frances Gunther witnessed the Austrian government’s shelling of its own citizens in 1934. Knickerbocker won the Pulitzer Prize for documenting the suffering caused by Stalin’s first five-year plan. After she was kicked out of Nazi Germany in 1932, Thompson launched the first syndicated opinion column by an American woman and helped mobilize public sentiment in favor of going to war.
Throwing themselves from one world crisis to the next, Gunther and his cohorts led lives as combustible as the politics of their era and brought the same level of scrutiny to their marriages, infidelities, and neuroses as they did to the legacy of British imperialism in India and the 1935 Hoare-Laval Pact that sought an end to the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. In the archives, Cohen turned up records of Thompson’s affair—while she was married to Sinclair Lewis—with the novelist and playwright Christa Winsloe, and Sheean’s dalliances with two of the Bloomsbury Group’s “demi-gods”: Duncan Grant and Eddy Sackville-West.
For Cohen, who spent eight years researching and writing Last Call at the Hotel Imperial, striking the right balance between the geopolitical and biographical elements of the story was crucial. “I really wanted you to hear them,” she says of her subjects. “I wanted you to feel like you were right there with them. That, in the writing, was a complicated thing to try to pull off. The amount of background versus foreground. What can you assume? What is best quoted? What is best paraphrased? You only want to know a certain amount about the factional battles of Austrian socialism, but you also only want to know a certain amount about so-and-so’s love life after their divorce from their wife.”
Cohen credits her editor at Random House, Marie Pantojan, with helping her to sort through those questions about how much context is too much. Pantojan says working with Cohen was “a dream come true.” As a graduate student in the English department at Northwestern, she had gone to Cohen’s talks “all the time” and considered her one of the school’s “superstars.”
Pantojan says part of her role in the editing process was to remind Cohen that “readers don’t have the same handle on history as she does.” Still, she adds, “this sweeping, global history ends up reading very much like a novel because of the character work and character development Deborah has put into it.”
Any reservations Cohen may have had about unearthing her subjects’ most private matters were alleviated by their commitment to preserving those materials. “For Frances Gunther, the orgasm was an unspeakable thing that she insisted on writing about,” Cohen says. “But she saved it. She wanted her papers to go into an archive, because she wanted precisely that struggle to be understood. The same thing is true of all of them. That was their crusade—to expose these areas of private life to public view.”
And it wasn’t just a matter of breaking sexual taboos. In sounding the alarm about the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and documenting the abuses of colonial regimes in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the Gunthers and their cohort called into question the prevailing standards of journalistic objectivity and made arguments against “both-siderism” that will be familiar to readers of today’s news.
Cohen also sees similarities between the Trump era and the 1930s. “When all the parallels between the ’30s and now became a little cottage industry for historians,” she says, “I kept thinking that one of the things that’s most ’30s-ish to me was the collapse of the shield that liberal democracy had formerly provided for people to actually have a private life. That was a kind of entitlement, and, of course, it was a kind of complacency—to be able to go home and actually not think about politics. Michelle Goldberg had a really good column where she talked about ‘marinating’ in current events. And I do think there’s a toll that it exacts—even for people who are bystanders.”
Cohen admits, however, that she’s “completely incapable” of drawing any lessons from the Gunthers, Knickerbocker, Sheean, and Thompson about how to be less affected by the news. “But there was a way that it was strangely comforting to spend time with them,” she says. “Not because things turned out great—actually things turned out pretty disastrously badly. Too much drink, too much trouble, too much sadness. But you feel like, okay, this way we have also come.”
David Adams is a reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.