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Authors: Preston Paul

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exceedingly popular with men and never without a romance of her own – probably because she was warm-hearted, such a genuine good sort, and also very amusing company. She was a first-rate newspaperwoman and quite well known as such and if it had not been for her Left sympathies, though she belonged to no political party, she would have been earning very good money. She had done so in the past. Only her left views and her love affairs, which made her rather a rolling stone, stood in her way. She had been everywhere, Honolulu, Shanghai and Moscow and never lacked a job as she was very competent.

After marrying an American, Mike Mitchell, in 1921, she worked as a reporter for the
Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
She divorced him in 1926 and went to cover the Chinese revolution of Chiang Kai-shek. She went to Moscow in 1931 and worked for an English-language newspaper for foreign visitors, the
Moscow Daily News,
as well as being a stringer for the
New York Times
and
Time
magazine. She became a good friend of the future commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the International Brigades, Robert Merriman, and his wife Marion, after they met her in Moscow in early 1935. Marion recalled: ‘I could tell Milly was as “crazy” as I’d heard – an extrovert who knew no limits and whose curiosity demanded that she seek out virtually everything that came to mind.’ In Moscow, Milly was working with the American journalist, Anna Louise Strong, who was briefly co-editor of the
Moscow Daily News.
After a brief visit to Madrid in mid-December 1936, Milly was given a job in the foreign press service in Valencia in the first week of January 1937.
74

According to Marion Merriman: ‘Milly Bennett was a wanderer who kept moving, from continent to continent, war to war, job to job, recording it all in whatever newspaper she could find to pay her at the moment.’ Wherever she went, as Kate Mangan noted, she was extremely popular with men. Marion wrote:

Milly was a homely woman, but she was blessed with an extraordinary figure. She didn’t dress in a particularly sexy way, preferring the business skirts and blouses of the rather scruffy newspaper business. But her shapely figure turned the head of many a man with a roving eye. She was thirty-nine but looked years younger. Her face reflected her travels, her features craggy and rough-hewn. She was regarded as ‘one of the boys’ in the newspaper office and at the café bars where the journalists, crowd that included few women, gathered.

In 1931, she had married a Russian, Evgeni Konstantinov, but after he was arrested in 1934, she began to live with a ballet dancer. When Marion asked one of the other correspondents in Moscow the secret to Milly’s attractiveness to men, he replied: ‘“Have you ever danced with her? No, of course you haven’t”, he added with a wink that suggested that Milly’s charm lay not strictly in her ability to gather and write the news.’

James Minifie met Milly with an anarchist group south of Madrid. He described her as ‘the homeliest woman I have ever seen; she had a muddy skin, poor teeth, unkempt black hair, and a bumpy figure’. Observing Minifie’s dismay, an anarchist militiawoman told him: ‘Don’t underestimate Milly Bennett. She may not look like much, but she has a powerful attraction for men. She has charm.’ Sefton Delmer had similar, if less affectionate memories of her. In a wildly exaggerated account, he wrote:

She was always clowning and mugging, and making a mock of herself and being a good fellow. Which was understandable. For Milly, with a mop of thick wiry hair, a sallow face, pebble lensed glasses perched on her thick stub of a nose, had one of those short, piano-legged, large torso bodies which are normally ignored by the courting males of our hemisphere.

Milly was, however, no pushover: ‘She drank whiskey with the best of the correspondents, when they could get it, and vodka a good proportion of the rest of the time. Everybody liked Milly, and respected her. She was a pro.’

On the basis of her remarks to Robert Merriman in many heated conversations there could be little doubt that Milly Bennett was not a Communist. She was highly critical of the Soviet system and totally sceptical of the official line on its inexorable progress. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, she wanted to pursue a former lover, Wallace Burton, who had gone to join the International Brigades. With some difficulty, Milly managed to persuade her Russian employers to name her their correspondent in Spain. Burton was killed in action but Milly stayed on, writing occasional articles for the London
Times,
the Associated Press and United Press. She also worked in the press and propaganda office in Valencia, fell in love with a Swedish brigader called Hans Amlie and also helped gather material for Hemingway’s
For Whom the Bell Tolls
.
75

Although Milly was not a Communist, she fell foul of one of the more right-wing correspondents. Kate wrote of attending an event at which the President of the Republic, Manuel Azaña, made a speech:

A very tall American journalist lifted me up so that I could see over all heads. Hank, the American, was a friend of Poppy and often used to take us out for a beer or invite us to cocktails at his flat. When he left Spain he wrote a pro-Franco book in which he said Poppy was a red agent sent straight from the Comintern and we laughed a lot about it but perhaps some people believed it.

The journalist in question was H. Edward Knoblaugh, the book
Correspondent in Spain,
and what he said highly damaging. Everything about Knoblaugh suggested a considerable political volatility and moral ambivalence. Other correspondents nicknamed him ‘Doaks’.

In the first week of February 1937, Knoblaugh seemed to be relishing the likely capture of Málaga as a good story. The staff of the press office were reluctant to contemplate the consequences if the Andalusian port were to fall to the rebels and their Italian allies. One of their number, the louche Basil Murray, son of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, went to find out for himself. Diminutive, perpetually disgruntled and often drunk, in Kate Mangan’s opinion, he was ‘a bit of a
failure. He wore his hair long at the back, like Lloyd George, and was very sensitive. He had bright, dewy eyes like a stricken deer’. Murray was satirized by Evelyn Waugh (along with Peter Rodd, the husband of Nancy Mitford) as ‘Basil Seal’ in his novels
Black Mischief
(1932) and
Put Out More Flags
(1942). He had little stomach for war reporting. He returned from Málaga in a state of panic: ‘It’s too ghastly, that town is lost already. The bombardments are incessant and frightful. The morale of the people has broken under them. The cathedral is full of poor women with babies, camping, who have fled from the villages. You can’t imagine the horror of it.’ His colleagues shrugged him off as hysterical and his report went unpublished. When the Italians entered Málaga on 7 February, the flight of terrified refugees towards Almería witnessed one of the most tragic episodes of the war. Thousands of women, children and the elderly were bombarded from warships and strafed by Italian and German aircraft. The entire Republican zone was traumatized and the press office was not immune. Coco Robles wept uncontrollably and even Constancia de la Mora, who had tried to keep her emotions in check, cried in front of Kate Mangan.

Morale in the office had not been helped by the arrival of one of the last people to escape Málaga, the beautiful fresh-faced, brown-eyed young Norwegian journalist, Gerda Grepp, who later to have an affair with Louis Fischer. She had been sent to the town on her first assignment and become friends there with Arthur Koestler and local residents, ranging from anarchists to the English zoologist Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell. Now she arrived in a state of collapse and when news of the capture of the town came in ‘she nearly went demented’. She had begged Koestler to leave with her but he had stayed on in the hope of reporting on the expected atrocities. Grepp was inconsolable, convinced that all the people she had met in Málaga would be murdered. She plunged into the darkest of Scandinavian depressions.
76

Edward Knoblaugh was furious that he had not been immediately given a car to go and view the situation for himself. He later took his revenge on ‘Poppy’ and others in his book:

A large bundle of material from the Ministry of Propaganda was delivered to my Valencia office twice each day. I rarely used any
of this material without checking it carefully. Sometimes it was impossible to check. One of the articles I did use typifies the high degree of skill the propaganda machine achieved within the space of a few short months. This was a story written by Milly Bennett, one of the talented young American writers on the government payroll, describing the evacuation of Malaga. My office had urgently requested coverage on the Malaga situation, but the government, denying there was any possibility of Malaga’s falling, was not furnishing cars to correspondents to disprove its contention. The story, written by the Ministry of Propaganda employee, a gifted young woman fresh from seven years’ training in Russia, was a ‘ghosted interview’ quoting Dr. Norman Bethune, Canadian head of a blood-transfusion unit working in Loyalist Spain, on the experiences she attributed to him among the refugees fleeing Malaga. Her well written ‘interview’ told of the ‘inconceivable ferocity of the barbarian invaders’, the ‘innumerable scenes of horror created by the foreigners’ and the ‘terrible tragedy of these countless thousands forced to flee their homes’. It did not mention, of course, that the ones who did the ‘forcing’ were the Loyalists themselves. As happened later in Bilbao, many who did not want to leave were executed as ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Even if it had mentioned this, I wouldn’t have been able to send it. I had no doubt but that there
was
much suffering among the hungry Malaguenans struggling eastward along the highway toward Almeria. I had seen something of the hardships undergone by the refugees in other parts of Spain. I had no way of getting there to cover the story myself, so I used this prepared article, trimming out some of the more obvious propaganda with which the story was interlarded but letting it run pretty full.
77

In fact, the text by Milly, to which Knoblaugh referred, was entirely accurate. After the war, she saw his book and wrote to him that she thought his insinuations about her being trained in Russia to be ‘libellous, lowdown and mean’. In his remarkably insensitive reply, he had the audacity, or perhaps the obtuseness, to deny that it was meant to be
‘a crack’ at her or contained any ‘nastiness’: ‘I think you are a fine newspaper woman and a swell pal, and certainly do not want you to feel that I went out of my way to take a slam at you.’ To expect her not to be offended by his damaging statement that she had received ‘seven years’ training in Russia’ and was thus a Soviet agent suggested either that he was very naïve or expected her to be.
78
He would display similar insensitivity in his dealings with Jay Allen.

The callous cynicism with which Knoblaugh viewed the plight of the refugees from Málaga contrasted with the attitude of Lawrence Fernsworth. He went with Kate Mangan to cover the retreat and was deeply moved by the uncomplaining distress of the refugees he interviewed in Almería.
79
T. C. Worsley, who had been the driver of Bethune’s ambulance during the retreat from Málaga, met Fernsworth shortly after his return to Valencia. He described him as grey-haired, wearing pince-nez and a ‘Conservative democrat of the old school, who had become a staunch defender of the new Republic’. Fernsworth was anxious for Worsley to describe exactly what he had seen on the road from Málaga to Almeria. His reports, based on the interviews, had been published in
The Times
on 17 and 24 February, but had then been denied by the paper’s correspondent with the rebels. The denial was shown to Fernsworth before printing and, when printed on 3 March, was accompanied by a statement from him that he had interviewed refugees on the road to Almería, in hospitals, in refugee camps and in barracks, and that it was ‘beyond belief that they should all be engaged in a conspiracy to concoct the story’. In the hope of strengthening the point still further, Fernsworth now asked Worsley and Bethune to give him a signed statement of what they had seen. This they did, but nothing further was published by
The Times.
80

Not everyone in the office was as efficient as Milly Bennett. Yet, interestingly, in a letter to Kitty Bowler, Elizabeth Deeble wrote that Kitty would have been even better at the job in the press office than Milly. The scale of work expected from an employee of the press and propaganda can be deduced from Deeble’s letter. As well as her own journalistic work for the Manchester
Guardian
and the
Washington Post,
she was working in Barcelona as Liston Oak’s equivalent in the
Catalan Comissariat de Propaganda with Jaume Miravitlles. As head of the English-language section there, she was

editor (and write practically all of it) of English bulletin of propaganda under Miravitlles (laddie is well-named ‘marvels’ and does them), do most and supervise the rest of English translations for him, Companys, etc., translate into Spanish all letters that come in English, and translate the Spanish or Catalan replies back again into English, interpret for all English and American visitors, represent Agence Espagne here, help on religious bulletin, am trying to write a book on Spain in the few free seconds I have, keep track of all the English and most of the French press as well as the Spanish every day, and now and then march in a parade or have my photo taken for the good of the cause.

All this was recounted without complaint: ‘Wish I could get along without sleep or without food, but find it impossible. As it is, I write some 5000 to 6000 words a day in various languages, some of it original, and find time to rush about doing other things as well.’
81

In Valencia, Liston Oak certainly did not work on that scale. Indeed, he was regularly absent from his office and, when he was there, was notorious for his lack of diplomatic skills with visiting writers. For instance, he made a hash of relations with W. H. Auden, who had arrived in the belief that he could help the cause of the Republic by working in the press and propaganda office. Oak adopted a ‘violently hostile attitude’ out of sheer jealousy. Rubio commissioned Auden to translate a speech by Azaña, which he did with such elegance and imagination, according to Kate Mangan, as to improve upon the original. Eventually, Auden became exasperated with the politics and intrigue in Valencia and volunteered for the front as a stretcher-bearer.
82

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