Authors: Preston Paul
I am sending this along to enclose the clipping of my interview on Saturday with you in Boston, after which you were kind enough to rescue my prose… My own impressions will remain clear-cut in my mind for some time. One hour’s talking with you completely and seriously changed my life – the night before I was close to accepting marital obscurity, so to speak, to becoming an air corps instructor’s wife, doomed to bridge afternoons and quiet ways. But now, and I don’t think I’m too
impulsive, I’m keen for this journalism game, realize it’s the life I want. Doesn’t that sound foolish? It’s a sweet strangeness that shapes our lives. And thanks to your deep-tone of dynamic ideas, I have hope. And I hope to land in Russia!
They met again in the spring of 1943 and she wrote as if infatuated:
What can I say to you? The second meeting was really something to remember. The two times I have talked to you I have felt terrifically alive, for the first times in my life, as if you were crystallizing so much for me. I can’t understand the feeling, it’s new but clean and good. You have an escapable vitality, such a sizzling realness about you. Life is good as you said. Can’t help but know that you did the interviewing. I did all the talking and women are supposed to be mysterious but so help me, I felt like it…Write to me.
As the correspondence progressed, it became more flirtatious and contained hints of their beginning an affair, although there is no surviving correspondence to suggest that they did.
Just as Fischer had a remarkable ability to get politicians to open up to him, he apparently had a similar capacity to achieve intimacy with women, making them feel heard and understood, and, in cases like that of Mollie Oliver, encouraged or enabled to develop as writers. It had been like that with Tatiana Lestchenko and Gerda Grepp and with numerous other women in the future. However, because of his obsessive need to safeguard his independence, he ended relationships as soon as the women told him they loved or needed him. Perhaps for that reason, he had inclined to affairs with married women because he felt that they were less likely to make demands upon him. One important friendship that developed into something more was with Diana Forbes-Robinson, the wife of Jimmy Sheean. Throughout the Spanish war and after, she wrote to Louis weekly and sometimes more often. The correspondence was interrupted in 1940. After immense difficulties in her marriage, it was renewed on a more passionate basis in 1951.
By the autumn of 1942, Fischer had found a new cause, that of the independence of India, and a new hero, Mahatma Gandhi. He went to India, interviewed the Mahatma, and began to write articles about the Indian situation. He wrote three books about Gandhi, one of which, a full biography, would be filmed under the direction of Sir Richard Attenborough. He tried to get President Roosevelt to back Indian independence. His articles provoked heated polemics in
about the ethics of stirring up India while the British were still involved in the fight with Hitler. For him, the post-war peace was paramount, which led to disagreements with his friend Freda Kirchwey, who was more interested in first winning the war.
After an association going back to 1923, in June 1945, Fischer broke publicly with
resigning his position as a ‘contributing editor’ and accusing the editors of having a ‘line’ and having a ‘misleading’ coverage of current events, by which he meant that, in the wake of the Yalta meeting of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, the magazine was becoming too pro-Soviet.
He began writing for small anti-Communist liberal magazines such as
as a foreign correspondent and commentator on international politics, focusing on Europe and Asia, especially Communism in the Soviet Union and China, imperialism, and the problems of emerging nations. Despite this change, he always remained committed to the Spanish Republic.
The Spanish experience would always follow Fischer. In 1952, it facilitated two long interviews with Marshal Tito in Belgrade.
Then, in 1953, when working for the
New York Times,
Fischer was approached by Alexander Orlov, the senior NKVD agent he had met in Spain. Orlov had defected to Canada in 1938 and, after the death of Stalin, he was in New York trying to sell his memoirs to
magazine for a small fortune. The editorial director of the magazine, John Shaw Billings, before parting with a substantial sum, wanted proof that Orlov really was the former NKVD general that he said he was. Having failed to make contact with Ernest Hemingway, who was in Cuba, the person Orlov chose to vouch for him was Louis Fischer. They had met in Madrid in September 1936, having been introduced by the Russian Ambassador Marcel Rosenberg. On 17 March 1953, Orlov telephoned Fischer, saying only that he was ‘a friend from Spain’ and requesting a meeting.
Although Orlov had not identified himself, Fischer seemed to recognize him and invited him to his apartment. When he arrived, Fischer greeted him as ‘my old friend Orlov’ and quickly agreed to vouch for him to
magazine. Orlov asked him to come to his lawyer’s office, where he confirmed the former agent’s real identity to Billings.
The publication of the serialized book alerted the FBI to the presence of Orlov in the USA and provoked J. Edgar Hoover to initiate an investigation. In consequence, Fischer was questioned by FBI investigators on 19 May 1953 about Orlov’s role in Spain. When it was Orlov’s turn to be interrogated by the FBI, he attempted to divert attention from his own crimes by pointing the fingers at others. He claimed that Fischer had once been a Soviet intelligence agent. However, it has been pointed out that ‘the NKVD records contain no evidence that Fischer was ever anything more than a Communist sympathizer’ and that the FBI, despite its extremely thorough investigation of Orlov, chose to take no action against Fischer. Accordingly, it appears that Orlov was falsely accusing Fischer by way of revenge for, and to cast doubt on, allegations in his book
Men and Politics
about the activities of the Russian security services in Spain. Within Stalin’s Russia, Fischer, far from being considered agent material, was regarded as a Trotskyist sympathizer.
Fischer returned to Russia in 1956 and wrote a book about his experiences called
He wrote biographies of Stalin, Gandhi and Lenin. The latter,
The Life and Death of Lenin,
won the National Book Award in 1964.
In December 1958, he was appointed a research associate at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1961, he became a lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where he taught Soviet–American relations and Soviet foreign politics. In October 1967, he wrote a letter in favour of British entry into the European Economic Community.
Throughout this period, he had numerous love affairs. His correspondence contains dozens of pages of love letters from unidentified women. In 1957, ‘Dede’ wrote to him: ‘what manner of a Man sees three women in as many hours? Who would allow such a thing? Well, I just want to be the last.’
The letter was from Deirdre Randall and her wish would eventually come true. The relationship with Deirdre was one of the most enduring in his life. Although forty years Louis’ junior,
Deirdre was deeply in love with him but tolerated his infidelities. About ten years after Louis first began to see Deirdre, another of his last relationships was especially tempestuous and involved Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. At the time, Svetlana, aged forty-two, was an attractive woman with auburn hair, deep blue eyes and a seductive smile. Thirty years her senior, Louis Fischer was rather weather-beaten but still active and as alert as ever. Her years in the Kremlin, despite her problems with her father, had left her spoiled, petulant and arrogant. Having made a fortune from the sale of her book of memoirs,
Twenty Letters to a Friend,
she rented a house in Princeton in New Jersey. There in 1968 she met and fell in love with the Russian-speaking Fischer. Since she was not the only woman in his life at the time, she felt intense jealousy.
Svetlana’s suspicions fell inevitably on the beautiful Deirdre Randall, who had become Fischer’s research assistant, certainly spent lengthy periods in his house and was effectively living with him. Svetlana was enraged after she found some of Deirdre’s things in his house. On that occasion, she seems to have thrown Deirdre’s clothes around. On another, Deirdre left Louis a note after Svetlana had telephoned while he was out:
First she hung up, then curiosity got the best of her, and she asked who this was and I said, ‘Deirdre. How are you?’ and she said (and she talks with the elaborate sinisterness of people in Eisenstein movies, at least to me) ‘and what are you doing there’ and I said ‘working of course’ and she very sweetly, ‘and are you wearing your beautiful nightgown?’ and I said ‘Of course not, most of the time I was in the bed naked’. Sorry I blew my top but she grabs me. I don’t think she would have apologised, nor let me use her ironing board to iron the clothes she wrinkled. I think she’s absolutely crackers and that one of us is going to end up with an ikon buried in her heart. My mommy told me not to fool around with married men. If you get home at a reasonable hour, better call her. I really feel awful. I hate being bullied and I hate most of all being afraid and she’s so crude I feel that I know what it was like to talk to Stalin.
Svetlana’s temper tantrums were the talk of Princeton’s small academic community. One day, in the autumn of 1968, she arrived at Louis’ house and banged furiously at the door. Inside with Deirdre Randall, Fischer ignored Svetlana as she ranted for over an hour, demanding that he return her presents to him. They amounted to a travel clock and two decorative candles. As her fury mounted, she tried to break in by smashing the windows at the side of the door. When the police arrived, they found her hysterical with blood pouring from her hands. It was the end of their relationship.
The relationship with Deirdre, in contrast, was more lasting. Despite the difference in their ages, she could be critical, commenting to his son George on Louis’ ‘horrible hard, tough, thick-skulled frightening ego’. That perhaps made her more attractive to him, as did the fact that, while she adored him, she was something of a free-spirited child of the 1960s and did not pressure him with ambitions of monogamy. In one of her early letters to him, she wrote: ‘I touch your hand. You are so vital. You’ve made me come alive. You are the sun. I feel you here. I am warm.’
With the encouragement of Deirdre, he continued to work, producing two important works on Soviet foreign policy.
Russia’s Road from Peace to War: Soviet Foreign Relations, 1917–1941
was published in 1969, shortly before his death. He died on 15 January 1970, but Deirdre continued to work on the final preparation of the manuscript of the other,
The Road to Yalta: Soviet Foreign Relations, 1941–1945,
which appeared two years later.
n early 1938, Martha Gellhorn wrote to her friend and mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt:
You must read a book by a man named Steer: it is called the Tree of Gernika. It is about the fight of the Basques – he’s the London Times man – and no better book has come out of the war and he says well all the things I have tried to say to you the times I saw you, after Spain. It is beautifully written and true, and few books are like that, and fewer still that deal with war. Please get it.
Martha Gellhorn’s judgement has more than stood the test of time. Steer was the correspondent of
whose account of the bombing of Guernica perhaps had more political impact than any single article written by any correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. The Labour Member of Parliament for Derby, Philip Noel-Baker, wrote to Steer about his reporting:
Your telegrams from Bilbao have been of incalculable value to me, and your messages to the Times have been simply brilliant. I think no article in modern times has made so deep an impression throughout the whole country as your dispatch about the bombing of Guernica. I wish you could have heard the comments made by your Member of Parliament, Arthur Salter. I have quoted the dispatch at length in at least ten big meetings throughout the country, and it everywhere makes a tremendous impression.
To a world which has witnessed the slaughter unleashed by Hitler and Stalin, to say nothing of the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars, the
Spanish Civil War might well seem small beer. After Dresden and Hiroshima, the destruction of Guernica could appear to be no more than a second-rate piece of thuggery. Yet, for all that, the bombing of the sleepy Basque market town on 26 April 1937 has probably provoked more savage polemic than any single act of war since, and much of that polemic has revolved around Steer’s article. This is partly because what happened at Guernica was perceived as the first time that aerial bombardment wiped out an undefended civilian target in Europe. In fact, the bombing of innocent civilians was a well-established practice in the colonies of the Western powers and had most recently and most thoroughly been carried out by the Italians in Abyssinia. Even in Spain, the bombing of Guernica had been preceded by the destruction of nearby Durango by German bombers at the end of March 1937. As the special envoy of
with the Republican forces in Bilbao, George Steer, who had witnessed the horrors of bombing in Abyssinia, described what was done at Durango as ‘the most terrible bombardment of a civil population in the history of the world up to March 31st 1937’.
However, with the aid of Picasso’s searing painting, it is Guernica that is now remembered as the place where the new and horrific modern warfare came of age.