When George Seldes died in 1995 at the age of 104, a delegation of investigative journalists journeyed to his home in Hartland Four Corners, Vt., and made a vat of martinis with his favorite gin.
They read his work, praised his courage and gave him his last and favorite toast from the Spanish Civil War: “Salud, amor, y pesetas, y tiempo para disfrutarlos,” or “Health, love, and money, and time to enjoy them.”
George Seldes was the last of the great muckrakers, a crusading reporter with a knack for getting kicked out of all the right places. William Jennings Bryan pushed him out of his hotel room. Vladimir Lenin ordered him out of the Soviet Union, and Mussolini threw him out of Italy.
When George Seldes was 91, Warren Beatty invited him to play a cameo role in the film Reds. At 98, he published a bestseller, his 21st book.
Throughout his long life, George Seldes always told the truth, always made enemies and never cared one bit.
By the end of his life he was proven right about the stories he told that had been ignored for years.
George Seldes was born Nov. 16, 1890, to Russian Jewish immigrants in Alliance Colony, N.J.
He learned to distrust the press early on. As a cub reporter for the Pittsburg Leader, he interviewed a department store saleswoman who filed a rape charge against an heir to her employer. George Seldes, his voice shaking with rage, described 80 years later how the newspaper spiked the story. It went to the advertising department, which used it to blackmail the store into doubling its buy.
Within a few years, George Seldes won assignments as a foreign correspondent. He later admitted to regurgitating propaganda about World War I without realizing how he was used. But as he continued reporting in Europe, he started to understand the struggles of telling the truth about war.
He and three other reporters wangled an interview with German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg at the end of the war. Hindenburg said America’s entry into the war caused Germany’s defeat. The Army spiked the story.
To his dying day, George Seldes believed the interview would have blunted Hitler’s rise to power. “It would have been headlined in every country civilized enough to have newspapers and undoubtedly would have made an impression on millions of people and became an important page in history,” he wrote.
“I believe it would have destroyed the main planks on which Hitler rose to power, [and]it would have prevented World War II.”
George Seldes continued reporting in Europe. The Russians expelled him for reporting critically about the dire living conditions people suffered under communism.
Mussolini ran him out of Italy for writing about his role in a political assassination. All the reporters knew, he said, but they viewed Italy as too pleasant a posting to throw away over a little story like this one.
Living Large, The Best Revenge
George Seldes enjoyed the perquisites of reporting overseas. In Berlin, he kept a suite at the luxurious Hotel Adlon. In Paris during World War I he hung out with denizens of the Algonquin Round Table: Damon Runyon, Harold Ross, Alexander Woollcott and Franklin P. Adams.
During his years in Europe, he bragged about breakfast with Emma Goldman, lunch with Charlie Chaplin and dinner with Calvin Coolidge. He taught Ernest Hemingway how to send cables and had cocktails with Isadora Duncan.
But he also had troubles with his boss at the Chicago Tribune. Col. Robert McCormick refused to run his stories on the atrocities of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
George Seldes finally tossed away his press credentials in 1929 and poured his energies into writing books.
His first two books, You Can’t Print That in 1929 and Can These Things Be! in 1931, covered most of the stories that had been spiked by his employers at the Chicago Tribune. They touched on everything from brewing troubles in Afghanistan (where else?) to an aborted effort to publish the love letters of Isadora Duncan.
He moved on to expose the Catholic Church’s ties to Fascism, the machinations of the world’s arms dealers and his favorite target – the corrupt relationship between corporate America and the American press.
Vermont, In Fact
George Seldes found little support for his work among the establishment. His readers loved him, however. Novelist Sinclair Lewis was so fond of him he fronted him the money to buy a house in Hartland Four Corners, a hamlet in Windsor County, Vt.
For the rest of his life, George Seldes made Vermont his home. There he turned out a view of events contrary to the mainstream media’s version.
In 1941 he finally lit on the best use of his time. He published his own news, this time in a newsletter called, In Fact.
In Fact was so successful that J. Edgar Hoover took notice and smeared George Seldes as a communist.
In Fact reached, at its peak, more than 170,000 readers. And George Seldes took no prisoners.
Ahead Of His Time
He harangued the media for its conflicts of interest and for covering up for corporate interests. And he took on stories that were otherwise untouchable.
In 1941,George Seldes reported in In Fact, that Americans were dooming their servicemen to early deaths by sending them cigarettes.
His exposes on tobacco were far ahead of everyone else. It took 10 years for another publication, Reader’s Digest, to pick up the story.
In 1950, George Seldes finally had to shut down In Fact. The FBI had begun to target its readers in a red baiting campaign. The Bureau ordered the postal service to compile lists of his subscribers so it could interrogate them.
Journalist I.F. Stone approached him about taking over the newsletter, but George Seldes told him the FBI destroyed it. It was no longer viable, and so Stone launched his own publication, I.F. Stone’s Weekly.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy subpoenaed George Seldes to question whether he was a member of the Communist party. McCarthy’s committee cleared him.
But he largely receded from public life for several decades after the newsletter failed. He finally vindicated himself publicly with his bestselling 1987 autobiography, Witness to a Century: Encounters with the Noted, the Notorious, and the Three SOBs.
In the end, George Seldes was proven right about the stories he wrote. He had outlived his enemies, he noted, to have the last word.
If you live to be 90, he said, ‘all your sins are forgiven.’
Unfortunately, he had also outlived all his friends.
George Seldes died on July 2, 1995.
He is remembered most for his admonition,
Never grow weary of protesting. In this sensitive business of dealing with the public which depends on faith and good will, protest is a most effective weapon. Therefore protest.
To see a documentary about George Seldes, click here.
This story was updated in 2017.