Lester Ziffren; Broke News of War in Spain

Lester Ziffren heard from a nobleman in Madrid that the civil war had started and sent a coded message to London.
Lester Ziffren heard from a nobleman in Madrid that the civil war had started and sent a coded message to London. (Family Photo)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lester Ziffren, 101, who broke news of the Spanish Civil War as a young U.S. reporter in Madrid and whose subsequent career took him to Hollywood as a movie writer, South America as a diplomat and New York as a public relations executive, died Nov. 12 at his home in Manhattan. He had congestive heart failure.

"Ziff" Ziffren was thought to be the oldest surviving reporter for the United Press wire service. He earned a place in the news agency's lore for his Spanish Civil War scoop revealing that army units were revolting against the government.

On July 17, 1936, he used a simple code to defy censors and get word to his editors in London. His apparently scrambled message began: "Mothers Everlastingly Lingering Illness Likely Laryngitis Aunt Flora Ought Return Even If Goes North Later Equally Good If Only Night . . ."

The London desk was quick to see the news in the first letters of each word -- the army had launched its fight from Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa.

Mr. Ziffren helped cover the ensuing violence, including the bombardment of the capital. That Thanksgiving, he stayed on at the U.S. Embassy after nearly 75 other Americans had been evacuated to Valencia.

One of Mr. Ziffren's stories said Gen. Francisco Franco's Nationalist forces could easily have taken the capital had their intelligence been better. The report was said to have so angered Franco, soon to become Spain's longtime dictator, that Mr. Ziffren's editors in London feared for his safety. The journalist arranged to leave the country with the Mexican ambassador.

Mr. Ziffren's journalism career was over, despite the wire service's offers to relocate him. He told an interviewer in 1937: "Even now I have violent nightmares and wake up in a cold sweat. When I start talking about Spain, I start weeping for no reason at all."

Lester Ziffren was born April 30, 1906, in Rock Island, Ill., where as a young man he covered golf for the local newspaper. According to his family, he displayed early talent for enterprise by using pseudonyms to cover the same games for other papers.

He studied at the University of Missouri's journalism school and during his graduation ceremony in 1927 asked a guest, the president of United Press, for a job. Within a year, he was filing stories from Buenos Aires for the news service about everything from boxing to politics.

He arrived in Madrid in 1933 and quickly found a hospitable bar to exchange news and gossip with society friends. One nobleman tipped him off that the civil war had started.

After leaving Madrid, he popped up in Hollywood as a scriptwriter for 20th Century Fox producer Sol Wurtzel, his wife's uncle. Mr. Ziffren received credit for several of Wurtzel's low-budget action films, including "Sharpshooters" (1938), with Brian Donlevy and Wally Vernon as newsreel cameramen in Europe.

He also wrote Charlie Chan features starring Sidney Toler as the Chinese American detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. They included "Charlie Chan in Panama" and "Charlie Chan in Rio," which used Mr. Ziffren's knowledge of Latin American ambience.

During World War II, Mr. Ziffren worked for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and was assigned to Chile as a propaganda specialist. After a brief period running his late father-in-law's talent agency -- director John Ford was among his clients -- he returned to government work in the early 1950s as first secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Colombia.

Starting in 1961, he spent a decade as public relations director for Kennecott Copper in New York after having worked for its Chilean subsidiary. In retirement, he was a founder of the North American-Chilean Chamber of Commerce.

In New York, he kept thousands of items of tauromachy -- bullfighting memorabilia -- that included books, paintings and sculptures. His bullfighting infatuation began in Spain and brought him close to Ernest Hemingway as they covered the war. He once wrote that he and Hemingway used to "enjoy fried shrimp and fresh 'bola' cheese washed down with beer."

His wife, Edythe Wurtzel Ziffren, whom he married in 1937, died in 1977.

Survivors include a daughter, Davis "Didi" Hunter of Rhinebeck, N.Y., and a sister.

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