Georgie Anne Geyer, a much-traveled foreign correspondent and syndicated columnist, is the product of the great romantic tradition in Chicago journalism that gave us the likes of Ben Hecht, "The Front Page" and Mike Royko. After joining the now-defunct Chicago Daily News in 1960, Geyer savored the pungent flavor of Second City newspapering, and its spirit pervades her autobiography. Chicago reporters always have propagated the fantasy that they have the best job in the world, that they can write the pants off anyone and still have plenty of time for boasts, brawls, booze and broads.
Of course, Geyer was an oddity, being a broad herself. But the comforting cloak of Chicago seems to have protected her through the years. Whether she is reacting to the alleged sexual magnetism of Fidel Castro or describing the anguish of displaced Palestinians, her engaging persona of scribe as survivor shines through. After delivering a speech before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, for example, she found herself seated next to the president of a major oil company. "There I was," she writes, "a girl from the South Side, telling this immensely powerful man about the Saudis' real feelings."
Geyer grew up on the South Side with a hunger for adventure, a gift for languages and an ability to travel light, all qualities befitting a foreign correspondent. During the 1960s and 1970s she covered practically every terrorist and guerrilla movement in both Latin America and the Middle East. Along the way she interviewed everyone from Anwar Sadat and the Ayatollah Khomeini to Bolivian peasants who had been conned into joining Che Guevara's last quixotic band.
As a reporter, she was perhaps ahead of her time in writing sympathetically about the Arabs--a choice, she notes, that won her no friends among feverish pro-Israeli readers. Here, she tells about both the process of dealing with the complexities of such stories, the thrill of being in the thick of current events and her own emotions on emotional issues.
As a woman, she faced problems male reporters never do. Her thoughts about this gender gap are the most valuable contribution in this book.
Foreign editors take heed: Her major point is that being a woman enhanced her effectiveness as a foreign correspondent even as it left her prey to special dangers. Would-be macho men, she argues, especially Third World Marxist leaders, are most threatened by and hostile to American men, symbols of power and oppression, whether they are male journalists or government bureaucrats. These leaders feel more at ease with women journalists. At the same time, they often refuse to take them seriously. A good reporter like Geyer, therefore, can catch these men with their guard down. She can be less abrasive, more sensitive and thus more insightful when interpreting information wrung from such sources. If she is right--and she makes a persuasive case--women should make up the majority of the foreign press corps instead of a tiny minority.
She is quite candid, however, about the price she and other women pay for the chance to join the international media army. There is a harrowing account of how she nearly was raped by a Soviet Georgian television newscaster. There are earnest explanations of the turmoil she experienced when faced with questions of marriage, family and ambition. She reveals the shame that has washed over her in identifying with the sufferings of oppressed women in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Having matured before the new generation of feminists, she managed to liberate herself via on-the-job training. It's clear she suffered the usual slights; a physician lectured her when she asked for birth control pills and she was forced to don Moslem cover-up clothes in order to get some stories. But she never grew bitter, never rejected her sexuality, kept her sense of humor. One lover, she reports wryly, said her three favorite words were not, "I love you," but, "Room service, please."
In fact, Geyer escaped most of the pitfalls that have tripped up other female foreign correspondents. She did not become an alcoholic. She did not become a talking-head celebrity, passing off fluff interviews with world rulers as scoops. She slogged through armed conflicts without adopting fatigues as her permanent outfit, which is how she describes the legendary Dickey Chapelle. She never used sex to get a story: "I just couldn't picture waking up at three in the morning with some stranger lying next to me and saying, 'Eh, Che, mi amor, tell me where your missiles are.' "
She does admit she envies Oriana Fallaci's chutzpah in confronting international figures. Happily, she did not try to imitate it, sticking instead to her own "absorptive" style. If the result is that she's not as famous, Georgie Anne Geyer presents herself as every bit as capable. By surviving, she stands as a conservative yet admirable role model for young women (or, for that matter, nonswaggering young men) who want to become reporters. Her plucky autobiography should be required reading for the next generation of foreign correspondents; let's hope there still will be enough newspapers around to nurture and print them.