An American Original

By Joseph E. Persico

McGraw-Hill. 562 pp. $24.95

It's hard to imagine how there could be much left to say about Edward R. Murrow. He kept no diaries, did not confide in his friends -- and two previous biographies were in print as this one got underway. Ann M. Sperber's awesomely documented "Murrow: His Life and Times," more than 10 years in the making, with a five-page bibliography and 52 pages of footnotes, appeared two years ago and preempts a lot of turf.

But Joseph Persico, whose next book contract pits him against Kitty Kelley for a biography of Nancy Reagan, is not to be lightly put off. He feels specially drawn to the topic, he says, having heard Murrow's London broadcasts as a boy, and having worked for the U.S. Information Agency when Murrow was its boss. He claims to have gleaned fresh insights from Murrow's friends and unprecedented help from Murrow's widow Janet -- who did keep a diary.

But after looking at the man from every conceivable angle, from his narrow feet (in shoes handmade in Scotland) to his oversized head ("When Ed tried on a hat," confides a friend, "they suggested he ought to wear the box it came in"), one marvels that anyone so remote and sepulchral could have held so much of the world in the palm of his hand.

The answer, of course, is that Murrow the man has been subsumed by Murrow the broadcaster. The electronic image, larger than life, has engulfed the reality and swept it out of range.

At first the image has the biographer on the ropes. "Egbert Murrow came into the world on the cusp of a new age," Persico proclaims. Young Murrow's stint as a lumberjack in the forests of Washington state brings living Technicolor, in a spray of commas: "He felt, at one moment, overpowered, a speck in the cosmic design, and, then, God-like, as he stood on a mountaintop and looked upon the untrammeled beauty spread at his feet." You can see how wags at CBS later founded a "Murrow isn't God club," which Murrow asked to join.

Back on planet Earth, the legendary wit and charm that led women to swoon and the mighty to seek out Murrow's company never quite communicate themselves in print. But Murrow's peculiar talents -- he raised silence to an art form, from the soundless echoes of his frequent black moods to the studied pauses in his broadcasts -- and the conjunctions of events that propelled him into a career that didn't exist until he created it is an absorbing tale that Persico tells compellingly. He also has a keen eye for some of the other towering egos that came to populate the scene.

When radio beckoned, Murrow was ready. His commanding voice and skilled delivery were no accident. He had majored in speech at Washington State College. Ida Lou Anderson, his speech teacher, guide and mentor, called him "my masterpiece."

But Murrow was not just another pretty voice. His collection of contacts could choke a Rolodex. While other London reporters slashed through red tape or waded through endless channels, Murrow called Winston Churchill at will. Direct. Back in the United States for a visit, he and Janet dined alone at the White House with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt the night Pearl Harbor was bombed. Eleanor scrambled the eggs. A skilled infighter since his student political days, he took turf wars in his stride, with a band of worshipful colleagues to back him up.

Even history seemed to meet him halfway -- Britain's finest hour was Murrow's as well. He thrived on the risks and hardships of the Blitz, dropping 30 pounds on a diet of cigarettes, coffee and raw nerves. His flight with a night bombing crew over Germany became the benchmark of courage, terror and glory that the rest of life was measured against, and life forever after fell short.

His reports of those days were terse and immediate. He was the inventor and master of his craft. Imagine you are back in your home town, dining with a banker and a professor, he advised his troops. As the maid passes the coffee, her boyfriend, a truck driver, listens in the kitchen. "You are supposed to describe things in terms that make sense to the truck driver without insulting the intelligence of the professor."

Behind the image, there were odd chinks in the armor all along. He made much of his humble origins, but happily mingled with Britain's upper crust. He "aspired to be an English gentleman," one friend recalls. "I thought of him as Sir Edward." His shoulders stooped from carrying the weight of the world, and he was said to stalk the tunnels of BBC "wearing his customary crown of thorns." But he declined to vote in U.S. elections, confiding to Janet that it might impair his professional objectivity -- which didn't stop him from quietly coaching Adlai Stevenson on how to use television in 1952. He won lasting fame and honor for exposing the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, yet signed the McCarthy-inspired CBS loyalty oath without a murmur. "You have to choose your battles," he explained.

The core of Murrow's character, Persico writes, "attested to by virtually everyone who knew him, was incorruptibility, an honesty as reliable as true north on a compass." But true north could take a beating in the crunch. When he applied for his first job at CBS, he falsely claimed he'd majored in political science and international relations; alleged he'd gone to the "more impressive" University of Washington; invented an MA from Stanford when he hadn't been near the place; and added five years to his age. The CBS public relations staff had to hustle in later years to disentangle him from his own "facts." A heavy contributor to the Murrow myth was Murrow himself. The reviewer is a Washington writer.