Seldes, George (Henry) (16 November 1890 - 2 July 1995)
The crusading journalist, George Seldes, was born in Alliance, New Jersey, to a freethinking, deistic Russian immigrant father and a Russian immigrant mother who died when George was 6. Emma Goldman and other radicals often stayed in the Seldes's spare bedroom in Pittsburgh.
George became a cub reporter for the Pittsburgh Leader in 1909 (earning $3.50 a week in "lunch money"). He met and interviewed many celebrities of his era. He became night editor of the Pittsburgh Post five years later and eventually was hired by United Press to report in London in 1916.
Seldes became an accredited war correspondent for Marshall Syndicate in 1917 in Paris, and managing editor of the army edition of the Chicago Tribune in 1918. Seldes and several colleagues were court-martialed for "breaking the armistice" after interviewing Hindenberg, the chief commander of the German forces. Seldes always believed that had he been permitted to publish the interview, in which Hindenberg openly credited American entry with German defeat; it might have forestalled the rise of Nazism. The "Dolchstoss" (stab in the back) myth grew in Germany that Germany had not really lost, but had been betrayed from within by the socialists, communists, and Jews.
Seldes spent a decade reporting in Europe, and interviewed Trotsky and Lenin before being expelled from Russia. He was also expelled from Italy for writing truthfully about Mussolini. In the 1930s he went to Spain to report on the fascist General Francisco Franco.
Seldes and his wife Helen Larkin purchased a home in Woodstock, Vermont, thanks to a $5,000 loan by neighbor Sinclair Lewis (another neighbor was Dorothy Thompson). George and Helen began publishing In fact, devoted to press criticism, from 1940-1950. During its peak, the circulation was 176,000. Seldes was the first to report the link between cancer and cigarette smoking.
He wrote 21 books, including You Can't Print That! (1929); Can These Things Be! (1931); The Vatican: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, a critical look; Iron, Blood & Profits (1934); Sawdust Caesar (1935), about Mussolini; Freedom of the Press (1935); Lord of the Press (1938); The Catholic Crisis (1940), examining Church ties to fascism; and Witch Hunt (1940), about red-baiting. Also, he edited The Great Quotations (1960) and The Great Thoughts (1985). His final book, Witness to a Century (1987), was written when Seldes was 96 about his 80 years as a newspaperman - it included,
- And so [my brother] Gilbert and I, brought up without a formal religion, remained throughout our lifetimes just what Father was, freethinkers. And, likewise, doubters and dissenters and perhaps Utopians. Father's rule had been "Question everything, take nothing for granted," and I never outlived it, and I would suggest it be made the motto of a world journalists' association.
On his 100th birthday he told a Nation reporter:
- I’ve never been asked about religion. Father thought that it was totally wrong, the whole world system of inculcating religion in young people 5, 6, 7, and 8 years old, you know. . . . So his idea was to keep you away from anything religious until you were 15 or 16 - in the teens - and then you could study all the religions, and you might want to choose to be a Mohammedan. He said the main thing is that we [the Seldes family] are all deists; we believe in God. We are not atheists, none of us. We may be agnostic - that’s a good healthy way to be, my father would say—but we’re certainly not atheists. We’re religious people. That’s the only religion we had in the family for generations.
Until his death at age 104 at his home in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont, Seldes was the oldest member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The 1996 film, Tell the Truth and Run, by Rick Goldsmith, features interviews with Seldes and was nominated for an Academy Award.