The name Heywood Broun has largely been forgotten by most people today. As newspaper writer, he was a forerunner of the great journalists like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite. Sadly it seems as though the era of the great reporters has come to ignoble end and we’ll probably not see a new Broun or Murrow anytime soon.
So I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to Mr. Broun.
Born in Brooklyn in 1889, Heywood Campbell Broun was a child of fairly well-off circumstances, and with his father’s wealth from business, was privately educated at the Horace Mann School. In 1906, he entered Harvard University but never finished his studies there because, the story goes, he failed to pass an elementary French course.
As a newspaper columnist, Broun worked for a number of different papers, including the New York Tribune and the New York World. His career also took him abroad as a foreign war correspondent with General John J. Pershing in Paris during World War I.
He was certainly a character and many stories were told about him. One story revolves around his acknowledged sloppiness.The magazine article made this observation about his appearance
In the country, he affects a proletarian costume, consisting of a sweatshirt and pair of frayed trousers, offset by a considerable expanse of unrelieved Broun in the middle. He wears shoes cracks with age and socks that look as though they might be a continuation of long winter underwear.His appearance was such that when he first met General Pershing in Paris, the General asked him in all seriousness, "Have you fallen down, Mr. Broun?"
One article about Broun called him a rabble-rouser but that seems a bit unfair. According to an article in LIFE, shortly before his death, Broun was called many names from Old Bleeding Heart Broun to an unmade bed, from an “unprincipled character assassinator” to an “outstanding labor leader.”
None of these names had much effect on his popularity. At the time of his death, he had a syndicated following of 42 newspapers and was the only left columnist with such a large readership. Certainly his views were liberal and he was outspoken and he had an affection for the underdog.
In another tale:
Reviewing a play in 1917, Heywood Broun wrote that Geoffrey Steyne’s performance was “the worst to be seen in the contemporary theater.” Steyne sued him for libel, but a judge threw out the case. In reviewing the actor’s next production, Broun wrote, “Mr. Steyne’s performance was not up to his usual standard.”
His contribution to journalism went beyond his writings, Broun formed the New York Newspaper Guild in 1933 and was subsequently elected president of the first national union of journalists, the American Newspaper Guild. Today the Guild sponsors an annual award in Broun’s name to a journalist’s outstanding work, especially writing serving to right an injustice.
How Broun’s career would have continued, we cannot begin to know. In 1939, he was under a great deal of pressure to curtail his labor activities, especially his Newspaper Guild. His employer, Roy Howard, was less than enamored by his activities.
Starting in 1934, Broun's column space had been shortened from around 1,200 words to half that. His column had frequently been cut by editing as well. Additionally, in another telling sign, Broun column slid from the top of the page to near the middle. LIFE magazine reported:
In newspaper circles, it is considered unlikely that Broun's contract with Scripps-Howard will be renewed at the end of the year.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Only a few months after the magazine article about Broun was published, he was no longer employed. He was, in fact, no longer alive. In December of that year, at the relatively early age of 51, Broun contracted pneumonia and died in Stamford, Connecticut. (His son, Heywood Hale Broun, was famous in his own right, as an author, sportswriter, commentator and, unlike his father, an actor.)
Since his death, commentators have principally remembered Broun as a dedicated labor leader, an outspoken liberal, and an esteemed newspaper columnist. Congenial by reputation in his personal life, Broun earned a reputation as a knowledgeable but intractable writer, unwilling to compromise his views on any subject. Joseph J. McGowan has written of him, “he saw everything far and near, artists, authors, college-men, sports, politicians, laborers, judges, leaders of nations, family life, and especially life in the Broun family.”
I know what you must be thinking. Fine, but what’s the point?
The reason for giving this sketchy biography was because of a quote I found by Heywood Broun from May, 1936. His thoughts were on what must have seemed even then the unavoidable war in Europe and the rise of the fascists in Italy and Germany.
"I am quite ready to admit that the word Fascism has been used very loosely. Sometimes we call a man a Fascist simply because we dislike him, for one reason or another. And so I'll try to be pretty literal in outlining some of the evidence which I see as the actual danger of Fascism in America. First of all, we need a definition.Fascism is a dictatorship from the extreme Right, or to put it a little more closely into our local idiom, a government which is run by a small group of large industrialists and financial lords. Of course, if you want to go back into recent history) the influence of big business has always been present in our federal government. But there have been some checks on its control. I am going to ask latitude to insist that we might have Fascism even though we maintained the pretense of democratic machinery. The mere presence of a Supreme Court, a House of Representatives, a Senate and a President would not be sufficient protection against the utter centralization of power in the hands of a few men who might hold no office at all.Even in the case of Hitler, many shrewd observers feel that he is no more than a front man and that his power is derived from the large munitions and steel barons of Germany. ... Now one of the first steps which Fascism must take in any land in order to capture power is to disrupt and destroy the labor movement. ... I think it is not unfair to say that any business man in America, or public leader, who goes out to break unions, is laying foundations for Fascism."
Over 70 years have passed since he made this far-sighted remark, and the words seem to serve as a warning to our time.