The Short Life and Long Controversies of Legendary War Correspondent Maggie Higgins


Fierce Ambition, the life story of American war correspondent Marguerite Higgins, sounds a little hyperbolic as a title.  

A woman doesn’t need to be ferocious to succeed in the masculine world of covering armed conflict. She just needs to be more persistent and resourceful and to ignore her male competitors’ warnings that war is no place for girls.

Just a couple of pages into Jennet Conant’s prodigious biography of firebrand Maggie Higgins, “fierce” doesn’t begin to describe the woman. She used her wits and feminine artifice to wangle her way into some of the most harrowing stories to emerge from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

The first scene takes readers into the liberation of Dachau concentration camp barely a week before the fall of Nazi Germany, when the Holocaust’s executioners abandoned tens of thousands of emaciated prisoners for dead and beat an ignominious retreat.

The prologue captures 24-year-old Maggie elbowing her way into the first few jeep-loads of U.S. soldiers headed for the Dachau death camp. She had obscured her gender in a shapeless army jacket and tucked her golden curls under a cap and goggles.

Outside the walled camp, a stopped train spilled out rotting corpses of prisoners shot as the camp guards joined the exodus of Hitler’s vanquished soldiers. The sight and smell sickened Maggie. She retched, swiped back her hair and refastened her helmet.

“There was not a soul in the yard when the gate was opened,” she wrote in one of her first dispatches for the New York Herald Tribune, until a lone prisoner called out from hiding to confirm it was safe to emerge. “Tattered, emaciated men, weeping, yelling and shouting ‘Long live America!’ swept toward the gate in a mob. Those who could not walk limped or crawled.”

She waded into the jubilant throng of half-starved, lice-infested prisoners, enduring their exuberant hugs and kisses until she couldn’t breathe, indifferent to the typhoid fever raging in the fetid camp.

“Her stark eyewitness account of the liberation of Dachau was the exclusive of a lifetime, and it made her a star overnight,” author Conant says of Higgins’ two front-page bylines, an unheard-of achievement by a “cub reporter.”

They were the first of many sensational accounts of the last days of World War II as the intrepid and fearless California golden girl chased the stories of a murderous dictatorship’s downfall.

Higgins parlayed her blue eyes, sweet smile, and milkmaid complexion into access to the press pools covering the Allies’ rescue of Holocaust survivors and the abandoned lairs of Hitler and his genocidal cronies. She slept with many of her military sources — generals in command of the last routs of the Nazis, media colleagues and competitors, even men she intensely disliked, a sexual voraciousness the natural partner of an adrenaline junkie.

Her exotic origins hint at a free spirit eager for a life of adventure. She was born in Hong Kong in 1920 and nursed by a Chinese nanny after her World War I-veteran Irish father and French mother met in a bomb shelter of the Paris Metro. The Oakland, California, suburb where the family moved from Indochina when Maggie was three was a dispiriting neighborhood where few thrived in the years between the war and the Great Depression. Maggie was shipped off to live with her mother’s two sisters in France, where she acquired fluent French and a European outlook by the time she returned home at age seven. When her mother took a job teaching French at the elite Anna Head School, Maggie was enrolled and suddenly in the company of the daughters of California’s movers and shakers.

She graduated at the head of her class and won scholarships to the University of California at Berkeley, when leftist politics raged across campus. Haakon Chevalier, featured in the movie Oppenheimer as the outcast Communist who took in the scientist’s child, was a great influence on young Higgins, as was leftist radical Stanley Moore to whom she was briefly married.

By force of will, she secured a place at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York and the coveted role of the Herald Tribune’s campus stringer. That put her in the company of future New York Times luminary Flora Lewis and the Pacific Northwest’s Murray Morgan, early supporters defending her from the reputational harm self-inflicted by her unconventional behavior. Her affairs with a succession of newsroom bosses spurred resentment among colleagues seeking to get ahead on the strength of their reporting and writing skills.

“They cast her as a cold, scheming vixen, double-crossing the poor sap on her relentless climb to the top,” Conant writes of Higgins’ affair with a married editor who shepherded her stories to front-page prominence.

Scandalous transactional affairs aside, Higgins’ first love was journalism. She wangled exclusive interviews with brash usurpation of senior colleagues in the hyper-competitive newsroom of the Herald Tribune. She crashed a high society wedding dressed as a server and posed as a nurse’s aide to score an interview with Madame Chiang Kai-shek during a secretive New York City hospital stay by the wife of the Chinese nationalist leader.

What she really wanted, though, was to be a war correspondent and World War II was nearing an end by the spring of 1945. She finagled a last-minute assignment with the backing of Helen Rogers Reid, the influential wife of Herald Tribune publisher Ogden Reid. Her run of gripping stories capturing the Allied triumph scooped more experienced colleagues and led to her promotion to Berlin bureau chief.

A trailblazer and rule-breaker, Higgins’ unbridled ambition and disregard for convention set her apart from her predominantly male colleagues and the few other women reporting from Europe. Having come late to the Third Reich collapse and surrender on May 8, 1945, “peace was the last thing that she wanted,” Conant says of Higgins’ dearth of joy over the war’s end.

She continued to break exclusives in the volatile years in post-war Berlin, as well as journalistic norms and boundaries. She had a brief affair with a Soviet embassy officer that stirred security concerns among U.S. military occupation officials as distrust between Washington and Moscow intensified.

Higgins took to carrying a gun after being injured in a stampede when Soviet troops opened fire on rioters, an act violating civilian journalists’ practice of neutrality in covering conflicts. She snooped on media friends and foes alike to learn what stories they were working on so she could beat them to print.

While covering the Berlin Airlift in 1948, Higgins met Air Force Maj. Gen. William Evens Hall, director of intelligence for the European Command. Despite his initial effort to resist Higgins’ charms as an “incompatible” mix of intelligence and news gathering, the handsome couple began a flagrant affair that crossed a line with de facto Herald Tribune publisher Helen Reid. Higgins’ benefactress reassigned her to Tokyo in May 1950 to put distance between her star correspondent and intolerable scandal.

Pacific exile failed to end Higgins’ quest to bring the sacrifice and gore of war to the American public, to learn “what force cuts so deeply into the hearts of men” as to launch them on a path of risking their own lives.

Her dramatic accounts from the fox holes of U.S. forces battling Soviet-armed North Korean Communists earned her and five other war correspondents, all men, the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. It was an honor despite the rare instance of multiple laureates but failed to boost her ever-lacking self-confidence.

She took a leave of absence to rest from a battery of illnesses including acute bronchitis, malaria and dysentery. She juggled book contracts and paid public appearances that boosted her fame and annual income from $7,000 to $26,000. Fatigue and recurring illness prompted cancellations and no-shows, angering her agents and branding her as unreliable, putting an end to her newfound wealth.

During the interlude, she resumed the off-and-on affair with Hall, who was going through a messy divorce that ended with 80% of his salary going to his ex-wife and family. Bill and Maggie married and eventually set up in Washington, D.C., he an Air Force assistant chief of staff and Higgins writing on foreign affairs. She traveled far and wide in her new role, from war-torn Vietnam, where she tangled over U.S. policy with Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett and The New York Times’ David Halberstam, to the Soviet Union where she spent ten weeks in late pregnancy for a 14-article series published by hundreds U.S. newspapers.

The power couple entertained lavishly from their four-story townhouse off Massachusetts Avenue, mixing media luminaries and political rising stars. Her foray into Washington politics led to close relationships with the Kennedy clan and continued disparagement by her media rivals accusing her of compromised ethics and inappropriate promotion of President John F. Kennedy and his charismatic family. Jack and Jackie were frequent guests at her popular dinner parties.

Higgins presented advance copies of her stories to JFK and his attorney general brother Robert, a practice shunned by most journalists as lacking in independent judgment.

In the fall of 1965, Higgins made her tenth trip to Vietnam, where she contracted a bad case of dengue fever but tried, as was her wont, to push through it. She was ordered home by her editors at Newsday, where she had moved after the Herald Tribune was sold and newsroom support cut.

She was hospitalized in rapidly deteriorating health after return to Washington, where her condition vacillated then took a turn for the worse just before Christmas. Maggie Higgins died on Jan. 3, 1966, at the age of 45.

“She was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a rare honor for a civilian. Half of Washington turned out for the funeral,” biographer Conent writes. “There were so many congressmen, beribboned generals, and Defense Department officials at Fort Myer Chapel it looked like she was being given a military send-off. Although it was a debilitating parasitic disease that ultimately vanquished her, most of those present regarded her as a ‘combat casualty,’ one writer observed, ‘just as certainly as if she had been felled by a bullet.’”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Carol J. Williams will be leading discussion of Fierce Ambition at the Folio Seattle Athenaeum library at 6 p.m. on Friday March 29. Join her for a lively discussion of how life and practices of foreign correspondents have and haven’t changed in the times since Marguerite Higgins’ legendary career.

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. Many thanks for your review, Carol. As a correspondent yourself, you came to the topic uniquely knowledgable. Higgins was something of a heroine to the few of us, women training to be journalists, in the years after the war. She spoke to a group of young women at Northwestern’s Medill school. But, alas, she didn’t mention her more flamboyant tactics for getting the big story.
    Did we err in thinking her a role model? I wonder.

  2. I’ve been reading this book and enjoying it very much. Higgins was indeed complicated, and not always ethically pristine, but still an extraordinary person. I’m not sure I would have liked her but I do admire her drive and intelligence.


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