Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 7-The Story Pursues the Journalists
7 The Story Pursues the Journalists
The Sultan disguised himself as a beggar. A peasant invited him into his hut to drink wine. After one cup, the Sultan said, “I am really a prince.” After a second, he added, “I am really the Sultan.” “No more!” cried the peasant snatching away the wine jug. “Another drink and you will claim to be Allah!”
Foreign correspondents darted from capital to capital in 1940 and 1941, ever southward and eastward, until Turkey was the only place still unoccupied by the Germans. From Prague to Paris, from Budapest to Bucharest, from Sofia to Belgrade and Athens, they followed the story of Nazi advance and Allied retreat until they, too, were caught up in the fighting. With communications broken down, they filed no more stories for several weeks. It was hard enough just to evade the blitzkrieg and make their way, weary but alive, to Istanbul.
When Athens fell, C. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times hopped a boat to the island of Chios where, along with two Greek cabinet ministers and a former mayor, he bought a seat on a departing rowboat moments before a German garrison arrived. Two fishermen took them the short distance to the Turkish coast. Sulzberger made his way to Ankara and began reporting again. He wrote about Germany’s grip on the Balkans, its invasion of the U.S.S.R., and its expected attack on Turkey.
The correspondents worked frantically to scoop each other. They dictated dispatches by telephone to Switzerland until they found a faster system. At 2 a.m., when Turkey s government radio stopped broadcasting,
journalists were allowed to transmit their own stories direct to New York. Sulzberger had left behind his Greek fiancée, Marina, in Athens and whimsically started to add personal messages to her. On her birthday, as Marina and her family sat gloomily around the radio, they heard Sulzberger’s voice suddenly emerge from the static. She sent him word that she was listening and gave him a simple code so that he could, in a one-way fashion, communicate with her.
After several months, the Germans gave her permission to leave Greece. Then a deaf old Greek officer who was a family friend came with a special request. Would Marina carry an important message for Allied headquarters in Cairo? He told her: “I cannot be held responsible if these papers are discovered on you. Certainly, and quite properly, you will be shot.” She had only two days to memorize detailed documents reporting on German military bases so that she would not have to take the papers with her. Helped by her mother and grandmother, Marina paced back and forth on the bearskin rug, studying the materials as if they were school lessons.
At last, carrying the one suitcase permitted, Marina took the Lufthansa flight to Sofia, passing through German military and Gestapo checks in Greece and then through Bulgarian and Gestapo inspections. She took the train to Istanbul and was again questioned at the border, but her bag was not opened. When she reached the safety of Istanbul, Marina unpacked her bag and fainted: she had absentmindedly put the documents in the suitcase. Some time later, her brother, who was in Cairo with the Greek exile forces, saw intelligence reports on an air-raid carried out “according to target data provided by Marina Lada.”
During their time in the Balkans, the American journalists had learned how to circumvent government authorities, outwit police, and play hide-and-seek with censors. When calling in stories over Romania’s bugged telephone lines, Robert St. John of the Associated Press referred to King Carol as “Boy Scout,” his mistress as “Glamor Girl,” Hitler as “Oscar” or “That Man,” and the German ambassador as “the Monkey.” Bucharest itself was called “Eden.”
Editors at home did not care how difficult it was to send the news; they demanded scoops. If the competition got the story first, a correspondent received a complaining cable from his boss asking how this had happened. “That little word ‘how,'” explained St. John, “was the
difficult one to answer.” It meant: “How long will it be before you get on top of the story? How long do you think you can hold your job if this sort of thing continues? Receiving [such] a cable was like being awakened from a pleasant dream with a glass of ice water in the face.”
The job of foreign correspondent attracted swashbuckling types and taught them cynicism and toughness. Yet their experience with German tyranny also made them feel personally involved in the titanic struggle. Cecil Brown of CBS arrived in Belgrade just in time to flee the German attack. After three weeks on the run, he reached Ankara and was immediately scheduled for a nine-minute broadcast, his longest ever, on what had happened in Yugoslavia. Finishing the transmission over the radio at 2:30 a.m., he went to the Ankara Palace Hotel for a drink with Nezi Manyas, the popular Turkish government liaison man, and fellow CBS correspondent Winston Burdett. As soon as he entered the hotel, Brown collapsed from exhaustion and worry about losing his job, since he had been unable to send a dispatch for three weeks. A few days later, a cable from CBS arrived: SPLENDID BROADCAST. NOBLE PIECE GRAND REPORTING. EVERYONE DELIGHTED HEARING YOU. Brown felt he had fulfilled a duty in telling the story of his brave Yugoslav friends and informing the American people about the real stakes in Europe.
After the excitement of being in the midst of full-scale war, the correspondents found neutral Ankara to be a bit dull. Americans taught the British to play baseball; the journalists drank at the Ankara Palace Hotel bar. Turkish vodka was so bad that the correspondents mixed it with orange juice and so–legend has it–invented the screwdriver. The official tone was set by straitlaced President Ïnönü, who decried the “politics of raki”–Turkey’s potent, licorice-flavored liquor–of his predecessor, the sybaritic Atatürk. Ïnönü’s total abstemiousness heeded the warning of a popular Turkish saying: “Two rakis make a man as talkative as a monkey, three make him as brave as a lion, and four make him as fierce as a tiger.” A single raki’s effects were unknown, since no Turk ever drank just one.
Ankara was less heady than raki. It was hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, lacking the fertile beauty of the coast. Equidistant from everywhere, Ankara was in the midst of nowhere. Atatürk chose it as capital precisely for this reason: to be a showcase of how the interior could be developed and modernized. By 1940, 150,000 people lived there.
The city’s northern flank was a rocky, conical hill called Timurlenk after the Mongol chieftain whose conquering horde had smashed the Turks at the battle of Ankara in 1403. Around its foot clustered the old city, built up over 3000 years by succeeding empires. The city’s massive walls had been rebuilt in the thirteenth century, reinforced with Roman columns, Greek tombstones, and slabs bearing Arabic inscriptions. Where necessary, openings had been cut in the crumbling city walls. The wooden houses had austere exteriors and windowed balconies, following the Middle Eastern urban tradition that wealth and women be concealed. The buildings were huddled together for protection among the city’s narrow, winding cobble-paved alleys and arched gateways.
In the new city, this dense network of lanes gave way to broad avenues. Any rubble seen there was from construction, not decay, and its austerity was that of modern architecture rather than that of medieval frugality. Instead of pressing against a castle’s walls, Atatürk’s city spread out through the valley below.
The straight, broad lines of the new avenues also had philosophical implications. A town born of conscious urban planning rather than the accretion of centuries seemed to say that life is not merely determined by fate but can follow the course humanity sets for it. Coexisting with nature does not have to mean imitating the earth and mountains–as the old buildings did–for one can copy the world’s light and space as well. Streamlined in sandstone and marble, the new city represented a different kind of functionalism, subordinating materials to purpose.
The main street, Atatürk Boulevard, ran from the edge of the old town across the new city past the National Assembly, the unpretentious Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other government buildings. Beyond lay the embassies. On the downtown side, von Papen’s offices were adjoined by the ugly Soviet mission, which looked like a stranded concrete boat. When von Papen took his short walk home, he passed in quick succession the embassies of his Japanese, Italian, and Hungarian allies and those of Germany’s Yugoslav and Polish conquests.
A few blocks further along, Atatürk Boulevard climbed Cankaya Hill, forming the valley’s south side, where it passed the Defense, Justice, and Interior ministries and the army headquarters. The British, French, and U.S. embassies were behind them, flanking the president’s palace at a small but respectful distance. President Ïnönü’s residence was light and spacious–full of Chinese porcelain, colorful paintings,
handsome rugs, and modern furniture–in contrast to the old style, crowded with heavy furnishings.
Atatürk had loved to drive down the hill to drink and dance until dawn at the Pavilion; Ïnönü stayed home and played bridge. His disinterest in nightclub music may have been caused by his legendary deafness, but the magnificent view from his house might also have prompted inertia. All-glass walls looked out onto rolling steppes, snow-capped mountains, and an endless blue sky. Visitors often compared the landscape to the American southwest.
Like Ïnönü, most Turks kept to themselves. Except for the big annual party at the presidential palace on national day, foreigners had to provide their own entertainment. They could play tennis or go horseback riding in the magnificent countryside, but gas rationing discouraged auto excursions. There were horse races in the spring and fall. Four theaters showed old films, the philharmonic orchestra performed weekly concerts, and the state opera presented Madame Butterfly and Fidelio in Turkish during its 1941-1942 season. But for those seeking a rousing good time, there was only one place to go at night: Karpic’s.
Legend had it that Ivan Karpic began his restaurant at Atatürk’s request so that the republic’s founder could have somewhere to dine. Atatürk even held cabinet meetings there. The decor was simple; one journalist compared it to a “Kansas railroad station lunchroom.” Yet Karpic’s colorful clientele made it a magical place during the war years.
Karpic’s assistant, Serge, darkly handsome like a film star, actually ran the place. But the bald, round-headed Karpic, with his thick accent and white coat, provided the atmosphere. He personally scooped caviar in generous dollops from a big dish, supervised the preparation of the food, proudly oversaw his shish-kebab specialty, presented flowers to the ladies, and watched to ensure that everyone was happy with everything. But he did not hesitate to criticize diners who mistreated their food by using too much salt or who danced before properly digesting his masterpieces.
Von Papen dined in one corner, with Knatchbull-Hugessen only two tables away. Seated around the room were Soviet diplomats, Japanese attachés, American journalists, Italian embassy secretaries, Swedish officers, and Romanian businesspeople. “Diplomats of opposing sides who had been poker-playing friends until war broke out,” recalled
one observer, “now looked through each other without a flicker of recognition.”
One of Karpic’s most valued customers was Foreign Minister Numan Menemencioglu. Accompanied by his mistress and entourage, Menemencioglu was in the restaurant almost every evening. He exuded the air of an old-style pasha through aristocratic boredom, detachment, and skepticism. His grandfather was the country’s most famous poet, his father was an important statesman, and he himself was the state’s most experienced diplomat. Plagued by illness, weakened by operations, and constantly reported as being at death’s door, Menemencioglu had a tough persistency. He stayed out late, rose early, and outlived all his contemporaries.
Most of the American journalists and diplomats who came to Ankara and Karpic’s were in their twenties; not long away from home, they were having their first encounter with the wider world. They talked late into the night and brooded on topics of love, war, and peace. Sulzberger and his friends bribed Karpic’s Hungarian musicians to play anti-German songs. An American embassy clerk brought a clarinet and accompanied the band from his table. When music from Carmen was played one raucous night, some spirited Americans acted out a bullfight as waiters rushed to protect the furniture. After dinner, the journalists completed their reports and went to the radio station to send them.
One night in August 1941, New York Times correspondent Ray Brock showed up at the radio station at 2 a.m. demanding to broadcast a story. Another journalist was already inside, as the “on air” light above the door attested. According to his version, Brock tried to enter by turning the handle gently; according to the Turks, he was kicking and hitting the door. Nezi Manyas, a government press official who sat in the studio to ensure that reporters sent the censor-approved scripts, opened the door and began to yell at Brock; Brock insulted Manyas and threatened to punch him. The mercurial American became even angrier when he discovered that the censors had cut a paragraph from his story. The Turks threatened to call the police; NBC correspondent Martin Agronsky and another American reporter persuaded Brock to leave.
Brock was constantly getting into trouble. Even Americans thought Brock’s articles exaggerated. The Ankara Palace Hotel complained that his tab went unpaid; Karpic’s found he had run up an alarming bill and
worried that the hard-drinking correspondent might start a brawl there. The government suspended Brock’s broadcasting privileges; Brock claimed this was a German plot against him and left the country for a few weeks. He rejected U.S. embassy efforts to patch up the dispute. But one night, back at Karpic’s, he came over to Manyas’s table and apologized. Nobody could continue a personal quarrel at Karpic’s.
Friends, foes, and opportunists were all trying to use American journalists for their own purposes. As soon as correspondents checked into Istanbul’s Park Hotel, their phones started ringing endlessly as strangers peddling information called to set appointments in some hotel or out-of-the-way café.
Sulzberger, Burdett, and Agronsky scoured the embassies and diplomatic cocktail parties for news. While America was neutral, von Papen was happy to give them interviews. The British were so helpful that journalists worried about becoming conduits for their propaganda. Vichy French diplomats assured American reporters of their patriotism, promising to join the Allies when the time came. Still, an American correspondent wrote in his diary, “They go on collaborating.”
The Soviets, in contrast, were often unfriendly. Russian diplomats were instructed in great detail about how to behave and whom to speak with at public functions. Watched and evaluated by the local representatives of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, Soviet diplomats were sometimes so intimidated that they stood in the corners and avoided speaking with anyone. Leonid Naumov, nominally the Soviet press attaché, was actually an NKVD assassinations expert. When a journalist visited at the Soviet embassy, Naumov told his staff: “Downstairs is a foreign correspondent, perhaps a spy. Find out if he is a spy and if so for what agency he is working.” The Soviets did not always do so well, however, when faced with real practitioners of espionage. At an embassy party marking the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Naumov ordered a young vice-consul to spare no vodka in loosening the tongue of Istanbul’s deputy police chief. Instead, the Turk outdrank the Russian, helped him to his quarters upstairs, and enjoyed a good look at the embassy’s top-secret section.
The Turks were also very reserved when dealing with foreigners. An American journalist called them the “most suspicious people I’ve ever encountered.” This trait had its humorous side. When the American
photographer Margaret Bourke-White came to Turkey for Life magazine, customs officers doubted that the 300 flashbulbs in her luggage were all for her own use. Consequently, they wrote the bulbs’ total weight in her passport to ensure that she did not sell them. Bourke-White hired two men to accompany her during the trip and paid them for each used bulb they picked up. When she left, customs officials had no complaint: the bulbs mysteriously weighed more than when she had arrived.
President Ïnönü, though, had his own complaints about Bourke-White. She took two hours of his time and ordered that all his furniture be moved to achieve better pictures. After all this effort, however, Life published only one photo. An American diplomat told Selim Sarper, the government press-office director, that the magazine was saving the other photographs for prominent display as soon as Turkey was again in the news. “Yes,” Sarper replied sadly, “they will probably be used when Turkey goes into the war.”
Sarper was determined, however, that the correspondents would not make that happen. After some of them went near the Soviet border without telling him, he called them into his office. “I’m furious,” he said. “You had no right and should never have gone without permission. It is dangerous country and you could have been murdered. Some people don’t like Americans.” Then he smiled and added, “So, of course, I had you followed every minute of your trip and know everything you did.”
Suspicious by nature, unused to having so many foreign correspondents, and nervous about being drawn into the war, the Turks tightened up. “Practically not a single night passes in which I am not involved in a censorship fight,” noted Martin Agronsky.
In October 1941, a Turkish editor, whose views reflected government policy, wrote an editorial attacking American journalists for irresponsible sensationalism which endangered his country by angering the Germans. Germany blocked certain escape routes from Greece and canceled an exchange of wounded prisoners when newspapers carried articles about them, he complained. “Journalism is the art of learning everything…and announcing it without delay. [Reporters want] front-page stories under large headlines, regardless of the…consequences.” But they had a humanitarian responsibility as well as a professional duty, he
concluded. “The untimely, premature and unnecessary release of news in these ghastly times where there is a question of life or death for several nations of Europe is paid for…with the blood of real people.”
“The authorities,” a U.S. diplomat wrote, “have no experience and little understanding of the American conception of a free press, and are prone to be rather uncomprehending and crude and arbitrary in enforcing their right to prevent any journalistic activities which they consider contrary to their national interests.” Selim Sarper, Press Bureau director, explained that while his office always wanted smooth relations with journalists, the police had other priorities. One case involved a young Kansas woman who worked for United Press and was expelled after erroneously reporting a Turkish military buildup along the Soviet border. The effect on Moscow was bad enough, but since her boyfriend was from the pro-German Nadi family, the Turks saw her action as a German plot to embroil Turkey in war. The woman married her fiancé and was allowed to return to Turkey in exchange for giving up her writing career.
The more congenial Agronsky also had problems. Once, after important Turkish-German economic negotiations, Agronsky concluded his broadcast with the words “In the end the chief commodity the Germans succeeded in getting from the Turks was acorns–that is nuts.” After the U.S. press publicized that line, the Turks realized it was a double entendre implying they had insulted the Germans. Agronsky lost his radio privileges for a week.
The fireworks really began when Sarper went on a trip and left his deputy, Izzedin Nisbay, in charge. One of Agronsky’s reports ended, “Even lumping together all the Bulgarian, Italian and German troops at the moment available near Turkey’s frontiers, the Germans cannot yet muster enough forces to safely attack the Turks now or in the near future; but in spite of this, it is persistently rumored in some foreign circles here that a German attack is imminent.” Shortly thereafter, a BBC broadcast quoted only the last part of Agronsky’s statement, highlighting rumors of a German invasion. On the evening of September 9, Agronsky received an urgent summons to Nisbay’s office. He was kept waiting an hour before being ushered into the acting press director’s presence. Manyas acted as interpreter.
“I have heard,” said Nisbay, “that you are a gentleman and am
certain you will cooperate in erasing the BBC’s slur on Turkey’s honor.” Agronsky pointed out that his script cleared censorship and saw no reason for objecting to the BBC broadcast. Nisbay became excited: “I am the one to judge when my country has been insulted! I am positive that you will rectify this insult by reading a rebuttal of the BBC’s statement.” The harried official was having visions of Istanbul in ruins and German tanks roaring through Ankara because he had failed to stop a provocative story.
Without another word, Nisbay turned to his secretary and began to dictate what Agronsky should report over his network: “From time to time the BBC makes announcements…which are outright lies…. I protest energetically against the tendentious statements of the BBC which hasn’t the right to abuse my trust or the trust of my company….It is very agreeable to me to be in a country so very hospitable and one which offers us facilities better than England.” Agronsky would then swear he would never “ungraciously abuse the confidence of Turkey and of Turks, who are proud…in this world on fire to have still kept their country intact and outside the misery of the war, at the same time as they have succeeded in keeping friendly relations with all their neighbors.”
Nisbay turned back to the shocked Agronsky and added, “I am certain that you will read this as if you do not…I will be sure that you have conspired with the British to hurt my country. If you adopt this attitude I will know how to deal with you.”
Agronsky replied that it was not considered ethical for American correspondents to read documents ghostwritten by foreign officials. Nisbay flew into a hysterical rage: “I know now that you are not a gentleman. You have insulted my country and must take the consequences. You will not be allowed to broadcast any more.” He began screaming that Agronsky was in league with British propaganda to ensnare Turkey in the war.
At this point, Agronsky said he would listen no more. Nisbay shouted, “I am the master here; you will not leave this room until you have agreed to correct this terrible British lie.” Then he stalked out of his own office. An embarrassed Manyas urged Agronsky to be patient: “Give me a few minutes and I will calm him down.” By now it was 11 p.m. and Agronsky had dinner guests waiting at his apartment.
After fifteen minutes Manyas returned with Nisbay who was in a
better mood. Nisbay again asked Agronsky to read the statement. The American again refused, and Nisbay once more became hysterical. “You are not a gentleman,” he yelled. Striking himself on the forehead, he shouted, “Your action will be imprinted forever here!” Turkey was in great danger because of Agronsky and his colleagues, he ranted, pulling from his pocket an article by a retired U.S. admiral stating that Britain would have to seize the Turkish straits to prevent the Germans from, capturing them. “You’re responsible for this,” he shouted, “and I will see to it that you are unable to make so much trouble again!”
Manyas tried to mediate. Finally, as midnight struck, Agronsky agreed to tell his office that the Turks objected to the BBC item. Nisbay’s whole attitude changed. “Now you are a gentleman,” he proclaimed. Manyas made the two men shake hands. “You must understand,” Nisbay said, “that British propaganda twists the statements of great and famous gentlemen and correspondents like yourself to its own lying ends.” As soon as he reached home, Agronsky called the U.S. embassy. It protested and was assured that Nisbay had been reprimanded. At any rate, there were no further incidents.
But the Turks did have reason to be worried about the activities of foreigners, a number of whom, including one of Agronsky’s fellow American correspondents, were Soviet agents. Everyone in Ankara’s small foreign colony liked Winston and Lea Burdett. He was a thin, intense, and energetic CBS correspondent. She was an anti-Fascist Italian with a hearty laugh, able to match the male journalists drink for drink.
Burdett became a foreign correspondent in a peculiar manner. As a reporter on the Brooklyn Eagle, he joined the U.S. Communist party in 1937. In January 1940, Burdett was contacted by his cell leader and told to meet Joseph North, a well-known Communist journalist, at his Greenwich Village apartment. “We want you to go to Finland,” said North, for a special assignment “in which you can be useful to the party.”
Two days later, Burdett rendezvoused with North on a Manhattan street. A third man joined them as they walked to a Union Square restaurant. He was Jacob Golos, the chief NKVD agent in the United States. Golos asked Burdett to go to Europe as a journalist to gather information for the Russians. Burdett agreed, and Golos ordered him
to hand over his Communist membership card. Burdett would now work under direct Soviet discipline. Golos gave him a ticket for Stockholm.
Burdett’s contact in Stockholm told him to go to Finland to cover that country, then defending itself against a Soviet invasion. When the Finns signed an armistice, Burdett decided to stay in Europe as a foreign correspondent. He traveled through Moscow to Bucharest and then Belgrade, where he met and married Lea Schiavi. She was still working for Italian magazines, but her prospects for continued employment were slim because her political views–she spat when mentioning Mussolini’s name–made her unpopular with the Italian authorities.
In Belgrade, the NKVD again contacted Burdett and told him that at a certain trolley stop he would be met by a tall gentleman wearing one gray glove and carrying the other. This man gave him the names of six midlevel Yugoslav officials he should get to know, though Burdett later claimed he had made little effort to fulfill these instructions.
Burdett came to Turkey in March 1941 and stayed at the Ankara Palace Hotel. While visiting the Soviet embassy, he told a diplomat named Antonina Gaglovina about his previous work for Moscow. A few days later, a young, well-groomed Russian visited Burdett in his room and announced: “Everything is good. You can be of use to us, and your contact will be Madame Gaglovina.”
Burdett’s task was to write reports on Turkish politics and policies. The key issue for the Russians, as for the journalists and other diplomats in Ankara, was the meaning of Turkish neutrality .The truth was not hard to discover. The Americans and British well understood that the Turks wanted to stay out of the fighting and to tilt toward the Allies. They would carefully avoid antagonizing the Germans, and though they hated the Russians, the Turks would do nothing to provoke them either.
But to the ideologically corseted hierarchies in Berlin and Moscow, the most obvious facts were met with deep suspicion. Burdett’s reports, identical to what all the correspondents were saying daily, were far more credible to the Soviets because they were secret and had been obtained by clandestine means.
Gaglovina was happy with Burdett’s work, handed over during his interviews with her. She was a rather amateurish spy, though, sometimes emerging from a big embassy limousine to greet Burdett at a café where
many people knew them both by sight. Apparently, no Western intelligence service ever caught on.
Burdett finally decided to break with the Soviets because of growing disillusionment with their policies. He so informed Gaglovina in March 1942. She was angry to lose a prize source. Burdett then had to rush to India to cover a story for CBS. Meanwhile, Lea decided to visit Soviet-occupied northern Iran. Her party set out in a car from Tabriz, headquarters of the Soviet occupation army, and spent the day at a Kurdish village. On the way back, two armed Iranians stopped the car and shot Lea. The driver floored the accelerator to escape, and the car bounced down the road as the gunmen fired at it. Lea died a few minutes later.
Burdett went to Iran to investigate and found the authorities there loath to dig into a crime involving a foreign power. At first, Burdett thought she was killed by Fascists; later, he concluded the Russians were responsible, since they had full military control of the area and there were few, if any, Axis agents left in Iran. Whether Lea Burdett was killed by the NKVD in revenge for her husband’s defection or because of some intelligence involvement of her own remains a mystery.
Tragic and dramatic personal experiences were teaching a generation of Americans about the world’s harsh realities. They had first followed the story as detached neutrals; then they became caught up in it. As the United States entered World War II, Americans would now shape events as well as watch them.