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Meet trailblazing foreign correspondent Maggie Higgins in the book 'Fierce Ambition'


We are going to spend these next several minutes on the remarkable life of Maggie Higgins. Higgins was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for foreign correspondence. She helped to change war reporting - both what kind of stories journalists were filing and by helping kick open the door for other women. And she is the subject of the new biography "Fierce Ambition: The Life And Legend Of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins." The author is Jennet Conant, and she's with me now. Welcome.

JENNET CONANT: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So you open this book with one of her hardest assignments, I suppose - certainly the one that made her name - the liberation of Dachau, the concentration camp where - in Germany in 1945. And Maggie Higgins is this cub reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. How did she come to cover Dachau?

CONANT: Well, she was dying to cover the major stories of the war, but women were barred from the combat zone. So she had become increasingly frustrated, cooling her heels behind the lines. And she heard that the camp might be liberated, and she knew it was going to be one of the biggest stories of the war. So she talked a young Stars and Stripes correspondent into letting her ride in his Jeep. And they dashed across occupied territory ahead of the Third Army in hopes of being the first at Dachau. And they made it, and they were among the very first to enter the camp. And it was a truly, you know, gruesome and a terrible spectacle.

KELLY: Yeah. I'm wondering if - I mean, there's nothing that could prepare any human for the sight that awaited them. But for a very young rookie war correspondent, how did she navigate that? How did she capture it in the story that she filed?

CONANT: Well, she had been among the first reporters to enter Buchenwald just a few weeks earlier. So she, in a sense, knew more than even most of the liberating troops because some of them had never been to a concentration camp before. So she steeled herself for the worst. But she said later that nothing could have prepared her, you know, for the sight that awaited them. Outside the main camp, they came across an abandoned train, and there were some 40 cattle cars filled with dead men, women and children, you know, still in their striped prisoner uniforms. They had been left there to starve to death, to die of the cold. It was a staggering sight. But they had to press on to go further into the camp to liberate the prisoners. Maggie was one of the first in. The men, half-starved, dying, desperate, of course...

KELLY: Yeah.

CONANT: ...Were overjoyed to see her. She spoke several languages, and she said, (non-English language spoken), you're free. And pandemonium ensued. You know, they picked her up. They threw her in the air. They hugged her. They kissed her. I mean, she brought them the news that they had been waiting for. So it was one of the most emotional, tumultuous moments of the war. And she recorded it on the front pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and the story did make her famous overnight.

KELLY: Yeah. She won the Pulitzer Prize for covering a different war, the Korean War. What stands out to you about how she covered that, what stories she found worth telling?

CONANT: Well, she earned a reputation, starting with Dachau, for sort of reckless disregard for her personal safety. She would insist on going where the action was, on going with the troops and covering the battles. And in Korea, it was particularly dangerous. More correspondents died in a few months of Korea than in the entirety of World War II. It was a very dangerous war. And she kept covering the combat and going right to the front lines. And she went into Inchon with the Marines. She covered the fifth wave. They were trapped against a sea wall. The enemy was rolling grenades down. They were harassed by sniper fire, and men fell around her. And miraculously, she survived. And she covered the combat the way very few did and, certainly in Korea, no other woman.

So because she was the only woman doing that at a time when women weren't even allowed, it was an enormous feat. She won the Pulitzer for her daring dispatches, and the Pulitzer committee noted that she won it under extraordinary, difficult circumstances because she was a woman. But she did not want that to be what she was known for. She wanted to be seen as a good newspaper man, not woman.

KELLY: Yeah.

CONANT: And so she didn't want to be distinguished for her sex.

KELLY: I mean, she did - people listening will be gathering why I introduce this by saying - she did help kick open the door for other women. And so I was interested to read, by your account, that other women journalists didn't really seem to like her very much.

CONANT: No. Because she was a singularly unsisterly. You know, she wanted to be one of the guys. She wasn't a feminist, per se. She just wanted equal opportunity for herself, not for her sex. And so she broke down the doors because of her unbridled ambition. She wanted to be allowed to cover every story the way her competitors were allowed to. And I don't think she was interested in sharing the glory with another woman. I think that said, also, she was very tough. But she wasn't particularly generous, I don't think, in helping the younger generation. But a lot of those pioneering women - you know, they developed very thick skins to get where they were. And they were impatient and tough and very single-minded, focused on their own career, their own mission and not much else.

KELLY: Her professional success came at a personal cost. And a good deal of your book focuses on her personal life. Why? Why important to include all of that?

CONANT: Because I didn't want to just glamorize the idea of some badass war babe - you know, the fearless, intrepid Maggie Higgins. There was enough of that mythmaking in her own lifetime. She suffered a lot because she was unusually attractive for her profession. She was a very beautiful blonde, and it was a very feminine look for a very unfeminine job. And it brought her enormous scrutiny - more scrutiny, arguably, than a woman who looked another way might have gotten. And she knew it was partly responsible for her fame.

It also was responsible for some of the nastiest, most venomous gossip you can imagine. Her male competitors accused her of advancing on her back. Anything that she did that got her an exclusive or allowed her to beat her competitors was immediately dismissed as something she got, you know, with more than lowered lashes, as they used to say. I wanted to really show how tough it was, the toll that it can take and how women are just judged for everything, from their appearance to their conduct, in a way that is just still much tougher than it is for the men.

KELLY: I wonder, if she could whisper across generations to the current crop of war correspondents chronicling events in the Middle East, in Ukraine and beyond, what words of advice do you think Maggie Higgins might offer?

CONANT: I think she would tell them, don't listen. Don't care. Don't let it stop you. Because I think that's what distinguishes Maggie more than anything. She had this ferocious ambition. And she didn't let all the abuse that she had to take keep her from her goals, and she achieved them.

KELLY: Jennet Conant is the author of "Fierce Ambition: The Life And Legend Of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins." Thank you.

CONANT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "UZI (PINKY RING)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.