Death of Flora Lewis, “the world’s greatest correspondent”

June 2, 2002
Flora Lewis.
Photographed by Bradford Bachrach, courtesy of Ari Goldman.

If Americans understood more about developments in Europe in the latter half of the 20th century, they owed a debt to Flora Lewis.  And she did it with one hand tied behind her back.

She was married to Sydney Gruson, a New York Times foreign correspondent.  Because that paper forbade the hiring of a married couple, not only could Lewis not work for the Times, but whenever Gruson was assigned to a different locale, Lewis had to find a job with another publication in the same city.  Over two decades, the couple worked—for separate newspapers—in London, Jerusalem, Prague, Warsaw, Geneva, Bonn, Paris and Mexico City.  Her articles also appeared in many European publications, among them The Observer, The Economist and The Financial Times in London and France-Soir in Paris.

She was a witness to history everywhere, from the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war to Vietnam to the birth of the European Union.  Along the way, she interpreted the dynamics of foreign affairs to the American public in a straightforward style with a historical perspective.  She also wrote four books on international relations.  “The salient fact about Europe remains the nation-state,” she wrote in Europe in 1992. “There is a sense of shared Europeanness which has waxed and waned in the last two generations, but it is still secondary to the sense of unique nationality which began to arise after the Renaissance and the decline of feudalism.”

As she put it, “It is the same old Europe, and it changes every day.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Lewis graduated high school at 15, attended the University of California at Los Angeles, and received her graduate degree from the Columbia School of Journalism.  She met her husband in London when she was on assignment with the Associated Press.

Newspapers were mostly a man's world, as shown by The New York Post’s 1967 announcement that it was acquiring her column: “She can arrive home after a hectic day of reporting at the United Nations, and within minutes she's an excellent hostess and a marvelous companion to her husband,” The Post reassured its readers.  By that time, Lewis and Gruson were the parents of three children.  When asked how she managed both family and career, Lewis would sometimes joke, “By neglecting both.”

When the couple separated in 1972, she joined the Times as head of their Paris bureau and European diplomatic correspondent.  Executive editor A. M. Rosenthal said at the time, “Flora is the world's greatest correspondent.”  In 1980, she became the paper’s first female foreign affairs columnist, a position she kept until 1994.

“The old idea was that history was about kings and popes and wars; people, yes, but only the few who held dazzling power,” she wrote in The Times.  “More and more people are coming to realize that they can choose their history.  What a wonderful time to have been able to watch up close!”

Sources: “Flora Lewis”; “Flora Lewis, 79, Dies; Keen Observer of World Affairs,” New York Times, June 3, 2002


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