On a sleepy Sunday afternoon in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, a few members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra gather in a turn-of-the-century house in Lenox for chamber music topped off by sausages and beer. Though the musicians get plenty of practice in the Boston’s summer series at nearby Tanglewood, they seem to enjoy this busman’s holiday almost as much as their witty, white-haired host. At 80, after a career spent chronicling the follies of nations and horrors of war, William Shirer is content in the tranquillity of country life.
Moreover, this contemplative interlude has inspired an impressive body of work. Shirer’s newest nonfiction best-seller, The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 (Little, Brown, $22.50), borrows heavily from his best-known historical narratives: Berlin Diary, published in 1941, and 1960’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Yet Nightmare Years is also a personal account of Shirer’s life as an American reporter in Nazi-dominated Europe—first for the Chicago Tribune and with Hearst’s Universal wire service, then with Edward R. Murrow as part of CBS’ European radio team.
For Shirer, close proximity to the Nazis as CBS’ man in Berlin was a journalistic high point and a severe personal test. Getting his stories—and then getting them out from behind enemy lines—often involved as much cunning as skill. Shirer beat even the German news services in broadcasting the French armistice in 1940. But as his coverage of the Third Reich won the respect of his bosses, Shirer was repelled daily by the horrors of the regime and the stupidity of the leaders behind the Nazi juggernaut. Often only a few feet from Hitler, Shirer was an intense—and not dispassionate—observer of the German people. “On the whole,” he says, “Germans were arrogant, insensitive and really loud.”
Shirer’s outspokenness and liberal stance later brought him into disfavor when CBS cracked down on its correspondents for giving political opinions on the air. Murrow and CBS boss William Paley eased Shirer out in 1947 at age 43. “Murrow destroyed my career for a while,” says Shirer, “but he got me writing books, which was a blessing in disguise.” The writing years have mainly taken place in Lenox. Shirer relies heavily for research on the yellowed diaries he has been keeping since his 15th year. So far they have helped him through 14 books, including a memoir of his friend and mentor Mahatma Gandhi (whom he covered in 1930-31), three novels and a 1976 autobiography of his early years, 20th Century Journey.
The son of a successful Chicago lawyer, who died of appendicitis at 42, the young Shirer distinguished himself as early as the fourth grade by writing essays about Russia. By then he was already proclaiming his ambition to become a trench-coated foreign correspondent. After graduating from Coe College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa, he borrowed $200, boarded a cattle boat and sailed for Europe. Determined to find a job on an American newspaper in France, he landed one with the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune and later graduated to correspondent. His first major assignment was covering the arrival of Charles Lindbergh after his epic flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Then, and later, Shirer’s career took precedence over his private life. Still, he struggled for many years to be a good—if frequently absent—husband and father. His first wife, whom he married in 1931, was Tess Stiberitz, a Viennese painter and archaeologist. The marriage broke up in 1972—partly, says Shirer, because he and Tess, both working at home, were “together too much.” He remains close to their daughters, Inga, 46, whose first novel will come out next spring, and Linda, 42, a translator and editor.
Shirer tried marriage again in the early 1970s, this time to a Lenox woman; it lasted only a few years. Now he is a freewheeling bachelor, strolling about town, his uncombed white hair blowing in the breeze. At other moments Shirer may be found sharing conversation with such literary locals as biographer William Manchester, historian James MacGregor Burns and ex-New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury.
One of Shirer’s closest friends—though both claim the relationship is strictly platonic—is dancer Marge Champion, first wife of the late Gower Champion. “Bill is an incredible mixture of sophistication and naïveté,” says Champion, 60, who watches Shirer’s love life with something like admiration. “Since I’ve known him, he’s had several young girlfriends,” she reports. “I get the feeling Bill is still a bon vivant.”
The bon vivant doesn’t appear to be slowing up much in his ninth decade. He is energetic enough to do 20 minutes of daily exercises based on shadowboxing techniques. He has even written a shape-up book, Keeping Fit, which should be published next year. Then there is his daily sail on a local pond and his fiendish devotion to vegetable gardening.
Shirer is similarly obsessive about intellectual pursuits. He decided that he wanted to learn Russian not long ago and now, after lessons from a private tutor, is tickled to find he can almost get through Pushkin in the original. He is currently at work on a play about Tolstoy. Once that is done, Shirer will move on to the third part of his autobiography, which will cover the decades from 1945 to the present. Though the recounting of his extraordinary past has consumed his later years, he is plainly enchanted by the future. “I have a nostalgic feeling for the past, but it would be sad to live in it,” he says. “I have never been bored a minute in my life.”