Fierce Ambition: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins

  • By Jennet Conant
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 396 pp.
  • Reviewed by Thomas W. Lippman
  • December 7, 2023

The brash, uncompromising journalist did it her way.

Fierce Ambition: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins

Maggie Higgins was a unique figure in the top ranks of American journalism, and it’s just as well. As portrayed in Fierce Ambition, a sparkling new biography by Jennet Conant, Higgins was unethical, self-interested, unprincipled, and promiscuous. She challenged editors, military brass, and other male authority figures to get where she was determined to be, and if that didn’t work, she seduced them. Many of her colleagues and competitors despised her.

Conant recognizes that Higgins was only doing what she thought she had to do. When she began her renowned career in the early 1940s at the New York Herald Tribune, the world of big-time journalism was mostly closed to women, who were written off as “girl reporters” or “newshens.” The august New York Times confined most of the women on its staff to a section called “food, fashion, family, furnishings.” Higgins, steeped in progressive ideals from her student days at Berkeley, wasn’t going to settle for some newspaper’s “women’s section.” In Conant’s account, the talented, courageous, and tireless Higgins was an irresistible force hitting a nearly immovable object. She was also lucky.

At the age of 20, with little professional experience, she charmed Lessing Engelking, the Trib’s fire-breathing city editor, into giving her a reporting job, just as the personnel demands of World War II began to deplete the ranks of the paper’s men. And she won the support of Helen Rogers Reid, described by Conant as “the tiny, dynamic, forward-looking wife of the paper’s president and publisher, Ogden Reid.”

Helen Reid was effectively running the paper because her husband was an alcoholic who spent too much time at Bleeck’s, the staff’s watering hole, on West 41st Street. When Higgins, who always wanted to be where the action was, sought to be sent to the war zone in Europe in 1944, Reid gave her approval. A few months later, Higgins got her first big scoop when she charmed an American soldier into letting her ride along as the troops liberated Dachau.

Getting to Dachau was a remarkable feat of courage and creativity, but as Conant writes, the significance of the camp for Higgins lay less in the moral outrage than in the opportunity to advance herself. When the war in Europe ended a few weeks later, Higgins saw it as “a disappointing anticlimax” because peace gave her fewer chances to prove herself as good as any man. It was always all about her.

As a war correspondent for the Herald Tribune, as a prolific writer for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, and later as a columnist for Newsday, Higgins rose to heights seldom reached by others in her profession, male or female. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Korean War. She was profiled in LIFE magazine, received book contracts and movie offers, and starred in her own life story. She became, Conant writes, “the most famous war correspondent in the world” and “a household name.” But on her climb to the top, Higgins left behind the wreckage of journalistic ethics, a trail of failed relationships, and bitter colleagues whom she nudged aside even as she pilfered their work.

Conant’s chronicle is entertaining from beginning to end. She is an experienced writer, and Higgins gives her plenty of material to work with, beginning with an unusual childhood. Higgins was born in Hong Kong to an American father and a French mother, lived for some time in France, and attended a tony prep school where she felt out of place among rich classmates (who teased her because her French was better than her English) and where she drew “poor marks for deportment.” At Berkeley, she “openly flaunted her sexual liaisons” and had an abortion at 19. Determined to prove she was as good as any man at whatever she did, she never let anybody else’s rules govern her.

“She would run roughshod over anyone who got in the way of her and a story,” writes Conant. “Afterward, she would apologize and try to make amends. Then she would go right out and do it again. She was so committed to succeeding that she was incapable of restraining herself.”

Higgins’ personal life was a mess, with multiple husbands and lovers, but her career was enviable. She produced first-rate coverage of the Berlin Airlift, the Inchon landing in Korea, and the civil war in newly independent Congo. In Korea, she made a point of huddling in the same foxholes and using the same field latrines as the men. She won the admiration of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Pacific. When an American general ordered her out of Korea because he didn’t want women in a war zone, MacArthur countermanded the order, writing to Helen Reid, “Marguerite Higgins is held in highest esteem by everyone.”

Everyone, that is, except her senior colleague Homer Bigart, a distinguished, veteran war reporter whom the Trib’s editors had sent to take over the Korea story because they thought Higgins was too inexperienced. Bigart ordered her to go back to Tokyo. She refused and headed to the front lines. Bigart refused to speak to her after that, and their feud became a favorite topic at the press center. This was one occasion when Higgins was blameless, and Bigart admitted afterward that his behavior was churlish. Their competition made them both better.

After Korea, Higgins and one of her husbands lived in Washington, where she became a fashionable hostess to the Georgetown smart set and socialized with the Kennedy crowd. Those friendships later distorted her coverage of Vietnam, in which she defended U.S. support for the corrupt Diem regime and criticized younger colleagues such as the Times’ David Halberstam for reporting the regime’s unpopularity.

Higgins died of a rare tropical disease in January 1966 at the age of 45. Conant’s narrative ends with the many accolades that followed, including this from the Times: “Marguerite Higgins got stories that other reporters didn’t get.” Still, the fascinating Fierce Ambition may be the best tribute of all.

Thomas W. Lippman, a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, is the author of Get the Damn Story: Homer Bigart & the Great Age of American Newspapers.

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