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   Chapter 22 A WAR EPISODE-MY AMERICAN TEA-PARTIES

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 29495

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The war is too near, too great, and also too much an object from which people turn in weariness and impatience to be dealt with by me, except very lightly. In spite then of the transcendent effect which the war had upon my life I shall only touch upon one or two salient points. The first that I select is as curious as it was interesting. It is also appropriate, for it marked a step, and a distinct step, if one which covered only a small space, towards the goal that I have always put before me. That goal is a good understanding between both branches of the English-speaking race. It involves above all things that Americans shall never be treated, either in thought, in deed, or in word, as foreigners. When the war had been going a week or two, I and a number of other editors were summoned to a solemn conclave presided over by a Minister of the Crown. We were asked to give advice as to how the Government should deal with the American correspondents. Owing to the increasing severity of the censorship they were unable to get any news through to their newspapers. Though they were quite friendly and reasonable in one sense about this, they were in a state of agitation because their editors and proprietors on the other side, unable as yet to understand what modern war meant, and to envisage its conditions, were cabling them imperative messages to send something, and something of interest, to the American public which was suffering from a news- hunger such as had never before existed in the world's history. If the correspondents could not get anything to send they must make room for those who could. The notion that the order for news could not be obeyed was regarded as "impossible."

But the Government, though anxious to do everything they could for the American correspondents, was itself in the grip of the censorship. The Prime Minister's speeches, even, were censored lest they should afford information to the enemy. This policy of intensive suppression was enforced by all sorts of gloomy prophecies from Naval and Military chiefs:

If you allow things to be sent out before they have been carefully considered, and that means long considered, we cannot be responsible for the consequences. Things which look perfectly innocent to you or to the people who send them, when read by the keen-eyed men in the German Intelligence Office may give them all sorts of hints as to what are our doings and intentions. By pleasing one American newspaper you may send thousands of men to their doom by sea or land.

That being the tone of the Censor's Office, the Government was naturally in a state of perplexity. At the same time they felt, and rightly felt, that it was most undesirable to confront our American friends of the Press (for they were all friendly) with a pure non possumus. What made it worse was the fact that the correspondents had told Ministers in plain terms that if they could get no news here they must pack their portmanteaus and go to Holland and thence to Berlin, where correspondents were made much of and allowed to send any amount of wireless.

Many plans were suggested at the meeting, but those which found favour with the Press made the representatives of the Government shiver with horror, while the official suggestions, on the other hand, were, I am afraid, greeted with polite derision by the journalists. Greatly daring, I proposed that we should do for the American correspondents what was done for them in their own country by the President. President Wilson met the correspondents at Washington every Monday for a confidential talk of twenty minutes or so. What he said and they said was not to be reported, but they were "put wise" as to the general situation. I suggested that in a similar way Mr. Asquith might give a quarter of an hour once a week to the American correspondents. He would not, of course, be able to give them anything to publish, but at any rate if they saw him they would not feel so utterly out of it as they were at the moment. To see no one but a Censor who always said No, was like living on an iceberg on a diet of toast-and-water. They would be able at least to cable to their chiefs saying that they had seen the Prime Minister and had heard from him the general outline of the situation, though they could not at present publish any of the confidences which had been entrusted to them. Anyone who knows anything about the relations between the Government and the Press at the beginning of the war will be amazed at my daring, or shall I say "impudence"?-though by no means astonished to hear of the response with which it met. The spokesmen of the Government said in effect: "Mr. Strachey, you must be mad to make any such suggestion. It cannot be entertained for a moment. You must think of something better than that." Unfortunately I could think of nothing better, the other journalists could think of nothing better, the officials could think of nothing better, and so the meeting, as the reporters say, broke up, if not in confusion, at any rate in depression.

I was so much alarmed by the notion of the correspondents leaving the country, and also sympathised so strongly with my American colleagues that I felt that I must do something on my own. I therefore went straight back to Brooks' and wrote to Mr. Asquith, telling him what the situation was, what I had proposed, and how I was regarded as quite crazy. I went on to say that I knew this would not affect his mind, but that I was afraid that he would probably not be able to spare the time for a weekly interview, and that I therefore suggested a compromise.

Will you [I said] come and lunch with me next Wednesday at my house at 14 Queen Anne's Gate to meet all the American correspondents, and so at any rate give them one talk? As it happens I don't know any of the American correspondents, even by name. All the same, I am quite certain that if you show them this mark of your confidence you will never regret it. There is not the slightest fear of any betrayal. I am, indeed, perfectly willing to guarantee, from my knowledge of the honour of my own profession, that not a single word that you say but do not want published will ever be published.

In a word, I guaranteed not merely the honour but the discretion of my colleagues from across the water. I am not a political admirer of Mr. Asquith, and have had, perhaps, to pummel him with words as much as any man in the country. I was not, however, the least surprised to find that he would not allow himself to be overborne by the suggestion of his subordinates that the scheme was mad and so forth. Very characteristically he wrote me a short note with his own hand, simply saying that he would be delighted to meet my friends at lunch on Wednesday next as proposed. This acquiescence relieved me greatly, for I was convinced that the situation was exceedingly dangerous and disagreeable.

My next step, and one that I had to take immediately, was to get my guests together. As I have said, I knew nothing of them and for a moment thought it not improbable that even if I did manage to get hold of their names and addresses they might when they received the letter think it was a hoax. However, the thing had to be done, so it was no use to waste time by foreseeing difficulties. My first step was to get the help of my friend, Sir Harry Brittain (then Mr. Brittain). I wrote to him, asking for the names and addresses of all the correspondents of American newspapers in London, for I had reason-I forget exactly why-to believe that he possessed the information I so greatly needed. The messenger whom I had despatched with my note brought back a prompt answer conveying the information I required. I immediately sat down, dictated my notes, about twenty I think, and had them posted. In these I described the situation quite frankly. I said that as a journalist I had been very much struck and also very much worried by the thought of the situation in which the correspondents had been placed. They were, I said, like men in a house in which all the lights had gone out, and that house not their own. In such circumstances, who could wonder if they knocked over half the furniture in trying to find their way about or to get hold of a light somewhere. I ventured further to propose, though not known to them, that they should give me the pleasure of their company at luncheon on the following Wednesday, at 14 Queen Anne's Gate, to meet the Prime Minister, in order that they might, by means of a talk with him, get a general outline of the situation.

I knew, of course, that it was not necessary to put my colleagues formally on their honour not to publish anything without definite leave so to do. The first principle upon which an American correspondent acts is that, though he expects frankness from the people he talks to, nothing will ever induce him to reveal what he has been told is confidential and not for publication. You can no more get stuff not meant for publication from an American correspondent than you can get the secrets of the confessional from a priest. Reticence is a point of honour. I have no doubt that some of my American journalistic friends will say that there is no great merit in this, because the correspondents know quite well that if they were once to betray a public man they would never have a chance to do it again. Their professional careers would be utterly ruined. Though I should not agree that self- preservation was the motive, I knew at any rate that every consideration of sound business and professional pride as well as of honour made it quite certain that there would be no betrayal.

I was, therefore, most anxious not to appear ignorant of this fact or to seem to doubt my guests. Accordingly I merely added that whatever was said was not for publication and also that I was anxious that the fact of this luncheon taking place should not be disclosed. I gave my reason. If the luncheon, and if any other meetings which I hoped to arrange, became known about by the representatives of Foreign newspapers, I felt that pressure might be put upon me to include them in my invitations. The result would be a small public meeting, and not an intimate social function such as I desired. My wishes were respected in every way. No word said at the luncheon, or at any of the weekly gatherings that followed it for nearly three years, was ever made public. Further, their existence was never alluded to, though the meetings would have made excellent copy, quite apart from anything that was said at them. The secret was religiously kept.

I was deeply touched by the letters which I received in reply to my invitation. They were all from men then unknown to me, though I am glad and proud to say that many of them were from men who have since become intimate friends. They were written with that frankness, genuineness, and warmth of feeling which are characteristics of the American, and contrast so strongly with the stuttering efforts of the Briton to be genial and forthcoming.

Owing to the fact that we had moved to our house in the country in the last days of July, 1914, my London house was shut up except for a caretaker, and my wife could not bring up servants for the occasion or give me her help, which would have been invaluable, because she was tremendously busy with Red Cross organisation and getting our house ready for what it was so soon to become, i.e. a hospital with forty beds. I had, therefore, to do the necessary catering myself. I felt that, considering the need for discretion, my best plan would be to go to so old-fashioned an English house as Gunter's. The very name seemed stable and untouched by the possibility of spies.

Accordingly I told Gunter's representative to make arrangements for a luncheon for twenty people and to be sure that all the waiters were Englishmen and, if possible, old service men. That accomplished, I awaited the hour. I do not think I was anxious as to how my party would go off. I was much too busy for that. I was at the time deep in work that I considered appropriate to the Sheriff of the County of Surrey, which office I then held. On the Tuesday before the luncheon I was sleeping at Queen Anne's Gate, but went as usual to The Spectator office in the morning, transacted my business, and got back half-an-hour before "zero," which was 1.30, so that I might arrange the places of my guests, a task in which I was helped by Sir Eric Drummond, then Mr. Asquith's Private Secretary. Unfortunately I have not a record of all the people who were there, but I know that among them was Mr. Edward Price Bell of the Chicago Daily News, known throughout the newspaper world of London as the doyen of American correspondents. He is a man for whom respect is felt in this country in proportion to the great number of years which he has devoted not only to the service of his newspaper but to improving the relations between this country and his own. Mr. Price Bell is the most patriotic of Americans, but he has never hesitated to make it clear that the word "foreign" does not apply to the relations between Great Britain and America.

Mr. Roy Martin, now the General Manager of that wonderful institution, The Associated Press of America, and his colleague and successor now head of the London office, Mr. Collins; Mr. Keen of The United Press and Mr. Edward Marshall of The New York Times were certainly there. Another of the men present with whom I was in the future to become intimate was Mr. Curtis Brown, the well-known and very able Literary Agent and the representative of the New York Press. It was, indeed, at his suggestion that these Memoirs, which have proved the pleasantest literary task ever undertaken by me, were begun and were placed in the hands of Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton in England and of Major Putnam in the United States. Mr. Fred Grundy, Mr. Patchin, Mr. Tewson, and Mr. Tuohy were also among my "first-nighters."

These men became the stalwarts of my regular parties, but there were also a number of other good friends and men of interest and ability, such as Mr. Palmer, who occupied journalistic posts here for a short time only, and then were moved either to the front or to some other part of Europe or back to their own country.

The luncheon proved a great success. From the first moment I realised that there was to be no coldness or official reticence or shyness, but a perfectly easy atmosphere. Mr. Asquith made himself exceedingly agreeable to my guests, and they did the same, not only to him, but to each other, to Mr. Asquith's staff, and to me, their host. Needless to say that as my object was to introduce the journalists to Mr. Asquith and get him to talk to

them and they to him, I placed myself as far away from him as I could, though I was still able, if the conversation flagged (which, by the way, it never did) to put in a question or to raise some point about which I knew there was a general desire to get information. Wisely, as I think, I would have no speechmaking. After luncheon we retired into my library for our coffee and cigars, and I was then able to take each one of my guests up to Mr. Asquith for a few minutes' talk. The result was excellent. Mr. Asquith was very frank, but, though light in hand, he was as serious as the occasion demanded. I felt that the general result was that my guests felt that they were receiving the consideration they ought to receive, which I knew the Government desired that they should receive, but which they had very nearly missed, thanks to the fact that Governments so often find it impossible to do what they ought to do, and, indeed, want to do. Official efforts at politeness, instead of being the soft answers which turn away wrath, too often prove violent irritants.

So great was the success of the luncheon that when it was over and Mr. Asquith had to leave for a Cabinet Committee (he remained for over two hours in the house-not a bad compliment to the correspondents in itself, when one remembers that the date was early September, 1914), I made the following proposal to my guests. I told them what a pleasure it would be to me if we made an arrangement to meet at 14 Queen Anne's Gate every Wednesday afternoon till further notice, for tea and cigarettes. We were all busy, but we must all have tea somewhere, and why not in a place close to the Houses of Parliament, the Foreign Office, Downing Street, and the War Office? I went on to say that though I could not promise a Prime Minister once a week, I would undertake to get one of his colleagues or else some distinguished general or admiral whose conversation about the war would be worth hearing, to ornament my Conversazione. The proposal was met with the charming ease and good sense with which every suggestion that I made to my guests was received, and it was arranged that we should begin in the following week.

Oddly enough, I cannot now remember who was my next guest of honour, but I do remember that in the course of that year I twice got Sir Edward Grey, and that on one occasion he spent over two hours, from 4.30, that is, until nearly 6.30, over my tea-cups. Other Cabinet Ministers were equally obliging, and if I remember rightly, among the number were included two Lord Chancellors, Lord Haldane, and Lord Buckmaster. Mr. Balfour and Mr. McKenna were also visitors, as was Earl Grey-the cousin of Sir Edward Grey. Lord Roberts was to have come, but Death intervened to prevent his visit.

Lest the diet should be monotonous, I also got distinguished people like the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge, Admiral Sir Reginald Custance, General Ian Hamilton, and Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, at that time the head of the Intelligence Department at the Admiralty. There was also Sir Maurice Hankey, the Belgian Minister, the American Ambassador, Mr. Page, and Colonel House, whom I was lucky enough to catch on one of his flying visits. Last, but not least, I had the two Censors, Sir Edward Cook and Sir Frank Swettenham. It was as if The Thunderer and Mercury had descended to play with mere mortals. My two naval experts, Admiral Cyprian Bridge and Admiral Custance, were among the most constant supporters of my Conversaziones. They proved very popular with the correspondents.

I know that the lions I provided for my arena in Queen Anne's Gate were quite genuine when they told me how much they had liked meeting the able and keenly-interested young men who formed the bulk of the correspondents.

I suppose I ought not to flatter my own tea-parties, but I am bound to say that I don't think I ever listened to better talk than the talk I heard on those occasions. I specially remember a conversation which took place when Lord Buckmaster became Chief Censor, shortly before he was made Chancellor. Naturally enough, the correspondents were inclined to be critical, though friendly, and he, though equally friendly, was sternly determined to defend the policy which his office was pursuing. Curiously enough, our dialectic on that occasion seemed to have made as strong an impression upon others as upon myself. I found, later, one of the most distinguished of news experts of his own or any other country, Mr. Roy Martin, of the Associated Press of America, in a little tract which he wrote about the censorship when America entered the war, spoke of my parties and the talk with Lord Buckmaster in terms which showed that he had been impressed. The tract in question was entitled "Newspaper Men should direct the Censorship." The following is the passage to which I am referring:

On the day when Lord Buckmaster became Lord High Chancellor I met him at the hospitable home of St. Loe Strachey, of The Spectator, the best friend American newspaper men have had during this war, in London, and told him that newspaper men had probably been a more constant nuisance to him than to any man in Great Britain. With characteristic suavity he assured me that he had only the pleasantest recollection of all his relations with the press. An American probably would have admitted a part of the indictment. We do not produce that type of urbanity in this country; like the colour on the walls of St. Paul's and the Abbey, it comes only with centuries.

But all the dreadful lapses of the British censorship and all its inequalities can be avoided by the United States. The mistakes which required months to correct are signposts for us. Its printed rules reveal its slow growth. Our censorship can develop equal efficiency in a month, if it notes the charted pitfalls in Whitehall.

I think my tea-parties would have run to the end of the war if it had not been that my health temporarily gave way. Owing to my illness I had to be a great deal away from London, and in any case was not equal to the extra strain they imposed. If I remember rightly, the last meeting was held at The Spectator office, for 14 Queen Anne's Gate was let at the time, i.e. in April or May, 1917.

I hope I shall not be thought indiscreet if I take note of an incident which occurred in the last six months of the Strachey teas, for it marked the extreme kindness, consideration, and true-hearted friendship shown me by my guests. For some reason, I daresay a good one, though I have forgotten it, the Foreign Office suddenly took it into their heads that they might improve upon my tea-parties by making them more official. Accordingly they asked me whether I should mind handing over the conduct of them to a gentleman whom they named. He had lived, they pointed out, for over twenty years in the United States and was therefore likely to be a better host than I was. Indeed, it was suggested, of course most politely and considerately, that on general grounds he would be more acceptable to the correspondents than I should be and would understand them better.

We were at war, and we did not in those days waste time upon compliments, but spoke our minds freely-and quite rightly. I was not in the least hurt. Though I loved the parties, which had given me such good friends and such good talk, I was very busy, and indeed very much overworked, and was in a sense relieved at the idea of getting a couple of hours of much needed leisure in the week. Accordingly, it was arranged that I should retire gracefully and recommend my official successor to my American friends in a short speech. This I did with perfect good-will. But the Foreign Office, though they did not reckon without their host, had reckoned without his guests. When the concrete proposal (well-meant, I am sure) was made in all its glorious na?veté in a little speech by the new host, it was received with something like annoyance-a fact which worried me not a little, for I had, rather unwisely perhaps, assured my official mentors that there would be no objection.

Things, however, went further than the grim silence with which the initial proposal was met at what was designed to be "the positively last appearance of Mr. Strachey." After a few days I heard that three or four of the correspondents, representing the whole body (with their usual tact they had kept this from me), had gone to one of the officials at the Foreign Office and told him plainly that if the scheme was not abandoned and I was not continued as host, they would none of them put in an appearance at the weekly gatherings. The result was that the official scheme was abandoned and that my Conversaziones continued as before.

Many people may think this action somewhat strange. I do not think so. Noting that I had only spent three weeks in America, it was most natural that the officials concerned should consider that I must be ignorant of American minds and ways and that my ignorance might be liable to become offensive. But this view, to borrow Gibbon's immortal phrase, "though probable is certainly false." It is logical, no doubt, but it is not consistent with the inconsistency of human nature.

I ought, perhaps, at the same time to record that earlier in the war, when, owing to the amount of work I had on hand, I offered to retire from the office of host and let it be carried on by others, I was sternly rebuked by the Prime Minister's Private Secretary, and told peremptorily that it was my duty to go on exactly as before-a mandate which I naturally regarded as a compliment as well as an order.

The incident was indeed a pleasant one, and I have reason to believe that what I did was regarded with satisfaction and with gratitude by the Prime Minister and his colleagues in the Cabinet. In any case, the whole episode was characteristically English. I suggested it myself, I carried it out myself, and though my little organisation had no regular official sanction or recognition, it was regarded as I have just recorded as war- work from which I could not retire, without leave. It was valued as a useful method of keeping touch between the men who were directing the war and the journalists of America. Without frightening anyone by making official inquiries, it was easy to find out the temper of the men who kept America informed. Those concerned had only to drop in at the next Strachey tea and sound the correspondents.

Is it to be wondered at, then, that I am intensely proud of what I was able to do? and proud in three capacities: as a man who wanted to help his country during the war, as a working journalist who wanted to help his colleagues, and last, but not least, as one whose life's object has been to improve the relations between this country and America.

To this account of my tea-parties I will further add as a postscript some proofs of what was the opinion of the correspondents as to these gatherings.

I had plenty of kind words from my American journalist friends, but as, I am thankful to say, they are almost all living, I shall obey my rule and not quote their letters or my recollections of their words. One of them, Mr. Needham, who, alas! died in an aeroplane accident in the spring of 1915, wrote me a letter not long before he died, from which I may quote the following. The letter was written from Paris, and is dated 11th April, 1915.

The thing I miss most, now that I am away from England, is your charming tea every Wednesday afternoon. I know of nothing to compare with it, and I find myself wishing that I could drop in, have a good time, and incidentally pick up some really useful knowledge, which one can't so easily do, you know.

Having said so much, I think I must quote the next sentence, because it involved a question which was often discussed in the spring of 1915 at the tea-parties. That was a rather plain-spoken article which I had written in The Spectator in regard to President Wilson's policy of neutrality on a moral issue. I spoke frankly, and my words were not unnaturally resented by those of Mr. Wilson's friends who were personal admirers and supporters of the President.

I want to tell you, also, that privately speaking with my finger to my lips, I quite approve of your article on Wilson. You will find it hard, at least over here, to find anyone to disagree with you, except, of course, on American top-soil, namely, an American Embassy or Legation.

I may add another proof that the correspondents met my efforts to help them and also do them the honour they deserved for the magnificent work they did individually and collectively in preventing the growth of ill- feeling, or, at any rate, misunderstanding, between what I may call their and our two nations.

On November 4th, 1914, my friends gave me a dinner at Claridge's Hotel, which was, I can say without flattery, the easiest, the most pleasant, the most natural, the least strained function of the kind in which I have ever taken part. Here is the list of my hosts-as representative a body both for men and newspapers as any journalist could desire to entertain him:

Edward Bell Chicago Daily News

Sam Blythe Saturday Evening Post

Curtis Brown New York Press

John T. Burke New York Herald

R. M. Collins Associated Press

Herbert Corey Associated Newspapers

Fred Grundy New York Sun

Edward Keen United Press

Ernest Marshall New York Times

Roy Martin Associated Press

H. B. Needham Collier's Weekly

Frederick Palmer Everybody's

Philip Patchin New York Tribune

Fred Pitney New York Tribune

J. Spurgeon New York World

W. Orton Tewson New York American

J. M. Tuohy New York World

The dinner was as good as the company, and that is saying a great deal. I shall record the Menu, to show that in 1914 the cooks of London were still bravely ignoring the ugly fact that we were at war.

MENU

Oyster Cocktail à la Strachey

Lobster-Newburg

Chicken à la Maryland

Selle d'Agneau

Haricots Verts

Pommes Anna

Bécassine Fine Champagne

Aubergine

Bombe à la Censor

Friandises

Cheese Savoury à la "Spectator"

Corbeilles de Fruits

Café-Liqueurs

The speeches I remember well. Those about me were much too flattering, but I liked them none the less for that. I am sure they were sincere. Certainly mine was. I had started out on the hard track of duty to my profession and my country, and behold, it had turned into the Primrose Path of pleasure! I expected to deal with a body of severe strangers and I found myself with a band of brothers-men to whom you could entrust your secrets in the spirit in which you entrust a bank with your money.

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