A few days ago I called up a journalist in Vermont who has interviewed William Jennings Bryan, Teddy Roosevelt, Lenin and Mussolini, among others. George Seldes, age 94, is working on his umpteenth book to be called “Adventures with People: The Noted, the Notorious and the three S.O.B’s.” Next month his magnum opus, “The Great Thoughts” will be published by Ballantine Books. You know what he means when he says “‘retirement’ is the dirtiest word in the language.”
I was introduced to one of Seldes books on the power holders in America while still in the eighth grade. It was a gripping book on the corporate and media moguls of great influence during the Thirties and Forties. Needless to say the name “George Seldes” stuck in my memory. Then one day I came upon a pile of newsletters called “In Fact” in a closet corner of my high school library. They were devoted to documenting the failings and corruption of the press. Seldes told me that, according to media historians, “In Fact” was “the first regular publication devoted to press criticism and suppression of the news anywhere in the whole world.” Greenwood Press in Connecticut has reprinted 520 issues of “In Facts” (ten years worth) in one available volume. Seldes stopped-publishing his weekly in 1950 and gave his mailing list to I.F. Stone who was starting his famous periodical “I.F. Stone’s Weekly.”
Seldes has a remarkable memory. He says he developed it because his editor in 1908 told him not to take notes when interviewing people because that would inhibit them from speaking more openly. So he learned to memorize his interviews. He also never lost his integrity which explains a little about how he broke the story linking cancer to cigarette smoking and chastised the newspapers for keeping mum on the subject for fear of alienating their advertisers. Seldes was a long-distance hairshirt of the media moguls, as his 20 books of press criticism attest.
“I was the first person thrown out of Moscow,” he recalls. You may remember from the movie Reds, which included a short interview with Seldes, “that the Russian Revolution in 1917 was attracting more than its share of foreign journalists. When he interviewed Lenin, the Soviet’s first leader asked him why the Americans were against communism (this meeting took place after the British and American expeditionary force landed in Russia to fight the Bolsheviks at the end of World War I)? Lenin told Seldes that they had adopted the American version of communism, as laid down by Daniel DeLeon.
Seldes says he gets about twenty letters a week now. But after his new book, “The Great Thoughts” comes out, his mail should increase. The book has taken 25 years to complete. It is a treasury of passages from the writings and speeches of the world’s greatest thinkers — philosophers, politicians, scientists, scholars, theologians, revolutionaries, tyrants and other men and women “who have shaped the world we live in.” Each passage expresses a seminal idea — a thought Seldes believes has affected history for better or worse.
Prolific a writer as Seldes is, he has a lifetime phobia about public speaking. “I get sick to my stomach when I have to stand and say a few words,” he said, adding that once when he was broke, he nonetheless had to turn down a lecture tour that would have earned him $50,000.
Having completed “The Great Thoughts” that Seldes describes as “the work of a lifetime, to be read for a lifetime,” the sharp nonagenarian still goes to Dartmouth Library each week to do his research. When I mentioned another man who was about his age, Seldes immediately cut in to ask: “But is he working at something?” One is reminded, while talking to this remarkable journalist, of the saying that “the only true aging is the erosion of ideals.”
As for Seldes view: “I’d like to write a book called “To hell with the joys of old age,” he remarked in a clear voice and not a little amusement.