”This Is Charles Collingwood” (The Cornell Alumni News 5/1990)

”We’ve seen some of the ingredients of the furnishings for the White House,” the handsomely dressed television correspondent observed to the regal looking First Lady as the video couple strolled through 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “Yes,” breathed Jackie Kennedy, on cue, “the diplomatic reception room is right next door, if you would like to see it.” Yes, the correspondent did – and so did an enraptured nation.

“The main deck of the LST is crowded and packed with vehicles of every sort,” the eyewitness newsman informed his galvanized radio listeners, via sealed tape recording as he waited to go ashore with the Allied Expeditionary Force on June 6, 1944. “The trucks are full…Just reading the names on the boxes of some of them…Here’s one that says ‘cartridges’ and another one says ‘grenades’…I wonder what the soldiers feel like?…They’re just as sealed here as though they had severed every connection with the outside world…Let’s ask one of them. Hey, soldier, come over here, will you…”

“Some people say that on the sixth floor the skeletons all dance at midnight,” the boyish TV host exuberantly declared. That “A certain witch doctor is emitting noxious fumes so horrible that – well, down with rumors and up with the television camera, and up to the sixth floor of the American Museum of Natural History where a doctor of paleontology is going to open his bags of tricks…”

Memorable voices – memorable scenes – and they all belonged to one man, Charles Collingwood ’39, of CBS News. In a career which spanned four decades – and even more wars – Collingwood, perhaps the closest thing that the air has had to a man of letters, was given an astonishing variety of reporting, commentating, hosting, and anchoring assignments by his superiors at CBS News – and he handled them with unique dispatch and elan.

“BONNIE Prince Charles,” his colleagues called him back in the good old London days, when Collingwood was the crown prince of “Murrow’s boys” – along with such other future network stars as Eric Severeid and David Schoenbrun – and the dashing radio reporter of the old CBS publicity photos, leaning into his microphone with a devilish smile, helped popularize the romantic ideal of the roving foreign correspondent.
Collingwood, who died in 1985, has recently received new attention as the result of two biographies of his old boss, Edward R. Murrow. And well he should.

Part scholar, part adventurer, Collingwood, a native of Three Rivers, Michigan – and a transfer student from California’s Deep Springs College – cut a distinctive, almost dandyish figure during his three years on the Hill, according to his fellow Telluride associate, Austin Kiplinger ’39: “Elegance of speech, elegance of dress, elegance of manner – that is the way I remember him.” Kiplinger recalls that a typical Saturday evening at Telluride would have the erudite philosophy major standing before the fireplace declaiming poetry or articulating his views on the gathering European storm. Later he might don a cape and stamp down to the Cornell Daily Sun to put the finishing touches on a story.

During the summers the scribe departed Ithaca to work as a cowpuncher and lumberjack in California and a freighter deckhand. Versatile man, this. Collingwood’s classmates weren’t surprised when he was named a Rhodes Scholar in his senior year.

It was at Oxford that the conflict came to a head within the brash Cornellian. Thinking that he might combine his studies in Oxford with some reporting on the side, Collingwood signed on parttime with United Press, the forerunner of United Press International, shortly after his arrival in England in August of 1939. After all, World War II was about to break, and Collingwood, as were thousands of other redblooded Ivy Leaguers who had read their Hemingway, was eager to cover it.

However, the scholarship committee at Oxford would have none of it. Collingwood could be a reporter or he could read jurisprudence. He couldn’t do both. Faced with the prospect of losing his Rhodes scholarship, Collingwood reluctantly opted to stay in Oxford and briefly found happiness in his books during the quiet first autumn and winter on the Western Front. But when the Nazis overran Denmark and Norway in the spring of 1940, Collingwood changed his mind and went to London to work for U.P. full time, reporting the Blitz.

Inevitably, word of Collingwood got to Murrow, director of European news operations for CBS, who was looking for new recruits to the elite circle of broadcast correspondents he was putting together to cover the widening conflict – and whose own eyewitness accounts of the Blitz had made him a hero in millions of American (and
English) hearts. Murrow called Collingwood and arranged an exploratory lunch at the Savoy.

Murrow was at first put off by the debonair Cornellian, as Joseph Persico relates in his 1989 biography, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original: “Collingwood was almost too much of a good thing. He was handsome, charming, amusing and articulate. He spoke in finished sentences and coherent paragraphs…There was a touch of the dandy, almost too much ease and assurance in this young man on their first meeting. Murrow would later tell how he had glanced down at the wild expanse of Argyle socks that Collingwood wore, all the rage then at Oxford, and wondered if this was someone he wanted at CBS.”

Collingwood’s stock rose when he told Murrow that he had worked as a lumberjack; Murrow, from Washington State, had also been a timber cruiser. Murrow decided to test Collingwood’s arboreal skills during a visit to a Royal Air Force airfield, as Persico notes. Collingwood passed the test: “Murrow spotted a surveyor’s chain lying on the ground. He picked it up, coiled it, and with a quick movement of the wrist, heaved it expertly. He handed the chain to Collingwood without a word. Collingwood threw it just as expertly. Here was a Rhodes Scholar, the role Ed had once coveted, one who could discuss medieval law, speak beautifully, and heave a surveyor’s chain. Here was Murrow’s kind of man. Charles Collingwood joined the CBS London staff.”

Collingwood knew nothing about radio. According to another recent biography, Murrow: His Life and Times by A. M. Sperber, “The young man had expected a training period, a few weeks of research for Mr. Murrow, perhaps, studying the radio scripts, learning how it was done. Instead, there was a dry run or two, nothing much. Suddenly he was thrown in a t the deep end when Murrow telephoned one day: he had a dinner date with the Prime Minister of the Netherlands; would he, Collingwood, do the show tonight?

“Nervously, Collingwood went through the agency wires. He’d been shown the layout of the BBC, had seen Murrow broadcast, knew the routine. He wrote and rewrote his copy, then headed for the studio. No Murrow. He passed the script to the censors, put on the headphones. It was well after 12 by now; still no Murrow. New York came in on the cue channel, and they talked. Finally, at one minute to airtime, ‘Ed slid into the seat opposite me’ and Collingwood picked up on cue.

“It went without a hitch until the final sign-off, forgotten by the neophyte in the relief at ending his first newscast. Without missing a beat, Murrow, who had sat smoking, leaned into the microphone. ‘This is Charles Collingwood. Now back to Robert Trout in New York.’

“…Years later, Collingwood, then a veteran himself, asked Murrow about those times; after all, signing on as a raw young correspondent, no instructions, hadn’t he taken a chance?

“’I suppose I was,’ the other man replied. ‘But I wanted you to sound like yourself and not like me.’”

COLLINGWOOD’S big break as a broadcaster came in November 1942, when Murrow asked the neophyte newsman to accompany the Allied invasion of North Africa, giving him the opportunity to air the first eyewitness account of the fall of Vichy-held Tunis, as well as an exclusive from Algiers about the real story behind the assassination of French Admiral Jean-Francois Darlan.

When the intrepid Collingwood returned to London, in early 1943 he was a star of Murrovian magnitude, and so he was to remain for twenty years. As the old CBS publicity photos reveal, he wore the standard uniform of the war correspondent of the time: trench coat or leather jacket, a crushed Army Air Corps hat, and a slaying smile that might have won him a film test in Hollywood.

Fittingly, Murrow chose his protege to be one of the handful of correspondents allowed to go in with the troops on D-Day in 1944. Collingwood also covered the final Allied campaigns in northern Europe and the German surrender in May 1945; he also was with Murrow at the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp and shared the unenviable duty of putting the indescribable horror he found there into words.

“We all believed in that war because we were fighting something evil,” Collingwood said in an interview with UPI in 1982 about the war which had been the pivotal experience of his life. “Somehow it seemed that when they signed those papers a cloud lifted from the world and we all thought there would be a better, more prosperous world opening up for us. Now, of course, we know it didn’t happen that way…”

For his distinguished reporting of the war, Collingwood was awarded one of broadcasting’s highest honors, the Peabody Award. And CBS rewarded Collingwood by giving him a short postwar stint in Hollywood, where he met his first wife, the actress Louise Albritton, to whom he remained married until her death in 1979 (later he married the Swedish opera singer Tatiana Angelini Jolin).

LATER, Collingwood moved back to New York to become CBS’s first United Nations correspondent (when that assignment actually meant something). He also served as the network’s White House correspondent from 1949 to 1952.

Taking advantage of Collingwood’s telegenic charm and talents, CBS assigned him to a succession of educational and entertainment-type shows in the 1950s and 1960s, including the science non-fiction show, “Adventure,” where he was host; the historical “Chronicle” series, where he was a host-narrator; and the documentary “Eyewitness” program, where he was a reporter.

Collingwood’s wide-ranging sense of curiosity and his derring do were put to particularly good use in “Adventure,” where, depending on the week, one might glimpse the suave host wrestling with an 18-foot anaconda, urbanely commenting on undersea matters through a diver’s helmet thirty feet below the surface of the Pacific, or giving step-by-step instructions on how to shrink a human head. He also succeeded Murrow as host of the celebrity interview series “Person to Person.”

To be sure, as Joseph Persico writes, the man who Edward Murrow “saw as his spiritual heir was Charles Collingwood, Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was the grand total of the man’s qualities that had always impressed Murrow, the marvelous Collingwood presence, the insightful analysis, the graceful prose all resting on a classical education in history, politics and philosophy.”

Collingwood had a chance to fully assume his friend and mentor’s mantle in 1960, when Murrow took a sabbatical from CBS, and producer Fred Friendly offered him sole hosting duties on the new prestige news program, “CBS Reports” (meant to be a successor to Murrow’s famed “See It Now”). However Collingwood balked, preferring the reporter at large role, a decision he would later regret.

“I was something of a coward not to take on ‘CBS Reports,’” he remarked years later. Other things had begun to take up Collingwood’s interest, such as his collection of fine European paintings. Rued his colleague Eric Severeid, another veteran Murrow’s Boy, “He put so much of his energy and talent into building a beautiful life that there was not enough left for his work.”

Be that as it may, there was still a lot of good work to come.

Television viewers had a particularly good chance to see Charles Collingwood’s versatility as a reporter commentator in 1962. First, on February 14 there was his famous “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.” Collingwood’s learning and elegant style made him a perfect match for the equally elegant First Lady as she showed him and millions of awed viewers the dazzling accoutrements of the Kennedy White House. For those who were lucky enough to see it, the show remains one of our fondest collective memories of the Kennedy years, the video embodiment of Camelot.

“This administration has shown a particular affinity for artists,” Collingwood said to Jackie Kennedy at one memorable juncture of their video stroll. “Is this because you and yours husband feel that way or because you feel that there is a special relationship between government and the arts?”

“I don’t know,” Jackie answered graciously with a smile. “It’s so complicated. It’s just that I think that everything in the White House should be the best.” Who could disagree – then?

But Kennedy also had the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis – and Charles Collingwood was there, too, explaining things in his simple, yet ‘erudite way. “This is Germany,” he declared, from Checkpoint Charlie during a Cold War news special later that scary year. “All Germany is divided into two parts,” Collingwood continued, pointing to a map at his feet. “On the left side is the West German Republic – about 53 million people on our side of the Iron Curtain. Part two: East Germany – about 16 million people on the other side of the Iron Curtain.”

And, of course, Collingwood was there again during that horrible weekend in November 1963 when the country became one great grieving video family, shocked, saddened, trying to make sense of things.

It was therefore with some relief to him that he was named chief foreign correspondent the following year, based in London, giving him a chance to leave the U.S. and return to his first journalistic love. The refined former Rhodes Scholar was the consummate commentator for such imperial events as the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 and the marriage of Princess Anne in 1972.

In 1975, at the close of his London tour, he was appointed a commander in the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, in recognition of his contributions to British-American friendship and understanding. He was now “Lord Collingwood,” as his colleagues back at CBS headquarters ribbed him upon his return. Not to be outdone, an appreciative French government made Collingwood a chevalier in the Legion of Honor.

While abroad, Collingwood also became one of the most familiar reporters on and analysts of the Vietnam quagmire, visiting the war zone frequently to lend whatever perspective he could do to the deepening tragedy there. It was partly out of respect for his reputation and reportorial neutrality that North Vietnam allowed Collingwood to visit Hanoi in 1968, the first major American newsman to do so.

“In this role he was a maker of news as well as a reporter of it,” the Washington Post wrote in its obituary of Collingwood on October 4, 1985, “for he summarized Hanoi’s views on conditions necessary to begin peace talks. His talks were studied by the White House as if they had been communications from another government.”

The veteran correspondent was also a reporter or anchorman for CBS News’s coverage of such other international events of the Johnson and Nixon years as Pope Paul VI’s epochal first visit to the United States in 1965, the stunning Soviet-led invasion of reformist Czechoslovakia in 1968, and President Nixon’s landmark opening to China in 1972.

Collingwood was a number of journalism awards during his watch, including the National Headliners Club citation and several Overseas Press Club awards, before he retired from CBS News in 1982.

William Paley, founder and chairman of CBS Inc., said in a statement following Collingwood’s death at the too-young age of 68: “The true strength of any news organization lies in the caliber of the people whom it attracts. Charles Collingwood, who was part of the CBS news organization almost from its inception, represented the very best – the highest standards of accuracy, honesty and integrity leavened with humanity and sensitivity. I have lost a good friend.”

And whenever one thinks of a myriad of events, catastrophes, and ceremonies from the 1940s through the 1970s, one hears the reassuring sign-off of the remarkable broadcaster who reported them: “This is Charles Collingwood…CBS News.”

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