It was mid-October 1939 when Gladys Arnold sailed aboard the luxury liner the Washington, on her way back to France. There was a strange atmosphere on the ship. The truth hung low over the almost 300 passengers’ heads; they were sailing into the unknown. Watching land fade into open sea, Arnold wondered whether she would ever see Canada again. Lights onboard the ship blazed into the darkness. Although there was an underlying feeling of dread among the passengers, they filled their time watching movies, eating grand dinners and spending evenings in the lounge, where they had long chats about Canada, books and music-everything except the war. Decades later, in her memoir One Woman’s War: A Canadian Reporter with the Free French, Arnold would recall, “[M]y crossing of the Atlantic was full of foreboding. The unreality of that trip still troubles me.”
Arnold, Paris correspondent for The Canadian Press since 1936, was on the Washington because she “wanted to see firsthand the conflict between fascism and democracy.” Gillis Purcell, her CP editor, tried to warn her off-“We can’t be responsible for you if you go back”-but later Arnold would explain that she couldn’t imagine not going. Purcell raised her salary from $15 to $20 per week and wished her bonne chance.
Born in 1905 in Macoun, a town in southeastern Saskatchewan, Arnold felt strong ties to the Canadian prairies. Her father, Cyrenus, was a stationmaster for CP Railways and died when she was nine years old. Arnold had a close relationship with her mother, Florida May, and her younger brother, Maxwell Samuel Arnold. She became interested in journalism while in high school, a notion she got after reading an article about the Governor General Viscount Willingdon and his wife crossing the country that was written by a female reporter: “It was my first idea that women could do reporting like this and Iimmediately thought this is what Iwanted to be-a reporter.” First, though, after graduating from Weyburn high school in Saskatchewan, she did the pragmatic thing and trained as a teacher. In 1930, after a few years in the classroom, she took a pay cut-not an insignificant decision in the midst of the Depression-to join the Regina Leader-Post as an editorial assistant to D.B. MacRae, the editor in chief of the paper. Once installed, Arnold wheedled her way into writing. Besides regular reporting, she began contributing regular column. The subject matter of “It’s a Secret But…,” which appeared under the pseudonym “Robin,” ranged from hunting (“Many a man who never notices that his wife has a new gown … will spot the flicker of an eyelid of a Hungarian partridge”) to the lessons in organization teachers could take from the on-to-Ottawa trekkers (“[O]n subjects of vital interests to teachers some unity of purpose might be established”).
Arnold left for her first trip to Europe in 1935. She took her savings, $500, and boarded a grain freighter in Churchill, Manitoba. Her original plan was to stay a year and her reason for going was what she called “political curiosity.” As she later recalled, “Living through the drought and unemployment of the Depression in Saskatchewan, those of us in our twenties passionately debated the pros and cons of socialism, communism, fascism and democracy, searching for answers to why more than a million Canadians could not find a job. In Saskatchewan it was difficult to examine these isms firsthand. But in Europe surely we would find some answers.” Barry Robbins, a cousin, suggests there may have been another motivation too: “She got to the point where it was either stay in Saskatchewan and live on a farm and have six children or travel and see the world.”
What she found in France was a country that enchanted her. “Ifeel as though this is my city, my very own,” she would say of Paris. The spell was so powerful that five years later she would be the sole Canadian journalist in the city as the Germans approached.
After nearly five months in England, Arnold crossed to France and headed to Paris, where she quickly acquired French. Money was a little harder to pick up, but while on a short visit to London in February 1936 Arnold met Clifford Sifton Jr. of the Sifton papers. He informed her that The Canadian Press didn’t have a Paris correspondent. Arnold saw this as the perfect opportunity and began sending articles every week to CP on spec, but got no response. Three months later, when her funds were about to dip below $100, she wrote to Gil Purcell, the editor at CP, stating that she could no longer write for the outfit unless she was paid. She received the news back that she would now be the official Paris correspondent for CP and would be paid $15 per week. Arnold supplemented her income by freelancing for one cent per word for various publications, including the Sifton papers, as well as the Regina Leader-Post, even, on a few occasions, The Christian Science Monitor. Her topics ranged from how the mode for London swells was carrying gloves, not wearing them, to the hold Mussolini exerted on Italians, and the so-called reforms in Hitler’s Germany (“[T]he ghettos … are to be re-established so that the German people may be protected from having a Jew for a neighbour….”).
A letter about a visit to Versailles from this time reveals her infatuation with the country, as well as intimations of looming conflict: “To pass through those rooms with the beautiful tapestried walls, carved doors and ceilings, magnificent paintings, the ornate furnishings of the Louis 15 and 16th periods and out into the quiet sculptured gardens with graceful fountains and statues … makes one change one’s ideas of whether we are living in the best age or not. There was a graciousness about the 17th and 18th centuries (for some people at least), a quiet peace, time to enjoy music and art and poetry, the beauties of the outdoors and friendship. I am afraid we are inclined to think we are living in the civilized age with our television, radio, aeroplanes, army tanks, bomb-proof cellars and trenches; armies in gas masks and oil scandals. Iwonder?”
Arnold had originally only planned on staying in Europe for a year. Soon, though, she realized she couldn’t learn enough about the isms in such a short time and decided to extend her visit. She did colour reporting about the royal visit of King George VIand Queen Elizabeth to Paris in 1938, and, in a more serious vein, measured the mood of Parisians after Germany’s annexation of Austria (“Conversation in café or restaurant has dropped to a murmur, but to listen to it is to realize that the Frenchman is fully aware of the situation which is menacing his peace”). At her pension, Gabrielle Roy (“[S]till trying to make up her mind whether to be a writer or an actress”) was a fellow resident; there she also encountered Thomas Mann, in flight from Germany. But in 1939, with the war threatening, she sailed home in August for a brief visit to see her family and her birthplace. “I had been homesick for the sight of the big night sky and the golden haze of windborne chaff, and for the smell of wheat baking in the sun.”
She was still under those big night skies on September 1 when Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and Canada followed suit on September 10. By then Arnold had already booked her passage back to France.
Seven days after departing from New York, the Washington docked in Southampton on its way to Bordeaux. There Arnold found most people were equipped with a small, square box: a gas mask. Blacked out windows and poorly concealed guns were impossible to ignore. In a CP article Arnold described the scene: “Little by little the shadows eat into the streets. The sun sinks, the twilight grows, and no lights come on. Now the whole city is swallowed in obscurity. Double-decked trams crawl along packed with human beings. Almost complete blackout now. A dimmed red globe illuminates the interior of the tram…. All windows are painted over; it takes courage to force one’s way into the gloom. The motorman examines your fare with his flashlight. Inside you suffocate among strange odours, pressing bodies, the touch of damp cloth or a hand.”
The ship departed from Southampton the following afternoon, and a short trip later arrived in Bordeaux. While her ultimate destination was her beloved Paris, Arnold first stopped in Périgueux, roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Bordeaux, for a few days to write about the recent arrival of more than 200,000 evacuees from Strasbourg, Alsace, who had had 48 hours to prepare for their relocation. Strasbourg was an urban centre and the Périgueux region was largely a farming region: “How, Iwondered, could these small cities and the countryside cope with such a sudden influx of so many people?” Her conclusion: “I realized that war has many faces we never see.”
A few days later, she stepped off the train in Paris “and felt for the first time a change in atmosphere. The quiet was audible. There was none of the noise and confusion I associated with French stations, no quick-tapping heels and nervous, high-pitched voices. Now travellers silently picked up their valises and moved off.”
Arnold’s concern was finding a place to move off to. She fetched up at the Foyer International, first opened as a residence for female American students in 1920, but by this point a refuge for women from places as diverse as Greece, Romania and Egypt. Unlike other options, it had heat, although the elevator was mothballed, meaning Arnold had to climb seven stories to her room. She didn’t seem to mind. Her room had a big sunken tub, the meals were good and her tapping away at her typewriter wasn’t an issue. “This certainly is a preposterous war,” she mused as she surveyed the room. “For a struggling young journalist trying to exist on the dubious bounty of the Canadian Press and precarious freelancing at a cent a word, the war was certainly treating me well. So far, except for a few false air alerts, no war was visible from Paris.”
From this cozy base, Arnold spent her time searching for stories. “Time was interminable for all the frustrated journalists haunting the Hôtel Continental”-headquarters of the information and censorship offices-“and the Ministry of War, pulling strings wherever we could to get permission to visit the Front, the Maginot Line or the naval bases,” she would later write. “‘Stick to human interest stories’ I had been ordered. ‘The boys in the London Bureau will look after political and military stuff.'”
Not surprisingly, she was undeterred. “Canadian Press, perhaps unwittingly, gave me the real story to write,” she later noted. The real story from her perspective was the people who “gave me the faith in the successful outcome of the war.” She reported on what the troops were eating and how the army managed to feed 200,000 troops at one supply station every day. She accompanied writer and pianist Eve Curie, daughter of Marie, whose acclaimed biography had been published a few years earlier, on expeditions to see French women at work, driving buses, running farms, staffing factories, and doing all the other jobs the mobilized men had previously carried out. And she had tea with Mme. Marguerite Lebrun, the wife of the President of France, and chatted about food shopping.
In an effort to get good briefing information instead of what she characterized as material that “might have been suitable for Queen’s Quarterly,” she met with the head of the Press and Propaganda Commissariat, Jean Giraudoux. Giraudoux, an accomplished playwright miscast in his new role, listened as she passionately explained that Canadians were not the same as Americans and outlined the news they needed: “People want to know about the food situation. What are the medical services, the hospitals and nursing services? How are you going to get enough blood for transfusions once the real war starts? What do the French think is behind this ‘phony’ war.” The press czar rather crankily replied “Mademoiselle, to tell the truth I know nothing about press and information matters, or what I am doing here. I’m a writer, not a journalist.”
On June 10, 1940, she received news the Germans were going to invade Paris in the next couple of days. She was advised to evacuate immediately or risk being sent to a concentration camp. To get her articles to CP she needed to reach Tours, and find the censorship and information personnel who had already fled the city. What was normally a three-hour drive took Arnold and two friends several days. At one point en route she “suddenly realized Iwas leaving Paris. Iwas leaving not out of my own free will; Iwas being pushed out. It made me furious, but Iwas also broken hearted.”
Once in Tours, Arnold and her friends learned the government had already relocated to Bordeaux, swollen from 300,000 to two million by refugees. She also had another problem: she had lost her identification 10 days earlier. Anxious to remain in France, Arnold sought accreditation first at the American Consulate, before moving on to the British Embassy: “As a journalist did Inot have an obligation to report the fate of these innocent victims whom Ihad come to admire so much?” Instead, she was given a pass allowing her on a ship carrying refugees to England.
It was while in London attending a reception for the BBC that Arnold first encountered General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French. Intrigued by French journalist’s Genevieve Tabouis’ obvious interest in him, she suggested to her boss, Sam Robertson, the London CP bureau chief, that she should do an interview with de Gaulle. In private, she found the general compelling: “Iwas surprised by his great height, his grave and thoughtful mien and the warmth of his keen eyes. As he welcomed me, his voice was soft and his manner touched with old-world courtesy.” Soon captivated, she blurted out, “Is there a place for me in your volunteer army?” While at the time de Gaulle pointed out that at the moment he didn’t have one tank, Arnold’s impulsive offer would shape the rest of her life and lead her away from journalism and to a career in the service of France.
By late August 1940, Arnold was once again at sea, this time travelling back to Canada with a shipload of child refugees from Britain and, of course, writing about the trip. On arrival, she would fetch up in Ottawa, still in the employ of CP. Within a year, after unsuccessfully lobbying CP to be reposted to London, the allure of covering “women’s events and … affairs interesting to women” was less than her avocation of spreading the word “about the French tragedy, about the Free French and the wonderful way Britain was responding to the Nazi challenge.” In October 1941 she left CP to help set up the Free French Information Service, and 30 years later she received the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, for more than two decades of distinguished service to the country. When VE Day came she mused, “I had gone to Europe ten years earlier to find out firsthand about communism and fascism. I had discovered that both meant totalitarian dictatorship, the mortal enemy of a free and democratic society. The importance of VE Day was that fascism had been defeated. But had it really been defeated? How does one defeat an idea?”
With the war over, Arnold became the head of the Information Service with the French Embassy in Canada, where she served until her retirement in 1971. Despite having left full-time journalism, she was a long-time member of the Women’s Press Club, travelled to 60 countries and continued to be an eyewitness to history. On her retirement she moved back to Saskatchewan’s big night skies.
Montreal, Sept. 22, 1941 (CP): “They (the child refugees in Canada from London) ate hearty meals in a Montreal station restaurant last night, the rattle of trains rather than the roar of aerial battles overhead accompanying their chatter.”
Did Gladys Arnold write that? We may never know, since most of her stories for CP didn’t carry bylines. We know that after the war she laboured over several drafts of an unremarkable novel called Chimera that was never published. She produced poetry, too, although it was also undistinguished (“They looked, unseeing / Felt, unfeeling / Loved, unknowing / Behind the glass in whose reflection they dwelt”). Rather poignantly, in the 1960s she even had dealings with the Famous Writers School, which ultimately became most famous for its dubious business practices. In honesty, her journalism was workaday, even if her life was not. While still in Paris, she had cheerfully admitted she was “not part of the small charmed circle of the Big League but …was happy to be in the league at all.”
And that was what made her exceptional: a small-town prairie girl with the moxie to talk her way into a reporting job when female reporters were still uncommon, then head out to a country whose language she didn’t know, create a job for herself through sheer persistence and return to her adopted home as war loomed. She may not have been a Kit Coleman, but she was a groundbreaker just the same.
As Patricia Prestwich, history and women’s studies professor emerita at the University of Alberta, who has studied Arnold, says, “In many ways she was a very talented woman, but a very ordinary woman. She didn’t make a huge impact on Canadian journalism. We are interested in how she exemplifies the opportunity for women in journalism at that time.” At a time when the world was in turmoil, Arnold was determined to experience life. When she died in 2002, at 96, her eulogist, Barbara Campbell, concluded this way:
“Gladys had a signature way of signing her letters. A shortened form of her name.
“She simply called herself … ‘Glad.'”