Vincent Sheean: in profile

Vincent Sheean was an American journalist, foreign correspondent and author. He reported from Palestine in the 1920s and also covered the Spanish Civil War and the Blitz. His 1935 memoir, Personal History, helped inspire Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Hollywood drama, Foreign Correspondent. 

When did you first hear about Sheean?

Several years ago, when I came across his memoir in a second-hand bookshop. It’s a rather dated work in some respects but it’s still an interesting period piece, and lifts the lid on what was quite a heroic period in terms of foreign correspondents reporting from the world’s trouble spots.


What kind of man was he?

He was clearly an adventurous sort of guy and spent a lot of time travelling the world. He witnessed the Spanish Civil War, and also wrote an account of being in England during the Battle of Britain called, slightly melodramatically, Between the Thunder and the Sun.

What made Sheean a hero?

I’m not really one for hero worship – we all have feet of clay – but I can’t help but admire Sheean and his peers in that golden age of journalism: such as Gareth Jones, the Welshman who first reported on the Holodomor [Great Famine] in Ukraine, and the BBC’s Stanley Maxted who was given a seat on a glider plane and reported from the battle of Arnhem. Foreign and war reporting was in its infancy but people like them were poking their noses into places where sometimes they weren’t wanted. It’s a bit of a cliché, but they were writing the first draft of history.

Foreign correspondents had to take boats to get around, and once you’d reached somewhere you’d often be there for months

What was Sheean’s finest hour?

I was very taken by his comments about Jerusalem because it’s a city I know well. He wrote first hand about events that happened a century ago, such as the massacre of religious Jews in Hebron by Arabs in the 1920s, which people still talk about today. In the end, rather like me, he was enchanted by the city on one level, but found the level of hatred rather overwhelming. His comments about the Balfour Declaration, which he condemned for its contradictions, were perceptive.

Is there anything that you don’t particularly admire about him?

Not really, although after reading this someone will no doubt unearth some appalling things he said which these days would get him cancelled.

Can you see any parallels between Sheean’s life and your own?

We’re both journalists and foreign correspondents, although it is very different now to what it was like in his day. Back then, foreign correspondents had to take boats to get around, and once you’d reached somewhere you’d often be there for months.

What would you ask him if you could meet him?

I’d ask him about his everyday life. And I’d love to have had a drink with him at Fink’s, a legendary Jerusalem watering hole dating back to the 1930s, which has sadly now gone.

Jeremy Bowen is international editor for BBC News. His latest book, The Making of the Modern Middle East, is out now (Picador)


This content first appeared in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine. Jeremy Bowen was talking to York Membery

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York MemberyJournalist

York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.