SEVAREID, ERIC (1912-1992)
Like many writers who grew up in frontier towns and achieved national reputations, Eric Sevareid, cbs World War II correspondent and tv commentator of the 1960s and 1970s, viewed his youth in Velva, North Dakota (population 800), with ambivalence. As a small boy he climbed the surrounding hills and gazed over the wheat fields, gaining an early sense of the infiniteness of his human possibilities. In his memoir, Not So Wild a Dream (1946), he idealizes Velva as a symbol of the spirit of democracy that won World War II. But after moving to Minneapolis at the age of twelve in 1926, following his father's bank failure, he returned only three times, twice as a magazine or TV journalist to write about himself.
Born Arnold Eric Sevareid on November 26, 1912, son of Alfred Eric Sevareid, a local banker, and Clara Hougen, daughter of a Norwegian Lutheran minister and a regal woman who encouraged him to read widely, Sevareid inherited Norwegian reticence and Lutheran moral integrity.
Young Sevareid crammed more adventure into his youth than most men experience in a lifetime. At seventeen, with an older boy, Walter Port, he paddled a canoe 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay. He rode the rails to California during the Great Depression to work for the summer in a gold mine. At the University of Minnesota his greatest love was the student paper, the Minnesota Daily, and his greatest disappointment was not being named editor because, he was convinced, the university president resented his opposition to ROTC. As a cub reporter for the Minneapolis Star he saw the local establishment's use of police power to brutally suppress the truckers strike as one face of domestic fascism; the other face was the Silver Shirts movement, which Sevareid exposed in a series for the Minneapolis Journal.
In 1935 he married Lois Finger, the law student daughter of the university's track coach, and they moved to Paris, where Sevareid became a reporter for the Paris edition of the New York Herald. Impressed by his coverage of a murder trial, CBS's London-based Edward R. Murrow invited him to join the news team –eventually including William L. Shirer, Charles Collingwood, Winston Burdett, and Howard K. Smith and known as "Murrow's Boys"–that he was putting together to cover the outbreak of World War II. Lois, who had just given birth to twins, Peter and Michael, returned home as Sevareid covered the fall of Paris, which he described as "a beautiful woman in a coma, not knowing or asking why."
Sevareid joined Murrow in London and endured the blitz, then rejoined his family in Washington, amazed to discover that his broadcasts from France and England had made him a celebrity. When his plane crashed in the jungles of Burma on his way to China, he and his party survived two weeks among the Naga tribesmen, and he emerged more famous than ever. He returned to the European front and covered North Africa, the Italian campaign, the invasion of southern France, and the final thrust across the Rhine into Germany.
In the 1950s, in his CBS evening radio news commentaries, Sevareid developed a unique journalistic form, the carefully wrought brief commentary that was erudite without being pedantic, eloquent but clear. He moved reluctantly into television, because the lights made him nervous and because he resented the image being more powerful than the words. But his final two-minute commentaries on Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News, rendered more effective by his dignified appearance, made him one of the most respected American journalists. His high points were in his condemnations of the Vietnam War, his defense of freedom of the press in response to an attack from Vice President Spiro Agnew, and his Watergate commentaries.
In 1959, unable to cope with Lois's manic depression, he fled to Europe with Belen Marshall, a Cuban songwriter whom he married in 1963. They had a daughter, Cristina, and were divorced in 1973. Later, following retirement in 1977, he married Suzanne St. Pierre, a producer for 60 Minutes. He died in his Georgetown home of stomach cancer on July 9, 1992. Visitors to his rustic country cabin outside Warrenton, Virginia, saw how much it recalled the North Dakota frontier.
Raymond A. Schroth Fordham College
Schroth, Raymond A. The American Journey of Eric Sevareid. South Royalton VT: Steerforth Press, 1995.