Josephine Herbst (1897–1969)

This tribute to Josephine Herbst was read at a memorial service held at St. Luke’s Chapel in New York on February 18.

There are people who knew Josie longer than I did, and are better qualified to speak of her, and for her many friends, than I am. I met her early in 1950, a time when she had already endured many disappointments as a writer and as an American radical, and when she was already caught up in the long hard struggle for survival that was to end only in the early hours of January 28th. The nineteen years in which I knew her were years of great poverty, great isolation, often of humiliating frustration and silence. So I cannot speak, as others could directly, of the spunky and brilliantly independent girl from Sioux City who typically enough went off to Berkeley for an A.B. as if college were a romantic adventure—and, the year after, took the life-long adventure that was already herself to New York, where she read for George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken on The Smart Set and began to form those friendships with writers for which she had, unlike many writers, a special and enduring genius.

Nor can I speak directly here of her creative beginnings—of how, in 1921 she went to Europe, as so many writers of her marvelous generation did, without quite knowing how she would live, yet typically got right into the heat of things, political and literary, in Weimar Germany. I cannot speak here directly of Josie in the Twenties, when she was so much a part of the new American writing that was emerging in Paris with her friend Hemingway, or of Josie in the early Thirties, when she found expression for all her burning old-fashioned American idealism in identifying herself with, in being right on the spot as a correspondent to report, what then still seemed the old-fashioned Russian idealism, the Negro boys from Scottsboro, the struggling farmers from her native Iowa. She was with Dreiser and Dos Passos when they went down to investigate the terror against the striking Kentucky miners, with the Cuban peasants during the 1935 general strike, with the first victims of Hitler’s terror in those years of the Thirties, before the war, when apparently it took a Socialist experience and imagination to guess the potential horror of what so many bourgeois German Jews could not.

In 1937 Josie was, of course, in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War—and she was really there, steeped in the life of the frontline villages and, typically enough, getting desperately needed rations for her fellow correspondents in the Hotel Florída from her always well-stocked friend Hemingway, from whose room the smell of frying bacon and other goodies would drive less fortunate writers crazy. And during the Second World War, Josie, who needed the job desperately, was of course fired from the O.W.I., then busily mobilizing American opinion against Fascism …

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