Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson was the only female member of the original generation of CBS Radio war correspondents known as “The Murrow Boys.” A photojournalist and cinematographer, she studied French, German, Italian, and modern history at Vassar College. While there, she also helped found the National Student Federation of America, and in that way met Edward R. Murrow.
Travelling to Europe in 1939 on photojournalism assignments, Breckinridge was in Switzerland when the Nazis invaded Poland, starting World War II. She traveled to London to photograph the evacuation of English children, one of only four American photographers in England for the first months of the war. In November, Edward R. Murrow invited Breckinridge to join him in a CBS radio broadcast about the changes the war had brought to English villages, and then others. Urging her to speak in a deep voice while broadcasting, he hired her as the first female news broadcaster for the CBS World News Roundup to report from Europe.
She ended up broadcasting 50 reports from seven countries and became part of The Murrow Boys, a group of scholarly correspondents that Murrow assembled before and during the war. Only eleven were in the group, including legendary reporters Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, and Howard K. Smith, as well as Breckinridge.
While working in Berlin, she married Foreign Service Officer Jefferson Patterson. She resigned from CBS, hoping to resume her career in photojournalism, but the State Department would not waive its regulation censoring anything a diplomat’s spouse offered for publication. The couple was posted in Peru, Belgium, Egypt, the Balkans and Uruguay.
These excerpts were taken from a speech to the Society of Women Geographers in 1986.
“Excuse me, miss, there’s an air raid on. Will you please come down to the shelter?”
MARY MARVIN BRECKINRIDGE PATTERSON: In 1936 1 was elected to the Society of Women Geographers, and thanks to the work of an archivist, sent by the National Archives, I have found the original letter. It was on assignment for Town and Country to cover the Lucerne Music Festival, to be followed by the Nazi rally in Nuremberg for Life, that the Germans marched into Poland and all plans were changed.
The music festival was cancelled. The Nazi rally was cancelled, and I went to London. It was 1939… I traveled to London with an English girl who luckily had an uncle on the board [of directors] of the Savoy Hotel, so we stayed there at the minimum rate.
It was already blacked out when we arrived late on the eve of the declaration of war. The following night there were enemy planes over England and we feared a damaging raid. The hall porter came along the corridor, knocked on our doors, and said politely, “Excuse me, miss, there’s an air raid on. Will you please come down to the shelter?”
It was in the basement in the Abraham Lincoln room, neatly protected with piled sand bags. I made a photograph of the hotel guests in their night clothes, which appeared in Life (seen right). It was the first picture taken in an air raid shelter.
My agent, Black Star, had its original office in Fleet Street and were glad to see me turn up, as their English photographers, all men, had been mobilized and the German and Austrian refugees were considered aliens and therefore not allowed to carry cameras. After I’d done several picture stories, I was dining one night with my friends, Ed and Janet Murrow.
Ed was interested in stories I had done on “An English Village Prepares for War” and on children from the slums who were evacuated to the country. He asked if I would come on the air with him Saturday night to talk about them, and I said, “Yes,” thinking that my parents, then in California, would be relieved to hear their daughter’s voice.
I never thought then that that chance conversation at dinner would lead me into a new career, broadcasting.
I have two bracelets, really dog tags, to show: one with Black Star address and one with CBS. I spoke from seven European countries on the World News Roundup program for CBS, a program which is still going on. I believe I’m the only person to have broadcast from all three great capitals, London, Paris and Berlin, during the war.
Before leaving London for Amsterdam on a blacked-out plane, I bought a trench coat and left my best clothes with Janet Murrow along with my grandmother’s ring to give to my niece in case I didn’t get back.
It was early December 1939, the period of the “phony war” as they called it, and I asked Ed Murrow: if the war was still phony, could I return to spend Christmas with my English cousins?
He said, “Yes.”
I didn’t get back for six years.
“Have seen antiaircraft shells explode over Hague”
In early 1940 I proceeded from Amsterdam to Berlin. The train was crowded so I had to ride for several hours on the enclosed platform, wedged in by people so closely that the sleeve of my trench coat froze onto the window. The station in Berlin was rather torn up so I was glad that Bill Shirer came to meet me to help with my luggage, a suitcase, dressing case, typewriter and camera.
He took me by taxi to the Adlon Hotel (seen left) where I stayed with a lovely expense account and good central heating to keep the foreign journalist comfortable and happy. About a month later CBS asked me for a cable saying what I was doing there. I didn’t know what to say, but this is what I did say:
“Addressed to Columbia, New York: Just returned from Augmont in German plane usually used by Nazi chiefs, now carrying four foreign journalists and German radio people STOP
Believe I’m only women ever invited German junket and only person besides Cruz seeing prisoners quarters and photographing ship there STOP
Terrible blizzard necessitated 25 hours for 80 mile automobile trip with German diplomat, radiator radio operator, Norwegian driver STOP
Have had two hot meals since Friday otherwise mainly real coffee and bread STOP…
Am only woman or journalist ever allowed Allied prison camp. Joked with high-spirited British pilots, talked with men during exhausting 21- hour day. I’ve had several such lately but always interesting even when I’m uncomfortable STOP (Edward R. Murrow is seen at right, in March 1941)
Greatest trial, cold feet, physical, not psychological, now partly corrected by Norwegian feminine rubber boots STOP
Trench coat, red hat also standard equipment, waves, manicures still sufficiently available thank heaven STOP
Have been within 100 yards French-German frontier in Luxembourg where informal censorship consisted reading English script aloud in French to Prime Minister STOP
Luxembourg only country where censor removed nothing STOP
Am learning various censor’s rules. Writing text takes longer, especially here STOP
Have seen antiaircraft shells explode over Hague, climbed highest point Holland edge frontier in raging snowstorm saw nothing, damn it STOP
Explored slums and visited … in Ireland STOP
Investigated evacuated government office English university town STOP
Sewed splits in air raid shelter and packed biscuits for evacuated children STOP
While collecting material have traveled by plane, train, boat, tug boat, bicycle, bus, ice skates, taxi, horse cab, shanks mare STOP
Instead sports outfit and evening dress traveling essentials Germany are steamer rug, food, soap STOP
Have broadcast from London sub-basement, Dublin post office attic, modernistic clock-less studio, Luxembourg derelict unfinished building on battlements Berlin jerry-built wooden building in vacant lot Savannah small pea green house STOP
Miss my nice family and American newspapers but otherwise enjoy unique original job
How’s that? STOP Breckinridge.”
In the cable I referred to the ship Altmark. For those who don’t remember 1940 as clearly as I do, having lived it, let me explain that the German ship Altmark was a combination freighter/tanker which had aboard 303 British seamen from ships that had been sunk by the Graf Spee, a famous submarine.
It was traveling illegally within the waters of neutral Norway when a British ship accosted it and rescued all the prisoners. The Germans were furious. They thought that the British had behaved very badly to invade the neutral waters of Norway, not realizing that it was their invasion that brought them.
“I asked him, ‘What would you do if the Germans should invade Holland?’ He said he would sit with folded arms”
I was very fortunate. I was in Berlin in at the time. In fact, I was at an evening party, which was a rare thing to have, when the Propaganda Minister came and asked if I would go early the next morning to Stavanna to cover the story.
They wanted an American. They thought the story was in their favor. The rest of the world didn’t, but I was glad for the ride and went off. They would have had a man if they could find one, but there weren’t any other American journalists handy.
There were only, I think, two or three others, and only one other broadcasting. So I went off with them, went over the Sky … on the way to Denmark in this plane with a great big swastika all over the side.
The others were all men, including an Argentine who was there to speak Spanish — somebody wrote his stuff for him, but he had to speak it with the right accent — and there were three or four Germans.
Spent the night in Copenhagen, because there was a terrible snowstorm — and enjoyed the chocolate and the whipped cream, that was great. And then on to Stavanna . . .
One of my stories was an interview with Anton Mussert (seen left), who was known as the Dutch Quisling. He was a Dutchman, but he was very pro-Nazi. He was clever enough to have a house with a yard that extended into Germany. So when the invasion came, he just ran across the garden and was safe.
I think they caught up with him later. However, I was allowed to do an interview with him on condition that I show my script to his right-hand man for any corrections. It was in that script that he said, when I asked him, “What would you do if the Germans should invade Holland?” He said, “He would sit with folded arms”. . .
That delighted the Dutch because they could have caught him, and it was approved by his lieutenant. It could not be heard in Europe, but it was heard all over America – I think 49 million people that listened to the story. And, of course, the Dutch diplomats caught it there, and so they were ready for Mussert.
“’When is the invasion coming?’ was the question”
It raised questions in parliament, and they were so pleased at showing him up, they invited me to go on the cruiser Sumatra (seen right) patrolling the coast of Holland. We went with two or three other journalists, foreign journalists. We went to Rotterdam, and walked up the gangplank to the ship, and they showed us the fortifications, and how the big guns went up and turned, and where things were.
I was told that I was the only woman, except the Queen, who had ever been on a Dutch navy vessel on duty — not at a party, but on duty. When we got back toward Rotterdam, the captain asked, very politely, if we minded being sent ashore in a tender.
Of course, we didn’t mind, we were guests of the Navy. We got there and picked up the newspapers on our way to Amsterdam, saying there was another period of tension — they had had several before.
“When is the invasion coming?” was the question. Actually, I was going to Paris at that time, but I’d put it off one day — I told Jeff [Jeffrey Patterson, her fiancé] that I was going to a party. There was no party. [It was the] HNLMS Sumatra; it was a big cruiser.
The Sumatra did not get back to land until after the war was over. They were sent from there to the East Indies to protect them. And those nice men that we had lunch with didn’t get home to wives and the children for supper that night.
We were lucky we did. Next I went to Paris, and it was the last train that got through because the following day it was broken in Brussels by the invasion.
I stayed in Paris for a few weeks. Eric Sevareid (at left) was very glad to see me. His wife had just had twins in the hospital a few days before and he was trying to get her on the last American ship to leave. And Tom Grandin’s wife was pregnant and he planned to get her to safety.
I could take one show a day off their schedule, so they were glad to have me around. Then I had to judge for myself — I had already told Ed Murrow that I was resigning to be married, but when should I leave Paris?
Well, actually, I got on the train on a very lucky day because it was the last train that got through to Genoa, and there were the barbed-wired fences at the borders, that sort of thing.
We stayed in a very nice hotel in a very dangerous place, right on the edge of the sea and a harbor, and the hill behind it was a munitions dump, a storage place. Behind it was the station, a very good place for bombing raids.
I went to the air raid shelter once, but I didn’t like the fleas so I never went back. I would rather stay up in my room with a gorgeous view, and here was the last American ship below me, the Exochorda, a neutral ship. It was loading to go back to the States.
It had an enormous American flag painted all over the side. It was just like the Star Spangled Banner, with the rockets’ red glare…the British had staged a raid, not an air raid, but just as by sea, while we were there.
I could watch the ships, and they were sounding off — The rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
“The less we hear from Foreign Service Officers and their wives, the better we like it”
“Jeff” was Jefferson Patterson, a Foreign Service Officer, whom I had met in Washington, and we renewed acquaintance when I got to Berlin. He took me to the opera, and took me to lunch, and we had a very nice time. (The two are at right.)
One time he took me out to the broadcasting studio at 1:00 a.m. in his car, which was a nice change from the subway. Just before we left Berlin we became engaged, and we had to be rather careful since I was on both sides of the war. I had to move around.
But when I came back, having told Ed Murrow two or three months before I was leaving CBS to get married, I arrived in Berlin. And this time he met me, of course.
A few days later we were married in the Ambassador’s study of the Blücher Palace, which was our chancery, by the only American minister left in Germany.
He was a Lutheran, a very fine person.
I only invited six or eight of my journalist friends from abroad, and Jeff invited a few friends from the Embassy. Of course, no family could be there, and no close friends because of war traveling.
I had had made in Paris a French blue dress with white embroidery and red, and a narrow red and white belt. Bleu et rouge et blanc, and that was my wedding dress. I picked up a hat and some shoes in Italy. That worked out all right.
My mother said it was the only wedding she ever heard of where the groom gave the wedding. Me with only a camera and a typewriter and one suitcase couldn’t do very much about it. But Jeff, with connections, could bring in food from Denmark through our Legation, so we had some refreshment…
And right after the ceremony, he and I could both go into the Minister’s study and call up America. It was about the only place you could call internationally, at that time. It went very well. But the one thing that disappointed me was that I was no longer allowed to publish photographs, or to broadcast, by the State Department.
In fact, the Under Secretary of State said, “The less we hear from Foreign Service Officers and their wives, the better we like it.” So they shut me up. They put it in nicer language, but that’s what happened. And that finished my career in broadcasting.