Georgie Geyer covers it all -- from Angola to El Salvador
Washington — Fidel Castro boasted to her that Cuba had as many flavors of ice cream as the ''imperialist tool,'' Howard Johnson's. Col. Muammar Qaddafi confided to her that Libya was in a jungle surrounded by howling wolves. Former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza scolded her for getting him into trouble with his wife over a passage in her book ''The New Latins.'' Anwar Sadat assured her that the Palestine Liberation Organization would not try to assassinate him because ''they know my family.'' PLO leader Yasser Arafat mourned to her in 1977, ''Georgie Anne . . . I am down. I am finished.''
She is Georgie Anne Geyer, who tells all in ''Buying the Night Flight'' (New York, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, $16.95), her new book about her life as a woman foreign correspondent. For instance, it had taken her eight years to get her first interview with Arafat, in 1976. And when they finally met she was surprised: ''For one thing,'' she said, ''he was far less harsh in person than in his pictures. He smiled and laughed easily, his face expressive and his odd, poppish eyes cushioned by the pouches that lay underneath them. There was, of course, the heavyset body, the head scarf or kaffiyeh, and the self-conscious khakis. He looked like a cross between GI Joe and the Buddha.''
Georgie Anne Geyer, who has been a foreign correspondent since the early 1960 s, covers it all, from El Salvador to Angola to Iraq. She has risked her life more than once - but never her deadline - and pulls the reader along in a fascinating book that reads more like a novel than a 331-page dispatch from the front. ''Buying the Night Flight'' is, as they say in the trade, a real page-turner.
The title is from a line of the French writer and flier Antoine de Saint-Exupery: ''There is no buying the night flight, with its hundred thousand stars, its serenity and its moments of sovereignty.'' It was after an interview with one of the hardest men in the world to see, Tareq Aziz, spokesman for Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, that the theme of the book occurred to her. It was 3 a.m. and she was speeding through a red-brown, rocky plain inhabited by fierce Iraqi tribesmen, on her way from Baghdad, Iraq, to Amman, Jordan. Without the foreign correspondents, she realized, ''the world would be without its couriers, not carrying St. Exupery's mail, but conveying messages through the night that at best allowed people to know one another.''
We talked about that, late one violet afternoon as twilight fell on the view of the National Cathedral from her Washington apartment.
She says of foreign correspondents, ''I have felt that we're like couriers between cultures, we're missionaries, we're neutral. . . . It's not an easy age, at any rate, for the foreign correspondent. I would say it's a particularly dangerous age, the most dangerous in modern times.'' Ruth Gruber, the United Press International correspondent, had just been expelled from Poland, and three other foreign correspondents around the world had been detained, questioned, or expelled.
''I think within a broader picture I see this happening all over the world,'' Ms. Geyer said. ''And I see whole countries closing down to us as foreign correspondents and journalists in general. In some ways I see the gates coming down around whole countries and peoples. . . .''
She pauses for a moment. ''I do think . . . of the information as a kind of amulet, a kind of magic I was carrying at times, a little bit overromantic. . . . But the fewer (foreign correspondents) we have - and there are fewer and fewer all the time - the fewer interpretations we have, the fewer analyses. I look at a lot of people as couriers between cultures, not only the journalists, but also the diplomats, the missionaries, the Red Cross workers, the neutrals. It's something I feel very very strongly about,'' says Ms. Geyer, now a syndicated columnist for the Universal Press Syndicate.
Unlike the legendary woman correspondent Dickey Chapelle, who showed up in Santo Domingo wearing marine gear and hiking boots, ''Gee Gee,'' as she's known outside her byline, preferred to wear sun dresses and sandals. More feminine. The day of our interview she lounged around her comfortable apartment in a glittery gray knit sweater with puffed sleeves, muted rainbow paid skirt, white, cable-knit, knee-high socks, and low-heeled persimmon suede pumps. She is a statuesque woman of the world with shoulder-length blond hair, high cheekbones, a wide mouth, and Nordic good looks which are actually German-American. On one finger, a huge turquoise ring, on her ears, hooped earrings of turquoise and white beads. She speaks in a throaty voice with a transatlantic accent:
''One thing I really don't like is the women's 'dress-for-success' syndrome. I feel passionately about that. They're cloning themselves into exactly the kind of little organization men who have given us the depression and the recession and the breakdown in the economy, when we need individualistsm. I like to see women . . . be themselves, dress the way they want. I'm a very proper and mannered person, but I'd like to see women be more individualists.'' She mutters about ''no little ties or anything'' and laughs.
But this question of women retaining their femininity while still doing the job that gains respect is no laughing matter to her. She writes with fervor in ''Buying the Night Flight'':
''I think a lot of women, and I don't want to be critical of them - the ones who sort of become male by taking on male qualities in any profession in order to get to the top - are denying their female qualities just as much as men have denied the value of female qualities. . . . I think the women who in effect have become men in their working habits and in only prizing work in the professional workplace have done exactly what men have done through the centuries, which is to degrade whatever women do.''
Gee Gee Geyer began her career in 1960 when, as Chicago columnist Mike Royko put it in the book's introduction, ''females on newspaper staffs were just as common as snail darters'' except on the woman's page or education beat. She began her 12-year career with the Chicago Daily News as what Royko called ''a tough, determined, brilliant young reporter, cleverly concealed behind an irrepressible smile, apple cheeks, and honey-blond hair.'' The guys all laughed when she said she wanted to be a foreign correspondent. She got her first major scoop dressed as a waitress named Irene Hill to cover a big Mafia wedding at a local country club; the story ran on Page 1 with the lead: ''The mob went to a party and I went along for the ride.''
But soon she was going along for the ride to Latin America, on a Seymour Berkson Foreign Assignment Grant, tracking underground guerrillas in Guatemala to their mountain lair. In the riveting first chapter of her book, ''To Die in Guatemala,'' she writes of the harrowing trip, clawing her way up the mountains at night for the interview on the Guatemalan revolution which was printed around the world. The story also netted her an attempt on her life by the Mano Blanco, or White Hand, a rightist assassination squad in Guatemala. Her chilling account of this is only one of several very serious escapes she's had as a foreign correspondent: outwitting the Marxist interrogators in Angola who had arrested her as a spy and taken her to a seaside prison; capture by Arabs in Baghdad who mistook her for a blond Israeli commando leader.
It's all a far cry from the life she was born into as the daughter of a prosperous dairy owner on Chicago's South Side, with a loving mother who nurtured her curiosity about life and a father who embodied the German work ethic.
As a 16-year-old college freshman she took her first step toward the front page, enrolling in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. On graduation in 1956, she won a Fullbright scholarship for a year's study at the University of Vienna and has since won several major journalistic awards, among them: the Overseas Press Club award for her Latin American coverage and the Maria Moors Cabot Award, the oldest international prize in journalism. The author of three other books, she is also a free-lance magazine writer and appears on TV programs like ''Meet the Press'' and ''Washington Week in Review.''
It sounds as though she's got it all. Not so, says Ms. Geyer, with a flicker of regret. She says it is not realistic to believe you can have it all and still be a foreign correspondent, woman or man. Her book touches on some of the romantic episodes in her life, and her close brushes with marriage. But so far she has chosen not to marry. ''If I had any answer, I'd have more than a cat,'' she says with a rueful laugh. ''I used to think there was an answer. I sort of went along thinking every year, 'I'll get married next year, next year I'll have children, and there's a man out there that I'll love who will not mind if I travel two or three months a year.' And then at a certain point about four years ago I began to suspect [not]. . . . I'm not saying . . . that virtually all of it was not my own choice, because it was. And I think that's a real step of affirmation for a woman when you understand that you made the choices so you don't feel, as my mother's generation taught us, that women who weren't 'chosen' weren't wanted, and things like that.''
This woman living a life that sounds like a movie scenario has brought her world back with her into her home. Her condo in Washington's Foggy Bottom area is vibrant and eclectic: a large living room lit with lots of orange - orange and scarlet woven drapes framing a wall-size window on Washington, a huge orange couch flung with exotic pillows of all colors from around the world, and walls filled with her collection of primitive paintings and sculpture as well as other art. It is the sort of lively apartment you'd expect from a woman with a lot of joie de vivrem, who loves swimming and water skiing, dancing, cooking, entertaining, fables, tales, and riddles, and archaeological digs. Even when she's covering a war, she says, she takes an afternoon off to see the local ruins.
Yet in interviews she does not seize the subject, like Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, and shake out the provocative quotes. Hers is not the confrontational style. (She would never, as Ms. Fallaci did in an interview with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, rip off the long black chador he'd insisted she wear and fling it at his feet, shouting, ''I'm going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now!'')
In her book Gee Gee says, ''Let me admit right off that I would like to be like Oriana Fallaci. I would like to spin in on them, crashing the door behind me, and say, 'All right, Anwar, why don't you wipe out Qadaffi?' But I would not be capable of working that way. . . . I work, rather, in what I call the 'absorptive' style. I go into 'his' office and sit there. I am sympathetic. I may well look a little pathetic. I present 'him' with a vacuum and he virtually always fills it. . . . Men tend to open up and reveal themselves if you present them with a proper psychological presence, particularly a feminine one.''
Of course, to ask the crucial interview questions she has immersed herself in her subject beforehand, as part of a continuing study of countries and leaders that includes wide reading, thick files, continuing dialogues with experts over lunch and dinner, and long-distance calls. ''Mine's more of a flowing, ongoing conversation with the world'' rather than a star turn, is the way she characterizes it. And in those interviews she has two disarming quirks: If taking notes, she uses notebooks with covers full of rainbows and Cheshire cats. As she says, who could take that interviewer seriously? If she's not taking notes, subject beware: Gee Gee Geyer has perfected a freeze-dried memory that can retain the major quotations in any interview verbatim for up to three days.
She worked on the book on the run, snatching a few hours in Baghdad, reworking it in Oman; lost a chapter in Caracas, where she'd stopped for a hamburger in a cafe; and had to write it all over again. In the book and in person she reflects now on the changes she's seen in foreign coverage since she first began writing on Latin America in the 1960s. She talks about the change in emphasis from a more typically masculine political score-keeping to a more feminine cultural analysis. In the early '60s she says the public's interest in reading about Latin America was low, because ''it was all the NMR party did this to the RKV and the PSB took over this election, and nobody knew . . . what was happening, you couldn't figure it out.'' But she chose to write about the social forces that were bringing the cholos down from the Andes into the cities. She went up the Amazon, seeing the tribes as well as the guerrillas and presidents.
She believes that women have much to bring to journalism; women can listen better, and are at their best in dealing with the motives of their subjects, she says. ''Virtually none of the male correspondents I've ever known - and they've been magnificent foreign correspondents - think of anything but the most cut-and-dried political issues. . . . It's all in terms of the gamesmanship, who's going to do what to whom. Women, I think, are interested in it all, interested in motivation, and in the flows of history . . . men don't tend to figure out the motivation. I think women are more attuned to that . . . because we're the dependent sex, and dependent peoples always have to watch more carefully.'' She laughs softly.
''I think this cultural analysis is more of a female awareness and is becoming the norm. And I think it is not only for Latin America . . . I don't think it's just the influence of female reporters, I think it's one of the watershed changes in journalism.''