When the Tonight Show host Jay Leno was asked why he collected cars, Leno philosophically replied that he was not collecting cars, but rather he was “collecting stories.” This belief is especially true for collectors of historical documents. We collect stories illustrated by autographs; the connection between a tangible piece of writing and the role it played in the world.
This year would be the 101 birthday of Edward R. Murrow. Murrow’s story is spellbinding. He was a trailblazer who set the standard for early radio and television news. His trajectory could not have been predicted as radio and television had not been invented at the time of his birth. But a fateful chain of events would lead Murrow to the pinnacle of these new professions.
Today’s world has been shaped by television news. Yet the early personalities of broadcast news have not received recognition equal to their contributions. One guess to explain this oversight is that we are exposed to re-runs of classic movies and vintage television shows, but we never see replays of pioneering television broadcasts. It’s far easier to remember Lucille Ball and John Wayne than it is to recall the likes of John Cameron Swayze or Douglas Edwards.
Murrow’s imprint was recently portrayed in George Clooney’s 2005 Academy Award-nominated film Good Night, and Good Luck. The film spotlighted Murrow’s courageousness in his fight against the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. Murrow believed in the sanctity of journalistic truth, and his quest against the antics of McCarthy led to the senator’s decline in popularity.
Egbert Roscoe Murrow was born on April 25, 1908 in Greensboro, N.C., and was raised with a strong Quaker upbringing. When he was 6, his family moved to the state of Washington, and Murrow later graduated from Washington State University in 1930 with a degree in speech. College was where he changed his name to his teenage nickname, “Ed.” After inspiring the National Student Federation of America with his 1929 speech on getting people interested in the events of the world, Murrow was elected president of NSFA.
In New York, as an assistant director of the Institute of International Education, Murrow helped coordinate student exchanges to the United States when Europe slowly took a turn toward turmoil. Through this experience Murrow honed his negotiation skills. And, his list of new friends and contacts soared as he traveled the United States and abroad.
Across the Airwaves
In 1935, the neophyte CBS Radio needed to fill its schedule with more programming and established a monthly program called University of the Air. Murrow worked as a booking agent for the program, getting guests like Albert Einstein through his cultivated list of contacts.
In a move to London two years later, Murrow served as CBS’s European Bureau, organizing cultural programs for the network. But the onslaught of World War II changed both Murrow’s role and life forever, inevitably influencing present day television news.
War has an uncanny way of compelling improvisation. When the Nazis marched into Vienna, Austria, in 1938, CBS sent Murrow to report, even though journalism was not his background. In his deep and distinctive voice, Murrow reported on events. His colleague, Richard C. Hottelet, described voice as having a “Churchillian cast.” Murrow had the natural instincts of a journalist, the curious mind that allowed him to probe with intelligent questions and the sensitivity to report on the misery suffered by the average person.
Murrow returned to London and soon gained fame as CBS’s correspondent there. His broadcasts became renowned for his introductory sentence, “This is London.” He reported from rooftops with air raid sirens in the background, rather than from the safety of bomb shelters. His reports were blunt and unreserved as he described the horrors of war.
As war spread, the demand for informing the public grew. Murrow was responsible for hiring a staff of accomplished newsmen, who later came to be known as “Murrow’s Boys.” This esteemed group of journalists included Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood and Richard C. Hottelet—the last surviving member. I spoke with Hottelet, now 91 years old and living in Connecticut, who described Murrow as “A man of unyielding integrity who was driven by a sense of responsibility to provide information that he thought the public should have.”
Hottelet continued, “This was the solid core of what he did. And the people who worked for Murrow followed his example. It was not instruction in journalism that Murrow taught us, but ethics in the profession.”
The intensely private Murrow had reluctantly become a famous man. He went on to host the radio program Hear It Now, a news magazine-style program that reported current events. With the advent of television, the program morphed into See It Now. Murrow firmly believed that television should be used as a tool for the public good. He feared the new medium would become trivialized by banal entertainment. He also feared the influence of advertisers who might try to assert undue editorial influence.
The chain-smoking Murrow was a founding father of the celebrity interview format. As the mid-1950s host of Person to Person, Murrow interviewed a range of celebrities from Fidel Castro to Marlon Brando and Harry S. Truman. The program was atypical of Murrow’s usual serious nature. Some referred to the program as “Murrow light.”
In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Murrow as director of the United States Information Agency. The USIA, which existed from 1953 to 1999, had the goal of influencing foreign audiences from the viewpoint of the United States. Murrow remained in this position until declining health forced him to resign. Murrow, a three-pack-a-day cigarette smoker, succumbed to lung cancer at age 57 on April 27, 1965.
Papers, Handwriting and Autographs
Upon his death, the bulk of Murrow’s journalism-related papers were donated to Tufts University in Medford, Mass., by Murrow’s widow, Janet, and his son, Charles Casey. Murrow’s personal papers were donated to Janet’s alma mater at Mt. Holyoke College. There exists a small amount of Murrow’s papers with the National Archives, due to his service at the USIA, as well as some with CBS.
Susanne Belovari, the archivist for reference and collections at Tufts, told me that other than field notes, there is very little holographic material in the collection. From Murrow’s aesthetically-challenged handwriting, it seems Murrow was self-conscious about his penmanship and preferred the typewriter over his own scrawl.
Casey, Murrow’s only son who now resides in Vermont, informed me that after the donations, there are very little personal papers remaining—handwritten letters of his father’s are rare. In fact, when I asked Casey if he had any handwritten notes that he could share with me, he didn’t have any. According to Casey, what notes he did have from his father were typed and signed, “Dad.”
Casey believes that the typed letters that do exist were signed by Murrow himself. He did not know of any secretary who signed for his father. Murrow had no particular preference of a writing instrument either. He used whatever was conveniently available.
On the radio Murrow was a well-known, but invisible “voice.” Television demolished his anonymity. Casey recalls one incident walking with his father in New York City when a particular fellow grabbed his father and would not let go. The Murrow’s were stuck in the middle of a busy New York City intersection as the traffic light changed. He further recalls his father receiving many requests for his signatures from the mid-1950s until the end of his life. Murrow, according to Casey, would try to avoid such encounters, but still always complied. Murrow found the attention given to him “ridiculous,” but would tolerate it.
Murrow’s handwriting deteriorated even further as he aged, and so did his signature. Earlier Murrow signatures tend to have rounded M’s, which later acquired a sometime labored-squared look. I asked Casey about this particular change and he confirmed that he had noticed this change in his father’s signature as well. And the w at the end of his name often ends with a line extending out from the end of the w—he did not have an abrupt stop.
Many of his letters are signed “Ed.” Murrow signed with a highly stylized E. The E is often a squared block-style on the perimeter with a rounded E within it. The small d sometimes appears as though the upstroke was signed as a straight line downward, with a cupped loop on the bottom when he signed in a slower fashion. In the faster-appearing signed letters, he includes a paraph under “Ed.”
Considering Murrow’s influence on broadcast history, his material can be had at moderate prices. Three ALS’s, regarding the impending war in Europe, were sold by Swann for $800 in March 2001. The price of his TLS’s will vary based on content. Letters relating to World War II, Joseph McCarthy or a scarce handwritten letter are considered of higher value. Signed photos of Murrow are common and can usually be had for a price of $200 and up. Signatures are not rare either, and can be purchased for under $100. With the variances in his signature, due to age and his lack of secretaries used to sign for him, Murrow’s autograph is a seemingly safe one to collect.
In early 2008, Tufts University held an exhibit of Murrow letters and memorabilia in honor of his 100th birthday. The Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts will soon post the exhibit online.
Murrow was a par-setting journalist who should not be forgotten. In the book, The Powers That Be, David Halberstam wrote that Murrow was “one of those rare legendary figures who was as good as his myth.”
Sidebar: Murrow’s Boys
A sub-genre collection to consider is the group of journalists Murrow hired, known as “Murrow’s Boys.” This group of pioneer broadcaster represents not only World War II history, but the transformation period from radio to television news. All can be obtained inexpensively and each have a great story to tell. Along with the last living member, Richard C. hottelet, other members of “Murrow’s Boys” included William L. Shirer, Eric Sevareid, Tom Grandin, Larry LeSueur, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Winston Burdett, Bill Downs, Cecil Brown, and the first female broadcaster for CBS Radio Network, Mary Marvin Breckinridge.