A blurb in the Hebrew edition of Robert St. John's biography of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, described the author, an American journalist, as follows: "By his appearance, the man with the obviously Christian name, looks more like a Jewish rabbi than a Christian saint." There were those who said he memorized 12 volumes of a Jewish encyclopedia. Last Thursday, he died at the age of 100.
St. John was a reporter of the kind that only Hollywood legend could craft, with a fantastic memory, burning ambition, bulging coat, pen, paper, and a bottle of whiskey; a star reporter who hopped from one end of the world to the other for 70 years, always rushing to the next story in which he totally immersed himself with unparalleled industriousness and thoroughness. In photographs, his bearded visage appears hunched over a microphone or typewriter.
At the start of his career, St. John was beaten senseless by Al Capone's gangsters: Capone offered to compensate him with a $1,000 bill that he pulled out of his pocket. St. John turned it down. He was the first journalist to report to the world about the end of World War II, which he covered as a military correspondent, as well as the first to report on the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Prior to that time, he was injured in the leg during a Luftwaffe attack on Greece, covered the German invasion of Romania and Bulgaria, and reported from the rooftops of London under attack, competing with CBS network correspondent Edward R. Murrow. During the war, St. John also concealed a Jewish family in his apartment in Romania.
He was born in Chicago in 1902 and was a classmate of Ernest Hemingway. Apparently, their composition teacher had abnormally high standards - the two were both told that they were not graced with any literary talent. He was expelled from Trinity College in Hartford, CT, after unflattering articles that he had written about the administration shocked the conservative institution. He managed to see action in World War I while serving as a sailor in the U.S. Navy after falsifying his age. He started his career as a professional journalist as a municipal correspondent and later became a political correspondent. He then retired for six years to work in agriculture. In the 1930s he returned to journalism, serving as a military correspondent in Europe for the Associated Press in Budapest.
At 40, he published his first book, about Yugoslavia, which became a bestseller. From the London blitz he returned, injured, to New York, where he covered the progress of the war for NBC radio. When he broadcast the report on the invasion of the Allies, he stayed by the microphone for 117 consecutive hours. In 1950, during the Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witch-hunt however, he was fired from his job due to suspected leftist sympathies, even though he was vehemently anti-Communist.
He moved to Switzerland and worked as a freelance journalist, lecturer and expert on Middle East affairs. Occasionally, he broadcast special radio programs and concentrated on writing documentary books. All told, he wrote 22 books, eight of them dealing with the Middle East, including biographies of Ben-Gurion, the later Israeli diplomat Abba Eban and former Egyptian president Gamal Nasser.
He reported to the print and broadcast media on the establishment of the state, and was a military correspondent in Israel during the War of Independence, the Sinai campaign and the Yom Kippur War.
He continued to work till later in life, and at the age of 80, he covered the Lebanon War, always ready to relate to the more atrocious aspects of that conflict.
He was an ardent Zionist and a friend of the state's great leaders, but he was also an honorary citizen of Abu Ghosh. "I got to know first hand the greatest leaders and the greatest bastards of the 20th century," he said. Among all of those people, five left the greatest impression on him: Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Ben-Gurion and Helen Keller.
Beside his bed when he died laid the uncompleted manuscript of a new book on which he was working.