Front Woman – Frank McNally on a pioneering war correspondent, Maggie Higgins

After Korea, she went to Moscow, the first American correspondent allowed into the post-Stalin USSR

Among the mostly male and typically grim faces in the exhibits of a war museum near the Korean border, there is a strikingly female one, smiling broadly.

Glamorous and beautiful, but wearing military fatigues, the woman could be a Hollywood star, on a morale-boosting visit to the troops.

In fact, she was a journalist, embedded with the US army, whose fearless dispatches from Korea in 1950 made her the first ever female winner of a Pulitzer prize for foreign correspondence.

Californian by upbringing (although born in Hong Kong), Maggie Higgins inherited some of her good looks, and all her attraction to war zones, from her father.


As described in her autobiography, Lawrence Daniel Higgins was “a tall handsome Irishman whose early manhood was marked by a striking resemblance to Charles Lindbergh”.

She recalled: “In my father’s telling and retelling of his exploits as a World War I ambulance driver (he volunteered for the French army at 17) and later as a flier, it became apparent [he was] escaping the flabby routine of his petty bourgeois life in Oakland, California, a city noted for neither character nor excitement”.

Again and again, she watched his eyes “shine with emotion . . . as he talked of the days on the Marne, of the Rhine, of the flights over the line, and of Paris. Always of Paris.” The only time he had appeared “unqualifiedly cheerful”, she added, “was during the Second World War when he rejoined the Air Force.”

The other half of her DNA came from an aristocratic mother, Marguerite de Godard, who was “possessed of the Frenchwoman’s love of le grand drame” and with whom her father had a turbulent relationship. After returning from Hong Kong in time to lose their savings in the 1929 Crash, the family lived in genteel Californian poverty.

But as one of the perks of a teaching job, Marguerite secured her daughter a place at Anna Head School, a rich private establishment in Berkeley, the first of a series of scholarships that gave her a good education.

Berkeley University followed, and later Columbia in New York, a city she travelled to in 1941 “with a suitcase and $7″.

When she tried to break into journalism, however, the quality of her education was a stigma that required hiding.

“City editors had an unfortunate tendency to prefer individuals toughened since high school days by the experience of police beats and district reporting,” she wrote. “In the anxious time of job hunting, I learned among other things never to mention the cum laude after my degree . . .”

But she braved the usual fearsome news editor to get her foot in the door at the Herald Tribune and three years late became its war correspondent in Europe. After spells in London and Paris, she was posted to Germany in time to witness the liberation of Dachau.

In Korea, she first had to fight the US army, a general of which had banned women reporters. She went over his head and appealed directly to Douglas MacArthur, who rescinded the rule.

Later she also had to face down a more senior Tribune correspondent, Homer Bigart, who arrived to cover the conflict and ordered her back to the bureau in Tokyo.

Higgins refused to leave, however, and she and Bigart somehow partitioned Korean between them, a fierce rivalry driving both to a share of the 1951 Pulitzer.

After Korea, she went to Moscow, the first American correspondent allowed into the post-Stalin USSR.

Later, when JFK became US president, she had a direct line to the White House. He once berated her for writing a negative, late-breaking story without seeking his reaction.

“But it was 11pm”, she explained, to which he responded that if she was planning to write about him on the Tribune’s front page, “you can roll me out at three in the morning”.

By then, rivals at the Washington desk of the New York Times were joking about the daily “Maggie Higgins Hour”, circa 9pm, when they had to follow-up on her latest scoop.

Although little over 40, Higgins went to Vietnam in 1963, now working for Newsday, as a veteran correspondent.

Again, she found herself feuding with a man, this time the representative of a younger generation, David Halberstam of the New York Times. And their differences were in part ideological.

Like many at home, Halberstam was sceptical about American involvement. Whereas in his eyes, at least, Higgins was so deeply embedded in old-school anti-communist sentiment that her reportage was mere propaganda.

Vietnam proved her ultimate undoing, but not in the way she might have feared. For a reporter who took many risks to break stories, ironically, it was the malaria contracted in a Hong Kong infancy that prefigured her demise.

Her parents had brought the baby Higgins to a Vietnamese mountain resort to recover. Decades later, on assignment in Vietnam in late 1965, she caught another insect-borne disease, leishmaniasis. She flew home for treatment but died in Washington on January 3rd, 1966, aged only 45.