George Seldes papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Henry George Seldes was born November 16, 1890 (officially recorded as September 10, 1890) to Jewish Russian émigrés George Sergius and Anna Verna Saphro Seldes in Alliance, New Jersey. His father named his first son after his hero, economist Henry George, but told the child he could place the names in whatever order he chose. The first name of George was chosen by the age of 5, as listed on the New Jersey 1895 census. George and his brother Gilbert were left in the care of their grandparents and aunt after their mother died in 1896, and their father went to Philadelphia to work as a pharmacist. He later remarried and moved to Pittsburgh. George soon followed, as his father wanted him to have his senior year of high school in a big city. The high school in Pittsburgh asked George to repeat his junior year, but he rebelled and dropped out. He went to work for his father as a soda jerk and eventually an assistant pharmacist.
Acting on his junior high dream of becoming a writer, Seldes walked into the offices of the Pittsburgh Leader and asked for a job in February 1909. The city editor, Houston Eagle, hired him for $3.50 a week. Eagle gave Seldes lessons in memory since reporters considered simultaneous note taking invasive. Reporters at the time would remember what a speaker said and write it down later. Eagle assigned Seldes to the police court beat, where Seldes initial disillusion with the press began when one of his stories was censored and suppressed. The copyreaders had removed the name of the company whose driver had been in an accident.
Seldes left the Pittsburgh Leader for the Pittsburgh Post after they offered him two dollars more a week. He took a one year leave of absence from the Post in 1912 to complete independent studies in literature at Harvard University. He returned to the Post where he was relegated to the copy desk and later, night editor. He moved to New York to freelance for a brief period before accepting a position with the United Press in London.
Seldes enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was accredited with the American Expeditionary Forces, Section G-2D, Press Division in May 1918. Seldes covered the war for the Marshall Syndicate. After the armistice, Seldes and fellow correspondents, Herbert Corey, Lincoln Eyre, Cal Lyon and Fred A. Smith, defied military orders and crossed the German border. They landed their biggest scoop by securing an interview with German General Paul von Hindenburg, Chief of the General Staff, who was in charge of demobilization. The reporters asked Hindenburg what was responsible for the German defeat, to which he responded, the Americans. The rogue reporters faced a court martial upon their return but a presidential advisor intervened and their stories were embargoed for six months instead. Seldes firmly believed if their interview had been published, World War II might not have happened.
After the war, Seldes began working for the Chicago Tribune as their Berlin Bureau Chief. He crisscrossed Europe covering various humanitarian and political crises. His determination to get the truth out resulted in his expulsion from Russia and Italy. After covering the war in Syria, he took a year long leave of absence in 1926 to recover from a recurring bout of malaria and ulcers. He was sent to Mexico in 1927 where he wrote 20 articles on a variety of topics including mineral rights, land reform and Catholicism, 10 from the American viewpoint and 10 from the Mexican viewpoint. He returned to Europe but became disillusioned after learning the Tribune only printed the articles from the American viewpoint. Considering this a form of censorship, he resigned from the Tribune on December 31, 1928, to pursue a freelance career. He spent the next decade writing about his experiences in Europe and criticizing corporate America, focusing on newspaper publishers. It was during this time that he met his wife, Helen Larkin Wiesman, whom he married in 1932.
George and Helen returned to the U.S. after covering the war in Spain for the New York Post and Philadelphia Record. George then went on to serve as a writer and editor for the short-lived Ken magazine. After Ken's demise, George turned his attention to starting a bi-weekly newsletter on the advice of his neighbor and colleague, Bruce Minton. Seldes and Minton each contributed $1,000.00 to starting the newsletter Helen named In Fact in 1940. It was devoted to exposing falsehoods in the daily press and would be financed through subscriptions alone. Seldes strongly believed advertisements were the most corrupting force in journalism. At its peak, In Fact had 167,000 subscribers but it was universally attacked from the start. Seldes contends it was the never-ending redbaiting attacks from newspapers and magazines that frightened away the majority of subscribers, and financially forced its suspension in 1950. Seldes received a subpoena to appear before Joseph McCarthy's Senate subcommittee in 1953 where he vehemently denied he was a member of the Communist Party. The subcommittee eventually cleared Seldes but it took many years for his reputation to recover. While Seldes had hoped to resume publication of In Fact in the future, that hope was never realized.
Seldes continued to write, submitting articles to other publications and publishing books during the rest of his life. He was finally acknowledged for his role in journalism in 1980 when the Association for the Education in Journalism presented him with an award for professional excellence and in 1981, he was a recipient of the George Polk Awards in Journalism, Career Award.
Seldes died on July 2, 1995 at the age of 104. Helen passed away from a rare blood condition in 1979.
Seldes' crusade to expose the corruption of the press is documented throughout this collection of correspondence, articles, newspaper clippings, typescripts, drafts, notes, financial information, legal documents, press releases, photographs, and audiovisual material. Researchers should note that Seldes used his files for research and moved items from folder to folder. Seldes also typed notes of events after the fact. Folder dates reflect the date the material was produced, not the date of the subject matter and a large portion of items are undated. Seldes had a habit of utilizing every scrap of paper available to him. Notes are typed on the reverse side of letters, typescripts, etc. He would also type off the edge of the page, cut out paragraphs from the middle of a page, and fail to date items. Researchers should also be aware that a subject matter with its own folder does not preclude it from being found in a general folder. For example, Mussolini has his own folder in several series but items are also found under Italy in various series as well. The folder titles are Seldes's original file titles and the language should be considered in the context of the time in which the files were created by Seldes. Since the collection contains a voluminous amount of newspaper clippings, most clippings were moved to the back of the folder and are divided by a sheet of acid free paper. Researchers should also handle the material with care as there is brittle paper throughout the collection and damaged newspaper clippings were replaced with copies obtained from ProQuest historical newspapers [electronic resource].
Researchers will find that Seldes collected similar material for many different projects and therefore, there is significant overlap of topics across series. It is recommended that researchers perform keyword searches across this finding aid to make certain that they have located all relevant files. Similarly, browsing through the entire collection inventory may be useful as Seldes slightly altered terminology in his folder titles.
The bulk of the material is in English but a small amount is in Arabic, French, German, Italian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.
The collection is arranged in eight series: I. Correspondence; II. Biographical: III. In Fact; IV. Writings; V. Press and press corruption; VI. Research, VII. Audio-visual; and VIII. Clippings. The material is arranged alphabetically and chronologically thereunder, unless otherwise noted.
Gift of George Seldes, 1955, 1957, 1968, 1970 and 1995. Audiovisual material was purchased from Vermillion Films in 2016.
This finding aid contains original creator-supplied titles. Original folder titles may include outdated and/or harmful descriptive language. Original folder titles have been maintained to preserve the original context of how the creator labeled their files.
- Seldes, Marian
- Seldes, Timothy, 1925-2015
- Bessie, Alvah Cecil, 1904-1985
- Goldman, Emma, 1869-1940
- MacDougall, Curtis Daniel,, 1903-1985
- Mowrer, Richard Scott
- Schultz, Sigrid Lillian
- Sinclair, Upton
- James, Edwin L., 1890-1951
- Lewis, Fulton, Fulton, 1903-1966
- Seldes, Gilbert
- Hentoff, Nat
- Weingarten, Victor
- Journalists--United States
- Press and politics -- United States -- History -- 20th century
- Fake news
- Press and propaganda
- Press -- United States
- Freedom of the press
- World politics
- United States -- Politics and government
- Press criticism
- World War, 1914-1918
- Communism--United States--History--20th century
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Kristine McGee
- Finding Aid Date
- 2022 May 2
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. As of 2020, permission to quote Seldes's works should be directed to Massie and McQuilkin.