Virginia Cowles

Virginia Cowles
Born Harriet Virginia Spencer
(1910-08-24)August 24, 1910
Brattleboro, Vermont, USA
Died September 17, 1983(1983-09-17) (aged 71)
southwest France (Near Biarritz)
Occupation war correspondent, author
Nationality American
Period 1930–1983
Genre War, travel, biography
Spouse Aidan Crawley (1945-1983)

(Harriet) Virginia Spencer Cowles OBE (August 24, 1910[1] – September 17, 1983,[2]) was a noted American journalist, biographer, and travel writer. During her long career, Cowles went from covering fashion, to covering the Spanish Civil War, the turbulent period in Europe leading up to World War II, and the entire war. Her service as a correspondent was recognized by the British government with an OBE in 1947. After the war, she published a number of critically acclaimed biographies of historical figures. In 1983, while traveling with her husband, she was killed in an automobile accident which left him severely injured.

Early life

Cowles was born in 1910 in Brattleboro, Vermont to Dr. Edward Spencer Cowles and his wife Florence Wolcott Cowles, née Jacquith. In the 1930s, she started to work as a journalist in the United States. After first working on the gossip columns of Boston and New York newspapers - for which she wrote mainly about fashion, love and society - she moved to foreign reporting.

Spanish Civil War

Cowles went to Spain in 1936, with the intention becoming a war correspondent, despite her relaitve youth and lack of experience. Her coverage from Spain was notably different from that of many of her contemporaries like Martha Gellhorn (a staunch supporter of the Republican cause)[3]) in that she was determined to cover the war from both sides. Some of her most notable reporting came from Nationalist sources, such as her interview with Pepe Quintanilla the chief executioner of Madrid. She reported on the Spanish Civil War for the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times, and the Hearst newspapers.

Cowles' first book, published in early 1941, Looking For Trouble,[4] details both her experiences in the war, and the small community of foreign war correspondents that developed there, which included Hemingway, Gelhorn and others who would go on to cover World War II. Cowles wrote the book to convey her belief that America should enter World War II. She included in it her telling account of claustrophobia at a Nuremberg Rally, and her experience of Hitler's diminishment as he left the stand:”his small figure suddenly became drab and unimpressive. You had to pinch yourself to realize that this was the man on whom the eyes of the world were riveted; that he alone held the lightening in his hands”.[5]

World War II

After leaving Spain, Cowles reported from all over Europe, shuttling between Russia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Finland, and France during 1939 and 1940. For the Sunday Times, she reported on the Winter War, before returning to England in 1940 after the fall of France.[6] She witnessed the first day of The Blitz,[7] and continued to report on the Battle of Britain throughout, writing from Dover how “You knew the fate of civilization was being decided fifteen thousand feet above your head in a world of sun, wind and sky”.[8]

From 1942 to 1943 she worked for John G. Winant, the American Ambassador in London. For the Sunday Times and the Chicago Sun she reported on the North African Campaign. Cowles missed journalism and returned to reporting, from Italy and France in 1944-45.[9]

Later career

In the following four decades Cowles achieved considerable commercial success with a long series of political individual and family biographies. Critics often complained about the lack of sharpness and reliability of her historical analysis, but praised the accuracy of her insight into humanity. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1947.

Personal life

In 1945, Cowles married Aidan Crawley, MBE (10 April 1908 Benenden, Kent – 3 November 1993 Banbury, Oxfordshire), British journalist, television executive and editor, and politician.[10] They had three children; two sons and a daughter.[11]

Cowles was killed in an automobile accident in 1983, in the car her husband was driving.[12]


Selected Books


Cowles co-authored the play with friend and colleague Martha Gelhorn. Play is about a group of war correspondents on the Italian front. Cowles met Gelhorn, a former wife of Ernest Hemingway, while the two women were covering the Spanish Civil War.


Contributor of articles to various periodicals and magazines, including Vogue, Harper's, and The American Mercury.

See also



  1. "Vermont Vital Records".
  2. Contemporary Authors sketch by Margaret Mazurkiewicz Thomson Gale, 2004. ISBN 9780787678821
  3. Sorel, Nancy Caldwell (1999). The Women Who Wrote the War. New York, New York: Arcade Publishing. pp. 32–33.
  4. «Days of wine and shrapnel», Caroline Moorehead, The Spectator 11 September 2010 |
  5. Quoted in R. J. Overy, The Interwar Crisis (2007) p. 130
  6. Hynes, Samuel Lynn (1995). Reporting World War II, Part One: American Journalism 1938-1944. Library of America. p. 869. ISBN 978-1-88301104-8.
  7. P. Stansky, The First Day of the Blitz (2007) p. 36
  8. Quoted in N. C. Sorel, The Women Who Wrote the War (2013)
  9. Sorel, Nancy Caldwell (1999). The Women Who Wrote the War. New York, New York: Arcade Publishing. pp. 207–208.
  10. Sorel, Nancy Caldwell (1999). The Women Who Wrote the War. New York: Arcade Publishing. pp. 393–4.
  11. Naughton, Philippe (December 30, 2004). "British philosopher's son killed in tsunami". The Times (London).
  12. The New York Times, September 20, 1983.


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