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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Shirer, William Lawrence
(February 23, 1904–December 28, 1993)

–print and broadcast reporter and author—was born in Chicago. His father, Seward Shirer, an assistant U.S. district attorney, had a promising career in politics but died of a ruptured appendix in 1913 at the age of 42. His widow, Bessie (Tanner) Shirer, was forced to move with her three children to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to live with her parents.

    After graduating from high school in 1921, Shirer enrolled in Coe College. He began his career in journalism as the editor of the Coe College Cosmos and as a sports reporter for the Cedar Rapids Republican. After graduating in 1925, Shirer decided to take a summer trip to Paris. It appeared as though he would return home in August, when he received an offer from the head of the Paris office of the Chicago Tribune. "On such slender thread," Shirer wrote, "does the course of one's whole adult life hang."In Paris, the young Shirer met some of the most famous people and witnessed some of the most important events of the decade, including Charles A. Lindbergh's arrival in Paris after his solo flight from New York in May 1927.

    In the fall of 1929 the Tribune transferred Shirer to Vienna to report on the growing turmoil in the Balkans. Shirer had hardly settled into his new assignment when he was instructed to go to India to cover the independence movement being led by Mohandas Gandhi. Shirer later recounted his friendship with Gandhi in Gandhi: A Memoir (1980).

    Shirer married Theresa (Tess) Stiberitz on January 31, 1931, shortly after returning to Vienna. They had two daughters, Eileen Inga and Linda Elizabeth.

    Shirer's tenure with the Tribune ended in the summer of 1932. He spent the following year in Spain before accepting a job with the Paris Herald in January 1934, but soon left to take a job as a foreign correspondent in the Berlin office of the Hearst International News Service. He lost that job on August 24, 1937, when Hearst closed down the service. On the same day, Shirer received a telegram from Edward R. Murrow, chief of the European operations of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), asking Shirer to meet him in Berlin. Murrow hired Shirer to head his European bureau from Vienna. Shirer became the first of "Murrow's Boys," a group of foreign correspondents who revolutionized the reporting of news on radio and later television.

    The revolution began on March 13, 1938, when CBS reported on Hitler's annexation of Austria. "The smooth voice of Robert Trout," Shirer later wrote, opened the European News Roundup in New York. For its day, the European News Roundup was a masterpiece of logistics and timing, with live reports from Berlin, London, Paris, and Vienna. Shirer gained a national reputation reporting from Berlin during the period prior to World War II. He made one of his most famous broadcasts on June 22, 1940, when he reported the signing of the German-French armistice in the forest at Compiègne

    Hitler's government disliked Shirer's attempts to get around official censorship. When a German friend warned Shirer that he soon would be charged with spying for the United States, he left Germany in December 1940. He managed to escape with the contents of a diary he had been keeping since 1934. Once home, Shirer published his best-selling Berlin Diary (1941) and went on a lecture tour urging American support of Great Britain.

    Shirer returned to Germany in October 1945 to cover the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. He described the destruction of Berlin and other German cities, as well as the fate of the Nazi leaders brought to trial, in his book End of Berlin Diary (1947). Shirer returned to the United States to continue broadcasting for CBS. His friendship with Murrow took a public, sad, and ugly turn after Murrow returned to the United States to become vice president for public affairs. By the spring of 1947 William S. Paley, the head of CBS, had cooled toward Shirer, as had the sponsor of Shirer's news program. Paley wanted Shirer out of CBS, and Murrow went along. Shirer left CBS feeling betrayed by Murrow and remained unforgiving up to Murrow's death in 1965.

    The end of Shirer's radio career laid the foundation for a new career as a historian. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich became an immediate, surprise best seller when published in 1960 and went on to win the National Book Award. The Collapse of the Third Republic appeared in 1969, followed by his three-volume memoir in 1976, 1984, and 1990.

    Shirer spent the last years of his life in Lenox, Massachusetts. He and Tess had divorced in July 1970. He later remarried and was survived by his wife, Irina Lugovskaya. William L. Shirer died in a Boston hospital at age 89. In his memoirs he wrote of his life, "I'm glad it was mine."
Sources Shirer is best known for his historical works. In addition to those mentioned above, he wrote Midcentury Journey: The Western World through Its Years of Conflict (1952), Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy (1994), and This Is Berlin: Radio Broadcasts from Nazi Germany (1999). His memoir is 20th Century Journey: A Memoir of a Life and Times, vol. 1, The Start, 1904–1930 (1976); vol. 2, The Nightmare Years, 1930–1940 (1984); and vol. 3, A Native's Return, 1945–1988 (1990). He also wrote several works of fiction: The Traitor (1950), Stranger Come Home (1954), and The Consul's Wife (1956). Shirer donated his papers to Coe College, Cedar Rapids. His role at CBS, as well as his controversial break with Edward R. Murrow, is described in David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (1988); and Joseph E. Persico, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (1988).
Contributor: Donald E. Shepardson

Cite as: Shepardson, Donald E. "Shirer, William Lawrence" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 26 May 2018