"Manila has not yet digested the fact of war. Balloon and toy salesmen and vendors on the streets with extra editions are just appearing as fully equipped soldiers are appearing," After news reached Manila that U.S. forces had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, Melville Jacoby cabled news to his Time Magazine editors about how the Philippines capital digested news of the Japanese raids.
Most of my posts about Melville Jacoby focus squarely on nonfiction. He was a journalist. I am a journalist. Though Mel worked for a time as a broadcaster and was handy with a camera, he was first and foremost a writer. So it shouldn't be terribly surprising that he dabbled in fiction a bit. I found one of those stories — "Monsieur Big-Hat" — and put it together with some photos Mel took of an air raid in Chongqing to make a short ebook that's now available online. The story describes what happens when an American correspondent meets a French diplomat as bombs fall on the Chinese wartime capital in June, 1940.
For the first time ever, I'm able to share a movie of Melville Jacoby himself. These snippets of 16mm movies were shot in the 1930s and are accompanied by excerpts from a moving letter he wrote his mother in early 1941 about why he pursued his dangerous careert.Mel was on a boat from China bound for Manila and, eventually, to the United States. He had just finished a year's work as a stringer in China and the region of Southeast Asia then known as Indochina. There, in the city of Haiphong (a part of modern-day Vietnam), Mel had been arrested and briefly detained by the Japanese, who'd accused him of being a spy. As he traveled back to the United States, he wrote a moving letter to his Mother in which he attempted to reassure her about the risks he'd taken in the previous year. Check out the full post to see the video.
This morning marks one of the most exciting moments for me as I continue to pick up where Mel was silenced. In a few hours I'll be in an apartment in Alhambra, California, meeting with George T.M. Ching, his wife, and their daughter. George was one of Mel's dear friends during his time as an exchange student at Lingnan University. At ninety-seven-years-old, it's uncertain how able George will be to really deeply reflect on Mel's life, but I'm hopeful that just the chance to share some time with someone who Mel cared strongly about, and who cared strongly about him will be valuable.
By now, anyone closely following Melville Jacoby's story knows a little bit about Chan Ka Yik. Last week, a few members of my family and I met Chan's daughters for something of a reunion between our two families. As I've already described, that was itself was a lovely experience. But Chan was not Mel's only friend in China, nor was he the only Chinese man Mel met who later moved to the United States. My visit to Palo Alto also stirred up a fantastic coincidence. This is the sort of thing that can provide a completely different glimpse three quarters of a century in the past. Click the link to read about that coincidence, and to hear the fantastic discovery I made as a result of that visit.
California, here I come, right back where I started from. In a little less than two weeks I'll hit the road for Palo Alto, California, the home of Stanford University. That's where Melville Jacoby earned his bachelor and master's degrees in the 1930s (it's also where his wife, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman was the first female managing editor of the daily student newspaper and where other close friends, such as Shelley Smith Mydans, studied). It's a trip I've long been waiting for, and one that wouldn't be possible without the support, encouragement and financial contributions I've received since I first launched my Kickstarter campaign and then launched the current fundraising campaign. Yes, I'll be retracing Mel's footsteps and digging through archives, but I'm most excited for what might best be described as a reunion when we meet the children of Mel's best friend from his time in China ...
"...Then would come the noise of the bombs falling. The bombs didn't screech or whistle or whine. They sounded like a pile of planks being whirled around in the air by a terrific wind and driven straight down to the ground. The bombs took thirty years to hit. While they were falling they changed the dimensions of the world. The noise stripped the eagles from the colonel's shoulders and left him a little boy, naked and afraid. It drove all the intelligence from the nurse's eyes and left them vacant and staring. It wrapped a steel tourniquet of fear around your head, until your skull felt like bursting. It made you realize why man found he needed a God."
I was digging through the collection of materials I have at my place related to Melville Jacoby and found a photocopy of a lovely letter written to Mel 74 years ago today. The note was sent by Chan Ka Yik, one of Mel's best friends. The two were roommates at Lingnan University in Canton (now Guangzhou) while Mel was an exchange student there. The letter responds to an earlier mailing Mel had sent. It describes Chan's fondness for his roommate, and, in many ways, is the sort of letter anyone might send to catch up with an old friend. But these greetings are described against a backdrop of war. Though calm seemed to have returned when Chan wrote the letter, it was clearly still a presence.