Project Archivist Jane Speller writes:
The 1930s foreign correspondence of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) reveals journalist Robert Dell as a man of great character with a sharp sense of humour and an enduring love of Europe. In a rare photograph he looks remarkably like the comedian and character actor Terry Thomas – dapper and slightly roguish.
Of the paper’s four principal foreign correspondents (Werth, Voigt, Dell and Fodor), Dell was the oldest and most experienced. In 1933 he was 68 years old, as compared to the other correspondents who were some 25 years his junior.
Dell started out working for a small county newspaper in Surrey. His father, an American minister, bought him the paper after he left Oxford without a degree. The paper closed after a libel suit left Dell bankrupt. He lectured on religion for a while, and converted to Catholicism.
Dell became a member of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation, where he was mentored in his writing by George Bernard Shaw. In 1901 he became the editor of the art magazine Connoisseur and in 1903 along with the celebrated art critic Roger Fry, he founded the Burlington Magazine, the first scholarly periodical in Britain dedicated to art history. Dell was the first editor of the magazine and during his involvement with it he wrote over 73 articles, many of them on French art.
After a disagreement with Fry, he left the magazine and in 1906 headed for Paris where he worked throughout the First World War as an art dealer and journalist for the Manchester Guardian. In 1918, Dell was expelled from France by the Clemenceau government for his article exposing secret information about France’s attempts to negotiate peace with Austria (1917) – an article which the British Ambassador in France described as ‘most mischievous’. Two years earlier he had been threatened with a charge of treason for threatening to write a book suggesting that France had caused the war. Dell’s expulsion was rescinded in 1924.
Dell worked as foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, the Nation and other newspapers, from 1920 to 1938, in Geneva, Berlin and Paris. He was involved in the New Europe Group, which was established in 1931 by Dimitrije Mitrinović with the aim of achieving peace in Europe. From 1932 onwards Dell was based in Geneva, where he developed an intimate knowledge of the League of Nations, the fore runner of the United Nations. The correspondence shows Dell’s increasing frustration at the impotence of the League in the face of Germany’s illegal rearmament. Dell was a regular at the Bavaria, a bar in the city frequented by journalists. The Bavaria was described by British journalist Collin Brooks as, ‘…packed with men from the world’s ends, mostly drunk’ (Sept 1932).
Dell’s writings were controversial and varied from Catholic modernist, socialist, militant pacifist and anti-fascist perspectives. In 1933 the Swiss government attempted to expel Dell for his coverage of a disturbance during a Socialist rally in Geneva (November 1932), where the Swiss army shot into the crowd killing 13 people and wounding 100. The Guardian’s editor William Percival Crozier commented on the letters to the paper complaining about Dell’s reporting of the event:
“…not a single one of them seemed to think it mattered that a dozen people, most of them inoffensive spectators, were machine gunned out of existence… it throws a flood of light onto the character of the middle-class Swiss”.
Dell’s dry sense of humour can be seen in this excerpt from his telegram to Crozier on 24 November 1932. Éamon de Valera, Prime Minister of the Irish Free State, met with the Anglo-American press, but because the proceedings were confidential nothing could be published. Dell wrote:
“Mr Robert Dell who presided said he had probably been asked to preside because he was a born rebel and usually in hot water, as was the present case in Switzerland. No doubt the reason was that he was 25 percent Mr De Valera’s fellow countryman. He had been a home ruler since age 12…. Fifty years ago when he was a school boy he had been taken by his grandfather a Tory M.P. to the House of Commons to hear Gladstone’s speech on the second reading of the Irish Land Act.”
Dell wrote a number of books, notably, My Second Country, France (1920); Germany unmasked: on Germany under the National-Socialist regime (1934); and The Geneva Racket, 1920-1939 (1940), which was published after his death. In 1935 he was elected as President of the International Association of Journalists.
In 1938 Dell, now in his 70s, moved to New York to lecture and to work on his autobiography. He took up residence in an apartment at the Hotel Brevoort. Decorated in a typically French style, and serving French food and wine, the hotel attracted an illustrious and bohemian Greenwich Village crowd, including writers Mark Twain, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Eugene O’Neill. The Brevoort was popular with wealthy Europeans visiting the United States. In the late 1930s, the American Paris Club was formed, using the Brevoort as a meeting place for the increasing numbers of Americans who fled Paris after the German invasion of Poland (1939).
It is easy to see why Dell chose this place, a reminder of his beloved Europe, to be his home. He died here in 1940, the year Paris fell to the Germans.
Many of Dell’s papers, including the notes for his autobiography and his daughter Sylvia’s research for it, are held in the archives of the British Library of Political and Economic Science.