John Gunther (August 30, 1901 - May 29, 1970) was an American journalist and author whose success came primarily through a series of popular sociopolitical works known as the "Inside" books (1936-1972), including the best-selling Inside U.S.A. in 1947. He is best known today for the memoir Death Be Not Proud about the death of his beloved teenage son, Johnny Gunther, from a brain tumor.
Gunther was born in the Lakeview district of Chicago, growing up on the North Side of the city. He was the first child of a family of German descent. His father was Eugene Guenther, a traveling salesman and his mother was Lizette Schoeninger Guenther. During World War I the family changed the spelling of its name from Guenther to Gunther in order to avoid having a German-sounding name.
In 1922, he was awarded a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from the University of Chicago, where he was literary editor of the student paper.
He worked briefly in the city as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, but soon moved to Europe to be a correspondent with the Daily News's London Bureau, where he covered Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
Gunther met Frances Fineman in London in 1925 and the two were married in 1927. Through 1936 they worked together--Frances as a foreign correspondent for the London News Chronicle--throughout Europe. Gunther wrote, "I was at one time or another in charge of Daily News offices in London, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Rome, and Paris, and I also visited Poland, Spain, the Balkans, and Scandinavia. I have worked in every European country except Portugal. I saw at first hand the whole extraordinary panorama of Europe from 1924 to 1936." In Vienna, Gunther worked alongside a group of English-speaking central European correspondents that included Marcel Fodor, Dorothy Thompson, Robert Best, and George Eric Rowe Gedye.
Gunther later described those years as
the bubbling, blazing days of American foreign correspondence in Europe. . . . Most of us traveled steadily, met constantly, exchanged information, caroused, took in each other's washing, and, even when most fiercely competitive, were devoted friends. . . . We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.
Gunther married Jane Perry Vandercook in 1948; the two adopted a son.
The books that made Gunther famous in his time were the "Inside" series of continental surveys. For each book, Gunther traveled extensively through the area the book covered, interviewed political, social, and business leaders, talked with average people, reviewed area statistics, and then wrote a lengthy overview of what he had learned and how he interpreted it.
About Inside Europe (published in 1936), Gunther wrote, "This book has had a striking success all over the world. I was fortunate in that it appeared at just the right time, when the three totalitarian dictators took the stage and people began to be vitally interested in them."
This book, now half a century old, is an astonishing tour de force. It presents a shrewd, fast-moving, sparkling panorama of the United States at this historic moment of apparent triumph. Sinclair Lewis called it "the richest treasure-house of facts about America that has ever been published, and probably the most spirited and interesting." At the same time, in its preoccupations and insights Inside U.S.A. foresaw dilemmas and paradoxes that were to harass and frustrate Americans for the rest of the century.
In addition to the "Inside" series, Gunther wrote eight novels and three biographies, most notably Bright Nemesis, The Troubled Midnight, Roosevelt in Retrospect (published in 1950) and Eisenhower, a biography of the famous general released in 1952, the year Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President. In addition, he published several books for young readers, including a biography of Alexander the Great in 1953, and Meet Soviet Russia, a two-volume adaptation of Inside Russia Today in 1962.
The book for which Gunther is best remembered today, however, does not deal with the intrigues of politics: Death Be Not Proud is the story of his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 17. In the book, "a restrained and moving work intended for family and friends", the elder Gunther details the struggles that he and his ex-wife went through in attempting to save their son's life: the many treatments pursued (everything from radical surgery to strictly controlled diet), the ups and downs of apparent remission and eventual relapse, and the strain it placed on all three of them. Gunther portrays his son as a remarkable young man - he corresponded intelligently with Albert Einstein about physics - and the heartbreak of his death is told so movingly by Gunther ("all that is left of a life!" he wrote at the end), that the book became a best-seller, and in 1975 was made into an Emmy-nominated television movie starring Arthur Hill as John Gunther, Jane Alexander as his wife, and Robby Benson as Johnny. It is a staple of many high-school curricula to this day.
Inside U.S.A. was made into a Broadway revue, also titled Inside U.S.A., in 1948, with songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. The production starred, among others, Beatrice Lillie and Jack Haley. It played for 399 performances.
From September 7, 1959, until September 17, 1960, Gunther was host and narrator of a television program on the ABC network entitled John Gunther's High Road. It originally aired Monday nights at 8:30, but soon switched to Saturday night at 8 p.m., immediately following the Dick Clark variety show. The High Road program consisted of travelogues of various nations around the world. Some of the films were produced especially for this program and others were obtained from other sources. The common thread of all episodes was Gunther's narration, although he had little or nothing to do with the actual content.