Croswell Bowen

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Croswell Bowen
Croswell Bowen.jpg
Croswell Bowen
Born(1905-02-12)February 12, 1905
DiedJuly 15, 1971(1971-07-15) (aged 66)
NationalityUnited States
Occupationwriter; political reporter activist journalist, biographer

Croswell Bowen (1905–1971) was an American political reporter, activist journalist, and biographer who contributed extensively to newspapers and magazines in the 1940s and 1950s.[1] For his activist journalism, he was awarded a Benjamin Franklin Citation [1] for an investigative report on low-level radiation risks, "The New Invisible Death Around Us."[2] As a biographer, his Curse of the Misbegotten, finalist for the National Book Award, was the first-full-length biography of Nobel Prize–winning dramatist Eugene O'Neill.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, he was educated at the Choate School, Yale University, the Sorbonne, and the New School for Social Research.

Early career[edit]

Bowen made an early name for himself as a reporter, the "Rover Boy of Park Row," clattering down the stairs of the World Building, press card stuck in the brim of his fedora, breaking through police barriers calling out “I’m Bowen of the INS!"[3] In Washington, DC, as an International News Service reporter, Bowen covered high-level government press conferences, where the atmosphere was more gentlemanly. Reporters carried walking sticks and submitted written questions in advance.[4] Ignoring that custom, he directly grilled Secretary of State Stimson on the Mukden incident. His connection to the INS ended thereafter.[5]

Returned to New York's Greenwich Village, Bowen joined the company of the writers, artists and editors who gathered at the evening salon of best-selling popular historian Carl Carmer. His essay “I Was a Rich Man’s Son” appeared in a 1935 collection, the Forum and Century.[6]

Having studied photography with Berenice Abbott at the New School,[7] Bowen's opportunity to combine photography and writing came when Carl Carmer hired him to research the lives and lore of Hudson River folk for a volume in The Rivers of America series edited by Constance Lindsay Skinner. A prose/photography book of Bowen’s own followed, The Hudson: Great River of the Mountains published in 1940,[8] its text and pictures showing the influence of the Federal Writers' Project version of American literary regionalism. When Life commissioned Margaret Bourke-White to photograph the Hudson, Bowen and Carmer went with her as guides.

In 1941, he joined the American Field Service as an official photographer, was wounded during the battle of Tobruk in 1942, and received the Africa Star and the British Empire Medal.[9] Back From Tobruk, his account of that experience, was published in 2012.[10]

Returned to wartime New York City, Bowen gave speeches for the Victory Speakers’ Bureau under the Office of War Information and held a desk job at CBS, monitoring and writing the foreign news, but resigned when CBS overrode his protests and reported the dispatches of a known propaganda source as legitimate.[11] For a proposed book, Bowen interviewed and corresponded with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, whose ideas about the role of the press in democracy inspired his subsequent career.[12]

In 1943, he joined the staff of PM Magazine, the New York tabloid legendary among newsmen for its policy against running advertising. PM staffers spanned a broad range of political viewpoints and included avowed Communists, although its editorials were generally left-liberal. Editors allowed reporters and photographers unusually free rein carrying out their work.[13] Beginning as local news reporter and rising to Associate Editor, Bowen produced political reporting on subjects ranging from press freedom at William and Mary to the press buildup given Von Hayek, from the formation of the United Nations to domestic fascism, from to George C. Marshall to J. Parnell Thomas at the trial of the Hollywood Ten, all cited below, a stream of work that ended only when the paper folded in 1948.

By then married and a father, Bowen moved to William Shawn’s New Yorker as a staff writer, where he wrote pieces for “Reporter at Large” and profiled criminals for “Annals of Crime.” Turning on the accused the same psychological attention he’d given to the powerful and famous, the profiles were published in 1954 as They Went Wrong.

When Tammany politics surfaced again in mid-1950's New York, a Shawn assignment to write a piece on 19th Century Tammany Mayor A. Oakey Hall led to a year-long immersion in the New York Public Library and a third book, his first biography, The Elegant Oakey.

McCarthy era[edit]

The McCarthyism of the early 1950s was an uneasy time for Eastern liberals like Bowen, as they watched the hard-won reputations of many they knew – Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett—challenged by the Hollywood Blacklist of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Then, when the televised Army-McCarthy Hearings caused the power of Joseph McCarthy to wane, Bowen looked for an opportunity to expose the Federal Bureau of Investigation's investigations of "subversives and radicals." He constructed a plan to gain access through the F.B.I. for a New Yorker-style profile on its Director,J. Edgar Hoover. Unaware of what records accessed under the Freedom of Information Act reveal, that his PM affiliation had long ago tainted him as suspect or that his New Yorker crime pieces marked him as “not a friend of law enforcement,” he did not know how improbable it was that he would gain their trust. Access was handily refused.[14]

Later career[edit]

Ever since his 1947 PM piece on Eugene O’Neill, “The Black Irishman,” cited below, Bowen had continued to pursue the story of how the playwright’s troubled life had influenced his work. As O’Neill’s stature revived with production of his masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night, Bowen contracted to write a book-length biography. The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O’Neill was a National Book Award finalist.

As he had since the 1950s, Bowen continued publishing on subjects he believed in – on the "spin" world of public relations, consumer psychology-based marketing techniques, the rationalizations Madison Avenue made to keep on advertising cigarettes, and the tragedy that had struck when Donora, PA was the site of the first smog outbreak.

He began a John F. Kennedy biography and a semi-autobiographical novel, both left unfinished.


Croswell Bowen died on July 15, 1971 in his New York City apartment of a fourth heart attack.[15] He was survived by his former wife Marjory Hill Bowen and three daughters, Betsy, Lucey and Molly. His papers are housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale and the Andrew Mellon Library, Choate-Rosemary Hall.



Great River of the Mountains: The Hudson. New York: Hastings House, 1941.

They Went Wrong. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1954.

The Elegant Oakey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

The Curse of the Misbegotten: A Tale of the House of O'Neill. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.

Back From Tobruk. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2013.


  1. ^ a b Ducharme, Diane J. "Guide to the Croswell Bowen Papers, Overview". Yale Collection of American Literature. Retrieved Oct 21, 2013.
  2. ^ Bowen, Croswell. "The New Invisible Death Around Us". Pageant Magazine. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
  3. ^ Smith, H. Allen (1941). Low Man on a Totem Pole, "Bowen of the I.N.S., 25-30. Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company.
  4. ^ Halberstam, David. The Powers That Be. New York: Knopf. pp. 6–8. ISBN 0-252-06941-2.
  5. ^ Smith, H. Allen. Low Man on a Totem Pole,p. 30.
  6. ^ Bowen, Croswell (January 1935). "I Was A Rich Man's Son". The Forum.
  7. ^ Bowen, Croswell (2012). "An Essay on Photography", Back From Tobruk. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books. pp. 213–218. ISBN 978-1-59797-985-6.
  8. ^ New York Times (July 13, 1941). "The Hudson and Its Famous Valley". New York Times. Retrieved Oct 21, 2013.
  9. ^ Ducharme, Diane. "Overview". Croswell Bowen Papers. Beinecke Library, Yale University. Retrieved Oct 21, 2013.
  10. ^ Presley, Gary. "Back From Tobruk: A Pacifist Goes to War". Review. The Internet Review of Books. Retrieved 2013-10-21.
  11. ^ Winchell, Walter (July 20, 1944). Waterloo Daily Courier. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ Frankfurter, Felix. "Family Papers, Box 25, Reel 124-15". Felix Frankfurter papers. Library of Congress. Retrieved Oct 21, 2013.
  13. ^ Milkman, Paul (1997). PM: A New Deal in Journalism. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-2434-4.
  14. ^ Freedom of Information Act Files. HQ 94-49336, Records Group 65, box 469, location 230/82/01/05. National Archives and Records Administration.
  15. ^ "CROSWELL BOWEN OF NEW YORKER; Staff Writer Dies at 68 -Author of Crime Books". New York Times. July 16, 1971. Retrieved 2013-10-19.