January 26, 2015

1943. Downs Writes Home from Russia

Letters from Moscow
Bill Downs in Rzhev in 1943
Bill Downs managed to send only three letters home during his time in Moscow. This was due to both his workload and the general difficulty of sending correspondence back to the United States.
April 8, 1943

Dear Folks,

It's been so long since I have written you a letter that I do not know where to begin. I last wrote from Cairo. Hope you got that letter because it more or less brought me up to date on my trip through Africa. I arrived in Teheran a week later and finally got to Moscow on Christmas Day after a miserable Christmas, even in a city called Gorky.

Since then so much has happened it would take a week to write it. So I'll save it until I get a chance to set down over a keg of beer with you all. As you know, this has been the biggest story in the world. I'm fascinated by the country. There is some indication that the news value of Russia will fall off in the coming months, especially if there's a second front. Anyway, I've handled some of the biggest news and seen some sights I'll never forget. If you've followed my broadcasts closely, you'll have heard my stories about Stalingrad, Kharkov, and Rzhev. I've seen more bodies than I care to remember and gained a hell of a respect for the fighting power of this country.

But all of that can wait until I see you. Personally I'm feeling fine. Still losing hair and even getting a little fat, although not much of that. I'm also covering Russia for Newsweek magazine and write an occasional piece for a London weekly newspaper called Reynolds News. I'm not exactly going to be a pauper when I get out, but I won't be rich either.

Dad's letter which he wrote on November 14 reached me today—took just about five months—so you can see how difficult it is. However, I wish you would continue to write me the news and what people are doing. The best way is to address it to the American Consulate in Teheran and mark the envelope "Forward to Moscow." I will send you a letter when I have a chance of getting one on a ship or a plane headed in the direction of the States. But for the most part you'll have to depend on my broadcasts for news. There's a censorship here, you know. Incidentally, my address here is Hotel Metropol, Moscow. The Metropol is one of the best in town and reminds me a little of the old fashioned type of big hotels such as the Brown Palace in Denver. That's where the similarity ends.

I am taking Russian lessons, but the language is extremely difficult. However I have picked up enough to get around with, but not very far.

I would like to know how my broadcasts are received—whether my voice goes over or whether it is unpleasant. Just some sort of general reaction to what I said and how I say it.

Our entertainment here consists of vodka, which is liquid dynamite, and the ballet or opera; and the occasional poker game with a general or an admiral; and an occasional date full of gestures and shoutings with a Russian girl.

The Russian people are marvelous, if you can get to know them. However, it's a full time job trying to convince them that you're not a capitalist soy bent on tearing the country apart by the roots. There is a tremendous friendly feeling here for America, but we sure need that second front, and soon.

I hope to be home next spring. Don't say anything about it, but I may want to stop by London to see my girl. This is a new one you know nothing about. I've been taking it easy after falling hard for another. Think this one will pan out all right, although I may have to be away for too long. Anyway, it probably wouldn't do me any harm to have a look at the American product and see just what good looking women look like en masse.

I'm really up here for big business. I have a secretary who worked for Larry LeSueur, the guy I replaced. She knows all the ropes and takes care of getting me such things as food and coupons and translating the papers and all the other paraphernalia of doing a job here. Then I also have a messenger who does all my standing in line for me, delivers broadcasts and telegrams to the censors and such. All-in-all it keeps me busy as hell. I broadcast the program you hear at 6 AM and 3 PM Moscow time. The evening broadcast keeps me up until 2 AM, which means a mile walk through blacked out Moscow streets showing my night pass to various bayoneted sentries which patrol the streets here. Moscow is still under siege officially, and there is a midnight curfew. That definitely cuts out any night life, but I manage to do my share of the sinning.

Incidentally, you asked about my insurance. CBS has taken out something like $10,000 on me, I think. I know I have some sort of insurance, but I don't know what kind. But there's nothing to worry about on that score. Anyway, I'm due for a couple of months rest when I get out of here, and I intend to take it. However I'm also intent on making a name, so if I can't have the rest then, I'll go some other time. We'll have to wait and see what happens. I want to be around when the American boys go into Berlin—and Tokyo.

I have to give this letter to Walter Kerr of the New York Herald Tribune, who is taking this out for me. Give my regards to everyone. And keep that bottle of beer cold. I sometimes dream about big thick steaks, so you can expect a raid on your rations when I get back.

Love,

Bill
______________________________________________

May 20, 1943

Dear Folks,

.  .  .

I'm feeling fine and keeping my nose clean. My Russian lessons are coming along slowly. There are plenty of concerts and ballets to go to, if everyone ever gets around to doing it. And all-in-all, life is not unbearable. The only thing I really miss is the opportunity of raiding the ice-box at home when I come in at nights.

Glad to hear that my programs are getting through all right. The bad season is just about over now, and there should be no great amount of trouble. As you know, the news from this front has cooled off considerably, but we expect to have plenty of work to do very shortly. I'm kept plenty busy anyway trying to keep up with my clients. I took on the theater newspaper Variety the other day which I'm doing more for fun than anything else. That makes Newsweek, a London newspaper, and Variety to work for besides the regular broadcasts. So you can see I haven't much time on my hands.

Both Admiral Standley, the American ambassador, and Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr, the British ambassador, serve to make life easier over here. They treat the correspondents royally and have us to dinner and bridge regularly. Also, the American military and naval attaches here, General Mikela and Admiral Duncan, have practically adopted us. The only catch is that we have to play poker with them, and frankly my game isn't up to theirs. However, I manage to hang on by my teeth. And I'm learning.

I have sent some pictures to Paul White, news director of CBS, which they asked for to use in publicity. I told them to send prints along to you. They were taken at Rzhev in March and you can see me in all my winter finery. It has been a glorious spring in Moscow. The people look a lot better in warm weather, and the morale here is tip top. The victory in North Africa was a great shot in the arm for them. However there should be very heavy fighting in Russia this summer and this nation is going to have a lot more to go through—maybe a harder time than last year. But everyone is looking towards the west for the second front.

I'm planning a book about the country, which about all of us do in our spare time. I don't know if I'll ever get around to writing it, but I'm collecting material. The only trouble is that there is so much that it's hard to know where to begin—or end. Quint Reynolds is now over here, and he's got another book on the fire.

.  .  .

Give everyone my regards...

Love,

Bill
______________________________________________

October 31, 1943

Dear Folks,

.  .  .

There isn't much to tell about myself. I've been working hard. Just completed the commentary for a Soviet documentary film "The Battle of the Ukraine." I haven't seen yet how it's going to come out, but it may be good or very stinking. I don't know whether they will change the narration in New York or not. I got 2,500 rubles for the job, which I have turned over to the Red Army fund. I don't like the idea as a reporter of getting paid by any government anywhere.

I'm feeling fine, although winter is coming on and I'm getting rid of my first cold. Snow fell for the first time the other day, but it's not much of a storm yet. There's been a complete shakeup in the diplomatic setup over here, as you have read. Averill Harriman, who I knew in London, is now the new ambassador. His daughter Kathy is along brightening up the landscape a little bit.

There seems to be some sort of manpower question involved in the CBS staff. They promised to get me out of here by Christmas, but now it looks like it may be later. There's a shortage of men and the usual transport difficulties. I'll let you know.

.  .  .

There have been quite a round of diplomatic parties all of a sudden, but I've been so busy that I can't take them all in. Working for Newsweek, the radio, and making this picture has taken up all my free time. I'm trying to send you along a piece of Russian embroidery. It's for a Ukrainian blouse. I'm having two of them made, one for Bonnie Lee and one for Mom. Also shipping a Russian shirt along for Dad. I hope it's big enough for him. I don't know who or when they will reach you, but here's hoping. Incidentally, the silk for those blouses cost about $60 and the work for the embroidery cost me a bottle of vodka, a half kilo of chocolate, a half kilo of butter, and some canned food. That's an example of prices. Remember that no part of this letter is for publishing in any paper, so keep me out of trouble. Also Mom asked me to pick her up a fur coat over here. That would only cost about $10,000 even at the diplomatic rate, so you can see the impossibility of it. However, I'm keeping my eyes open to get you some sort of presents really representative of this country.

.  .  .

What I want to do is get my vacation over before spring and then head back to Europe or Africa for the summer's fighting. This time I would like to be with American troops. I don't balk at coming back to Moscow, but I would like to see Rome and Paris—and Berlin.

Things look exceedingly good right now. But I think there is going to be one bitch of a fight before the show is over. I'm afraid that Hitler isn't licked, although he's taken some mighty big raps on this front and is due for more from the west and south.

The food here this year is much better than it was last, although the drink situation is no better. Vodka costs $20 a liter, which is expensive drinking even when you can get it. There is only one restaurant in town where you can take guests, and that comes at about $40 a plate. So you can see what inflation has done here. The only saving grace is that I'm on full expense account.

That's about all the news. Mr. Hull and Mr. Eden are giving a press conference this evening and I don't want to miss them. I am closing this hurriedly so that I can get it to some of the boys who are leaving.

Give my love to everyone.

Love,

Bill