Telling Tales of the Brave and Daring

Jennet Conant’s latest book is a biography of a legendary reporter

When author and journalist Jennet Conant ’82 was researching the subject of her seventh book—legendary correspondent Maggie Higgins, who covered World War II and the Korean War—she couldn’t help but see parallels between her subject’s career and her own.

Jennet Conant

“She was born in Asia, in Hong Kong,” Conant says. “I was born in South Korea. And she was a 5-foot-8 blond misfit in the U.S. who was one of the few women in a male-dominated profession.”

Conant’s latest book, Fierce Ambition: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins, tells the story of Higgins, a female reporter making her way through a boys’ club of journalists who didn’t take her seriously, even though she won praise at the New York Herald Tribune with a harrowing account of the liberation of Dachau at the end of World War II. She was the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for war reporting in 1951 for her daring dispatches from Korea.

Fierce ambition book cover

Learning what it took for Higgins to succeed as a war correspondent astounded the author. “Maggie wanted to be on the front lines. She was so determined to make a name for herself, some competitors accused her of being reckless.”

While Conant didn’t experience the “terrible sexism” that existed in the journalism profession in the 1940s and ’50s, it was still in evidence when she was at Newsweek in the 1980s.

“Some editors tended to get a bit handsy as the night wore on,” she recalls. “It didn’t help that the gin and tonics started flowing right from lunch.”

Having a personal connection to her books isn’t unusual for Conant, who spent seven years at Newsweek before becoming a contributing editor at Esquire, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Conant’s 2005 book, 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, was instigated by memories of her grandfather, James B. Conant, who was the administrative director of the Manhattan Project.

“My grandfather worked with the scientists who built the bomb, and later they were my family’s closest friends when I was growing up in Cambridge,” she recalls.

Wartime stories have long been fodder for her books, such as the spy-hunter tale A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS, and the deep dive into the aftermath of a 1943 mustard gas accident, The Great Secret: The Classified World War II Disaster That Launched the War on Cancer.

Maggie Higgins book
Photo of Maggie Higgins arriving in South Korea, from Fierce Ambition, courtesy W.W. Norton & Company.

“Maggie wanted to be on the front lines. She was so determined to make a name for herself, some competitors accused her of being reckless.”

Her love of news and journalism also crops up in her personal life; she’s married to Steve Kroft, former correspondent at 60 Minutes, and they can’t help but talk media.

When looking back at her years at Bryn Mawr, where she studied political theory before earning a master’s in journalism at Columbia, she recalls the influence of one professor in particular.

“I gravitated to Stephen G. Salkever, now professor emeritus in political science, because he was smart and inspiring and he was tough in a way that encouraged me to write finely argued work,” she says. “I used to be a lazy student, but he pushed me out of that behavior, which I really needed at the time.”

Maggie Higgins photo
Photo of Maggie Higgins covering the Nuremberg Trials, from Fierce Ambition, courtesy W.W. Norton & Company.

Another thread from undergrad weaved its way into Conant’s professional life. “I remember working at Newsweek and whenever a major event occurred, like a war or presidential crisis, it would be the male reporters who still got those assignments,” she says.

“But I wasn’t going to be intimidated by that because I came from Bryn Mawr infused with confidence—and maybe arrogance—that women have no intellectual equal, a sentiment that was very much in the water at the College. Thanks to that attitude, I was not inclined to feel cowed by the boys.”