etcetera | Obituaries Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 22 February 1997
Issue 638

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Helen Snow

HELEN SNOW, who has died aged 89, witnessed the Chinese civil war and revolution as a chronicler and energetic participant.

She arrived in Shanghai in 1931, a tall and strikingly attractive 23-year-old, described by the dazzled Edgar Snow (whom she married a year later), as an "Amazon". She was eager to get started straight away on writing the books that would bring her the excitement and literary fame for which she considered herself uniquely qualified.

"I was brought up exactly right," she recalled confidently. "There was nothing wrong with it because it worked. I loved school. I loved every class. I took for granted that I should study; and I was the teacher's pet and the most popular girl in the school. This is a combination that isn't easy to find."

She produced a stream of books on China: some ephemeral, some written to promote a cause, some deliberately literary. Her account of the history of the Chinese Communist Party, written as it unfolded, is still in use in Chinese schools, and her book Red Dust, a sequence of biographies of Chinese Communists, remains an important historical source.

Much of her work was overshadowed by that of her more famous husband, a fact that occasionally inflamed her combative character. Her marriage to Snow rested on a professional partnership in which each spurred the other on.

Helen Foster was born on Sept 21 1907, at Cedar, Utah, the daughter of a lawyer. From university, she joined the American Mining Congress, which lobbied for the adoption of the silver standard. She went to China to become private secretary to the American consul in Shanghai.

An air of manifest destiny charged the account of her first meeting with Edgar Snow, which she wrote in My China Years (1972). She had compiled a folder of cuttings of his news stories, and met him the day she arrived in Shanghai. "We were in league with the future," she wrote, "and we both knew it - yes, the first day."

They were married the following year. The wedding ceremony took place, at very short notice, at noon, on Christmas Day, in the American embassy in Tokyo. She chose Tokyo because it was "nice and clean," compared with Shanghai.

By March 1933, they were living in Peking, in the luxurious way of life of the "foreign set," in a traditional compound with a spacious house, garden and servants, all of which could be afforded on a journalist's income because of a highly favourable exchange rate.

They entertained and socialised (among her friends was the Jesuit palaeontologist-philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, with whom she argued about philosophy), and Helen did her best to improve Snow's scruffy journalistic habits.

They lived in Peking until the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937. As popular discontent with the Japanese regime in China grew, the Snows became increasingly active in supporting the Chinese students who were becoming the leaders of the movement for Chinese independence (culminating years later in the establishment of the People's Republic of China), offering them their house as a safe haven, and helping to produce their publications.

In 1935, when the Japanese-backed government took steps to separate Manchuria from the rest of China, Helen helped to organise street demonstrations in protest. Taking credit for their success, she wrote: "It is a charming irony that [the Japanese Major-General Kenji] Doihara and all his mobilised armies had to retreat when faced with two little anti-Fascist Americans living on $50 a month - but armed with a piece of the truth."

The next year, as Edgar Snow was having the first of his encounters with Mao Tse-tung, Helen too entered the communist stronghold in Yenan, northwest China, filing newspaper stories. The adventures that she and Edgar Snow had were made possible by the extra-territorial legal status that foreigners enjoyed in China in these years.

While helping Edgar Snow transcribe the notes of his Yenan trip, she became intrigued by the life stories of the Chinese communists. This gave her the idea for her best book, Red Dust (1952), 24 profiles of people she had interviewed in a physically gruelling five-month period in 1937. Out of a sense of what she called "do-gooder public service," she concentrated in her books, which she wrote in haste, on "just giving out information, not being a writer."

Helen Snow's trip to Yenan followed her husband's, and involved comparable heroics: notably when Helen escaped through the window of the Xi'an guest house where she was under police surveillance to make her way into communist-held territory. The trip gave her material for four books, written from notebooks she wore strapped to her body in a kind of home-made life-belt.

The Snows were as much the engines of history in China in these years as they were recorders of it. In 1938 the couple joined and led a campaign to develop light industry inside and outside communist-held areas through workers' co-operatives. Their purpose was to sustain the economies of regions where Red military operations were under way.

The "gung-ho" movement, as it came to be known (meaning "working together"), had at its peak in 1940 nearly 2,000 functioning societies and nearly 30,000 members. It was the subject of a book by Helen Snow, China Builds For Democracy. She remained active in promoting and raising money for the movement long after her return to the United States.

The Snow marriage did not survive the adventurous China years. By 1942, after both had settled in America, it was all but over. Helen's imperious and frequently disparaging personal style conflicted painfully with Edgar's more relaxed approach to life.

A separation agreement signed in 1945 was followed by four years of acrimonious personal and legal wrangling that ended in a divorce settlement.

In 1963, she brought a legal action against him for back-alimony, attaching Snow's American book royalties. She did not remarry.


Next report: Captain John Wells

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