Book Review: ‘Fierce Ambition,’ by Jennet Conant

Insofar as Higgins settled down, it was to marry the retired general Bill Hall the day the ink dried on his divorce, although neither remained faithful. The couple became fixtures in Washington, D.C., befriending the Kennedys and hosting a glittering roster of guests; Higgins once threw a vase of flowers at Walter Cronkite’s feet when he was late for dinner.

Hall, who already had four children, fathered three with Higgins. Their first baby, Sharon, was born two months premature and died before her mother had ever held her. In one of the most moving glimpses of Higgins’s humanity, Conant quotes from a magazine essay in which she declared, “I had seen death, yet I had not known it,” and, as Conant puts it, she “thrashed herself” for the lack of compassion she had shown grieving people in war zones.

Yet she continued to chase the developing story that was Vietnam. There, she clashed with a new generation of gung-ho male reporters who thought that a wife and mother in her early 40s was “past her prime” and ought to stay home. Given that she spent most of her career dismissed as a “dimpled girl wonder,” one can’t help questioning when, exactly, her prime was supposed to have been. In this dispiriting way, even Higgins’s extraordinary life is mired in ordinary misogyny, familiar even long after newspapers stopped calling their own staffers “girls” in print.

The apparent incongruity of Higgins’s exploits and fame at the height of the domestically-minded 1950s is in fact quite understandable — she could be celebrated as long as she was unique. As foreign-correspondent Barbie, she was not quite human, but a role model. (An “anemic phrase,” protests one young reporter who came up in her wake. “She was an idol.”)

Perhaps due to her untimely death from cancer in her mid-40s, Higgins is not the household name she might have dreamed. What is frustrating is that her gender remained a stunt, a curiosity, even a joke, rather than a lens through which she might have seen the world differently, challenging rather than aping the macho heroics and emotional distance of her peers.

FIERCE AMBITION: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins | By Jennet Conant | Norton | 406 pp. | $32.50

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