Julia Secklehner profiles a pioneer journalist who wasn’t afraid to become part of the story.
Julia is a TLP Convenor based in Brno, Czechia.
The Lausanne conference and its news coverage were dominated by men. Women’s views on the conference and surrounding events seldom reached the public. Yet there were some exceptions, including Nadezhda Stancioff. Another was Clare Sheridan (1885-1970), a journalist, sculptor and “black sheep” with personal connections ranging from Winston Churchill (her cousin) to Charlie Chaplin and Vladimir Lenin. In fact, Sheridan and Stancioff first met in Sofia, when Sheridan was on her way to Lausanne. Describing Stancioff as holding the “crystallized hopes of Bulgaria in her tapering hands”, such chance encounters indicate just how small that “world of international diplomacy” was, despite the wide distances travelled. Though it might seem easy to marginalize Sheridan as an exceptional artist and bon vivante, as a reporter and author her writings and persona shaped how her many English and American readers perceived international diplomacy.
Sheridan was born Clare Consuelo Frewen in London, daughter of the Anglo-Irish writer and Irish Nationalist Party politician Hugh Moreton Frewen and his American wife Clarita Jerome, sister of Winston Churchill‘s mother Jenny. By birth, therefore, politics and high society played a defining role in Sheridan’s life. Even though her memoirs make it poignantly clear that her education was never intended to set her up for public life or a profession, Sheridan clearly aspired for independence from a young age. After attending finishing schools for girls in Germany and France, Sheridan initially intended to embark on a career as a writer, but soon became interested in sculpture.
Losing one of her three children and her husband William Frederick Sheridan within a space of less than two years in 1914-15, Sheridan took a decisive step towards a career of her own by training as a sculptor with John Tweed and Édouard Lantéri. To make ends meet as a widow, she produced cheap plaster decorations until a patron, Colonel Dentz (an American) encouraged her to focus on portrait sculpture and offered the necessary financial support. By 1919 Sheridan had established herself as sculptor to English high society. She increasingly fashioned herself as a Bohemian as well as an artist, much to the dismay of her family. She became a keen driver, bought her own car and, in 1920, was invited to sculpt the bust of the Soviet Trade Delegate to Britain, Lev Kamenev, who invited her to Moscow. “She has got Bolshevism badly” noted her brother Oswald in his diary in September 1920, attributing this new-found passion for politics to a love affair with Kamenev.
Sheridan‘s private and public reputation was often defined by her love life, mythologized to include nearly all the “great men” she met. This, however, did not deter her: after portraying several prominent Bolshevik revolutionaries, including Trotsky and Lenin, she travelled from Moscow via London to the United States, endowed with a new reputation as a Bolshevik ‘bride’. Family members clearly did not take her activities very seriously, referring to her “little adventures” (Churchill) and patronizing her as someone who allegedly “always reflects the views of the last man she’s met” (Oswald). A supposedly feminine flightiness made it easy for such observers to dismiss her unconventional lifestyle and political convictions as insubstantial.
Yet Sheridan knew how to turn these prejudices to her advantage: by the time she arrived in America she was working on her first book, Mayfair to Moscow (1921), and was soon offered a position as correspondent for the Democratic newspaper the New York World. Articles about Russia, Mexico and the United States quickly gained Sheridan fame in the United States as a reporter, with her (alleged) affairs adding to her celebrity. The long list of her purported conquests included Charlie Chaplin, a fellow socialist, with whom she spent several weeks in Hollywood.
Commissioned by her New York World editor Herbert Swope to write about post-war “life in Europe” and especially “about women and children, nationalism and the evolution of the new generation” Lausanne was Sheridan’s second bite at an international diplomatic conference, after travelling to Geneva for the League of Nations assembly in June 1922. Geneva had taught her that diplomatic conferences were long winded, lacklustre affairs in which it was difficult for journalists to get interviews: “The hotel lounges resembled parliamentary lobbies. The statesmen took themselves seriously, as statesmen do when there are no women present to bring them down from their heights and make them human. Diplomatists were pompous as they ever are, devoid of humour and playing for effect. Each and all were accompanied by quantities of well-trained, alert, self-conscious, deferential secretaries, who do so much to create around their chiefs an atmosphere of mystery and importance. Here were the representatives of forty- two nationalities, all moulded into the same type.” In between stints at Geneva and Lausanne Sheridan had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of a very different world at Smyrna, where she witnessed the atrocious treatment of Greek refugees at the hand of Turkish soldiers.
Sheridan’s accounts of her journeys, published in two autobiographies, From West to East (1923) and Naked Truth (1928), can come across as haphazard attempts to collect as many important figures as possible. Thanks to her travels to Smyrna and elsewhere, however, Sheridan recognized that the matters discussed in ornate hotel lobbies had real impact on millions of people reeling from a decade of conflict. Though conceding that she found Lausanne “long, secret and dull”, even compared to Genoa, her accounts gave readers an easily comprehensible overview of the atmosphere in Lausanne; noting, for example, that:
Each nationality gave out its own official story from its individual national point of view. One could glean at least five different stories on the same session. It reminded me of an art class all painting the same subject, and no two artists seeing it the same way!Clare Sheridan, West and East, p. 237
On another occasion she described the conference as having the “psychology of a school room” in which “the Russians were the bad boys of class.”
Sheridan‘s memoirs sketch a lively image of Mussolini as Lausanne’s most illustrious arrival and document the Italian fascist leader’s disdain for the people under his rule. “He talked of them impatiently; he said: ‘They are stupid, dirty, do not work hard enough, and are content with their little cinema shows — let them not attempt to take part in the political life of a nation. They must be taken care of, but their duty is to obey.’” Accepting an invitation by Mussolini to see the “grandeur” of fascism in Rome, and hoping to sculpt him there, this most notorious of Sheridan’s Lausanne encounters ended in attempted sexual assault by Mussolini, which she repaid with a scathing character portrait of him in the New York World.
This distressing episode points to Sheridan’s confidence in dealing with Europe’s leading politicians as well as the mistreatment of women, at the highest level of politics. Otherwise Sheridan’s accounts of Lausanne are brief, but paint a colourful picture of the events and dynamics between the different delegations. Returning to Lausanne from Italy on 4 December 1922, she used her personal contacts, which included Chicherin as well as Eşref Bey, to gain insights into the proceedings. We know little of how she spent her time there, or with whom, although police records from the Archives Cantonales Vaudoises indicate that she was in contact with the head of the Soviet press bureau, Hermann Ahrens, and the British journalist George Edward Slocombe. The fact that West to East was illustrated by Aloïs Derso, a Hungarian artist who had also sketched the Geneva conference, further suggest that she had contacts among the reporters and journalists present in Lausanne as well.
Overall, Sheridan’s Lausanne encounters sound fortuitous rather than formal appointments. Once again, she leveraged her “marginal” position as a female celebrity reporter to gain access to areas out of bounds to fellow journalists. All the while her own stance remains opaque, despite a clear preference for the Russian and Turkish delegations: “If I were Turkish, I would do one thing. Being British I would do another. Loving Russia I would do quite differently”, was her coquettish answer to Ismet’s question as to what she would do were she in his position. A playful response – and one to show that Sheridan, too, knew how to play the game of diplomacy. And yet, “as the year advanced towards its end, [she] decided that [her] journalistic career must end also”, returning to her children without seeing the conference to its end.
 Carl von Ossietzky, “Memoiren eines schwarzen Schafs”, Die Weltbühne, 27 November 1928.
 Clare Sheridan, The Naked Truth (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928), p. 330; Clare Sheridan, West and East (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923), p. 265.
 Anita Leslie, Cousin Clare. The Tempestous Career of Clare Sheridan (London: Hutchinson, 1976), pp. 21–55.
 Ibid., p. 96.
 Ibid., p. 96 and 135.
 Herbert Swope cited in Sheridan, West and East, vii-viii.
 Sheridan, Naked Truth, p. 301.
 Clare Sheridan, West and East., pp. 264 and 266.
 Ibid., p. 240
 Ibid., p. 254
 “SHERIDAN, Clare”. Archives Cantonales Vaudoises, Lausanne. S112/97-2234.
 Sheridan, West and East, p. 261.
 Ibid., p. 265.
 Ibid., p. 268.
MAIN IMAGE: FRONTIS. TO THE NAKED TRUTH (NEW YORK: HARPER & BROS., 1928).