NBC’s continental European news chief Max Jordan has performed so brilliantly—both on assignment and in digging up his own stuff—that some day he will be a legend. I’m not sure he isn’t a legend already.
—A.A. Schechter, I Live on Air, New York, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1941
In spite of this tribute from NBC’s Director of News and Special Events, when NBC reporter Max Jordan died 46 years ago this week his passing was scarcely noted, save for an NBC press release that noted his major accomplishments as a journalist, and an obituary in the Catholic News Service for a man who had left the microphone for the priesthood more than 25 years earlier.
Indeed, apart from radio historian Liz McLeod’s 1998 tribute little has been written about Jordan since then, though he was frequently the first to report on the major events in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Among American radio and print journalists of the time, he was uniquely equipped to do this. He was born to German parents in Italy in 1895. His father’s business led to frequent travel and relocation for the family, and he mastered several languages growing up in the Old Europe of the pre-World War I era.
He graduated from Frankfurt University and earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Jena before coming to the United States in the 1920s as the American correspondent for the Berliner Tageblatt newspaper, and he later worked for the Hearst newspaper chain’s International News Service. Raised Lutheran, he had converted to Catholicism shortly before his arrival, and filed occasional reports for the National Catholic Welfare Council’s press office, known today as the Catholic News Service. In December, 1931, he was appointed NBC’s Central European Representative, based in Basle, Switzerland but traveling as far as necessary, not only to report the news but to establish the necessary infrastructure to report it via international shortwave, concluding agreements between NBC and Europe’s various state broadcasters. NBC’s A.A. Schechter dubbed him “Ubiquitous Max,” a “roving center…all over the European gridiron to such an extent that sometimes he seems to be in two or more places at one time.[i]”
Jordan’s early broadcasts included coverage of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the ascendance of the Nazis, as well as a Christmas Eve broadcast from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but do not survive. Fortunately, most of them from 1935 on are in the NBC Collection at the Library of Congress, including many of his broadcast firsts and scoops.
Two of the earliest available to us are from the fall of 1935, when Mussolini was preparing to invade Ethiopia. Jordan had sought through various channels to interest Emperor Haile Selassie in speaking over NBC but had gotten nowhere. He mentioned this to his friend Mary Moss Wellborn, then in Europe representing the Women’s International League for Peace:
“What about the Empress?” asked Mary.
“’What about her?’’”
“’Well, why don’t you get her?’’
“I wasn’t used to just “getting an empress” and so far had only thought of the Negus [Haile Selassie’s Amharic title], but Mary was for equal rights. If the emperor was to be given time on America’s air, why not his imperial consort? Wiring Empress Menen on behalf of her organization Mary clinched the deal the next morning.
“’Am I good?” she ‘phoned all excited. “Listen to this!”
And she read the wire: Her Majesty accepts.’”
‘It was Mary Moss Wellborn’s scoop. And did we celebrate!
He continued his varied newsbeat, making broadcasts from Zeppelins and the Vatican, and was first on the scene reporting live from Linz and Vienna in Austria during Hitler’s first landgrab, the Anschluss.
In late September of 1938 Jordan was in Godesberg, Germany for the first days of what would become known as the Munich Crisis. There, days later, events would reach a dark climax as Hitler succeeded in annexing the Sudetenland, an ethnically mixed region home to a community of 300,000 Germans granted to the new nation of Czechoslovakia after World War 1, whom Hitler claimed were brutally repressed.
Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, flew to Germany and met with Hitler at the Hotel Dreesen in Godesberg. Jordan gained access to the premises through a news interview with the owner, an early Hitler supporter who was proudly welcoming him for the 67th time. The talks halted abruptly, and Jordan briefly returned to Basle, only to hurry on to Munich where multi-national negotiations were about to begin.
The international press were given a tour of the “Brown House,” the grand mansion that was the Munich headquarters of the Nazi party, and before being shunted out before the meeting, Jordan learned that the building was wired directly to the Berlin radio station and equipped with everything needed for overseas broadcasting, though foreigners were expected to use facilities 20 blocks away.
A bit later, Jordan gained access to the building by quietly following a friendly acquaintance from Berlin radio inside. He studied the scene outside the conference room:
“It was a brilliant scene throughout the various reception rooms, although not a single woman was present. The male of the species was messing up the world all by himself! Showing off their uniforms and displaying their glittering decorations, the Nazi bigwigs paced the floor strutting like peacocks in Munich’s zoo.”
Throughout the day and evening of September 29th, Jordan made more than a dozen reports over NBC, and his Berlin acquaintance and others grew vexed with him. Jordan was soon arguing over the phone with Rundfunk superiors in Berlin, who eventually granted permission for one more broadcast from the “Brown House.” He told New York to stand by.
After midnight, he overheard from Italian officers leaving the room that the conference was near its end. He found Sir William Strang, a member of the British delegation, who promised him he would try to get a copy of whatever official communication was about to be issued. Jordan told New York to stand by again. He saw the English delegation, including Prime Minister Chamberlain, heading out of the lobby. Spying Strang, he called out:
“Hey!” I shouted at the top of my voice. Forgetting all diplomatic amenities, I started racing toward them.
“Sir William recognized me.
“’Oh,’” he said. “’That’s right.’”
“Turning to Sir Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s diplomatic adviser, he whispered a word or two in his ear. Wilson didn’t hesitate. Under his arm, he carried a batch of the official communiqués. He handed one over to me. I was the proud possessor of the first copy of the official protocol which up to that moment nobody except the participants in the meeting had seen![i]”
After another argument with German broadcasters, Jordan was on the air, 46 minutes ahead of all others. Though rival CBS made headlines the next day with the combined reports and commentary of Edward R. Murrow, William L Shirer and others from locations across Europe, it was Max Jordan who had already scooped everyone.
By early 1941, Jordan found he could broadcast little of consequence, even from neutral Switzerland, and returned to the US in late February, though he would put in another stint of European reporting that summer while America was still officially neutral. In early 1943, NBC made him their director of religious programming, a post he would hold until formally leaving NBC in 1951.
After publishing “Beyond All Fronts” in 1944, his account of “this thirty years war” that began in 1914, Jordan returned to Europe, reporting from the field again as Allied troops advanced. In August, he claimed yet another scoop, with the first broadcast of the surrender of Japan. The terms were brokered through channels in neutral Switzerland, where Jordan happened to be on August 14th,, 1945. In Berne, he followed the international wire exchanges, and was on the air with the announcement of Japan’s surrender at 4:18 pm Eastern War Time, breaking into the daily broadcast of the “Stella Dallas” soap opera three hours before it was officially confirmed.
Jordan continued to work in Europe, reporting on postwar developments. He returned to the U.S. in February 1948, making an unexpected appearance on the “NBC Television Newsroom,” an early attempt at televised evening news, before returning to his job as director of religious programming.
He used a sabbatical from NBC to enter a seminary, and in December of 1951 was ordained a priest, taking the name of “Placid” Jordan and serving in the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. In December of 1952, he made four appearances on NBC’s “Catholic Hour.” Three years later, he became a Benedictine monk in Switzerland, traveling occasionally to lecture on religious and political affairs. He never entirely left journalism, making occasional contributions to the Catholic News Service until a few weeks before his passing, and reported from the field on major events of the church, such as the Second Vatican Council, or “Vatican II” in the early 60s. Father Placid Jordan was not nearly as ubiquitous as Max had been, but he still got around.
[i] Schechter A.A., I Live on Air. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1941
[i] Jordan, Max, Beyond All Borders. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1944