Manila was not the best place to be on New Year’s Eve 1941. US General Douglas MacArthur had withdrawn to Corregidor and had declared Manila an “open city”, not that the Japanese forces—literally at the city gates and expected to enter the next morning—were paying much attention to that.
But Melville Jacoby, a journalist for TIME and LIFE, was still there holed up in the Bay View Hotel, together with Annalee, his wife of a few weeks, and thirty other reporters. The stark choice before them was either to remain and face the Japanese, knowing full well that reporters were in particular danger, or try to run the blockade through the mined harbor. The Jacobys and one other reporter decided to go; they found a ship at midnight. The others stayed in Manila.
The Jacobys slipped away and stayed one step ahead of the Japanese on a three-month flight via Corregidor and Cebu down to Australia, reporting all the way.
This story, while not entirely unknown, seems never to have been told in its entirety before. Bill Lascher might not have told it either had not his grandmother presented him with Jacoby’s typewriter and, later, a closet-full of documents and photos. Lascher, an aspiring journalist, was Jacoby’s cousin (at least once removed) and found the story irresistible, as well he might.
The romantic part of the Eve of a Hundred Midnights, that of the newlyweds narrowly escaping the Japanese, is only the last third of the book—the most dramatic part, perhaps, but not necessarily the most interesting. Jacoby went out to China in 1936, aged twenty, as part of a university exchange program: today’s “junior year abroad” programs rather pale against spending the 1936-37 academic year at Lingnan University in Canton as storm clouds gathered. There were visits to Hong Kong (where he trained as an aviator), Macau and the Chinese interior.
Jacoby had gone out via Europe and the Middle East; he returned via Peiping (as it then was) and Japan, travelling across occupied Korea in a train with blackout curtains; his shipmate across the Pacific was Hellen Keller.
Jacoby was back in China in 1939 after graduation from Stanford and a subsequent Masters in journalism. He landed in Shanghai as a stringer for a number of publications, but soon moved on to Chungking, where he worked for the “Voice of China” while continuing to file stories. There were some professional successes, including a radio interview with all three Soong sisters. These sections are full of color, some of which is admittedly horrific, about living in the then Chinese capital under almost constant bombing.
In mid-1940, Jacoby relocated to now Vichy-governed Hanoi where he reported on, among other things, the tense Franco-Japanese relationship. He was arrested by the Japanese, but the French let him go. When he enquired, if the French were “the masters, how does it happen that we can be arrested in French territory by by the Japanese?”, a French official answered “When a man has lice in his hair, who is the master?”
Jacoby was effectively thrown out of Indochina. On his way back to the US, he stopped by Hong Kong where he lunched with Ed Snow and went to parties hosted by Emily Hahn.
At this point, Annalee née Whitmore enters the story. Whitmore, four months older than Jacoby, and a year ahead of him at Stanford, apparently had an IQ of 170 and photographic memory; she soon became a star scriptwriter in Hollywood. She threw it all over, however, for a chance to return to China with Jacoby. After a brief stay back in Chungking, Jacoby was reposted to Manila; Whitmore stayed behind for a bit in Chungking. Already kindred spirits intellectually, it’s not clear exactly when romance itself blossomed, but they were engaged before Jacoby left and married within an hour of Whitmore’s plane touching down in Manila. The couple was entrusted with a pair of baby pandas that Madame Chiang was sending to America.
Less than five weeks later, they were fleeing for their lives.
Lascher tells the story well, with a great deal of original first-hand source material. There is much detail of the nature of reporting during that period and of day-to-day life in wartime China: chocolate was a treat, death was all around, and reporters doing work they thought, and undoubtedly was, very important. Jacoby comes off as an attractive character: intelligent, observant, dedicated and empathetic. His wife comes off even better. The photos show an extremely handsome couple.
Real lives and personal communication do not, however, always correspond to the needs of narrative or eloquence. Jacoby may have been where the action was, but he rarely if ever had a central role in it. Much of Jacoby’s work and notes were lost or, as they were fleeing Manila, deliberately burned leaving, one imagines, considerable gaps in the source material.
The drama occurs in book’s last section and ends with a heart-wrenching tragedy. After surviving Chungking, Manila and the flight through the Philippines Islands, and dodging Japanese ships in the South Pacific to reach Australia, Jacoby is—after only a few weeks in Australia and after less than six months of marriage—killed in a plane accident.
He was only twenty-five. People grew up fast then.