Jeffrey Blyth: Reporter who rode into Havana with Castro and scooped the world with Grace Kelly wedding story

A former foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail who covered US affairs for Press Gazette from New York for more than 40 years has died aged 87.

Jeffrey Blyth travelled the world for many years as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail.  For most of the time he was based in New York. Major stories he covered included the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas (and the subsequent shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas Police headquarters), the killing of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles, Chappaquiddick and Castro’s takeover of Cuba. 

Blyth rode into Havana on Castro's jeep following his successful socialist revolution of 1958, and later recalled that the new leader of Cuba only wanted to talk about baseball. He was standing just a few paces behind Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin, when he was shot by Dallas night-club owner Jack Ruby in the basement garage of the Dallas Police headquarters in 1963.

Before that he covered Grace Kelly’s wedding, the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Revolution and the building of the Berlin Wall.  His travels took him  all over the world. In fact there were only two major countries he never visited: Australia and New Zealand.  The reason, as he once explained to the Australian ambassador, was because neither country had experienced a revolution. 

Blyth  believed that he scooped a press pack of 1,380 journalists to get the inside exclusive on the wedding of the decade – that of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956.

In the run-up to the event journalists were getting increasingly restless at lack of access to the couple.

Blyth approached the royal chamberlain to act as peacemaker and ended up with an exclusive chat with the prince, which appeared under the heading: “My Wedding: By Rainier.

He covered stories in virtually every country in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia—including Vietnam. He accompanied President Eisenhower to his ‘peace trips” to the Middle East and Asia.

Blyth, born in 1926 in South Shields, started in journalism at the age of 16 as a ‘cub reporter' on the Shields Gazette.  His salary was seven shillings a week. 

Later he worked in the Newcastle office of the Northern Echo.   During WW2 he was a soldier journalist, working for the British Army newspaper Union Jack in Italy under editor Hugh Cudlipp.

After the war he joined the now defunct News Chronicle, and then was appointed shipping correspondent for the Daily Mail in Southampton.  It was there he scored his first big scoop—discovering the car in which the famous runaway spies Burgess and MacLean had fled London and then abandoned in the Southampton docks. It was the first clue to how the renegades had left Britain. Years later he discovered when he met Guy Burgess in Moscow  that had even been with them in the bar of the ship in which they fled Britain – without knowing it.

His overseas years began when he was appointed the Daily Mail’s European roving correspondent, based in Paris. 

In 1957 he was sent to New York where he was the chief US correspondent for almost 15 years. After the Mail he worked as a New York correspondent for the BBC and the South African Broadcasting Company, filing daily radio reports. At the same time he set up a company in New York, called Interpress, filing regular weekly reports on show business, media and travel for various British publications. 

He was one of the early members of the Overseas Press Club and a past president of the Foreign Press Association. 

He began writing for Press Gazette virtually from its inception in 1966.  Originally because it was feared the Mail might object he did it anonymously – or in the beginning using his wife byline.

His wife Myrna, an American journalist and author, was the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal for more than twenty years and the founder of More Magazine..They had two sons, Jonathan and Graham, and two grandchildren. He was eighty seven.

Jeffrey Blyth: March 20, 1926- September 21, 2013

The Mail's man in America saw it all for Press Gazette too

This piece by Jeffrey Blyth appeared in the last weekly print edition of Press Gazette in August 2008
 
The first I heard of Press Gazette, a new magazine for Fleet Street, wa aboard a Thames riverboat.
 
Colin Valdar, former editor at the Sunday Pictorial, invited me for lunch on one of the two floating clubs moored alongside The Embankment. In those days I was the Daily Mail’s New York correspondent, working alongside the then famous columnist Don Iddon.
 
Would I be interested, Valdar asked me, in writing a weekly column from America? I was, but there was one possible snag. Would the Mail approve? We solved that by agreeing that I would write the column, but it would carry the byline of my American journalist wife Myrna (who was then working for the magazine Family Circle, and then edited Ladies’ Home Journal for 20 years).
 
When UK Press Gazette, as it was originally titled, was launched (in 1966), the column was given a whole page under the title Dateline New York. Copy was sent to London by mail, updated by Telex.
 
Wherever my travels for the Mail took me, Thursday was the day I wrote the column and posted it.
 
After a few weeks I learned Associated Newspapers had no objection to my writing for Press Gazette – as long as I didn’t reveal any company secrets. So started a more than 40-year association with Press Gazette – with my own byline.
 
In the early days we wrote mostly about new developments, papers being launched, papers folding, in America. Yes, they were even closing in those days.
 
Before the internet it was easier to be ahead on such stories, before they landed as they do now in The Telegraph or The Guardian. But we also reported on the gossip from such New York journalistic hangouts as Costello’s, PJ Clarks’ and Toot Shor’s – the doings and misdoings. We also reported the successes of former Fleet Street colleagues working in the US, such as former Express photographer Harry Benson, who came over with The Beatles and stayed on. How he got his famous picture of Bobby Kennedy dying from his assassin’s bullets, on the kitchen floor of a Los Angeles hotel, cradled in
the arms of his wife.
 
Other tales I told included how Express man Iain Aitken and I rode into Havana with Fidel Castro (a story I recounted only recently on Castro’s relinquishing power), and how the rebel leader wanted to talk more about baseball than the success of his revolution.
 
How I was standing just a few paces behind Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin, when he was shot by Dallas night-club owner Jack Ruby in the basement garage of the Dallas Police headquarters.
 
At the time I thought it was flash bulbs popping, until they carried Oswald’s body past me and laid it on a desk top. Even then I had to watch a replay of the shooting on TV before I really understood what had happened.
 
How we got to Dallas after the JFK shooting is another tale from that distant era… It happened on a Friday. Early afternoon in New York. To my dismay there were no planes from New York to Dallas that afternoon. It was a TWA clerk who suggested “Why not hire a plane?”  How much? $15,000, he replied. First reaction: No way! On reflection maybe that might be an idea.
 
There were at least a dozen British journalists, including David English, then working for the Express, also trying to get to Dallas I started calling them up. Soon we had at least 15 ready to divvy up the cost at a $1,000 apiece. The pilot had radioed ahead and there were a dozen taxis waiting for us at Dallas airport. First stop Police HQ. We arrived just as Oswald, his face bruised, was being paraded for the cameras, and denying he had shot anyone.
 
A new lead for the story, but more important it enabled London to change the dateline to “Jeffrey Blyth, Dallas” – and also to justify that old Daily Mail slogan “Wherever there is a story there’s a Daily Mail reporter.”
 
When we were not reporting shootings and occupation) I did find time to report for PG the rising fortunes of other former Fleet Street colleagues now working in the US, such as Anthea Disney, Harry Evans and Tina Brown and, of course, Anna Wintour, whose father Charles briefly edited PG after he left the Evening Standard.
 
One of the most bizarre stories we reported was the ghoulish gang of thieves who stole and sold body parts for medical purposes, among them the body of Alistair Cooke.
 
The gang was recently sentenced to long jail terms, but of course the Cooke family didn’t know about the desecration before the cremation of what remained of his body. That was an after-tale.
 
For years as The Guardian correspondent in America and then for the BBC, Alistair had written his columns and Letters from America from his apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park.
 
After his cremation the family wanted to scatter his ashes in the park. But officially that’s forbidden. What did they do? I discovered they had popped into a nearby Starbucks, bought three cups of coffee which they drank and then poured the ashes into the paper cups. Walking into the park, when no-one was looking, they scattered the ashes, as I reported, under the bushes and trees.
 
For a short while, a few years back, my American column for PG was dropped. Then Phillipa Kennedy was appointed editor and decided to revive it. I like to think it was because of popular demand, but she renamed it American Pie, a title which I never really liked, but felt it would churlish in the circumstances to complain.
 
Then came the internet age which, as an old ink-and-paper journalist, I did not welcome at first. That was until I saw how quickly our stories – and the occasional exclusive – made it to PG readers, not just in the UK but around the world.
 
One of them has been how much Fleet Street-style journalism has taken over in the USA. And it is not just the Rupert Murdoch effect. Though the Wall Street Journal is beginning to take on the look of a British upmarket daily, British-style editing is also apparent in the celebrity magazines and Brit editors now head several top publications .
 
Then there is the paparazzi, notably in Los Angeles, where Kevin Smith – the son of People journalist John Smith – runs Splash News, one of the more aggressive and successful photo agencies.
 
The only clouds in recent years had been the increasing number of obits I have had to write about old Fleet Street colleagues who have died either while working, or in retirement, in the USA. Also somewhat disturbing is the decline in the size of the British press contingent here.
 
At one time it was the biggest, when papers like the Telegraph, the Mirror and the Express each had as many as five or six reporters in New York alone. Today the British press corps would be hard pressed to field a cricket team.
 
The biggest foreign press contingents in New York today? If membership of the Foreign Press Association is any indication it’s Germany (57 members) and Italy (45).The UK has 16. And my happiest memory? Apart from my 20 years covering news in Europe, Asia and America for the Daily Mail, I am happy to have been associated with Press Gazette since day one.

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