The London bureau: A queen and a correspondent

Former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent Russell Baker is pictured at his home.

It was Queen Elizabeth who made me a foreign correspondent.

Before she turned up, my newspaper career had consisted of listening to Baltimore policemen reminisce about great hangings and covering bush-league statesmen deploring the state of the world.

I had also covered night rewrite: stickups, accidents, floods, fires, murders, from supper time to 2 in the morning. It wasn't a dead-end job, but neither was there a lot to look forward to except retirement after 40 years of good behavior.

When the queen assignment came, I was 27 years old. Like all young reporters — brilliant or hopelessly incompetent — I dreamed of the glamorous life of the foreign correspondent: prowling Vienna in a Burberry trench coat, speaking a dozen languages to dangerous women, narrowly escaping Sardinian bandits — the usual stuff that newspaper dreams are made of.

For this reason I did not say "No" when one of The Sun's more godlike editors invited me to an elegant restaurant for a gin-soaked lunch late in the autumn of 1952 and asked, as the third round of drinks approached, whether I would like to be the paper's next London correspondent.

It was the most extraordinary question ever addressed to me, and I let it bounce round and round in my skull to make sure I had heard it correctly:

Would I like to be the next London correspondent? That was what he said. He was offering me the job of London correspondent!

Even under a heavy load of gin, it was possible to feel the earth move. Life was not going to be the same ever again.

His conversation shifted immediately into discussion of how to cover a coronation, a subject of negligible concern to me until that instant, when it became clear that the pending coronation of an English queen was the cause of my rise to glory.

The new queen was 27 years old. (I was, and still am, only eight months older.) I thought sending an innocent, ignorant youth to London suggested a management decision to match the tone of the coverage to the youthful spirit of the occasion.

On the strength of this probably absurd conjecture, I guessed that that the paper wanted more impertinence than it usually got from the London bureau. From the outset, I decided to produce stories more likely to entertain Baltimoreans than the usual London bureau articles about diplomacy and decline of the pound sterling.

Serious journalism need not be solemn. And so I came to London determined to keep the coverage unsolemn. It would include a look at pop-culture stars such as Danny LaRue, a female impersonator with a vast middle-class family following, and Johnnie Ray, an American pop singer who made audiences fill the London Palladium with screams of delight as he wept and wailed about a little white cloud that cried.

The Sun was also present for Billy Graham's first London revival and for the heroic display in Edinburgh of the largest assortment of Scotch malt whisky ever assembled. Its correspondent checked out Manx cats at a convention on the Isle of Man and traveled to a frigid Scottish town on the Irish Sea to inspect a decaying estate inherited, along with a knighthood, by a Maryland farmer.

Movie stars, kings, sheiks, chiefs, war heroes, newspaper columnists and Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro the Elder appeared in the cables to Baltimore, along with Prince Akihito of Japan, the queen of Tonga and an embalmed whale that was attracting a big, paying audience to a London street corner.

Despite the heavy file of good-time coverage, the normal meat-and-potatoes diet of political and diplomatic stories did not much decline. There were frequent visits to the House of Commons, where Winston Churchill was prime minister again, and I never missed one of Foreign Minister Anthony Eden's briefings for American correspondents, though everybody knew they were a waste of time.

I saw a consummate piece of Churchill's theatrical oratory at a party political conference in which he succeeded in persuading Conservatives that he was still capable of serving as prime minister in spite of a stroke suffered a few months earlier.

Reporting the actual ceremony of Elizabeth's coronation, which was the fundamental reason I had been sent from the rewrite desk to the north transept of Westminster Abbey, was perhaps the least interesting aspect of the assignment. Nowadays a coronation would be reported as just another television spectacle from London, where they do spectacle so well. Sending a print reporter to England would be absurd.

In 1953, with no satellites to bring the show instantly into American living rooms, the TV networks could only fly their pictures across the Atlantic for showing next day. It was almost surely the last time a print correspondent would struggle with words to give the public an inadequate impression of a show too gaudy for anything but television's best high-def cameras.

Russell Baker is a retired journalist whose books include "Growing Up," "The Good Times" and "Looking Back." He worked for The Sun from 1947 through 1954 as a local reporter, London correspondent and White House reporter.