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White, Sam (1913–1988)

by Fay Woodhouse

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Sam White (1913-1988), journalist, was born on 25 February 1913 at Proskurov, Russia (Ukraine), elder child of Jewish parents Usher Weinchelbaum, school teacher, and his wife Bella, née Nutta, and was named Solomon. The family fled the pogroms in the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War and came to Australia via Romania and Argentina, arriving in Melbourne in 1922 and adopting the surname White. Sam, as he became known, was educated at Coburg High School, then Wesley College (1930-31), where he was vice-president of the debating society.

White joined the Communist Party of Australia at a young age. In 1932 he enrolled in three arts subjects at the University of Melbourne, but attended more as an activist than a student. He became a member of the Labor Club, which selected him to join a local workers’ delegation to the Soviet Union if sufficient funds could be raised. At a historical society meeting on 28 April, when Professor (Sir) Ernest Scott lectured on the ‘great Whig historian, Macaulay’, White countered with Marx’s interpretation of history and was criticised by Scott for his behaviour, not his opinion.

Four days later White spoke in favour of the motion ‘That modern democratic institutions are a failure’ at a university debating society meeting. He had just declared that ‘fascism and communism were each the spearhead of their respective classes’, when there was a series of explosions at the rear of the public lecture theatre. At this signal a group of students–among them (Sir) Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop–who believed the university’s reputation was ‘besmirched’ by the activities of communist sympathisers, captured White and threatened to throw him into the university lake. The following afternoon the threat was carried out, although Dunlop refused to take part. White and two others were marched to the lake and forced to ‘embrace’ it, that is, they stood in it up to their ankles as punishment for their ‘disloyalty’ to the Empire. The incident replicated the treatment given Guido Baracchi in 1917 for his unpopular views on World War I.

White did not stay long at the university; his record indicates he was unmatriculated and he passed no examinations. His engagement with the CPA continued, until he was expelled for ‘bourgeois bohemianism’, or as White himself put it, ‘drunkenness’. He was naturalised in 1936 but left Australia the following year accompanied by Mary Wren, a daughter of John Wren. By February 1938, according to Chester Wilmot who met him in London, White had become ‘superficially bourgeois’; he had a good job in an advertising agency and was doing quite well, while maintaining his communist sympathies.

White’s journalistic career took off in 1944 when, as a war correspondent for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, he covered the invasion of Normandy and entered Paris with the victorious American troops. In Sydney after the war he argued with his employer (Sir) Frank Packer, having consumed most of Packer’s precious supply of Scotch whisky during a brief stay at the Union Club. White soon returned to Europe and began an affair with the novelist Nancy Mitford, using his volatile friendship with her to gather stories on British expatriates in Paris. Mitford later portrayed White as the journalist Mockbar, a cynical snob, seldom sober, in her novel Don’t Tell Alfred (1960).

Despite his ‘non-existent’ French language skills, in 1947 White became the Paris correspondent of London’s Evening Standard. He began his first story with the words ‘I am in Paris’, later recalling ‘I couldn’t think of any other way to start it, I was so overwhelmed’. During his long career at the Standard he hatched scoop after scoop––the French high life and society revelations were his specialty. With his trademark wit he wrote of France’s veto on British membership of the European Economic Community: ‘General de Gaulle has decreed today that wogs begin at Dover’. White developed an obsessive admiration for the French president and a collection of his articles was later published under the title De Gaulle (1984).

White’s usual place of work was a bar at the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de La Concorde, and later the Traveller’s Club on the Champs Elysees. A ‘Hemingwayesque figure’ with a gravelly voice and raffish charm, he was a large man who walked with a limp, often mistaken for drunkenness. He returned to Australia only four times after 1937 but remained very attached to the country; during his 1982 visit he wrote that Melbourne’s restaurant listings rivalled those of Paris. Nevertheless, the French capital became his home and he twice married there; with his first wife Francoise he had two sons and with his second wife a daughter. He was appointed to France’s Légion d’honneur in May 1988 and died on 4 September 1988 in Paris.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Ebury, Weary (1994)
  • R. J. W. Selleck, The Shop (2003)
  • F. Woodhouse, ‘Students: Always a Part of Carlton’, in P. Yule (ed), Carlton: A History (2004), p 122
  • Argus, 3 May 1932, p 7, 4 May 1932, p 9, 2 Aug 1934, p 7
  • Australian, 3 Feb 1972, p 7, 6 Sept 1988, p 11
  • National Times, 9 July 1973, p 17
  • Bulletin (Sydney), 10 Jan 1978, p 45
  • Age, 10 May 1988, p 8, 9 Sept 1988, p 17
  • Wilmot papers (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Fay Woodhouse, 'White, Sam (1913–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/white-sam-14877/text26067, accessed 26 September 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Weinchelbaum, Solomon
Birth

23 February 1913
Proskurov, Ukraine

Death

4 September 1988
Paris, France

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation