If you haven’t heard of Dickey Chapelle, you’re not alone. But Lorissa Rinehart’s authoritative biography, First to the Front: The Untold Story of Dickey Chapelle, Trailblazing Female War Correspondent, makes it clear that this courageous photojournalist, who was the first female war correspondent to be killed in combat, deserves wider recognition.
Born Georgette Louise Meyer in 1918 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chapelle had an early love of aviation and even studied for a time at MIT. After she flunked out of school, Chapelle’s parents sent her to live with her grandparents in Florida, where she got a job publicizing a Miami airshow. After being sent to Havana to cover another airshow, the ambitious Chapelle pitched a story to the New York Times. When the ace pilot crashed before her eyes, she raced to a phone booth to dictate the story. A chance encounter with a fellow journalist on the scene led to a job offer in New York City, where she took photography classes from an older photojournalist named Tony Chapelle. The two eventually married—and then divorced, after his violent behavior escalated in tandem with her growing success as a journalist.
Rinehart’s account follows Chapelle’s wide-ranging international career from Panama to the Pacific, to 1950s postwar Europe, to Laos, Vietnam and a host of other locations. Chapelle covered conflicts as well as humanitarian crises, and Rinehart details her exceptional courage, her understanding of Cold War politics and her unflinching commitment to telling the stories of people oppressed by harsh regimes or fighting for independence.
Rinehart also explores the reasons why Chapelle is not well known despite her extraordinary career. Saying she was “ahead of her time” may sound like a platitude, but Rinehart demonstrates that Chapelle’s storytelling truly was different from many of her fellow journalists, who accused Chapelle of being obsessed with her career and not being objective. While some journalists relied heavily on government sources, Chapelle took an intense, immersive approach to stories, prioritizing “the voices, the lives, and the experiences of those she reported on,” Rinehart writes.
Chapelle died in 1965 while embedded with U.S. Marines in Vietnam. With her trademark black-rimmed glasses and pearl earrings, Chapelle was unforgettable, fearless and compassionate. At the time of her death at age 47, she had been reporting in conflict zones across the world for 25 years.
First to the Front is a valuable, long-overdue tribute to an American woman whose work and commitment to human rights is more relevant than ever.