Almost 30 years after leaving journalism, Lynda Schuster found herself telling a new story. But it wasn’t one about someone else’s life. For once, it was her own.
“Through the years, people who have been close to me and knew my story had always said, ‘Oh my gosh, you should write a book about this,’” she says. “You reach a certain point in your life where you look back and you think, ‘I kind of would like to write it down to try to make sense of it all.’”
The Pittsburgh-based author does that in her new memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver: The Life and Times of a War Correspondent Turned Ambassatrix (Melville House Publishing).
The book spans 20 years, beginning when Schuster was a 17-year-old living in Detroit, Mich., booking a student-fare ticket to Tel Aviv to volunteer on a kibbutz — an Israeli communal settlement — and ending in 1998 in Peru. There, she and her second husband, Dennis Jett, a U.S. ambassador, lived in a 22,000-square-foot mansion surrounded by soldiers, and traveled with a three-car bulletproof convoy.
The book has two narrative arcs. The first is Schuster’s story about becoming a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. The second retells her journey to becoming an ambassador’s wife, complete with black-tie parties and a personal staff.
“There are two stories, but one life,” she says.
As a journalist, Schuster was taught to never use “I” in a story. Writing this book, she says, required breaking that convention and understanding how she came to be as a writer, wife and person.
“It’s like being on the other side of the looking glass,” she said. “I’m always doing the interviews, but now I’m the subject of the story, so that was very difficult.”
Particularly, it was difficult for her to write about the death of her first husband, veteran Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Dial Torgerson, who was killed in Honduras on assignment. They had been married for 10 months.
“Having to go back and look at letters that I had written and letters he had written to me prior to his death, and look at news clippings because it made international headlines, and to have to go back and relive all that was really very, very painful,” she says.
After her first husband’s death, Schuster was transferred to Beirut, where she covered Lebanon’s civil war, and also reported from the Persian Gulf, Israel and Egypt.
Later, she relocated to South America and became the Journal’s Central America correspondent, covering Argentina’s “dirty war,” when the military and right-wing fighters killed leftist guerillas, political dissenters and supporters of socialism.
It was there she met Jett, who worked for the State Department as a political officer.
The couple soon married, and in the late 1980s Schuster left the Journal to follow Jett to his posting in Malawi as a deputy chief of mission. She became the South African bureau chief at the Christian Science Monitor, covering the last of the apartheid regime. She left journalism to follow Jett to his ambassadorial postings in Mozambique and Peru. According to Schuster, life as an ambassador’s wife was a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand, because of my husband’s position, I got to meet people and experience things that I would never have as a journalist, but I also lived in this rarefied bubble where it’s all cocktail parties and state dinners,” she said.
After the birth of their daughter, Noa, the couple moved to the United States, eventually relocating for her husband’s new job as a dean at the University of Florida, then to State College, where he became a founding professor in Penn State University’s School of International Affairs. They moved to Pittsburgh for their daughter to start high school in the area after being blown away by the city when visiting friends.
The family now lives in Squirrel Hill. Lately, Schuster is busy on her book tour. And she’s already working on another, a nonfiction work about her new home: Pittsburgh.
“It has power, it has money, it has sex, it has love, but luckily nothing to do about war,” she says.
With Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, she wants to make readers understand there’s a bigger world outside of Pittsburgh worth exploring — though it’s perfectly fine if you return to the Steel City, she says.
“You should go out and follow your heart, but don’t be surprised if you end up back basically where you started from, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “Where the journey ultimately ends isn’t so important. It’s the journey itself.”