A global legacy

Tucked away down a Scarsdale drive sits a dwelling with global treasures floor to ceiling. Buddhist statues from India and Mongolia, Tibetan prayer horns, Palekh boxes from Moscow, scrolls from China, jade from Taiwan and pictures – hundreds of pictures. They include oversize shots of faraway lands and some of the most notable political figures of our time – the Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth II.

Tiptoeing through the sanctuary recalls lyrics from “The Little Mermaid” song “Part of Your World”: “How many wonders can one cavern hold?”

Prominently placed on the music desk of a grand piano is the 1949 wedding photo – plus a recent shot 63 years later – of two of the most prolific international journalists of this century – Seymour and Audrey Topping.

“They call me Top,” says the groom from his living room.

He is casually distinguished at 91 with a wash of white locks and she is a graceful great-grandmother, bright-complexioned under a champagne-colored coiffure. The images displayed through the home are hers, taken over the last 60-plus years as an award-winning photojournalist and foreign correspondent. The rest of the items come from regions she and Top toured on assignment or at one time called home.

“They’re things we picked up all over the world,” Audrey says. “China, Moscow, London.” Though she stops there, the list goes on – Indochina, Berlin, India, Hong Kong.

From the late 1940s through the late ’60s, the Toppings traveled eastern territories, reporting on some of the most high-profiled international events for stateside press. As if that weren’t enough, during those years they became parents, having four of their five daughters abroad.

“At the time, we were just pedaling so fast to keep our heads above water that we didn’t actually realize what we were going through,” Audrey says. “When you finally have a chance to take a breath, you look back and say, ‘Wow – I did that.’ It’s almost like another lifetime. Lifetimes.”

China syndrome

Their lifetime(s) together began in a faraway place under riveting political unrest – Nanking, during the midst of the Chinese Civil War. Top had recently relocated from Peking (Beijing) to Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist capital of China, as a war correspondent with the International News Service in 1946. Soon after, the fair-haired Audrey Ronning would land in Nanking to join her father, a minister-counselor posted at the Canadian Embassy. She was a student at the University of Nanking, English teacher at Ginling College and anchor at the U.S. Armed Forces radio station when a meeting at the American military officers’ club – so nostalgic an image – spurred romance. An engagement soon followed.

But, as legendary love stories go, Audrey was forced to evacuate with her family back to Canada when the Communists descended on Nanking. Top stayed behind to report from the battleground for the international news service before the two reunited in Audrey’s Canadian hometown to marry. Then, back to civil war in China.

“That took me traveling to battlefields all over China,” Top says. “Thereafter, I covered the French Indochina War for two years for the Associated Press. Those were the most challenging years as a correspondent.”

Top details a number of his battlefront years and the couple’s career travels together in his latest book, a 2010 memoir recently released in paperback, “On the Front Lines of the Cold War: An American Correspondent’s Journal from the Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam.” And those years came with their share of clear and present danger.

“There were frequent cases where the reporters involved were exposed,” he says. “There was no way you could realistically tell the story unless you were out front. Quite a number of my fellow journalists were killed in these operations or were wounded while covering these battles.”

He recalls the Battle of Huaihai – the most critical battle of the Chinese Civil War, which secured the Communist takeover.

“I was the only correspondent on the battlefield,” Top says. “I was with the Communists at one point on the battlefield, and the consequence of the defeat of the Nationalists in that battle was opening the way for Mao Zedong’s forces to capture Nanking and the Chinese mainland. So it was a turning point in the civil war.”

And though Top stood “on the front lines,” he wasn’t the only Topping to feel the effects of the fray.

“In Saigon, when Susan was born, the hospital was under fire,” Audrey says of her daughter’s birth at the nearby military hospital. “So that was rather stressful.”

She chuckles in hindsight at the understatement.

“But when you’re younger,” she adds, “you don’t have a sense of consequence. You’re immortal.”

On the Silk Road

Yet the coming years didn’t drain their sense of adventure.

In 1966, Audrey would manage, to Top’s shock, to secure a visa to journalist-restricted China after applying as a travel-minded Canadian housewife. There, she was the first to report on the Chinese Cultural Revolution from the belly of the beast. Her story made the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

The couple also covered the new Karakoram Highway from Islamabad, Pakistan through the Himalayas and over the 15,000-foot Kunjarab Pass that followed the Old Silk Road through treacherous terrain and lawless lands.

“There were avalanches along the way,” Top says.

“And rock slides,” Audrey chimes in.

They had to be rescued by helicopter. Not only that, while traversing Rudyard Kipling’s famous Khyber Pass, Audrey had to charm armed guards in Afghanistan’s perilous Peshawar region when facing gunpoint for snapping photos. After some quick thinking and a cartridge of souvenir Polaroid shots for the men, the truck sped away unscathed. Their story made the cover of Time in 1979.

In addition to her 16 stories and four covers in The New York Times Magazine – plus several other covers and Top’s book “On the Front Lines of the Cold War” – Audrey has photographed many of the most important political figures of the last 60 years – Indochina’s Emperor Bao Dai, Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, the Shah of Iran, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Chiang Kai-shek, Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, the Dalai Lama, Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir, Presidents John F. Kennedy, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, and Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth, whose coronation both Toppings attended.

Dozens of Audrey’s stunning portraits will be featured in her own book hitting shelves in October. “China Mission: A Personal History from Imperial China to the People’s Republic” is the story of Audrey’s missionary grandparents on mainland China, her father’s momentous diplomatic missions and her and Top’s times as journalists.

“It’s the story of China over the last century,” she says. “A member of our family was there for almost every event of importance that happened during that century.”

More adventures

Top, of course, encountered his own wealth of military and political figures during reporting exploits, including Khrushchev and Communist leaders at Mao Zedong’s headquarters – a particularly rare feat. In 1951, the young Congressman Jack Kennedy specifically requested Top to brief him during a fact-finding visit to Saigon.

Top served The New York Times for 33 years – as international journalist, chief correspondent in Moscow and Southeast Asia, foreign editor for three years and managing editor for a decade – before becoming administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes for nine years. He’s been praised not only as a distinguished journalist but as a keen observer of diplomatic affairs. The recognition, he says with deep respect, is something he shares with his wife.

“Many of the things which I did as a correspondent I would not have been able to do if I didn’t have Audrey at my side, actually participating with photographs and impressions of what we were experiencing,” Top says. “We made a pretty good team, I think.”

The Center for International Journalists agrees: In 2002, the center awarded the couple the first Greenway-Winship Award for Service to International Journalism.

Today, Top is president of emeritus professors at Columbia University in Manhattan and teaches journalism courses on covering regional conflict, but the duo’s legacy abroad continues.

The couple still lectures in China, where they hold honorary degrees from two universities. Last year when Top turned 90, 1,000 college students serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” in their native tongue. And when recently visiting a school begun by Audrey’s grandparents in Imperial China – so revolutionary at the time for allowing females that only one student showed up on the first day – Audrey was welcomed upon arrival to cheers from the school’s current student body, now 6,000 boys and girls strong.

And their travels aren’t over, nor hopefully their stories. Audrey points to a cover she did for National Geographic on the discovery of China’s terra-cotta army, those famous figures surrounding the still-buried tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.

“I was the first one to have the privilege of taking pictures and writing the story,” she says. “If they start excavating the tomb, I’m there.”

Perhaps she’ll return with a new memento to adorn their treasure trove of a home. There’s room for one more wonder, after all.


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