NEW YORK — In 1936 Europe, before Hitler rolled into Poland but civil war on in Spain, a unique guidebook offered a different slant on the Continent for foreign travelers tired of traipsing to ancient monuments during whirlwind grand tours.
"We have proceeded on the assumption that your thirst for historical knowledge is nothing like so great as your thirst for the beer of Pilsen or the slivovitsa of Belgrade," the foreword reads, pointing out that Rome not only contains famous architecture and priceless art, "but also Italians."
The writer was Eugene Fodor, hardly a travel industry mainstay when his book, "On the Continent," launched his namesake brand 75 years ago. Back then, the Hungarian-born Fodor was a young anti-fascist who had worked as an interpreter for a French shipping line, studied at the Sorbonne and spoke six languages.
His trajectory as head of a fledgling guidebook company took a shadowy turn once war broke out. In 1942, he added spy to his resume — specializing in psychological warfare for the Americans and later providing cover for CIA operatives masquerading as travel writers for his guides.
Fodor's Travel is now an imprint of Random House, which is feting the founder this month as "The Spy Who Loved Travel," reissuing the original 1936 guide as an e-book on Fodors.com.
Fodor's spy past remained a secret for years after his 1,200-page tome on Europe helped transform guidebooks from stuffy lists of famous sites to often-cheeky narratives on cultures and people — while also dishing up places to stay, eat and wander in a variety of price ranges. Little more than rarely updated books for academics and the privileged existed before that.
Fodor employed top writers (the real kind) to spin each of the 26 countries covered in the book, first published in Britain. They provided on-the-ground advice on everything from tipping to train travel while encouraging tourists to mingle with the locals.
Fodor fact-checked every word and wrote chapters on Bulgaria and Monte Carlo himself. He updated the book for a U.S. audience in 1937. Another revision followed in '38 and hit The New York Times best-seller list.
It was the same year Hitler took control of the northern section of Czechoslovakia — Fodor's home area — under the Munich Agreement. Fodor was in the United States promoting his guidebook when he learned of the Munich pact. Outraged, he cabled the magazine office in London where he was employed and vowed never to return to Europe — "except in uniform." He made good on the promise when he joined the U.S. Army in 1942, becoming a U.S. citizen soon after.
He was recruited by CIA precursors because of his language skills, doing prisoner interrogations and helping write leaflets dropped on the enemy during the Italian campaign. He also broadcast propaganda from Algiers and created the system of "Eisenhower Passes" that rewarded Nazi soldiers who surrendered with good treatment.
After the war, Fodor lived in Prague for a year. He met and married his wife, Vlasta, there and they later settled in Litchfield, Conn.
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In 1974, The New York Times revealed his spy secret — Fodor's franchise long established with several dozen guides in what had become a competitive business after a '50s boom in overseas travel by Americans. Watergate operative E. Howard Hunt, at the height of Senate hearings on the scandal that brought down President Nixon, spilled Fodor's past and other CIA secrets during testimony.
According to Hunt, Fodor had worked as a spy in Austria when the Office of Strategic Services became the CIA and continued in intelligence for 12 to 15 years. Fodor tried to keep the lid on in late 1974 and early '75, fearing relatives of his Czech-born wife could be put in danger. But pressed by the paper's expose, he acknowledged his covert work — and his hiring of many guidebook writers who were CIA spies during the Cold War.
"But I told them to make sure and send me real writers, not civil engineers. I wanted to get some writing out of them. And I did, too," Fodor told the Times in June 1975.
Fodor died in 1991 of a brain tumor at age 85. He retired from the company in 1978 following a heart attack after a stressful reshuffling of publishers. Random House bought the company in 1986 and Fodor returned in a smaller role.
"This was a man who had deep curiosity and loved travel," said Tim Jarrell, publisher of Fodor's Travel. "He really felt that travel was a form of international diplomacy. He was a strong advocate of tourism and travel because he felt that when you meet people from different cultures, it's extremely hard to start a war."
Before there was a Frommer's or a Lonely Planet, Fodor dedicated himself to annual updates. "That was a huge factor," said Meg Rushton, a Fodor's Travel publicist who spent six months researching Fodor's life for the reissue. "You didn't have things like hotels or restaurants listed because the books wouldn't be updated for 15 or 20 years."
Fodor's regular updates allowed for more detailed logistical information to be included for the first time.
A constant traveler himself, Fodor was also dedicated to encouraging foreigners to interact with the people of the countries they visit. "He was very interested in talking about the modern culture, seeing their lives the way they lived them then, not just visiting artifacts of the past," Rushton said.
He also thought guidebooks should be entertaining, unlike the Baedekers and Blue Guides that dominated when he broke into the industry. "He thought travel guides should be inspirational," Rushton said.
The Fodor's brand now includes about 300 titles, a website with nearly 2 million unique visitors each month and a complement of iPhone apps and e-books.
Pat Carrier, who owns the Globe Corner travel bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., said the Fodor's brand has ceded ground to competitors over the last 15 years, allowing Lonely Planet, Moon and DK to chip away at its base.
But, he said, the brand has stayed true to its mission: "They provide a refined, filtered set of recommendations across the board. They've curated the destination a bit more than some of the other guide series, which kind of throw everything at you without a filter. That's also why some people don't like Fodor's, because it's a filtered view of the place."
One competitor, Arthur Frommer, came along a generation later and gives Fodor his due: "That was the beginning of the effort to begin describing the entire travel experience," said the founder of Frommer's Travel Guides.
Fodor, he said, "didn't lead the movement but he joined the movement to change travel guides from simply a dry recitation of sightseeing attractions into books that dealt with the entirety of the travel experience."
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