Ryan, Cornelius John (1920–74), journalist and author, was born 5 June 1920 at 33 Heytesbury St., Dublin, son of John Joseph Ryan, checker, and Amelia Ryan (née Clohisey). Educated at Synge St. CBS and the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he studied the violin and graduated in 1936, he started a salon orchestra, the HiLo, playing venues in the Dublin area. He submitted plays to the Abbey theatre, all of which were rejected. In 1940 he moved to London as junior secretary to Garfield Weston, biscuit manufacturer and MP. Joining the London office of the Reuters news agency (1941–3), he swiftly rose from copyboy to reporter, covering the London blitz. As a war correspondent with the Daily Telegraph, he covered the air war over Europe, flying fourteen bombing missions with the US army air force. On the day after his twenty-fourth birthday he witnessed the Normandy invasion (6 June 1944), then accompanied the US 3rd Army of Gen. George Patton across France and into Germany. He reported on the last few months of the war in the Pacific, and after the Japanese surrender opened the Daily Telegraph’s Tokyo bureau. Based in Jerusalem as the newspaper's Middle East bureau chief (1946–7), he was also a stringer for several American publications. Moving to New York as a contributing editor of Time (1947–9), he covered the Bikini atoll atomic-bomb tests and the Arab–Israeli war. After a stint on the production team of the ‘Newsweek’ television programme (1949–50), he was an associate editor of Collier's (1950–56), becoming a senior editor for a brief period before the magazine's closure. His first two books, co-written with Frank Kelley, were Star-spangled mikado (1947), about the American postwar occupation of Japan under the administration of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and the biography MacArthur: man of action (1950). He edited two compendia about the prospects for space exploration, Across the space frontier (1952), by Joseph Kaplan and others, and Conquest of the moon (UK title: Man on the moon) (1953), by Wernher von Braun and others, and wrote a collection of short stories, One minute to ditch! (1957).
Ryan found his metier in writing three journalistic histories about episodes of the second world war; painstakingly researched and vividly narrated, each became a massive international bestseller. Inspired by visiting the Normandy beaches for the fifth anniversary of the D-day landings (1949), he plunged into ten years of intensive work on a thorough account of the invasion. The closure of Collier's (December 1956), though initially rendering him jobless and $20,000 in debt from personal investment in the research, resulted in a substantial expansion of the scope of the project under the aegis of the Reader's Digest, which financed and facilitated it to conclusion, and vigorously promoted its publication. For the rest of his career Ryan was employed by Reader's Digest in various capacities, eventually becoming roving editor (1965–74). Heading a team of researchers in five countries, Ryan consulted numerous published and documentary sources about the D-day invasion, and conducted extensive interviews with military and civilian participants. He methodically plotted a detailed chronology of the day's events in five-to-fifteen-minute intervals, and mapped the hour-by-hour locations of individuals. The resulting book, The longest day (1959), proved a riveting account of the invasion from numerous perspectives, chronicling the experiences of hundreds of participants of the several nationalities on both sides, from staff officers and unit commanders to enlisted soldiers, resistance fighters, and civilians. Translated into twenty languages, the book sold over ten million hardcover copies worldwide, was serialised in Reader's Digest, and appeared in successive paperback editions. A star-studded film adaptation (1962), for which Ryan co-wrote the screenplay, set box-office records and received an Academy award nomination for best picture. Backed by Reader's Digest researchers, Ryan pursued the same methodology of documentary research, personal interviews, and meticulously detailed reconstruction of events in two subsequent books. The last battle (1966), about the fall of Berlin (April 1945), is especially valuable for his use of Soviet documents, to which he was the first American citizen in forty years to be allowed access, and interviews with Soviet marshals. A bridge too far (1974) is an account of Operation Market Garden, the ill-executed allied airborne offensive behind enemy lines in Holland (September 1944), aimed at securing a Rhine crossing at Arnhem. The 1977 film version, with another vast and starry cast, was directed by Richard Attenborough.
Known to his friends as ‘Connie’, Ryan was naturalised a USA citizen (1950). He married (1950) Kathryn Ann Morgan, a novelist and magazine editor, and for many years his sole research assistant and the family's lone breadwinner; they had one son and one daughter. Made a millionaire by the phenomenal success of The longest day, Ryan bought a spacious, fifteen-room house in Ridgefield, Connecticut, which served him as both home and office. An honorary research fellow in economics and social sciences at Manchester University (1964), he was awarded the French Légion d'honneur (1973). His business interests included directorships of D. J. Ryan & Co., and Ryan Holdings, both of Dublin. His recreations were golf, fishing, and shooting. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1970 while in the midst of research on A bridge too far, he raced to complete the book despite enduring several operations and continual severe pain; he claimed that the experience of terminal illness allowed him the better to identify with the sufferings of wounded and dying soldiers. Two months after the book's American publication, he died, aged 54, in hospital in New York on 23 November 1974. The posthumous publication A private battle (1979), recording his struggle with cancer, was edited by his wife from tapes and notebooks integrated with her own reflections; it was adapted into a television film (1980). Ryan's papers, including research files, correspondence, audio recordings, and working library, are held at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio.
Ryan's work is best described as extended and retrospective journalism, applying the techniques of good reportage – accuracy, detail, immediacy, human interest – but largely lacking in context, analysis, and conceptual insight. As a species of oral history it affords both gripping reading and valuable source material for more analytical and comprehensive treatments. His concentration on the individual experiences of a varied galaxy of participants he took as a credo, a Whitmanesque assertion of both the individual and the democratic mass; he justified the minute reporting of the random and trivial as an appropriate evocation of the fragmented experience of war. Though his method had its critics – a contemporary reviewer dubbed it ‘the Fifi-Dupont-was-washing-her-drawers-when-the-American-tanks-arrived style of military history’ (NY Times) – it spawned a legion of imitators in both print (The Easter rebellion (1964) by Max Caulfield being a notable example) and filmed documentary, but few as exhaustively researched, accurately reported, or skilfully narrated.