Marvin Breckinridge: One of “Murrow’s Boys”

Marvin Breckinridge, seating in front of broadcasting equipment, wearing headphones

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939  American filmmaker and freelance photojournalist Mary Marvin Breckinridge (1905-2002)* was traveling through Europe on two photojournalism assignments. She immediately went to London, where she took some of the first photos of air raid shelters and documented the evacuation of British children from the city. She was one of only four American photographers in Britain for the first months of the war and she saw no reason to leave. As she wrote to her mother, “I had planned to take the first boat home if war should start, but it now seems foolish to run away from the most interesting thing that I could be doing on earth right now.”

In November, 1939, Edward R. Murrow, head of CBS’s newly founded news division in Europe, invited Marvin to appear on a radio broadcast about changes the war had brought to England, based on a piece she had done called “An English Village Prepares for War.” That broadcast was followed by a second about women firefighters in London. Soon thereafter Murrow hired her as CBS’s first female staff broadcaster in Europe, despite the long-standing prejudice against women newscasters in radio. Murrow told Patterson: "Your stuff so far has been first-rate. I am pleased, New York is pleased, and so far as I know the listeners are pleased. If they aren't to hell with them."

One of only a handful of American women in Europe working in radio,** Breckinridge made fifty broadcasts from seven countries, including Germany. Broadcasting from Berlin, she famously slipped a negative assessment of Germany past the Nazi censors.*** Mentioning the German newspaper Völkische Beobachter, she said, almost as an aside “The motto of this important official paper is Freedom and Bread. There is still bread.”

Breckinridge's broadcasting and photojournalism careers ended abruptly in June 1940 when she married American diplomat Jefferson Patterson, who was then serving in Berlin. The State Department did not allow diplomatic spouses (which effectively meant wives) to publish photographs or articles or to broadcast on the grounds that such work could compromise diplomatic work.  What a loss!

*She chose to use the name Marvin as an adult so as not to be confused with her cousin Mary Breckinridge, who founded the Frontier Nursing Service. Breckinridge (Marvin, not Mary) made an acclaimed silent film about the Frontier Nursing Service, The Forgotten Frontier, which was released in 1930.

**Including Sigrid Schultz, who added broadcast journalist to her resume in September 1938 during the Munich Conference. At first she worked as a stringer for the Mutual Broadcasting System, which was a cooperative radio network owned by member radio stations, including WGN in Chicago, which was a Tribune affiliate. By January, 1939, Sigrid was a regular in the Mutual lineup, with a fifteen-minute segment of news and analysis that ran on Sunday evenings live from Berlin

***Not that easy to do. A trio of German censors had to approve each script before broadcasters went on the air.


Eleanor Packard. Half of “Pack and Peebee.” (I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

Eleanor Packard was a long -time correspondent for the United Press, who covered the Ethiopian War, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II.  She worked as a team with her husband Reynolds Packard. They reportedly met in a bar when he got into a fight and she floored his adversary. (What the New York Times called their “two-fisted and venturesome” approach to reporting created a lot of anecdotes. It’s hard to know which stories about them are true and which are not.) Known as Pack and Peebee,* they covered major stories on four continents, beginning with China, often splitting up to cover more territory.

Big, tough-looking and often unkempt, she was no “tiger in white gloves. ” She often said she was too busy covering wars to worry about her appearance.

As a case in point, she was the first woman to wear slacks in an audience with the Pope.** In 1944, the day after American troops liberated Rome, she was one of a group of correspondents waiting to see Pope Pius XII. Packard had arrived in Rome with the Fifth Army with no clothing except her war correspondent uniform.*** There were two other women in the group, both of whom wore dresses. Vatican officials asked her to leave because of her inappropriate attire.

Just then the Pope entered the room. As he made the rounds of the correspondents, he stopped in front of Packard. saying “I presume you are American. And you have been reporting this war?”

She said yes, and tried to explain that she didn’t have any other clothes with her. He smiled, and gave her a rosary and his picture. She stayed for the interview. The story made headlines around the world.

Later that week, she was held by some Italian villagers and three American G.I.s, who suspected her of being a spy. When the G.I.s asked if she could prove she was who she claimed ,she produced her passport her war correspondent accreditation, her vaccination record, her New York checkbook and her PX card. It was the PX card that convinced the G.I.s. “We’d never seen a woman correspondent so close to the front,” one of them apologized. "It just didn’t look right."

After World War II, the Packards made their headquarters in Rome, now correspondents for the New York Daily News. Eleanor ( I refuse to call her Peebee) specialized in covering the Vatican, Including the deaths of three popes and the coronations of their successors. None of my sources mention whether she ever wore slacks to the Vatican again

*I have no idea.

**Those of you/us old enough to have endured dress codes that forced us to wear dresses to school in the winter will realize that this was a big deal.

***She apparently did not opt for the version with a skirt.


Doris Fleeson: “A Tiger in White Gloves”

Doris Fleeson (1901-1970) was the first woman to become a nationally syndicated political columnist, the predecessor of the likes of Molly Ivins and Peggy Noonan.

Fleeson began her career as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Sun. After several moves, in 1927, at the age of 26, she landed a job at the New York Daily News, where she covered state politics in Albany and became acquainted with then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Later she was the only woman reporter who was a permanent member of the press entourage that accompanied Roosevelt on his campaign tours.) In 1930, she moved to the Daily News’ Washington bureau, where she co-authored a column called “Capital Stuff” with her husband, fellow Daily News reporter John O’Donnell. (The column survived; the marriage did not. They were divorced in 1942, reportedly over political differences.)

Doris Fleeson in her uniform as a war correspondent, surrounded by members of the US 100th Bomb Group

In 1943, she left the Daily News (also reportedly over political differences) to work as a roaming war correspondent in France and Italy for Women’s Home Companion.* (You can read some of her war reporting here. )

When she returned to the United States after the war, she entered a new stage of her career as a syndicated columnist based in Washington DC.  Her column was soon carried in over 100 papers, reaching about 8 million households. Over the next twenty-two years, she wrote some 5,500 columns. According to a longtime friend, columnist, Mary McGrory "She roamed the Capitol, a tiger in white gloves and a Sally Victor hat,*** stalking explanations for the stupidity, cruelty, fraud, or cant that was her chosen prey." Her personal politics leaned left,**** but her columns were known not only for their intelligence and  barbed wit,but for their lack of bias: as Newsweek put it in 1957, "There is, in fact, almost no Washington figure, Republican or Democrat, who has not felt the sharp edge of her typewriter."

Fleeson married a second time, in 1958, to Dan Kimball, a former secretary of the Navy. She went into semi-retirement in 1967 due to failing health. She and Kimball died within 36 hours of each other in 1970.

* Yes, you read that correctly. When the United States entered the war in 1941, American women’s magazines looked for ways to make their content relevant for their readers in a time of national emergency. They went beyond their core subjects of fashion, homemaking and romantic fiction to produce stories about topics such as the importance of women taking war jobs outside the home and dealing with wartime scarcity and rationing.  Some of them also sent war correspondents to Europe. War correspondents for women’s magazines, including Sigrid Schultz, who was a correspondent for McCalls for a short time, were instructed to report on the “woman’s angle”** Schultz and her contemporaries expanded the “women’s angle” beyond articles on rations, food shortages, and women’s war jobs to include topics such as rape, civilian experiences of the war, sanitation, and field hospitals.

**Sound familiar?

***Sally Victor was a successful/important American milliner whose career spanned 40 years from the 1930s through the early 1950s, when well-dressed women wore hats.  Her hats were distinctive and occasionally quirky, inspired by unusual sources such as Japanese armor and Matisse paintings.  Victor described her mission as "designing pretty hats that make women look prettier."

****She described herself as a nonpartisan liberal.