Carolyn Wilson, From Fashion Reporter to War Correspondent

When I was writing Women Warriors I kept stumbling across women I’d never heard of.* I did not expect to have the same experience with women who served as foreign correspondents and/or war correspondents. After all, I’m writing about one particular woman, not a history about women journalists as a whole. And yet, women I’ve never heard about just keep popping up.

Case in point, Carolyn Wilson of the Chicago Tribune.

Like many of my contemporaries who went on to careers in journalism, Wilson was editor of her college newspaper. She graduated from Wellesley in 1910, spent a brief time studying in Germany, and then went to work for the Sunday section of the Tribune. She may have dreamed of reporting on hard news, but her first beat was a typical one for a young female journalist at the time, a chatty by-lined column titled”A Matinee Girl Sees Players; Clothes Worn on Chicago Stages” in which she wrote about actresses, their roles, and their clothes, on-stage and off.

Over the next two years, Wilson managed to score an occasional feature outside the women’s pages, including an interview with Orville Wright.** She had hoped to get a ride in the plane, but she had to settle for a discussion about the aviation stabilizer he was developing. He made it clear that he didn’t think she would understand what he was talking about, but she let her readers know that she was an aviation geek and had no problem keeping up: “not for nothing have I talked myself blue in the face at the Burgess hangar in Marblehead, and studied aerodynamics and. aeronautics with a zeal usually to be found only in boys.” She followed up the technical interview with a visit to the airplane factory. I am sorry to report that she ended the piece with a self-deprecating nod to her usual beat: “But do you want to know what tormented me all the way back to Chicago? I never had a chance to wear that adorable aeroplane cap.” Apparently she felt the need to soften the impact of her "boyish" zeal for airplanes.

In June, 1914, the Tribune sent Wilson to Paris, with a commission to “observe and record matters concerning the lighter side of life in that capital”. For the most part that meant society gossip and fashion news—a specialized form of foreign correspondence, though seldom recognized as such. She managed to push the boundaries of the form to include aviation: one of her early Paris columns centered on a technical discussion of the Sperry gyroscope, another airplane stabilizer, disguised as a frothy description of taking a plane ride with Sperry fils. (Airplanes were hot news in the first decades of the century well before Lindburgh made his famous flight across the Atlantic. In fact, I would argue that the high news value of aviation in general made Lindburgh’s flight possible. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

When the Great War began on July 28, 1914, Wilson added war correspondence to her job description.*** She filed her first piece about the war on August 1, a description of the war panic that gripped Paris; it appeared on August 11.

For the first few months of the war, Wilson continued to write her illustrated fashion column, titled “Smartest Styles at Common Sense Prices,” alongside pieces that looked at the war through what newspaper publishers called “the woman’s angle”: women taking on the jobs of men as they leave for the front, women knitting for soldiers, women volunteering as nurses. But by September she had broadened her scope. In addition to “the woman’s angle,” she wrote human interest pieces dealing with soldiers, reported stories from both sides of the front,**** interviewed soldiers, and produced thoughtful political analyses. She was even arrested in Genoa on suspicion of being a spy and held for several days until the British ambassador intervened on her behalf—an event she described as fulfilling a life-long ambition

The last article I can find by Wilson dates from November, 1918, when she clearly was working as a foreign correspondent, not a fashion writer. I don’t know what she did after the war. I do know that she left a legacy at Wellesley, where she endowed a lecture series intended to introduce students to the important issues and figures of the day. Today the Wilson lecture continues to host impressive guests.

*I still am. Apparently the supply of women who fought or led troops is limitless.

**For any airplane buffs among my readers—and I know I have at least one—the interview appears on January 18 1914, p. E4

***Nothing I have found so far tells me whether the Tribune asked her to do this or whether she just grabbed the opportunity and ran with it. Either is possible. The Tribune’s owner and publisher, Robert McCormick was certainly not one to waste the opportunity for some “woman on the spot”coverage.

****She claimed the Germans were more welcoming to reporters than the Allies.

Bessie Beatty and The Red Heart of Russia

I was recently digging about in the history of women’s magazines in the early twentieth century when I came across a familiar name: Bessie Beatty. I knew Beatty’s work from her reporting on Russia's Women’s Battalion of Death,  which I wrote about in Women Warriors. At the time, I was totally engrossed in the women Beatty wrote about and gave no thought to the reporter herself. Funny how things change.

Beatty got her start in journalism at the age of eighteen, working for the Los Angeles Herald while she was still in college. Partway through her senior year, she left college to report on a miner’s strike for the Herald.

Her work in Nevada caught the attention of Fremont Older, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin.*  At the Bulletin, Beatty ran a feature page, titled “On the Margin” [!!!], in which she covered women’s issues and social work, broadly defined. (Among other things, she ran a campaign on behalf of prostitutes who were put out of work when the red light district was closed. Not your typical social justice campaign even today, let alone in the first years of the twentieth century. )

In 1917, as the Great War raged on, Older sent Beatty on a large-scale reporting assignment: a series of articles called “Around the World in War.” Four days after she sailed,  the United States declared war on Germany.

American correspondents, officially accredited and otherwise, headed toward Europe. Beatty and a few others headed east. She reported on social and cultural traditions in Hawaii,** Japan, and China, but her real destination was the revolution in Russia.  Like other reporters who built their careers reporting on social justice issues and exposing corruption in government, she had a romantic vision of the new socialist government and wanted to see it first hand.

She traveled traveled from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Petrograd (formerly, and once again, St. Petersburg) aboard the TranSiberian Railway, a twelve-day trip through Russia to the heart of the revolution. Once in Petrograd, she managed to get a room in the War Hotel, where Russian officers lived with their wives. With the hotel as her base, she followed Russia’s involvement in the war and the course of the revolution. She traveled to the front, getting within 160 feet of the German trenches, and sat in a concrete observation station from which she could see barbed wire of no-man’s land through a narrow peephole. She and another reporter, Rheta Childe Dorr, spent a week with the Women’s Battalion of Death, traveling with them to the front and sleeping with them in their barracks. She interviewed sailors, soldiers, peasants and the woman in the street.

When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in November, Beatty witnessed every stage of the new revolution, aided by a pass from the Military Revolutionary Committee that gave her access everywhere in the city. She spent hours in the Soviet, listening as revolutionary leaders argued about the shape of the new state. She interviewed political prisoners, including ministers of the deposed Provisional Government

Like other American journalists drawn to report on the revolution, she believed in the experiment she was watching unfold. (In fact, she would later testify in favor of the Bolshevik Revolution before Senator Overman’s sub-committee on the influence of Bolshevism in America.)***

In February 1919, Beatty and two other journalists, Madeline Doty andLouise Bryant, decided it was time to leave Russia. They caught the last train to leave Petrograd for Finland, which was fighting to free itself from Russian rule, and then traveled by sleigh from the northernmost corner of Finland into Sweden. (*Brrr*)

Like many of her fellow journalists, Beatty wrote a book about her experience of the revolution, The Red Heart of Russia (1918). Her sentiments about the revolution, as she expressed them at the end of the book, were complicated: “Mingled with my sorrow, the morning I left Petrograd, was a certain exultant, tragic joy. I had been alive at a great moment and knew that it was great.”

Back in the United States, Beatty chose not to return to San Francisco. Instead she stayed in New York, where she finished her book and worked as the editor of McCall’s from 1918 to 1921.

She soon grew eager to travel as a journalist again. Her articles on politics, women’s rights, and even tourist destinations, appeared in popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The New Republic, Women’s Home Journal, and Century.

Beatty returned to Russia in 1921. It took her weeks to get into the country, but once there she stayed for nine months, writing a series of interviews with Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky, for the San Francisco Bulletin.

She spent some time as a screenwriter for MGM. She remained a dedicated activist. And in 1940, she entered a new career as the host of a popular radio show on WOR in New York. During World War II, she used her show to sell more than $300,000 in war bonds.**** She continued to broadcast until her death in 1947 at the age of 61.

Describing her on-air personality, Time magazine described her as “a short, voluble bit of human voltage.” Not bad.

 

*Older was unusually supportive of women reporters and gave a number of talented women, including Rose Wilder Lane, their start in a field that was not always welcoming to women.

**Which was annexed by the United States in 1898 and became a US territory in 1900. Just to give you a piece of chronology to hang your hats on.

***An early version of the Red Scare.

****$5,270,000 in today’s dollars.

 

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I am deep in the first "real" draft of my latest book. And I've got to admit, it's going slowly.  My manuscript is due March 1, 2023, which feels like tomorrow as far as I'm concerned.  I love writing these blog posts, but for the foreseeable future I'm going to cut back to one post a week.

History on Display: A Picture Postcard’s Worth a Thousand Words

I recently spent ten days in Boston and Connecticut. Officially, it was a research trip. Unofficially, it was a chance to spend some long overdue time with my BFF from graduate school.

I definitely put in time on the book, with a lot of help from Karin, who believes in getting the work done. We spent time at libraries working with materials that were not easily available in Chicago. We drove to Connecticut, where I worked in a small archive and talked to local historians.* We talked about the book, a lot. She asked tough questions.

But we also spent some time having fun, including a visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

We went to see an exhibit on J.M.W. Turner, whose work I love. It’s a good exhibit. It’s always exciting to see paintings in real life for the first time. I would certainly recommend that you see it if you can. But I didn’t come away feeling like I learned anything new about the man or his work.**

But it was another, smaller, exhibit, Real Picture Postcards, that blew me away.

In 1903, when postcards were a Big Deal, the Eastman Kodak Company released a new camera that exposed postcard-sized negatives that could be printed on a blank postcard.  (Kodak sold blank postcards alongside as well as the film. Other camera companies followed their lead. Soon photographic postcards were the rage: billions of cards were in circulation in the years before World War I.

Amateurs and professional photographers alike used the cameras to produce images that were the antithesis of posed Victorian photographs. Because the cameras were cheap and fast, photographers could capture everyday life on film for the first time.

The exhibit displays more than 300 photographs, curated around a number of themes: the work place, sports (including a surprising number of photographs of women’s teams), civic events,*** small town main streets, travel,**** and people messing around. (It also included a “paper moon” for museum vistors who wanted to memorialize their visit in true early-twentieth century style. I regret now that we didn’t do it.)  The result is a vivid picture of everyday life in early twentieth century America, recorded by everyday Americans.

The exhibit is on display through July 25th and is well worth a visit. (There is also a large, beautiful, scholarly catalog, which I decided I didn’t want to carry home in my luggage.)

* Or more accurately, she drove and I rode. We also stopped at Louis’s Lunch in Hartford: an iconic restaurant at which the menu is limited to hamburgers, with or without cheese, tomatoes and onions; potato salad; and chips. NO ketchup. Not ever. I don’t know what the position is on other condiments. I didn’t see any. Instead of asking, I decided to embrace the experience in its totality.

For the record, the burger (with onion) and the potato salad were both excellent.

** Which may be a result of how much time I’ve spent reading and thinking about Turner and his work over the years. What can I say, I’m an art geek as well as a history bugg.

*** I am sad to report that in the course of searching for images for this post, I found one documenting a crowd gathering to watch a lynching in Waco, Texas, May 15, 1916. A useful reminder that the dark side of American history pervades everything, even seemingly fun topics like postcard cameras.

****The creation of the Model-T Ford at much the same time led to a new type of American tourism and the postcard camera was a natural part of it.