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September 1999 - Volume 31 Issue 8


First at the Times
by Emily Yoffe

A WOMAN OF THE TIMES
By Marilyn Greenwald
Ohio University Press, $26.95

Charlotte Curtis was both the first woman on the masthead of The New York Times and one of the last women to always be the only woman in the room in the world of big-time journalism. Although she covered some of the same territory as Tom Wolfe -- he coined the phrase "Radical Chic" to describe the party Leonard Bernstein had for the Black Panthers about which both he and Curtis wrote celebrated stories -- she has fallen into obscurity only 12 years after her death. But at the height of her career she was one of those rare print journalists who are as famous as the famous people she profiled. When she became op-ed page editor of the Times she was regularly cited as one of the most influential women in America.

In this biography, subtitled Journalism, Feminism, and the Career of Charlotte Curtis, author Marilyn Greenwald attempts to put Curtis' life into a larger context. Through Curtis she wants to explore how women break into formerly male institutions, and how they change them once they get there. Even 25 years after a landmark sex discrimination suit was filed at the Times, those issues are still unsettled. Now-departing Times metro editor Joyce Purnick gave a speech early in her brief tenure regretting that she had never had children, but asserting she also would have never achieved such an exalted position -- and questioning whether she would have deserved to -- if she had tried to fit her career around her children's needs, as do so many of her women colleagues. Purnick was shocked by the furor that resulted.

Greenwald is looking at the right questions, and in Curtis, she has found a subject who had a compelling life. Yet this biography is frustrating, despite the obvious diligence and enormous hard work that went into it. One of the best parts of the book is the portrait of the early life of Curtis' mother, Lucile, who was a suffragist and the first woman foreign service officer. But the book suffers from the mismatch between author and subject. Where Curtis was caustic and sharp-witted, Greenwald is plodding and dull. There are many dramatic points in Curtis' life -- in 1953, at age 25, this Vassar graduate divorced her proper, priggish husband to devote herself to the newspaper job she loved better; shortly before she was promoted to editorship of the op-ed page, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and told, incorrectly, that she would probably be dead in five years -- but Greenwald is unable to dramatize them. We are given lots of facts about Curtis' life, but little sense of what it felt like to live those facts. We never even find out if Curtis was childless happily, or like Purnick, with regret. Although, in Greenwald's defense, Curtis disliked revealing herself and had few confidantes.

Curtis was born to a prominent, socially active Ohio family, and after Vassar she returned to become a reporter and editor at the Columbus Citizen. She dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent, but as a female reporter her work was largely relegated to the women's pages. This limitation was an ironic blessing. Because she was writing on "trivial" subjects and not real news, she was able to hone her sly, surgical style. Her speciality there, and for the rest of her career, was skewering the prominent and pretentious. After a decade at the Citizen she followed a married colleague, with whom she was having a long affair, to New York. Again, though she longed for a job on the Times 3rd floor newsroom, she took a job on the 9th floor women's section, as a home furnishings writer.

Again this setback turned out to be a lucky break. The section was presided over by a wonderfully eccentric editor who allowed her reporters freedoms that never would have been given to serious male reporters. Soon Curtis was writing the same kind of caustic social coverage as she had in Ohio, but because she was covering New York, not Columbus, she became an almost immediate sensation. Here she is on the much-awaited marriage of George Plimpton: "Mr. Plimpton was married last night, not to Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, Jean Seberg, Ava Gardner, Jane Fonda, Princess Stanislas Radziwill, or Candy Bergen, all of whom he escorted at one time or another, but to Freddy Medora Espy, a wisp of a photographer's assistant whom he met at a party in 1963." Unfortunately, Greenwald is fervently frugal with her use of quotations from Curtis' work. The book is starved for a fuller use of her voice.

Curtis was smart, ambitious and tough; she was also tiny, attractive, perfectly groomed and well-mannered. This combination gave her an almost geisha-like appeal to some powerful male editors, who nurtured her career. One thing Greenwald never directly addresses is why Curtis didn't seek to break away from Society coverage when feminism was making it possible for women to get out of their reportorial ghettos. Curtis had an uneasy, often adversarial relationship with the feminist movement that sprung up as she was making her professional ascent. She preferred the company of men -- at her memorial service, which she meticulously planned, seven of the nine speakers were men. And despite being relegated to the women's pages, she also believed her sex had not held back her career. In a way she was right -- she was the one woman who was eventually allowed into the inner sanctum, thus proving to the men there that they weren't the sexists they were accused of being.

By the time the Times' sex discrimination suit was filed, Curtis was a manager and claimed she couldn't join the suit. But Greenwald makes clear she never would have anyway. Curtis told the disgruntled women that she, as a woman who had made it, could do more for their cause by subtly trying to educate the men at the top. Her attitude caused an unhealable breach with many of her female colleagues, some of whom believed Curtis became op-ed editor in part as a reward for not signing onto the suit. Late in her life, when she was reassigned from the op-ed page and not given the sort of prominent sinecure that men in her position were given, she began to question her judgments.

Greenwald, an Ohio journalist herself, is much more comfortable when the story is set there. She only generally characterizes Curtis' eight years as op-ed editor. Here Curtis does seem to be a victim of sexism -- whatever she did wasn't quite right. Her mentor and predecessor Harrison Salisbury says he was disappointed that she was not a bolder editor. But it also seems that the top editors were often disapproving of her attempts to bring wit and lightness to the page. Though he is grudging with his compliments, former Executive Editor Max Frankel gives her credit for innovations which are now standard. She de-emphasized experts and officials, and the sense that the only things of importance were foreign affairs or policy debates. She brought to the page the voices and stories of ordinary people and felt the page could in part be a forum on how people lived.

After she left the op-ed page editorship she was not given her own op-ed column, but instead a column that appeared in the news section in which she was forbidden to write about politics. She never recaptured there the voice that had so dazzled New York, although presciently, she developed a strong interest in writing about entrepreneurs and business leaders. Some critics and friends thought that instead of standing apart from the important people she wrote about, she had now become one of them. As frustrating as the end of her career may have been, she had found personal happiness with a late-in-life marriage to an Ohio surgeon. Although she outlived her doctors' predictions, she died at age 58 of recurrent breast cancer.

For all its faults, Greenwald's book does look at a crucial time for women through one fascinating life. I hope it inspires more biographers to rescue the lives of other fascinating, forgotten women.

Emily Yoffe is a contributing editor for Slate.


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