Event, Past Event, Post, Speech, Undaunted

At the New York Society Library – March 20, 2023

March 20, 2023


It’s not often I get asked to talk about the sausage-making, the research process of a book I’ve written, but the New York Society Library asked me to do just that for a donor appreciation reception the library hosted on Monday evening, March 20th. I  couldn’t have been happier to oblige, especially for a library-loving audience like this one, a group representing the library’s most ardent supporters.


Over the past thirty-three years and six books, I’ve always started my work in this library—always first in the old card catalogue, in the biographical dictionaries and Who’s Who‘s, in the New York Times Obituary Index, and above all with the many, many volumes of the Guide to Periodical Literature, the library’s extraordinary collection of magazines, still in paper format, most in open stacks, and the old New York newspapers (alas on microfilm), too. It was fun to be able to talk about why the ready availability of the material still on paper has been important to me, especially to such a receptive audience, and about what that effort has led to over these many years.

Inside the Members Room, for the reception only, the librarians put together a table display of some of the articles I mentioned from Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. The librarian Barbara Bieck and I encountered them along with scores of others while turning the pages of that magazine page by page, week by week, over the years from 1899 to 1920. Barbara, across the table from me and in charge of the page-turning, read upside down with astonishing accuracy. The display also included magazine pieces by Martha Gellhorn and Joan Didion and four books, all works of journalism by women in the early 1960s that endure in importance in a verifiable way. This not the usual lifespan or intention of a work of journalism but was true for these works as they turned fifty and, in three cases, sixty: Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.


The talk wasn’t recorded, but this outline gives a sense of what I said:

Learning that the Society Library’s magazine collection included—not in the open stacks—a near full-run of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly—was a bonanza for me during the research for Undaunted. Some issues, even full six-month runs of the magazine are available online, but the Society Library has them all and many issues were only available here and on paper. I think it might be the only such collection in the country, as I couldn’t find reference to any others still on paper that are quite so complete.

During those months in that little glassed-in room upstairs, Barbara and I searched out the bylines on articles and photographs of Sadie Kneller Miller, aka Mrs. Charles R. Miller, a woman I’d never heard of before I began this work. Her name popped up as I did an online decade-by-decade multi-database search from 1840 to the present using the search terms “women” and “journalism.” (Not scientific, but it did provide consistency.) It turns out that Sadie is not only the first known woman to write about major league baseball for a daily metropolitan newspaper—she covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Baltimore Telegram in 1895, but she had an illustrious career for the magazine until her death in 1920. The issues of the Telegram with her baseball stories are no longer extant, but I did find this:

Washington Post, August 12, 1895


And there was a bonus. Turning the pages of twenty years worth of a weekly magazine page by page allowed me to encounter two other long-forgotten but nonetheless fascinating women journalists of the same era: Eleanor Franklin Egan, who, as Sadie would also eventually do, girdled the globe in the early twentieth century, covering wars and mayhem and wonder (Herbert Hoover was a pallbearer at Eleanor’s funeral), and Helen Johns Kirtland, who teamed with husband Lucien Swift Kirtland to report and photograph from the battlefields of Europe during World War I.  All three of them figure in Chapter Five of Undaunted, titled “The New Thought” after a popular spiritual movement of the period.

I went back to check the dates of Barbara’s and my meetings in that little room. We finished the work with a session on March 9, 2020—amazingly, just before the COVID library and universe shutdowns began. For this book, it was the last of the chances I would have to do that kind of tactile perusing, always for specific items but efforts that always lead to unexpected, important, surprising finds.

This post is linked in the Library’s March Newsletter.