Nellie Bly, Post, Undaunted

At What Used to be Called “The Front Page Ball”

January 30, 2023

A month or so ago, Judith Schoolman, a lovely longtime colleague from my NYU days, asked if I would be willing to present one of the “Front Page” awards at the centennial gala of the Newswomen’s Club of New York. I generally find benefit dinners more torturous than chemotherapy and more than once on such occasions have been known to misbehave. In this case, two things made me say yes: first, the fact that women’s clubs make a couple of significant cameo appearances in Undaunted, and, second, to get out of my house for a change and into the company of a couple of hundred New York journalists seemed like a good idea. I did not suffer; I even had a good time.

The governor, Kathy Hochul, was at the head table and spoke of the parallels she saw between the experiences of women in journalism and in politics. l  was thrilled to see Susan Chira receive the club’s lifetime achievement award, presented by A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, where she built her career in a number of major roles before The Marshall Project tapped her as editor-in-chief four years ago. Sulzberger spoke warmly of having known Susan since he joined the staff back when she was still the paper’s international editor. Susan received the award in the presence of her daughter, Eliza Shapiro, a New York Times reporter, who won her own award in the magazine writing category. The icing for me was Jamiles Lartey, among the exceptional young journalists to emerge from GloJo, the graduate program I founded and ran at NYU for 12 years until 2020. Jamiles appeared in the video tribute to Susan—he is on the staff of the Marshall Project—and spoke of her with admiration and respect.  Toni Reinhold of the Wall Street Journal presented the club’s Nellie Bly Award for Best Bylined Front Page Story to Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy of USA Today. As part of Reinhold’s remarks before the award presentation, she gave a lengthy recounting of Bly’s bio, womb to tomb, including the parts of her life everyone usually leaves out, about her World War I reporting from the Eastern Front. I’m guessing the speaker didn’t know that the most exacting of all the world’s Bly fact-checkers was in the house. She had Bly down.

At the presenters’ table were Dorothy Wickendon, executive editor of The New YorkerGina Chua, executive editor of SemaforNisha Chittal, a co-managing editor of VoxRebecca Harrington, an executive editor at Insider; Linda Stasi, the columnist; Allison Silver of NBC Universal, Maeve DuVally, who introduces herself as late of the communications department of Goldman Sachs; and a Daily Show stand-in for Lizz Winstead, who introduced himself as J.B., but I’m not sure I heard that right. They were delightful.

That was an overly long prologue to set up my share here of what I wanted to say Thursday night in brief, but didn’t, about the enduring value of women’s clubs, journalism women’s clubs in particular, now that women seem to (emphasis on “seem to”) pervade the field’s upper echelons. I and the rest of the presenters had misunderstood the marching orders; we all had prepared remarks that we then obediently tossed.

The Brooklyn Eagle June 9, 1927

New York Herald-Tribune, July 30, 1915

To me, at least, the mentions of  journalism women’s clubs in Undaunted are telling. One comes in the form of a letter to the editor of the New York Herald-Tribune from Haryot Holt Dey, identifying herself as president of the Woman’s Press Club of New York City. This club is not to be confused with the Newswomen’s club, formerly the Newspaperwomen’s club, that organized last night’s gala. Apparently, there was need for two clubs in New York City. I now would like to know why. In 1915, both the New York HeraldTribune and The New York Times reported the mental breakdown of Kate Masterson, one of New York’s best reporters of the 1890s, and her commitment to an asylum as she became delusional. Her brother attributed her condition to overwork. When she died in June 1927, The Brooklyn Eagle carried her obituary but neither of the other papers did. Dey clearly saw it as her duty to rectify the neglect.

New York Herald-Tribune, July 30, 1927

Masterson, in 1896, at the height of her career, landed scoop after scoop during a week she spent in Havana with the New York Evening Journal’s high-powered team of correspondents already sent to report on Cuba’s rebellion against 400 years of Spanish rule. Her exclusive interview with “The Butcher,” Commander-General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, got wide republication or its best quotes pulled. (“War is war,” Weyler told her when she asked if what she heard from Cabanos Prison each morning was the sound of rebels being shot. “You cannot make it otherwise, try as you will.”) She got the first interview with an American survivor of a plantation massacre and broke the news that the rebel fighters included machete-wielding women. In the guise of a prisoner’s wife, she went to Cabanos to interview its jailed rebels. One of her last pieces before she left Havana told of the rebellion’s impact on noncombatant women and children. Here’s how the Journal played her arrival in Cuba:

NY Evening Journal, March 14, 1896, 1

Of Masterson, Dey wrote: “The tragic events of her life demanded a heavy toll. She is well remembered by a circle of the older newspaper set, in which she shone as a particular star.”

The other reference to the clubs is from Undaunted’s chapter on World War II. In 1941, at the fifth Front Page Awards Ball, Kathleen McLaughlin of the New York Times via the Chicago Tribune, the president of what was then called The New York Newspaperwomen’s Club, made a point of announcing from the podium the names of a dozen American women journalists who had been reporting under fire since the Spanish Civil War. She named Eleanor Packard of United Press, Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News and New York Post (who did receive a Medal of Freedom from the United States and two medals from France), Tania Long, then still with the New York Herald-Tribune, Betty Wason for P.M., Marie Marlin of UP, and Virginia Cowles for NANA and occasionally the New York Times. McLaughlin omitted Mary Welsh, who covered the Spanish Civil War and who was working then for the London Daily Express, but she did call out by name those who had returned to the United States: Sigrid Schultz of the Chicago Tribune; Francis Davis, “still hospitalized in Boston” from her wounds in Spain; Sonia Tomara; Hazel McDonald of the Chicago Times; Anne O’Hare McCormick, and Dorothy Thompson. (I’m not sure why she left out Martha Gellhorn, who had been in Europe off and on since Spain. Perhaps because her war work was for magazines.) “Surely,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, the evening’s celebrity draw, these women were “making or helping to make newspaper history in this critical period of civilization. Some of them are my personal friends and all of them deserve the accolade conferred here tonight.”

Aside from Helen Kirkpatrick’s medals, Anne O’Hare McCormick’s 1937 Pulitzer Prize for foreign correspondence, and Marguerite Higgins’s 13 years later for her work from the Korean War, honors and awards to women journalists came almost exclusively from organizations of other women. That did not start to change until around the time of the Vietnam war. Several more decades would have to pass before more general award presentations to woman journalists began to match the percentage presence of women in the profession.

So today, given the growing sense of equity, do awards restricted by gender or other specific categories still make sense? I would say yes. What these kinds of prizes now provide is not the only a way for the underrepresented to get some deserved recognition, but for the amount of recognition among members of given groups to penetrate deeper into the ranks, making it possible to honor the deserving work of a far greater number of people.