Discussion in 'The Home Front Woman' started by LizzieMaine, May 11, 2014.
Ah. Got it.
The image of the Golden Era press photographer is firmly engraved on the public imagination thanks to a million movies, radio and TV programs, comic strips and other media portrayals -- snappy, sardonic, with a Speed Graphic in hand and always ready to do anything to Get That Picture. And there's one other thing about that image -- it's always a man.
The accomplishments of women in journalism in the 1930s and 1940s have been widely underplayed and even erased by revisionists desperate to maintain a particular image of pre-sixties women, but myths and images are myths and images and reality is reality. In fact, women were making significant inroads in all areas of journalism during the Era, no matter how unjustly-forgotten those accomplishments may be, and nowhere is this more evident than in the story of Marion Carpenter -- the first woman photographer to join the White House press corps. Her story is a short one -- and ultimately a tragic one. That tragedy makes it all the more important to remember.
Marion was born in 1920, the daughter of a working-class family from St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father was a hard-working laborer who wanted the best for his children, and both parents encouraged Marion to pursue the education they'd never had. She was a smart, studious girl who aspired at first to a career in nursing -- and after working her way thru nursing school, she followed that career in a St. Paul hospital. But she was always inquisitive, always interested in learning something new -- and as a hobby she took up photography, joining a local camera club and discovering she had a real knack for lens work.
By 1944, photography so completely consumed her interest that she decided to change careers. She was determined to break into journalism -- and figuring that the best way to do that would be to go where the news was, she pulled up stakes and moved to Washington, D. C.. Within a few weeks her persistent approach and her impressive portfolio landed her a staff job at the Washington Times-Herald. After just a few months there to establish her name and her credentials she jumped again, this time to the International News Photo service, a nationwide press syndicate which brought her work to the attention of readers from coast to coast. She was young, enthusiastic, talented -- and ambitious, which did not endear her to the old-line all-male press-card-in-the-hatband crowd around the Capital.
Her brash personality and her determination to make a name for herself in journalism brought much passive-aggressive grumbling from her male colleagues, who enjoyed shouldering her away from photo sites and spreading salacious gossip about her among the D. C. press corps. This harassment reached its peak in the pages of Marion's former paper, when Times-Herald columnist Tris Coffin published a snide, waspish column attacking her as an opportunist who used her "feminine wiles, smiling and teasing" public figures into posing for her photos. But Marion Carpenter wasn't about to let herself be put in her place. She tracked Coffin down one afternoon at the Senate Restaurant, grabbed his bowl of bean soup from the table, and slung it, bowl, soup, and all, flat in his face. Coffin seethed as the rest of the lunch crowd roared in appreciation. She'd made her point, emphatically.
One Washington man who appreciated Marion Carpenter's fiesty personality was well-known for his own unwillingness to suffer fools. Harry S. Truman had just ascended to the presidency in the spring of 1945 when Marion landed the coveted White House beat for the INP syndicate, and for the next two years she was the first -- and only -- woman photographer in the White House press corps. She became Truman's personal favorite -- which rankled her colleagues even further -- and her shots of the President in action became signature images of the early postwar years. Her most famous image, showing Truman at the piano while film star Lauren Bacall lolled leggily atop the instrument, earned a national award, and cemented her relationship with the President. Despite her achievements, however, the White House Correspondents Association treated her as a second-class member -- although she carried a WHCA card, she was barred from the Association's annual banquet for as long as she worked in Washington.
Marion Carpenter should have been on top of the world in the late 1940s -- but her happiness would be short-lived. Her sex life, long a topic of smutty speculation among the men of the Washington press corps, enmeshed her in scandal when rumors surfaced that she was having an affair with a married man. Although Washington newsmen were hardly poster boys for chastity themselves, the double standard rang down hard on Marion, and the ostracism worsened. Out of desperation, she married a Navy officer -- a step which turned out to be the biggest mistake of her life.
Her new husband forced her to quit her job -- and determined to beat the brashness out of her. They relocated to the West Coast, and the physical abuse worsened. When his brutality landed Marion in the hospital her old fire came back -- and she told him they were through. She got a divorce and headed back to Washington, trying to reconstruct her career, and remarried -- but this marriage, too, turned out to be a tragic mistake. The couple moved to Colorado, where Marion worked as a wedding photographer and gave birth to a son, but by 1951 this marriage, too, had failed.
Marion Carpenter returned to her home town at the age of thirty-one, her spirit crushed. With a young son to raise on her own, she went back to nursing, doing whatever photography she could on the side, and trying to mentor young members of the same camera club that had mentored her a decade earlier. But life kept pulling Marion downward, into a spiral of depression and loss. Her son fell into the drug culture of the 1960s, took up a life of petty crime to support his habits, and finally left St. Paul, never to see his mother again. Marion struggled on, living alone in a small house that became, increasingly, packed with junk and trash she accumulated during endless browsing of thrift stores. Her only friends were lost souls she met on these expeditions, and none of them ever knew who'd she'd once been. Occasionally she'd stumble across a book containing one of her old photos and she'd remember the good times. But most of the time she was broken, empoverished, and alone.
Marion Carpenter was found dead in her home in late October of 2002. She'd died of emphysema, aggravated by the near-freezing temperature in her home, as she'd turned off the heat in a desperate attempt to save money. When her body was discovered she was wrapped tightly in a blanket, her faithful dog huddled close beside her.
Marion's thrift-shop friends put together clues found in her home and tracked down her son, who authorized a sale of his mother's belongings. Among the items unearthed in the trash-strewn home were her press cameras and boxes of her negatives -- dispersed unceremoniously to the highest bidder.
Marion Carpenter's legacy was scattered to the winds, her life and accomplishments ignored or forgotten by a generation which should have hailed her as the pioneer that she was. But wherever a young girl dreams of doing something big for no other reason than that she *wants to do it,* the spirit of Marion Carpenter lives on.
I love learning about all these gutsy ladies.
What an interesting person. I wish the negatives could be found and reassembled. The Civil War photographer Mathew Brady was world-famous in his own time, and then fell into such obscurity that his glass plates were used for greenhouses (which effectively destroyed them.) Let's hope Marion's negatives enjoyed a better fate.
Lizzie, you don't say so directly, but is it your opinion that Marion's lifelong struggle to define herself against the odds led to her depression?
I think that must've had a lot to do with it. The two times in her life when she tried to do things the way The Right Kind Of People expected her to do them ended in disaster. The only times when she seemed to have been happy was when she was following her own heart.
Can't wait to carve out some time to read through this thread in depth! Looks fascinating.
Thank you Lizzie.
Looking forward to more of these.
Hope no one minds me adding a notable woman to this thread.
Links of this post are floating around the Net, which I happened across. It's about Bessie Stringfield, an "African American motorcycling pioneer". Just a bit of the text from that link:
In the 1930s and 1940s, Bessie took eight long-distance, solo rides across the United States. Speaking to a reporter, she dismissed the notion that "nice girls didn’t go around riding motorcycles in those days." Further, she was apparently fearless at riding through the Deep South when racial prejudice was a tangible threat. Was Bessie consciously championing the rights of women and African-Americans? Bessie would most likely have said she was simply living her life in her own way.
Go read more. She was an impressive woman.
Seems that a movie biopic featuring Effie Manley - a baseball pioneer Lizzie profiled earlier in this thread - is being made by Penny Marshall. I know "League of Their Own" was pretty sentimental, but I still have a strong soft spot for that movie. Even if Marshall's biopic misses the mark, at least it will make more people aware of Manley.
I look forward to that movie -- I've been thinking one ought to be made for years.
I haven't forgotten about this thread -- work has kept me from having a lot of time to research, but there will be other posts to come.
(Patiently) looking forward to it, Lizzie!
I agree. This is my favorite "column" in the FL. I know these biographies are a ton of work, and I always learn so much from them.
Been a while since I've done one of these, so here we go --
The world of American fashion design in the 1930s was a high-powered one, a world of elegance, style, and at its highest levels a world of demanding clientele. And it was a world in which an ambitious woman could accomplish much. But it was also a world that was artificial, cynical, and wasteful at its core -- with the constant demand for "the latest mode" making its products nearly as disposable as those of the present day. One woman who climbed high in this world, only to turn away from it in disgust, was Elizabeth Hawes.
Elizabeth was born in a small town in New Jersey in 1903 to middle-class parents of notably modern leanings who insisted their daughter learn to think for herself. She was a creative, restless child who learned to sew at an early age, and before she was a teenager she was designing clothing for herself and her friends. Her talent in this area was unmistakable, and she pursued her interests in design all thru her high school career and on into her years at Vassar College. In her free time she learned the inner workings of the clothing industry -- both the manufacturing end and the political end, learning about the importance of making the proper connections with department store buyers and how to pursue and handle design clients. A sojourn in France following her graduation taught her much about the operations of the couturiers there. By the time she returned to America in 1928 she had figured out a niche for herself as a designer of of made-to-order high-end clothing based on her own philosophy of fashion.
Hawes believed that clothing should be practical as well as beautiful, and she found herself questioning the role played by the French houses in dictating trends. She was uncomfortable with style trends dictated by the need to sell clothing, and her own work was designed with an eye toward lasting more than a single season. Her firm, Hawes Incorporated, flourished thru the 1930s, and she began living the high life, sharing a penthouse apartment with two Afghan hounds and a series of sleek gentleman friends. But there was a nagging emptiness behind this success. Hawes increasingly found her clientee, drawn from the cream of East Coast Society, to be insufferably shallow, with little awareness of the world outside their own clothing closets, and she found their attitude toward her employees to be condescending, dismissive, and cruel.
In 1938 she found an outlet for her growing disillusionment with the fashion industry, publishing a tell-all book, "Fashion Is Spinach." In this savagely witty volume, Hawes kicked over the fashion world and exposed its sleazy, manipulative underbelly. She also used the book to outline her own personal philosophy, in which she drew a sharp line between "Fashion," which she defined as an entirely artrificial and commercial construct, and "Style," which was every woman's innate sense of what looked good on her, and encouraged her readers to adopt the latter and firmly reject the former. The book was a popular success, but was panned by Manhattan book critics, who sniffed that Hawes had some nerve criticizing an industry that had made her wealthy. Finally, in 1940, thoroughly fed up with her clientele -- whom she referred to as "les riches bitches" -- Hawes closed down her company and decided to find a more respectable line of work.
She landed at PM -- a progressive-oriented New York newspaper notable for its refusal to accept advertising -- and became its Womens' Editor. She thrived in this new role, becoming particularly interested in the problems of contemporary working women, and mounting a national campaign for the establishment of workplace day-care centers, and also covered the emerging consumers' rights movement. She enjoyed her new career immensely, but the coming of the Second World War brought it to a premature halt. Hawes felt that she could contribute more both to the war effort and to her advocacy on behalf of working women by working side-by-side with the working class, long overlooked by the mainstream women's movement. She quit PM in 1942, went to work as a machinist trainee at a Wright Aeronautical Corporation plant in New Jersey, and joined the United Auto Workers. Her experiences in this job led to her next book -- "Why Women Cry, or Wenches With Wrenches." This volume tore deeply into the heart of the problems facing ordinary American women in the 1940s, and the frustration so many of them felt at being chained to a kitchen sink. She was candid about the difficulties women faced in the working world, but stressed that these difficulties were further compounded by society's demand that they live up to a particular image of a "woman's household duties," and called for a full reevaluation of women's roles in postwar society. Only in this way, she contended, could American women avoid being shoved back into"the Hitlerian routine of children-kitchen-church." As if to punctuate her arguments, Hawes divorced her husband in 1944, and determined to remain independent for the rest of her life.
The postwar era brought difficulties, as she had anticipated. She worked for a time as a United Auto Workers organizer and as a researcher in the union's Educational Division, and made a brief attempt to reestablish herself as a designer, emphasizing practical, modern styles -- but the Dior-driven "New Look" was determined to bury women under an avalanche of tulle, and Hawes was quickly swept aside. She became increasingly militant in her criticism of postwar consumerism, publishing "Anything But Love: A Complete Digest of the Rules for Feminine Behavior from Birth to Death" in 1948. This book was a searing critique of the culture of postwar femininity, which she contended was a product, manufactured and sold to the women of America thru the pages of "women's magazines," movies, and radio and designed to strip them of their wartime sense of independence, and she further contended that Big Business and the Truman Administration were in full collusion to ensure this result. But the country's rightward political shift made these ideas a difficult sell, and the book failed to catch on. Hawes, in disgust, left the mainland US in 1950, and relocated to the Virgin Islands where she did freelance writing and occasional design work until returning to the US after the collapse of McCarthyism in the mid-fifties.
Elizabeth Hawes spent the rest of her life writing and doing occasional design work -- on her own terms, fully rejecting the demands of current trends. She campaigned for full "freedom of dress," demanding that women -- and men -- should have every right to dress as they chose, in whatever style they felt suited their bodies and their tastes, and she continued to create her own clothing in line with these beliefs. She revised and reissued "Fashion Is Spinach" to focus on postwar developments, and turned out a volume on racial relations, based on her experiences in the Virgin Islands. And she remained, as she had always insisted on being, absolutely independent in thought, word, and deed, until her death in 1971.
Elizabeth Hawes is forgotten today. But her writings, especially "Why Women Cry," were vital documents in the early development of second-wave feminism in the United States -- Betty Friedan, for one, cited "Why Woman Cry" as a call for "revolution in the kitchen," and found it highly inspirational in her own work. And unlike many feminist authors who would follow, Hawes always maintained a Parkeresque sense of humor in her writing, skewering her targets as much with wit as with factual documentation. Her writings remain as fresh -- and in many ways, as relevant today as they were seventy and eighty years ago. They await rediscovery by a new generation of women still facing the same old dilemmas.
The stereotype of the 1940s sports fan is loud, opinionated -- and for some reason, male. It's always a man, wearing a rumpled suit, a crooked tie, and a fedora with the brim pushed up in the front, sitting in the bleachers swilling beer while yelling "throw tha bum out! and "kill the umpire!" and other assorted pleasantries. So, we have to wonder -- why is it that the single most famous sports fan in America during the 1940s was a woman?
Her name was Hilda Chester, and she was famous in 1940s America in a way that's hard to comprehend in a world where fame comes cheap and easy. Hilda Chester was not an educated woman, a poised woman, a refined or cultured woman, she wasn't a leader in industry or science, and she never even really made a decent living. But despite all that she was a ubiquitous figure in the popular culture of 1940s America -- mentioned often in print, seen in newsreels and a Hollywood feature comedy, befriended by the great and powerful, and to this day she's remembered as a peculiar icon of her time. Hilda had very little in her life -- but what she did have was a forceful personality, a loud mouth, and an instinct for survival -- and she parlayed those into her own little bit of immortality as probably the most famous individual baseball fan who ever lived.
Hilda spent most of her life running from her past. She was supposedly born in 1897, but after she became famous she made a point of never discussing the circumstances of her birth. Even the historical record is oddly blank -- there is no documented record of her birth, and she appears in no US Census for which records have been released. What she did admit was that her childhood had been unhappy -- its sole consolation being her interest in sports. As a young woman in the 1910s, she claimed to have played for the Bloomer Girls, a team of female ballplayers which made a name for itself challenging male semipro squads in cities and small towns all over the country. Her interest in the game wasn't simply casual -- even in those days before women had the right to vote, let alone compete on an equal playing field with men, Hilda dreamed of being the first woman to play in the major leagues. But that was a dream -- in a world where dreams were a luxury a working-class woman couldn't afford.
At some point in the 1920s, Hilda Chester married and gave birth to a daughter, Beatrice -- who followed in her mother's footsteps and would grow up to play in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s. Hilda's husband -- if, in fact, they were married -- died not long after Beatrice's birth, and the Depression found mother and daughter swept back into a pit of urban poverty. By 1933, Hilda was forced to relinquish her child to a Brooklyn orphanage. Her life had reached rock bottom, and her health showed the strain. A doctor urged her to get more fresh air and sunshine -- and with her interest in baseball as strong as ever, Hilda knew just where to find them.
Ladies Day was a new promotion at Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers -- with women admitted to the general-admission grandstand free one afternoon a week. Hilda Chester took advantage of this offer, again and again thru the late 1930s, and like any baseball fan, she began to root and cheer and yell. When her health failed her and left her too weakened to shout, she began taking an iron skillet to the games, and banged it with a soup ladle to express her approval or opprobation. And she began to get noticed.
Around this time she landed the first steady job she'd been able to hold in years, being hired to sack peanuts for the Harry M. Stevens Company, operators of the food concessions at all of the ballparks and racetracks in the New York area. When she wasn't sacking peanuts she sold hot dogs in the grandstands at Aqueduct racetrack. It wasn't much money, but it was enough to buy a fifty-five cent bleacher ticket at Ebbets Field, and on summer days when she wasn't working, Hilda Chester held court in Section 37. The Dodger players became aware of her -- the park was so small that individual voices carried well, and Hilda's loud, rasping alto carried better than most -- and chipped in to present her with a brass schoolbell to replace her skillet.
The Dodgers had been a poor team for most of the 1930s, but by the end of the decade they were improving dramatically under their new, fierce field manager Leo Durocher and an assortment of rising new stars. Attendance soared, and when the Dodgers began regular daily radio broadcasts of their games in 1939, the media attention given the team soared as well. And often, columnists would notice and mention the loud bell-ringing woman in the front row of the bleachers who seemed to personify the gritty new spirit of the team.
Hilda was absolutely sincere in her fandom, but she was also streetwise enough to realize that she had a good thing going. She was already a figure hard to overlook -- she was physically imposing, with a substantial physique, a strong nose, and piercing dark eyes -- and she began to dress to draw further attention to herself, arriving for the games in colorful, flamboyantly-printed cotton dresses that stood out like a beacon in the field of white shirts around her. And to ensure that no one missed the point, she began draping a banner over the rail in front of her seat, a hand-painted placard announcing in bold letters "HILDA IS HERE!"
Her presence thus established, Hilda worked to ingratiate herself herself with sportswriters, who seemed to consider her some sort of amiable lunatic. She played along with them, exaggerating her natural New York accent to provide succinct comments on the Dodgers' play, punctuated by the occasional aside to her detractors. "Eatcha heart out , yez bums!" she'd sneer, ringing her bell in their faces for emphasis. More important, she ingratiated herself with the team itself, especially manager Durocher, who convinced the team to pay her way to accompany them on occasional road trips. Her celebrity thus established, Hilda used it to improve her own living situation -- a comment from her in a newspaper column endorsing a local restaurant could easily translate into a free meal. The press may have been exploiting her for a good story, but Hilda herself quickly learned the subtle tricks of how to turn that manipulation to her own advantage. She had learned, as so many other impoverished urban residents had had to do, how to hustle.
Hilda reached the zenith of her fame in 1942. The Dodgers won the National League championship the previous year, attracting nationwide support, and had become a full-fledged popular culture phenomenon. Comedian Red Skelton decided to take advantage of the situation by making a film satirizing Brooklyn's obsession with baseball -- and who better to represent that obsession than Hilda Chester herself. Her role in the picture, "Whistling in Brooklyn," wasn't large -- but it was noticable. Hilda was now a national celebrity.
She still worked for Harry M. Stevens, bagging peanuts and shilling hot dogs, but for the first time in her life she was happy. She declared to reporters, with much amazement, that suddenly she had friends all over the city who'd do anything for her just because of who she was. She made guest appearances on radio programs, she continued to endorse any local establishment that would slip her something on the side, and when she suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized, the Dodger team, led by Leo Durocher himself, appeared at her bedside to give her encouragement.
Hilda's fame turned on her outsized personality, which she could turn on or off at will. Fans who sat near her during the long summers at Ebbets Field described the "real Hilda" as quiet and rather gentle, always worried about her fragile health -- until the moment when something happened on the field to cause her to whip out the bell, leap to her feet, and transform into "Howlin' Hilda." "Where would I be if I wasn't a Dodger fan?" she once mused to a reporter in a moment of candor. "I wouldn't be back on my feet. I wouldn't have so many friends. Win or lose, I got friends." Her life settled into a pattern, the most stable it had ever been, continuing into the 1950s. Among those in awe of her was young Dodger announcer Vin Scully, who to this day recalls the afternoon when Hilda glared straight into the radio booth and bellowed in a voice which carried out to millions of listeners, "I LOVE YOU VIN SCULLY! LOOKA ME WHEN I'M TALKIN' TO YA!"
But it couldn't last, and it didn't. After the 1957 season, Dodger owner Walter O'Malley wrenched the heart out of Brooklyn by moving the team 3000 miles to the west. Hilda was devastated -- the team had been the only real family she'd ever known, the focus of her life for nearly twenty years -- and denounced the owner to any who would listen, but she was shouting into the wind. Her celebrity faded away in the 1960s, and Hilda Chester slipped, back into obscurity. She continued to work for the Stevens company, but her health grew ever worse as she aged, and by the 1970s she was living in a nursing home in Queens. Few knew who she was, as, brutally scarred by the loss of the team, she refused to discuss her past, and fewer cared -- except, perhaps, for the aging Dodger players of her heyday, to whom she still sent birthday cards every year.
Hilda Chester died alone and forgotten in 1978, and was buried in an unmarked grave in a paupers' cemetery on Staten Island. But her legacy is not forgotten -- at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the game's greatest shrine, there stands a statue of Hilda in her prime -- loud print dress, bell in hand, mouth open -- as a memorial to the woman once acclaimed as "America's Number One Fan." She was, in her own distinctive way, one of the most memorable women of the Golden Era.
Jacqueline Cochran and other WASPS. She is a pioneer of aviation
I enjoyed your biography of Ms. Hawes. I wonder if she would have liked to be titled "Ms. Hawes?"
While most of the women I knew when I was little would have laughed at her complaints because they had no interest in fashion particularly and most worked. But she apparently had a point about working women, who might still be described as the invisible part of the labor force. In fact, in a lot of cases, factory work is traditionally woman's work. That was true when she lived, even before WWII and was true just about everywhere in the world. And never ask a woman who is a "homemaker" if she has a job, especially if she is a mother. And while you're at it, don't ask a farmer's wife if she has a job, either.
Nice story on Hilda Chester!
Separate names with a comma.