Up From the Society Page: Elegant Success at The Times

A Woman of the Times: Journalism, Feminism, and the Career of Charlotte Curtis , by Marilyn S. Greenwald. Ohio University Press, 251 pages, $26.95.

If Charlotte Curtis had spent the quiet nights of her Ohio youth plotting her ascendance to the masthead of The New York Times , she could not have succeeded any better than she did just by appearing at the beginning of the 1960′s with her watchful, polished manners and her corrosive prose. Her mocking voice as a society writer perfectly matched the leveling tendencies of the period, while her maidenly demeanor soothed the old guard. In her trademark strand of pearls, Charlotte Curtis slipped almost undetected into positions of power. How she managed to beat the odds against women at The Times is the focus of Marilyn Greenwald’s frail, meandering narrative, though a more fitting question may be how Curtis learned to play the game at all–and make herself, in the words of her colleague David Halberstam, “one of the most powerful men [sic] on the paper.”

Molly Ivins, who wrote for The Times in the late 70′s, attributed her rise to exceptional intelligence: Not only was Curtis smarter than the men around her, Ms. Ivins thought, but she was smart enough not to show it. Curtis herself insisted she had never been discriminated against as a woman. She refused to participate in the 1974 class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against The Times (she and the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable were the only women at The Times to abstain), although she offered to exert pressure from within. In a late interview, Curtis claimed that she had been raised as much like a boy as a girl: “It was never considered that I would not excel. And because there was no son on whom expectations could be placed, they were placed on me.”

Charlotte’s mother, Lucile Curtis, had been a suffrage leader and, in 1922, the first woman diplomat appointed to the U.S. Foreign Service. Public service was part of the family code, and Charlotte’s parents expected that she would supplement the pony rides and dress fittings of her privileged upbringing with volunteer jobs and political work. During a summer break from Vassar College, she applied for a job at The Columbus Citizen , later The Citizen-Journal , and was eventually offered a full-time position as a society reporter. Despite her rapid advancement at the small newspaper, she frequently sent applications to its rival, The Columbus Dispatch , where she hoped she might be allowed to write news or features.

Doors opened for her, though not always the doors she knocked on. Arriving at The Times in 1961 after her 10-year apprenticeship at The Citizen , Curtis again took up a conventional post on the women’s pages.

Two years later, she asked to transfer to a news or feature-writing job, but was talked into accepting yet another stint as a society reporter. This time, her withering tone and her oddly high standards for the rich were noticed and savored. In her best-known piece, she reported on the elegant fund-raiser that Leonard and Felicia Bernstein hosted for the Black Panthers in January 1970, exposing the dangers of saying almost anything with a canapé in hand. While Panther field marshal Donald Cox outlined his plans to overthrow the American Government and the class system, Bernstein nodded sagely. “I dig absolutely,” Bernstein said.

Although it was Tom Wolfe who made this party famous with his essay “Radical Chic,” published that June in New York magazine, Curtis’ wry treatment of the event in The Times appears to have sparked his puckish interest. He listed her among the guests at the party–”America’s foremost Chronicler of Society, a lean woman in black, with her notebook out”–and described the controversy that erupted when Curtis’ article went out on the Times News Service wires. First came a Times editorial denouncing the “elegant slumming” of the liberal establishment. Within a few days, the Bernsteins were receiving hate mail from the Jewish Defense League. Weeks later, Leonard Bernstein heard boos and hisses rising from the audience at a New York concert.

By the mid-60′s, Curtis had become news herself–profiled in Time , Newsweek and Women’s Wear Daily (“Turtle soup turns up seven nights a week on the society beat,” she quipped. “It’s the little black dress of social suppers”), and in a 1969 cover story for New York magazine. From the society page, she was promoted to women’s news editor, and in 1974 was appointed Op-Ed editor, becoming the first woman associate editor at The Times and earning her place on the masthead. Even her social life revolved around the paper. She spent her evenings and weekends at the events she covered, and was rarely seen with a date until her late marriage to a surgeon from Columbus, Ohio. She was a Times columnist when she died of cancer in 1987.

Interviewed forth is book, Gloria Steinem remarked that success at The Times is like hemophilia: “It passes through women and men get it.” There’s no denying, however, that despite her circumscribed beginnings in the women’s section, Charlotte Curtis was rewarded for her work. Polite but persistent, she took the modest opportunities offered to her as a female reporter and shrewdly traded up, surpassing not only most of the women at the paper, but most of the men. Her sex did not hold her back for long. She had the Zeitgeist on her side, as well, and there may be something to be said for a good strand of pearls.

The real story, then, is somewhere else, but there is no finding it in these murky waters. In fact, it is tempting to read this book as an indictment of newspaper journalism. The author worked for a time at The Columbus Citizen-Journal , where the legend of Charlotte Curtis and her glamorous removal to The Times lived on. (One of her colleagues described Curtis to Ms. Greenwald as “weird,” and others dismissed her as a type-A workaholic.) Although Ms. Greenwald has carefully researched the life of her subject, she brings to each paragraph the cautious Who, What, When, Where and Why of newspaper writing–repeating names in full, offering numbing analyses of Curtis’ stylistic effects and, most troublingly, leaping ahead to describe the deaths of people we have just met. She appears immune to Curtis’ light and biting wit. In the end, she seems as well-meaning but as ill-matched with her subject as the Bernsteins and the Panthers.