Washington Press Club Foundation
The Eleanor Roosevelt Press Conferences

A videotaped group interview with
Ann Cottrell Free, Frances Lide, Ruth Montgomery, Malvina Stephenson
May 22, 1989 in Washington, DC
Kathleen Currie, Interviewer

Go to Index | Cover | Appendix | Home
Page 1

Currie: I'd like to welcome you to this reunion of the Eleanor Roosevelt Press Conference Association, I guess we'd call it, and thank you for coming to participate in this project with the Washington Press Club Foundation. I'd like you to introduce yourself, and I'd like to ask you how you actually came to cover Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences, and maybe what your memory is of the first press conference you ever covered. Frances Lide, could you start?

Lide: Do you want me to say something about how I happened to come to Washington?

Currie: Sure.

Lide: I had worked on two papers in South Carolina, and the second one was the seven-day-a-week paper with the staff of two when I left. So I was advised to come to Washington by an editor in Rochester, New York, of all places, and get a job in the New Deal and try to work in the news bureau someplace. So I took his advice, took $200 I had saved from working in Greenwood, South Carolina, and arrived here. And all of my clothes were stolen the night I got here—my suitcase.

So I had to immediately get to work someplace, and I got a job in the government. I started going around looking for a job. Well, in those days, there were practically no women covering straight news in Washington, but practically all the papers had one woman on the city staff or the general news staff. I went to the Washington Star and was never even able to talk to anyone. Then I went back. It's a long story, so I won't go into it. But as it turned out, they were looking for someone to cover Eleanor Roosevelt's press conferences. This was in the third year of the Roosevelt Administration, and Bess Furman, who was working for the Associated Press, had been giving the Star special local coverage, in addition to her general coverage for the Associated Press. She finally told them that she couldn't do that anymore. So apparently a whole lot of people had heard this and were going in there, but, of course, I knew nothing about the fact that they were doing this. So I went in there on Saturday night, as a matter of fact. Having worked on a paper that had the Sunday morning edition, I knew there was a time when you would kind of—so I talked to Mr. Corn, who was the city editor, and he said he would like for me to come and see the managing editor on Monday. This was Saturday night.

So I went in the next Monday and saw the managing editor. I couldn't believe it, but I could tell when I walked out of there, that I had that job.

Page 1

Page 2

Currie: How could you tell?

Lide: They were gracious to me! [Laughter.] And they asked for some references. One of my references was to Jesse Cottrell, whom I had met with a South Carolina newsman here. Jesse said they called him up and asked him if I was the kind of person who let her petticoat show, and he said, "I told 'em I was sure you didn't." So that was his recommendation.

Anyway, I was hired to cover Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences, because Mrs. Roosevelt did not permit men to cover her press conferences. See, I didn't know any of this when I was looking for this job.

Currie: That was in 1936?

Lide: In the middle of December 1935 was when I went to work. The subject of that particular first conference was the new kitchens. They had electrified the kitchen. Of course, here I was, I was just not used to any of this, so going through the White House kitchen, I think I took about three hours to write a story which, of course, they didn't use. They were just testing. I went over to the press room where they had about six or seven desks.

Currie: Why don't we find out how other people came to cover Mrs. Roosevelt, and then we can come back and talk about some of the stories you got out of those press conferences. Malvina Stephenson, do you want to talk about this?

Stephenson: In looking back, I think I had a connection. I had really a one-woman news bureau, and I had a connection with two newspapers and three syndicates. Really, none of my male editors were particularly excited about Mrs. Roosevelt; they didn't urge me to go. But it was the thing to do, so naturally, I went to Mrs. Roosevelt's press conference. I didn't want to be left out. Occasionally I got a feature in.

Currie: What were the papers?

Stephenson: The Kansas City Star, the Cincinnati Times Star, and there was a Hearst syndicate, INS, now defunct, and then the Women's News Service.

Currie: So you had quite a number of papers.

Stephenson: I could contribute to them. The two newspapers, I was on their regular staff.

Currie: Ruth Montgomery, how did you begin?

Montgomery: I had been at the Chicago Tribune, and then the war broke out, and my husband became a desk-bound naval officer in Washington. I was having such a good time covering Chicago in those days, I didn't want to come to Washington, until he finally put his foot firmly down. So then I transferred to the New York Daily News, which was the sister paper of the Chicago Tribune. I came in early '44. I'd never covered women's news, but I was covering regular stories. I was covering the president's press conferences and all, too. But since I was the only woman, I was covering Mrs. Roosevelt's Press Conference Association, too.

Currie: Ann Cottrell Free?

Page 2

Page 3

Free: I came to Washington for Newsweek magazine. I was the first woman in the bureau, a large bureau today. That was in January, I believe, or around about Christmas 1940 and January 1941. I was just expected to go to Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences, but that was just one of many, many duties that I was assigned to. I had come to Newsweek from the Richmond Times Dispatch, but I had gotten to Washington, it's only about 100 miles away, but I'd gone to Hollywood. Then I went to New York and ended up working for Newsweek in a very lowly job, which I thought was well beneath my reportorial talents. In other words, I was something like an office girl—I clipped newspapers—for Newsweek. But one day the manager and editor called me in and said would I like to go down to Washington. I thought he meant to take a package. But I was the package. [Laughter.] So therefore, I stayed on at Newsweek.

To go on with the rest of my career, I went to two other newspapers, but that's how I came to Washington. We had a small office headed by Ernest Lindley, who was one of the columnists of the day, and three or four men. It was a nice, cozy group, and I really enjoyed going to Mrs. R's.

The first press conference, I can either tell you a little bit about it now or later. I wrote about it in a magazine article, Modern Maturity, the year of her centennial. So I have all that right at my fingertips. I was quite amazed when we met at the White House downstairs to wait for the signal for us to go into the upstairs room, where the conferences were held in the living quarters. Very few people get to go to those. That was in the Monroe Room. So these women, all of undetermined age, because I was only in my very, very early twenties, under 25, they scrambled up those stairs like they were jack-out-of-the-boxes, and I thought, "My goodness, how agile these gals are!" But they got all the front seats, of course.

Then Mrs. Roosevelt came breezing in once they were seated, with her, "Good morning, girls," trilling. Her voice trilled a lot. There was a great deal of handshaking, and then we settled down. Really, there wasn't very much news. She did pull out her notebook, black notebook, which was with rubber bands around it, to give her schedule, which, of course, included everything. She was just—I think the word is peripatetic. She was one place and then another, and I could hardly keep notes going on all the things she was going to be doing. Then she had with her, as she often did, a woman speaker who was speaking about the men who were being called up for service. Then the press conference, I won't go into the whole press conference, but the questions then started after that.

But I will sign off on that question by saying that I think I was, of course, quite struck by Mrs. Roosevelt and her two faithful, marvelous aides, secretaries, Miss Malvina Thompson, whom we called "Tommy," who had served Mrs. Roosevelt since 1927, and Mrs. Helm, who was then 67 years old. Mrs. Roosevelt, by the way, was 56, and certainly had lots of vim and vigor. Then the women on the front row are the ones we'll discuss later; they were the people that had been covering her from the very beginning.

Currie: Did you have any other impressions, Malvina or Ruth, of when you covered your first Eleanor Roosevelt press conference? Or Frances?

Stephenson: I tell you, I got an account from Lorena Hickok. I didn't go, of course, to the first press conference, but Mrs. Roosevelt reported to Hickok, she said that she was encouraged to have this by her husband and Louis Howe. She told "Hick" that she was really a little doubtful about whether to continue them,

Page 3

Page 4

but she fluttered in with some dried fruit or candied fruit and passed it around, and she later said to "Hick," she said, "Well, the girls were so friendly and nice, I really think I'll have another conference." [Laughter.]

Montgomery: She used to come in at the very beginning, followed by the two Ann just mentioned, the two secretaries. This high, fluting voice, she'd go out shaking hands, and it was the limpest little hand. Remember how tiny?

Lide: Indeed! That's something I'll always remember. She shook hundreds of hands, you know.

Montgomery: Just going all around the circle, "Hello, hello."

Currie: How many women attended these press conferences?

Montgomery: Usually around 25 or 30, wasn't it?

Stephenson: She said at the first press conference there were about 25 and not enough chairs, so they had to bring in some chairs. "Hick" said they had it in the Red Room; I didn't know they had it in the Red Room.

Montgomery: No, because in our time it was always in the Monroe Room up in the family quarters.

Lide: When I started, there wasn't any Press Conference Association, and the Monroe Room was full of people. As Ann said, a lot of them were sort of getting to be senior citizens.

Free: We felt they were getting on, didn't we?

Lide: In fact, I was very young compared to most of them.

Stephenson: We were all young, remember?

Montgomery: Can we remember?

Currie: How old were you, Frances, when you started?

Lide: I'm not going to tell you how old I was. I'll tell you what happened to me when I was introduced around.

Currie: Oh, good.

Lide: We used to meet in the Green Room and then go upstairs. When I was first taken, Margaret Hart was introducing me to ail the people that were converging in the Green Room, which I think was more or less Monday after the Gridiron Widows Party, as I recall, because they were all talking about that, and I didn't know what they were talking about. Anyway, there was this very sophisticated lady who was dressed very smartly, and I've never been able to be sure who that was, but she looked me over and she said, "Isn't the Star getting frivolous?" [Laughter.]

Currie: What do you think she meant by that?

Lide: I think she just thought that—

Page 4

Page 5

Stephenson: You weren't welcome.

Lide: No, no, I don't think she felt that at all. I was a lot younger than the other people there, and the Star hadn't been having anyone except the society people cover the press conference.

Montgomery: The war changed things so much.

Lide: Yes. Really, it was just amazing.

Montgomery: They began hiring so many women after men went overseas.

Stephenson: Yes, but they also tightened the credentials.

Lide: That was when they formed the press conference. Actually, the three years I covered it, a lot of them were visiting people, and a lot of them were people who wrote a little social column once a month for a paper out in one of the states.

Montgomery: But they put a stop to that, because then we had to get White House credentials from Secret Service. They really, as Malvina was saying, tightened it up so that those "frivolous" ones couldn't come anymore.

Lide: You know what I thought was really delightful about those very early days, there was no security to the White House grounds; you just walked through. You walked up to the front door, and the doorman or the butler, whatever they called him, opened it up, and the ushers had a desk to the right as you enter, and your name was on the list. You just trooped upstairs, and it was just like going to see somebody in their own home.

Free: They all knew us. The butler was named Mr. Mays.

Montgomery: Yes, he was darling.

Free: He wore, of course, white gloves and the long tails. Then Mr. Crim, I think, was the White House usher. He wrote a book.

Stephenson: He was a successor to one.

Free: Right.

Lide: Was he still there at the desk to the right, or did he just personally go in and check you in?

Free: I think he was just sort of wandering around.

Currie: We have a photograph of actually the second Eleanor Roosevelt press conference. Maybe we could go back. You mentioned Lorena Hickok. We could talk about some of these early women. You can see the photograph on the monitor now. This was actually her second press conference in 1933.

Stephenson: Do you think May Craig went to the first? Was she there then?

Currie: Did you ever talk to her about that?

Page 5

Page 6

Stephenson: Talked to her? She told everybody what to do. It was supposed to be an organization.

Free: No, the organization hadn't started, Malvina.

Stephenson: I'm talking about when they did organize. May ran things.

Free: But this was about six years before.

Stephenson: I don't know whether she ran things at first.

Free: She ran things a lot.

Currie: Tell me about May Craig. Was she a key person in all of this?

Free: Very key. She was like Frances, from South Carolina. But she got the reputation of being a down-Easterner from Maine. She had that sort of a New England manner, because she worked for a Maine newspaper. Her husband had been with the newspaper which I went with later, the Herald Tribune, and he'd been injured in an automobile accident. So in a sense, she had to go to work. She'd been a nurse at one point. I guess you all didn't know that. And she had two children. So she needed the job, which we might say parenthetically, I think many of these people did need jobs. They weren't doing it just to be glamorous. But May, of course, did have a very—what would be the proper word without her coming back to haunt me? [Laughter.] Would it be "authoritarian"? But she was a great manager.

Stephenson: Bossy.

Free: "Bossy," Malvina says. But anyway, so much so that those of us who worked on papers and got up late at night, morning papers, and we had the luxury of sleeping late, May would ring us up it seemed like at the crack of dawn, to talk about Women's Press Club affairs and so on, like 7:00 a.m., because she was an early riser. So that gives you a little bit of a tip-off about May, because she was a hard-driving woman and she kept things going. She was an absolute delight.

Lide: And she was very friendly and helpful to new people.

Stephenson: But she was noted for her questions. She always asked prim questions.

Free: Of course, she built up the big reputation later on when television came in, but that's another story.

Currie: At Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences, she asked what kind of questions?

Montgomery: No different than the others there. It's just that she became such a well-known person, as you say, after television came in, when this little woman who always wore a blue hat would pop up and ask questions that she said she'd stayed up all night to work on.

Stephenson: A little like lecturing the president, wasn't it?

Lide: She was, actually, I think the first famous question-asker.

Page 6

Page 7

Montgomery: The funny thing was that she had become so well known all over the country because of television, yet nobody ever read anything she wrote, because she was with one little paper in Maine.

Stephenson: But she didn't really often write stories about her questions.

Free: She wrote a big long column about everything under the sun, you know, like a letter home, but they were good. I read some of them. They were quite good. Do you want to get back to the picture?

Currie: I'd like to understand more about how the no-male rule came about. What's your understanding about that decision not to allow men to come into the press conferences?

Lide: It was simply to make jobs for women.

Montgomery: That's right. It was Mrs. Roosevelt's idea to force editors to hire some women in Washington.

Stephenson: And for several reasons, too, because she thought she'd get better coverage from women reporters, and the men, you know, would have been a little irreverent.

Montgomery: [Laughter.] As some of us were.

Lide: Those stories still had to go through men editors.

Free: Back to May Craig. I may remind you that May felt that men, from the beginning, should be admitted, because she was a feminist and an equal-rights-er in a different way from a person we haven't mentioned yet, but who was a force—Ruby Black. Ruby was a feminist and equal-rights-er, but she didn't want men.

Stephenson: But not Mrs. Roosevelt. She was not then for the ERA.

Free: No, that's another subject. Shall we discuss that one now?

Currie: It's a matter of record that Mrs. Roosevelt wasn't in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. I think it's interesting that there was this discussion on the part of May Craig that men should be allowed.

Free: She felt that if you're going to have equality, it's equality. But that was sort of a bone of contention for some time.

Montgomery: Well, two different times men applied for membership after we formed the Association, and it was not the Association that turned them down; it was Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House.

Currie: Really?

Montgomery: Because we would have voted them in. We couldn't care less.

Stephenson: I think she did have men at her out-of-town press conferences.

Page 7

Page 8

Montgomery: Of course, they were not the Association. If they happened to be at the station, yes.

Free: As I recall, a vote was taken on that. We're jumping ahead. Do you want to go back to 1933?

Currie: That's okay. Let's talk about this issue now that it's come up. It's interesting that Mrs. Roosevelt is the one who said basically she didn't want the men, and the Press Conference Association would have voted them in.

Montgomery: Some of us would have. I know that one had been rejected. Do you remember who that was?

Free: Yes, I do. Gordon Cole of PM. I don't think it was Mrs. Roosevelt; I think it was a vote of the Association.

Montgomery: Another one came up when I was chairman, and Freddy Othman wanted to. He was a humor columnist.

Lide: He would have had a great time with it, wouldn't he? [Laughter.]

Free: He would be like Art Buchwald.

Montgomery: He said, "Ruth, how do I put in an application to join the Association?" I said, "Well, you can put in the application anytime, but it has been done before and the White House rejected it. We would let you in." He said, "Oh, well, if it's been done before and if it's just the White House that's going to turn me down." He wanted to write a story about the girls turning him down, I'm sure. I said, "We'd vote you in."

Currie: That's interesting. Maybe we can go back a little bit. Other than May Craig, who were some of the key women in Mrs. Roosevelt's early press conferences?

Lide: Ruby Black was one, and Bess Furman.

Montgomery: Doris Fleeson.

Lide: Doris wasn't in that early group. Someone was listing those to me the other day. Oh, Martha Strayer from the News! Martha was a terrific reporter—and my competition.

Free: That must have been very difficult, because she really worked on it, and you did, too, but that was her soul, in a way. You mean her connection with Mrs. Roosevelt, she was a real good friend. She gave a party for Mrs. Roosevelt every year.

Lide: Is that right? I wasn't invited.

Free: Neither was I.

Stephenson: Bess Furman said that Mrs. Roosevelt was the most important force in her life. I guess she meant professional life. And she said she early hitched herself to Mrs. Roosevelt's wagon.

Page 8

Page 9

Currie: That's interesting.

Free: I can speak a little bit about Bess for a moment. She was out of Nebraska and had worked on the Omaha Bee, I believe. Then she worked for the Associated Press. Miss Hickok had worked for the AP, as we all know. Bess had done a few AP stories. When "Hick" retired from the AP job, it was Bess who got the full-time AP job. Then she later went to the New York Times. A lot of people think that she was at the Times from the beginning. She became a great supporter of Mrs. Roosevelt. In fact, when her twins were born, she was past 40—43, I think—Mrs. Roosevelt was the godmother. This is a part of the whole roots, the genesis, you might say, of this friendship that goes back to those early days with Ruby Black, May Craig, Bess Furman, Genevieve Forbes Herrick. You might have had two or three circles. You had an inner circle and further and further and further.

Stephenson: Yes, they had a social circle with Mrs. Roosevelt. I don't think any of us were—

Free: I was invited to a party, a couple of parties that May Craig gave for Mrs. Roosevelt.

Currie: Let me ask you about that. We also have a photograph slugged "Friends." Would any of you consider yourselves personal friends of Mrs. Roosevelt?

Stephenson: We were friends, but I certainly wasn't a personal friend in this social circle of hers, where they met for cozy little parties.

Montgomery: That was the old-timer group before the war and when they were so intimate with her.

Lide: I think it was the first year of the press conference, probably, when these women came together.

Stephenson: They got in before we arrived.

Lide: I mean, I came in three years later, and I don't think Mrs. Roosevelt ever knew my name. Yet she shook my hand once a week with that limp handshake. And I followed her around in local things. Of course, she couldn't limit her coverage to women, you know.

Montgomery: Except in the press conferences.

Free: Public affairs. I did do a lot of trailing around after her, in addition to other things.

Currie: We have a photograph on the monitor of Mrs. Roosevelt with Martha Strayer on the left and Bess Furman between Malvina Thompson and Mrs. Roosevelt.

Stephenson: I wasn't her namesake, incidentally—Malvina [Thompson's.] [Laughter.]

Currie: You weren't? [Laughter.] Did they ever talk about their personal experience with Mrs. Roosevelt?

Stephenson: I think they wrote about them.

Page 9

Page 10

Lide: Not to me.

Free: Ruby Black wrote a biography of Mrs. Roosevelt, and Bess wrote books, too. One was Washington Byline, in which she told a lot about her close connection. Ruby Black and Bess, and Martha didn't write a book, but she was very, very close to her.

Stephenson: She had started to write the book when she died.

Free: That's right. She had a big recording. But one of the most valuable things about Martha Strayer, from the standpoint of posterity, is that she took shorthand and those notes were all transcribed, but not all of the press conferences.

Stephenson: It was the old Pittman style, and they had difficulty transcribing them.

Free: That's right. Bess kept pretty good notes, too, so we have some of those records.

Lide: Martha was afternoon paper and I was afternoon paper, so she was my chief rival. I used to just be petrified as to what she was writing in all these notes, which I couldn't even keep up with. But I think the thing that she did that really taught me that I had a formidable rival was one time in which Mrs. Roosevelt reported that the White House had been gone over for electrical defects. She also worked for a tabloid-sized paper. The headline that afternoon was "White House Fire Trap." [Laughter.] They called me over and said, "You didn't write that." I said, "I certainly did. They just threw it away."

Free: They didn't run it?

Lide: That happened to a lot of stories you'd turn in on Mrs. Roosevelt.

Currie: That's interesting. What do you mean? They didn't run a lot of the stories?

Lide: There was so much detail at Mrs. Roosevelt's press conference that to cover it for a local paper, if there was something local, you made a story out of it. Otherwise, you sometimes did a bunch of little stories. Somebody would look at that and think, "Well, they're just working on the electrical system" and put it on a spike. See, this was an afternoon paper, and you'd get this right on the afternoon deadline. It wasn't important enough, the way I wrote it.

Stephenson: That's what I said. The male editors just didn't take Mrs. Roosevelt too seriously.

Free: May I ask Frances a question? Were you at the press conference—it might have been a little earlier—her big story on breaking the fact that the White House was going to serve wine and beer?

Lide: No, that was before my time.

Free: That was the big story of the century, you might say.

Page 10

Page 11

Lide: Somebody said that made news around the world. [Laughter.]

Montgomery: The end of prohibition.

Free: An interesting thing—and this is a matter of record—I was not there as a witness, but it's been written so many times, that I'm going to rely on that and hope I'm not inaccurate, that she let two of the hard news women run back in the living quarters to use the telephone to make the flash to their papers, because a society editor had gotten a little press release, and she had beat it out of the room—you know, physically out. She was trying to get to her paper, down to a telephone to make a super scoop. But Mrs. Roosevelt fixed her little red wagon. She let the two wire service girls—the "girls," notice that; that's a term we all used—use the phone upstairs, which I think there's some justification for. Don't you think so?

Montgomery: Yes, I think she had a good news sense.

Free: It was a good news sense. She just shouldn't walk out with the press release.

Montgomery: And try to scoop everybody else.

Free: But on the other hand, why not? [Laughter.]

Currie: It's interesting that you say the male editors weren't that interested in the Eleanor Roosevelt stories, and you say a lot of the stories you filed got-

Lide: Well, a lot of them weren't worth publishing, let's face it. I was new to Washington and really didn't have a very hard news background, anyway, and I probably wrote more things than were necessary. But I would have to say that the news editor handling a story that didn't say that the White House was a fire trap, probably didn't take it very seriously. If Mrs. Roosevelt used that expression, she probably laughed and said that.

Montgomery: She wouldn't have used that.

Stephenson: No.

Free: But speaking of all this, everything but the old kitchen stove, which everything was covered. Once on the Herald Tribune, I wrote a story which I ran into, in looking through my multitude of clippings, which had a certain ring of truth. It says, "Ships and shoes and sealing wax and cabbages and kings were covered at Mrs. Roosevelt's press conference today." Indeed, ships, because the war shipping thing was on at that time; shoes, because of shoe rationing; cabbage, because of food. [Laughter.] And the kings and queens were visiting. So indeed, ships and shoes and cabbages. I don't know about Val Kill, the sealing wax. But indeed, everything was covered at those press conferences.

Lide: And a lot of times it was something about a furniture factory up in New York, which had no interest at all, you know.

Montgomery: That's right.

Free: It was a question of sort of sorting out.

Page 11

Page 12

Currie: Ruth, you worked for a paper, particularly during the war years, your boss was not too much in favor of the Roosevelts.

Montgomery: That's right. When I was elected chairman the last time, you know, when he died during my term, Mrs. Roosevelt was very sweet. You remember, Malvina? She had the board over to tea at the White House. I was sure that she was wishing it was anyone but myself, who was chairman, because she spent most of the time while we were having tea in the upstairs hall drawing room, you know, talking about how she could not understand why John O'Donnell, who was my bureau chief in Washington, would turn on her husband, "When," she said, "we wrote him such nice letters of introduction when he went to Europe and put him in touch with a lot of people. How he could do this!" I said, "But Mrs. Roosevelt, it's an editorial column that he writes, so he's keeping the tone of the paper."

Well, Captain Patterson, Joseph Medill Patterson, was the owner and publisher of the New York Daily News, and he had been great friends, he and his wife, with the Roosevelts all through the first two terms, and had always supported them. They were quite chummy. Then he was against someone running for a third term, so he cooled off a little bit then. Then when he felt like he was getting us into the war with the lend-lease shipments and so forth, he became radically critical. That's when the great schism occurred. She was always very nice and polite to me, but she certainly didn't like my paper. [Laughter.]

Currie: How did you all handle, for example, having an editor or a boss who wasn't particularly in favor of the Roosevelts, and filing your stories? Was that a problem for you?

Montgomery: No. In fact, at one of [Franklin] Roosevelt's press conferences, John O'Donnell wasn't there, but he gave to someone else an iron cross that had been taken off of a German soldier, and said to award that to John O'Donnell, which was really a pretty mean thing to do. That was very unpresidential. He had a lot of criticism about it. But he was furious because John O'Donnell had also been such a good friend of theirs until they didn't like what Roosevelt was doing.

Currie: If we could pull up TransLux, I wonder if you all remember this particular cartoon.

Stephenson: One of the papers I had was the Cincinnati Times Star, which was the Taft family paper. I remember, also, that my bureau chief was Tex Ervin, and he and John O'Donnell, I think they used to go up every morning and have a drink at the bar and exchange notes against the Roosevelts.

Montgomery: Yes, morning and noon and evening.

Currie: This is a cartoon from the New Yorker. I'll just read the caption. It says, "Come along, we're going to the TransLux to hiss Roosevelt." I guess there was a lot of anti-Roosevelt feeling.

Stephenson: Oh, yes.

Free: Of course.

Page 12

Page 13

Montgomery: I remember an interesting story. Was it Reader's Digest, or which one? Maybe one of you remember, that was going to make a collection, run an article about all the Roosevelt jokes. Like they had the Tin Lizzie jokes, you know, about the old Ford. There were so many jokes going around, they were going to do a collection of Roosevelt ones. Then they announced afterwards that they had discontinued the project because they were all so cruel.

Currie: Westbrook Pegler certainly took after Eleanor Roosevelt.

Stephenson: They had a feud.

Lide: And then he finally repented, didn't he?

Stephenson: Recanted.

Lide: Recanted or repented, both.

Currie: How did you all handle this criticism of the Roosevelts? Did you feel that you needed to interpret her for your readers? How did you approach that?

Lide: I just paid no attention to the criticism.

Montgomery: I just wrote straight news story.

Stephenson: But being the Taft paper, I didn't think about that one way or the other. In fact, Tex Ervin, you know, he felt no bitterness or antipathy; he wasn't even giving Mrs. Roosevelt a thought. He was too busy with his own column. He didn't care what I wrote.

Currie: Did you ever have a story killed because you were too supportive of Eleanor Roosevelt?

Montgomery: Oh, no.

Lide: That would never have happened on the Evening Star.

Currie: I was wondering if anyone was ever accused of being too pro-Roosevelt, any one of you in the Press Conference Association.

Montgomery: Certainly I never was. [Laughter.]

Lide: Some of the earlier people who had close friendships were. It was said that they tried to warn her when she shouldn't—

Free: I think you're getting into a whole new subject now.

Montgomery: Do you remember that at those press conferences? Some of these "old bitties" who had been in it for such a—you know, had been so close to her, she would answer somebody's question, and Bess Furman or one of them would say, "Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, you better put that off the record." They were censoring what she was saying so that we couldn't write about it. It was so annoying. You have no idea! Here we were supposed to be professional newspaperwomen, and these gals would sit there and say, "Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, you better not say that. Put that off the record." "Well, all right."

Page 13

Page 14

Stephenson: Ruth, do you remember at the last press conference on April 12th, it was on Drew Pearson's column, when he said, "Is the honeymoon over between Eleanor and the girls?" And Eleanor started to answer it, and that's when Bess Furman said, "This is the integrity of the Association at question." That issue was whether Malvina Thompson had doctored a transcript. That was the basis of that column.

Montgomery: I'd forgotten what that was about, but I'll never forget that day.

Stephenson: Eleanor finally said, "Well, this is off the record, but the column and the question do not merit a response. That's off the record."

Montgomery: Yes, but you remember someone spoke up and said, "Oh, put that off the record. Let's don't have anything about it in here, because we don't want to give Drew Pearson any publicity."

Free: Bess wanted the Association to take it up. You were the chair then.

Montgomery: Yes, but the thing that came up about taking action on it was that that afternoon, early afternoon, Tommy Thompson, the secretary, called me and said, "The UP ticker has just carried a story on that." One of our members was with UP. "That had all been put off the record, and here it is on the UP ticker. What are you going to do about it?" I said, "I'll call a meeting for tomorrow with the board, and we'll decide what action to take." Then Roosevelt died that afternoon, so there wasn't any Association.

Currie: What do you think you would have done?

Montgomery: Well, Malvina was on the board. Let's see. There were five of us. Of course, she was on the board, the UP girl, also, so it was going to be rather sticky.

Stephenson: Had she written about the whole argument or just about what Mrs. Roosevelt said?

Montgomery: I didn't see her piece, because by that time the papers were full of Roosevelt.

Free: The question was a misinterpretation of what Mrs. Roosevelt said about feeding Europe after World War II. The war was beginning to wind down, and it was probably a misinterpretation or maybe she didn't hear it correctly.

Stephenson: What the story [was that] came out, I think—

Free: The idea was that Mrs. Roosevelt said that we couldn't be expected to feed Europe. That differed with her husband, and so they wanted to change it.

Free: I don't know what happened. I was there, but I don't remember the incident.

Montgomery: Steve Early, who was Roosevelt's press secretary, used to just go wild at some of the stories that would come out of her press conferences. She had said things that they didn't want said at all. You remember at one of those, she had just been given a $14,000 mink coat by the Canadian Mink Growers

Page 14

Page 15

Association. I remember I asked a question there, did she think it was all right for the president's wife to accept such an expensive gift. She said, "Oh, yes, there's nothing against a wife accepting a gift. Anna and I (their daughter, you know) last night were upstairs trying on harem dresses that Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia had sent us." You remember that? That made quite a little story.

Free: I certainly feel that things have tightened up for the good. But one of the things we ought to touch on at some point during our little meeting is that Mrs. Roosevelt worked for manufacturers, was paid for some of her radio shows, as you know. Her sponsors were Selby Shoes, Pond's Cold Cream, then Pan American Coffee Bureau. She felt she had a right to earn money.

Stephenson: Was she influenced by the ads?

Lide: Probably not. I wonder if she wore Selby shoes.

Montgomery: But on the other hand, what if Barbara Bush—

Free: Well, that was the whole point, yes. This has been discussed and written about, and that was the contention, her thing, that she gave it away for good works. Of course, she earned a good bit From her books and her magazine articles and her columns. Goodness knows, the columns.

Currie: If we could have "My Day" on here, because I'd like to talk about her column a little bit. Was she, in essence, in competition with you all?

Free: A little bit.

Stephenson: Well, you couldn't compete with the First Lady.

Montgomery: She didn't bother me.

Free: One time when there was a big fuss about—I guess it was Westbrook Pegler and his intemperate columns. FDR was castigating columnists, and this is when May Craig spoke up, "Mr. President, your wife is a columnist."

Free: A fantastic rejoinder! [Laughter.]

Free: "She writes a diary. No columnist."

Montgomery: He said he considered columnists "excrescence." I never could say that word right. He said, "Mr. President, your wife's a columnist." He said, "Well, that's different."

Free: He said, "She writes a diary." Anyhow, we ought to go back before this thing slips away. Ruth could tell us why FDR gave the iron cross to John O'Donnell. What was the subject of that column?

Montgomery: I've forgotten. If I'd known you were going to ask me, I would have gone through notes.

Free: If I had known you were going to bring it up. [Laughter.]

Currie: That's okay.

Page 15

Page 16

Stephenson: Maybe it was more than one column, wasn't it?

Free: I have a recollection.

Montgomery: Do you think you remember?

Free: I can talk about it later to you, but my recollection was something to do with the WACs.

Currie: If we could talk a little bit about Mrs. Roosevelt and her "My Day" column. I understand that people began to read her column for hints of what FDR's political aspirations might be. Did you read her column? Did you look for them?

Stephenson: I'm sure I did, but I don't think she knew enough about news to put much of any news in it.

Currie: That's interesting.

Free: She knew about news.

Montgomery: I remember just glancing at them to see if anything caught my eye, but I certainly didn't sit and read that dull column every day. [Laughter.]

Currie: It was dull?

Montgomery: Oh, very!

Free: It was a kind of diary—

Lide: Of what she was going to do or had done.

Free: If she couldn't think of anything, she'd describe the scenery. She was a pretty good nature writer.

Stephenson: What I mean is, she could have scooped us all if she'd been a great reporter, but I guess she couldn't have gotten by with that.

Free: She did get some things that the girls felt that she should have kept for them. I can't remember them right off.

Currie: That was going to be my next question. What were some of the things that she scooped you on?

Free: Didn't she announce—correct me if I'm wrong—in her column that she was resigning from an organization which, of' course, was the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] after the Marian Anderson incident? I think she broke that story in her column.

Stephenson: She resigned.

Free: She resigned, but in. her column—in other words, she didn't give it out as a story. She said in her column that you shouldn't belong to organizations with which you didn't agree.

Page 16

Page 17

Incidentally, I should have brought this up earlier on. I first covered Mrs. Roosevelt right after the Marian Anderson concert, and I went up to Washington when I was with the Times Dispatch and heard Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial. Then Mrs. Roosevelt met with her in Richmond, and that was my first contact. I think that that was a great story and a great gesture, and I think it was one of the big landmarks in the civil rights fight, don't you agree?

Montgomery: Yes.

Free: So more power to her on that.

Currie: Mrs. Roosevelt played a key role in civil rights issues at that point. She was very friendly with Mary McLeod Bethune, I understand. Do you think that had any impact, Mrs. Roosevelt was being so friendly with such a prominent black woman, inviting her to the White House? Was that something you picked up at her press conference? Did she talk about that?

Stephenson: Of course it had impact on civil rights.

Lide: It had impact on a lot of her critics, but we weren't rushing around looking for criticism of it. I mean, we just reported it.

Montgomery: I think it was part of what was fueling the unpleasant Roosevelt jokes that were going around, because the temper of the times was so different from what it is now, so the ones who didn't like Roosevelt and Eleanor made pretty bad jokes about it.

Stephenson: And some of the women who were having trouble with their maids, who were getting independent, blamed it on Mrs. Roosevelt.

Free: That's right. They had the so-called "Eleanor clubs." I wonder how many of you all—would you remember hearing about the Eleanor clubs? I don't know just what it meant, but didn't know what they were supposed to do, these ladies who were looking out for these white households.

Stephenson: You mean the maids joined?

Free: Yes. They said she had established the so-called Eleanor clubs. I don't know whether they were going to go on a general strike or whether they weren't going to be good from the standpoint of preparing the food or just what, but that was one of the vile rumors, ail kinds of innuendoes that were going around.

Lide: There was a lot of bitterness in certain areas, people had those feelings, but I don't think she paid very much attention to it.

Currie: How did you all approach these kinds of issues in the press conferences? Did she get tough questions about some of her political stands?

Free: I remember she was asked about the Eleanor clubs, and she said she didn't know anything about it.

Currie: How did Mrs. Roosevelt handle the press, in your estimation?

Montgomery: She had a lot of dignity. I mean, she was kind of like an Aunt

Page 17

Page 18

Minnie, you know, coming in, "Hello, hello, hello, girls," and very friendly. But she had a reserve, a dignity. She controlled the things pretty well.

Stephenson: Speaking of what was considered a delicate question then, it was about the WACs in North Africa [who] reportedly were getting pregnant. I asked a question about that, and I remember that maybe I didn't couch it in such gentle words or discreet words. I remember Ann turning around, looking at me, and giving me a frown that I hadn't phrased it quite properly.

Montgomery: Oh, the new censor? [Laughter.]

Currie: Do you remember how you phrased it?

Stephenson: No, I don't.

Free: Was it about the girls being promiscuous and getting pregnant?

Stephenson: Yes, and everybody was so shocked. Oh, it was considered just a terrible scandal!

Free: You know what the story was, the rumor that they had issued contraceptive kits or something of that nature.

Stephenson: That was a scandal, too.

Currie: You felt that bringing that up at the press conference, people looked a little askance at that?

Stephenson: Well, everybody was talking about it. It was an obvious question.

Montgomery: Those were the kind of questions that those of us would ask, because we were regular general news reporters; we weren't just little society—

Lide: I imagine, after you formed that Association, too, you eliminated a lot of time-consuming questions which really weren't important.

Montgomery: Yes, because in the early days, as you said, Frances, people would come to it who had no business there at all, you know, really, but maybe would write a column once a month down home. It used to be a joke that they would start out their letters to their constituents saying, "As Mrs. Roosevelt was saying to me when we were together at the White House the other day—" They were capitalizing on it socially like mad. Of course, ail that was eliminated then when the war started.

Stephenson: But you know, some of those with the best reputation, like Bess Furman, were the worst about saying "off the record."

Montgomery: Oh, yes.

Lide: I didn't realize that. That didn't impress me when I was covering her, but maybe she got worse.

Stephenson: She was the one in the "Grand Finale," you know.

Page 18

Page 19

Lide: I suppose people were getting around to those kind of questions more often after I wasn't covering it anymore.

Currie: In other words, she would be the one who would most often say, "Mrs. Roosevelt, should that be off the record?"

Montgomery: They wouldn't say, "Should that be?" [Laughter.] They weren't that polite. They would say, "Oh, Mrs. Roosevelt, put that off the record. You don't want that in the paper."

Stephenson: She turned the question. Obviously, Malvina Thompson had doctored the transcript. The issue was their integrity. But she twisted it so the issue was our integrity and we should take care of the question.

Currie: I see. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? I'm not clear exactly.

Free: I don't know what you're talking about, just that one thing. That was that one time [in] about the 500 conferences.

Montgomery: You're talking about the last say.

Stephenson: I wasn't speaking about a while ago; that's the reason I didn't go into detail.

Free: She probably didn't doctor the thing at all; we don't know. But I think that's a pretty good record, 500 conferences, and that was the first time anything like that had ever come up.

Montgomery: But I think that Malvina's referring to Drew Pearson's column. Didn't he tell these things?

Stephenson: He alleged it.

Montgomery: That she had doctored the—

Stephenson: Yes. I don't know anything about whether she doctored the transcript or not, but that's what Pearson did, and he was often a little loose with his facts.

Free: Who in the world gave this to Pearson?

Currie: Do you have any ideas?

Free: If I did, I wouldn't say so.

Montgomery: I think there was a girl covering for him, wasn't there? We'll talk about that some other day. I'm not sure of her name.

Stephenson: I don't know how she got in there, because that was your tenure. How did you let her in?

Montgomery: She was in when I came in, so she came in during Isabel's. I was the last chairman. Isabel Griffin, before me, Ann [Free] before Isabel, and then Mary Hornaday. There were only four.

Page 19

Page 20

Free: We should take out a few seconds to talk about Mary Hornaday, because in my judgment, she was probably consistently the best reporter for all those years. She was at the first press conference in 1933, Christian Science Monitor. Integrity was her middle name.

Montgomery: Yes, unlike some of the ones we were talking about.

Free: She took good notes, too, because she was of great help to me when I was just right there at the Herald Tribune. I said, "Mary, did you get that down?" She was so fair, and she was in the outer inner circle, you might say. Mrs. Roosevelt respected her greatly. She was not in that super inner circle, but she was, I think, probably the most respected reporter of the entire press conference.

Montgomery: In that early era, yes.

Stephenson: I don't think she ever intervened on an off-the-record comment.

Free: But she had plenty of thoughts, and she knew what was going on. But she certainly showed great Christian forbearance all the way through.

Currie: As long as we're back on some of the key people, maybe we can go back and talk a little bit about Lorena Hickok, because she seemed to have played such an important role. We have a photograph. Did you all know Lorena Hickok?

Stephenson: I knew her. I don't think she ever covered a press conference, but the general idea was that people thought that she was the one that advised Mrs. Roosevelt to have them. She was a fine AP reporter and had covered Mrs. Roosevelt during the campaign. She got lots of scoops, I guess, much to the regret of her competitors.

Montgomery: But she had covered her in New York when they lived there.

Currie: Did you know Lorena Hickok?

Montgomery: I saw her, but she never came to press conferences. She was just a close personal friend of Mrs. Roosevelt's.

Free: I knew her slightly.

Stephenson: She came from the northwest, and she was kind of a big, broad-shouldered, raw-boned person. She never had to worry about her looks, I guess, because she was a good professional.

Free: She seemed old to us then. She was 42, I think, Malvina, when we first met her.

Montgomery: We'd consider her a child now, wouldn't we? [Laughter.]

Free: I remember the first time I saw her. It was right outside the White House. She was wearing a tan camel's hair coat, and she had a cigarette.

Stephenson: And flat shoes.

Page 20

Page 21

Free: She had a marvelous bright complexion. Later she went to the Democratic National Committee. I know I went over there on a story, and she was so nice, because I was pretty young and green. She was helpful and she didn't put on any airs. She was not overbearing, as some people are.

Stephenson: I think she was Mrs. Roosevelt's PR advisor.

Free: Indeed, she was. That's all in the record. A great deal about them is in a lot of books, as you know.

Currie: There is also a biography of Lorena Hickok out a number of years ago, in which the implication is made that Lorena Hickok and Mrs. Roosevelt might have been lovers. Is that anything that—

Montgomery: We've all read that, what you're talking about, but we certainly didn't have any thought of it at the time. I didn't, did you?

Stephenson: Oh, of course not. We didn't think of such a thing.

Free: I knew that she lived at the White House, but a lot of people lived at the White House. It's a wonder they didn't have cots in the hallways, so many people lived at the White House.

Stephenson: I think Frances has her idea about the relationship of early ladies. What were you saying, Frances?

Lide: We were talking about this before we came in here. I haven't read the books or whatever it was that she wrote, Lorena, but apparently there were some endearing terms used in this correspondence or diary or whatnot. But my mother and her college friends used to write each other. My mother and her friends who would do this correspondence, I think it was just something that young women went through in that day, not thinking of the implication that might come.

Montgomery: I think, also, that Mrs. Roosevelt was starved for affection, you know. She knew, which we didn't at the time, that her husband was having a mistress, a lover. She felt awfully out of things, and I think that starved for affection—look at Joe Lash. She had him around all the time, and he was a man. Then Lorena. She had a number of intimate, close friends, but I doubt if there was anything more than a little hugging and kissing, like people even do at cocktail parties nowadays.

Currie: That's interesting. Were you all aware of the rumors of Franklin Roosevelt's—

Lide: No. Oh, no. To me that is the most amazing thing, that we didn't know that.

Free: What a well-kept secret.

Montgomery: And the fact that she was there when he had his final heart attack, and we didn't know it! She scurried out of town.

Stephenson: The one lady that I think was really his one great love, and also he had a secretary that stayed at the White House, and they were cozy, because she helped him a lot.

Page 21

Page 22

Lide: There was a little bit of talk about that.

Montgomery: Yes, there was a little eye-lifting about the secretary, but Lucy Rutherford, it turned out, was actually his—

Stephenson: His real love.

Montgomery: Paramour.

Currie: Is that something that anyone was intrigued to follow up on? You say there was a little eye-lifting. What were the rules or the standards about following up on that kind of personal detail in someone's life?

Free: There were no clues there.

Montgomery: I don't think any of us would have done it. Look at the way we've known about presidents who were drunk. Look at Jack Kennedy. We knew about his affairs and his—well, scandals. But we didn't write about it. It's a whole new ball game which started, I think, with the Watergate thing.

Stephenson: I don't think anybody knew about FDR, did they? Any reporters?

Lide: Yes, I think they did, from what I heard.

Free: You mean any other friends he might have had?

Lide: Some of the people that traveled with him would know something about it.

Montgomery: Because the train stood out there.

Lide: You know, "Why are we here?"

Montgomery: But Jonathan Daniels, wasn't it, who broke the story in his book, he said to me afterwards, "Ruth, I was amazed at the sensation that caused, because I thought everybody knew about it."

Stephenson: You know, it caused some consternation at the time.

Lide: Sure! A lot of people didn't believe a word of it.

Montgomery: And Mrs. Roosevelt, of course, was still alive.

Free: Of course.

Currie: During the time that you covered Mrs. Roosevelt, were there any issues that she was uncomfortable talking about in her press conferences?

Free: [Laughter.] None that we could notice.

Montgomery: The funny thing about her press conferences was that she would answer anything. She was quite frank about things, you know, and then there would be these girls saying, "Oh, put that off the record."

Stephenson: If they got into a question that was too political, wouldn't she say, "That belongs to my husband"? Maybe this was earlier.

Page 22

Page 23

Free: I look back over the clippings, and I have one where she and Clare Luce got into a little bit of a dispute. Mrs. Roosevelt criticized Clare Luce at her press conference. She said she wasn't going to be political. That was a joke.

Lide: That didn't last too long. [Laughter.]

Montgomery: She had some real dislikes, and Clare was one of them.

Free: Yes.

Currie: That is true. She said in the beginning she wasn't going to touch political issues.

Free: How can you not?

Montgomery: In Washington, where everything ends up being political.

Free: What Mrs. Roosevelt did, I think that bored people toward the end a great deal, that she was always bringing in these good-hearted women speaking on worthwhile subjects, but nobody wanted to hear good-hearted women talking on worthwhile subjects.

Stephenson: If it weren't news.

Free: - It didn't make news. That was a pity, because you can't knock the subjects, but they don't make news. She was constantly doing that, using the press conference as a forum. She was a schoolteacher, you know.

Lide: It was an educating device, because she thought we'd write about it and then the public would know about it.

Stephenson: That was one of her purposes of doing it at the press conference.

Free: All kinds of things.

Montgomery: But that's one of the reasons why, as Frances was saying earlier, sometimes this got spiked and not used, because who wanted to write about Val Kill all the time or about some poor little somebody down in such and such that Eleanor had discovered?

Lide: And a lot of times it would be—you know, WPA. She had Mrs. Ellen Woodward, was it, on WPA projects? And everybody around here knew about them, so there wasn't really much that you could—

Stephenson: You know, her children's divorces were considered a very delicate subject then.

Currie: How did you handle those?

Stephenson: They just asked her questions and wrote it, I think. But it was shocking to have a divorce in the family.

Montgomery: And so many! [Laughter.]

Page 23

Page 24

Lide: She didn't try to protect the children, did she? She would just answer the questions, as I recall.

Stephenson: It was just embarrassing to her.

Montgomery: I remember one press conference toward the last, there was a discussion of birth control. You remember that? And she was saying, "Well, you can't keep bringing children into the world when there's no way to feed them and everything. Certainly they shouldn't have children." Then there was a big to-do, and at the next press conference, then, they were saying, "You have come out for birth control. Don't you think that the churches will be against it?" She said, "My Episcopal church, I've never heard them say anything against it." There were a lot of little things like that, that provided consternation for the male side of the White House, Steve Early said.

Currie: Also, I think that some of the male reporters called the women who covered Mrs. Roosevelt rather unflattering terms, like "incense burners" and "Mrs. Roosevelt's willing slaves." How did you all feel about that?

Montgomery: That was long before I came on.

Free: That was really early and blown out of all proportion.

Lide: Even when I started, I don't remember those terms.

Free: What happened on that was, I think that photograph that you showed us, some of the women were on the floor because they didn't have enough chairs, to get them in the lens, and somebody made a crack they were "incense burners" sitting at her feet.

Stephenson: Part of it, the men were jealous because they wanted to attend occasionally.

Free: And there, Ruby Black was the one who just irritated—that irritated her, and she sort of fought back in some articles. She wrote some really good articles about Mrs. Roosevelt press conferences, smacking back at the guys. Ruby is somebody we ought to put into more proportion here, because I think that with her biography and working for UP, then she went off to work for the Pan American—Nelson Rockefeller, remember? It was really sad, because after we got the Press Conference Association operative, she wasn't working for a newspaper then. UP had taken on, I guess, Helen Thomas.

Stephenson: I guess she always got in, though.

Montgomery: No. Helen Thomas wasn't—

Free: [Eula] Lee McDowell. Helen and Ruth [Frandsen] came in the '40s. In any event, she came, but women who worked for government bureaus could attend, but as I recall, they couldn't ask questions. That was sad, because she was one of those who helped establish the conference in the beginning.

Currie: Also we have another photograph. I think Ruby Black's in this photograph, along with Emma Bugbee.

Free: Yes, and Dorothy Ducas.

Page 24

Page 25

Currie: And Bess Furman with Mrs. Roosevelt. It was taken on a trip that they made to Puerto Rico. Mrs. Roosevelt was traveling quite a bit. Did any of you ever go on a trip with Mrs. Roosevelt?

Free: Most of that tripping was over by the time we got here.

Montgomery: It was all before the war.

Free: Frances knows about this.

Lide: I was never assigned to cover her out of town, anyplace.

Free: But that Puerto Rico trip really kind of consolidated—

Stephenson: I think that was probably before I started covering her.

Free: It was '33 or '34. Ruby Black was working for the paper. Malvina, you had that connection with Luis Muñoz Marin, president.

Stephenson: They were the owners of the paper.

Free: Owners of the paper. He became subsequently the president of Puerto Rico, or his father. Anyhow, she wanted to help get United States help to Puerto Rico, so depressed. Tugwell was mixed up in this, remember? Rexford Guy Tugwell. He was the Puerto Rican minister of relief. I can't remember all the details. So these women went off. Ruby's organizational abilities got Mrs. Roosevelt going down there to visit. That generated a lot of very, very good copy. What an impoverished mess it was down there. It was all in the framework of good works. They had quite a trip, going in little planes and rocking over the Caribbean and so on.

Currie: Were reporters able to influence Mrs. Roosevelt in that way?

Free: Well, I didn't say she influenced her; I said that she worked for that newspaper, and I guess that was the genesis of the trip to Puerto Rico.

Stephenson: I think her close friends could influence her.

Lide: Well, yes, but it was a good story.

Currie: It also worked to their advantage a little bit.

Stephenson: Yes.

Free: It's always a good story if you're fighting things like poverty, starvation, corruption. It's a good story.

Currie: Originally, Mrs. Roosevelt wouldn't allow quotation marks around her statements.

Free: That's right.

Montgomery: Nor did the president at his press conferences. We couldn't quote him directly.

Page 25

Page 26

Stephenson: Wasn't it during the war she allowed more quotes, Mrs. Roosevelt?

Free: Yes.

Montgomery: Did she? I've forgotten.

Free: It was on again, off again. I think it was a real mess. When I was writing that article and so on, trying to get that thing straightened out, but I don't want to overdominate this thing about Mrs. Roosevelt and the quotes, but it was kind of on again, off again. After we got the Association going, you could quote her unless she said you couldn't quote her. [Laughter.]

Montgomery: I believe that was the rule.

Currie: You could quote her unless she said, "You can't quote me on this"?

Lide: That's when all those people were speaking up, "Don't use that."

Free: At the last press conference, which was not a press conference, on April 18 or something like that—he died on the 12th, she had her last meeting with us downstairs in the dining room. It was sort of a half press conference, half tea party, but we couldn't quote her in quotes.

Stephenson: And she let some of the men from the press room come over to that.

Montgomery: She was a widow then, you know, and was leaving the White House.

Free: Did she?

Stephenson: That's what Lorena Hickok says.

Free: She did?

Stephenson: That's what she said.

Free: In my article.

Currie: Were you there, Ann?

Free: Yes. I found my article and I said there were 57 women there. I didn't mention any men. The last page of the article was missing; maybe I put them at the tail end. [Laughter.]

Currie: Were any of the rest of you there at the last press conference Mrs. Roosevelt held?

Montgomery: I can't remember.

Stephenson: It was a tea party.

Montgomery: I said it was just a party. It was just a farewell party.

Currie: Not the last press conference, but the farewell party.

Page 26

Page 27

Montgomery: Because all three of us were at the last press conference, which was the day he died.

Free: And I'm sure you went to the tea party afterwards.

Stephenson: I think we did.

Free: Quoting the New York Herald Tribune again, there were 57 women present and there were supposed to be about 56 or 57 women members.

Montgomery: So I must have been there.

Stephenson: I think through the years we've all been to the White House a lot of times, and when you try to think about 45 years ago, just exactly, it kind of blurs.

Currie: It's understandable. I have trouble remembering some things that happened a couple of weeks ago. Can you share some memories of that farewell? That seems to be very vivid.

Stephenson: I have to admit I don't remember it.

Montgomery: I have the vaguest. I would have not thought there was one if Ann hadn't brought it up. It's that vague with me.

Free: I would have forgotten it if I hadn't reread my article on it, too, but it was impressive that she met with us. I remember the way I reported it, that she seemed quite drawn. It had been a hard time for her, plus the psychological shock of not only his death, but who was with him when he died.

Montgomery: Yes.

Free: Then going down to Warm Springs and then that most moving journey, I suppose, nothing compares to his final journey back to Washington. We might get off on that for a moment, because she was in the railroad cars coming back.

Stephenson: Do you remember standing out in front of the White House?

Free: The train went slowly.

Stephenson: There were tears in every eye.

Free: All the people in the crossroad towns and all along the railroad track from Warm Springs, Georgia, they say it was a solid line of people, and Mrs. Roosevelt stayed awake and looked out at those people. I was there. I guess all of us were for that. They loaded the coffin on the caisson, and then that slow march. It was the most moving experience.

Stephenson: I do have a flash of that, because Mrs. Roosevelt got out and most of the children. I guess a couple of the boys were in the military, and the wives. They all got out and they were dressed in black, lined up and walked into the White House, a little piece up the driveway.

Free: But, you see, those muffled drums, there's a certain slow march that's sort of like a swish on the pavement.

Page 27

Page 28

Montgomery: That was when I was the only woman allowed to cover the funeral, so I was inside the East Room.

Free: Chris Sadler went up to Hyde Park, and you were inside.

Stephenson: Don't you remember we drew straws, because I was on the committee, too?

Montgomery: That's right.

Stephenson: And you won.

Montgomery: Oh, did I?

Stephenson: You didn't remember that, but I do.

Free: So you covered the funeral in the East Room?

Montgomery: I was in the East Room.

Free: Oh, my gosh!

Montgomery: I watched them all come in. Mrs. Roosevelt came in on the arm of Elliot, but her other three sons were off at war. They didn't even get home for it. But all four daughters-in-law were there with her, including Faye Emerson, who was Elliot's wife at the time.

Stephenson: She was a headline, too.

Montgomery: Then Mrs. Roosevelt came in, and she and the family sat at the head. Then the Trumans came in, the three of them, and sat just across the aisle at the foot of the coffin. You could almost hear the gasps when Louise Macy, who was married to Harry Hopkins, he had been in Mayo's, about to die, but he got out of the hospital bed and flew back, and he walked in. He was so drawn and so pathetic looking, he had been crying, and his wife, who had been quite a fashion plate and was a recent marriage, walked in with him, and everybody gasped, because she was in a very smart black dress, totally sleeveless. In those days, practically nobody wore sleeveless.

Stephenson: Was she a dancer or just an actress?

Free: She was a society woman, wasn't she?

Montgomery: Yes, and was a fashion designer at one of the big stores in New York.

Free: Mrs. Roosevelt had a little conference and had them there to announce their engagement at the White House.

Montgomery: Then they moved in there for a little while, because Harry Hopkins had been living there.

Free: That's right. As I said, everybody lived at the White House.

Page 28

Page 29

Currie: Ruth, you were a reporter for the Press Conference Association covering the funeral?

Montgomery: Yes.

Free: A pool.

Montgomery: A pool. They said there would only be room for ten, and, of course, they were thinking men. I was at that press conference that they had called to announce right afterwards that they were coming back, after the death was announced. So I said, "I think Mrs. Roosevelt would want a woman there." And Steve Early said, "Oh, okay, Ruth. Well, okay. One of them can be a woman." So there were nine men and one woman. Because I was the chairman then and we had that little meeting, I guess I—I didn't remember we drew straws.

Stephenson: I remember! [Laughter.]

Free: Did you come out and furnish us—give us a—

Montgomery: I was the pool reporter then, and everybody was waiting outside.*

Stephenson: I remember now. It seems like we all made a fuss, maybe the committee did, because it looked as if a woman wouldn't get to attend it first.

Montgomery: It was not their idea, believe me, in those days. [Laughter.]

Stephenson: Women had to fight to get a representative in, a lot of times, at events then.

Free: But back to that last meeting. She was rather drawn that day, about a week later, the day she left the White House.

Montgomery: Because she moved out within a week.

Free: Yes, this was that last day.

Lide: Did she have a press conference that day?

Free: It wasn't a press conference, but she spoke to us. That's how we got on this subject. It was not for quotation, but she told us how much she enjoyed being with us, the women of the press, how much it had meant to her, that she had a full heart and she was now going to be joining our ranks as a writer, and that she hoped she'd be seeing a lot of us.

Stephenson: You know, I think to follow that up, we more or less took for granted that a First Lady would have a press conference, didn't you feel that way, Ruth, from then on?

Montgomery: We certainly tried to get Bess Truman to have one.

Stephenson: And we were shocked! In fact, she scheduled one press conference, you remember, and then the story was that word got back to her that she was going to be baited by some of the reporters. So she was very adamant.

Free: She wouldn't want to do that. It made good sense for her not to do it.

* To clarify for historians the means of selecting a pool person to cover President Roosevelt's funeral in the East Room of the White House, Ruth Montgomery wrote:

At Steve Early's press conference to announce details of President Roosevelt's funeral, he said that because of so many dignitaries who would be coming from abroad, space was extremely limited and only ten reporters could cover it on a pool basis. I spoke up to say, "Steve, I think Mrs. Roosevelt would want one of them to be a woman from her own press conference association." Steve, agreeing, said that one would be a woman. Since we were all frantically busy covering funeral preparations and the Trumans (as the new presidential family), there was no time to call a meeting of Mrs. Roosevelt's Press Conference Association. The five Board members were therefore polled by telephone, and all agreed that I should be the pool representative, inasmuch as I was the Chairman and also regularly covered President Roosevelt's press conferences for my newspaper (the New York Daily News). Without a meeting, there was no way to "draw straws." The meeting that I referred to was held several weeks later to dissolve the Association.

Page 29

Page 30

Lide: I never felt that she should be criticized for not holding a press conference.

Free: After all, she was not a compulsive communicator.

Montgomery: We had wanted her to continue meeting with us once a week.

Stephenson: Of course, we weren't her advisor; we were thinking of ourselves.

Free: I think she used good sense. Excuse me.

Montgomery: I was going to say that Madame Chiang Kai-shek had a press conference as she was leaving. Somebody said, "Did you say good-bye to Mrs. Truman?" And she said, "No, Mrs. Truman was in Missouri. I didn't get to see her." Well, we knew that Mrs. Truman was not in Missouri, so I wrote a column about it, saying if she would just hold regular weekly press conferences to announce her schedule, these mix-ups wouldn't occur. Time magazine picked it up and had a big piece in the press section about my column. I was flying with the Trumans—in the press plane, that is—out to Independence, Missouri. They were going out for a family visit. When they got off the plane, she saw me getting off the other plane, and she held up Time magazine, waving it at me.

Stephenson: Really? Was she annoyed?

Montgomery: She was smiling. And after we came back to Washington, she wrote me a little note and said, "You certainly made a hit with my friends, that they had met me out there." I had explained to them. They had said, "How could you criticize the First Lady?" And I said, "That isn't criticism; it's telling that these things wouldn't happen if she'd hold press conferences." So right after that, then, she wrote me that and she arranged, then, for Mrs. Helm and Reathel Odum to hold press conferences once a week. Then she had us over, you know, and took us through the White House after it was done.

Currie: It was a real different ball game then when the Trumans came in.

Montgomery: Oh, yes.

Stephenson: Ruth, I don't really think you should call those press conference; you remember how irritated we were. Almost everything, a simple question you'd ask Reathel Odum and she'd say, "I don't know."

Lide: I'll tell you, Mrs. Heim was such a delightful person that I thought it was worth it.

Free: She was 72 years old when she was working for Mrs. Truman.

Montgomery: Yes, and you know—

Currie: But Mrs. Helm came with Mrs. Roosevelt, right?

Montgomery: Before that, she had worked for Mrs. Woodrow Wilson in the White House.

Stephenson: She was a great lady.

Page 30

Page 31

Lide: Had a great sense of humor.

Stephenson: Of the Victorian period. Every time we'd ask her even a routine personal question about Mrs. Truman, she would flutter and say, "Oh, I wouldn't think of asking Mrs. Truman such a question!"

Montgomery: That's right.

Free: But she loved her.

Currie: What was her role with Eleanor Roosevelt's press conferences?

Montgomery: Social secretary for all three of them.

Free: But you know, a woman to the manor born as she was, and having been with Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, she still had this appetite for being at the White House and was able to overcome her ladylike background by being hostess, helping Mrs. Roosevelt, that is, when she entertained all the young women from the women's reform school.

Montgomery: Oh, yes.

Free: That was a shocker for Washington, and I won't get into all of that.

Lide: Well, that was my big story.

Free: Well, you tell it!

Currie: If it was your big story.

Lide: I think that was the story that I rushed to the telephones. Mrs. Roosevelt used to go into various places like the poor house, or whatever they were calling it in those days, just to drop in unexpectedly and see what was going on. So she went out to the National Training School for Girls one day, unaccompanied by anyone. Maybe Tommy [Malvina Thompson] was with her or something. But she was greatly shocked about the conditions that she found there, and at her next press conference, she said that everything was archaic and dreadful, and that because they had so little in their lives, that she had invited the girls to the White House for tea. [Laughter.] So I realized that this was a big story, so I rushed to the phone, instead of going back in a cab, which I used to do most of the time, to sort out all this.

Free: Only 25 cents.

Lide: That's right!

Stephenson: Twenty cents when I came.

Lide: Well, you had to pay a nickel tip.

Stephenson: Not everybody did.

Lide: Anyway, this was great big news. I read something that said all of those girls in there were black. Now, I don't know whether they were or not.

Page 31

Page 32

Free: According to the record, but also I read that their health was not the best. If you know what I mean.

Lide: Anyway, they were all busy. This was something to look forward to, and they had the tea party. It was a beautiful afternoon, but the reporters were permitted to cover from outside the fence of the White House grounds.

Free: Wouldn't it be wonderful if any of those women were living and see if that had any effect on their lives?

Currie: So that was a big story for you, that Mrs. Roosevelt—

Lide: Was going to invite all of the girls of the National Training School.

Free: Suppose Nancy Reagan—Barbara Bush would be more apt to do it, but suppose Nancy had gone over to the jail and brought a whole bunch of them out.

Currie: That was the equivalent?

Free: Yes, I'd say so, wouldn't you?

Lide: Yes. In the first place, there was still, I suppose, racial objection to some of the girls, but I don't know that anyone thought of it.

Free: Frances, go back in your memory a little bit, because this is in a book that I read, so I can't be responsible, but they had to base it on something, that the party was segregated.

Lide: I couldn't go to the party! I was sitting outside the fence, you know, the grounds in the back.

Currie: What about the rest of you? Was there any particular story that you got either from Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences?

Stephenson: There was a lot of talk that it had a political flavor to it.

Free: Malvina thought so.

Stephenson: I wanted to tell that story.

Free: Tell it!

Currie: What story?

Stephenson: I had a little edge to a feature I did about the political flavor of her trip to the southwest. We were with a PM reporter, and I let her read it for some reason or another, and apparently she was shocked. They were always irreverent. So she wrote a piece in PM that I was with the Taft paper and being manipulated by them to write unfriendly stories, but I personally liked Mrs. Roosevelt.

Free: Did you believe it?

Stephenson: Did I believe what?

Page 32

Page 33

Free: That the trip was political.

Stephenson: I said it had political flavor to it.

Free: Do you think it did?

Stephenson: Well, it was the general comment that it contributed politically.

Currie: I'm not clear what trip this is you are talking about.

Stephenson: During the war.

Currie: And you took a trip with Mrs. Roosevelt?

Free: She went around to all these camps, Guadalcanal, everywhere.

Stephenson: She went to the South Pacific. We were talking about that a while ago, weren't we?

Currie: I'm sorry. While we were breaking, you said you didn't remember any other significant stories that you covered, the most important story you covered with Eleanor Roosevelt. You don't? I think you made an interesting comment, Ruth. You said you didn't think the stories were all that important.

Montgomery: I didn't say that; I just said that I thought that talking about big, major stories, I think we've touched on most of those while we were going around.

Stephenson: As Hope [Ridings Miller] often says, the liquor stores were really the only big news.

Free: A lot of people think that, but I think it was the general educational level that she lifted.

Lide: I think we have covered that pretty much.

Free: We did that.

Lide: I don't believe you're going to get much more out of us on those.

Currie: Okay. What I'd like to go back to is the actual way that the press conferences were organized. Frances, I believe you were covering her before there was a Press Conference Association.

Free: We all were. We three were; not her.

Currie: I see. So how were they organized before the Press Conference Association?

Lide: They weren't organized.

Free: Your name was—

Montgomery: Left at the door.

Page 33

Page 34

Free: Malvina thinks I'm talking too much, but I was one of the ones that organized the new Association.

Currie: How did you get into Mrs. Roosevelt's press conferences from 1933 until 1941, when this Conference Association was formed?

Free: Your name was at the door.

Stephenson: Do you remember for sure whether it was White House press credentials? Because I could go to the men's—the west wing. Or was it just to Mrs. Roosevelt?

Montgomery: Well, I did, too, of course. Some of the women who did not cover the president, too, just had special ones that had a different insignia on it. So I had both kinds and one to get into the female side, and on the other side for the general news.

Stephenson: That was just a White House press card.

Lide: Going back to the time when I started, which was three years after, I suppose that what the White House did was have some rules that maybe a paper could send one person from society and one from news or something like that.

Free: That's right.

Lide: But all my office did was to call them up and say, "We're sending so and so over there." You know, I mean, there really weren't enough mechanics, I don't think, that any of us are sure enough about.

Free: It was all very informal.

Stephenson: You didn't have a card?

Lide: No, no.

Free: You had a White House card, didn't you?

Lide: No.

Montgomery: She's talking about before being organized.

Lide: No, no. I went over and my name was on a list there at the usher's desk. It had been cleared by the office that I was going to do that. Actually, I did get fingerprinted over there at the time that they went into giving out cards. At that time I wasn't covering it.

Free: And now it's not easy to get credentials, and they run you through a metal detector.

Lide: At that time, they fingerprinted you. I don't even remember that I had a card, because I quit covering just about that time, anyway. But I was able, whenever the Star wanted to send me over to something, just to arrange it by telephone, you know. So it really wasn't—

Page 34

Page 35

Currie: Why was the Press Conference Association organized in 1941?

Montgomery: Security.

Lide: That probably was it, because they had to issue cards then.

Stephenson: Did we have the full authority, or did the press secretary on the president's side also have joint authority?

Montgomery: I had both kinds of cards, so I'm not sure. We had to go through the male side of the White House to get our credentials, I know, for that, and we had our pictures on them and fingerprints.

Stephenson: But for Mrs. Roosevelt, I wondered if the press secretary shared our authority to admit someone.

Montgomery: I know the Secret Service had to clear.

Stephenson: Yes, because we wouldn't know that.

Currie: How did it come about that the Press Conference Association was organized?

Free: In 1941, the war was on. May Craig and Mary Hornaday and Bess and some of the others realized that something had to be done. We had a list from almost 200 people on this master list, and there were too many people coming into the White House. Some people had cards that didn't amount to anything, so obviously there were some kind of White House cards. There was one woman, who shall have to be nameless, who did have a little column somewhere, but the allegation was that she was working for a defense contractor. It's pretty nice to say, "When I was at the White House the other day," etc.

Stephenson: They still like to do that.

Free: So therefore, you had stringent rules to trim that conference down from more than 100 to something like 35. You had to fill out forms that you were full-time, weekly newspapers, weekly magazines. By that time I was on a daily paper, the New York Herald Tribune. The weekly magazines, like Time and Newsweek, but no weekly newspapers. That cut out an enormous number of people.

Stephenson: You know, a friend of mine at the Democratic National Committee was on the list earlier, and I looked at the '41 list, and they'd taken her off.

Free: So what we had to do is we issued new cards, and you paid a dollar for your dues. That list was well worked over by the Secret Service and the White House, and then when anybody applied, they would apply to Mary Hornaday, the first chairman. I was the second, and you were the fourth. They would apply to us, but we had no real power.

Stephenson: Did the White House reject any we had approved?

Free: You could tell. I mean, we were good screeners.

Montgomery: Yes. We would say, "You aren't qualified."

Page 35

Page 36

Free: We did turn down some people.

Lide: You were probably harder than the White House would have been.

Free: The names we felt were okay, we'd send over to Miss Thompson. Of course, then I guess it went through Steve Early's office to be processed, and then maybe to the Secret Service for a search. So as a result, that brought the list down. It was trimmed down drastically. But toward the end, as we said earlier, at the end there were 57 members in your tenure, but, of course, more people would come to Washington, more qualified people. So that's the story of Mrs. Roosevelt's Press Conference Association.

Stephenson: I had a card, and I'm sorry I didn't save it. I lost it. Do you still have yours?

Montgomery: I'm sure I do, but I don't have it with me. But they were just little blue cards, weren't they?

Free: That's right. Nice-looking little cards.

Montgomery: The others for general admission to the White House were plastic.

Stephenson: Did it have our picture on it?

Montgomery: Sure.

Free: We had meetings, we kept minutes.

Montgomery: Oh, yes. We had a secretary.

Free: We were very official.

Stephenson: They are in the Roosevelt Library.

Montgomery: That's where we sent them. It was so funny. We had a small amount of money left, I don't recall how much, in the treasury when Roosevelt died. Do you remember the meeting that we had? I think it was over at the Mayflower, wasn't it? There are pictures of that that are up at—the photographers were there covering it, and we were challenging each other on what to do and so forth.

Free: What was it, $25? [Laughter.]

Montgomery: Something like 35, maybe.

Free: Where did the money come from?

Montgomery: Because you paid $1 dues.

Stephenson: We had several meetings trying to get to Mrs. Truman, you know.

Montgomery: Yes. But on this particular one, I had written Mrs. Roosevelt at our board's suggestion, and asked her if she had any particular choice, or was it all right if we donated whatever was left to the Warm Springs Foundation. She wrote me back. That's the letter I thought I should have brought. She said, "Oh, they have so much money already. They don't need it. Give it to the Val

Page 36

Page 37

Kill." [Laughter.] So this came up at this meeting, and nobody wanted to give it to Val Kill, you know, that little organization thing of hers.

Free: She had a furniture factory at one point.

Montgomery: I know, but she wanted it to go up to that, and nobody in the press club practically wanted to give it to that. I think that we finally just had only enough to ship the files up.

Stephenson: Val Kill has been preserved, and we've been up there.

Currie: So you all controlled the membership yourselves, who got in to her press conferences.

Montgomery: Well, we were the first screeners. Then, as we said, the Secret Service had to approve it, and Tommy Thompson.

Currie: What kind of questions did you think that she responded to the best at that period during the war? Had she changed at all before the war and after the war, after the Press Conference Association was formed?

Montgomery: I wasn't there before.

Free: There were numerous questions.

Stephenson: It just evolved with the times, I think.

Free: We talked about rationing, about her skirts and her shoes and what kind of gasoline card did she have. You had an A card. Malvina, remember? Was that three gallons a week?

Stephenson: I don't remember the details.

Free: She said she was going to ride her bicycle, and FDR said, "Be careful. You're not as young as you used to be." [Laughter.]

Currie: What do you think that Eleanor Roosevelt holding these press conferences, now 50 years later, what do you think that really has meant? What was the significance?

Montgomery: I think it meant a lot to women in journalism. I think that she opened the doors to a lot of women in Washington, at least, who otherwise couldn't have gotten jobs on newspapers. I mean, it didn't affect me because I'd been covering regular news, first in Texas, then the Chicago Tribune, then came here to do the same thing. But a lot of women in the beginning, you know, as Frances was saying, owed their jobs to the fact that Mrs. Roosevelt wouldn't let a man cover it, and they knew it had to be covered, so they would hire a woman.

Stephenson: It was a turning point. Of course, there's been another turning point. Women wouldn't accept a ban on men now, because they want their equal rights, too.

Montgomery: Yes, just like we had to take men into the Women's National Press Club after all those years, when it was really a good club before. [Laughter.]

Page 37

Page 38

Stephenson: I was going to say that. We had to?

Montgomery: Yes, because I think our presidents at the time were determined to take men in.

Lide: You know, when I first joined the Women's National Press Club, they didn't have any men at any of the dinners.

Montgomery: Of course not.

Lide: But when they got the president, they had Secret Service people all around and had to open it up.

Montgomery: By the time I was president of the Press Club, men could come, you know. You would invite couples, but they couldn't be members.

Lide: That's right. But I mean, you couldn't even have guests there at the beginning.

Montgomery: For a long time.

Currie: What kind of importance do you think Eleanor Roosevelt had on issues of the day that you were covering at these press conferences? We talked a little bit about civil rights. Did that impact your coverage of these issues?

Stephenson: She promoted the coverage of social issues, of course, of various social issues she was interested in.

Currie: Did that have any effect on your coverage or your thinking?

Lide: I don't think that that's the right way to approach it. I think that we would cover what she would do or say, and what we reported would have some. influence on the public.

Montgomery: That's right, Frances, but it didn't affect our coverage, because we simply wrote straight news stories. as we do about anything.

Stephenson: It's just the impact of publicity.

Currie: Did covering Eleanor Roosevelt have any personal effect on any of your lives?

Lide: Gave me a job. [Laughter.]

Stephenson: Not as much as Bess Furman said.

Montgomery: No, I wouldn't say it affected my life.

Free: I think it had a profound effect on me.

Currie: How so, Ann?

Free: I think she was a woman of tremendous compassion and she acted on it, and I thought that was the name of the game. Then, of course, she was in the early days of the United Nations. After Roosevelt's death, I wanted to go on and do

Page 38

Page 39

something else. I hadn't become a foreign correspondent during the war, but I was covering the United Nations relief and so on. To make a long story short, I went to China, took a leave of absence from my newspaper, and I consulted with Mrs. Roosevelt before doing that. She wrote me from New York and wished me Godspeed, and told me people to see, because we knew things were a terrible mess out there. I wasn't in touch with her while I was there, but I wrote her a long letter on my return, coming through the Red Sea, about what I had seen. I said my heart was so full that I could hardly write it, because I'd seen so much suffering and so much corruption. It was a real long letter. I was surprised when I got to the next port of call, I had a reply. I think you have a copy.

Currie: It's on the monitor right now.

Free: I think that was very thoughtful of her, because then when I saw her the next time, a few months after that, she had become our chief delegate, so to speak, on the Human Rights Commission in Geneva. She said that the forming of the Declaration of Human Rights was the most important thing she had ever done. Indeed, it was, because this pulled the whole thing together.

Stephenson: It was a culmination.

Free: It was a culmination of all these things, because don't forget what we'd gone through—the death camps, and now they were trying to send people back behind the Iron Curtain, where they didn't want to go. It was terrible. She was trying to make some sense out of that, in upholding human rights. So this was an orderly progression. Then I met her there in Geneva and went to one of the final meetings with her. I told you all about that earlier.

Currie." When you all were covering Mrs. Roosevelt, did you have any idea that—I mean, today we think of Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the great women of the 20th century. When you were covering her day to day, did you have any idea that she was such an important figure or was going to be regarded as such an important figure?

Lide: I think that she was already making such an impact, that we realized we were covering historic—

Montgomery: Even at the time, she was the most prominent woman in the world, really.

Stephenson: That's right.

Montgomery: The best known woman.

Stephenson: Even into coal mines.

Montgomery: Yes! [Laughter.] Remember that marvelous cartoon?

Currie: Actually, we have a copy of that, slugged "miners."

Montgomery: But was so peripatetic, so that's why this cartoon was so funny. They said, "My God, it's Eleanor!"

Currie: It's interesting, I think, everyone is so aware of this cartoon. Was it well known at the time?

Page 39

Page 40

Montgomery: Oh, yes, it was the talk of the country at the time.

Stephenson: Because it was symbolic.

Montgomery: And it was hilarious, because—

Lide: It was perfect. It just summed up everything.

Currie: How was it perfect?

Lide: Here this lady was in an unexpected place like a mine, just the type of thing she would do.

Montgomery: You see, as I said, to repeat myself, she was so peripatetic that she would turn up anyplace, totally unexpectedly, and just suddenly pop up in meetings. We didn't know where she was or anything else. So that's why it was so funny when they had her going down into a mine, and the miner saying, "My God, it's Eleanor!" [Laughter.] "Here comes Mrs. Roosevelt," I see it says.

Currie: That's another interesting question. What did you call Mrs. Roosevelt?

Montgomery: Mrs. Roosevelt.

Free: Behind her back, "Mrs. R."

Montgomery: Yes, that's right.

Currie: Did anyone call her Eleanor that you know of?

Stephenson: Probably those that were close to her.

Montgomery: I doubt if that's true for any of them, I mean Bess Furman.

Free: Going through those letters from those girls, they didn't say that. They'd say, "Dear Mrs. R." That's a good way of getting around it.

Montgomery: But of course, Lorena Hickok would have called her Eleanor, I'm sure, their friendship going back so far and so close.

Stephenson: I think I remember in her book, after she was First Lady, she felt restrained not to call her Mrs. Roosevelt, and she would say Eleanor, "just like we used to be."

Currie: Did you all ever have personal conversations with Mrs. Roosevelt?

Stephenson: I was just perfunctory; I didn't have it extended.

Lide: Not I.

Montgomery: Ann is telling about—

Free: Not like Bess and Martha. Mine was more particularly after the war and the United Nations thing. Then she was up at the U.N., of course, in New York.

Page 40

Page 41

I saw her, but I was not in the inner-inner. But I felt this way about the-foreign affairs, of course.

Currie: Is there anything that you would like to talk about, the most important impact that Mrs. Roosevelt had through her press conferences?

Stephenson: I can say professionally this is not of great significance, but I appreciated her more when she was gone, because I had taken these press conferences for granted, and I expected they would go on and on. I had some sources I was covering for then, and I needed the material. I was really caught short when we didn't have regular access to the First Lady.

Currie: That's interesting. Did the rest of you experience that?

Free: I think she opened up windows to work that was being done, particularly the sociological field, the Children's Bureau, the Labor Department. So many of the departments we don't know anything about now, they're so big, they're so monolithic, and you have to go through so many groups of PR people and so on, that she was a window to activity in the government. But don't forget this was 40 years ago, and the government was smaller and more neighborly.

Montgomery: Yes. Of course, her close friendship with Frances Perkins got her into a lot of that, too. When she was Secretary [of Labor].

Free: But I always felt she was doing her best to make a better world.

Stephenson: You know, she clashed with [Secretary of the Interior] Harold Ickes because he thought she was too much of a busybody, telling him and others what to do.

Lide: As I said, I think that as soon as she became First Lady, we all were aware that this was a very unusual person who would undoubtedly be a historic figure. But I personally thought that after she was no longer First Lady, after the president died and she went into the U.N., that as a person she developed in such a way that I admired her enormously after. I guess like Malvina says, I was sort of taking her for granted when she was holding the press conferences, and was just coping with getting somebody to print some stuff I was writing about. But I really did feel that she developed into a very wonderful person.

Montgomery: I think the part of her life that she enjoyed the most was after she was First Lady. She no longer had to worry about what Franklin was up to. She always called him Franklin. And didn't have to worry about Lucy Rutherford.

Lide: She could concentrate more on something.

Montgomery: And didn't have to be dogged every minute by Secret Service.

Stephenson: And she became known as the "First Lady of the world."

Montgomery: Yes.

Free: Yes.

Montgomery: I think that was the happiest time of her life.

Page 41

Page 42

Free: You know, when she died, you know what Adlai Stevenson said.

Currie: What?

Free: "She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness."

Montgomery: Wasn't that a beautiful quote?

Stephenson: It was. That was typical of him.

Currie: I know that a number of the Press Conference Association members had reunions after Mrs. Roosevelt left the White House. We have a photograph of one of them called "reunion." Did any of you attend any of those reunions? Did you stay in touch with her?

Montgomery: In Washington or where?

Currie: This was at the Mayflower Hotel in 1946. I think there's Bess Furman, there's May Craig, and some of the other women who covered her regularly.

Montgomery: We must have been there, unless I was out of town covering some male thing. [Laughter.]

Free: I was in China.

Lide: I was no longer a member.

Currie: Do you remember attending any of the reunions, Malvina?

Stephenson: No, I have to admit I don't.

Currie: So much for that. [Laughter.]

Montgomery: So much for 45 years having elapsed.

Stephenson: She's been dead 44 years. Don't embarrass me.

Currie: No. I'm embarrassing myself. The one thing we didn't touch on, although Frances brought it up a little bit, is that the Press Club used to have the stunt parties and Mrs. Roosevelt held the Gridiron Widows parties. This was a satirical event, I understand.

Lide: I think I could probably tell more about that.

Stephenson: They ceased during the war.

Lide: When the Gridiron Club had its big dinner in December, I guess it was, all the guests were male, you know. They didn't even allow Miss Perkins, who was Secretary of Labor. She was not even a guest at the Gridiron dinner. The dinner, of course, featured skits and lampoons and so on. So Mrs. Roosevelt started inviting the wives of all the VIPs who were invited to the dinner, and that included diplomatic corps and Cabinet and so on. Then she would have the members of the two women's clubs at the time, the American Newspaperwomen's Club and the Women's National Press Club, I suppose the people that covered her press

Page 42

Page 43

conference. Anyway, they were invited. I was not-ever involved in any skits, but various groups put on skits, including Mrs. Roosevelt was frequently in them.

The one that I remember the most vividly—it's the only one I remember, to tell you the truth—was the time that Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., and Ethel Du Pont were engaged, I believe. So since their families were pretty opposed politically, the skit was "Romeo and Juliet." [Laughter.] It was really great. I remember that all those years.

Currie: In order to wrap this up, I'd like you to tell what you've been doing since you stopped covering Mrs. Roosevelt.

Free: How much time do you have for that?

Currie: Not all that much. Not a complete vitae, but just so we can put a little bit of context. We've talked ail about Mrs. Roosevelt. Frances, if you'd like to start?

Lide: I continued to work for the Star up until I retired in 1970. I did a little freelance work after that, but that was my story.

Currie: Malvina?

Stephenson: I continued active since that time. In recent years, I now have press credentials at Congress and the White House, and I write Op Ed columns for the Tulsa World. Before that, Vera Glaser and I did a syndicated column for some years and we were based at the Knight papers, and it was syndicated outside. Also, we took a version on WTOP Radio and we had a lot of fun with that. I like to stay active.

Currie: Ruth?

Montgomery: I continued to cover the presidents and all the presidential press conferences and the campaigns, political campaigns for re-election, and the nominating conventions and so forth, the Japanese peace conference. I covered the Nixons on their trip through Russia and Siberia. Just continued to do that and had a syndicated political column then after I left the New York Daily News and went with Hearst. So I continued to do that until about ten years ago, when my husband wanted to retire. So I gave up the column, but I've since written fifteen books.

Lide: Have you done all that in ten years?

Montgomery: No, I wrote two or three of the books while I was still doing the column.

Stephenson: Did you say those are being reissued in paperback?

Montgomery: They have been, but they're just kept alive over and over again in paperback, so the fan mail continues to pour in. It takes too much time to write another book.

Stephenson: And the dividends, I hope.

Free: Tell them the general subject matter of your books.

Page 43

Page 44

Currie: You took quite a divergence from politics.

Montgomery: Yes. The earlier ones were rather political. I did one on Mrs. LBJ, and the first one on the Johnson Administration. I kept writing books as I learned more and as more things developed, until the last book was about me that someone else did. But I'd gotten so tired of hearing "New Age Now" and all this flood of people who claim that they're channelers and so forth, that I refused to write on the subject anymore. [Laughter.]

Currie: Ann?

Free: I went abroad to China and went around the world in those years after the White House and Mrs. Roosevelt. I was in India at the transfer of power, so I met [Mohandas K.] Gandhi, and in China, Chou En-lai, and went all over everywhere. I wrote articles for distribution worldwide to the United Nations relief and through the New York Herald Tribune, and did the same as I came back through the rest of the world, Southeast Asia and so on, in Vietnam, Israel—it was still called Palestine. Then I did another stint of special articles for the Marshall Plan, because Europe was such a mess at that time.

Then I came back and resumed my writing. I married and resumed my writing mainly for syndicated North American Newspaper Alliance and later the McClure Syndicate, doing articles that went over, eventually, bit by bit, on a subject which has now become very popular today, but I can tell you it was tough going, and that was on the environment—pesticides, what's happening to water, air, and particularly what we're doing to animals, wildlife everywhere. I've written three books in that general field and I'm working on some more. So I feel that all of those—maybe Mrs. Roosevelt was pushed ahead on things that were not very popular, and I've worked hard in that field. I hope to do more.

Currie: Once again, thank you very much. I wish we had another five hours. We could certainly spend five hours or ten with each one of you. Thank you.

Lide: It's been fun.

Montgomery: Thank you so much.

Stephenson: Enjoyed it.

Free: Great.

Page 44

Go to Index | Cover | Appendix | Home

© 1989, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.