Washington Press Club Foundation
Gladys Montgomery Singer:
Interview #3 (pp. 32-39)
February 21, 1990 in Washington, DC
Kathleen Currie, Interviewer

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Page 32

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Currie: Where we left off last time, you had married A.J. Montgomery in 1924. I know you quit reporting when you married. Was that a decision that both of you made?

Montgomery: It was a decision—well, three-quarters of it was made by my husband, and reluctantly one-quarter by me. So we came to an agreement that I could do some freelance reporting, but that I would not take what in any way was a full-time job.

Currie: Why did he object to you having a full-time job?

Montgomery: Because at that time, it was sort of the right thing to do. If your husband was earning enough so that you didn't need that money, and the jobs were so few, it was the thing not to take a full-time job. I would have disregarded that entirely myself, but the marriage looked very good, so I took these part-time jobs.

One I remember particularly doing, the meeting of the American Association for University Women [AAUW] at the White House. In other words, it was quite a thing if you were doing public relations and you could get your group to the White House. So it was arranged that the president would address them on the lawn on such and such a date. I stood where they would come out of the White House and move over towards the podium. The president [Calvin Coolidge] turned to Mrs. Coolidge—not for publication, certainly—he said, "Who are these women, anyhow, Grace?"

So she quickly whispered to him that this was a special group. However, when he got to the podium, he reached in his pocket and took what his press secretary had prepared for him, very laudatory remarks about this distinguished group, all of which was in the press release which he had not read before he made the remarks at the podium.

Currie: You arranged to have the AAUW go to the White House?

Montgomery: Yes, I arranged to have the AAUW go to the White House, which, as I said, was an achievement when you were doing public relations.

Currie: You did these freelance jobs?

Montgomery: Yes.

Currie: How did you get these jobs?

Montgomery: I checked on the appointments coming up in certain places. The White House and all have lists of whom they're meeting and so on. I checked one way and another to see what was coming up, but some of the jobs, if you want to call it that, came from checking with various organizations. There are always groups coming to Washington, from one place or another. Some of them came to me and said, "We'd like to have you handle our publicity." I'd find out when a convention was coming; then I might write and ask them whether they would be interested in the public relations. There's no trouble wit a press person finding out what's going on.

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Currie: So you used good reporting skills.

Montgomery: Well, I got there, let's say. [Laughter.]

Currie: Let me ask you, because your life changed dramatically when you got married—

Montgomery: I also enjoyed a little social life.

Currie: I was going to ask you about that.

Montgomery: I hadn't had much time for that, so it was kind of fun to go to long-lasting luncheons and events at one's home, different ones entertaining. But I began to get bored with the whole thing.

Currie: Had you and your husband thought about having a family?

Montgomery: If I had had children, I might not have thought so much about a career, probably. Now, of course, women combine the two successfully. But then it wasn't too easy to do.

Currie: I think that's an important point to make.

Montgomery: I never wanted to bring that out.

Currie: I thank you for talking about it, because it's an important point to be made. Things are different for women now.

Montgomery: Yes.

Currie: One of the issues that we're looking at is what are the choices women have to make. And you did make a choice.

Montgomery: Yes. Afterwards I did. Have you got that on now?

Currie: It is on.

Montgomery: Turn it off a minute. [Tape interruption.]

Currie: We were talking about freelance articles, and you and your husband decided that you should only work part time. We talked a little bit about some of the jobs you did. You actually said something funny, when we were off tape, about never argue with a Scotsman.

Montgomery: [Laughter.] If you want to win, don't argue with a Scotsman.

Currie: He was pretty adamant about you not taking a full-time job?

Montgomery: I was becoming more and more restless, even to the point that my maid said, "You know, you have these women coming in here. You're just as smart as they are. You ought to go ahead and get a job, Mrs. Montgomery. You ought to do something."

So finally, I did reach the point, but it was precipitated, of course, by Pearl Harbor in December 1941. That was the beginning of a scarcity of men reporters. I decided, whether Monty, my husband, agreed or not, I was going out to get a full-time employment.

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I thought I'd call the head of the McGraw-Hill office in Washington, whom I knew at the White House press conferences when I was working for Roger Babson. He said, "Well, I'll tell you. There is a chance for someone in this office, but I don't know whether they'd take a woman or not. But I'm willing to make a try, because I'd like to see you get this job." He said, "Now, don't be upset, because we've never had a woman reporter in this office." The word came back that, "Give her a try, but call it an experiment." So "Give her a try and call it an experiment," was my entrance to McGraw-Hill reporting. The experiment seemed to have gone on and on, and I never knew the word to be cancelled or even, let's say, referred to. It went on for 18 years.

Currie: That's a long time. So you were hired as a reporter?

Montgomery: Well, I was never anything but a reporter. Those things that you have there of my career ought to be headed "reporting." I have a letter recently from my editor, saying that he liked to think it was apropos to something that came up. He liked to think of me as a first-rate reporter, a journalist, and the third thing was—I've just forgotten it at the moment. [Laughter.]

Currie: What were you going to cover? What did the job entail?

Montgomery: So I was hired. That meant the only woman was not going to get the good assignments. I took on some of lesser importance for Aviation Week and a few other magazines.

Currie: Those were part of the McGraw-Hill group?

Montgomery: At that time, there were 30 magazines of varying industries and kinds, including Business Week, which at that time was a small and unimportant publication.

Anyhow, there came a request for about three paragraphs for a McGraw-Hill magazine called Electronics, a small story on the controversy that was going on in the patent field, whether they had sufficient protection now. I won't go into detail on that, which I can if you wanted it. But it was on this controversy that I was to get the three paragraphs. I took the assignment and I said to myself, "If I keep on, if I do this with three paragraphs like I've done some already, I'm going to be a three-paragraph girl, and I've got to get out from under this. So fired or not, I'm going to make this a top story. I'm going to see, first of all, Thurman Arnold."

Currie: Who was Thurman Arnold?

Montgomery: Thurman Arnold was assistant attorney general.

Currie: He was very important in the patent field.

Montgomery: The assistant commissioner of patents was Condor Henry.

So first I went to see Thurman Arnold at the appointed time. As I entered his office, I was impressed by this distinguished-looking man behind a big mahogany desk, and he looked at me and he said, "What do you mean by electronics? Eelectronics! Eeelectronics!" Each time, it seemed to me, another "E" was added in the question.

I said, calling him by his right title, "I have had trouble getting my appointment. It's limited to ten minutes. I'd hate to think that I spent any of these ten minutes defining a word that you can define much better than I."

He waited a minute, and a half-smile spread over his face, and he said, "You're all right. Sit down." The interview lasted for three-quarters of an hour and gave me excellent quotes for the story, as well as much more material than I'd even hoped to get.

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All right. So far so good. But I had wanted to have in the magazine a story with one side of the controversy on one page, and facing it, the other side. McGraw-Hill was on only one side. However, I then went to Condor Henry, who was assistant commissioner of patents. Telling him that I already had one side, he wasn't going to be left out of giving his side. I didn't have much difficulty getting a very good story interviewing him. Each one could have banner headlines.

That wasn't all the trouble. When the head of the Washington office got this lengthy story that went into page after page of teletype, including the side they did not favor. He didn't know what to do. He called and warned them about what I had done. Likewise, the New York editors didn't want to take the full responsibility, so they telephoned to the Mr. McGraw that was then in charge. He was president of McGraw-Hill, vacationing in Lake Placid, and he said, "Read it to me. Read it all to me."

"Oh," they said, "this is awfully long." Anyhow, however much they did read, he said, "Run it. Run it just as she says. Run it and give it a good placing."

It had a banner placing, and it showed both sides of the controversy. A number of readers responded from both sides, and both Thurman Arnold and Condor Henry wrote letters of approval for the fairness of my article. To my surprise—let's say even my dismay—all Washington electronics reporting assignments were given to me.

Currie: You didn't really want to just report on electronics?

Montgomery: I didn't want just three paragraphs. That's what I mean. I didn't want a three-paragraph story. So there I was with electronics.

Currie: What was the name of the man who hired you at McGraw-Hill? Do you remember?

Montgomery: Paul Wooten.

Currie: He was someone you had known?

Montgomery: Paul Wooten was head of the Washington McGraw-Hill office, and very much respected.

Currie: You were the only woman in the office?

Montgomery: No, I wasn't the only woman. I was the only [woman] reporter.

Currie: How did the other male reporters greet you?

Montgomery: Well, that's where I have a two-sided story, really. I can say that they treated me very well, partly because nobody wanted electronics. It wasn't a front-page story then. And partly because we got along well together.

Currie: Did you socialize with the men in the office?

Montgomery: I always made it a point, whether I was going on an interview or whether I had friends in the office, anything that had any bearing on my work, I was always friendly, but I didn't go out much socially with them.

Currie: Was there anyone in the McGraw-Hill office who was your mentor or showed you the ropes on things?

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Montgomery: No. Later on, my editor, Keith Henney, in New York, told me that he had had someone follow around and see how well I was being received when I went to get an interview. He said, "I can tell you, you were regarded very favorably.

Currie: So he had someone checking up on you?

Montgomery: Checking up on me, yes. That was it.

Currie: Did they do that for the male reporters?

Montgomery: I don't know what they did with the males.

Anyhow, after several months, I had a message that Mr. Henney wanted to see me in New York on a certain date. That was something that I couldn't disregard, so I went to New York. He said, "I've been watching your work and the way you've been received in these various places. Your work has been very good. I've decided to make you Washington editor."

And I was stunned! I was pleased, but I was frightened. He said, "The title 'Washington editor' has a little different meaning than it would in popular magazines, and I'll tell you what I expect of you. I expect you will take care of the news items as a reporter. The ones that you feel are too technical, I expect you to notify us. Since you're the only one on the staff who is not an engineer, in some cases it would be better to send an electronics person to do it. But there are plenty of things that you can do. I expect you to get some more information on leads that I give you. The rest will develop as we go along. I think you can get the articles, and if I tell you what I want on a certain thing, you can pretty well judge whether the person is doing what I want, or you can give him some idea of where it should be different."

I decided that it was very important for me to know the leading groups, organizations, in the field, and to get a little idea of what they were doing. This was not too long before much of the work was classified or even secret. I could still go into such agencies as the Bureau of Standards, the Naval Research Laboratory, the Munitions Building, and the Pentagon, with the proper credentials. So I spent a lot of time there. In fact, with all of these research laboratories, I often went in, met the engineer who was doing some particular work, watched for a bit and had him explain to me what they were doing and what they hoped to do.

The next thing I did was to join groups such as the Institute of Radio Engineers Washington section and the American Association for Advancement of Science. I went to some of the meetings and in one case became a moderator of a panel and served as secretary in their writing and speech divisions. I had contacts that really paid off well in the future, because while things were classified, I couldn't get from them anything, but when the classification was removed and key engineers were available, several of them quickly remembered me and I got the first stories, you might say, several times.

Currie: That's interesting. So electronic developments were classified during World War II?

Montgomery: Electronics was a very small, comparatively small, industry when I started. But I thought, "This seems to have great potential, and I do believe something's going to happen to this." In that respect, I was quite right. During the war, whole systems were classified, so it was impossible to get much out of one part that could be applicable to commercial use. As the war ended, it was when various parts were declassified that the big stories came and the big bounce in electronic items began to appear.

Currie: And you were well positioned to take advantage of that.

Montgomery: So I was well positioned many times to take advantage of those years.

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Currie: You had no background in science or electronics. How did you get the background?

Montgomery: When I went to interview a person, I very often began by saying, "I want you to know that I am not an engineer, but I am an accurate reporter. Whatever I get today is what you care to give me." That suited them very well. Then I added, "If you tell me things as we talk and you look back and think, 'Maybe I shouldn't have said that,' just call my office, because unlike a newspaper, a magazine has a little leeway on publishing, and I can almost always cut out whatever you want cut out." Only once did I have anyone call.

Currie: That's very good.

Montgomery: Because it was so different from the reporter who is always after a little more, a little more, you know. I left it on the level. Then I would say, "If you can go into the very technical aspects of this, would it be acceptable if you considered doing a signed article for the magazine, in which you would again have the chance to weigh what you have said?"

Currie: How did you make sure that you got the technical aspects of this new field correct?

Montgomery: I never wrote too much on the technical. I was a reporter. I wrote the news. Now, news doesn't analyze too much into the technical. I knew what I could do, and I knew when it was better to have an electronic engineer from New York come and work with me in the office on an article.

Currie: So you could get someone who had more technical expertise to help you with an article?

Montgomery: Sometimes if the project was highly technical, I would contact my editor to see whether he would want me to go ahead with it. Sometimes McGraw-Hill would send a staff member who was an engineer to handle it. Sometimes the engineer himself would want to do a signed article. He'd want to get due recognition for doing it. Sometimes if it was just a few paragraphs or something like that, it might be that he'd say, "Well, I'll do something like that later on." An engineer very often is not so much interested in getting an article in print as he is in going ahead on something that he's half finished. He's more impressed by the result of an experiment than he is half-writing one at the time.

I don't know. I can't tell you what it was that kept me 18 years in the job on Electronics. Actually, I was only 12 years—I think it was 14, but it doesn't make enough difference to make a point—as Washington editor. The only reason it terminated then was when they dropped all Washington editor titles, and they were replaced by a city desk which controlled all assignments.

Currie: Then you became a Washington reporter again?

Montgomery: So did everyone in the office that had had the title on whatever magazine. They were the Washington editor of so-and-so. And my Electronics was certainly next to the last, if not the last, that agreed to comply with this order because they were well satisfied with the present arrangement. They tried the new scheme, and as they had predicted, it didn't work out very well for Electronics.

Currie: What do you mean, it didn't work out very well?

Montgomery: Having no Washington editor. They had the managing editor type, the newspaper way, of assigning stories to this one and that one to do.

Currie: I see. So you were all reporters. The managing editor of the Washington bureau assigned you stories.

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Montgomery: Then the managing editor just said, "Will you cover this today? Will you cover that?" And of course, since the only woman didn't get the top chance, why, I didn't always get this. What they wanted was to break my hold on electronics, because by that time it was gaining in importance and was too much for one person to cover. They seemed to want the men to get some of the big stories.

Currie: So a man did some electronics reporting?

Montgomery: This goes way, way ahead of the story, and I don't believe that you want to get into that.

Currie: We can get into it later. Because you were dealing with classified information, did you ever face an ethical dilemma in reporting on a story? Did you know something and have to make a decision about publishing it or not?

Montgomery: No, but I did have a rather strange experience. There was something that I had been wanting to trace in the Signal Corps, but it was not yet made public. I had a feeling for one reason or another that it would be made public very soon, so I kept going around the office where they would release secret projects due for declassification. One day I heard that this report might be coming out on the subject I'd been following, so I was on hand to get a copy of the press release as soon as it was available, and also the full report itself. Well, that was all right, and my editors were delighted. But I got word that the Signal Corps top echelon wanted me to report for taking a secret publication before it was released to the public. Would I appear at such and such an office at such and such a time? Well, that was a bad thing.

[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]

Currie: So the Signal Corps wanted you to report to the office.

Montgomery: To the top echelon.

Currie: Was this during World War II?

Montgomery: This was in World War II, yes.

Currie: What could they do to you?

Montgomery: I don't know what they could do. They could take my name off, I suppose, the acceptable reporters. I don't know. Anyhow, I got to the office at the prescribed time, and here were the top echelon sitting around a big table, all of them of top importance. The press officer for the Signal Corps that had put in a complaint was called on to present his arguments of what I had done, and he went on and on and on and blasted me, you know. When he finished, I was called on to present my case. I took the opposite from him. I took a very low key and I said that I had been interested only very sketchily in this subject, which I was sure my magazine would want. It so happened that they were being released at the right moment when I happened to be there, and I think I took probably the first copy of the report and release paper. "I tried to think of it," I said, "and I cannot understand why, when a thing is released and you're that alert to get there first, this alertness should be discouraged." With that, I sat down. No more. So I don't remember just how it came about, but they said that they wanted to congratulate me on my reporting, that they saw nothing wrong about it.

Apparently the press officer—I don't recall his name right now—had put too much emphasis on the way in which I got this report. Not the way I got it, because it was no secret to that, but getting it first. And that was all. They were very agreeable. Some of them shook

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hands with me. But the thing that really interested me was at least three of the ones there telephoned to my editor in New York, to Henney, and said that they wanted to say what a fine reporter they had in Washington, and that this woman had done a great service for the magazine, and words like that.

Well, I hadn't told Henney that I had any trouble at all, because I figured I was hired to do a job and I shouldn't be worrying them over what happened until it happened. Anyhow, that passed.

After the war ended, I learned that apparently this head of press office had somebody in mind that he was going to hand the release to first. Anyhow, we had working relations, but not particularly friendly. After the war was over, I picked up one of the publications coming out of the Signal Corps, telling what various ones were doing, and I saw, to my surprise, that that man who headed the Signal Corps press, had returned to his old position with the Boy Scouts. I said, "If I had known that, I would have been much more buoyant than I was." [Laughter]

Currie: I'm sure.

Montgomery: That's a good story, isn't it?

Currie: It's a very good story.

I think this is a good place to stop for today, because it's almost noon, and I'm afraid you're going to get very tired.

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