Washington Press Club Foundation
Gladys Montgomery Singer:
Interview #6 (pp. 74-83)
September 4, 1990 in Washington, DC
Kathleen Currie, Interviewer

Because this session was videotaped,
material from other sessions may be repeated here.

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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Currie: I thought maybe we could start this morning with a little bit of how you got into journalism. I think it's an interesting choice for a woman from your background, which I would describe as a proper New England background, a woman whose father was a civil engineer, a chairman of the board of selectmen of Wellesley, Massachusetts, and whose mother was very much involved in her community. And so for a woman of your background, on graduating from Wellesley College in 1919, you made a diversion, I think. I wonder if you could start by talking about that.

Montgomery: Well, it seems to me that when you graduate from college, you end one chapter and you begin another. Well, in beginning mine, I didn't want to do the most obvious thing—teaching. I wanted to—well, I said, "Something different." Later I defined that as the most impossible "reporting," not having done any such thing. However, that was the goal that I chose and that was the goal that finally, with several detours, I accomplished.

Currie: Maybe we shouldn't spend too much time on the detours, but how did you first get an entrée into that goal? I believe it was through a newspaper advertisement.

Montgomery: First of all, I decided I had to teach until I had something more definite to go on. So for a year and a half, I taught—one year in Norwich, Connecticut, and a part of a year in Cranston, Rhode Island. The reason I didn't go any longer in Cranston, Rhode Island, was because I saw an ad in the paper. By that I mean my Townsman in my home town, saying that Roger Babson Reports was looking for a recent graduate to do a report in Washington, only one month allowance in time.

Well, I imagine that a seasoned reporter wouldn't be looking for a one-month job, but for me it was perfect. I did get the job, and I had an unusual happening on the way to my job in Washington. Mr. Babson, Roger Babson, was a well-known economist, and he did quite a number of lectures, so that when he came back and found that his office had hired what he called "a slip of a girl" to do a report for Babson in Washington, this was too much. I had gone to Washington already and was working on this when he had the office telephone and say to meet him at the University Club for dinner. I thought he was so nice to want to help me, but when I got there and hardly had the menu in my hand, he said, "You're fired."

Well, that was a blow. So my answer was, "Mr. Babson, I have a signed contract for one month, and I don't believe, fair as you are supposed to be, that you would not regard an official contract. So therefore, I am prepared to leave at your wish, but I believe I have two weeks left. I would like to use that writing my report."

"All right," he said. "Go ahead. But have your things planned to leave on the last day." Therefore, I was ready now for Washington.

Currie: And you finished that report quite successfully.

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Montgomery: I finished the report, and to Mr. Babson's surprise, he liked it. So he told the headquarters office to make a place for me in the Washington office.

Currie: Then you were full-time in the Babson Washington office.

Montgomery: Yes.

Currie: There was a time when you decided that perhaps you would broaden your scope of influence, shall we say, and become involved with the White House press correspondents.

Montgomery: Yes. I, of course, wondered why the head of the office wasn't doing that, but he saw the writing on the walls and saw that he was probably going to be fired very shortly, so he never much bothered with it. He said, "Go ahead if you want to. All right." I did go ahead, and I was turned down.

Then I thought, "I'll call and ask if I can go in person and better explain why I think the press committee could reconsider my application." Whether it was the season when nothing much was going on or not, I did get a time to appear before the group. I remarked that I did not know of any woman who was reporting for a financial paper. I did know that there were both men and perhaps women on the financial page of a newspaper, but as far as I know, none doing it for an exclusively financial business publication. Therefore, since the aim of the group was to emphasize fairness, I thought my name might be reconsidered. Well, it was, and I got in.

Currie: Good piece of logic. So then you were eligible to attend the White House press conferences of Warren G. Harding, is that correct?

Montgomery: Yes. This first press conference, as I look back now, was really quite unusual. The president sat at his desk and was a very impressive figure. The news part of the conference was delayed a little by one reporter saying, "Mr. President, those are beautiful roses on your desk today."

He looked at them and said, "Why, yes, they are. And I'm going to give one of those roses to each one of you women reporters," whereupon one by one, he took out a rose and handed it to the four or five women there. Then he saw someone standing that wasn't familiar to him, and he waited a minute, because I stood towards the back of the group. Without a word, he bowed, took out another rose, and handed it to me. That is not the usual press conference today, either in numbers or in subject.

Currie: Certainly isn't. One of the women at that press conference, if I remember correctly from earlier interviews that we did, was Cora Rigby.

Montgomery: Yes. I remember as I stood out waiting with the group, waiting to be admitted to the president's press conference which I've mentioned, this very nice, rather middle-aged woman came up and said, "Don't try to crash through the gates, my dear. You can't do it here."

And I said, "My credentials are in order." That was my first meeting with Cora Rigby.

Well, it went on through the years and we became very good friends. I must say I'm indebted to her for giving me a steer on how to go about some of the bits of reporting where I wasn't too familiar with the procedure.

I might go even to the last of her days. As I say, we were very good friends. She was president of the Women's National Press Club for many years. I went to see her when I knew she had cancer and wasn't going to live very long. As I entered the living room, there was a big fire

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in the fireplace, and she sat with a wastebasket. Now, in those days a wastebasket was a laundry basket, and this laundry basket was at her side. She was throwing in to the fire piece after piece, citations or parts of her writings. I said, "Oh, don't throw them away!"

And she said, "Yes." She said, "They're going." Finally, the book that she'd worked on for several years and had completed was the last thing to be tossed into the fire.

Currie: This was a novel she had written?

Montgomery: It was a novel that she had written, and I was just frozen when I thought of all those years, the things that she had cherished going up in smoke. Then I got to thinking of all the newsmen and women that I'd known who would say, "Well, one day I'm going to write a book." A few of them did, but most of the writing, if it didn't go in the fireplace, it went in the wastebasket.

Currie: Cora Rigby was with the Christian Science Monitor.

Montgomery: She was head of the bureau there, yes.

Currie: At one point you lived in her house, if I recall.

Montgomery: Yes, I did. She and her mother had a house on what's known as Hillyer Place, which was considered downtown. I was looking for a room. So I asked her if she knew any place I could get one, and she said, "Well, I have a room vacant right now. I think you'd like it, because it has a fireplace in it and it's a very nice room."

I said, "How much is it?" Well, I can't remember the figure she said, but I said, "Oh, no, I can't pay anything like that."

Anyhow, we settled it, and that's where I stayed until she died.

Currie: Also, didn't Cora Rigby introduce you to your first husband, A.J. Montgomery?

Montgomery: Well, she did introduce me to Monty, as we called him, who was at that time head of the Christian Science Monitor bureau.

Currie: So she became an important person in your life, not only professionally, but personally.

Montgomery: Yes.

Currie: Maybe we can get back a little bit now to the chronology. I think another important date when you were working for Babson was November 1921, the ceremony for the first unknown soldier to be buried at Arlington. I believe that was when President Harding gave a speech carried by telephone simultaneously to New York and San Francisco.

Montgomery: Yes. Actually, the unknown soldier event, I didn't need to cover for Babson, but I went on my own and it turned out to be a very moving speech that he made. But the point of it was that the telephone transmission was hurriedly put together so that at the time he was speaking in Arlington, one could hear him in New York and San Francisco. That was a first for that kind of transmission.

Currie: There was another first during the Harding Administration that I believe you covered, and your old friend Mr. Babson got involved in this, and that was the Limitation of Armaments Conference.

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Montgomery: That was one that I was really covering for Babson on that first day. When the group were moving out of the Constitution Hall, where the first sessions were being held, several people were standing on the sidewalk to watch the notables of the five great nations and other dignitaries march out, some of them with the grandeur of their position in their countries and so on. I was more than surprised when I looked, for here was Roger Babson standing on the sidewalk watching, as he said, "that slip of a girl," as he told someone, "there she was." And why wasn't the head of the office there?

Well, this made quite a difference, because after that, I lost the title that I've mentioned and I became a full-fledged reporter.

Currie: As I understand it, the head of the Babson office left, leaving an opening. Is that correct?

Montgomery: Yes, and I was left to do the best I could. So for several weeks, we kept wondering. By "we," I mean myself and my secretary, were wondering what was going to happen. Then I was told that I could try out for taking over this position. I might say, why did he leave? Why did the head, the one that I knew, leave? He left because he did not want to do what Babson requested. The office was in the building at 10 Jackson Place, which you all know now as part of the White House combine of buildings. But at that time, Babson had a lease that went back over World War I days. The building at that time was losing money, so that he asked the head of the office to get that building out of the red. The answer was, "I wasn't hired to be a real estate agent and I don't intend to do it. I'm a reporter."

Mr. Babson told him, "Well, if you're my employee, you're going to conform to what I want." So that's why he left.

I took it over and I was told that the same thing applied to me, that I'd have to get that building out of the red, too. I said, "At the most, six months, I will get that building out of the red. But if I don't, I won't stay. Because I, too, am not going to be classified as a real estate agent."

Well, the next thing was how was I going to do it, and that I won't go into with any detail, but I found a lot of desks in the basement from World War I days, which I got permission to sell. Then the basement I rented to a White House photographer. One way and another, it didn't take six months to get the building out of the red and going fine. That ended that requirement, and I could say with honesty, "I am a Washington reporter."

Currie: I think it might be good to mention, too, that Babson Reports was a financial newsletter. Is that correct?

Montgomery: It was a business publication. It wasn't a letter; it was much more than that.

Currie: I also think that it's worth mentioning that your success with Babson Reports led Roger Babson to change some of his attitudes about women.

Montgomery: Oh, he did, and I was told that often in his speeches he would say, "Don't overlook giving a woman a top position in your company."

Currie: So that was quite a success for you.

Montgomery: Well, that was a plus, let's say.

Currie: You seemed well ensconced and happy in this job, but you were enticed to leave it in 1924.

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Montgomery: In 1924 I married a young Scotsman who I had met through Cora Rigby in the Monitor. When I talked about Cora Rigby, there's one thing more I'd like to add, that in the National Press Club today the library has one room, the Cora Rigby Archives, which meant that she continues to be recognized for her outstanding achievements.

Currie: So in 1924 when you married A.J. Montgomery, you decided to leave Babson, is that correct?

Montgomery: Well, my husband didn't want me to keep on working. He said, "We have enough money to get along." At that time there was quite a move in urging women not to take jobs if they didn't need them. I did short-time public relations jobs and for a time I had a news bureau with a friend, but that took up too much time.

You might be interested in one example of a public relations job. That was at a convention for the American Association of University Women, who, of course, looked forward to being received by the president at the White House. At that time, the president was Calvin Coolidge. This I arranged, and I stood at the door as the president came out onto the lawn where the meeting was to take place. Turning to Mrs. Coolidge, he said, "Grace, who are these women, anyhow?" She gave him a little whisper, and he proceeded on to the podium, and opened his remarks by saying that he was happy to see these distinguished women here, who had done so much for their country and so on and so on, all full of praise, which always gave me a little laugh when I thought of his ignorance of the group as he approached.

Currie: It was some time, then, before you got back into journalism.

Montgomery: By the way, speaking of Grace Coolidge, I remember an invitation to go out on the presidential yacht, the Sequoia. The thing that amazed me was the invitation, handwritten by her press secretary, which said, "If it's raining, call and we'll postpone it to the next day." I thought how impossible it is now to change from one day to another.

Now, I interrupted your remarks.

Currie: Oh, not at all. I was just remarking that it was a little while before you got back into journalism. In fact, the beginning of World War II, if I'm not mistaken, you decided to get back into journalism full time. Is that correct?

Montgomery: Yes, it was.

Currie: How did you decide to do that?

Montgomery: I decided I'd call the head of the McGraw-Hill office in Washington, whom I knew from the time when I was covering press conferences at the White House, and ask him if he knew of any vacancy. Well, about that time, there were more and more opportunities for positions. He said, "There is a vacancy here, but I tell you, I doubt whether they'll take a woman for it, the magazines being the type they are. I don't know, but I'll try."

Well, I did get the position, and I was named one of the staff of the Washington office. But I was called an experiment. That "experiment" lasted eighteen years. [Laughter.] So it was quite an experiment.

Currie: So how did you start at the McGraw-Hill office? What was your first—

Montgomery: Let me see.

Currie: I think you had some miscellaneous—

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Montgomery: Oh, the patent. First of all, I did briefly short aviation news items, maybe two or three paragraphs. Then a call came from New York about a patent controversy in which the question was whether the present patent system was adequate or whether certain changes should be made. I had to do two or three paragraphs. I did not want to become known as "two or three paragraph Gladys," so I ended with the equivalent of two or three pages. But there was some hesitancy in New York of what to do with this "enormous" article, which included both sides of the patent controversy.

The first one that I interviewed was Thurman Arnold, assistant attorney general. When I went to his office, he was sitting at his desk, a very prominent, very imposing, I'll say, figure. He looked at me and he said, "Electronics. Electronics. What do you mean by eeelectronics?"

Currie: That was a reference to the magazine Electronics that you were reporting for.

So I waited a minute before I answered him. Then I said, "I have had difficulty getting a ten-minute allotment of time with you, and I should hate to think that any of these precious moments would be taken up defining a word that you can define much better than I."

He said, "You're all right. Come sit down." So instead of getting ten minutes, I had three-quarters of an hour, and I got some very good material for the article.

To get the other side of the controversy, then I interviewed the assistant commissioner of patents, a man by the name of Condor Henry, telling him that I wanted to report on both sides.

Currie: So you got very good information from him, too.

Montgomery: Yes. The article proved to be very successful and was the forerunner of my being made Washington editor of Electronics.

Currie: So that established you really as one of the very few women in a technical field.

Montgomery: Yes, I'd say semi-technical. I did write news items and so on. But there weren't many news items to take.

Currie: Why were there not many news items?

Montgomery: The industry was young then and there weren't too many stories available right at that time. So it was not a coveted assignment because they never got the front page, you know, of the papers, so the reporters weren't so keen about it.

Currie: So that created, actually, an opportunity for you.

Montgomery: Yes, and not too long after that I was made Washington editor. I was just stunned when I went to New York and heard that. I asked myself what should I do with this title. And I decided that the way I'd justify it was by getting acquainted in the laboratories with the key ones that were doing work that related to the subject, as well as getting some understanding of the work itself.

So, for example, I spent days in the Naval Research Laboratory, Bureau of Standards, and Signal Corps press sections and I got a sort of a cursory idea of what was going on. That played very good for me one day, because these men remembered me and when I went to get a story, I would very often say what no newsperson would ever say. I would say, "I am not an electronic engineer; I'm an accurate reporter. What I get is only as good as you care to give it to me. If for any reason in a day or two you wish you hadn't said something, you only need to call my office, because I have a two-day leeway in getting material to New York." Only one person ever did

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that, and I mention it now to show the sharp difference between a reporter's approach for a story and this one.

Currie: Also I believe you had a rule that you would get close to sources, but not too friendly. Is that an accurate—

Montgomery: Well, I just said I'd get acquainted with these people, but I wouldn't get too well acquainted. I would keep it so that it was always the object to get my story.

Currie: I guess some of the stories in electronics you covered during the war years were classified and secret. So then you received a transfer, I believe, to another magazine, Textile World.

Montgomery: It was not a transfer; it was an additional assignment. Electronics had grown by leaps and bounds, and much of it was very important to the military. So a large part of it was classified or, even beyond that, secret. So there wasn't a lot of material available on this subject right then. I was getting along very well until I got word from New York that they wanted to add Textile World magazine to my assignment, too. So I was not very enthused over it, because that meant different contacts. I didn't know much about textiles, but I hadn't known too much about electronics. But anyhow, to take on this and write a forecast article every month was what I did, and it turned out to be quite successful.

Another part of the reporting was to get a top name to do a signed article. At that time as top man for Textile World it would be Spencer Love, who was head of the textile clothing division of OPA. I secured from him an article which carried a lot of weight, discussing the textile problems in 1944. All in all, I enjoyed my work with Textile World because I could write more and all my articles were signed and they were front page, many of them, always prominently displayed with my name, which was a far cry from what I'd had in Electronics.

But when the end of the war came, then so did my forecast articles, because there was no need for any more forecasting. With the words of praise that were put in the New York records, I moved on to another subject. However, when we were getting mobilized for Korea, the then editor, a different one, wanted me to renew my work forecasting.

However, I didn't want to do it, because I had my eye on some research that was going on in atomic energy, and my editor was discussing with the ones in the Atomic Energy Commission whether it was too early to have a nuclear energy magazine.

Currie: So that was the beginning of Nucleonics magazine.

Montgomery: In 1947, the first issue of the first magazine for the public in this country in nuclear energy came out, entitled Nucleonics. It was about the size of Reader's Digest, and came out monthly.

I stayed on the masthead of Nucleonics as Washington co-editor with an engineer-scientist, Robert Coburn, for six years. Then the format of the magazine was changed. So that was the time when I left.

Currie: You were still at McGraw-Hill then, and you took various assignments after that?

Montgomery: Yes. At that time, all Washington editor titles were dropped. Then I took various assignments, yes.

Currie: I wonder if we could just go back and clarify, too, a forecast article, the kind of article you wrote for Textile World.

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Montgomery: I'll tell you what that was. It was forecasting about what the requirements of the government from the mill owners in textiles might be for the next quarter. Was it going to be up more, or was there going to be a curtailment of them? So that they became very much in favor of this report. I had ones like Spencer Love that I could contact so that what I wrote was worthy of attention.

Currie: So that was a very important function during the war for the mill owners.

Montgomery: Yes. That meant how much should they prepare for these requirements. It became a popular article. I also wrote important news items.

Currie: It's also interesting that you didn't have a science background, and yet you were Washington co-editor of a magazine like Nucleonics.

Montgomery: Well, I can see how you'd think that, too. So did I. But I decided that the thing to do was to concentrate on getting to know where the work was being done. For instance, I joined the press section of various groups.

Currie: They're in the other material, too.

Montgomery: The Atomic Energy Commission would be one of them. The American Association for the Advancement of Science would be another.

One time I wrote a release for the Washington chapter of the IRE [Institute of Radio Engineers] in a hurry because they couldn't find any of their people that had time to do it. But it was the little ways that they got to know me, so therefore when they had a good story, they'd say, "Well, she's done us a good turn. All right, let's give her that material." It might be an article, might be news. They had to play fair with news, you know. But anyhow, it worked both ways very well.

Currie: Interesting. So you were president of the Women's National Press Club, as it was called, in 1957-58.

Montgomery: The Women's National Press Club had outstanding speakers. During my term, one was Dr. Killian, who was making his first speech after being made science advisor to the president, the first time a president ever had a science advisor. His remarks were geared against our friendship with the Russians, in which he sounded something of a warning not to be too taken in by it. Then another speaker, which was the president of the New York Stock Exchange, who was trying to get some legislation through Congress and, therefore, was very glad to speak to the group. Of course, the report of this speech was carried through financial pages here and there.

Menchikof making his first speech as ambassador. Well, I won't go on with that. But at the end of the year, we have what we call a stunt party. We have kind of a ridiculing of top officials, and this time there was talk going on of moving the capital to a more center city. So the subject was, "Out where the jest begins." And that was quite a success, so much so that the military government of Washington was so pleased with it that they set up a special review for us. I think it was at Ft. Myer. I don't want to go on any more with my presidency, because all of the presidents had top speakers.

Currie: We just might mention that during your year as president, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited.

Montgomery: Oh, yes. I should have begun with that. It was my good luck and not any achievement on my part that I was president when Queen Elizabeth, with Prince Phillip, came to speak at the

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event for all press, the National Press Club, the Women's National Press Club, the American Newspaper Club, the radio, TV, all joined for one reception for that occasion.

One thing I do want to say about that, the next day they had a reception and various ones were going up in line to speak and shake the hand of Queen Elizabeth. After I had gone through the line, I was standing next to one of the aides and I heard him say to his friend, "Oh," he said, "this is worth a guinea a minute." [Laughter.] So whenever I have any excitement, I always remember that it's worth a guinea a minute. I don't know if I should say it about this or not. [Laughter.]

Currie: You're not having a good time?

Montgomery: Yes, I'm really enjoying myself. [Laughter.]

Currie: I think before we close, I'd like you to talk about a couple of highlights of the last part of your career with McGraw-Hill. In 1952, I think you were invited by the government of Mexico.

Montgomery: Yes. President Miguel Aleman of Mexico wanted to show to the press of this country what he had accomplished in his six years of office, so a group that had gone there when he took over were invited, but it was decided to add four women to the group, so that made twenty in the group. It was a two-weeks' trip in which various industries and the Mexican government had participated in the cost. We went to visit various important points of interest.

When we got there, there was a blinding rain, and in my effort to get packed with everything, I had forgotten a raincoat. So with all the others with their raincoats, I was making the best I could getting along. The next morning when I got up, there was a package at the desk for me. When I opened it, here was a lovely, attractive raincoat and with it a card "compliments of the city of Monterey." I never knew who sent it, but the raincoat came to good use, I will say.

All right. We're through.

Currie: Can I ask you a question? You reported then on the trip for Business Week, as I recall.

Montgomery: Yes.

Currie: The trip was paid for by the government of Mexico?

Montgomery: It was paid for by the government plus a few of the industries represented there.

Currie: This is a question I've asked you before, but do you feel that because they were paying for the trip that that biased your reporting?

Montgomery: No, I never thought about it, because the trip was a joyous occasion in which there was no effort to point it to one paper or another. No, I don't believe that. No.

Currie: You've done so many things, I hate to leave them out, but I think one thing you particularly wanted to mention was in 1958 you were chosen as the U.S. representative to a group of press women visiting NATO from various NATO countries. Is that correct?

Montgomery: Yes. One woman was chosen from each NATO country to attend a four-day briefing at NATO headquarters in Paris, and it was the first time they'd ever had a women's conference. So it was something of an event. Well, the State Department named me to go, and it was a memorable occasion. We came away with a better knowledge of NATO's purpose and objectives. We also were able to get acquainted with outstanding women from NATO countries.

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I did want to say that the U.S. Information Agency had decided to write an article earlier on me, "Electronics is Gladys Montgomery's Beat." It went to their various press groups in approximately fifty different countries. One woman wrote me from Germany and wanted to know how I signed my articles. [Laughter.]

Currie: Why do you think she wanted to know that?

Montgomery: She said, "Do you have any trouble in getting your articles signed?" She said, "I do."

And I said, "Usually they don't sign them. Sometimes they're incorporated in another story. When they do, it's usually my initials."

Currie: So she was having trouble getting a byline on her stories.

Montgomery: She was having trouble getting her byline, yes.

Currie: I think maybe we should note, in closing, that what started out as an experiment at McGraw-Hill ended in your retirement with McGraw-Hill, and so you stayed a good long career with them. I wish we had more time, but we don't. So I'd just like to say it has been worth a guinea a minute and close with that.

Montgomery: Well, it's been very pleasant, too, for me.

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