These reporters were always a little extra. In a man’s game, they had to be. As Ishbel Ross put it in her 1936 history “Ladies of the Press,” back then women needed to be “free to leap nimbly through fire lines, dodge missiles at a strike, board a liner from a swaying ladder, write copy calmly in the heat of a Senate debate, or count the dead in a catastrophe” without wondering why nobody will “change the ribbon of her typewriter or hold smelling salts to her nose as she views a scene of horror.”
As pioneering women journalists finally begin to get the recognition they deserve, the name Elsie Robinson is rarely part of the conversation. Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert aim to change that with “Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman,” the first biography of this forgotten California dynamo.
Robinson certainly meets the threshold for intrepidness, although in her case most of it happened before she set foot in a newsroom. Born and raised in near poverty in the San Francisco Bay area, she married East Coast money as a teenager in 1903 and then spent a decade yearning to escape that loveless marriage. She grabbed her chance when her dour husband allowed her to leave Vermont to take their asthmatic son West to visit her family for a spell. That spell grew. After four years, her husband filed for divorce. He cited desertion and adultery and cut off funds. For three years, Robinson, now a destitute single mother, worked in a gold mine in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where she had sought a more forgiving climate for her son. Young George did indeed improve greatly, while Elsie earned a living on her belly, “gophering” through the cracks in the landscape in search of overlooked gold. “Mucking, panning, timbering — during the first summer it was all one blurred delirium” under a 114 degree sun, she wrote in her midcareer memoir, “I Wanted Out!”
The memoir’s title referred to her marriage and the stifling conventions of her married life — not her rough but liberating miner’s life — yet eventually she made her way back to San Francisco. She had long written and illustrated stories for her son. Back in Vermont, she had even sold a few articles, and in her mining town’s old post office she had access to a typewriter. But her efforts to sell her work or get any job at all in San Francisco failed. At 35, she thought she was washed up. In her memoir she writes that she contemplated both suicide and prostitution. Instead, she redoubled her efforts. She wrote and illustrated a children’s story and made the rounds of the city’s three newspapers. All three turned her away. Across the bay, the Oakland Tribune, which until then had no children’s department, hired her. She was to write a weekly children’s column of illustrated animal stories for $12 a week.
At this point — the start of her newspaper career — the book “Listen, World!” is more than two-thirds finished. And that may be something of a clue as to why Robinson is not well remembered. What made her most interesting is the nervy life that came before, which Scheeres and Gilbert have ably stitched together in no small part, they acknowledge, by fact-checking Robinson’s 1934 memoir. What stands out most about Robinson’s career, though, is her astounding productivity.
Her first column, published just before Christmas 1918, was a hit. Children wrote in. The column ran next to L. Frank Baum’s “Wonderful Stories of Oz” series, but when Baum died several months later, the editor turned over an entire page to Robinson for a weekly feature called “Aunt Elsie’s Magazine for the Kiddies of the Oakland Tribune.” It soon became two pages, then eight, all of it written and illustrated by Robinson. Aunt Elsie clubs sprouted in Northern California cities. Parents noticed and wanted in. Robinson began her first column for adults, “Curtains, Collars and Cutlets: Cheer-Up Column.” A relationship column, “Cry on Geraldine’s Shoulder,” was next, followed by “Listen, World!” which was nationally syndicated.
These columns ran simultaneously, and Robinson had no secretary or assistant. She jumped to one of the San Francisco papers that had rejected her, where she continued her prodigious output. In addition to her columns, she covered big events and breaking news such as the Lindbergh kidnapping for the front page. She was the highest-paid newspaperwoman in the Hearst organization, but the overwork came at a cost. Some years later she got wise to it and wrote to William Randolph Hearst himself. “I am not a columnist. I am a factory. You’ve not been getting a feature. You’ve been getting mass production for nearly 20 years.”
So, what exactly did that factory produce in nearly 40 years of operation? Scheeres, author of the memoir “Jesus Land,” and Gilbert, a journalist who has written extensively on the 9/11 attacks, quote liberally from Robinson’s columns, stories, poems and memoir (serialized in Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine), and also include a generous sampling of her editorial cartoons and children’s drawings. What emerges is a portrait of an amiable populist who at her peak reached 20 million readers (” double the number of current subscribers to the New York Times,” as the authors put it). The allure is apparent, as Robinson dispensed wisdom and comfort by the bucket. Her advice was more obvious than profound, and she perfected a voice that was above all familiar. It was jolly, chummy, slangy, chirpy.
“Tell me about the happys — and tell me about the sads,” she urged young readers in her first columns.
“Is your husband or your complexion growing dull?” she wrote in introducing her “Cry on Geraldine’s Shoulder” column. “Let us then discuss the value of soft soap on complexions — and husbands. … We shall sit together on the edge of the world. You have wanted a friend. I’M IT.”
“I have learned to build my happiness — collecting it bit by bit,” she wrote in a poem for her “Listen, World!” column.
The aphorisms flew freely, often emphasizing perseverance: “The only person who fails in life is the person who doesn’t dare live it” and “Life is common bread. Hoard it and you lose it.”
It wasn’t all bromides, apparently. The authors write that particularly in later decades, “she used her national platform to express her increasingly progressive and political views,” calling out racism (“You happened to be born white, and that is no great feat”), antisemitism and the death penalty (fit for the “stone age”).
Her “acres” of words, as she described them, evidently hit their mark. The authors have included Robinson’s poem “Pain” (her beloved son had died at 21), which includes the lines “Why must those who love generously,/Live honorably, feel deeply/All that is good — and beautiful/Be so hurt.” If the sentiment sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen something similar on a T-shirt or a plaque in a suburban kitchen or kitschy catalogue: “Live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, leave the rest to God.” The quotation is attributed to Ronald Reagan, but I’d bet a gold nugget he adapted it from Elsie Robinson. After all, before he was the Great Communicator, she was.
Mary Jo Murphy is an editor at The Washington Post.
How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman
By Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert
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