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Working for the United Press in the 40's
To enter the job market in the middle of World War II was a heady experience. In the year or two following Pearl Harbor nearly ten million young men had donned uniforms, and employers were crying for help. The only large reservoir left to be tapped was women. Rosie the Riveter was born. For college graduates, white-collar jobs heretofore closed to women were to be had, although not quite for the asking.
Betty Goldstein (not yet Friedan) graduated from Smith College at this time—1942—and embarked on a career that would lead to the writing of The Feminine Mystique a quarter century later. Betty and I were very good friends at Smith. I was a sophomore reporter and she the editor-in-chief of SCAN, the college newspaper. Our SCAN experience had whetted our appetites for journalism—"the newspaper racket," as we racily called it—and that's where we hoped to land jobs upon graduation. Not for us the Woman's Page with its fusty coverage of fashion, food, bridge, and other despised foofrous. We would be real newsmen covering real news. So with a brand new diploma in hand, and Hildy Johnson dreams in my heart, I set out for the Big City—New York in those days was everyone's dream, and a Greenwich Village apartment an attainable possibility. A SCAN friend, now working at AP, called with the exciting news that a job as copy girl had just opened up at United Press (as UPI, United Press International, was then known), and that I should call Phil Newsom, the radio news manager.
Nothing could discourage me. Not the job description: copy girls and boys ran errands, brought in coffee, changed the rolls on the huge teletype machines, did anything that anyone at any level asked them to do. There were no weekends. You worked five days a week, not necessarily consecutive days, on three shifts: day, afternoon, and overnight. The pay was $18.50 a week.
I didn't get the job. It had just been filled, but as it turned out it was nearly as quickly unfilled. At week's end a telegram informed me that if still interested I should report for work at 9 A.M. the following Monday. With gay abandon I tossed aside a second job I had landed (also to start the following Monday) at $35 a week as a junior editor at The Book of Knowledge, the children's encyclopedia, and opted for UP, starvation wages, and a wonderful life. To get a job in the news field in those days you filled out a brief form—name, age, education, family, place of birth, citizenship, previous work experience (none)—and were then interviewed by the person for whom you would be working. Resumes were a thing of the future. The only hitch was that every woman hired had to sign a release agreeing to vacate her job when the man who had held it before her returned from the service.
Speak of nervous stomachs. The UP newsroom on the 12th floor of the Daily News Building in New York was at the time the largest newsroom in the world: several hundred men at hundreds of battered typewriters arranged in great U's—a U for each department—and dozens of teletype machines ringing and clattering day and night, erupting with news from all over the world. The editor sat at the outside of the U, the assistant editor faced him across the desk in what was called "the slot," and the rewrite men and reporters manned typewriters along the long arms of the U. The floors were littered with paper, cigarette butts, and the desks with graying, cooling stained containers of coffee, empty Coke bottles, paper, pipes, debris. The shirt-sleeved men were intent on their machines as I walked down the long line of typewriters past the foreign desk where a tall skinny fellow with glasses looked up and almost nodded before turning back to the copy at hand. Harrison Salisbury would very soon take over the job of foreign editor.
Around the corner was the radio department where incoming news was rewritten on a news wire that reached 1,400 radio stations. Radio in those pre-TV days was the source of all instant news, which had to be repackaged by the radio department into convenient five- and fifteen-minute segments. Sentences were shortened for easier delivery. Successful radio copy had a distinct beat to it; you had to hear as well as see it. Sibilants were taboo ("Sixteen suicides sent Stanford staggering" was not a good radio sentence). In 1943 United Press was the nation's largest radio news service.
Phil Newsom, all business today in contrast to his lazy, easy conversational self at our interview, turned me over to the head of the radio copy staff, a messy, brown-curly-haired girl of 18 with streaks of ink on her face. Bobby, who never could learn not to wipe her fingers on her face after changing a typewriter ribbon, told me to get the orders for midmorning coffee and danish and then to run out to the Greek's (the corner deli) with it. (Bobby is now executive director of Cosmopolitan.)
I was in the door, but at a very low level indeed. To be a copy boy was bad. Most of them at UP at this time were overage underachievers, content to stay put in a no-future situation. To be a copy girl with aspirations was—to some old news hands—too presumptuous for words. We were nothing but collitchgirls, strung thus together as a term of obloquy. "Collitchgirl," sighed LeRoy Pope, who was riding the slot that day when I went over to take his order. "Another collitchgirls."
Weeks later when the manpower pinch had become so bad that I had been moved to the sports desk (over the all-but-dead body of the sports editor), LeRoy, again in the slot on a hot Sunday afternoon, would have his deepest suspicions of the total inadequacy of collitchgirls confirmed. After he had responded to a dozen angry bells—complaints from local bureaus that something was wrong in a baseball score—and corrected my error, he stood up in the slot, brought his ruler down with a resounding slap that brought every head sharply around, and put me straight on how things work in the news world. "Priscilla Buckley," he roared, "you can call Franklin Delano Roosevelt a sonavabitch, but you can't make a mistake in a baseball score." He was absolutely right.
It was made clear to me when I was promoted to the sports desk ($25 a week) that I was never to mention the promotion to anyone. What would editors around the country think if they knew that UP was so hard up it had had to put a woman on the sports beat? My copy—even the nightly feature stories—was unsigned, or signed by the sports editor, and if a radio station or a UP bureau called for clarification of any point, I was instructed to call a copy boy and have him take the telephone while I dug up the information.
Three or four years later my good friend Ed Korry, Paris bureau manager for UP, lured me from another job with the promise of a spot in the Paris bureau as soon as one opened up. Inasmuch as UP wages were then and continued for years to be a joke, rapid turnover in staff was predictable. I got the job a couple of months later and soon noticed that my byline, Priscilla Buckley, appeared on the wire as P.L. Buckley. It turned out that UP's then-European manager—a Mr. Bradford, whose headquarters in Bonn was at a safe remove from Paris—had a "no woman foreign correspondent" policy that Ed had simply ignored. I appeared on the table of organization as P.L. Buckley and so I remained for nearly a year. The first time wicked Mr. Bradford walked into the UP newsroom in Paris and found a woman in the slot, was, well, interesting.
Deliverance from that initial assignment on the sports desk in New York came six long months later when a tall, gangly, pockmarked young man with flat feet walked in looking for a job as a sports writer. I was reassigned to the radio news staff, to general hallelujahs, particularly from the sports editor, and even given a raise ($27.50 a week). By this time there were three collitchgirls on the radio news desk and in short order they became top hands on the each of the three main shifts. We didn't panic under pressure, we were not lazy as many of the older male staffers were, and we learned to write fast in short, simple, easy-to-read sentences. The bigger, the faster-breaking the story, the more we liked it: the fall of Rome, D-Day, Mussolini's death, VE-Day were big. But the biggest day of all was VJ-Day, which marked the end of World War II, and which came on my shift. At 7:00 P.M. on August 14, 1945 (12:00 midnight, London), a tired but jubilant Winston Churchill and a much relieved Harry S. Truman announced to their respective nations that the war was over. I got to write the fifteen-minute broadcast that heralded that joyous news to much of the nation. Every rule was suspended on that wild jubilant night in the steamy UP newsroom in New York. Great pails of beer from the local saloons were carried into the office and happily consumed. And no one objected. Hell, the editors were drinking right along with the hands. This was VJ-Day, and the boys were coming home.
Years later, Hugh Baillie, who was United Press president in those days, noted in his autobiography that in the mid-40's UP had discovered that women had a distinct flair for radio news writing. It took a world war for UP to find that out. At war's end there was no question that when Johnny came marching home again, he would be rehired, but not to replace Bobby, or Lee or Randy or Priscilla, or hosts of other women sprinkled in newsrooms and editorial offices around the nation. We lucky graduates of the early 40's had proved that we could do the job if only they would let us in the door.
From the October 1989 Chronicles issue.
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