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by Bob Stepno
Women authors and editors on Cavalcade of America
Cavalcade’s stories of women in publishing spanned the history of the nation from colonial to contemporary. Some of the women who were profiled began their careers in husband-and-wife collaborations, including the Zengers in colonial New York, Cyrus and Louisa Knapp Curtis in the late 19th century, and the Houghs of Martha’s Vineyard in the 1940s.
Cavalcade presented dramatic portrayals of real-life editors and reporters like Anne Royall, Margaret Fuller and Nellie Bly, but also dipped into fiction to offer an abbreviated version of Edna Ferber’s historical novel Cimarron. Ferber’s editor heroine Sabra Cravat became even more the center of the radioplay, a showcase for actress Irene Dunne, who had starred in the Academy Award winning film version.
Women journalists on Cavalcade:
- Louisa Knapp Curtis and Cyrus Curtis appear 15 minutes into the episode Opportunity, creating The Ladies Home Journal after she critiques the women’s page of his newspaper, takes over the page itself, and sets the cornerstone for a publishing empire that later included the Saturday Evening Post.
- Anna Zenger, wife of John Peter Zenger — 1946 (Ann Harding, Bill Conrad): Mother of Freedom, based on a novel that suggested Anna did more than keep the newspaper running while her husband was jailed for libel, tried and — with her help — freed.
- Anna Zenger — revised and retitled three years later, and recast with “His Girl Friday” star Rosalind Russell in the title role: Remember Anna Zenger.
- Anne Royall, an outspoken woman muckraker, with pistols near at hand, takes on a Washington bank-scandal and “white-livered thieving scoundrels” in Congress, rescuing and being rescued by Andrew Jackson in Anne Royall (1940), The printer was a lady (1942), and Witness for the People (1944).
- Sara Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book: Sara Josepha Hale
- Nellie Bly, into the madhouse and around the world: Nellie was a lady
- Margaret Fuller, author, editor of The Dial and New York Herald foreign correspondent; more details on my Margaret Fuller page, but the name of the episode is still a mystery: The Heart & the Fountain
- Abigail Scott Duniway, Oregon suffragist editor (1836-1915) of The New Northwest newspaper, profiled on the program Westward the Women. (The story is based on a book by that name by Nancy Wilson Ross, not to be confused with a fictional Hollywood film by that name, about a wagon train full of mail-order brides. For more about Duniway, see the Oregon Historical Society.)
- Elizabeth and Henry Hough, co-editors of The Vineyard Gazette. Once More the Thunderer is a more recent story than most Cavalcade episodes. Broadcast in 1951, it was based on a 1950 book by Henry Beetle Hough about the couple’s adventures running a country newspaper on Martha’s Vineyard island, come hurricane or high water. (They ran it together for another 14 years, until her death. A few years later, Hough sold the paper to Scotty Reston of The New York Times.)
- Sabra Cravat of Cimarron — unlike most Cavalcade women of the press, Sabra was fictional, from the Edna Ferber novel and Oscar-winning film about the Oklahoma territory, “Cimarron.” (The character was a composite, inspired in part by Elva Shartel Ferguson, journalist and first-lady of Oklahoma.) The 1931 movie’s co-star, Irene Dunne, takes the role again in the 1941 radio version, making it more Sabra’s story than her sometime-newspaperman husband’s, especially without the original male lead, Richard Dix, in the radio cast.
In the movie, the visual spectacle of the Oklahoma land-rush and a few gunfights probably stole the show from the newspapering. Coincidentally, some say Cimarron stole the Oscar for best picture of 1931 from another “newspaper” movie, “The Front Page.” Another coincidence: Irene Dunne later had her own radio series “Bright Star,” a romantic comedy, in which she played… a newspaper editor.
- Jane Grey Swisshelm. The sound of a whip on a silent slave’s back opens Troublesome Jane, an original Cavalcade episode about editor Swisshelm launching an abolitionist newspaper in Minnesota. (She was also the first woman to cover a story from the Senate press gallery, but that was before this episode in her life.)
“Big sister, literary amazon, female abolitionist, why you can’t be up to the five-foot mark… I was good and scared after all we heard about you, Jane…”
That’s her brother-in-law talking, before she learns about a Missouri slave owner who has been bringing his slaves north to work his property. The brother-in-law just happens to own a printing press, which is the beginning of some dramatic confrontations and an emotional conclusion. The story is based on an episode in Swisshelm’s life, from the book Female Persuasion: Six strong-minded women by Margaret Farrand Thorp. (For a more recent biography, see Jane Grey Swisshelm:
An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884 by Sylvia D. Hoffert.)
In the Cavalcade episode, Swisshelm is played by Ruth Hussey, whom newspaper-movie fans may know as the independent-minded photojournalist in the The Philadelphia Story, which was also adapted for radio several times, at least once with Hussey recreating her Academy-Award-nominated role.
- Finally, Lillian Sholes wasn’t exactly a journalist, but she worked closely with her editor father, whose invention — and her demonstrations of it — changed the writing profession. Cavalcade made her the narrator and heroine of the story of the development of the typewriter, although the title “The Reluctant Pioneer” referred to her father.
Front Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction, 18810-1930, by Jean Marie Lutes, Cornell University Press, 2007
More than 25 other JHeroes blog posts and pages about women journalists, real and fictional. (Click on “older posts” at the bottom of that page to see additional pages.)