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A Woman’s Century (almost)

Journalist Drusilla Beyfus started out as a cub reporter during the Second World War, a job considered ‘seriously peculiar’ for a woman. Three quarters of a century on, after stints on pretty much every major newspaper and magazine in the land, she is still writing.

I started working life during the Second World War. It was 1944. I was 17 and a cub reporter on a local paper.

Was that an unusual job for a woman back then?

It was regarded as seriously peculiar. Particularly by the families of any young man I happened to be interested in. The idea that their son was going out with a female reporter boded the very worst.

They presumed you would be fast?

Not so much fast as pushy and raucous. Grub Street has never been very respectable, but the idea that a woman would go into it suggested she wasn’t fit for polite society.

So pushy and raucous were the traits that you were not supposed to have as a woman back then?

If you were a fishwife those attributes could happily be yours. But if you were a middle-class woman you weren’t supposed to behave like that. There were brilliant pioneers, for example, Dame Jennifer Jenkins’ mother who was the first woman correspondent on The Guardian, and Claire Hollingworth on The Telegraph. Claire Hollingworth was the journalist who broke the story of the Second World War. She was in Poland reporting on something else and saw massed tanks across the border. Neither of them, I should add, were in the slightest bit raucous.

The idea that a woman would go into journalism suggested she wasn’t fit for polite society

Where did you get the idea that this ‘seriously peculiar’ job was for you?

I was influenced by a tatty little magazine which starred a character called Pat the Girl Reporter. In my mind I can see an image of Pat on the cover of the magazine. She resembled a good-looking land girl with a reporter’s notebook in her bicycle basket. I thought ‘that looks like fun’. And then my father wrote two novels, so there was that influence.

Did any of the women in your family work?

My mother was an influence because she didn’t. She had had some success as a singer in the West End in the ’20s. In those days when a woman got married it was automatically assumed she would give up her job – if she had one. My mother gave up singing and languished with very little to do. Then when her marriage broke up she had nothing to rely on.

Financially you mean?

I mean in terms of having something that she cared about doing well. I grew up with a mother who, although extremely fond of myself and my sibling, was hugely frustrated. It sharpened my ambition to live a life of independence. If I had had a happy family background I might have gone and married a stockbroker.

If your career was going to flourish, it would have to flourish through the support of men

How aware were you of women in positions of agency when you started out?

I was aware that they were not in them.

If your career was going to flourish, it would have to flourish through the support of men. Right up till the ’80s most of my chances came through men. I feel this might not fit in with feminist thinking.

The competition between women in the workplace to gain the approbation of men must have been intense. That must have changed your relationship with women?

Interesting you say that. Any carping about my progress as a young journalist never came from men, but from other young women. I must add that the few senior women about were always supportive. But given that men wielded the power, it did help if they thought you were attractive. An uncomfortable truth is that if I had looked different, my career would have been different.

On the other hand, you might have over-estimated the attractiveness factor and under-estimated your abilities, a typically female thing to do?

Well you couldn’t say I didn’t have any talent. When I got to The Daily Express I was fortunate that my immediate boss, Harold Keeble, was very enthusiastic about my work. I got the most amazing chances and my name was all over the paper.

I got into Berlin hidden in a coal sack on the back of a lorry

And you soon became one of the star reporters on The Express?

Yes, I wrote a column with Anne Edwards. We had a photo by-line: ‘Anne Edwards and Drusilla Beyfus, the Monday Morning Team’. The column was heavily promoted and we appeared on posters at news kiosks up and down the country and on the sides of double-decker buses. I also wrote lots of stories under my own by-line.

Were you aware of differences between you and male correspondents?

They covered hard news whereas we women were pushed into covering show business, fashion and human interest stories. I wrote profiles, covered the Paris couture (there was no prêt-à-porter back then), that kind of thing. I remember doing an encyclopedia of Princess Margaret. That got a lot of publicity.

A highly gendered journalism.

Yes. Although I did cover the Berlin Blockade of 1948. The Express had a correspondent – male of course – on site. I was sent to write a mood piece on what it was like to live in a zone where there was little food, no fuel, precious little of anything.

For my 90th birthday I went back to Berlin and saw a city resurrected from the horizontal to the vertical

Can you sketch out what the Blockade was about?

It kicked off the Cold War basically. After the Second World War Germany was administered by the Allies who each took charge of a sector. Berlin was deep in the Russian sector, but as the capital, it was administered partly by Russia and partly by the Western Allies. In ’48 the Russians began blockading the transport of supplies to the Western Allies’ sector of Berlin. All roads into the city were suddenly closed. The idea was to starve West Berlin until the Allies withdrew, leaving Berlin to the communists. In June the Berlin Airlift began with the Allies flying in supplies on military transports in defiance of the Russians.

And you were sent to cover it? From the ‘human interest’ side?

Yes. It was incredibly exciting for a 19-year-old to be on an undercover operation. There was no way of getting to Berlin as a civilian, but The Daily Express managed to wangle me a place on one of the military planes flying in supplies. I had been on a plane only once before, to cover the Paris couture and I got a bit confused and managed to miss the flight. I was panic-stricken. My story was scoop stuff and the linked news story was due to be on the front page. I thought, ‘That’s it, my career is over’.

Did they fire you?

No. I managed to blag my way onto another military plane delivering coal to Tempelhof Airport, and sneaked into the city hidden in a coal sack on the back of a lorry. So it worked out as a success. Berlin had a powerful effect on me. Back then, the city was just piles of rubble for miles and miles. I understood what ‘bombed flat’ really meant. For my 90th birthday I asked to be taken back to Berlin with my children and grandchildren. Best birthday present ever – I saw a city resurrected from the horizontal to the vertical as if by magic. Nothing has ever given me such a feeling of hope.

It was the very nexus of power, politics and money

At The Daily Express you were working for Lord Beaverbrook, one of the most successful newspaper proprietors of the 20th century. Can you tell us a bit about him?

He was a legendary figure, a multi-millionaire, and a great panjandrum. He had been Minister of Aircraft Production during the war. Back then The Daily Express was the paper you had to read. It had a readership of around four million. It had Osbert Lancaster, Giles the cartoonist, and terrific writers like Sefton ‘Tom’ Delmer the war correspondent, who was said to have a private line to the German Fuhrer.

Did you get to meet Lord Beaverbrook?

He used to give cocktail parties for select members of staff and I was invited to one. Probably down to my immediate boss, Harold Keeble.

There was Beaverbrook at The Dorchester surrounded by his high-ups, all standing, while he himself was seated. My boss said, ‘Wouldn’t you like to meet Lord Beaverbrook?’ in a voice so loud I couldn’t say no. He brought me over and Beaverbrook said how much he liked my work. Next day his butler Knuckles –

Knuckles?

Yes – rang me up and asked whether I had time to have lunch with Lord Beaverbrook. I have to say that when I turned up at The Dorchester I was wearing the prettiest dress I ever possessed. It was by Dior, in that kind of pink crepe that only the French can do with a tiny bit of blue in it to stop it being sweet. Subsequently Knuckles called me and said His Lordship would like to invite me to dinner at Cherkley, his country house, and would I be able to stay the night?

Old men do like having young girls about the place. I was a bunch of flowers really

Hold on a minute. Are we talking about a #MeToo moment here?

Not at all. I stayed at Cherkley quite a few times and Lord Beaverbrook never did anything as embarrassing as making a pass. The house parties were fascinating because of the people he invited. People like Stanley Morrison who designed the typography for The Times and wrote the history of the newspaper and Brendan Bracken who was Minister of Information during the war, Lilli Palmer, the Hollywood star and a former girlfriend of Lord Beaverbrook, and the Labour MPs he then employed such as Michael Foot and Tom Driberg. Winston Churchill was often there though I never met him. It was the very nexus of power, politics and money.

It must have been a bit nerve-wracking in the nexus?

Well... I would arrive and he would say something like ‘Very good of you to come, shall we go for a walk in the garden?’ – And I would say ‘Yes’, and then I would think, ‘What on earth am I going to talk to him about?’ We would set off and I would tell him what I thought was an amusing story which never went down well at all. Sometimes, in the middle of a walk around the rockery he would say ‘Which paper do you think has the best colour reproduction at the moment?’ And I would take a guess. Or he would say things like, ‘We served three champagnes at lunch. Which one do you think was the best?’ I would plunge in with, ‘I have no doubt it was the second champagne that we had with the partridge’. He liked to test you out.

He said ‘We served three champagnes at lunch. Which one do you think was the best?’

Drusilla burns her ration book to celebrate the end of clothes rationing. The Daily Express, March 1949


Why do you think he invited you?

He read my stuff in the paper. It was his practice to follow the career of employees in whom he was interested. And then old men do like having young girls about the place. I was a bunch of flowers really.

We are talking about a man of great power and a young person who is anxious to do well in the world. It’s the oldest story in the book.

Was there ever anything like #MeToo or #TimesUp in the ’50s that has been forgotten about?

I don’t know that there was. Women’s situation has undergone great changes in the last seventy-five years. In terms of journalism here in the UK, the change happened in the ‘60s when the colour supplements came along.

Was that because the supplements covered human interest stories, as well as areas considered of feminine-only interest like cooking?

Obviously there were magazines such as Time that dealt with hard news, but yes I am thinking of magazines that dealt with soft news. They started out with male editors but gradually became the fiefdom of women editors, and have remained so even up until today. Their appearance within the arena of newspapers shifted the power balance.

‘Why on earth did you give it up? It’s such a great job.’ She said, ‘My husband didn’t like it’

What were the sixties like for you, the decade when Women’s Lib took off?

I had got married to a fellow-journalist, Milton Shulman in ’56, and throughout the ’60s I worked at The Observer, The Sunday Times magazine and The Telegraph magazine. That was my only real claim to feminism, that I carried on pursuing a career after I married. The idea of a middle-class married woman pursuing a career was generally frowned upon.

When I edited a magazine called Brides in the ’70s I came across someone who had edited it 20 years previously. I asked ‘Why on earth did you give it up, it’s such a great job. Were you sacked?’ She said, ‘Oh no, my husband didn’t like it’. That was the norm.

The associate editor said ‘It’s a disgrace you are here Drusilla. You have a small child and you should be at home’

When you got married you were supposed to end your career and make a new career out of having children?

Yes. I had my first child, Alexandra, in ’57 and the following year went to Queen magazine. Queen had just been bought by Jocelyn Stevens and he turned it into the house mag of the swinging ‘60s. The art director was cartoonist Mark Boxer, Frances Wyndham was literary editor, Beatrix Miller (who later edited Vogue) was editor-in-chief, and Quentin Crewe was my co-associate editor. A fantastic crowd. I loved it. But even at Queen, kids were not cool. I had what was known as ‘Drusy’s baby day’ which caused endless annoyance.

What’s a baby day?

A day spent at home looking after the baby because it was nanny’s day off. I remember Peter Hewitt, the associate editor, saying ‘It’s a disgrace you are here Drusilla. You have a small child and you should be at home’. I said ‘You’ve got four children, Peter, and you are not at home’.

I said, ‘You’ve got four children, Peter, and you are not at home.’

Well said, but still, how did you do it? You had a day job, you were on TV as well – on talk shows and quiz shows like Call My Bluff – you were writing books, and your one small child turned into three children. And all in this sexist atmosphere.

I’ll tell you how. WITH HELP. Paid help. I was always castigated by my colleagues because they said you can’t be earning all that much money here and you’ve got a nanny and a day-off nanny, why do you bother? The answer is because I always remembered the lesson of my mother. And I enjoyed the world of journalism.

And Milton, your husband, was he a help?

Milton was a figure in public life. Being married to him was like a career in itself. A lot of people said to me ‘You let him get away with too much’. But I knew that Milton had given up his family in Canada, his quayside wife, his roots, in order to come here to make his name as a writer and he wasn’t going to compromise that by spending time on the school run.

He had come here to make his name as a writer and he wasn’t going to compromise that by spending time on the school run

When did things change for women?

The big change came in the ’70s, the days of feminist magazine Spare Rib. I don’t know if ’70s feminism had much effect on women working in a factory in Stoke-on- Trent, but it was a watershed for the reading classes. There were all these women who had gone to university and then were stuck at home washing nappies. The Observer ran a protest piece about it by a female correspondent and it broke the dam. There was a flood of letters from miserable frustrated women and suddenly it changed.

So the big change that happened was in how motherhood was viewed?

Yes. And with this has gradually come another important change: men have started to become good mothers. I was a contributing editor at the Saturday Telegraph Magazine till seven years ago, and noticed how the young fathers there were so hands-on in caring for their children. It was always thought that the great stumbling block to women’s lib was maternity. But because there has been a definite shift in men’s psychology, the position has eased for women. Not resolved; eased.

What has changed is that men have started to become good mothers

Will the #TimesUp movement achieve a new step-change in how women are perceived?

#TimesUp is a benchmark. But in my view the problem is more related to power than sex. Men still wield the reins of authority. We will only get genuine equality when there are far more women in positions of power. Equal pay for equal work is a foundation stone.

You can look back over such a breadth of personal experience...

Well I started out very young and now I’m very old. I haven’t done much journalism since I was made redundant at The Telegraph at age 85, but I still do the occasional TV or radio programme, and I am still writing. I’m currently working on a memoir.

So – how far have we come? Or not?

One of my daughters is a journalist, Alexandra Shulman. She edited Vogue for 25 years, until last year, and now has a column in The Mail on Sunday and is working on a book. Alex always said she would never be a journalist, there was no money in it and you had to work dreadfully hard. However as life progressed she did exactly the same as me. She has a son Sam and at one stage in mid-career also cared for two young step-children – remarkably similar to me with my three. But while that can’t have been easy for Alex, I do feel the general situation has improved.

A ‘Pat the Girl Reporter’ of today is in a much stronger position than I was when I started out in terms of gender equality. Mind you, she is facing tougher times in her desire to pursue journalism: print journalism is a shrinking world today.

Still, on balance, things are looking up for us women.

 

 

Interview
Susan Irvine

Images
Susannah Baker-Smith