The Time of Her Life—Clark Humphrey
It was as if her many great accomplishments had suddenly been wiped from the main texts of history, displaced into the endnotes with lots of asterisks. Instead of one of the great success stories, she had become, years after her death, only a “qualified” success.
The new biography was that spectacular. It completely rewrote what people thought they knew about one of America’s most important women.
But even before the bio came out, her place in the pantheon of feminist icons had always been less than top-tier. She’d been a daughter of privilege. She’d never had to struggle to get to the top. From almost the start of her career, she always had connections. She never had to fight to get anything published or produced. Her fiction and journalism were more means to respect than to a livelihood. In modern media terms, they were vehicles to promote her “personal brand.”
But what vehicles they were!
Short stories that poked not-so-gentle fun at high society’s foibles. Stage plays that are still revived today.
And the journalism! As the publisher’s wife, she could have written low-grade Broadway gossip and gotten it into print. But she was much more ambitious than that.
She regularly published important scoops about the high-level machinations of politics, war, and finance.
She interviewed nearly every major politician and head of state ths side of the Iron Curtain. It had been said that no other female journalist until Barbara Walters had so much access to top newsmakers.
Then the new biography revealed, in well-documented detail, just how much “access” she really had to her subjects, and they to her. With the husband/publisher’s apparent blessing.
Reactions to the biography have died down. But at the time the book came out, a few women who had once admired its subject were publicly aghast.
Most other feminist commentators said they’d always known she’d never been any real role model. After all, she’d never written anything about sexism or racism. She never discussed the plight of women less privileged than herself. She’d never spoken out on behalf of society’s victims, except for the victims of “communist aggression” during the Cold War.
But instead of talking about who she wasn’t, her biographer asks us to talk about who she was.
In the biography’s last chapter, its author notes that her subject had never vocally challenged women’s assigned roles in society. But she’d personally rebelled against those roles.
This woman’s career had mostly occurred before The Pill, before the sexual revolution. She traveled in a milieu of extreme visibility, where everything one did or said was potential fodder for gossip and rumor. If she’d gotten into scandal, her husband’s magazines wouldn’t have written about it but plenty of others would have.
But she’d gone right on and lived her life the way she’d wanted to. She’d written whatever she’d wanted to. She’d slept with whomever she’d wanted to. She was her own one-woman rebellion.