Interview with Val Lauder
Valarie Lauder, born March 1, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan, began her lifelong love with journalism as the first “copygirl” with The Chicago Daily News in 1944. An avid writer, she has contributed freelance material to such giants of the industry as The New York Times, and taught feature writing for 30 years at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism before retiring in 2011. Her memoir, The Back Page: The Personal Face of History, is an account of the real people who broke some of the biggest news of the twentieth century. Lauder shared some thoughts on the many roles of the press and the making of “ history in real time.” She was interviewed by undergraduate history major Chris LaMack on January 21, 2017. The following interview was lightly edited for space and readability.
Chris LaMack: Female journalists were quite uncommon in the 1940s. Could you talk a little about how you first broke into the field?
Valarie Lauder: I always liked to write. I did some things for the high school paper, and then the college paper, and then there’s only so much you can plan. My father had a heart attack. I needed a job, and the girl in my newswriting class at Northwestern was a copygirl at The Chicago Sun. I asked her if they would need any more copy kids, and she didn’t know. So the Monday after school got out in December, I got in my black “dress-for-success” suit and heels and went down to The Sun, in the Daily News building, and the man who came out was as nice as he could be, but they didn’t need any more copy kids. So I took the elevator back down and when I got off, of course, I faced the building directory, which I hadn’t coming in, and noticed (shows what a college education can do) that The Daily News was in the building, on the sixth floor. So I went up to the sixth floor, and they had a reception desk, but they didn’t have anybody sitting there. So I turned, and there were two big open doors for this wide corridor, and I started down, sort of like if you were going in somebody’s house, and saying “yoo-hoo,” and finally a man came walking towards me and said, “What do you want?” And I said, “I want to be a copy girl,” and he said, “Well, I’m the one you should talk to, I’m in charge.” So we talked, and I told him I was interested in journalism. He talked to me a little more, and he said, “Can you start tomorrow?” I said yes, and he told me where to go to get a Social Security card because I didn’t have one, and then he took me down the hall, and we stood outside the city room, which is the hub. He said report to him there tomorrow morning at 9:00, and he pointed to his desk against the wall, and that’s how I started.
Left: Valarie Lauder, journalist and author of The Back Page:
The Personal Face of History. Lauder was one of the
most successful female journalists of the 1940s.
(Photo by Maxmilian Conley.)
CL: How has journalism changed since you started?
VL: It’s changed immensely because technology changed. We got our first television set in the spring of 1949, and I remember this photographer saying something about the threat TV was, and it never occurred to me. Anchor David Brinkley wrote a piece in TV Guide after the Kennedy assassination pointing out that that’s really when television news came of age, because they covered that. I wasn’t watching TV when the first bulletin came on. A neighbor told me when he came home, about 4:30 p.m., and my mother and I sat down in front of that TV set, as did most of the nation, for four days glued to that television set. It performed a service because no one knew who had done it. People felt reassured, and the networks made a decision to be very careful and not relay rumors that had to be substantiated, but to tell everything they knew. So it helped to hold the country together and reassure them. That’s really when television came of age.
When I was at The News we had what they called “hot type.” Everything was set on a linotype machine. Then in the ’70s they went to “cold type,” which was a computer. And I remember that because they had just switched when the Pentagon Papers came out, and I read one time because of the speed of the cold type, The Chicago Tribune was able to print the whole Pentagon Papers in 24 hours. So, technology changed. The world changed. It’s always changing. It’s changing now, you’re seeing. Nobody knows where it’s going to go, and with Trump knocking the media all the time, and the fake news, and the social media. Following the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, The Washington Post very quickly thought to use Facebook to find students, and it was the first time that had been used. So, yes, it changes.
CL: You dedicated The Back Page to Clem Lane, the longtime newspaper man and editor of The Chicago Daily from 1924 to 1958, whom I’ve seen described as the archetypical, old-time city editor. Do you have a favorite memory of him?
VL: He was very witty. During my last year there, in January 1952, when we came in after New Year’s, he had received a letter. Somebody predicted the end of the world that year—absolutely, no question, guaranteed, the world would end that year. Clem Lane posted this on the bulletin board with the note: “In view of this and the fact that both the Democratic and the Republican National Conventions will be held here this summer, I suggest you take your vacations early.” But he brought that wittiness to various comments. He was very serious when it was all business, but he brought that to it.
Left: Val Lauder’s The Back Page: The Personal
Face of History (2012). (Photo courtesy of
CL: In The Back Page, you recall that The Chicago Daily News “practically invented the concept of a newspaper offering stories on events in other parts of the world.” Has the ascendency of the foreign correspondents changed the role of the press?
VL: The Chicago Daily’s publisher, Victor F. Lawson, recognized that it was too expensive to correspond via teletype and cable, and it was too slow if they wrote. He got the idea of having the correspondents stay in the community, where they would get to know the people, and the people would know them, and that was the real start. He had them stay in London, Paris, or Rome, and so forth, and that was the policy until they started cutting back bureaus about 20 years ago. But you see, World War II made foreign news important, very important.
CL: Given your experience, what is the place of journalists and the media in wartime?
VL: They help the people back home to understand what’s going on, and I know this is a small thing, and this was a personal thing: Fred Sparks, after living with Marines in the Chosin Reservoir, came back, and he agreed to speak to the Chicago College Club on my mother’s behalf. So, at the end of the day, we went out. He had just talked to students, our press club, about it and how cold it was. When we went out, we hailed a cab, and it was 30 or 31 degrees and he said that’s what it had been in Korea, and I said, “But that’s not bad,” and—I’ll never forget—he said, “We’ve just come out of a warm building. We are walking this many feet to the cab to get in.” And he said, “They live in it. They sleep in it. They can never get out of that 30 degrees,” and I understood. He made me understand how bad it was. I’ve never forgotten it, obviously.
CL: In your opinion, what are the ethical issues of combat corresponding? Is the sobering, genuine, and firsthand testimony from the front lines worth the endangerment of human life?
VL: Oh, yes, I think it’s important to be there. There was some question though, when they were embedded in Iraq, whether they weren’t too much a part of the Defense Department. Our reporters had to have the cooperation and everything of the Defense Department and services, but they were independent. They’re the only ones, because the government and the Defense Department public information officers aren’t going to tell you anything that’s bad, really. People are talking about that today: who will speak truth to power? Who will stand up and say something somebody doesn’t want to hear, or have revealed? In the past, that’s been journalists, investigative journalism. The Daily News put two governors in prison. Their slogan was “investigating everything.” There isn’t anybody else, hasn’t been for years, who can do that. The public will have whistleblowers, they’ll have Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers, they’ll have a few people who will do something, but there’s no consistency.
CL: Since the Second World War, there’s been considerable controversy over the media’s promotion of certain political interests, or propagandistic news. What was your experience with that? Do you remember ever feeling uneasy about certain aspects of the news being promoted?
VL: Well I wasn’t overseas, and I didn’t feel it. I was here in the city room, and I was too young then, and I wasn’t into that field. Censorship basically was to make sure that you didn’t—no correspondent wanted to—reveal anything that would be harmful, so the only thing was if they would do it inadvertently. So, you had to put your copy through a censor. But I don’t think they were doing it generally to withhold bad information. They had a pretty open relationship except for security, and I don’t think there was propaganda generally for World War II, and probably Korea, because Korea was pretty much under the same rule.
CL: The conflict in Vietnam seems to mark a turning point in the tone of American journalism. What changed?
VL: I said to someone, “World War II was like the weather.” It was always there. When I went off to college, we had ration books. When I came home at Christmas, they gave me my ration book. Nylon hose had just come in for women, and nylons disappeared: they went into parachutes. Cigarettes, everyone smoked cigarettes. If you ever watch ’30s and ’40s movies, everybody smoked. I quit, but I smoked. Cigarettes went overseas. You couldn’t begrudge it. The GIs were over there getting shot at. They deserved it. Coke! Coca-Cola. I remember when the war was over, and a neighbor in our building got a case of Coke, the bottles, and she gave us two, and it was a treat!
Vietnam was not as pervasive as WWII. It was never really a part of our lives. It was a story: you read about it, and heard about it, and saw it on television. And it wasn’t really needed in the same way. World War II, everybody knew, if you didn’t win, Hitler won and Japan won, and neither one of them was very nice in their occupied countries, you know. You didn’t go off to the opera and have a latte. So everybody was dedicated to that. Vietnam wasn’t the same. That was the difference: everybody was behind World War II.
CL: You wrote a piece recalling the day that FDR died. In it, you talk about trying to learn about Harry Truman. By the end of his presidency, he was unpopular with the American public, but attitudes toward him are softer now.
VL: He was really unpopular. They had a TV show called Open End, an educational station. It went on at like 11:00 and it was called Open End because it didn’t end until you ran out of things to talk about. Once he had MacGregor Burns along with five or six top historians, and David Susskind, the host, at one point asked, “Who’s the greatest president of our time?” I know he was waiting for them to say Roosevelt. And they said “Truman.” Harry Truman. And I thought “Oh my God—they’re right.” He dropped the atom bomb, he stood up to Russia, he desegregated the armed services, he fired MacArthur, he went into Korea, he did all these things that nobody paid that much attention to, or disliked. And he’s now up there, if you look, he’s up there in the top tier. He’s up there in top ten. And he was really unpopular. I can remember.
CL: Do you see that a lot, as attitudes change?
VL: Well they say it has to be at least 10 years before historians can begin. You know, all this talk about Obama and his legacy. Nobody’s gonna know for 10, 15, or 20 years. Now with Truman, he left in ’52, and this was the late ’50s. With Kennedy, it was always Camelot. He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis brilliantly, but Camelot and everything that Jackie did colored it. He handled the Bay of Pigs badly, though, and was roundly criticized for that. For years, you don’t know until you stand back and look. Eisenhower, you hear a lot, with the military, he wouldn’t let us go into Dien Bien Phu and rescue the French. He made the French and the Israelis retreat in Egypt. He said that was wrong. He brought his military background and knowledge of foreign affairs. Everybody thought this was such a quiet, dull time, and everybody looks back. He’s gone way up—way, way up in the rankings of historians for what he did not do. So you don’t know. You don’t know about Bush. You’ve got a pretty idea about Bush and Iraq because so much has happened immediately that you know that that was a big “boo-boo.”
President Dwight Eisenhower with Val Lauder at a press conference she organized for him in 1947. According to Lauder, Eisenhower
is appreciated by historians for “what he did not do” as president. (Photo courtesy of Val Lauder.)
CL: I know that you’ve just said that you need to let time go before you really judge events as history. As a copy girl at The Chicago Daily, though, do you remember seeing something and just thinking that that was going be historic, that that was going to be big?
VL: Oh, Roosevelt’s death. I had just turned 19. I remembered no other president but Roosevelt, because he was in there 13 years. I remember that the telegraph editor had a “candlestick” phone on the far side of his desk that was a direct line to the Associated Press. I had noticed that it had rung, and he pulled it over with the funny bell-shaped handle that you put to your ear. A bit later, he shoved the phone back and he said, “Roosevelt is dead.” And it—it’s like 9/11 or the assassination of Kennedy. You couldn’t grasp it, and I remember the editor to my left said, “Clear the decks for action.” Somebody said they wondered what kind of president Truman would make, and Hal O’Flaherty, the foreign editor, said, “If there’s anything to the American system, the man will rise to the office.” And that he did. But nobody knew.
Lauder interviewed Frank Sinatra at a press party in Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel to promote the release of his latest film. Sinatra was notoriously hostile to the press, but Lauder was an exception: “Old Blue Eyes” penned a guest column for Lauder later that year, typing it on the plane ride to a benefit concert at Chicago Stadium, where Lauder picked it up after his performance. (Photo courtesy of Val Lauder.)
CL: You left The Chicago Daily in 1952. Did you ever think of leaving journalism altogether and pursuing something else?
VL: I don’t know that I thought about it that way. It was political. It was not my decision. The managing editor’s mistress wanted my job (laughter). So there you go. I was like a second daughter to him, but you know, who’s going to win out? He did have a guilty conscience, but I was pushed out. Clem Lane found me, and I lectured for two or three years, but I was always writing, doing freelance. That was instinctive, to write. I never worked for another newspaper. One time in the summer when I was somewhere, I sort of wrote a column for a local newspaper, but I never really worked for another newspaper. I didn’t apply to the School of Journalism down here because I had not completed my undergraduate degree and didn’t think there’d be a place. Then it worked out. I was a lecturer, and I was never full-time, but I found my niche here.
CL: These days, there’s more distrust toward the media because we have so many alternative sources of information. What do you say in response to that?
VL: Well, it depends on what journalism. The New York Times and The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the basic, major city newspapers can be trusted. They’re doing the same job. And the local papers are flourishing, the community papers. They stay in the family, and the family stays involved in the community. But the big papers, as you get to the third generation, they don’t care. The New York Times can make a mistake, but they correct it. I think you can trust them, and if you tell me not to trust them, I’m not going to trust you, because I’m wondering what you’ve got to hide.
CL: Is there anything else you would like to share about your career?
VL: It was so much fun. I received a blurb from someone at The Washington Post—it’s on the back of my book—and he said it reminded him that it was so much damn fun. The only two people I encountered at The News who did not have a sense of humor were miserable and made about everyone around them as miserable as they could. Everybody else had a great sense of humor, and of course you had witty remarks, and I think that’s important because it’s a sense of perspective. Sense of humor is basically a sense of perspective.
I remember one time I would go out and speak in Chicago, and I was speaking to a group of high school girls on a Saturday at one of the department stores about my career and experiences. When it was over one of the girls asked, “Is it important to have a sense of humor in the newspaper business?” It was one of the two answers I gave immediately and could never improve on. I said, “Honey, you can’t afford to be without one.” And then I said, “A sense of humor is like the springs on a car: it absorbs the shocks and softens the bumps.” And they had that, because whatever came in, they had to deal with, and you kept your equilibrium.