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Honoring a Friend, Recalling a Battle for Women in Journalism

As newspapers suffer hard times, the alumnae of a classic battle at the New York Times paid tribute to their chronicler.

Friends of Nan Robertson, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author who died in Washington in October, held a modest memorial gathering for her in New York earlier this week.

The event clearly demonstrated the great regard in which Nan was held, as a journalist, friend and mentor and as a formidable woman who defied death at least twice, perhaps three times. But it inevitably brought to the forefront again Nan’s 1992 book, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and The New York Times. The core of her book is a sex discrimination lawsuit against the New York Times that went into federal court 35 years ago, in November 1974, and, as the clichéd shot goes, was settled on the steps in Foley Square on October 5, 1978.

That’s a while ago, indeed, almost two generations. But we were again in the Times Building, albeit a new one; old angers can revive startlingly and the urge to revise history is ever with us. The present difficulties of the Times made it a clumsy moment to meet there; some of those who attended were among the 75 who had taken buyouts and left the paper only five days before. They were sad and glad to see old colleagues while honoring Nan.

Grace Glueck, the art reviewer, like me a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, organized the event. She and I had been peppered with calls since Nan’s death on October 13, and after many unrewarding exchanges with the Times management, it was clear we would have to do it ourselves. Grace bowed to the price asked by Restaurant Associates, operator of the Times cafeteria. The Times management agreed to help out some. In return for the fee, we got space for a couple of hours and wine and hors d’oeuvre for 25 people. So invitations were issued to a small list. Forty-five showed up.

Grace and I, and Andrea Skinner, the children’s fashion expert of yore, and Nancy Davis, who had represented the classified ad department in the lawsuit, were there. We are the four survivors of the seven named plaintiffs in the case. Louise Carini, a staff accountant; Joan Cook, a reporter, and Eileen Shanahan, a fiscal whiz and Washington bureau correspondent, have died.

The lawyer in our suit (74 CIV. 4891), Harriet Rabb, now general counsel at Rockefeller University, at the last minute couldn’t make it. Rabb was a friend of Nan’s long after the suit, when Nan was living in Washington, as a widow and then with her third husband. A large memorial was held there for her; Nina Totenberg of NPR and Russell Baker, Nan’s fellow Pulitzer laureate, were among those who spoke.

Our gathering was just old friends and people from the book, but no one representing the current Times administration.

Several members of “the Class of 1978” were there. These were women of star quality hired from other publications in the late 70s as the lawsuit dragged on and the Times searched for women to hire and promote who were not inside agitators.

Some in this group were recruited as executives, including Nancy Newhouse, who spoke. Hired from New York magazine in 1977, she was Nan’s editor in the Style department. “She didn’t really need an editor,” Newhouse said at the memorial, “just someone to give her assignments.” She described the wide impact of Nan’s profiles, including one that brought a call from London from an astonished figure listed in Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage.

We in the women’s caucus had trembled for the new women executives: Imagine being thrown into such a Byzantium with no list of the players. And indeed, we heard that they daily had to dig out from blizzards of particularly harsh memos from the top editor, Abe Rosenthal. Several of them are quoted at length in Nan’s book, but they are all anonymous. It’s too bad, but that’s how bargains are kept.

Max Frankel, one-time Washington bureau chief and later executive editor, was there with his wife, Joyce Purnick, former City Hall bureau chief. Frankel rose to speak of a plot he got Nan to agree to when she was shop steward in the Washington bureau. This was to permit news clerks, at a lower salary scale, to report stories in violation of the Newspaper Guild contract. While Max praised Nan’s deed before an audience that included me, twice elected president of Guild Local 3, I thought about Nan’s paragraph in her book wondering if Max would ever understand women in his gut.

Leslie Bennetts, class of ’78, who departed in frustration for Vanity Fair a decade later, was in full voice. She thanked the women who organized the lawsuit, but said the work of seeking equity was far from complete, citing chapters and verses of the current employment situation for women.

At the close, in classical style, the photographer Sara Krulwich passed a shopping bag and the crowd dropped in bills that covered almost exactly what we owed.

As somebody said, a long time ago: Don’t mourn for me, organize.

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