Marie Manning: The Original Dear Abby

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Julianna Brion

Marie Manning wanted to report on crimes. Instead, she did something revolutionary: She invented the advice column.

Marie Manning had all the polish of a young woman fresh out of finishing school. She was rigorously educated in parlor music, embroidery, and the right kind of chitchat. Her name regularly appeared on the social register at Washington, D.C.’s debutante parties. And though the nearly six-foot-tall beanpole was 20 and unmarried, it wasn’t a husband she dreamed of. She wanted to be a journalist.

CRIME DOESN'T PAY

In school, her newshound tendencies nearly got her expelled. While enrolled at one of the city’s most prestigious girls' academies, Manning was caught red-handed smuggling a New York Herald onto campus. The headline, revealing the gruesome details of a dockside prostitute’s murder, betrayed her passion for true crime. Reading the paper was grounds for expulsion, but Manning got lucky and was only slapped with a warning.

Shocking headlines were still on her mind years later during a dinner party. When Manning realized she was seated next to Arthur Brisbane, editor of New York World, she seized the opportunity. At their next meeting, this time in New York, Brisbane invited Manning to work “on space.” If her stories ran, she’d get paid.

It was everything a young reporter could hope for: the license to take a magnifying glass to society and chase the untold story. What she never dreamed, however, was that within a few years, she’d launch the advice column—a phenomenon that would not only become a national obsession, but would live on through the Internet age. As Manning later wrote, “The idea of relief through confession is, of course, old as time.” But relief through confession was only part of the attraction—the column was addictive, providing an unusual blend of comfort, counsel, voyeurism, and schadenfreude. The nation could take solace in the problems, cheer on the advice-giver for dishing out common sense, or simply enjoy the view into a neighbor’s not-so-perfect life. But before Manning could revolutionize the newspaper, she had to prove she had a reporter’s chops. It was 1892, and the glass ceiling loomed low.

The Big Break

Julianna Brion

Manning's editor took advantage of her inexperience from the start. For her first big assignment, he sent her to former president Grover Cleveland’s home to get a speculative quote about war with Spain, hoping a green reporter might succeed where the more experienced had failed. As Manning wrote in her autobiography, the question was “distinctly unsportsmanlike.”

Unsure of what to do at Cleveland’s door, she gave the servant her personal calling card. To her surprise, Cleveland charged out to greet her, “his face alight with a charming smile.” His demeanor changed when he realized that Manning wasn’t the daughter of his former secretary of the treasury, who happened to share the same name. Still, Manning charmed the former president. When she told him that reporters who didn’t bring back the story were fired or sometimes “boiled alive in oil,” compassion won the day. Cleveland not only gave Manning the quote, but also a pencil, when hers surfaced with a broken tip.

Landing a statement from the former president was a stunning achievement, especially for a new reporter. She was immediately offered a position on staff at $30 a week. More importantly, Joseph Pulitzer, the paper’s owner, recognized the feat—he sent Manning $50 in gold as thanks and congratulations for her work.

The Birth of Beatrice Fairfax

In 1898, when Arthur Brisbane was lured away from the faltering World to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, Manning followed. But Hearst’s city room was no place for a lady. Manning and the paper’s other two female reporters were relegated to a small office called the Hen Coop. From there, they put together the “women’s page,” pondering important questions such as whether women should wear rainy-day skirts, which were, as Manning wrote “(oh, shocking!) four inches from the pavement.” To her immense frustration, she was sent on assignments to ask prominent women pink-and-blue questions about their preferred flowers and where they stood on drinking cocktails. And when she covered murder trials, it was only to give the “women’s angle,” something she never understood.

Not long after Manning started at the Journal, Brisbane burst into her room waving a sheaf of letters addressed to the “People’s Forum.” The Forum was a common newspaper feature at the time, functioning as a public message board. The letters Brisbane carried didn’t quite fit: a deserted wife, with three hungry children, looking for a job; a desperate girl jilted by her lover, contemplating suicide; a woman whose son-in-law would beat her daughter if she refused to give him money. Brisbane thought they belonged on the women’s page. But when Manning suggested creating a new department dedicated to answering just these kinds of queries, Brisbane approved it immediately. He demanded that the Hen Coop come up with a pseudonym for the new feature’s author by the next day. After a few false starts (including Vere de Vere and Biddle), Manning picked Beatrice Fairfax: “Beatrice” from Dante’s guide in The Divine Comedy and “Fairfax” from the county in Virginia where her family owned a “run-down place of sorts.” On July 20, 1898, Manning took on her new role, and Beatrice Fairfax was launched upon a lovelorn and desperate world.

Advice for All

Julianna Brion

"If I had been ten years older," Manning recalled, “I might have hesitated at the Frankensteinian monster I was invoking. But twenty is a fearless age.” Beatrice Fairfax was an instant success. Letters poured into the offices of the New York Journal by the bagful, on the order of 1,400 a day, so many that the post office refused to deliver them. Manning said later that she came to dread the sight of the porters hauling those sacks of human misery down the hall.

The queries ran the gamut: Young men wanted tips on romancing their landladies; widowers wrote Beatrice looking for women to marry them and care for their five children; girls wondered whether smoking cigarettes was ever appropriate. When it wasn’t funny, it was miserable. Victims of spousal abuse, desperate unwed mothers, and jilted lovers all crowded for column inches. Manning’s approach to all: “Dry your eyes, roll up your sleeves, and dig for a practical solution.”

Beatrice Fairfax’s impact on the business was immeasurable: Her column sent the Journal’s circulation numbers roaring past its rivals, and it inspired countless imitators. In 1905, seven years after Beatrice Fairfax was born, Manning left the paper, burned out from years of giving the “women’s angle” and getting little in the way of recognition for her work. Brisbane, she said, was “kindness itself” and invited her to come back soon, but it would be nearly a quarter of a century before she set foot in a newsroom again.

Beatrice Fairfax, meanwhile, lived on, given voice by a succession of female reporters, some better than others. In 1916, she even made the transition to film: Hearst, who was by then dabbling in movies, put up the money to make a series of Beatrice Fairfax films. In the episodes, the intrepid young Fairfax and her reporter friend solved mysteries that came in as letters to the advice column.

In 1929, Manning, now Mrs. Herman Gasch and a mother of two, suddenly found herself broke after the nation’s stock market crash. She appealed to her old boss, Brisbane, and rejoined the staff, adopting the mantle of Beatrice Fairfax once again. Not that anyone knew it—despite the millions of people who read her column in syndication, Manning remained obscured by the pseudonym. This time around, the letters were fewer. “Girls were more sophisticated,” Manning wrote. But they still needed advice. The column remained popular enough that in 1930 Beatrice Fairfax was immortalized in the lyrics of a Gershwin tune, “But Not for Me.”

Manning wrote the column until her death, in 1945, when she suffered a heart attack. Beatrice Fairfax outlived Manning by 20 years. But by then, competitors like Ann Landers and Dear Abby were already carrying the torch. Today, advice columns thrive online, with the Rumpus’s Dear Sugar and Slate.com’s Dear Prudence continuing the tradition. But while the format is the same, the content has shifted. Emily Yoffe, who’s authored the Prudence column for the last six years, has tackled problems Manning never would have dreamed of: homosexual incestuous twins, gassy office mates, a woman who found her mother-in-law breast-feeding her newborn son. “I feel lucky to be doing this,” Yoffe says. “It’s fascinating, it’s fun. What’s not to like?”

It isn’t just the letters that make the column compelling. According to Yoffe, the real key to success “is the columnist having a strong voice,” a quality Marie Manning clearly had in spades. For all the politeness and sense of place her finishing schools attempted to instill in her, Manning was never intimidated by boundaries. From knocking on the president’s door to breaking into the newsroom, she had an incredible knack for making people want to listen. So did Beatrice Fairfax.

January 18, 2013 - 4:08pm
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