Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Charlotte Curtis, journalist

Charlotte Curtis learned her debating skills at the dinner table in Bexley. She was always expected by her parents to be a sharp observer of life and life’s issues. After graduating from Columbus School for Girls and then Vassar, Charlotte took a job at the Columbus Citizen.

For the demure-looking Charlotte, the cynicism and roughness of her colleagues on the paper was invigorating. She honed her writing skills as a reporter and as the society editor. She quickly changed the women’s page writing into incisive and often humorous coverage, sometimes to the dismay of her subjects.

I remember Charlotte as a friend of my parents both in Columbus and later when we would visit New York. She was always perfectly fashionable and the center of attention in the room. I imagined, as a gawky child, that I could never emulate her impeccable style. I was right.

Don Weaver, editor of the Citizen saw that Charlotte had great talent and gave her free reign. Her talent took her on to the New York Times in 1962, after eleven years at the Citizen. She stayed at the Times for twenty-five years, where she was to transform social reporting into social commentary. She was one of the few journalists who became as famous as the socialites about whom she was reporting. She was the first woman on the masthead of the Times as a senior editor.

Of course, the heady years of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s gave the writing its quirky flavor. Her now-famous coverage of the Truman Capote masked ball (1966) and the Leonard Bernstein-hosted fundraiser for the Black Panthers (1970) caused commentary and brouhaha, which Charlotte in true nonplused manner could not understand. She was just reporting the way she saw it.

Charlotte did get in deep with the women’s movement, as the struggles with the new term “Ms.,” was the tip of the iceberg as the new ways of thinking clashed with the old ways of reporting women’s issues. The launching of the op-ed page in 1970, a forum of public opinion that would appear opposite the paper’s editorial page, reflected the need for a new kind of news. Charlotte moved from the editorship of the family/style section to the editorship of the op-ed in 1974.

Harrison Salisbury, the prior editor, said of her: “She could capture a character in a few phrases….She had the quickest eye of any reporter I’ve seen. She was a walking encyclopedia of names, people, places.” Charlotte Curtis’s new position elevated her into being one of the most influential women in the country.

The flavor of the op-ed page went from being a forum for government types and “experts” to incorporating Charlotte’s wide knowledge of the nuances of culture and class systems. As her new position dictated, she attended the high-powered luncheons where publishers and editors met with top cultural, political, and literary figures.

Her job as editor freed her to write for other publications such as Harper’s and Rolling Stone. She also published a book of some of her articles called The Rich and Other Atrocities (Harper and Row, 1976).

Charlotte Curtis never neglected her home town of Columbus, returning often and keeping a condominium here. She and Les Wexner became friends and she approved of the direction he gave to Columbus. Charlotte Curtis died of cancer in 1987.

Christine Hayes

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