Words to Grow On
Adela Rogers St. Johns recalls a simple phrase uttered by the sister of the Wright Brothers that cemented St. Johns' future.
Let’s go back 70 years or so and I’ll show you what it was like being a “girl reporter.”
My father, a famous criminal lawyer, is far ahead of his time in believing girls must be able to earn a living. We are sitting in his study looking into my future and he asks me about my all too vivid imagination. “Is this the mark of a writer?”
A writer! Oh, yes, I say to myself.
“You know,” he continues, “Dickens started out as a reporter, and Kipling went to India for a newspaper.”
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I interrupt sadly, “Oh, Papa, girls can’t work on newspapers.”
“A few do,” he says. “More will. Women are a gold mine of talent.”
His friend, publisher William Randolph Hearst, agrees, and there I am, barely 18, in the all-male city room of the Los Angeles Herald. Where city editor J. B. T. Campbell regards a newspaperwoman as a contradiction in terms.
The pace he sets for me—chasing fire engines, riding ambulances, viewing corpses, covering murders—makes me long for Grandma’s kitchen. The newspapermen are betting on how long I'll last.
Nobody’s on my team and I’m scared all the time—of deadlines, of having to write so fast. I want to be a reporter, I believe I can grow into a writer, I pray to God that I can be both—but Campbell has almost won.
Then, I interview the sister of the Wright brothers who have invented the airplane. And Katherine tells of the heartbreaking years when they were ridiculed in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio.
Simple bicycle mechanics, these “boys” over 30 spent their days messing with kites, gliders, an engine all smoke and noise. College professors had proved positively that men would never fly, yet Wilbur and Orville kept revising and retesting this “flying machine” that couldn’t work. Their sister says to me simply, “And then, one day, it flew.”
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Those words went back to the city room with me. They kept me from quitting then—or ever. Eventually came my first scoop, my first by-line, my first short story, my first book.
In each pioneer endeavor I met challenges. We all do, whether aiming at the moon, or building a better mousetrap, or attempting a difficult recipe or dress pattern. I’ve had disappointments. Stories rejected, souffles that fell flat.
But with each failure I've been able to chuckle a little, knowing that eventually, with patience and prayer, I could look back and say, “And then, one day, it flew!”