Elsie Robinson was not simply one of the 20th century’s most prominent women journalists: “I am not a columnist. I am a factory,” Robinson wrote to her editor at Hearst. “You’ve not been getting a feature. You have been getting mass production for nearly 20 years.” From creating the Oakland Tribune’s first children’s section to penning relationship advice articles to becoming Hearst’s highest paid newswoman wither her “Listen, World!” column, Robinson wrote thousands of pieces over the course of her career. A new book by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert, “Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman,” chronicles Robinson’s storied tenure in the field.
The following excerpt comes from Chapter 11, which details Robinson’s start writing children’s and parent columns at the Oakland Tribune — all while deconstructing gender norms in the process:
Her success kept growing. Her columns were passed from child to child, and Aunt Elsie clubs, sponsored by the Tribune, formed across Northern California with thousands of members. At one point, there were chartered Aunt Elsie clubs in sixty-five towns—ranging from Redding, 20 miles to the north of Oakland, to Monterey, 120 miles to the south, to Nevada City, 140 miles to the east—covering territory far larger than the Tribune’s distribution.
Children received membership cards that entitled bearers to “ALL THE GOOD TIMES AND PRIVILEGES” of the club and proudly wore membership pins featuring an enamel red heart against a white background with the words “Aunt Elsie Club Member” around it. Club members organized parades for which they built ornate floats and wore costumes indicating their favorite section of the magazine—the “Witches’ Cave” (for girls) or “Pirates’ Den” (for boys). They competed in drawing and short story writing contests for the chance to have their work published in the paper.
The Tribune began to host Aunt Elsie parties in an assembly hall on the top floor of the Tribune Building and stage variety shows at local venues. These events were so popular that the Oakland Police Department dispatched officers for crowd control.
“One, two, three, four blocks of kiddies! Count ’em! Stretching clear around the American Theater block, everyone grinning, waiting in the sunshine for the show to begin,” ran a feature about one such event in the Oakland Tribune on April 9, 1922. The price of admission was a “cheerful smile,” and entertainment included song-and-dance revues by the Tribune Juveniles performance troupe, screenings of (silent) movies—and, of course, heavily applauded appearances by the lady of the hour herself.
Aunt Elsie’s tremendous success even triggered a blatant rip-off: On July 2, the San Francisco Chronicle launched “The Chronicle’s Kiddies’ Corner” featuring “Aunt Dolly.” Children were invited to write letters to Aunt Dolly, join the Chronicle Kiddies’ Club, and submit their own stories for possible inclusion in the paper. The column’s introductory message contained familiar hype: “Aunt Dolly will arrange theater parties for her Chronicle Kiddies’ Club—when they’ll see new films and plays and leading playhouses—absolutely free.”
As Elsie’s fame shot up among the school-age set, parents began to read the comforting words she offered their children, and before long, they also began to write to Elsie, seeking advice for their own quandaries.
Bored, bewildered, often embittered by the chaotic times, Mother and Dad wanted to talk things over with somebody in the know. … The unconventional style of the Aunt Elise work put them at ease. So Mother and Dad began writing in, asking what, why and wither.
The Tribune, seeing an opportunity to expand its circulation, assigned Elsie a homemaking column called “Curtains, Collars, and Cutlets: Cheer-Up Column.” The section ran with her own name as the byline, “Elsie Robinson.” Before long, the title was shortened to “Cheer-Up” and the scope expanded to attract male readers. She’d often add her own illustrations, signing them “ERC” or “ER.”
In 1920, she began writing a second adult column, “Cry on Geraldine’s Shoulder”—with Elsie as “Geraldine”—which focused on relationship problems.
Is your one wife too many? She asked in an announcement for the new column. Is your husband or your complexion growing dull? Let us then discuss the value of soft soap on complexions—and husbands. … We shall sit together on the edge of the world. You have wanted a friend. I’M IT.
When Elsie landed in the news business, she did so by building on the fame and success of women writers who preceded her. This included stunt reporter Nellie Bly, who in the late 1880s wrote accounts of her voluntary confinement in one of New York’s most notorious insane asylums and her effort to beat the globe-trotting record of Phileas Fogg, the fictional hero of author Jules Verne’s book, Around the World in 80 Days (she did it in seventy-two). Around 1900, newspaper editors began to hire female reporters to write human interest stories, believing women wrote more “emotional” copy than men—noting such details as, say, the tears in a widow’s eyes or her trembling hand. Subsequently described as “sob sisters,” the highly sentimental writing style of these reporters went out of vogue by the 1910s—yet these journalists paved the way for future generations of newswomen like Elsie.
Elsie knew, however, that she had to work even harder than her male counterparts to make it, and she rarely turned down Levy’s requests for more copy.
For those first two years I did not know Sunday from week day, holiday from working day. I worked every night until 2 A.M. Then I slept, on a couch beside my table, until 6:30. For two hours, I cooked, cleaned house, helped son off to school if he was able to go. By 9 A.M., I was at it again.
Although she tired under the strain, she kept her head down and did whatever task Levy assigned her, elated to have such steady and satisfying work. Decades later, when her readers suggested a mother’s only job should be raising her children, she pushed back.
Of your mother, “Do you think she would have been a wiser guide if she had taken a more active part in the outside world? Could you have confided in her more easily— trusted her judgment more certainly if her own career had been wider and more colorful? Or would you keep her just as she was, never changing a hair of that dear, devoted head?”
Excerpted from Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert. Copyright © 2022. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.