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Black, Winifred Sweet (1863–1936)

Black, Winifred Sweet (1863–1936)

American journalist whose versatile reporting helped build William Randolph Hearst's newspaper empire. Name variations: Winifred Black Bonfils; (pseudonym) Annie Laurie. Born Winifred Sweet on October 14, 1863, in Chilton, Wisconsin; died on May 25, 1936, in San Francisco, California; daughter and fourth of five children of Benjamin Jeffrey (an attorney) and Lovisa Loveland (Denslow) Sweet; attended private schools in Chicago and Lake Forest, Illinois, and Northampton, Massachusetts; married Orlow Black, in June 1892 (divorced 1897); married Charles A. Bonfils (separated, 1909); children: (first marriage) one son (died in a childhood drowning accident); (second marriage) one daughter; one son (who died in childhood).

The life of turn-of-the-century journalist Winifred Sweet Black, who wrote under the pen name "Annie Laurie," was as colorful as her exposés. During the era that ushered in yellow journalism, Black made her mark in the daredevil style of Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Seaman ), often risking her life, or engaging in elaborate stunts, to get a scoop. Though her stories—filled with anecdotes, flowery descriptions, heart-wrenching quotes, and repetitious phrases—would be considered "soft" by later standards, in a career that spanned 50 years she helped build a newspaper empire for William Randolph Hearst and proved to be one of the most versatile journalists of her time.

With her good looks and lively spirit, Black started out in the theatre, playing bits and secondary roles for the Black Crook touring company. She had grown up on a farm in the Chicago area but fell in love with San Francisco on a family trip west in 1890. Ready to try her hand at journalism, she charmed herself into a job with the San Francisco Examiner. Her first assignment, a local flower show, proved a humbling experience. Black submitted her story, waited with great anticipation to see it in print, and was dismayed to find it rewritten: "I could see at a glance that the two or three opening paragraphs told everything that was important about the flower show—where it was, who was giving it, who offered the prizes, who won them—and I had never given a thought to one of these good plain facts."

Black next went to work on her first exposé, addressing the questionable treatment of women in the city hospital's emergency room. In an elaborate stunt, Black dressed herself in threadbare clothes and fainted in front of a carriage. After being prodded with a club by the police, she was placed on the hard, wooden floor of a horse-drawn carriage for the trip to the hospital. There, she was subjected to lewd remarks by the attendants and released after treatment with an emetic of mustard and hot water. When her sensational narrative hit the street 36 hours later, it not only established Black as a journalist but resulted in the dismissal of some hospital personnel and the establishment of a regular ambulance service.

The undercover story soon became a Hearst trademark, with Black engaged in a series of fascinating assignments, covering the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, polygamy among the Mormons in Utah, and an investigation of the juvenile court system in Chicago. She became the first woman to report a prize fight and the second to interview a president. The first was Anne Royall , in the 1830s, who reputedly cornered John Quincy Adams as he was swimming naked in the Potomac and sat on his clothes until he gave her an interview. In 1892, Black cornered Benjamin Harrison on his campaign train, after she had been smuggled on board by Governor Henry Markham of California and hidden under a dining-car table which was covered by a larger-than-usual white table cloth. When the president entered and sat down, she popped out with pen and pad.

Black became known for her emotional approach to reporting, perhaps best demonstrated in her articles about children or the downtrodden. A 1935 story, concerning a little girl who runs away from home, falls asleep on the road, and is run over, ends with Black's heart-tugging plea to her readers not to grieve for the child: "Even if she did not find the Lake of Swans or the Road to Camelot, she had the grace and the understanding to look for them and that is something in itself, isn't it?"

Black often borrowed freely from Lewis Carroll, one of her favorite authors. The people about whom she sometimes reported had "sentimental chins" or "grinned in fiendish triumph." She was frequently playful with words, often picking out a particular sound or expression and sprinkling it through a piece. "Tut, tut," was a favorite, as well as the colorful "oof," such as in "Oof, what a relief!" Finally, it has been said that she had a particular talent for overkill, as evidenced in the epitaph "Woman's suffrage is a failure. A dead failure."

In 1895, Hearst took Black east with him to launch the New York Journal, but she disliked the city and left after two years to join the lively Denver Post. She continued to write for Hearst, however, and through him got her most important assignments, including the September 1900 tidal wave that struck Galveston, Texas. Disguised as a boy, Black slipped through police lines to become the first reporter to file an eyewitness account of the disaster that took 7,000 lives. While covering the tragedy, she opened a temporary hospital in the city and administered relief funds collected through the Hearst papers.

On April 16, 1906, in response to a one-word telegram from Hearst that said simply "Go," Black left Denver to cover the earthquake-ravaged city of San Francisco. The following year, she covered the trial of playboy Harry K. Thaw, who was charged with the 1906 murder of architect Sanford White but was acquitted with an insanity verdict. In the course of the trial, Black—along with a battalion of female feature writers including Dorothy Dix, Nixola Greeley-Smith , and Ada Patterson —created such gushing sympathy for Thaw's wife and star witness Evelyn Nesbit that Irvin S. Cobb of the World coined the epithet "sob sister" in his column. (Cobb, a talented wordsmith, also popularized the terms "innocent bystander" and "stuffed shirt.") Unfortunately, "sob sister" became widely used to describe all women reporters, and, much to Black's chagrin, she was called "the first and greatest sob sister of them all."

Winifred Black's personal life was marked by two unhappy marriages. Her first marriage to Examiner colleague Orlow Black lasted five years and produced a son who died in a childhood swimming accident. In 1901, she had married Charles Alden Bonfils, brother of the copublisher of the Denver Post. They had two children, a son, who also died in childhood, and a daughter. Although Black remained married to Bonfils until her death, they were often separated by work, but more often by choice.

Black covered World War I and the Versailles peace conference in Europe for the Denver Post. Writing under the byline Winifred Black, she changed her style to accommodate the unlimited space she was allotted for her feature articles. Although her work at the Post is thought to provide an interesting anecdotal history of the time, some assert that the writing style lacks the drama of her work for Hearst. Black would also turn out two commercially published books: Dope: The Story of the Living Dead (1928), based on her anti-narcotic campaigns, and The Little Boy Who Lived on the Hill, about her eldest son's drowning. She would compile two books of reprints of her columns, and a privately-printed volume on the life of Hearst's mother Phoebe Apperson Hearst , done at Hearst's request after his mother's death in 1919. The Hearst historians were less than gracious about the biography, labeling it "inaccurate" and "the work of a sob sister in a hurry."

Regardless of her travels, Black remained devoted to San Francisco. Often using her column in the Examiner to mobilize public support, she saved the street-corner flower stands and stopped demolition of the Palace of Fine Arts (built for the Exposition of 1915). In one of her more ambitious undertakings, she raised funds for the "Little Jim" ward at Children's hospital; the ward was dedicated to a sickly child born in the city's prison hospital who was turned away from Children's Hospital because he was incurable. Black's Christmas edition of the Examiner raised $10,000 toward the project. Jim was the first patient on the new wing.

Nearly blind and confined to bed with diabetes, she continued to work well into her '70s, dictating some nine articles a week for Hearst, whom she called "The Chief." Upon her death in 1936, the mayor of San Francisco ordered her body to lie in state at City Hall. Thousands filed past in tribute, while the Examiner carried stories about her on the front page for three days.

In her final interview, for Time magazine, Black expressed her love of the newspaper business and respect for her colleagues. "I'm proud of being, in a very humble way, a member of the good old newspaper gang—the kindest-hearted, quickest-witted, clearest-eyed, most courageous assemblage of people I have ever had the honor and the good fortune to know."

sources:

Belford, Barbara. Brilliant Bylines. NY: Columbia University Press, 1986.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Read, Phyllis J. and Bernard L. Witlieb, ed. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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