Reed, Alma (1889–1966)

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Reed, Alma (1889–1966)

American journalist. Name variations: (pseudonym) Mrs. Goodfellow. Born Alma Marie Sullivan in San Francisco, California, on June 17, 1889 (she claimed 1894); died on November 20, 1966, in Mexico City, Mexico; daughter of Eugene J. Sullivan and Adelaide Frances (Murphy) Sullivan; married Samuel Payne Reed, on August 8, 1915 (divorced around 1916); no children.

Alma Reed, who was born Alma Marie Sullivan in 1889 in San Francisco, the oldest of ten children of Irish immigrants, decided at an early age that she did not want to live her life in the traditional role of wife and mother. Instead, she shocked her family by becoming a reporter at the San Francisco Call, where, because she was a woman, she was assigned to write about tales of woe under the name "Mrs. Goodfellow." Reed nonetheless succeeded in using her articles to challenge public thinking on such critical issues as capital punishment. Her influence was such that when she campaigned to prevent the state execution of Mexican prisoner Simon Ruiz, she succeeded in the face of racial prejudice and conservative opinion on the death penalty. The 17-year-old Ruiz was the first beneficiary of a law that made it illegal to hang prisoners who were under 18 years of age, and Reed became something of a celebrity. The San Francisco Bulletin lured her away from the Call with the promise of more money and her own column with her picture on it—the only staff writer to receive such recognition at the time.

Reed's role in saving Ruiz opened up the opportunity for her to go to Mexico, when President Alvaro Obregon invited her as his personal guest. Her travels there introduced her to famed muralist José Clemente Orozco, who showed her the wonders of his country and fostered her growing affection for it. When The New York Times offered her a job, she took it with the stipulation that she be assigned stories in Mexico. In 1923, while covering an archaeological team from the Carnegie Institute that was surveying the Mayan ruins in Mexico's Yucatán, Reed reported on the thefts from the ruins of irreplaceable artifacts which were subsequently smuggled to Boston's Peabody Museum. Working on this story sparked her own passion for archaeology, which would later take her to the excavation of Carthage in North Africa and the exploration of Cozumel, the Mayan equivalent of Jerusalem. Other famous expeditions included her search for the mythological River Styx and an attempt to locate the fabled lost continent of Atlantis. For this search, she set a record for deep-sea diving when she plunged 500 feet below the surface. The New York Times would later call her "the only archaeological reporter in the world."

Reed had briefly married Samuel Payne Reed in 1915, but the couple divorced a year later when it became apparent that he was having an affair. During her first assignment in Mexico, Reed met and fell in love with Felipe Carrillo Puerto, governor of Yucátan, who has been called "the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico" for his efforts to liberate the Indian slaves and improve the quality of life in Yucatán. Although Felipe was married at the time, he created a law legalizing divorce so he could leave his wife for Reed. Political unrest in Mexico, however, resulted in his assassination shortly before their planned marriage in 1924. His death affected Reed deeply, and she never had another relationship that equaled the intensity and commitment of their love affair.

In 1928, Reed set up a dazzling salon in Greenwich Village where American and foreign intellectuals and artists gathered, often to discuss world peace. One of these was her old friend from Mexico, José Orozco, now an impoverished artist living in New York City. Orozco was in need of a benefactor to champion his work. Reed stepped in, and the following year they set up a gallery to show his murals and the work of other Mexican and American artists. However, the gallery foundered, and Reed was forced to return to journalism in order to pay the bills. She worked as an art editor for the Mobile Press Register of Mobile, Alabama, and also promoted cultural events in a weekly radio program.

In 1950, Reed returned to Mexico to work at the English-language Mexico City News. In 1961, she was the recipient of the Royal Order of Benefactions, a high order of Greece, and the Aztec Eagle, the highest decoration the Mexican government can bestow on a foreigner. The latter commemorated her nearly 40 years of writing about Mexican culture. In 1966, she published Ancient Past of Mexico, and embarked on a book tour.

Reed died unexpectedly in Mexico City on November 20, 1966, in the midst of a routine operation to remove an intestinal obstruction. Suspicious and grieving friends demanded an autopsy, and the "obstruction" turned out to be an occlusion caused by advanced cancer of the colon. Her body was cremated, and three days later a memorial service was held. Because Reed was a heroine in Mexico, celebrated as "La Peregrina" (the Pilgrim) in a well-known folk song, long-held customs were overlooked so her ashes could be laid to rest beside Felipe Carrillo Puerto. The first full-length biography of Reed, Passionate Pilgrim: The Extraordinary Life of Alma Reed, was published by Antoinette May in 1993.


Belles Lettres. Fall 1993, p. 40.

Library Journal. April 1, 1993, p. 100.

May, Antoinette. Passionate Pilgrim: The Extraordinary Life of Alma Reed. NY: Paragon House, 1993.

Publishers Weekly. February 22, 1993.

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan