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Reid, Helen Rogers (1882–1970)

Reid, Helen Rogers (1882–1970)

American publisher who, for many years, was the dominant figure of one of the ten best newspapers of the world. Name variations: Mrs. Ogden Mills Reid. Born Helen Miles Rogers on November 23, 1882, in Appleton, Wisconsin; died at her home in New York City on July 27, 1970; daughter of Benjamin Talbot Rogers (a hotel operator) and Sarah Louise (Johnson) Rogers; attended Grafton Hall, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; Barnard College, A.B., 1903; married Ogden Mills Reid (editor of the New York Herald Tribune ), on March 14, 1911; children: Whitelaw Reid (a newspaper executive); Elisabeth Reid (1916–1924); Ogden Rogers Reid (a newspaper executive).

As advertising director, joined staff of New York Tribune (1918), which became New York Herald Tribune (1924); served as vice president (1922–47); chosen president (1947–52); designated board chair (1953–68).

Even before World War I, it had become obvious that the New York Tribune was in trouble. By 1900 "the old lady of Park Row"—as it was called—had ceased earning a profit; by 1912, it was a million dollars in debt. From 1872 to 1912, the Tribune had been owned by millionaire Whitelaw Reid, but Reid was so involved with major diplomatic activity in Paris and London that he had starved his own paper. When Whitelaw died in 1912, the paper became the property of his widow Elisabeth Mills Reid . A year later, their son Ogden Mills Reid assumed the editorship. Ogden tried to recover the Tribune's status by certain innovations: livelier news coverage, larger headlines, a more attractive typeset, bylines for enterprising reporters, a Sunday comic section, and a galaxy of first-rate journalists, including sportswriter Grantland Rice, humorist Robert Benchley, and columnists Franklin Pierce Adams and Heywood Broun. The Tribune, however, still remained in the red.

In 1920, a marked change had occurred. Gross revenues had increased two-and-a-half fold. Eight years later, the paper had turned a profit. In large measure, the Tribune's good fortune was due to a small, fragile-looking woman who, until the age of 36, had no real contact with the newspaper world. In the fall of 1918, Ogden entreated his wife, "The Tribune needs you; Come on down to the office, and work the paper's success out with me." Writes the newspaper's most thorough historian, Richard Kluger, "She stayed thirty-seven years, and, for better or worse, became its driving spirit."

Helen Reid started out as an advertising solicitor, not even holding an office in the Tribune building. Within two months, however, she became director of the entire advertising department. Her first target was New York's department stores, where her obvious social connections gave her direct access to the owners of Wanamaker's, Macy's, and Gimbel's. Journeying to Detroit, she met personally with automobile manufacturers, followed by a trip to Chicago to confer face-to-face with leading meat packers. Eventually, major advertisers would be invited to lunch in the paper's private dining room, where they would find themselves flattered by mixing with actors, authors, and invariably some of the paper's advertising executives. Driving herself as hard as the lowliest solicitor, she would ask her staff: "What miracles today?"

In 1922, the advertising director was made a vice-president, in which capacity she, more than any other single individual, turned the paper into the second-best daily in the United States, one that in many areas even outdid its arch-rival, The New York Times. By 1944, people were saying of Helen Rogers Reid what Disraeli said of Queen Victoria : "She's not a woman; she's an institution."

On November 22, 1882, Helen Reid was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. Her father Benjamin Talbot Rogers was a failed hotel operator who died when she was three. Her mother Louise Johnson Rogers had given birth to 11 children, some of whom still had to be raised. Nonetheless Helen, the last child in the family, had a happy youth. She attended public school in Appleton until the age of ten, when she was sent to Grafton Hall, an Episcopal school for girls in Fond du Lac. One of her older brothers was the headmaster, and Helen, a scholarship student, earned her keep by tutoring.

In 1899, Helen enrolled in Barnard College, where she was an active student, managing plays, singing in the chorus, turning a profit for the yearbook, and volunteering at New York City's Henry Street Settlement. Again compelled to provide her own tuition, she tutored, helped staff the bursar's office, and served as assistant housekeeper in a dormitory. Originally aiming to be a Latin teacher, she found herself enchanted by zoology. Later, writing for the Barnard alumni magazine, she would tell of courses where "the love life of an earthworm became beautiful and exciting" and "the nervous system of the dogfish integrated the history of the world into a rational pattern."

Graduating from Barnard in 1903, Helen Rogers became social secretary to Elisabeth Mills Reid, daughter of California financier Darius Ogden Mills and wife of Tribune publisher Whitelaw Reid. Rogers proved herself tactful, adept, and above all extremely competent, making herself indispensable to Elisabeth in both America and Britain, where from 1905 until his death in 1912, Whitelaw was ambassador to the Court of St. James. According to legend, Helen memorized the entire Social Register in New York and mastered Burke's Peerage and Landed Gentry in London.

Although briefly engaged in 1910 to a budding lawyer, with whom she was not really in love, Helen gained the attention of the Reids' only son, Ogden Mills Reid. A Yale graduate, Ogden was serving his apprenticeship on the Tribune staff, beginning as a reporter, then working on the copy, city, rewrite, and night desks. Although he had some innovative ideas for revitalizing the paper, his first love was sports, yachting among them. Helen found the handsome, easygoing Ogden at times charming, at times irresponsible, but eventually succumbed to his marriage proposals. At first, both of Ogden's parents frowned upon the union, doing so on the grounds that Helen came from far more modest means. Elisabeth, however, eventually saw the orderly, responsible Helen as Ogden's ideal mate. When, in March 1911, the couple was married, the senior Reids arrived in Appleton in their own railroad car.

For their first seven years of marriage, Reid was the ideal society wife. She served as a gracious hostess; mastered such sports as swimming, tennis, and yachting; and—during World War I—converted the Reid mansion in Purchase, New York, into a working farm producing dairy products. She started to raise two children: Whitelaw ("Whitey"), born in 1913, and Elisabeth ("Betty"), born in 1916.

Reid, Elisabeth Mills (1858–1931)

American philanthropist. Born in New York City on January 6, 1858; died while staying at her daughter's villa in Cap Ferrat, Nice, France, on April 29, 1931; daughter of Darius Ogden Mills (a California financier) and Jane Templeton (Cunningham) Mills (daughter of a prominent shipowner and shipbuilder); her brother Ogden Mills was the father of Ogden L. Mills, secretary of the treasury; educated by governesses, at Mlle Vallette's School in Paris, and at the Anna C. Brackett School in New York; married Whitelaw Reid (editor and chief owner of the New York Tribune and minister to France, 1889–92), on April 26, 1881 (died 1912); children: Ogden Mills Reid (b. 1882, a publisher); Jean Reid (who married Sir John Hubert Ward, equerry to England's Queen Alexandra of Denmark ).

During the Spanish-American War, Elisabeth Mills Reid was the acting head of the nursing division of the American Red Cross; she was also chair of the American Red Cross in London during World War II. As a philanthropist, she helped establish Dr. Trudeau's T.B. sanitarium and the D.O. Mills training school for nurses, both at Saranac Lake, New York.

In 1917, Reid took on a major civil responsibility, serving as state treasurer for New York's women's suffrage campaign. Because suffragists had written off the Empire State as hopeless, organization lagged and money was tight. Taking advantage of her social ties, Reid held small intimate luncheons for Manhattan matrons, after which she passed the fountain pen. She personally raised more than $500,000, later saying, "Winning the battle in New York in 1917 was winning the battle nationally two years later."

Joining the advertising staff of the Tribune in 1918, then becoming vice president in 1922, Helen increasingly became involved in the management side of the paper. In 1924, she was the prime impulse in resisting the takeover bid of Frank Munsey, whose reputation was that of a ruthless buccaneer. With the aid of her mother-in-law, Helen reversed the scenario, helping to arrange the Tribune's purchase of Munsey's New York Herald for $5 million. Munsey's Paris Herald, not yet reaching the distinction it later attained, was tossed into the deal. The new product, the New York Herald Tribune, was fundamentally an enlarged version of the Reids' old paper, with new additions including a radio magazine, some comics, and extensive weather information. New Yorkers would informally use the old name, the Tribune, or the more informal Trib. Now possessing a respectable circulation and an expanded news coverage, the new Herald Tribune was on its way to becoming a truly great newspaper. Moreover, by 1928, it was in the black by over $1 million.

When, in December 1924, her daughter Elisabeth died of typhoid, Helen blamed herself bitterly. For awhile, she even kept Betty's deathmask by her bedside. In June 1925, the 42-year-old Reid gave birth to another son, Ogden Rogers ("Brownie"), and was soon back at work. As one staffer put it, "She believed in the paper the way a religious person believes in God."

Dozens of her sex—notably in the entertainment field—are better known to the public at large than Helen Reid is, but few wield such power.

—Mona Gardner

Formally, the Herald Tribune was under Ogden's direction. Helen was careful never to intrude on his editorial domain. Indeed, she never wrote a story. When the couple differed, his views usually predominated in editorials, and the paper never adopted Helen's enthusiasm for prohibition. Writes historian Kluger, "As queen, she was closest to the monarch, but she was not sovereign and took pains not to pretend otherwise." Yet, behind the scenes, Reid was already emerging as the dominant figure. The more she became involved in the paper's management, the more Ogden—always something of a playboy—drank. To this day, no one knows whether he resented her ever-expanding role. By 1925, Ogden had become an alcoholic, and in 1937 he was temporarily hospitalized. Helen often had to cover for him, making excuses for his frequent absences and doing all she could to see that he did not endanger himself. Downgrading feature articles that give her first prominence, she continually referred to him as the real boss of the Herald Tribune, calling him "the most independent-minded man I ever met." By the time of World War II, however, there was little pretense that Ogden was running the paper.

Although Ogden always remained titular head, with Helen calling herself his "first mate," the press was quick to discern who was really in charge. In October 1934, a Time cover story was titled "Herald Tribune's Lady." In May 1944, the Saturday Evening Post ran a two-part series, "Queen Helen." The subheading read: "Hostess to the famous, mistress of an old fortune, a high-powered sales executive with sandpaper persistence, Mrs. Ogden Reid is one of America's remarkable women." A year and a half later, Time carried another account, "The Trib's Mrs. Reid"; it referred to her as the "tiny, self-assured vice president."

Under Reid's quiet leadership, the paper achieved genuine distinction. "The Herald Tribune was The Paper," writes journalist David Shaw, "a newspaper that became A Legend, a newspaper with the most illustrious alumni this side of Harvard University or the New York Yankees, a newspaper that became the most celebrated burial ground this side of Westminster Abbey." Though only sixth in circulation among Manhattan's nine dailies, the Herald Tribune was superior to most in the caliber of its writing, the comprehensiveness of its coverage, the quality of typography, and the artfulness of its makeup. It won the Ayer Cup for typography and design more than any other paper. Certain departments, notably music and dance, exceeded those of The New York Times. Its city coverage was the sprightliest in town, its editorial page a masterpiece. Indeed, newspapering had become a kind of art form.

By the 1940s, the Herald Tribune possessed some of the greatest drawing cards in journalism. In 1931, again recruiting the assistance of her mother-in-law, Helen hired Walter Lipp-mann, the most respected political columnist in America. America's most noted foreign correspondent,Dorothy Thompson , joined the paper in 1936, though she was fired early in 1941 after having endorsed a third term for Franklin Roosevelt. Despite the strident partisanship and ultra-nationalism of the Reid family, Helen serialized the first serious biography of Woodrow Wilson and the memoirs of Wilson's alter ego, Colonel E.M. House.

Women were not neglected, either as readers or writers. It was with an eye on female subscribers that Reid pushed circulation in the middle-class suburbs of Westchester, western Long Island, and northern New Jersey. Women's pages, fashion coverage, society news, tips in gardening, a plethora of wedding announcements—all gave the Herald Tribune a special appeal to suburban women. She expanded the paper's Home Institute, a widely known demonstration kitchen that tested recipes and household products. By 1944, suburban circulation exceeded that of The New York Times.

Furthermore, by the mid-1940s, the Herald Tribune had more women staff members than any other American daily. On the local staff alone, 13 out of 60 reporters were women, as were half a dozen executives. Some women staffers were particularly talented: Eugenia Sheppard (fashion), Dorothy Dunbar Bromley (social issues), Clementine Paddleford (food). Irita Van Doren created a distinguished book section. In 1952, Tribune journalist Marguerite Higgins , known for her coverage of the Korean War, became the most famous war correspondent in the world.

In 1930, with the assistance of Marie Mattingly Meloney ("Missie"), Helen launched the annual Forum of Current Events. Each October audiences packed the Waldorf-Astoria to attend a three-day marathon of speeches and panels by national and often world leaders. Soon dubbed the Herald Tribune Forum, it became covered by all four radio networks. Another one of her projects, the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, raised funds to send needy children to summer camps.

All this time, Reid was becoming a renowned hostess. Her dinner parties, always given in regal fashion, were famous. She would toss out the question of the moment, then go around the table for comments. Some guests would actually rise and address her as if they were speaking in a public meeting.

In some ways, however, Reid's leadership had its drawbacks. She tended to view the Herald Tribune as a business more than as a disseminator of news. In 1927, for example, she ordered a feature

writer to put advertising pressure on a fashion house, an act that could jeopardize the paper's editorial integrity. In November 1937, a month after Helen was awarded the Comendador Order of Honor and Merit from the Cuban Red Cross, the paper published a special 40-page Sunday supplement under the banner, "Cuba Today: Land of Peace and Progress." The headline of the lead story read, "Colonel Batista's Life Dedicated to Relieving Cubans from Oppression." As the material was not identified as an advertisement, Helen met with much criticism.

Problems existed in other areas. Salaries were never competitive. Reid would not promote gifted Jewish staffers, causing some of the most talented to gravitate to the more hospitable Times. Acting in the belief that Herald Tribune readers were people of means, she set higher advertising rates than did the Times, hence losing irretrievable advertising and circulation.

Like Ogden, and like Whitelaw before him, Helen was a staunch Republican, though one more liberal than her husband or her father-in-law. Just as Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, represented the party's midwestern isolationist wing, Reid epitomized the Grand Old Party's eastern internationalists. The writer Clare Boothe Luce went so far as to say that "New York Republicanism was Helen Reid." In 1920, she traveled to Marion, Ohio, there to tell President-elect Warren G. Harding that Tribune backing depended on the quality of his appointments. In 1940, her paper played a crucial role in the presidential nomination of Wendell L. Willkie, and in 1952 the Herald Tribune showed equal prominence in the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

An ardent interventionist before Pearl Harbor, during World War II Reid endorsed the compulsory drafting of women. "I am glad to see women in industry," she said. "Their families will be better for it. I want to see fathers back in the home, a more equal division of work and sharing of domestic responsibility."

When, in 1947, Ogden died of cancer, Reid became president of the Herald Tribune corporation and in 1953 chair of the board. Only in 1968, when the Reids sold the paper, would she relinquish controlling stock ownership. As Kluger notes, the Herald Tribune "became legally and officially what it had long been in fact—a matriarchy." True, Helen appointed Whitelaw president in 1953, but he found himself occupying essentially a ceremonial role, having to check all matters with his mother. Reid in turn found Whitey inept and in 1955 replaced him with the 29-year-old Brownie. Only an insider—indeed only a Reid, she felt, was able to run the paper.

Things now, however, were different. Perhaps because of age, perhaps because of bad advisers and intimidated sons, perhaps even because of a blind self-confidence, she had lost her magic touch. If Reid had presided over the paper's resuscitation, she also ruled over its demise. By 1951, the New York Herald Tribune was more of a holding operation than a healthy business, as seen by its unbalanced books. Moreover, it was sinking further into debt each year.

Retrenchment was the watchword. Unlike the Times, the Tribune invested little in its plant. Instead of engaging in serious restructuring, it simply slashed expenses. In an effort to cut expenses, it made foolish personnel reductions. Badly needed working capital was used to pay long-standing loans, a matter that should have been resolved years earlier. Outside money was spurned, for Reid feared that it would lead to loss of control. Although the paper could not survive without healthy injections of new capital—and talent as well—outsiders refused to touch the enterprise, fearing that the Reids lacked the competitiveness to make the enterprise work.

Occasionally Reid's judgment was sound, as in 1948, when she fostered the serialization of Eisenhower's World War II memoirs. Yet too often she was badly out of touch. Always more at home with New York socialites, intellectuals, and national policymakers than with the average subway rider, she lost contact with the bulk of the city's population. In addition, she resented employees who left the paper over salary matters, expecting absolute fealty under all working conditions. She became absorbed in trivia, answering the most routine letters personally and becoming far too preoccupied with the Herald Tribune Forum. Most important of all, Reid placed far too much confidence in her business manager, William Robinson, an axe-man whom she made executive vice president, then publisher (a title the paper had never used before). Only in 1953, when losses reached $700,000 a year, did Robinson resign.

Finally, in 1958, Reid sold the Herald Tribune to financier John Hay Whitney, at which point she retired from the board of directors. Whitney too was unable to rescue the failing property. In May 1967, now named the World Journal Tribune (having merged with several rivals), the depleted remnant of the old Trib finally expired.

Even in her old age, Helen Reid was formidable. In its obituary, The New York Times noted:

There was little in Mrs. Reid's appearance to suggest the influence she wielded, nor the force of her character. She stood only an inch over 5 feet; and she looked as fragile as a piece of expensive china. Her hair, at first brown, then gray, and later white, was a fine soft fuzz that curled close to her head. Her large green eyes, however, were alert and probing. According to advertising salesmen who dealt with her, they could be quite unnerving.

She spent her last years quietly on the Reid family estate in Purchase, New York, and at her New York apartment. On July 27, 1970, Helen Reid died in New York City.

sources:

Gardner, Mona. "Queen Helen," in John E. Drewry, More Post Biographies: Articles of Enduring Interest about Famous Journalists and Journals and Other Subjects Journalistic. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 1947, pp. 289–314.

Kluger, Richard. The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune. NY: Knopf, 1986.

collections:

Reid's papers are in the Library of Congress, although some letters remain in the family's possession.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

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