Ross, Ishbel (1895–1975)

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Ross, Ishbel (1895–1975)

Scottish-born American journalist and writer. Name variations: Isabel Rae; Ishbella Rae. Born Ishbella Margaret Ross in Sutherlandshire, Scotland, on December 15, 1895; died on September 21, 1975, in New York City; daughter of David Ross and Grace (McCrone) Ross; educated at the Tain Royal Academyin Ross-Shire, Scotland; married Bruce Rae (a journalist and editor), in 1922; children: Catriona.

Selected writings:

Through the Lich-Gate: A Biography of the Little Church Around the Corner (1931); Marriage in Gotham (1933); Promenade Deck (novel, 1933); Ladies of the Press: The Story of Women in Journalism by an Insider (1936); Fifty Years a Woman (novel, 1938); Isle of Escape (1942); Child of Destiny: The Life Story of the First Woman Doctor (1949); Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism (1949); Journey Into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind (1951); Proud Kate: Portrait of an Ambitious Woman (1953); Rebel Rose: Life of Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy (1954); Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton (1956); First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis (1958); The General's Wife: The Life of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant (1959); Silhouette in Diamonds: The Life of Mrs. Potter Palmer (1960);Grace Coolidge and Her Era: The Story of a President's Wife (1962); Crusades and Crinoline: The Life and Times of Ellen Curtis Demorest and William Jennings Demorest (1963); An American Family: The Tafts, 1678 to 1964 (1964); Charmers and Cranks: Twelve Famous American Women Who Defied the Conventions (1965); Taste in America: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Architecture, Furnishings, Fashions, and Customs of the American People (1967); Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve (1969); The Expatriates (1970); The Uncrowned Queen: The Life of Lola Montez (1972); The President's Wife: Mary Todd Lincoln (1973); Power with Grace: The Life of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson (1975).

Born in Sutherlandshire, Scotland, in 1895, the second of two children, Ishbel Ross knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer. She was a voracious, catholic reader, and her dreams of becoming a writer were fed by the glimpses she caught of her neighbor Rudyard Kipling, whom she often saw walking with his children. At 20 years of age, after attending Tain Royal Academy in Ross-Shire, Scotland, Ross emigrated to Toronto, Ontario. Though she wanted to be a reporter, she had to take other jobs before anyone would assign her a story. The Canadian Food Board hired her as a publicist, and the library at the Toronto Daily News provided her with employment. Finally, suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst succumbed to her requests for an interview. Ross proclaimed that she "was never a great suffrage sympathizer" but acknowledged her debt to Pankhurst for providing her with the first step toward a long and successful career of writing about no table women.

In 1919, Ross left Canada for New York City, where she became a general assignment reporter and member of the editorial staff for the New York Tribune and later, when it merged with the New York Herald, for the Herald-Tribune. The number of male reporters fighting overseas in World War I made it easier for women to enter the male-dominated newspaper world. Furthermore, Ross and other women reporters received assignments for front-page stories; on most other papers, these were always given to men. She covered fires, explosions, and prize fights, and interviewed immigrants and college students. Ross was especially interested in aviation, and she often waited all night at airports for the early trans-Atlantic flights to arrive. She interviewed Edward, duke of Windsor (briefly Edward VIII), when he visited the United States, and Charles A. Lindbergh on his triumphant return from the first solo trans-Atlantic flight. She covered sensational crimes, such as the 1926 trial of Frances Hall for the murder of her husband Edward Wheeler Hall and Eleanor Mills , and the kidnapping and murder of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh 's infant son in 1932. Ross attended the presidential inaugurations of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, and reported the death of inventor Thomas Edison.

Ross received a byline only for some of her stories, a situation she brushed off as the result of being a reporter rather than a feature writer, but she was held in high esteem by her colleagues. According to Barbara Belford in Brilliant Bylines, Stanley Walker, city editor at the Herald-Tribune, who often spoke poorly of women journalists in general, said that Ross had "unflustered competence," and referred to her as "the perfect newspaperman"; while reporter Dick West noted, "Her intense blue eyes made you feel that she was sizing you up, coolly and completely…. She had a dignity, a self-possession that in spired respect…. All her stories had a depth and a texture that no one could match. Her insights brought people and events to life in print."

In 1922, Ross married Bruce Rae, a Scottish-born journalist whom she had met while they were covering a highly publicized divorce case. He worked for The New York Times, so the two often had to compete with each other for the same story. Their personal styles, like their writing styles, were very different. Rae was described as a temperamental, sharp-tongued perfectionist, while Ross was quiet and solitary. She emphasized vivid dramatic and visual details, while he focused on mood. They claimed that although their personalities sometimes led to strife at home, they did not discuss the stories they both covered.

Ross and Rae were paid by the column inch for their stories on the Hall-Mills murder case. By the time it ended, they had made enough money to take six months off and embark on a cruise around the world. Promenade Deck, Ross' first novel, was inspired by and based on this trip. It became a bestseller and later a movie. In anticipation of the birth of her first—and only—child, Ross quit her job at the Herald-Tribune. She continued to write prodigiously, however, focusing on nonfiction books, especially biographies.

One of Ross' best-known books is Ladies of the Press, which researchers still rely on for accounts of early women journalists in the United States. Originally published in 1936 and reprinted in 1974, the book remains the only source for quotations, anecdotes, and background information on many reporters. Interestingly, Ross did not include herself in the book, although she was an accomplished journalist and prolific writer. Most of her other books were biographies of famous women, many of them connected to famous men. Among these were Margaret Fell : Mother of Quakerism (1949), Rebel Rose: Life of Rose O'Neal Greenhow , Confederate Spy (1954), First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis (1958, about Varina Howell Davis ), The General's Wife: The Life of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant (1959, about Julia Grant ), Silhouette in Diamonds: The Life of Mrs. Potter Palmer (1960, about Bertha Honoré Palmer ), and Power with Grace: The Life of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson (1975, about Edith Bolling Wilson ). In many cases, such as in The President's Wife: Mary Todd Lincoln (1973), Ross presented these women as important figures in their own right, not simply as the wives or companions of well-known men. As a result of introducing these women to the general public, she often received invitations to lecture or speak about them on the radio.

Ross' husband died in 1962. She remained healthy and active in her later years, and encouraged younger writers in their careers. She also continued to write, completing 10 books in the 13 years between her husband's death and her own. Her daughter suffered from mental illness, and Ross may have been motivated to write so much because she needed money for Catriona's medical treatment. At age 79, she wrote, "I'm as healthy as a horse, and it will be eighty years I reach next December." A month later, on September 21, 1975, Ross fell from a window of her fourth-story apartment. Although police did not

exclude the possibility of suicide, the cause of her death remains uncertain.


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

Contemporary Authors. Vols. 61–64 and 93–96. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer, Bayville, New York