In her strenuously admiring biography of a pioneering reporter, editor, and promoter of good causes, historian Julie Des Jardins seeks to “reimagine power and influence in female form.” These words open the author’s preface, and nearly 300 pages later, in the epilogue’s penultimate paragraph, Des Jardins concludes that the life of Missy Mattingly Meloney (1878-1943) has “given us ways to reimagine the powerful woman.” That’s her story, and she’s sticking to it.
Mind you, it’s a good story, focused on one of the earliest full-time salaried female reporters in America, who rose to become a deft molder of public opinion as the editor of a leading women’s magazine and later of Sunday magazines for the New York Herald Tribune and a national newspaper syndicate. Meloney also founded Better Homes in America to promote modern dwellings and an annual “Forum on Current Problems” to foster women’s civic activism; she organized a publicity tour for Nobel laureate Marie Curie that garnered the impecunious scientist badly needed supplies, equipment, and money.
Throughout her life, Meloney forged connections with major political and cultural figures in her professional capacities, then deepened them into personal relationships with her warm, engaging manner. Her biography reveals a good deal about mass media and women’s evolving role in society in the first half of the 20th century, and Des Jardins capably weaves together these narrative strands. But sometimes you want to pat the author’s hand and tell her to relax and stop trying so hard to convince us of her subject’s importance.
Meloney, we are told too many times, had “a feminine way of operating, an effective yet modest way of being.” Rather than storming barricades, she cultivated powerful men and built social networks. She edited mass-circulation periodicals that reassured readers women could be informed citizens (even, perhaps, jobholders) without lessening their devotion to husband, home, and children. (Curie, totally dedicated to her work, was promoted as a saintly wife and mother who just happened to be a great scientist.) Meloney’s moderate politics and ladylike strategies were hardly surprising for a woman born into respectable middle-class circumstances in Kentucky in 1878, but they seem to embarrass Des Jardins, who compensates with a mix of defensiveness and overstatement. Arguing that Meloney’s public support for World War I “might have done more to secure women’s suffrage than many women who marched, lobbied Congress, and identified themselves with the cause” is dubious enough, especially since this statement follows an acknowledgment that many prominent suffragists supported the war. It’s flat-out absurd to claim that in 1920, as the editor of a popular women’s magazine, “Missy had engaged women as political beings more than anyone else before her.”
Fortunately, when Des Jardins gets off her hobbyhorse she is an effective chronicler and astute analyst of Meloney’s life and work. Her father died when she was eight, and her mother moved with Missy to Washington, D.C. Observing how her chronically ill mother was invigorated by work as a teacher and book reviewer, Des Jardins posits, encouraged Meloney to ignore her own considerable physical limitations; she limped because of a fall from a horse and suffered recurring, debilitating bouts of tuberculosis. The salon her mother hosted provided political connections that would give her early breaks as a young reporter for the Washington Post and the D.C. bureau of the New York World. Making good use of an unpublished memoir dictated during one of Meloney’s frequent hospital stays, Des Jardins gives a lively account of her newspaper years.
She moved to New York in 1904, meeting and marrying fellow journalist Bill Meloney that same year. Des Jardins paints an attractive portrait of a loving marriage between equals; Bill, relished his wife’s professional success, and Missy never remarried after his premature death in 1925. During their years together, she moved from newspapers to what were then called “domestic magazines.” As managing editor of Woman’s Magazine and then chief editor of The Delineator, Meloney cautiously expanded the boundaries of acceptable material for female readers. When she wanted to publish something on a controversial subject, she approached prominent men to give it an authoritative imprimatur. She was careful not to neglect mainstay domestic subjects, but stressed “scientific housekeeping and educated motherhood.” Meloney wanted “feminine topics discussed with a masculine lack of sentimentality,” Des Jardin writes, “to bring legitimacy to women’s issues and perspectives.”
By the time Meloney was named editor of the New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine in 1926, there were exponentially more female reporters and editors in America, and she felt free to commission articles by women as well as about them. The Herald Tribune Annual Forum on Current Problems, founded in 1930, annually increased the number of female speakers, and Meloney began defending women’s right to work as a matter of economic necessity during the Great Depression. Hired to build a nationally syndicated Sunday magazine, from scratch in 1935, she was no longer willing to defer to male authority figures. When her publisher passed along unwanted advice from the business staff, she snapped in a memo, “I have had a good many years of experience in this game and I know that editorial job.”
Does this impressive resume make her “a uniquely powerful woman, an unsung maker of American queens”? Des Jardins’s closing line fails to convince, and it’s a shame she feels obliged to inflate Meloney’s achievements. They’re substantial enough without being overhyped.
By Julie Des Jardins
Basic, 384 pp., $32
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.