Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: A Rural Newspaper Correspondent in the Big City

I don’t remember anything from my first visit to the Waldorf Astoria, the famous New York City hotel.

I don’t remember anything because I was only seven weeks old and it was eighty years ago. I was with my mother, who brought me with her in August 1936 from our farm near Blue Earth, Minn., when she was named the nation’s outstanding rural newspaper correspondent and won a week-long trip to New York and Washington.

But I know from the widespread coverage of her stay at the Waldorf where she – and I – met in her suite with a dozen reporters and photographers from ABC and CBS and all the New York newspapers, that she was treated as a celebrity. The New York Times said “Rural Journalist Not Awed By City,” and the Herald Tribune, under a photograph of her holding me, said “Lights of City Fail to Dazzle Rural Writer.”

“Mrs. Eisele was brought to see New York for the first time yesterday, and with her came her third son Albert, who was born on June 28, the same day she learned she had won the prize for a column about threshing she wrote for a newspaper in Fairmont, Minn., the Herald Tribune reported.

escribed as a “plain but exceedingly intelligent woman,” the paper said “she was whisked to a suite in the Waldorf Astoria, where she met a group of men who, like herself, earn their living by writing about the trivial of the day.”

Speaking with traces of her native South Carolina accent and holding me, until I raised a fuss because of photographers’ flashbulbs and was handed off to the nurse who accompanied us from Minnesota, she quickly disproved the stereotyped notion of the country bumpkin reporter.

Asked to compare journalism and life in the big city and rural America, she said she didn’t see much difference. “You write what you see and we write what we see,” the Times reported. “Of course, you see a more sophisticated kind of life here; we see the simpler things. But I think we’re trying fundamentally to do the same thing. I think that a journalist’s highest function is to present life as he and she sees it.”

The next day, she met with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and the daughter of President Roosevelt; visited Radio City, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty; and went night clubbing at the Stork Club and window shopping on Fifth Avenue. Three of the nation’s most influential columnists – Walter Winchell, Westbrook Pegler and Dorothy Kilgallen – even devoted entire columns to her.

That’s why I decided to mark the 80th anniversary of her 1936 trip, and recapture some of the memories as reported in the press coverage, by taking my two daughters to stay at the Waldorf on August 23. The hotel graciously provided an elaborate two-bedroom suite in the Tower at half price and we were welcomed by the staff, which was aware this was a special occasion.

The 30th-floor suite was impressive, to say the least. The Chrysler building loomed out of its windows, there was a huge lobby and even bigger main suite, a dining room and kitchen, and two large bedrooms. We guessed it was once occupied by General Douglas MacArthur or perhaps Marilyn Monroe.

We retraced many of my mother’s steps, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which she said disappointed her by its gothic vastness; the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where her Irish father landed as an immigrant in the 1880s, and rubbed shoulders with countless people on Fifth Avenue and other crowded streets. And we had dinner at one of the city’s more than 25,000 restaurants, a pricey Italian grill, with several of my older daughter’s New York friends.

My mother, who died in 1984 at the age of 86, echoed the classic judgment of many visitors to New York by declaring that “I wouldn’t want to live here. I have my inspirations from the soil and I have to stay there to get them.” But she added that it was “bigger and more wonderful that I ever dreamed of.”

As we returned to our one-dimensional city of Washington from the multi-dimensional city of New York on our Amtrak train and watched Manhattan’s skyscrapers recede in the distance, we toasted my mother. But my daughters, both of them writers, and I agreed she was badly mistaken when asked on that August day in 1936 what her baby son would be when he grew up.

“Little Albert, she promised, would not be a writer,” the Herald Tribune reported. “I’ll be satisfied to make a good plain dirt farmer out of him. I don’t want him ever to get the writer’s itch.”