Third generation Texan Hope Ridings Miller hailed from the small town of Bonham and rose to be the reigning society editor in Washington during the New Deal and World War II. At the height of the war, she reoriented society coverage away from parties to focus on those who were supporting the troops. With this exclusive excerpt, Joseph Dalton shares a slice of Miller’s life from his new book, Washington’s Golden Age: Hope Ridings Miller, the Society Beat, and the Rise of Women Journalists (Rowman & Littlefield). In the chapter The Royal Visit, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visit the Capital in 1939 just before the darkest days of World War II.
REGAL, READY & REVEALING
During her long career as a Washington journalist, Hope Ridings Miller had the classiest beat of any reporter in town, attending events at the White House, receptions on Embassy Row, and all manner of cocktail parties and receptions. “If you’re society editor, you get invited to everything – everything!” recalled Miller. “The White House sent us engraved invitations to every reception they had and once a year to a state dinner. At that time there were about 50 embassies and legations in town and they were fascinating to me, this little Texas girl meeting all these ‘ferners.’”
Born in Bonham and raised in Sherman, Miller arrived in Washington on Roosevelt’s Inauguration Day in 1933 and within a year became a staff writer at the Washington Post. She was named society editor in 1937 and was elected President of the Women’s National Press Club the following year. During the war her columns became the go-to source those wanting to know what was really going on in town.
Miller later had a nationally syndicated, edited Diplomat Magazine and wrote three books about Washington life. An old family friend, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn became an important ally, as were the great hostesses Evalyn Walsh McLean and Perle Mesta. When Miller died in 2005 at age 99, The Washington Post said that she “epitomized the genteel, white-gloved style of society reporting in which reporters were observes of the social scene as well as participants.”
THE ROYAL VISIT
“The President and the First Lady made more news than anybody and they made it easy for the press to get news. You never called the White House that you didn’t get an answer to whatever you asked, no matter how silly it was. They cooperated and that way they managed to manipulate the press.”
That last phrase from Hope’s recollections of the Roosevelt administration – “manipulate the press” – came from a viewpoint of admiration, not disdain. That’s how things worked, and, more often than not, mutual cooperation was the result.
“Society editors are not usually overly critical. They’re not supposed to be,” said Hope. “They’re supposed to put a good face on everything if they can.”
That became a difficult task during the period leading up to the June 1939 visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Shortly after the royal visit was confirmed, the First Lady said she would answer all questions as White House plans developed, but that details about the embassy arrangements would have to come from the British Embassy itself. Therein began the troubles.
Sir Ronald Lindsay, a tall, hulking man with a walrus mustache and an aloof air, had been the British ambassador since 1930 and dean of the diplomatic corps for the last five years. Lady Lindsay was a native of Long Island and childhood friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. But after many years as the wife of a career diplomat, she had become “more English than Yorkshire pudding,” according to Hope.
Milady’s press relations, though, were handled by her Canadian-born social secretary, the curt and withholding Irene Boyle. “We spelled it B-o-i-l,” recalled Hope. As interest in the royal visit grew, society editors were clamoring for information but Miss Boyle stonewalled more than ever. Hope’s able assistant Dudley Harmon had been given the duty of phoning embassies because of her appealing speaking voice and gentle phone manner. But getting nowhere with Miss Boyle, she became insistent. Boyle hung up on her. Hope’s ears pricked up as Dudley summoned her courage, redialed the embassy and managed to get Lady Lindsay herself on the phone. Trying to calmly explain the situation, Dudley’s voice rose in exclamation, “We’re desperate! Everybody in the country wants to know what the embassy is planning, and we can get nothing from Miss Boyle – as usual!”
Taken aback, Lady Lindsay asked for guidance and Dudley suggested a press conference as soon as possible. One was organized the following week for ten women reporters, primarily the society “editoresses,” as the Lady referred to them, but definitely not the full complement that attended Mrs. Roosevelt’s weekly gatherings.
“So, we went to see her, and she was very courteous, very nice to us,” recalled Hope. “She said it astounded her that Miss Boyle, who was her dear friend, had offended us and she wanted to handle it just as well as she could. Well, she handled it as well as she could, but it got to be the biggest mess that ever was.”
At Lady Lindsay’s press conference, the questions were many, but first was the matter of the guest list. She explained that it would number 1,300 and had been drawn from the social registers of a number of cities as well as from Lady Lindsay’s personal records. “The list, which also includes a generous layer of topflight government officials and diplomats, is closed, she said, and no additions or substitutions are to be made. She added that the 13,000 enemies probably resulting from invitation omissions are hers and hers alone – not England’s and not any social secretary’s.”
To curtsy or not to curtsy, and to bow or not to bow, are decisions that Americans would have to decide for themselves, Lady Lindsay maintained. Likewise, floor-length or street-length dresses, either would be appropriate attire. And to add further clarity, she added, “Men should wear just what they would to any other formal garden party.”
As if the social register weren’t exclusive enough, Sir Ronald did that one better at his own press conference two days later. “The garden party is just like heaven, you know. Some are taken and some are not,” he was quoted as saying. Asked about why the King and Queen would not have occasion to meet more “average Americans,” he smiled gently and replied, “There’s such an awful lot of them.”
A national hullabaloo followed this one-two punch from the Lindsays. Meanwhile, acute disappointment swept over every Washington woman who kept looking in her mailbox for an invitation but to no avail.
Lady Lindsay did have some store of goodwill built up, thanks in large part to a self-deprecating sense of humor that was frequently on display. Speaking at one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s annual Gridiron Widows parties, Lady Lindsay suggested her own epitaph: “Served by all, of service to none, died of the tea hour.” She also read aloud a seed catalog’s description of the hybrid rose that was named for her: “Thorny, inclined to ramble, sturdy, but in need of cultivation.”
Keeping to her schedule of weekly press conferences, Lady Lindsay opened the second session by stating, “My head is bloody but unbowed.” News from that forum was mostly a listing, though incomplete, of the “representative Americans” to whom invitations had been sent. Among them were industrialists J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Henry Ford, celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh, Gen. John J. Pershing, the Episcopal Bishop and the papal delegate. Also Mayor LaGuardia, the heads of the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O., Lady Lindsay’s close friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and the widows of Presidents Coolidge, Taft, Wilson, Roosevelt, Cleveland and Harrison.
During Sir Linday’s second and final outing with journalists, he was cool and collected. He wouldn’t have achieved his status if he weren’t a quick study. This time, he received “the newspaper men” in his oak-paneled office, where he wore a tan suit and leaned against his desk while smoking a cigarette in a long holder. Questions came fast, but answers were brief and guarded. No, the King and Queen would not need passports when they crossed the Canadian border. No, the King would not hold a press conference. As to how long Their Majesties might remain at the garden party, he replied, “I rather think they’ll go away when they’ve had enough of it.” How about the hot dogs that Mrs. Roosevelt planned to serve at the Hyde Park picnic, which was scheduled for after the two days in Washington? Sir Lindsay remarked that it “would be the first time Their Majesties have eaten the thing under that name.” After a moment, he paraphrased the Bard of Avon, “a rose by another name would taste as sweet.”
The next day, at Mrs. Roosevelt’s own regularly scheduled meeting with the press, she announced that the royals would be given WPA guidebooks and that entertainment following the state dinner would come from “radio singer” Kate Smith and cowboy balladeer Alan Lomax. Opera singer Marion Anderson was later added to the bill. When asked if she was excited about the coming festivities, Roosevelt replied, “No. I’m a calm person.”
But the rest of Washington remained in a dither. At men’s shops, there was a run on top hats, striped trousers and cutaways. Among the ladies, whether they’d been invited to the garden party or not, skirt lengths were debated at length. As an arbiter of rectitude in the Capital, Hope fielded countless calls on the matter. Feigning a bit of fatigue at the topic, she wrote up a kind of fashion tote board, sampling which prominent women veered to which side of the hemline. “Mrs. John Nance Garner, wife of the Vice President, announced, ‘I’ll go short. I’m opposed to buying a long dress, for just one party.’ Mrs. Claude Swanson, wife of the Secretary of the Navy, was among those holding out for a sweeping garb, saying, ‘I have a long dress; I bought it for my son’s wedding, and I certainly don’t plan to cut it off.’” Mrs. Cordell Hull, wife of the Secretary of State and one of Hope’s most-mentioned ladies, was also going floor-length. “So, you see, it really makes no difference. My personal vote goes for the longer frock and the picture hat. Sweeping dresses are more graceful and more garden-partyish. But, of course, if there’s a shower…”
Just five days before the garden fete, while the hedges were being trimmed and errant weeds yanked, the guest list was expanded one final time. Previously, the only Senators invited were the ranking members and chairmen of standing committees, but now the entire body was to be welcomed along with a larger portion of the House of Representatives. Fretful senate wives had complained to Mrs. Garner, who served as her husband’s secretary. She prevailed on the VP to “do something.” Shortly thereafter, Sir Lindsay was seen emerging from a breakfast at the Senate dining room where he received a gentle but clear talking to. “Remember, every one of these Senators can vote against our going into war,” was how the Vice President recounted the exchange to Hope.
At 11 a.m. on Thursday June 8, President and Mrs. Roosevelt greeted the Royals at Union Station, after their overnight journey from Niagara Falls. Three-quarters of a million people lined the city streets to observe them as the parade. Behind the tanks that led the procession, there were two open motorcades carrying the President and the King, the Queen and her hostess. Overhead zoomed 42 Army aircraft. The entire parade took 13 minutes to pass any given point and arrived at the executive mansion by noon.
At 4 p.m., the front doors of the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue opened to receive the first of the 1,500 hand-picked guests. Expected at 5 o’clock, Their Majesties appeared on the portico at 5:20 p.m.
“As the King and Queen, accompanied by Ambassador and Lady Lindsay, made their separate tours around the greensward, some women bobbed with self-conscious speed, and some virtually prostrated themselves. While the King, who looks much younger than his photographs, and the Queen, who is twice as pretty as any of her pictures, mingled with their guests on the portico, others who had come to see them stood silently, hopefully, watching every move. Many a feminine eye weighed Her Majesty’s gown in the balance and found it more than satisfactory. Flounced and full, it was fashioned of white net with embroidered panels, edged with ruffles, and horizontal tucks giving it a quaint, Victorian effect… one of the prettiest frocks ever seen in Washington…”
“Their tea-time over, their meeting and mingling with the hundreds of garden party guests finished, and their chats with a select few having drawn to a close, Their Majesties stepped once more to the center of the portico. The Queen waved to the crowd; the King bowed; and, without further ceremony while the crowd cheered, they turned to leave the party by way of the embassy as the white-helmeted band played ‘God Save the King.’
“For half an hour longer, the crowd lingered in the garden, devoting attention for the first time to the 25,000 specially grown strawberries of uniform size that were ready to be served throughout the afternoon, and to the frappes, ice creams and fancy cakes featured on the tempting menu served up beneath the marquee at the foot of the sloping lawn. Over glasses of sauterne punch, many a story of what the King did and said, and of comments from the Queen went the rounds.”
Also in the talk among guests were accounts of two breaches of protocol witnessed amidst the many passing exchanges. One was physical, one verbal and both executed by Texans. The Vice President, who was commonly known as “Cactus Jack” and usually avoided high society functions if at all possible, gave the King “a reassuring pat on the back.” At least that’s how it was described by Hope, who buried it deep in her account of the afternoon. But the front page headline proclaimed, “Garner Slaps King’s Back at Garden Fete.”
Then there was Congressman Nat Patton from Crockett, Texas. He “bid for the headlines in the cow country by boldly stepping into the Queen’s path and caroling, ‘Hi-ya, Cousin Elizabeth!’ as he extended a plump palm. Lady Lindsay froze. But Her Majesty, momentarily startled, quickly regained her composure, smiled warmly and returned the handshake. The ecstatic congressman reenacted his role by approaching the King with a ‘Hi-ya, Cousin George!’ and had a similar response.” Hope left these down-home moments out of her news story entirely. Thirty years later, she couldn’t resist recounting them in a book. But even then, she let the hapless legislator go unnamed.
Excerpted from Washington’s Golden Age: Hope Ridings Miller, the Society Beat, and the Rise of Women Journalists (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). All rights reserved.