“Dear Beatrice Fairfax…“

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Miss Beatrice Fairfax:

Dear Madam: I read that you will advise young persons concerning their love affairs. I want your advice. I came from Ireland six months ago. A young man whom I have known since I was a little girl asked me to promise to marry him. … It was breaking my heart to come away, and I loved him dearly when he asked me. So I said yes. He is to come over as soon as he gets enough money. When I reached this country I met another young man at my married sister’s. I have been to some picnics with him, and I see him often, and I think I have fallen in love with him. It will kill my friend in Ireland if I am not true to him, and it will kill me if I have to be. Please advise me.

Nora

Nora’s letter, one of thousands that suddenly flooded the offices of the New York Evening Journal during the late summer of 1898, was addressed to a nonexistent woman whose name headed the country’s first modern advice-to-the-lovelorn column. Within days of Beatrice Fairfax’s July 20 debut, letters were stacked high on the newspaper’s desks, bookcases, windowsills, floors. There were so many, in fact, that the post office refused to deliver any more, and the Journal had to hire two burly porters to pick up Beatrice Fairfax’s mail.

Marie Manning, the young reporter who had created the torrent, soon began to dread the sight of the bulging mail sacks. “If I had been ten years older, I might have hesitated at the Frankensteinian monster I was invoking,” she later wrote.

Monster, indeed. Beatrice Fairfax set in motion an entire industry—one that’s still flourishing nearly a century later. Today advice columns are carried in almost every daily newspaper in the United States and have an estimated readership of well over a hundred million. Until the 1950s many papers hired their own advice givers; since then most have relied on syndicated columnists, particularly Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, the most popular of Beatrice Fairfax’s offspring. Between them, Ann and Abby appear in more than twenty-four hundred newspapers worldwide.

 

But in the summer of 1898, Manning was thinking less about posterity than about the mountains of mail she faced. She wrote the following response to Nora:

My Dear Nora:

I am glad that you are, although apparently fickle, at least conscientious enough to be troubled by your fickleness. That is a sign that your heart is pretty nearly in the right place. …

Don’t try to decide anything now. Don’t see the new young man much. Avoid the occasions of inconstancy. Remember that as an honest girl, you cannot encourage him while you are pledged to another. And wait. Grow accustomed to your new surroundings and your new life. Then act as your heart directs. And be sure of this, Nora dear. It will not kill the young man if you should fail him. Death is not so easily accomplished.

Manning despised the “amiable little Victorian world” of women reporters.

Such wry, commonsense advice came easily to Manning, who had been rebelling all her life against the platitudes and conventions that ruled women’s behavior. Even her appearance belied convention. Slender and sweetly pretty, she stood almost six feet tall, with a pompadour of light brown hair that added several inches to her height. When she first came to the “Hen Coop‘—as the Journal’s reporters called the women’s page—the men in the city room immediately dubbed her the “Telegraph Pole” and the “Stepladder.”

The twenty-six-year-old Manning was unquestionably a misfit in her new setting. Not long before, she’d been a reporter at the New York World, where she had covered everything from politics to ax murders. She left the World when her mentor, Arthur Brisbane, was named the Journal editor. The Journal, however, prohibited women in its city room, so Manning was relegated to the Hen Coop, where she and two other staffers wrote and edited the women’s page, did some general reporting, turned out book reviews, and covered murder trials from the “woman’s angle.” Manning hated it. “I’ve never been able to discover what the Woman’s Angle really means,” she said later. “Unless you’re writing about puddings or petticoats, a story is good or bad without regard to the writer’s sex.” She also despised the “amiable little Victorian world that we young women viewed from the Hen Coop, with its treacly sweet interviews given by ladies bent on impressing the public with their domestic urges. Everyone was afraid of stirring up something unpopular.”