“Dear Beatrice Fairfax…“

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In 1930 George and Ira Gershwin had a heartsick young woman lament to Beatrice Fairfax about the loss of her man in one of their loveliest songs, “But Not for Me.” But while her alter ego emerged as a celebrity, Marie Manning remained nearly anonymous.

She was born in Washington, D.C., on January 22, 1872. She would later claim to have been born in 1878, and even her children didn’t know she had lied about her age until after her death, when her son, Oliver Gasch, by then a senior U.S. district court judge, tracked down her records. She was the daughter of Michael Charles Manning, a War Department employee, and his wife, Elizabeth. Marie’s mother died in childbirth when Marie was six. Her father, an Englishman who had fought for the North in the Civil War and been severely injured at Antietam, was an alcoholic.

 

Marie attended Miss Kerr’s, a private girls’ boarding school in Washington, but it was clear from the beginning that she wasn’t the finishing-school type. When the girls were supposed to be reflecting on their conduct during a half-hour of meditation before bedtime, Manning would surreptitiously scan newspapers she had hidden away in the school’s hall. One day her headmistress caught her smuggling in a copy of the New York Herald with a front-page story about a man on trial for the murder of a prostitute. She barely escaped expulsion, and thereafter, she said, she became a “marked character” at the school, “bereft of all privileges.”

Manning’s father died when she was eighteen; the man who became her guardian, Judge Martin F. Morris, kept her at Miss Kerr’s because, she later wrote, he “didn’t quite know what to do with a girl who was almost six feet tall, had no interest in clothes, and wouldn’t go to ‘pink teas,’ as coming-out parties were apt to be called at that time.”

She wanted to become a newspaper reporter. One evening, in the early 1890’s, she found herself seated next to Arthur Brisbane at a Washington dinner party and told him about her ambition; he invited her to come visit him at the World. As soon as she could cajole her guardian into letting her go, she was on the train to New York. Brisbane hired her, but because of her lack of experience, he agreed only to “space” rates: she would be paid only for the stories the paper printed. Under this system she often earned no more than five or six dollars a week.

MISS Fairfax became a celebrity; Marie Manning remained anonymous.

She was, she recalled, “still hopelessly green” when one day the Sunday editor assigned her to interview the former President Grover Cleveland about whether the United States should go to war with Spain. It was probably a fool’s errand, the editor said. Cleveland had already refused to talk to other World reporters, but Joseph Pulitzer had just cabled the editor: “If all your good men have tried and failed, then try some of your worst.”

Terror-stricken, Manning went to Cleveland’s house in Princeton, New Jersey, and presented her card. Thinking she was the daughter of Daniel Manning, his former Secretary of the Treasury, Cleveland agreed to see her. He was furious when he discovered his mistake, but he calmed down when Manning explained that this was her first big assignment and, “having sloughed off every shred of conscience,” told him that she’d be fired and probably starve if she did’t get the interview. Cleveland gave her a statement. For her coup she was made a full-fledged World reporter and given a fifty-dollar bonus by Pulitzer himself.

Nevertheless, Manning soon jumped ship to the Evening Journal along with Brisbane and many other World reporters and editors. After introducing Beatrice Fairfax, she led a chaotic professional life. Despite the huge circulation increases reaped by the column, the Journal’s editors regarded it as a part-time, low-priority chore, something Manning could easily handle while working on other assignments. In fact, she believed the editors disdained any work by women reporters. In her autobiography she recalled male reporters who had gotten in trouble being sent to the Hen Coop to expiate. “Forcing a man to work in the same room with us was the equivalent of sending a dog to the pound or standing a child in the corner.”

In such spare time as she could find, Manning wrote fiction under her own name, including numerous stories for Harper’s magazine and two novels, Lord Allingham; Bankrupt and Judith of the Plains.