May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
America’s first Miss Lonely hearts advised generations of anxious lovers in the newspaper column that started it all
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’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.
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.”
So when Brisbane appeared in the Hen Coop one day waving three letters about personal problems, he found Manning ready for a change. The letters had been sent to the Journal’s letters-to-the-editor column; Brisbane wanted Manning and her colleagues to answer them in a story. Manning suggested a new column instead, a public confessional for the unhappy, who could write to the paper about their troubles and in return get “unbiased opinion and friendly advice.”
This was the era of yellow journalism, when newspaper giants like the Journal’s owner, William Randolph Hearst, sought any novel, sensational gimmick to increase readership. The Spanish-American War, which Hearst had done his best to ignite and which had reaped hundreds of thousands of new readers for his paper, was winding down. To stay on top in its bitter circulation war with its archrival, the New York World, the Journal needed something different, something original. “It might be a good idea,” Brisbane said. “At least, it’s worth trying.”
He ordered Manning and the other women to submit names for the new column’s author by the next day. The idea that the writer might publish under her own name was never considered; in 1898 it was still thought slightly indecent for a lady to use her real name in print. Brisbane rejected the first crop of suggestions. “Montmorency,” “Biddle,” “Vere de Vere,” and “Astorbilt” were all too high-flown for the Journal. Then Manning came up with “Beatrice Fairfax’—Beatrice because she had been reading The Divine Comedy and Fairfax for the Virginia county where the Mannings had owned a home. That was more like it, Brisbane said, and he assigned her to be the writer, starting the next day.
The first column was accompanied by a pen-and-ink drawing of a winsome young woman; above her was the name Beatrice Fairfax and underneath, the message “She will advise you on the troubles of your heart.” It began with an explanation: “All young men and women have love affairs. At such times they need advice. Often it is impossible to obtain it from their families. Families are notoriously unsympathetic in such cases. The Evening Journal, through Miss Beatrice Fairfax, will help all such young persons. Miss Fairfax is a Virginian. She is a woman of experience. She has read and observed widely. She is young enough to sympathize with love’s young dream. She will answer, to the best of her ability, all letters on subjects pertaining to the affections.”
The response exceeded the Journal’s—and Manning’s—wildest expectations: up to fourteen hundred letters a day streamed in. Most of the writers were in their teens and early twenties, and almost all, at least in the beginning, wrote about love and courtship. “To a multitude of correspondents,” Manning said, “the Beatrice Fairfax column represented the only medium through which they could discuss their perplexities and get an impartial answer from an unknown and unprejudiced person.”
Miss Beatrice Fairfax:
Dear Madam: I have been keeping company with a young man for some time, and I love him. He seemed to love me in return, but he told me some time ago that he did not care to keep steady company, and left me. … I asked him the last time if he thought we would ever go together again, and he said he could not tell, as at the present time, he did not want any girl, but still he likes to go out with me. I keep company with a young man who loves me, and I like him, but I do not love him as much as I do the other. … I would accept my first lover tomorrow. If I were to be married, and were at the altar with the second one, and could see the chance to marry the first, I would back out and return with my old love, if I knew he would be true to me.
Lida May, you sentimental girls who lack pride and self-respect and call that lack “love” are rapidly destroying my sympathy with the victims of the tender passion.
Have you any ground whatever for believing that a man who has played fast and loose with your feelings as your admirer would be a faithful or loving husband? Why don’t you summon a little common sense to your aid? The man has insulted, rebuffed and wounded you. Could you possibly put yourself again in a position where he could again hurt you? A broken heart—I dare say you think you are suffering from that—is a trifling complaint compared to a bad husband. Do be brave and self-respecting, and dismiss this creature from your mind and life.
Beatrice Fairfax’s tough-minded practicality had special appeal to women used to the exhortations of such popular novelists as Fanny Fern and Gail Hamilton, who urged their readers to “suffer and be strong” and to “hold fast to the male oak that supports the vine.” Manning would have none of that. Disdaining “sobbing, tear-jerking and other forms of lachrymal exhibitionism,” she urged her correspondents to take charge of their lives: “If there’s a practical solution, battle for it; if the law will help, invoke the law. In any case, pick up the pieces and keep on going.”
Miss Beatrice Fairfax:
Dear Madam: I am a young lady who is very much in love with a young man who is now at present a soldier with the First Regiment, Company K at San Francisco. Before leaving, he promised to write to me, pretending he cared for me. He never fulfilled his promise, and since he left, I have found out that while he was going with me, he was at the same time going with another girl. I would like to ask your advice what I should do. Write to him and tell him what I think of him or let him pass out of my mind forever?
My Dear Girl: To write a letter requires some mental effort. To send it requires a two-cent stamp. Believe me, your fickle soldier is worth neither expenditure. Let him pass out of your mind without flattering his vanity by reproaches.
An ardent suffragist all her life, Manning often spoke pointedly about the inequities women faced. While they “paid taxes equal to the male overlord, they were not entitled to the fruits of their labor,” she once wrote. “A drunken husband, in many states, could collect the wages of his wife. … The wife was not entitled to the inheritance left her by her father.” And she had no patience at all for timid young men who wrote asking how to talk to a girl or get permission to call on her or propose to her:
My dear friends, … It is the proud prerogative of man to say what he thinks and to ask for what he wants, whether it happens to be a lady’s affections or hot coffee. Only upon the clam, the oyster and woman is silence enjoined. Man may speak. Man may tell what he wants to call. Man may proclaim what he loves. Man may demand if he has a rival. Man may propose.
Avail yourself of the glorious privilege of your sex, and ask for what you want.… Never think of adopting the silent methods of woman, who is speechless in great affairs, not because she wants to be but because she has to be. Her silence would be as troublesome to you as her involved draperies, and you would be as silly to adopt one as the other.
Yet for all her resentment of society’s injustices to women, Manning was enough a product of her time to advise her readers to bear them rather than rebel. She usually counseled unhappy wives to sustain their marriages, pointing out that they had few, if any, real alternatives:
Miss Beatrice Fairfax:
Dear Madam—… I am a married woman, considered nice-looking, age twenty-eight, have been married eleven years, have always had to work hard, and now my husband’s business is very good. He makes on an average of $20 to $25 a week, or maybe $30. He claims that $11 a week is enough to pay $12 a month rent, clothe and feed my little girl and boy, my husband and myself. I cannot possibly do it, so I have made up my mind to let him keep the children in clothes and pay their board, and I will strike out for myself. I think a man does not deserve a wife that is so close with his money. Can he do anything if I take the children away and leave the home to him, or what am I entitled to? He is very abusive sometimes, too. The last time he abused me, he deliberately took his foot and tripped me, sending me full length and weight on one side.
Your case is a very hard one, Ethel May: but I would certainly not advise you to “strike out” if it necessitates leaving your children, and there are so few things open to a woman with children. I cannot imagine anything more desolate for them than to be put out to board while their father saved his money and their mother “struck out” for herself. The law will oblige your husband to support you in accordance with his means. Why don’t you have a serious talk with him and tell him that it is impossible for you to get along on the allowance he makes you. It is just possible that the hundredth talk on the subject might find him reasonable if you talk quietly and don’t “nag.”
And you might be able to earn a little money in your own home by taking in plain sewing or making preserves, or doing whatever you can do best. If you leave him, he can divorce you for desertion. In the meantime, your children ought to be a great comfort to you if you are the right sort of a little woman, and I know you are. They ought to compensate for a great deal.
As the letters to the column multiplied and the Journal’s circulation soared, Beatrice Fairfax became more celebrated than most public figures of her day. She was the subject of poems, stories, cartoons, jokes, and vaudeville skits. The chorus of one popular turn-of-the-century song ran:
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.
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.
By 1905 she had had enough of this frenetic existence. She left the Journal and married Herman Gash, an old friend who was a Washington real estate dealer. It was a match of loving opposites, according to their son. Manning was charming, outgoing, witty, down-to-earth, and a raconteur; the blond, muscular Gash was a dreamer “whose head was always in the clouds,” a man who loved music and painting and hated selling real estate. The two were devoted to each other, Oliver Gash says, yet they disagreed about practically everything and had several “knock-down, drag-out battles” during World War I over which side was responsible for the conflict: “Father was very pro-German and Mother totally pro-Ally. After my father lost one of these arguments, he called my mother a marital roughneck.”
One issue on which Manning and her husband did agree was women’s rights. Along with other suffragists, Manning picketed the White House and lobbied vigorously on Capitol Hill for the Nineteenth Amendment. When she marched at the head of a women writers’ contingent in a massive suffrage parade in Washington, her husband followed closely behind, ready to thwart any antisuffrage attack.
After Manning left Beatrice Fairfax, the Journal replaced her with a woman as cloying and orbiters as Manning had been witty and astringent. She was appalled by the new Beatrice Fairfax, but she didn’t miss writing the column. “She was much more interested in her literary writing,” says her son.
In the years after she married, Manning devoted herself to suffrage work, writing short stories, and raising her two sons. The Gashes’ life was plagued by financial worries. Herman Gash was a poor businessman, and to help out, Manning invested an inheritance from her father, buying on margin in the skyrocketing stock market. She lost everything in the 1929 crash.
The crisis brought Manning back to Beatrice Fairfax. She asked Arthur Brisbane for a job, and he handed over her old column. When she resumed her adviser’s role, she found herself with a national audience. Thanks to syndications by Hearst’s King Features, the column was running in nearly two hundred newspapers. When Manning had left shortly after the turn of the century, mostly women had been the correspondents, and they had usually stopped writing once they were married. The writers were older now, and almost half were men; and their difficulties tended to be more serious.
During the Depression Manning found herself besieged with questions about jobs and money; during World War II women sought her help in finding out about missing or captured husbands and sons. Before her own son was sent overseas, she recruited him and his father to help answer the bushel loads of letters delivered daily to their house. “She referred to my father as ‘Old Lord Fairfax’ and me as ‘Little Lord Fairfax,’” Oliver Gash recalls.
By then Manning had dozens of competitors throughout the country, and as their clout increased, so did public awareness of the women behind the pseudonyms. Later columnists would break completely out of the cocoon of anonymity and become celebrities in their own right.
But the woman who started it all remained faceless to her audience. She didn’t mind the anonymity, her son says; it was her lack of control over her own creation that she begrudged. “She deeply resented the fact that she had no power over Beatrice Fairfax. She told me many times that she should have copyrighted the name herself.”
Manning was still writing the column when she died of a heart attack on November 28, 1945. Her ashes were strewn over the old family farm in Fairfax—the Virginia county that had lent its name to her famous creation. Beatrice Fairfax survived for another twenty years, but after Manning’s death the column steadily lost ground to newer mother confessors. Small wonder: Beatrice Fairfax’s wit, warmth, and style had vanished with her creator. So had her soul.