I can’t seem to get Seattle in the 1930s out of my head and I’m pretty sure it’s because of one woman — Marie Gladiss Rowe, Marie Rowe, Mrs. John H. Dunbar, Marie R. Dunbar, Mrs. Marie Newberger, Mrs. Courtenay Terrett, Mrs. Virginia Rowe Towle. All of these names belong to the Society Page editor of The Seattle Times between 1932 and 1942, Virginia Boren.
The day she was hired by the paper's publisher was the day she was given the one name in her life that really stuck. “General Blethen called me into his office one day and asked what name I would like to use,” she said. “I told him I didn’t know.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do," her publisher, Clarence Blethen, said. "You give me 20 combinations of historically famous Seattle streets, and I’ll take my pick.”
Mrs. Joseph Newberger (I’ll get to that in a minute) loved a puzzle and came back with several combinations, including Cherry James and Marion Bell. But really, she didn’t have to go far to find just the right name for Blethen — the Times Building rested on Fairview Avenue, and just a block away was the diagonal intersection of Boren and Virginia. When Virginia Boren was conceived, Mrs. Newberger was 33.
She had been writing for newspapers in Olympia, Tacoma, Boston, and Seattle using Marie Rowe and Marie Dunbar (give me another minute for that one), but when she met “my little banker,” Joseph Newberger, the 5-foot-2 vice president of Seattle First National Bank and married him in 1929, she started on-the-job training as the Society Page Editor by also being an imposing presence on the Society pages herself.
Joseph Newberger had a front seat in early Seattle. He watched the Great Seattle Fire as a 5-year-old, scolded by passersby for standing too close. As a young messenger at the bank where he would work until 1949, he got the word to get a wagon down to the docks and some strong help to take some gold off the Roanoke — the boat carrying the ton of gold that started the Alaskan Gold Rush — load it into the wagon, and take it to the Assay Office. "And for God sakes get a receipt."
Newberger, 15 years Marie's senior, was the right find. Marie Dunbar was a single mom in 1929, facing the Great Depression, caring for her then 5-year-old daughter Dorothy, and moving from newspaper to newspaper. Dorothy was ready for school and Marie's marriage to Newberger assured her that Dorothy would go to Helen Bush, the new school for the city’s elite. Among Dorothy’s teachers would be sculptor Virginia Pratt, who ran the school’s Art Department. In the 1930 census, there are five people in the Newberger household, including German and Finnish servants. Marie listed her vocation as "none."
In 1931, the Newbergers moved into a neighborhood then called “Upper Denny Blaine,” not far from Helen Bush. Their house was also not far from Broadmoor, the private golf club whose course opened in 1927. Newberger, while a good golfer, was also a Jew and would have to play his golf at Glendale, built by Jews on land south of the city and which opened a year later, designed by the same designer used at Broadmoor. Later, the club would be sold and a new site purchased in Bellevue.
"None" was hardly a permanent condition of employment for Marie and she joined the Times after freelancing and other work for publications in Seattle. The Society Page had to have been a lot of work. The Aug. 19, 1934 Sunday paper carried seven pages of what we would call society news — clubs, features focused on women, a children's page, marriages, engagements. All of it came surrounded with robust advertising aimed at women. Reading the pages from the time, it is remarkable how much detail was required to report a major social event. As the editor, Marie had a staff of six.
Boren’s reporting of a tea given at the home of Dr. and Mrs. E.F. Ristine after a golf tournament is an example. Under her usual column headline, “With … Virginia Boren,” the event unfolded:
“The garden party with the gracious and hospitable Dr. and Mrs. E. F. Ristine as hosts was one of the highlights of the thirteenth annual tournament of the Washington State Woman’s Golf Association being played this week at Broadmoor. Mrs. Ristine is the very popular president of the WSWGA and to see her blithely flitting around in her lovely gardens yesterday, talking in the gayest and most nonchalant manner to all her guests, one would not think that the worries of this tournament and all its vagaries rested on her feminine shoulders.”
After the homage to the host, the social reporting formula required several detailed descriptions of what the ladies were wearing, starting with the A List.
“Mrs. Wanamaker wore a black lace gown with a large black hat and pinned on her shoulder was a lovely salmon-colored flower. We thought it was a choice variety of water lily, but were informed that it was a rare species of begonia from Mrs. Wanamaker’s garden.”
"Mrs. J. L. Winn in a striking dark-colored printed chiffon, receiving many congratulations on the stellar playing of her daughter, Miss Barbara, who is a handsome, brilliant girl and was looking very smart yesterday in a brown linen outfit."
The B list outfits follow — 10 or so of them, less detailed, but still, lingering descriptions:
“Mrs. Willard K. Richards, tall and handsome, wearing blue cotton lace with a large white hat.”
Next, under "we also noted" comes a list of men, “Mr. Harry H. Lewis and his good looking wife…” followed by 38 specific names of guests, all with a shard of detail: “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Mullen, favorite Broadmoorites, planning to attend the dance later.” "Broadmoorites, planning to attend the dance later.” Every child noted, by their first name only.
Finally, over at the clubhouse for the buffet dance, the workers: “Mrs. L.E. Edmonson was the chairman of the dance committee and her assistants were Mrs. Charles B. Lindeman, Mrs. Howard McKee, Mrs. Harold E. Gray, Mrs. Nat S. Rogers, Mrs. Otis Haland and Mrs. Don R. Baker.”
There must have been a lot of pressure to be the reporter of this scene. The event ends late. The linotype machines, smoking, molten lead word processors, the lead a bright silver and sloshing in its pot as the operator hits a key and sends the liquid metal into the machine, coughing up a vowel down below — each name a tiny hand grenade, checked again and again, a potential embarrassment in print.
For her planning purposes, Marie divided up the society beat by education, culture, art, the party scene, and sports. She thought that those who truly were high society tended to stay home.
While ambitious and tough, Marie had an educated sense of her role in the community and was thoughtful about the everyday lives that came into her presence, as she told "Seattlife" in its first issue in 1937:
"I absolutely concentrate on the particular piece of work which is before me. If a woman brings in her daughter's engagement, I realize it is the most important thing in the world to her. And, for the time being, it is the most important thing to me."
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