The many lives and names of a woman journalist

Sent to fetch some papers for an Olympia newspaper, the 20-year-old rookie reporter, who would became a powerful society editor at "The Seattle Times," returned hours later. "How long does it take to get those papers?" her boss screamed. "Oh that," she said, "I was out covering a shooting and ended up having a chat with the shooter."

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"Vigilante Woman" was a book by Virginia Rowe Towle, also known as Virginia Boren.

Sent to fetch some papers for an Olympia newspaper, the 20-year-old rookie reporter, who would became a powerful society editor at "The Seattle Times," returned hours later. "How long does it take to get those papers?" her boss screamed. "Oh that," she said, "I was out covering a shooting and ended up having a chat with the shooter."

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." 

She also had several ideas about what wasn't important: "I dislike open-faced sandwiches, for in the last four years I've stared a million and a half of them in the face. And I dislike radio programs, small talk in large crowds, black bathrooms and Russian drama."

We now turn to the minute we need for John H. Dunbar, attorney general of the state of Washington from 1923 to 1933, whom Marie Rowe married six years before he was appointed to fill an uncompleted term. Marie had just left the University of Washington after two years and turned her full attention to newspapering at the Olympia Record and also for the Tacoma Ledger, covering the Legislature full-time — the first woman to cover it.

The new reporter quickly earned her keep. Asked to fetch some papers from the Capitol Building, she saw something unusual: a thickset man jumping out of one of the windows and running off. She followed, witnessed the arrest — he had shot an Industrial Insurance Commissioner — and she begged the police to let her talk with him. They did. She chatted with the shooter, logger John Van Dell, who was disappointed by a less-than-adequate accident settlement, and went back to the paper to file her story.

“Where are those papers? How long does it take to get that done?” her editor shouted impatiently. “Oh, that,” she recounts in a 1966 Seattle Times interview, where you can imagine her pursed lips and the cock of her head. “Actually, I was out covering a shooting.”

Marie was an Olympia gal, born there to a logging family who had race horses. It was natural for her to fit in as the wife of a statewide elected official whose father, Ralph Oregon Dunbar, would be one of the initial State Supreme Court Justices at statehood, Nov. 11, 1889.

Unfortunately, John Dunbar's timing was as bad as his father’s was good. John had to serve with Gov. Roland Hill Hartley, truly one of the great political gasbags in the state’s history, who fought every ruling the attorney general offered, made statewide issues out of tiny expenses, and sought powers that were unconstitutional but, to Hartley, necessary to stomp out the whole taxation thing.

It was all getting to John. Two years after Dorothy was born, in 1924, John took up with Lena, his secretary, and left Marie and Dorothy. In 1928, just after the primary election in which he had prevailed, he was charged with two DUIs in the space of four days. In 1932, he garnered just over 30 percent of the votes, and by 1936 he died from a liver ailment.

Conveniently, Dorothy had just graduated from Helen Bush in 1942 when the little banker and Mrs. Joseph Newberger called it quits. The day after the divorce notice was published, Virginia Boren produced one more item, less than a column inch, for the society page, in which she economically said all that someone heading out of Dodge needed to say:

"VIRGINIA BOREN TO VISIT EAST — Marie Rowe Dunbar, the former Mrs. Joseph H.  Newberger, is leaving this afternoon with her daughter, Dorothy, for a two month visit to New York and New England. She will be at the Barbizon-Plaza while in New York."

Marie’s life is a powerful focus on the next assignment. And that would be Courtenay Terrett, the Hollywood screenwriter, the Film Noir guy, the former soldier in the Free French Army, the reporter and author who covered the Spanish Civil War and the Finnish-Russo War. Hey! Come on! This is New York City!

At some point, the Barbizon-Plaza may have become, shall we say, untenable, and Marie needed some work. A story in the Seattle Times noted in June, 1943 that “the former Seattle newspaper woman told New York reporters that she and Terrett met in the offices of the National Fats Salvage Campaign where both are working.” While a long way from high tea at Broadmoor, fats salvage was a big part of the World War II effort. Recycled fats produced glycerin, an explosive chemical used to make dynamite and other munitions. During the war, Americans recycled well over a half a billion pounds of fats and turned them into explosives.

Always aware of her Society Page back home, she calls the Seattle Times with another note post-marriage, reporting Marie, Dorothy, and “Brick,” as he’s called, are settled into a spot in Greenwich Village and Terrett is about to head off to Europe. Other little notes find their way to the Times.  Daughter Dorothy soon gets married and works in the advertising business while Marie is employed by the New York World Telegram, a newspaper of the era, “interviewing celebrities.”

Brick’s a stud, no doubt about it. Several screenplays, big name actors in them, stories in The Atlantic, a famous New York crime series that became a successful book, Only Saps Work, and also from a prominent Montana family. By 1947, they’re in Philadelphia, where Terrett is working for the Philadelphia Bulletin and where Marie is “regaining her health.”

In the spring of 1948, Brick is found dead in an Oakland, California hotel. The New York Times reports a heart attack. However, a paper in Lethbridge, Alberta, reports days later that an Alameda County jury had found Terrett had died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates. He was 46.

Brick and Marie had been researching a book about pioneering women in western Montana. She continued working on the book, urged on by her brother Frank A. Rowe, who is in the mining business near Boulder, Montana. On the side, she starts the news operation at Helena’s KCAP radio and freelances articles through her extensive network. In 1956, now 60, she married W. H. Towle who drove her about Montana as she researched the book, then called Vigilante Woman, a composite portrait of the pioneer women who filed the rough edges off the Big Sky’s wild west.

At 70, Virginia Rowe Towle returned in 1966 to Seattle, her book in hand. She gave a delightful interview in early December that is placed top-middle on the page which the Seattle Times now calls “Family World.” She reported on her many bylines in Juneau, Helena, Reno, Salt Lake City, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. W.H. Towle had died in September and she lived in South Bend, Indiana with her daughter who also published a book, Blood in the Parlor. She says she is writing another book, though writing now is “slower going.”

By 1966, Virginia was a pioneer woman herself. She had not kept herself to the Society Page, but covered big stories like the Weyerhaeuser kidnapping, and knew what it was like to prowl through the Washington State Capitol Building looking for news and respect as a 22-year-old woman surrounded by 50-year-old men.

Sometimes, what you don’t find in your research is as significant as what you do. There are few pictures of her — the only ones I found were a smudged photo from the 1966 visit in the Seattle Times archive and the one in "Seattlife" that is posted with this story. She was described as "lovely and resolute" and "the best looking woman in the Seattle newspaper business." She clearly put the focus on her subjects and moved out of the way when the flashbulbs flashed. 

But what she lacks in photos, she makes up in names. Not only do her many names interfere with research, but also her many ages.  Like a shortstop from the Dominican Republic, Virginia’s Internet age varies by as much as eight years.

Since W. H. Towle died in September of 1966, Virginia moved in with her daughter and stayed with her, often working together on research, as Dorothy chased television jobs in South Bend and Albuquerque. Like her father, Dorothy Dunbar died young, of a heart attack in 1970. Virginia moved from Albuquerque to Salt Lake City, where she had once worked.

Her little banker, Joseph Newberger, remarried in 1951 and kept up his golf game and his work at Glendale Country Club, now located across Lake Washington in Bellevue. However, at 93 and widowed, Newberger’s lawyer and friend became concerned that he was beginning to have competency issues. The lawyer hired a housekeeper and started supervising Joe's financial affairs more closely, creating a limited guardianship. After a couple of months Newberger went to Hawaii with the housekeeper, Louella Clark, 52, and married her. She hired an attorney who was able to get the guardianship thrown out and was with him in 1982 when he died at 98.

Virginia would die a year later in Salt Lake.  A new generation of writers and editors were around and the Seattle Times apparently missed the Oct. 1, 1983 death and, as best as I can tell, carried no obituary, which is why I'm writing this.

Virginia Rowe Towle was 87. No one survives her.


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