Meet the girl who went from Maple Creek, Sask., to become one of America’s Women of the Year
Meet the girl who went from Maple Creek, Sask., to become one of America’s Women of the Year
THIRTY YEARS ago an attractive young Canadian girl named Margaret Cuthbert, with a certificate in Fine Arts from Cornell University, found herself standing on what is customarily described as the threshold of life.
The threshold led first to what must have seemed like somewhat of a blind alley—the little town of Maple Creek, Sask., where her family (her father was in the Northwest Mounted Police) had been moved from Dawson City. She knew no one in Maple Creek, and the only opportunity presented there was the offer of a diamond ring from her father if she would spend a year learning to cook.
The university course had been against all her father’s ideas of what was right and fitting for a young girl, so his daughter felt it only fair to give him that year. She learned to cook in the same thorough way she has done everything. “I even made bread,” she remembers. “And learned to pluck and draw wild duck and prairie chicken.” That done, with her diamond ring on her finger, Margaret Cuthbert, in 1917, went to Washington to work in the British Embassy, later on to New York.
A few months ago, after 20 years there as Director of Women’s and Children’s Programs for the National Broadcasting Company, Margaret Cuthbert was nominated one of America’s Women of the Year by the American Women’s Press Club.
First impression of her is a little breath-taking, like meeting a duchess riding a whirlwind. She’s a tall, spare woman about five-feet eight, built for speed and action, with no waste pounds on her and no dither or flutter in her movements.
She’s dark, with hazel eyes and black hair turning grey, with a tanned outdoor skin made still darker by quantities of freckles. Her face is a long, thoroughbred English face with some beauty but more quality, with straight brows, and hair peaked on a broad intelligent forehead, with a purposeful chin and a mouth that can be ironbound or amiable. Most distinguishing feature is her nose, which is too strongly boned for beauty but adds to the character and distinction of her face.
In her modest office on the fourth floor of Radio City, New York, Margaret Cuthbert looks the part of the executive. At business she usually wears a dark suit so good and right it is unlikely that many people after meeting her could describe what she was wearing. She is responsible for four NBC programs a week. In these four programs are no sure-fire comedians, band leaders or prize quizzes but the type of radio show that is regarded as public service and therefore is least known and least appreciated.
HER PROGRAMS are “Stories to Order,” a storytelling novelty in which the listener participates; “Tales of our Foreign Service”; “Consumer Time,” in co-operation with the War Food Administration; and “World’s Great Novels,” a dramatized program which is part of NBC’s University of the Air.
Her radio salary would look colossal to most Canadians, but is less than she’d be paid in the publishing business, less than is paid to a top-flight American radio writer or performer.
Like most pioneers in radio, Margaret Cuthbert had no specific training for her job. Back in 1925 broadcasting was a spasmodic and chancy affair.
Broadcasting time was filled in mainly with assorted music, interspersed with talks on practi-
cally anything by almost anyone who was willing to face a microphone. One of these was Alice Blinn, now associate editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, at that time on the staff of the Delineator.
Miss Blinn had agreed to speak on blankets— wool versus cotton. Arriving at the studio with time to spare and a curious interest in this thing called radio, shp asked a few questions of a young woman who was receptionist, program arranger and man of most of the work.
“What a lovely job you have here,” remarked Miss Blinn. “How did you get it?”
“I’m leaving at the end of the week,” came the reply. “Would you like to have it?” Miss Blinn said she liked the job she had, thank you, but she had a friend whom she thought would be suited for it. The friend was Margaret Cuthbert, who got the job.
WEAF was a pioneer station of the American Telephone and Telegraph company, with two small studios at 195 Broadway, from which they broadcast for four or five hours daily under the most uncertain and nerve-racking circumstances.
There was no method of communication then between those in the studio and those in the control room. Singers were kept away from the microphone by a brass rail in order to keep their voices from bouncing back. Sound effects were rarely used in case they be mistaken for static. Air conditioning was achieved simply, if not effectively, by an electric fan blowing on a piece of ice.
Often the entire staff would go on the air with an impromptu program, and Margaret Cuthbert recalls how the pianist would have hysterics, the hostess would break down in the middle of a breathless little song, and they’d Continued on page 44
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all wind up at a restaurant, with a cup of coffee and a heated discussion on the pronunciation of the word “data.” Often as not the whole staff had to pitch in afterward and clean up the studios.
The quality that fitted Margaret Cuthbert for the job was her interest in people and in education. An experience that helped her was one she’d had at Cornell when she conceived the idea of bringing celebrated contemporaries to address the students. The faculty pointed out that they brought lecturers who spoke to row upon row of seats that were not only empty but free. Margaret Cuthbert suggested that perhaps they were bringing the wrong people, was positive she could fill a hall to hear Edna St. Vincent Millay at 50 cents a ticket.
Doubtfully the faculty agreed to back her to make up the guarantee of $200. Margaret Cuthbert put up her posters, then waited through an agonizing day of pouring rain. That lecture not only met the guarantee but made a few hundred dollars profit.
With her talent for knowing what people want to hear, Margaret Cuthbert has brought a great string of
celebrities to NBC microphones. Her first lion was John Galsworthy, who agreed to speak on his pet crusade, “The Cruelty of Caging Wild Animals.” His secretary stipulated that he would speak for but three minutes, that he must not only have no audience but he must be protected by a screen.
In preparation for the broadcast Margaret Cuthbert dug up a copy of “Memories,” a Galsworthy story about a spaniel, persuaded him that a few excerpts from this work would make an effective build-up for his plea, wound up by having him read almost the entire book, by wangling a well-rounded 20-minute broadcast from what was originally a three-minute plug.
Margaret Cuthbert never broadcast herself if she could help it, though her deep, roughish, friendly voice comes well over the air. Her idea was, and still is, to bring people to the microphone, people who would widen the horizons of the listeners—particularly the women listeners.
The reason she concentrates on women, she explains, is not because she is a feminist but because men have had more to say, and she wants to help bring women to take an equal place. One of the great triumphs for her and for broadcasting technique was achieved four years ago when she brought together 17 outstanding women from 17
different countries. Another wa on the day of President Roosevelt’ death, when, with five hours notice, she rounded up and had on the air Anne O’Hare McCormick, Dean Gildersleeve and Frances Perkins.
Even with radio the clock-smooth medium it is today, things don’t always turn out as ordered, and, in retrospect at least, Margaret Cuthbert enjoys the humor of a slip-up. On her “Round the World” broadcast she says they called in Mrs. Biddle, London, Eng., got the wrong studio, and instead of Mrs. B. heard a dreary male voice explaining the use of sponges in the treatment of open wounds. Another time an announcement that the Pope would speak was followed by a lively blare of dance music—another case of the right city but the wrong studio.
Two from Royalty
Among her list of famous broadcasters, Margaret Cuthbert has had two crowned heads—the Crown Prince of Sweden, who did a broadcast, and Queen Marie of Romania, who caused a crisis by not turning up. Most durable choices that she’s made of good radio material are Dorothy Thompson, Clifton Fadiman and Major George Fielding Eliot.
One of the results of her personal
arranging with celebrities in earlier years before scripts were typed and censored and filed is that she has a precious collection of original manuscripts which she plans to compile in a book if she ever has the time. One of the greatest treasures, a more recent one, is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Murder of Lidice,” which is under glass and one of the display pieces at Radio City.
After 30 years in the United States, and 20 of them spent in what is one of the most typically American institutions, Margaret Cuthbert is thought of by friends and fellow workers as British—the way the Magna Charta is British. To her ancestry they attribute her “keen sense of justice and fair play,” “her avoidance of sharp practice,” “her cutting a pretty clean line in handling people.” To her northwest upbringing they attribute her uncitified yearning for the great outdoors —her strange craving for sunshine, for cold sharp air, for sailing, riding horseback, and getting into old clothes to do some gardening.
Although she doesn’t have much time for it, Margaret Cuthbert still rides horseback and takes the jumps, still gets out into the country every week end she gets the chance. This liking for country life is part of her Canadian background, which is so crammed with history, redcoats, Indians and frontier days she could probably sell the story to Hollywood for vast sums.
The family history in Canada goes back to the early days in Quebec when the Scottish-Canadian Cuthberts were granted a Quebec seigneury on the St. Lawrence at Bertheir, near Sorel, a seigneury that stayed in the family till a few years ago, when Margaret Cuthbert’s mother sold her “fifth.”
Margaret was born in Prince Albert, daughter of Major A. Ross Cuthbert, assistant commissioner of the Northwest Mounted Police; moved from there to Dawson City, in 1906, a time when the gold rush was over but the aftermath of it still made the town exciting.
There was a high school in Dawson City which Margaret Cuthbert and her two brothers attended. There were also less orthodox forms of education, such as Louse Town, the local name for the red-light district, and a dance hall built like an opera house, with galleries of curtained rooms running round it.
Once Margaret and a young friend whose father was also in the Force decided they would visit the dance hall. Margaret wore riding breeches, tall boots, and tucked her hair into a Stetson hat. The two 14-year-olds posed as two young men about town, settled themselves in one of the curtained rooms from which they could watch the goings on below, ordered port or sherry—and got away with the evening out.
When she left Dawson City Margaret Cuthbert went to Cornell. As a
student she was satisfactory, but as a hockey player she was phenomenal. A story is told that the men of Cornell held a conference to consider the legality of having a woman on the men’s hockey team—Margaret Cuthbert being the best skater of either sex in the university.
After graduation, and her culinary season in Maple Creek, Margaret Cuthbert went to Washington, then back to Cornell as executive secretary of the College of Home Economics. This was the period in which she established herself as a successful impresario, and she stayed on the job till a series of unrelated events, including her own appendix, the death of her father and a desire to make a home for her mother, prompted her to give up her job and try her luck in New York.
There she picked up her friendship with Alice Blinn, whom she had met at Cornell. With Margaret’s mother, the two girls set up housekeeping in a New York apartment. After Mrs. Cuthbert died the household and the friendship continued, and the two women live today very pleasantly in an apartment filled with new books and gramophone records and usually with people, in the main young people of talent.
They are looked after by an Irish general named Mary, who hates the English, threatens constantly to return to Ireland, slams the door if they complain about the coffee, and is completely devoted to them. In the summer they go to a country place in Connecticut, which they’ve had for the past 12 years.
Likes Cooking Now
Margaret Cuthbert’s pleasures, when she has time for them, are the theatre, small parties, and, in spite of the experience at Maple Creek, cooking and collecting recipes.
“She has a good English appetite for steaks and roast,” says Alice Blinn. She also enjoys more exotic foods, will eat practically anything if it’s served with sauce vinaigrette, regards as a great discovery her recipe for making a borsch that’s no trouble at all.
In addition to her job Margaret Cuthbert finds herself called upon for a broad field of public service. Regular calls on her time are made through her membership on the National Boards of the YWCA and YMCA. Although her job is pretty well a set-hour executive position, it still calls for a tremendous amount of reading, a good deal of radio listening. To get everything done she frequently finds it necessary to set her alarm for 5 or 6 a.m., to get in two or three hours work before breakfast.
The fact that she finds it no hardship is because of her great interest and belief in radio. She may also find some satisfaction in being cited before the nation as “one who has brought to radio a depth of sympathy and understanding which is reflected in her professional work as well as in her personal life.”
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