Articles

FROM PARIS TO PUSAN WITH PENNY.

PIERRE BERTON January 1 1952
Articles

FROM PARIS TO PUSAN WITH PENNY.

PIERRE BERTON January 1 1952

FROM PARIS TO PUSAN WITH PENNY.

Articles

Riding a jet fighter over Korea, surfing on Australian beaches, hitching on the Berlin airlift — Vancouver’s Penny Wise turns up n the most amazing places in search of material for her Shopping Guide column that sometimes does have a few household hints

PIERRE BERTON

MACLEAN’S ARTICLE EDITOR

MISS EVELYN CALDWELL, the food and household hints editor of the Vancouver Sun, was sitting in her small cubbyhole of an office the other day,

applying make-up, when Mr. Hal Straight, the two-hundred-and-forty-five-pound managing editor, walked in.

“Caldwell,” said Mr. Straight, to the food and household hints editor. “Caldwell, I wonder if you would mind just occasionally writing a little something about food and perhaps putting the odd household hint in your column?” Miss Caldwell, who is known as Penny Wise to one hundred and sixty thousand Sun subscribers and plain Caldwell to her confreres, said she would be glad to oblige, though it certainly seemed like an odd request. Readers of her column, a little corner entitled Shopping Guide tucked a$vay among the recipes and social notes, have long since become accustomed to more exotic fare. They have followed Penny Wise through one hundred thousand miles of adventures—forty thousand of them last year— to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Bermuda, New York, Montreal, Honolulu, Fiji, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canton Island, Tokyo and most of southern Korea from Seoul to Pusan.

A pert forty-two-year-old spinster with an Irish temper and a passion for black nighties, filet mignon and ecstatic prose, Caldwell has a string of journalistic triumphs to her credit. She established herself in a man’s world years ago by becoming the first woman to ascend, in high-heeled shoes, the swaying catwalk of Lions Gate Bridge, four hundred feet above the ocean—a feaf a male colleague had refused to attempt the week before. She was the second smallest parcel one hundred and six pounds ever carried on the Berlin airlift. She is one of a handful of women reporters to cover the Korean War, and the only Canadian one.

She is also the only living reporter to keep her job after twice flouting one of the cardinal principles of journalism: Do Not Throw A Gluepot or Rye Whisky Bottle At Your City Editor. Caldwell, who formerly worked for the Vancouver News-Herald, once beaned the city editor of that paper with a whisky bottle because he called her a professional Irishwoman. She beaned another one, or maybe it was the same one, with a gluepot when he cut some of her copy. On this occasion the embattled city editor sought refuge in the men’s room. Caldwell clambered over the transom and beaned him again.

The most astonishing chapter in the far-from-finished Caldwell saga is her recent assignment in Korea, a country which would appear to have little to offer the food and household hints editor of a Canadian newspaper.

Originally Caldwell had wangled an airplane pass to Australia where she planned to look up an old boy friend and write some ecstatic prose for Shopping Guide. (“As a confirmed old maid I think Australian men are just peachy — much nicer than Canadians,” she had told her

readers on an earlier trip.)

When she broached the

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idea to her publisher, Don Cromie, he twirlec the big globe in his office and said: “After all, Korea’s only a jump from Sydney. Why not drop up there and see how our boys are doing?” Caldwell thought he was joking, but in May last year she found herself jeeping along the beleaguered peninsula producing an effect on the troops only slightly less earth-shaking than a medium-sized atom bomb. “They just gawked all along the way,” she says. “I felt like the Queen. I looked a bloody mess with the dust in my hair and wearing those awful khaki things but they’d see that lipstick and wave and wave and wave.”

Caldwell left military reporting to the strategists and concentrated on the more personal side of the war. “I guess I’m just a silly old softie, because I’ve been crying steadily ever since I stood on the dock at Pusan and watched thousands of Canadian soldiers file happily onto Korean soil,” she wrote at thestart of one dispatch. “I’m lucky to be alive today!” she chirruped in another. “Yesterday the jeep I had ridden some three hundred miles over Korean roads was blown sky-high.” Later she became the first woman to rice in a jet plane over Red-held Korea, “thanks to the smartest and the best-looking and the nicest and the youngest colonel I’ve ever met.” She got herself photographed in Korean dress packing a basket on her head and a baby on her back. She even managed to get a cooking and household hints column out of a shopping expedition in Taegu. And she wrote at length about the embarrassments of being a woman in a man’s world. “There is,” she told her readers, “the delicate matter of what is known throughout the length and breadth of Korea as Penny’s Powder Room.”

Wherever she went she received ovations. Men pleaded with her to put on fresh make-up because they hadn’t seen a girl do that for months. Others asked her to take off her hat so they could see a white woman with long hair after the close - cropped Korean matrons.

One touching incident brought Caldwell flying back to Korea from Tokyo. She was planning to leave for Canada when she heard that she had accidentally missed a party planned in her honor by the Princess Pats. She promptly flung aside her khaki outfit, got into her best green gabardine suit, donned a black hat with a veil, a pair of black pumps and the sheerest nylons she could find and got a plane back to Korea. As souvenirs for the troops she brought along a box of fresh strawberries, a garter girdle and a pair of black panties. “They had about one strawberry each,” she recalls. “They sat around eating it and looking at me. The poor things, they thought I was Rita Hayworth. God, I wish I were!” Caldwell is certainly no movie star. She has a plain but animated Irish face and a diminutive figure. She photographs badly but wears clothes well and has no lack of boy friends. She speaks at a mile-a minute clip and her column gushes from her typewriter as fast as she can touch-type it. After twentyone years in the newspaper business she can write as swiftly as she can think.

She began her career by selling a poem to the Vancouver Daily Province for fifty cents. She sold several more, then heard that a social writer on the morning Star was getting married. She asked for the job and got it. She made her first bloomer almost at once. She reported a Women’s Canadian Club talk on “Henry Gibson.” She had

never heard of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. “Pve been making mistakes like that ever since,” she says cheerfully.

The Star folded and a group of out-of work newspapermen started a co-operative paper, the News-Herald. Caldwell got seven and a half dollars a week in cash and seven and a half dollars in stock and, with the others, worked on kitchen chairs and apple boxes. She was so broke she walked home four miles each night to save carfare. She worked twelve and four teen hours a day, six days a week. Before long she became social editor.

In 1936 she suddenly hopped a freighter and went off to Europe by way of Panama and Trinidad. She appeased her paper by volunteering to cover the Coronation in England. But on Coronation Day she perversely left London and spent the day in a little country pub. She saw the Coronation next day in the newsreels and reported what she had seen, which included just about everything that had happened. Her last line explained that she’d seen it all in the movies , but a deskman cut that out. Dozens of readers phoned in to protest that no human being could see all that Caldwell said she had seen. “There was a big stink over that but it died down before I got home,” she says laconically.

She Interviewed a Dog

'fliese days she is more careful, though sometimes no more reverent, in her coverage of royalty. On the recent royal tour, which she covered from London to Vancouver last fall, she caused howls of protest by reporting that Princess Elizabeth picked up a fishbone in her fingers at a state dinner in Quebec City. Yet in Calgary the singing of the National Anthem brought tears to her eyes. “After all,” she explained later, “it was the Princess’ father they were singing about and 1 thought that was kind of nice, you know. I kept thinking how nice I'd feel if they sang a song about my father—you know, if they sang God Save Old Bill Caldwell.”

After seeing the Coronation in the newsreels Caldwell returned to the News-Herald. She left the social page and has never reported a wedding or a tea party since. She wrote a column called Sauce for the Goose and covered every beat in town. She did all the things good reporters should do. She dressed up as a clown in the circus. She stole pictures of murdered men from their mothers’ top bureau drawers. She interviewed a dog. She covered courts, police station, city hall and provincial legislature. Her prose was emotional, her approach personal. “I guess I was a sob sister,” she says.

In the war years she quit the paper for a public-relations job with the Wartime Prices and Trade Board in Montreal. With the war over she came back to Vancouver where the Sun hired her to jack up its ailing Shopping Guide column. The Guide had been started to give tips to women readers on where to buy war-scarce commodities such as rice and starch. The first Penny Wise was a man. “He never said anything more interesting than the fact that thirty-two tons of carrots had reached Vancouver and were selling at so many dollars per carload lot,” Caldwell remembers. She soon changed that.

Her intimate chatty style soon began to get readers and the results quickly became apparent. “I’d say the store you can throw a stone on from the Vancouver Sun building was going to have lard on Thursday and hundreds would mob the store and then pretty soon nobody would tell me when they

were going to have lard next,” she recalls.

Her bosses soon became aware of the column’s pull. When Penny Wise boosted a new French lipstick that didn’t come off on collars one hundred men phoned for more details in a single day. When she made an error which cut the price of wild rice to one tenth, the wild-rice grower got four hundred letters before it was corrected. Caldwell loves broccoli and one importer credits her with singlehandedly boosting waning broccoli sales in Vancouver. “Think of it,” she exclaims. “I may go down in history as the woman who made Vancouver broccoli conscious!” Often she angered advertisers. Beauty-parlor operators phoned up in droves when she plugged home perma nents. The Downtown Businessmen’s Association rose in wrath when she urged her readers to buy at small community stores. Pretty soon the Sun’s advertising manager stopped speaking to her.

She got her women readers to send thirty-five hundred letters to Ottawa protesting the ban on margarine and when responsibility was turned over to the provinces she got them to deluge Victoria with twenty-five hundred more. Soon the Sun had to supply her with a secretary to handle the two or three hundred letters she began to get each month. Her salary went up until it’s now ninety dollars a week, still a good cut below the Sun’s male columnists, but then, as Caldwell says, “I really don’t work very hard.”

At Christmas It’s Ermine

The new job brought a change in the former police-court reporter. In her lean days she had worn a mud-colored corduroy suit and let her hair straggle over her face. Now she spruced herself up, got a set of bright hats, did things to her coiffure and emerged with a bright new look.

The city desk quickly learned to ride herd on her. She has a habit of slipping sly innuendoes into her columns that might not be in place in a family paper. She wrote so many columns on the art of mixing drinks that she has been rationed to one a year, at Christmas time, when she also writes a Pound Foolish column on bargains in ermine coats and diamond necklaces. The rest of the time she concentrates on more lowly buys and on her ceaseless battle against high prices. One heated Open Letter to Finance Minister Doug Abbott started out this way:

Dear Mr. Abbott: Of course you, with your $16,000 every 12 months— including that $2,000 for car expenses alone—cannot be expected to lie awake nights worrying because the price of potatoes in Vancouver was allowed to jump one hundred percent overnight . . .

Soon the shopping editor began to get itchy feet. Before long she was wangling passes on trains and planes for far-off places. Her column took on all the informality and naïveté of a young girl’s letter home:

You guessed it! I’m heading for Montreal, a city I love and one in which I could gladly spend the rest of my life if it weren't (a) so hot and (b) so cold. A week there, a wondrous week, and then — New Yoik! Imagine. Those wishing to touch me will please line up at the left.

Although she still gave shopping and cooking hints about Hawaiian pineapples and Bermuda bananas she also described the ruins of Berlin, the state dress of a Fijian chief, the Australian lottery system and her first look at the Southern Cross at night.

People began to recognize her in far-off places.

“Why you’re Penny Wise!” a woman exclaimed halfway across the Atlantic in a TCA place.

By now Vancouverites are wellacquainted with the tiny details of Caldwell’s home life. They know she always buys a new sheer nightgown before a iong trip -a blue one for Hollywood, a pink one for New York, a red one for Bermuda, a scarlet one for Berlin and a black one for Paris. For Korea she substituted red flannel pyjamas.

They know all about the succession of tiny cars she drives erratically about town: Lily Pons, her old Singer; Fanny, her Fiat, and her present Annie, an Austin. They also know she lives in a small four-room dwelling called House along with Bean, her kidneyshaped chesterfield; Downie, her bed; Top Drawer, her bureau; Glory Hole, her utility room; Junior Glory Hole, her clothes cupboard; Kitchen, her kitchen; and a thirty-six-year-old china doll named Annabelle which, publicly and privately, Evelyn Caldwell treats as a living, breathing being.

These figments of Caldwell’s leprechaun mind are taken in full stride by her constant readers but have tended to make non-admirers of the Caldwell school of journalism almost physically ill.

Newspaper friends who sometimes refer to Annabelle as “that doll” are likely to get beaned with a pastepot or whisky bottle. “She’s Queen of the Little People,” Caldwell says deadly serious. Annabelle travels with her everywhere and in Korea was made an “Ornery Colonel” of the Princess Pats who pinned a hat badge on her falsies with a pipe cleaner.

Annabelle has a complete wardrobe which includes a negligee trimmed with ostrich feathers, blue undies with lace tatting, lounging pyjamas, Hawaiian grass skirt, dressing gown, nighties, sealskin coat and a variety of suits and dresses. The Princess Pats have one of her blue garters as a souvenir.

Mrs. Pim the cat, another frequent character in Shopping Guide, has departed by request. One day Mrs. Pim brought a snake into the house. Caldwell cannot stand snakes. The Sun prints no pictures of them for even a photograph will send her screaming from the office. “Gimme lions, tigers, wild Indians anything but snakes,” she says. When Mrs. Pim brought the snake in Caldwell ran shrieking into the cabbage patch and stayed there shrieking until neighbors, gendarmes, small boys and passers-by began to arrive in droves. Mrs. Pim was sent away from there. “I wasn’t the same for months,” says Caldwell. “It gave me a permanent pain in the head.”

When she’s home a Caldwell day follows a fairly even routine. She rises late, around ten-thirty, and drinks a quart of hot water. Then she goes over to the piano and plays, with a shaky bass, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love Baby, or perhaps Some Enchanted Evening. This over, she eats a hearty breakfast of fruit juice, bacon and eggs, toast, marmalade and coffee and has a hot bath. She says good-by to Annabelle, hops into Annie, drives to the office, goes up to the cafeteria and has a cup of tea and a sandwich made of peanut butter and honey. After that she makes the rounds of the larger stores, looking for new items for sale, comparing prices and occasionally dropping down to wholesale row. If she catches people overcharging she writes about it. She mentions no trade names but usually manages to let her readers know who or what she means.

On Bean with a Book

She writes her column late in the afternoon when the office is quiet and empty. About three times a week she makes a speech to one of the dozens of organizations asking for her. Usually she talks about her most recent trip with gusto and verve, interjecting her anecdotes with little giggles. “I just put a nickel in one ear and the talk comes out,” she says. When she gives a talk about her trip to Hawaii she always ends with a hula dance complete with grass skirt. “It makes them clap, you know,” she says, “and then I think they’re clapping for me when really they’re clapping about the dance, but I don’t know that and I feel good.”

If there’s no lecture Caldwell goes home about 7 p.rn., greets Annabelle, and cooks her own supper, usually a filet mignon. “I like my own cooking better than any other cooking I’ve ever eaten,” she says. Then she lolls back on Bean and reads a book, often enough a sea or travel story. At 10 p.m. she climbs into Downie and sleeps until 3 a.m. when she wakes and drinks a pint or so of Creamo to keep her weight up (she lost fifteen pounds in Korea). Then she reads some more before going back to sleep and occasionally wonders “why the hell I’m all alone in an empty house.”

Actually there’s no reason why she should be. She gets half a dozen proposals of marriage a year from admiring men who read her column.

“They send me pictures of themselves standing by trees or working in the fields,” she says. “They say they live a quiet life and think I’ll enjoy it after the hectic life I lead. I tell them I’ll keep them in mind. I’m not going to get married until I retire and I’m not going to retire for quite a little while yet.”