By Hillel Aron
All Agness Underwood ever wanted was to be a housewife.
“I am no feminist,” begins her wonderful 1949 memoir, Newspaperwoman. “If I were asked what I regard as the woman’s place, I’d probably give the old-fashioned answer: In the home.” Aggie would have stayed there if not for the simple want of a pair of silk stockings. And she would have returned, except, she wrote, “I got a bear by the tail and I couldn’t let go.” And so, instead of remaining at the home, she would go on to become a celebrated crime reporter, and later, the first female city editor of a major american newspaper.
Born in 1902, Underwood’s mother died when she was six years old. She was passed from relative to relative (“switched around like checkers,” she wrote), and finally to the county orphanage. She travelled all the way to San Francisco to live with a relative, except by the time Underwood arrived, the relative had disappeared. At age 17, she took a “coastwise steamer” to Los Angeles, to live with a different relative in Hollywood. After three months, the relative kicked poor Aggie out. She then moved into the Salvation Army Home for Working Girls, and got a job as a waitress at the Pig ‘n Whistle.
One day, the Hollywood relative rematerialized, demanding that Underwood move back in with her, threatening to report her to the authorities if she didn’t. She didn’t want to, but what choice did she have? She was only 17. When she showed up to work crying, a soda jerk named George asked her what was wrong. She told him. Underwood recalls:
“She can’t do that,” he said.
“But she can; she can get the police after me.”
“No she can’t,” he insisted quietly, “not if we get married. If we get married, she won’t have a thing to say about you, so let’s get married.”
Three weeks later, on April 28, 1920, they were married. Underwood would soon give birth to two children. They were young, and they were poor. They struggled to make ends meet, moving around a lot.
One day, in 1926, Aggie asked George for a new pair of silk stockings. He refused. She threatened to go out and get a job. Her husband forbade it. They fought (they would later divorce, and poor George goes completely nameless in Newspaperwoman). Aggie ignored George and got a temp job as a switchboard operator for a small newspaper called The Los Angeles Record.
Almost immediately, she was enamored with the anarchic, male-dominated atmosphere of the newsroom. She writes:
Shirt-sleeved men attacked beaten-up typewriters which snarled and balked. Sheets of paper snowed on a central point called the city desk, whatever that meant. Men gyrated through the crazyquilt of splintered desks and tables. It was a jumble.
Just before her job was scheduled to end, Underwood was asked to stay on until the end of the year by a woman named Gertrude Price (who went by the pen name Cynthia Grey), the editor of the Woman’s Page, to help Price prepare for the “annual Cynthia Grey Christmas-basket program for the poor in Los Angeles.” After Christmas, Price asked Underwood to work two hours a day as her secretary, answering phones and taking dictation. For the first few months, she was paid out of Price’s own pocket, until she was hired by the paper as a full-time clerk. Then one day:
As bulletins pumped in and city-side worked furiously at localizing, I couldn’t keep myself in my niche. I committed the unpardonable sin of looking over shoulders of reporters as they wrote. I got under foot. In what I thought was exasperation, Rod Brink, the city editor, said:
“All right, if you’re so interested, take this dictation.”
I typed the dictation – part of the main running story. I was sunk. I wanted to be a reporter.
Gertrude Price took Aggie under her wing. It was a slow education. She started as a reporter for the Women’s Page, still occasionally filling in as a typist for different departments. The sports editor gave her the nickname “Aggie,” which used to make her cry as a kid, but Price convinced her that nicknames were a good thing for reporters. The name stuck. Assorted typing assignments became assorted sports reporting assignments, which became assorted city desk reporting assignments.
By the early ’30s, Underwood was essentially a full-time city reporter, covering such iconic stories as the killing of political boss Charlie Crawford (a tale laid out in the recent book, A Bright and Guilty Place); the disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson; and the mysterious murder of an adventurer named Captain Walter Wanderwell.
In 1935, thanks to her coverage of the Wanderwell story, Underwood was recruited to join the Herald and Express. Owned by William Randolph Hearst, it was a much larger and more prestigious paper than the Record. Hearst’s papers specialized in gruesome tabloid stories, sensationalized murders with outrageous headlines and catchy phrases like “Death Garage” and “Inglewood Tots.” Her writing was soaked to the bone in melodrama. One memorable lead read: “What little Jeanette Marjorie Stephens loved in life–a ruffled blue organdy dress–will be her shroud in death.”
Her reporting could be just as audacious. According to the LA Times:
Aggie Underwood prided herself on christening murder cases with catchy names.
In a moment of inspiration–and calculation–she dropped a white carnation on the body of a waitress who had been stabbed to death. She gave the homicide a name: “The White Carnation Murder.” When she told a photographer to take a picture of her creation, a cop objected–and Underwood smacked him with her purse.
But she also excelled at giving readers the human side of murders – especially women murderers. In Front-Page Women Journalists, Kathleen A. Cairns writes:
Many of the murders Underwood covered were perpetrated by women, and she seemed to have had a particular affinity for these criminals, treating them with unfailing respect… [and] as complex humans being apart from their criminal activities.
According to Cairns, by the 1940s, Underwood was considered to be one of the best reporters in Los Angeles. She covered everything– celebrities, trials, politics. She seemed to know every cop, every politician and every judge in town. During Charlie Chaplin’s 1944 paternity trial, she simply strode into the judge’s chambers with a photographer in tow to grab an exclusive photo of the baby in question.
In 1947, Underwood was the first reporter to arrive at a crime scene on Coliseum Drive. The body of a 22-year-old girl named Elizabeth Short had been found, cut in half. Underwood would later claim credit for Short’s famous nickname, writing:
I was checking with Ray Giese, homicide detective-lieutenant, for any stray fact that might have been overlooked. Later, in the squad room, he said, “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around the drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.” The term resulted from the slinky black clothes she affected.
(Other sources have claimed the nickname was a play on the recent film, The Blue Dahlia, had more to do with the victims hair, and was coined by Underwood’s Herald-Express colleague Bevo Means.)
Underwood got a major scoop early in the case, when she talked her way into an exclusive interview (with the help of a friendly homicide detective) with the first suspect in the case, Robert Hanley, which ended up clearing his name (the case remains unsolved).
Later that year, much to her surprise, Underwood was promoted to city editor, the first woman to hold that position at a newspaper in a big American city. The promotion made Underwood a minor celebrity of sorts, earning her profiles from both Time and Newsweek. Two years later, her memoir was published by Harpers.
She quickly developed a close relationship with her reporters, calling them (according to Time) “my boys,” saying there were times when she wanted to “sit on the desk and have them call me Grandmaw.” She kept a bottle of bourbon in her desk to help her reporters get over hangovers, and would sometimes treat them to a beer if they got a good scoop.
But she had a tough side too – according to Cairns, she didn’t take “any back talk, insulting oafing, or smart-aleck insubordination.” She kept a baseball bat on her desk to intimidate either press agents or her staff, or both. She abhorred a quiet newsroom – according to the Times, “reporters swore she kept a gun with blanks inside her desk drawer, which she allegedly would fire at the ceiling if the place got too quiet.” In return, she was beloved by her reporters (“We would have done almost anything for her” Jack Smith told Time) and was shown absolute deference by local officials.
Underwood served as city editor of the Herald for a staggering 17 and 1/2 years, finally getting a promotion to managing editor, although she would retire soon after, in 1968, when union news reporters went on strike – even though she was management, she couldn’t cross her “boys.”
In her memoir, she wrote, “I do not regard the fact that I am city editor of a metropolitan newspaper as a triumph in emancipation of womanhood, equality of the sexes – or votes for wimmin.” She seemed hellbent, in 1949, against placing her own rise within the context of a movement, as if that would somehow belittle all of her hard work. But as her career progressed, and as women’s organizations bestowed more and more honors upon her, this stance seems to have softened. Cairns writes:
[P]erhaps the strongest evidence of Underwood’s willingness to link her career success to the larger “group called women” came in 1976, during an interview she gave to a young woman studying for a master’s degree in journalism. Interviewer Natalie Holtzman suggested Underwood really had been a feminist after all. Underwood did not contradict her.