Nan Robertson
Nan Robertson
The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times
ISBN: 0595154646
The Girls in the Balcony
Nan Robertson discussed her book, "The Girls in The Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times." Her book chronicles the history of sex discrimination at The New York Times. It also details the class action suit brought against The New York Times by seven women in 1974, which was settled in favor of the women. Ms. Robertson also discussed how she won a Pulitzer Prize for a story on toxic shock syndrome. Ms. Robertson contracted the infection herself and had the ends of her fingers amputated before she recovered.
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TRANSCRIPT
The Girls in the Balcony
Program Air Date: March 29, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nan Robertson, why did you call your new book "The Girls in the Balcony?"
NAN ROBERTSON: The balcony is -- or was -- the balcony of the National Press Club, an all-male institution until just 20 years ago. And when in 1955 the men decided that they would let in women to cover [and] to report on events taking place there, they put us in a very narrow, extremely uncomfortable balcony at the far end of the ballroom. We stood there while some of the most important men in the world spoke. It was hard to hear them. We were crushed together. We did not have lunch. We looked down at the male members and their guests scarfing up a four-course lunch on the ballroom floor, and it was humiliating. We couldn't even do our job right. This happened between 1955 and 1971, and finally the pro-women forces, who had been fighting in vote after vote, year after year, to have women admitted won in 1971.

But just 20 years ago I was standing in that balcony with other women. We could not ask questions. We were not allowed. It was frustrating. And so one of the three women in The New York Times bureau told Scotty Reston one day that she would not go there anymore. And two other women, myself and Eileen Shanahan, who covered finance and high economics, said that we wouldn't cover assignments there. It was very difficult, you know, because the newspaper business used to be kind of like the Army. You were given an assignment and you went on that assignment and you did not discuss it and you did not argue against it. And Scotty could hardly believe that we were doing this. I mean, to me, the balcony at the National Press Club was the metaphor for this book. And it certainly was the ugliest symbol of discrimination that I knew of in all journalism.
LAMB: Did you ever...
ROBERTSON: That's what I called it.
LAMB: Did you ever ask any male why they wouldn't let women in? Well, they let women in the balcony ... why they wouldn't let them sit downstairs?
ROBERTSON: Of course we did. I mean, there were constant complaints from the Women's National Press Club that went over years, and finally they made the balcony decision. And then we said, "But we're not allowed to cover the story properly. We can't hear the speakers properly. We can't ask questions. We're not equal still." And their attitude was that women would be a disruptive part of the National Press Club, that we'd make men feel uncomfortable in the bar, that we might ask stupid questions. It's so hard to remember how recent that kind of attitude was. It's better, but not good enough.
LAMB: Why did you write this book?
ROBERTSON: I wrote it because the story had never been told before, because every major book ever written about The New York Times almost ignores the women who contributed to it. Such books as Meyer Berger's "Authorized History of The New York Times" in 1951; Gay Talese's compulsively readable "The Kingdom and the Power," which came out in '69; Harrison Salisbury's "Without Fear or Favor"; David Halberstam's "The Powers that Be." I mean, women were invisible, and we've added a great deal to this newspaper. And I thought, I would like to tell their story. I would like to tell how a group of very brave women pushed The Times into the 20th century, made it live up to its own ideals and its public image of being a humane, liberal, progressive lecturing newspaper -- lecturing the nation in its editorials about how white men would have to give up the power. How, of course, they felt uncomfortable with the minorities and the women pushing for equal rights and equal pay. And at the same time, this great institution, which I loved, was fighting the women's suit tooth and nail and historically has not been welcoming to women, until very recently.

And it's a great story. It's full of heroines, not many heroes, very few villains, however. I think it has a lot to do with ignorance, insensitivity and the fact that nobody who has power and is part of the status quo will move or voluntarily give away any of that power without being pushed. I really believe in organization.
LAMB: You write about a lot of people who are still alive ...
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: ... still at The Times.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: The current editor, the current publisher, past publisher. Anybody real mad at you for this book?
ROBERTSON: Not that I've heard from. I mean, it's very funny. I don't think I'm going to get any royalties from The New York Times staff because they all asked for advanced galleys of this book, and it was being passed around the building like samizdat. I mean, people disappearing to the men's room and reading it. And the feedback has been wonderful. All of the seven plaintiffs have read it and called me to say how much they loved the book and how accurate it was.
LAMB: Seven plaintiffs of ...
ROBERTSON: In the sexual discrimination suit against The New York Times, which was settled in favor of the women in the late '70s. They called me, the lawyer for the women called me. I heard a wonderful story about young Arthur Sulzberger. Can I tell it?
LAMB: Sure.
ROBERTSON: A few weeks before he became ...
LAMB: First tell us who Arthur Sulzberger ...
ROBERTSON: I'm sorry. He is the son -- the only son and heir of Punch Sulzberger, who was publisher from 1963 until January of this year. Several weeks before Punch stepped aside and young Arthur became the new publisher of The Times in January of this year, he was at a bar mitzvah for one of the innumerable, sort of, Sulzberger clan, and also there was Harriet Rabb, who had been the attorney pressing the women's class-action suit. So Harriet found herself at lunch seated next to young Arthur. And she said, with some trepidation, "My name is Harriet Rabb." And Arthur's face lit up and he grabbed her and he said, "Harriet Rabb!" He said, "Have you read Nan's book? Isn't it fabulous? I loved it." Young Arthur is a feminist and he's been pushing to close the gap between the salaries of men and women doing the same job, which is country-wide and society-wide and industry-wide. He's really doing things. He's really a devoted feminist and I have high hopes for him. The fact that he does come off well in the book -- he's promised a lot. He has acted, he has followed through in trying to shrink the salary gap, and has shrunk it.

For instance, he told me when I was interviewing him that the salary gap between men and women on The New York Times on the editorial side was averaging $13,000 a year, and on the business side it was averaging $25,000 a year. He's now narrowed the gap to zero for new hires on the editorial side and to about $7,000 a year on the business side. And this is a big move. I mean, Punch is an amiable, decent, wonderful guy, but he never leaned on his managers, saying, "This counts on your record, not just putting out a quality product. Let's really do something about women and minorities." He never really pushed. He said, "This is a very good idea," and then didn't follow through.
LAMB: Did The New York Times review your book?
ROBERTSON: It's going to review it next Sunday.
LAMB: Do you have any idea what the review is going to say?
ROBERTSON: Of course.
LAMB: Is it written by a man or a woman?
ROBERTSON: I have many moles. It's written by a woman, I think, although it's difficult to tell from the name. I do not know this person. It sounds like a woman's name and it's favorable.
LAMB: Does that surprise you?
ROBERTSON: In a sense, it does, because I knew, a) that they would have to review it, and The Times is big enough to review it. I knew that the person who reviewed it, whether male or female, might think that if they wrote a favorable review about a shadowed series of episodes in The Times' history, that they might think that if they wrote a good review, that they would never be able to write for The Times again.

Many outsiders think of The Times as a monolith instead of a newspaper with thousands of diverse personalities in it. I mean, there are a thousand people on the news staff. There are 6,000 employees altogether. And we do not act and think as one. But you know, outsiders speak of The New York Times as if we were all alike within it, which is not true.
LAMB: Current editor Max Frankel.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: How do you think he likes this book?
ROBERTSON: He has been asked by many people within The Times and outside what he thinks of the book. And he has replied that he has not read it. I don't know if Max is speaking the truth. I don't know if he has read it and feels that it would be less controversial if he did not comment upon it. Max is a friend. I mean, I am hard on Max.
LAMB: You call him -- say, "His style with women is ponderously gallant."
ROBERTSON: I think that's a very accurate description.
LAMB: What does that mean?
ROBERTSON: Max is rather ponderous. He is not light and gay of heart. I have known Max since we were both in our 20s or early 30s. And even then I used to tease him by calling him the young fogey. He's very earnest. He's a very decent guy. The Times is full of decent men. But somehow it's almost as if Max and I -- we're very close together in age. I'm 65, he's about 61 or 62 now. It's almost as if Max and I are in a different generation. I was moved and exhilarated and propelled into action by the women's movement that rose in the early '70s. And Max, I think -- there are many things about women that he does not seem to understand.

However, the interesting thing about Max is he keeps putting his foot in his mouth in public and yet his private performance at The Times is quite good. He has moved more women into sort of middle-management jobs than any other executive editor before him. And I say that in the book. He's managed to offend women by some comments he's made for publication.

In one case he offended both blacks and women by saying that women had reached a critical mass at The New York Times and so it was no big deal to fire them, not that they'd be fired at The Times. It's a union paper. But what he meant was, really, that you could treat them as you now might treat a black baseball player. I mean, you could scold them, you could chew them out, but that with the blacks at the paper, you had to treat them very delicately because they had not reached a critical mass. And he managed to offend both women and blacks by making that statement. And yet he is actively hiring minorities, particularly Hispanics and blacks, which are a very big part of the New York City population. They're not doing as well with women. They're sort of concentrating on the minorities now. New hires of women are about 18 percent now in the reportorial field, and considering that we're half of the world's population, that's not too good.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
ROBERTSON: I grew up in Chicago ...
LAMB: How long did you ...
ROBERTSON: ... a great newspaper town at that time.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
ROBERTSON: Northwestern.
LAMB: Journalism?
ROBERTSON: Yes, Medill.
LAMB: Then where?
ROBERTSON: I went to Europe. I sailed for Europe in 1948 about a week after I graduated from college. I had a few words of French. I had a French family that I was going to stay with that I found through the Alliance Francaise. And being young and stupid and full of hope, I sailed away to Europe and began my career there. I was too young to be frightened, you know. And I spent the first seven years of my career in Europe; in Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt and London, sort of learning my trade.
LAMB: When did you go to work for The New York Times?
ROBERTSON: I went to work for The New York Times full-time as a staffer in 1955 -- January 19th, 1955. And I had spent seven years doing general-assignment reporting and feature writing for other newspapers. And I was a stringer on women's news for The Times for about a year before I came back to New York. That was in London. And there I was with all that general experience behind me, and I was immediately sent to the women's page to cover fashion because that's where women went in those days.
LAMB: There are all kinds of crazy little things that you learn when you read this book. I mean, crazy -- maybe not to the audience, but for those of us that live here.
ROBERTSON: Not to the women.
LAMB: Huh?
ROBERTSON: Not to the women.
LAMB: Well, let me tell you what -- let me tell you what I'm talking about. You married a man by the name of Stan Levey.
ROBERTSON: That's correct.
LAMB: And it turns out that his son is Bob Levey?
ROBERTSON: Yes. He writes Bob Levey's Washington.
LAMB: Here in Washington.
ROBERTSON: That's correct.
LAMB: I mean, we hear -- I hear him on the radio, I read him in the Post.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: That's what I mean by things you learn in this book.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: You married Stan Levey when?
ROBERTSON: In 1961.
LAMB: Where did he work?
ROBERTSON: At The New York Times in the city room. He was a labor reporter. That's where we fell in love. Bob Levey fell in love with his wife-to-be in the city room of the Washington Post. It's a family of tradition.
LAMB: What was the Turner Catledge rule?
ROBERTSON: The Turner Catledge rule was that no wife of a Times man could be hired as long as that man was on the staff. And that was true for many years. Flora Lewis, one of the most dazzling foreign correspondents in the history of The Times and for a long time the writer of the foreign affairs column, who was my boss in Paris, beginning in 1973 -- I mean, here is this woman with just years and years and years of marvelous reporting behind her for many, many newspapers and syndicates.

As long as she was married to Sidney Gruson, on the staff at the time, she was not hired by The Times. And she was separated from Sidney when the women of The Times -- 50 women of The Times -- wrote a letter and signed it, to the publisher, saying, "This organization is hypocritical and unfair. There is a salary gap, there are no women in positions of power. There are all kinds of subjects they can't cover, such as sports or business and finance, justice, economics." Anyhow, it was just a sort of damning manifesto from the women, signed by myself, among the 50 women. And this was 1972. And Flora believes to this day, as I do, that they hired her very hastily. She was not yet divorced from Sidney, but she was separated. And she was hired -- went on the staff about two weeks after the publisher received the letter. She is convinced that if the Women's Caucus had not been formed, she would not have gotten that job so quickly. That they were able to say, "Ha-ha" -- according to her, you know -- we have a woman bureau chief now in Paris, one of the prime bureaus. Flora was the first woman bureau chief in the history of The Times.

And six months later I followed her to Paris, by then speaking French fluently. And there was a storm within the management about sending a second woman to Paris. I cannot imagine a storm occurring in any corporation about sending a second man to join the head of the agency in Paris or anywhere.
LAMB: Were you one of the leaders?
ROBERTSON: Yes. I've always been a troublemaker. Abe Rosenthal called me a sort of inveterate tummler. Abe Rosenthal ...
LAMB: Who is Abe Rosenthal?
ROBERTSON: Abe Rosenthal was the executive editor -- the most controversial and one of the best in many ways, executive editors of The Times.
LAMB: Where is he today?
ROBERTSON: He is writing a column called On My Mind on the op-ed page of The New York Times.
LAMB: By the way, people want to catch up with all these names and everything.
ROBERTSON: I know. It's a little difficult. I'm sorry.
LAMB: A lot of them are in the -- no, it's not your fault, but a lot of them are in The Times. I mean, you can still see ...
ROBERTSON: Oh, yes. Abe is still writing his column. Turner Catledge is dead. He died in 1971. But there are a lot of people alive in this book, men and women.
LAMB: I should ask you, before we go any farther ...
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: ...for those who live far away from here and may never read The Times, what's all the big deal about The New York Times?
ROBERTSON: The New York Times is not only the most respected newspaper in the world, one with a liberal, progressive image -- it is a great corporation, it is an institution, it is a cult. The readers of The Times are a cult in the way the readers of no other newspaper that I know of are. Perhaps The Times of London at one time had a readership like that. It's a great institution. And the women who sued it for equal treatment, for equal respect and equal salaries and equal hiring and promotion, loved the newspaper. I loved the newspaper. I had a great career on it. They wanted to make the newspaper live up to its ideals, to its public image, to make it better. We weren't bitter. We just wanted to be equal.
LAMB: Well, what makes it so great?
ROBERTSON: I remember once when I was in journalism school at Northwestern, standing up in class -- at that point the New York Herald Tribune was my favorite newspaper and the Chicago Daily News -- and they were writers' newspapers. And I found The Times to be very ponderous and very dull by comparison. So I stood up in a journalism writing class and I said, "What has The New York Times got besides accuracy and complete news coverage?" And the class burst into a storm of derisive laughter because that's a pretty fundamental series of things to have. It has great respect for fact and for history. It has wonderful people on it, men and women.

One of the things that was the most fun about writing this book was that I got total cooperation from everybody -- from Punch Salsburger, then the publisher, on down; from men, from women. They all knew that I was a feminist. And it was very funny, when I would come up to The Times at first when I was starting my research and I'd just retired and people would say, "So what are you doing, Nan?" And I said, "I'm writing a book." And they said, "What are you writing it about?" And I'd say, "I'm writing about the women of The Times." And they'd go, "Oh!" I mean, they knew that the thrust of the book would be a feminist thrust because that is my history within The Times. I was shop steward; I was very pro-union. I was an activist. I was going to say Abe Rosenthal called me a tummler, which is Yiddish for a sort of mover and shaker. A person that sort of shakes things up and what-not. I'm always sort of up to no good. And they knew all of this, and yet every one of them cooperated. Nobody said no. Nobody got dicey or inaccessible to me. Punch Salsburger measured the table in the boardroom -- that immensely long table which is two feet six inches longer than the Cabinet room table in the White House. It's so overwhelming to all of us, when we first confronted management -- we women -- across that table. People were looking up old appointment books, old tapes, transcripts of meetings. I mean, they knew what the thrust of the book would be and they knew that it would be pro-women's movement. But they also knew that it would be written by a good reporter and one that is fair. I think I'm fair.
LAMB: How did you win your Pulitzer Prize?
ROBERTSON: I won my Pulitzer Prize by writing about toxic shock syndrome. I had an almost fatal attack of toxic shock syndrome in 1981. As a result of this, the circulatory collapse and the gangrene that followed -- all the end joints of my fingers were amputated and I almost lost my right leg and the toes of my left foot and I was deeply poisoned throughout my body. But it was then a very mysterious disease and doctors were misdiagnosing it. They were misdiagnosing it as scarlet fever, as influenza, as food poisoning. It had some symptoms that are analogous to those afflictions.

And I wrote -- for the first time in my life, I wrote a piece with "I" in it. I had never used the personal pronoun before, but I had to do it because that was the vehicle that carried the medical information that saved lives. I mean, women and men who had it were part of a family in which there was a victim, could recognize it right away. If it's very serious, it'll kill you within 24 to 48 hours. Doctors were writing in that they had been able to diagnose it for the first time. So this was both a personal ordeal that I went through; it was also, again, like the women at The Times, was a great story.
LAMB: What year?
ROBERTSON: The story was published in 1982. My fingers were very raw from a series of amputations and it was extremely painful to type, except that that was therapy because it toughens the skin of the fingers the way going barefoot toughens the soles of your feet. And so it was very painful to write. It saved a lot of lives. It was a personal story, which people identify more with that than they do sort of cosmic themes. I've always felt that. That's why I wrote this book about something that I really knew, that I'd been a close observer of or a participant in the events described here. And because it's a microcosm of what happens in the entire society. Not just a big corporation, not just The New York Times.

In any event, I wrote this piece. It was the cover piece in September, 1982 in The Times Magazine. I got 2,000 letters, half of them from men, even though it was known then as primarily a women's disease and a disease striking women who were wearing tampons, because that's a perfect culture for the bacterium that causes it. The letters were -- God bless the readers and The New York Times -- intelligent, moving, empathetic. I mean, paraplegics were writing me, thanking me for writing this piece. Total strangers, of course, were writing in. It was one of the biggest reactions to any piece that's ever been published by The Times. And six months later it won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
LAMB: Quote, "What's a little bitty thing like you doing winning the Pulitzer Prize?" Who said that?
ROBERTSON: Clifton Daniel.
LAMB: Did that make you mad?
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: Why?
ROBERTSON: Because he was ...
LAMB: Who is he, by the way?
ROBERTSON: Clifton Daniel was the managing editor of The New York Times, a former foreign correspondent, husband of Margaret Truman, very suave, extremely sophisticated and seductive man who was my mentor -- one of my mentors, along with Abe Rosenthal and so on, at The New York Times. And if Clifton Daniel, who said this to me several weeks after or very closely after my winning the Pulitzer Prize -- he passed by my desk and hugged and kissed me and held me off at arm's length and then made the statement about "What's a little bitty thing like you" etc. And before the women's movement, I would have sort of dimpled and blushed and said, "Oh, shucks, it was really nothing." But I felt he was being patronizing. I had suffered through an enormous ordeal and had shown a good deal of courage in overcoming it in my therapy, because for a long time people didn't think I'd ever take notes again or ever write again or ever type or ever walk. And this was the piece that won the Pulitzer. And I got through a personal ordeal to win this Pulitzer. And he was demeaning me. And I let him have it. And a few years previously, I wouldn't have stuck up for myself. And I really shamed Clifton, whom I like enormously and who has been mentor to many talented women and, as a matter of fact, comes off rather well in the book, I think. He understands women. He likes women. In the case of that quote, I felt demeaned, so I let him have it.
LAMB: This is really out of synch with what we're talking about, but I wanted to ask you about this when I read it. I underlined it and starred it and it's on page 53, because I guess I was just surprised. Adolph -- pronounce his last name correctly.
ROBERTSON: Ochs.
LAMB: Ochs -- O-C-H-S. There's another -- isn't there another name in history of -- that's pronounced Oaks or Oats or...
ROBERTSON: Yes. There's a branch of the family that is known as Ochs (pronounced Oaks), and then there's another branch known as Ochs (pronounced Ox), Ochs (pronounced Oaks). Johnny Ochs was the editor of the editorial page for a long time. His branch of the family changed their names because the Ochses were German Jews. And during World War I there was a tremendously fanatic outpouring against people with German names. And so one branch of the family changed their name to Ochs (pronounced Oaks).
LAMB: OK, and Adolph Ochs was an owner.
ROBERTSON: He was the great founding father, patriarch of the family that still owns it and publisher of The New York Times from 1896, when he bought it, to 1935, when he died.
LAMB: OK. That helps. This is the quote. "Ochs avoided paying a far greater inheritance tax to the government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it as a, quote, "a dirty Jewish trick," unquote." Franklin Roosevelt talked like that?
ROBERTSON: Yes. It's in the record.
LAMB: More than once?
ROBERTSON: Yes. Ah, that I don't know. But, of course, there have been all kinds of books written in recent years about how Roosevelt, for a very long time, ignored what was happening to the Jews in Germany, did not take it seriously. This has been amply documented over and over again that -- that he simply didn't seem to feel that it was important. Of course, we did not realize the full scope of the Holocaust until after the war was over.
LAMB: Where did you get that quote, though? Is that something new that you found somewhere on ...
ROBERTSON: It's probably in one of the things I read, but it's been in print before. It probably is Harrison Salisbury's book "Without Fear or Favor." It might be a footnote. But I've read every single book ever written about The New York Times. It may have been in the private archives that they opened to me, but I think it's been in print and I think it's probably Harrison Salisbury's 1980 book.
LAMB: This is also out of synch, but there are people that you know, when you read about people you know about, makes it -- interesting names. Sy Hersh, who was he?
ROBERTSON: Sy Hersh is one of the greatest investigative reporters in America today. He is on a par with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
LAMB: You've got a quote in the book that he said something to a woman by the name of Leslie Bennetts. Who is she?
ROBERTSON: Leslie Bennetts had just been hired as a reporter for The New York Times. She'd come in from the Philadelphia Bulletin after many years as a reporter in Philadelphia.
LAMB: Sy Hersh wrote the My Lai massacre story.
ROBERTSON: He won a Pulitzer for it. Not for The Times. He was then working for an independent news service.
LAMB: But here you have -- you said, "'And then,' Leslie recounted, 'he turned to me'" -- meaning Sy Hersh "said in the angriest tone of voice, 'You know perfectly well you never would have been hired if it hadn't been for the women's suit, don't you?'"
ROBERTSON: Leslie Bennetts was hired in 1978. It's amazing the number of talented women who were hired in 1978, which was the year that the lawsuit against The Times for sex discrimination was settled in favor of the women who had brought the suit. There's a whole class of 1978, I found out. And immediately thereafter, The Times began hiring more women reporters, particularly because they're more visible because of their bylines -- began hiring more women as soon as we confronted the management. "We" being the Women's Caucus -- the newly formed Women's Caucus. I mean, I was sent to Paris, Flora Lewis was sent out as a bureau chief. All kinds of women were being brought into the city room. But they still were being brought in at significantly less pay, and there weren't that many of them. There were about three to five in the city room when I first viewed it. I mean, anywhere -- no women copy readers. When I came in 1955, I was sent to the women's page. And when I came down to the city room, five years later in 1959, there were still three to five women. I mean, I was the first new woman hired for the city room in five years.
LAMB: We've got to finish this part here. We don't want to ...
ROBERTSON: I'm sorry. I'm rambling.
LAMB: No, no. It's fine. I just have to finish it because I ...
ROBERTSON: But I'm sorry.
LAMB: ... for the audience's sakes. You talk about Sy Hersh. You said, "I must be fair to him. I sat near him for months in the Washington bureau while he threatened and cozeyed and cajoled his sources over the phone. And I am here to say that Hersh was impartial in his treatment of the sexes. He was frequently and brutally rude to both.'
ROBERTSON: That's right. That's one of the reasons why he's a great reporter, because he scares people into giving him information. Mike Wallace operates on the same principle. I must say here, in all honesty, Sy and I are friends. He is a pussycat within, but he's a brutally rude man.
LAMB: Does rudeness work in this business?
ROBERTSON: It can. I think it grows out of personality. I mean, I think people -- I think interviewing grows out of personality. I never threatened or bullied people. I'd listen to them.
LAMB: But, wait. Let me do that because I'm going to prove a point.
ROBERTSON: Sorry. OK.
LAMB: The interruption factor. Wait, wait -- I just interrupted you on purpose to -- you talk about the interruption factor ...
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: ... of men.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: What is that?
ROBERTSON: It's what's happening to the women who are in higher positions today on The New York Times. Those are heads of departments, heads of sections. They are not listened to in managerial meetings. They are ridden over, they are interrupted. The men do not listen to what it is they're saying. I have been present at some of these meetings, and it used to be that there weren't any women at these managerial meetings. Well, now there are, thank God. But it's almost as if they're not taken seriously. Remember in broadcasting women were not supposed to be serious? Their voices were higher, they didn't use sports analogies; they were not taken seriously. They were fluff balls. You know, they were Barbie dolls. And this is true to a certain extent today.
LAMB: Is that -- interruption factor -- is that something you-all invented or is that a well-known thing about men?
ROBERTSON: No. I don't know if it's a well-known thing, but it's a phrase that women in managerial positions at The New York Times used to me. And I think, like the term "the glass ceiling" against which women have been bumping their heads, that the interruption factor probably is used by other women. But they really -- and if they interrupt and if they are assertive, they are seen as strident or aggressive rather than assertive. Men do this at meetings. You know, they assert themselves. I tell you, Brian, it's a tough row to hoe here.
LAMB: There's another name -- I want to read you another thing here. There's another name that's fairly public right now, Gay Talese.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: You mentioned him. He's got a new book, but you mentioned the book on The New York Times.
ROBERTSON: Which is a wonderful book.
LAMB: But in here you -- just, again, picking up a quote, "That was fitting since Talese virtually ignored the women employees of the paper. With the notable exception of Charlotte Curtis, then in her heyday, and a Patricia Riffe" -- is that the way you pronounce it? R-I-F-F-E?
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: That's Clifton Daniel's secretary.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: "Whose beauty he chose to comment upon as well as, quote, 'that nice hip motion that she has when she walks.'" Gay Talese doesn't sound like he's one of your favorites from reading this. If he was ...
ROBERTSON: I have always thought that Gay is a male chauvinist. Again, a friend. We are civil to one another, but I sat right in front of Gay in the city room. We were of that same generation. And Gay Talese is a very macho, Southern Italian man. You know, when he had two daughters, I had the feeling he was going to sort of leave them out on the hillside like, you know, ancient Sicilians or something. Gay is one of those that I think is -- and never been comfortable around women. I know this, you know. Finds it a little -- he's more comfortable in male company.
LAMB: There's a ...
ROBERTSON: And he said that and he wrote that.
LAMB: There's an awful lot we can talk about -- and, as you see, I'm jumping all over the place ...
ROBERTSON: It's OK.
LAMB: ... because I wanted you to explain all these little things. You can read the book and get the whole story on the suit.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: Other things -- grandpa.
ROBERTSON: My grandpa?
LAMB: Meant a lot to you.
ROBERTSON: He was the first man I ever loved. I was rather remote from my father, who was often away from home. He was a traveling salesman. And shortly after the crash, my maternal grandfather and grandmother came to the household to live. And my grandfather brought a very large library of classic books. The bulk of them was 19th century novelists -- English, French, Russian, American. And he made a bookworm out of me. And he was, I now know, the first man to treat me as an equal who was an adult. I mean, to treat me like an adult, to talk to me about everything. He had complete respect for my views. I talked to him about everything from "Is there a God?" to sex as I was growing up. He was a man of immense tolerance, and he was a very intellectual man.

And I think people who read a lot -- and I've been a big reader all my life because of my grandfather; the good push that he gave and the direction -- I think people that read a lot respect writing, although they may not become writers. I certainly became a good speller because of that. You know, people who read a lot generally tend to be good spellers. But he was an immense intellectual influence in my life, as well as being a man that I loved. And I tell a little bit about him in my book. I would like to honor my grandfather.
LAMB: You dedicated the book to brave women.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: How do you define a brave woman?
ROBERTSON: A woman who stands up for herself and what she believes in even though she's scared. I think a brave person is a person who goes ahead and does something that's frightening even though they're frightened. I mean, every single woman, for instance, who was active in this lawsuit against The Times was putting her career on the line, particularly the seven named plaintiffs in this suit. And as a result of the suit, their careers were blighted, but they opened up -- they were pioneers. They opened up the way for other women.
LAMB: Was your name on the suit?
ROBERTSON: No.
LAMB: How come?
ROBERTSON: Because I was a foreign correspondent in Paris at the time that they were trying to get plaintiffs. If I had been asked, I would have said yes. I would have been scared to death, but I would have said yes. I was in Paris in 1974 when they were deciding and when the suit was finally filed after fruitless negotiation with management. And I would have been a plaintiff. I would have been honored to be asked. And I did have a background of activism as a union shop steward. And it's partly my life that taught me to be an activist.
LAMB: Women's Caucus in The New York Times, and the lawsuit -- would you say -- by the way, what happened with the lawsuit?
ROBERTSON: The lawsuit was settled on October 6th, 1978, on the day it was due to go to trial, in favor of the women.
LAMB: This is a little bit of a tangential question, but there was a strike in New York...
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: ... newspaper strike, so most of this wasn't covered by newspapers.
ROBERTSON: That's right. I mean, there was a print blackout in New York for three months. It was the second-longest citywide newspaper strike in New York history. And this -- all of the drama -- the final weeks of the women's suit against The Times unrolled in darkness and silence. There were only alternative newspapers with very low circulations, out-of-town newspapers, local TV and radio shows. Also, as you probably well know, the press and broadcasting does not cover itself very well, does not write about itself very well. I think it's a pity because it's always telling people what to do and then does not turn the search light on itself. That's why, I think, the rise of ombudsmen -- in other words, people who really monitor the newspaper and listen to the readers' complaints and listen to what's going on inside a newspaper -- are a very good thing indeed. We have a media reporter, but on the whole, not encouraged to cover The Times in that sort of negative way.

However, in 1991, when there was a mutiny -- an unprecedented mutiny within the Times over the coverage of the Palm Beach rape accuser in the William Kennedy Smith case, The Times covered itself, covered the storm of protest from the readers for, a) giving her name without her consent and, b) treating her in a profile as if she had deserved this, as if she were some kind of slut, as somebody put it. The Times staffers rose up as they never have before, men and women, to call the management to account. And Max Frankel was quoted, other people were quoted. I mean, it was in The New York Times that something quite negative had happened there and that the staff was reacting against it by saying that The Times was not living up to its own journalistic standards.

I got a tape of that meeting from one of my many friends in The Times, and Time magazine said that there were boos and hisses at the meeting. It wasn't like that at all. What rose up off that tape was chagrin and, again, love for the newspaper, wish for it to be the best that it could be, and then the feeling of disappointment that it had really fallen down in its standards. It had become sort of like a tabloid in that regard. I was very proud of the staff.
LAMB: You go back and you talk a lot about Max Frankel, the current editor.
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: And you quote Rebecca Sinkler, the Sunday book review editor, commenting, "I think we're lucky to have Max Frankel because he's so completely politically incorrect. The man's well-intentioned but anti-diluvian. He's not hypocritical enough to mind his mouth. He shows us what really is on men's minds."
ROBERTSON: Do you understand that quote?
LAMB: Sure. I also want to ask you about this one, though. This is Mr. Frankel being quoted. He says, "What I meant was that I was manager of this wonderful organization, can't afford to have women fail without having a political crisis on my hands. I do aim for 50/50 men and women on the staff. Fortunately enough, women have already succeeded in high places here so that we can also have them fail."
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: "What I was doing was revealing my own state of mind, really." This is quoting Max Frankel. Here's what I really want to ask you about. "When Branch Rickey recruited Jackie Robinson, he had to say, 'Boy, this guy had better be great. He had to be better than anybody else.'" Frankel saying, "My mother used to say to me, 'Max, you're a Jew. You've got to be better than anybody else.' Now major black ballplayers are routinely scolded, traded, kicked out, and nobody calls it racism.'" Why would somebody say -- a mother say, 'Max you're a Jew. You've got to be better than anybody else?'
ROBERTSON: Because Jews couldn't be doctors for the longest time in America, couldn't go to law school, have been used throughout history as scapegoats. They are disproportionately and admirably represented in the United States as civic leaders and as intellectual leaders. And it creates a lot of resentment as assimilated as they are. Max Frankel came from Germany. Remember that. And he realized he was a German-speaking boy when he came to New York City. And he has been struggling all of his life. It might account for his ponderousness and his seriousness that he has had to struggle. And his mother knew full well that he was a member of a minority historically discriminated against and despised and that he had to be better than other people to achieve the same goals. And many women feel that, and we're not even a minority.
LAMB: Did you ever wonder -- I mean, when I read this, all these hang-ups that people have about where they came from, where they are, whether they're men, women, Jews, Catholic and all that. I mean, is it working?
ROBERTSON: I don't understand your question.
LAMB: The human being. I mean, you portray The New York Times as a great, liberal institution. It sounds like to me that they've got -- I mean, this is full of people with all kinds of, you know...
ROBERTSON: Publicly it's a great liberal institution. Privately, behind the scenes, while they were lecturing the country in their editorials about, you know, "Things can't be managed by white males alone, you've got to give the women a chance, you've got to give the minorities a chance" -- while they were saying this in print, this truly great newspaper and its lawyers were fighting the women's suit tooth and nail behind the scenes. It was a hypocritical attitude.
LAMB: I started to ask you earlier -- Caucus and the suit...
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: ... looking back on it, did both of them get what the women's movement at The New York Times wanted? Was it worth it? Would you recommend it to others if they're caught in a similar situation?
ROBERTSON: You bet I would. I'm a true believer in organizing to get what you want. I'm a true believer that nobody is going to move who's already in power or give any power away voluntarily unless they are nudged and pushed and people stand up for themselves. I really believe that. You know, it's not enough to have your own brilliant career. That's your own brilliant career, but who have you helped? That's why Charlotte Curtis, the women's editor for a long time, and Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic, both of whom were women of enormous talent and distinction -- why it disappointed me that they didn't sort of join the women's suit, didn't sign the letter to the publisher, the first manifesto, because they were really focused on their own careers.

However, Charlotte Curtis, at the very end, who had become well-aware of the "interruption factor" when she went on to the masthead as an associate editor -- Charlotte Curtis, at the end, said the charges that the women have brought are generally true. This is before the settlement. And she also told Anna Quindlen, who is now on the op-ed page of The Times as a columnist, that they will only give you -- they being the male management -- as much power as they wish you to have. Anna, by the way, is a very, very powerful and wonderful feminist voice on the op-ed page of The Times.
LAMB: This woman here, Harriett Rabb ...
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: ... in reading the book, again, all kinds of connections. Her husband, her husband's father and all that -- her relationship to this city and all that, just tell us a little bit about Harriet Rabb and what were the problems with her background?
ROBERTSON: Harriet Rabb cut her legal teeth with Kuntsler, Kuntsler & Cannoy, a very famous and, to some people, infamous law firm that defended almost every radical in the United States, black or white, during the '60s and early '70s. William Kuntsler is still very well-known for taking on unpopular clients. That is where she learned her law, at the feet, basically, of Arthur Cannoy, the partner of Kuntsler. She had an FBI file, I mean, this thick. Her second husband, Bruce, came from a staunchly Republican family. Maxwell Rabb, his father, was, I believe, Reagan's ambassador to Italy. He was Eisenhower's Cabinet secretary -- staunchly Republican family. And Bruce Rabb was in the civil-rights liaison office of Richard Nixon, again a Republican White House.

And his wife was considered by the FBI as a subversive, and she lost a number of jobs because of the kinds of meetings she was going to, being a lawyer for one client or another. She became the lawyer of the Women's Caucus and the class-action suit that represented all the women at The New York Times in every job. And she also was the best-known lawyer for the plaintiffs in the sex discrimination suits in the media during the early '70s ...
LAMB: Judge David ...
ROBERTSON: ... NBC, Reader's Digest, etc. I don't know whether those were her cases, but she had a lot of sex discrimination cases.
LAMB: You write that Judge Dave Bazelon, if I remember correctly, a well-known liberal judge ...
ROBERTSON: Yes.
LAMB: ... refused to hire her as a clerk.
ROBERTSON: He wanted to hire her as a clerk, but the other judges -- I think it was the court of appeals -- said that she was subversive. And one of them said that he would lock his door against her or something like that. And Bazelon was forced to tell Harriet with tears in his eyes that he could not hire her because he could not afford such dissention within the court. But he then got her a job with a sort of liberal law firm in Washington for a very short period. Bazelon did want to hire her.
LAMB: But don't those judges operate solely unto themselves?
ROBERTSON: No. There were other judges involved in this court. I think at least two others.
LAMB: But at the court of appeals ...
ROBERTSON: The appeals -- the court of appeals...
LAMB: ... there are nine judges, but ...
ROBERTSON: All right. Well, then it was the court of appeals because there were other judges involved, and at least two of them complained that they would not want her as a clerk of the court. And she would be not just Bazelon's judge, but the clerk of the court.
LAMB: Very little time left. What will make you the happiest after this book makes its rounds?
ROBERTSON: I think I'm seeing it already, and that is that women are saying, who have read this book, "This is my story." And they are becoming -- they are sort of sharing already in the fact that this has happened everywhere, and they want to get some sort of hope. It's what happened to women during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. Women identified with Anita Hill to an enormous extent. Men became more sensitized. And the spectacle of the senators saying, "You mean sexual harassment actually takes place in the world of work?" I mean, you know, here are these men who are part of a boys' club, the Senate of United States, acting as if this was something new. And I think Anita Hill gave courage and encouragement to a lot of women to sort of stand up for themselves and speak out.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like -- "The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and The New York Times," by Nan Robertson. Thank you very much for joining us.
ROBERTSON: Thank you, Brian.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1992. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.