The lives and times of exceptional women
One day, we won’t need to set aside a month to honor women’s contributions to history, since their accomplishments won’t be considered exceptions. Until then, we’ll wait each year for March to bring new histories and biographies to savor. This year, new books highlight the diverse lives of three exceptional women.
ON MADISON AVENUE . . .
The Lucky Strike-puffing, martini-fueled “mad men” of the glamorous heyday of advertising are sexy again, thanks to the hit TV show. But “mad women” were also making their mark in the testosterone-dominated advertising industry of the 1960s and ’70s, producing sharp copy, courting big clients and making shrewd business moves while the other hand slapped away the pinches and grabs. In Mad Women, advertising exec Jane Maas dishes the juicy details of a long career that began in 1964 as copywriter at the legendary agency Ogilvy & Mather. After rising to O&M creative director and moving on to other storied agencies, eventually running her own shop, Maas capped her award-winning career by directing the famous “I Love New York” campaign (she still works as a consultant for the industry). With zany dashes from tidbit to tangent in sections including Sex in the Office, Get the Money Before They Screw You and The Three-Martini Lunch and Other Vices, Maas is the embodiment of Kay Thompson’s character from Funny Face, a woman who can say, “I was the first woman to wear a pantsuit to the office. It was 1965, and I caused quite a stir,” yet doesn’t hesitate to admit that her husband selected all of her clothes for her. Part respectful homage to a glamorous and golden age, part good gossip over lunch at 21, Mad Women proves that behind every man’s career, another successful woman is pedaling even faster to get where she is today.
. . . AND ON THE FRONT PAGE
Privileged and politically connected men controlled the influential newspaper and magazine businesses of the 19th and early 20th centuries. So it was quite surprising to find a woman at the helm of two major English-language papers. Enter The First Lady of Fleet Street. Rachel Beer’s fascinating story begins as a descendant of the House of Sassoon, a Jewish Indian family that made its fortune in opium and cotton. Born in Bombay in 1858, Rachel Sassoon later moved with her family to England, where they became one of London’s most prominent immigrant families. In “a union of the East and West in flourishing Victorian London,” she married Frederick Beer, whose family came from the Frankfurt ghetto to make their fortune in railroads and telegraphy. Contending with a climate unfriendly to Jews, the families found that “money was a powerful tool for breaking down the barriers of the class system.” Rachel Beer became owner of the Sunday Times and the Observer during the rise of the “so-called New Woman” who emerged on the verge of the 20th century asking for equality and the vote. She ran her papers “with the woman reader in mind,” yet wrote challenging editorials on weighty world affairs—even getting involved in a scandal of the time—while still fitting in a lavish social life and philanthropic work. With The First Lady of Fleet Street, authors Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren illuminate a small but fascinating period of Jewish and British history.
SCOUTING OUT A NEW PATH
There are few American women who didn’t experience formative times as a Brownie or Girl Scout. In the delightful new biography Juliette Gordon Low, historian Stacy A. Cordery peeks into the life of a cheerful, imaginative, slightly dotty girl who became an accidental reformer, feminist and leader of one of the most influential organizations of the 20th century. Juliette was the daughter of a proud independent mother and rebel soldier father who moved back and forth between Savannah and Chicago during the Civil War. She grew up to make a bad marriage to philandering British/American aristocrat Willy Low, who died before she could divorce him, then remained in Britain, looking for a way “to do good in the world.” Enter the dashing General Sir Robert Baden-Powell, whom she met in 1911 after he left the British army to form the Boy Scouts. His great experiment to teach boys “soldiering” modeled after samurai and chivalry inspired Low to become involved in the British female version, the Girl Guides. She brought the idea home to Savannah the following year, under the name Girl Scouts. Cordery traces how Low’s peripatetic upbringing formed her patriotism, practicality and love of fun, adventure and the outdoors, and her grown-up leadership skills and passion for the potential in all young women made her uniquely poised to embody Scouting values for generations of women around the world.