[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Cooke: Do you think this is going to be a good interview?
Currie: I do.
Cooke: I hope so.
Currie: You seemed concerned.
Cooke: I am, because it's been so long since I've done anything like this.
Currie: I think you'll be pleased. Also, what you have to remember is we're interviewing for future generations, so I asked a lot of detailed questions. It's not like I'm looking for a sound bite here. I'm looking for information. It's different.
Currie: Gee, this is number five!
Cooke: Is it number five?
Currie: I wanted to go back a little bit to the Amsterdam News.
Currie: You really want to get out of there, don't you?
Cooke: Yes, because my journalistic life was so short there and it was so long ago.
Currie: I'll ask you the questions, and if you don't remember, we'll move through quickly.
Currie: I just want to go back a little bit, before we go back to the People's Voice.
Currie: You were one of how many women on the Amsterdam News staff?
Cooke: One of three, one being a secretary, the second one being the women's editor, and me.
Currie: So you were the only hard news [reporter].
Currie: How did you get along with the men?
Cooke: At first I found it difficult. People, at this point, would not realize that I might find difficulty working with blacks, but most of them did not want a woman on the staff. It was the fact that I was a woman, and they weren't accustomed to that. Most news staffs up to that time were all male. They felt that they had to cater to what kind of story I went out on. I had to prove that I was capable of going on any type of story, barring some violence that might occur, but I was capable of covering it.
Currie: Did your male colleagues treat you any differently, do you think, because you were a woman?
Cooke: Some of them did. The majority didn't. They regarded me as a newsperson, not as a female newsperson. But the editor, for instance, Dan Burley, was friendly with me on the outside, but he really didn't want a woman on his staff. It was difficult for him to send me into a sensitive area, and I can understand that. He was male oriented, anyway. So I think he tried to get rid of me. I told you the story about that first story I went on. It was a brutal murder: I felt that I almost got the blood on my feet, I had to get that close to it. Really, it almost turned me off, but I had to argue with myself that, "I have to do this if I'm going to be a reporter. I have to do this." But I'm sure he would have preferred me as a women's editor, to cover dance recitals or music, anything but hard news.
Currie: What do you think kept you working for him?
Cooke: I honestly think it was the fact that I was very active in the Newspaper Guild. I looked up that since. The Newspaper Guild came into being in 1933. We must have joined in 1934, because we had the strike in 1935. We must have joined in the very beginning of the Newspaper Guild. I think it was my life in the Newspaper Guild, my membership in the Newspaper Guild, that kept me—
Currie: From getting fired?
Cooke: That's right. No, not from getting fired. They never had a reason to fire me. But for my not leaving, you know. The way Dan was treating me, I would have been happy to have left, but I felt that I couldn't. I must do this. There weren't any other women reporters in Harlem. There had been another paper here before the Amsterdam News, even, the New York Age. But I was the first woman around here assigned to hard-news stories. I enjoyed my life in the union. It took me beyond the boundaries of Harlem, and I could share experiences with a lot of other people, some women in the Newspaper Guild. They were having a tough time, too.
Currie: Were they having similar experiences?
Cooke: Yes. They weren't accepted with open arms into the hard-news area. So I enjoyed that. I enjoyed listening and hearing and growing, and I was always very happy with—I'm happy with that part of my experience at the Amsterdam News, that it took me outside the boundaries of Harlem.
Currie: How do you think you coped with the resistance you got to being a woman? What ways did you decide to deal with that?
Cooke: I don't know that I actually had a program of how to deal with it, but I think, actually, coming up in the kind of family I did, with a father and mother who said, "We want you to get through college, but we want you to work for a couple of years before you get married or before you do anything, because we want you to know how to take care of yourself," and I think it was that kind of background that made me easily able to cope with anything that happened to me in the work force.
There were two other women on the Amsterdam News strike. Both of them resisted going onto the picket line. They didn't want to go out there and picket.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: It was not ladylike to don picket signs and march up and down. It thrilled me. I never minded getting out there on the picket line, and I enjoyed going to jail, even though I know that the women's editor shivered at the thought. We had two mass picket lines that one day, and I'd been caught in the first of them. After we got downtown, we heard that another line later had been picked up. I said—I hate to mention her name—but I said, "She wasn't on that!" Yes, she was. I couldn't wait to see her be arraigned, you know. [Laughter.] I can remember like it was yesterday. Those of us who had been picked up earlier had been cleared. My husband had come down to meet me—take me home. He said he was not coming home to meet me anymore; he was going to go down to night court and drag me out. I said, "We can't go. I've got to see. I've just got to see how she's going to take this arraignment." I can see her now, opening the door and peeking to see who was there, how tentatively she crept up in front of that judge. She was very embarrassed. But I enjoyed that whole thing. I thought it was wonderful!
Currie: Now, why did you think it was wonderful?
Cooke: Well, I felt that we were establishing a trade-union movement in the newspaper field. It was at the beginning.
Currie: So it was the courage of your convictions?
Cooke: Yes, I think it was. And it was like an adventure. I was young enough to feel like this was an adventure.
I did tell the story, didn't I, about the woman who saw me on the picket line?
Currie: Yes, you did. We've got that one.
Currie: What I wanted to know, too, was did you socialize with your colleagues at the paper? Did you go out and have drinks with the guys?
Cooke: Some of them. Some of them. Yeah. St. Clair Bourne is one. We mentioned him yesterday. Bobby?
Currie: Bobby. He was on the camera crew yesterday.
Cooke: He knew Sinky. No, Sinky's son he knew. Well, we enjoyed ourselves very much, going out and doing things. I did tell the story about that impossible assignment we got.
Cooke: And we did beautifully with that and spent the time at the movies and dinner.
Currie: Had a good time.
Currie: Would you say that most of your socializing was done with journalists?
Cooke: No. You see, when I first came to New York—I told you that—I got to know the people who were active during the Negro Renaissance. As a matter of fact, before I married, I roomed with one of them, whose name is—I got a letter yesterday. His biography is being written, and I have been asked to share some of my moments with him. He was possibly the best known of the artists during that period—Aaron Douglas, who lived in this house. My associates, besides a few that I had at the paper, in the Newspaper Guild, were mainly people like Langston [Hughes], like Richard Wright, like Aaron Douglas, and others, so it was a mixture of the two. I never lost contact,
and even today I haven't lost contact with those people, if they're still living. I seem to outlive all of them.
Currie: Good genes.
Cooke: I'm sure that's what it is.
Currie: Did working on the Amsterdam News require that you work long hours? What kinds of shifts did you work?
Cooke: Let's see. Yes. Working hours are usually 9:00 to 5:00. If a story broke that would require me to be out at night, I would be out at night. I remember one incident very well. I was very disturbed—and I still am disturbed—at the way the police go about arresting people, you know. And I had done a story about how the police treat people that they've picked up for various—sometimes not serious crimes at all. My husband was an athlete and a very well-known one. He was the best quarter-miler in the world at one time. He had a high-school friend who ran into us at a party one night, and this man said, "What have you been doing, Babe?" He was known as "Babe" Cooke. "What have you been doing, Babe?"
He said, "Oh, I've been teaching, and I'm now trying to get into an area that would make more money than teaching."
"You're a fool!" he said. "I am in the police department." I remember my back going up when he said [this]. And he said, "In two years, let me show you." And he showed his bank book, how much he had made. Now, this was way back. He had in the bank close to $100,000 in two years. Well, that was phenomenal money, as far as, you know, we were used to.
Currie: This was in the thirties!
Cooke: Yes! My husband worked at A&T, head of the science department at this college, for $3,000 a year. You know? And my salary was considerably less than that, maybe $1,800 to $2,000, something like that.
And so I remember my husband saying, "How on earth, on a policeman's salary, could you accumulate anything like that?"
So he told us the story of how he did it. That was during Prohibition. If he knew a man who had a little restaurant, and had no right to serve liquor, he would go in as a customer and find out that he was serving drinks in teacups. He said, "I would show my badge and arrest him for violation of the law. He went on: "When he was arraigned and I was called to testify, I testified in a way that I knew he could not be found guilty, and the man would pay me off." And that's how he was able to accumulate all of that money. Well, that didn't make me love the police too much, either.
One night I had a late assignment. I was working for the Amsterdam News, and I came home in a taxi. I saw somebody, a policeman, manhandling a woman, and I stopped the taxi and got out my press card, and I was really going to do a job on this cop. It happened to be my husband's friend. He was shocked to see me. It underlined all the things I had thought about the police. And, of course, we didn't remain friends. But I say that to say I would have assignments at night, because I know that incident happened at night.
Currie: Did you do something with that?
Cooke: I didn't. I don't think I was very brave. You know, we were friends. He wasn't a friend of mine, but he was a friend of my husband's. I did tell my husband about the incident. My husband's "friend" was shocked to see me. He never came back to our house, never got in touch with us again.
Currie: Did you tell him you were going to write a story?
Cooke: I said I had intended to. "I have to think about it." And I don't think I was very true to my convictions, because I didn't.
Currie: What stopped you?
Cooke: I think just the fact that he was a friend of my husband's. I'm not proud of it, but I think it was that.
Currie: I think journalists often face these dilemmas. Were there other instances where—
Cooke: I don't remember another, but that one I remember. Well, when we get into the Compass, there were a couple of things. But not too many.
Currie: That feeds into my next question. When you were on the Amsterdam News, did they ever want you to do a story that you didn't want to do?
Cooke: I can't remember now. I imagine so.
Currie: You talked about the murder.
Cooke: Oh, yes. I certainly wouldn't want to do—well, they sent me on everything. It didn't matter. They didn't pay any attention to my sex afterwards. As a matter of fact, I feel that the editor would have liked to have gotten rid of me, so he sent me on anything any of the men went on. I managed to cope with it.
Currie: Journalists' prime responsibility is to get a story. Was there any place where you would draw the line in order to get a story or not get a story?
Cooke: There must have been. I can't think of any specific instances. Having the attitudes about society that I do have and always have had, I'm sure that that must have been true. But actually, my tenure as a journalist on the Amsterdam News was fairly short.
Currie: At this point, what was your husband doing while you were on the Amsterdam News?
Cooke: Did I tell you about Adam Powell playing a part in his getting a job?
Currie: Not on tape.
Cooke: I didn't?
Currie: No, not on tape.
Cooke: Well, this is the job he had during this period.
Currie: So how did he get the job? He had been teaching?
Cooke: Yes, he had been teaching. In the meantime, he was a trainer for high school basketball and baseball teams, you know. He didn't get very much working like that, but just to fill in the time. Between the time we left A&T College until he got the kind of job he wanted, he worked as a trainer for different high-school teams in New York City. He was paid by the job.
Currie: So it was freelance?
Cooke: That's right. The people wanted him. He had been recently famous, so it was very easy for him to get that type of job. It didn't pay too well, but it kept us alive. With the small salary I got at the Amsterdam News, we were quite affluent.
Adam Powell had been raising hell on 125th Street, which is certainly the heart of the Harlem business area. Black people were having difficulty getting jobs at Bloomstein's, a department store on 125th Street. Childs had a restaurant and black people couldn't even go into it as patrons, let alone having jobs. So Adam had a massive picket campaign, a massive campaign for jobs and decency among the merchants on 125th Street. There was a very famous restaurant here called Frank's, which had been one of the most famous restaurants in the city and had a white patronage, regardless of the fact that it was right in the middle of the black area. Black people could go in as patrons, but they were seated in a segregated spot. So Adam picketed them. I happened to be on that picket line, and I went in with him. I was one of the few that went in with him when he discussed his program to procure responsible jobs for blacks in Harlem.
After he really cleaned up 125th Street, we had black workers in all of the places, and we could go in as patrons in all of the places. He started on the firms downtown. Among them was Ruppert's Brewery. The head of Ruppert's Brewery had been a graduate of Syracuse University, where my husband had graduated. So my husband thought that that would be a perfect place for him to apply for a managerial job, and he did. I know. I typed the résumé. Adam finally got to Ruppert's Brewery, which was on the East Side in the nineties, and presented his program to Mr. Ruppert, who sat there very carefully listening. My husband had applied at Ruppert's maybe a year before Adam got to the brewery. So Mr. Ruppert said, "Well, we are about to hire a Negro representative." We weren't black yet; we were Negroes.
And Adam said, "You are? Would you give me his name?"
And he said, "It's Cecil Cooke." Well, Adam and Cecil had been friends in high school, and in college. Adam went to Cornell. Cecil went to Syracuse. There were so few black students in these colleges upstate, they all knew each other.
So Adam said, "Oh, that's fine." And Mr. Ruppert said, "Yes, we'll be very happy to have Cecil Cooke here. You know, he's a graduate of Syracuse, where I graduated." And Cecil got a job within the next few days, financially the best job he had up to that time. I don't think it was the best job that he ever had, but financially, the very best job he ever had.
Currie: What did he do?
Cooke: He was the field representative for Ruppert in the metropolitan area, which included northern New Jersey and the area around New York City, not necessarily New York City, to go in to see how the merchandise was being moved, if there were any complaints. It was a very interesting job, and actually very lucrative. And it gave me a lot of freedom to do many of the things that I wanted to do. Upon reflection, I think that my activities later caused Cecil to lose that job. I always felt that. I can't prove it, but I felt that.
Currie: You mean your being called up before the House on Un-American Activities Committee?
Cooke: That's right. The reason I say that, I was already working for the Compass, and I had been called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee. One afternoon—the editorial office of the Compass was on the same floor with the switchboard—Katherine, on the switchboard, called me and said, "Marvel—" I always went as Marvel Cooke. I never went as Mrs. Cecil Cooke. "Is your husband's name Cecil?"
I said, "Yes, it is." And when I got home, Cecil told me that he had been released from his job, that when he went in that day, he was given his notice. I always felt guilty about it, that my activities had caused him to lose this job that had no political connections at all, you know.
Currie: What made you think that he had lost his job because of you?
Cooke: Because it turned out that it was Ruppert Brewery that had called to ask was I Mrs. Cecil Cooke—was Marvel Cooke Mrs. Cecil Cooke. And that day he lost his job. So I always felt that way. Cecil always pooh-poohed it, said it was not true, but I think it was true, because times were kind of hysterical during that period.
Currie: Did he share your political beliefs?
Cooke: Oh, yes. He wasn't as identified as I was, but the reason—this is a little "in" story. I think I told you that Ben Davis was the person who actually recruited me into the Communist party. Ben told me that people had said to him, "Cecil is such a well-known person. He's a well-known athlete and he has a lot of connections. Why don't you recruit him?"
He said, "Leave Cecil alone." Ben would say this. "Leave Cecil alone." He said, "Whenever I run into him on the street, he always asks me, 'How are things going, Ben?'" And Ben would say, "Oh, not too well. It's difficult for us to exist financially." And he said, "He always gives me at least $50 whenever he sees me."
Afterwards, I found out Cecil had actually joined the Communist party without telling me, and then he dropped out. When I found this out, I said, "Why didn't you tell me?"
He said, "Oh, I just wanted to get myself set before I involved you in any way."
I said, "Why did you drop out?"
He said, "I got tired of all those long meetings and the way they talked and talked and talked. I feel the same way, but I just am not ready to attend meetings like that, spend so much of my time that way." What I'm trying to say, he was utterly sympathetic.
Currie: So it wasn't a point of conflict.
Cooke: No. Never. Never. Never.
Currie: That's important.
Cooke: It was important to me.
Currie: Were you living here at 409 Edgecombe?
Cooke: I've always—I've lived here from the time I took my first breath. [Laughter.] No. I think I told you I babysat for Aaron Douglas' sister-in-law. I stayed here. I got married that year, and we went away. When we returned to New York we tried living one or two other places, but were very unhappy, and applied for an apartment here. Possibly in 1934 or '35—I know in '34 I had to have been here, because the Newspaper Guild meetings were always at my house. I had a large apartment then. I've been here ever since certainly the end of 1933 or '34. I've lived in 409 Edgecombe.
Currie: In different apartments?
Cooke: Only two.
Currie: So a larger apartment and your apartment now?
Currie: Your one-bedroom apartment.
Currie: That's a long time in one place.
Cooke: It certainly is. Maybe it means that I'm not progressive.
Currie: [Laughter.] I wouldn't think so. Maybe we can go on now to the People's Voice. I guess we need to get a little bit of background on the People's Voice. This was Adam Clayton Powell's paper.
Cooke: That's right. He and a businessman by the name of Charles Buchanan, who owned the Savoy Dance Hall—I don't know whether you've ever heard of it. It was a famous dance hall in the city. You know, all the most prestigious social clubs would have their dances at the Savoy. Anyway, they felt that there was a need for a paper that would help build the community, rather than sensationalize it, as the Amsterdam News had done. They started this paper, the People's Voice.
I must say it reported the little police doings and the police stories, but in a very different way. There was a crime column—I've forgotten the title, but the sensational stories were no longer than a paragraph, one, two, three, four. They weren't played up. If you wanted to know about an arrest or anything that was against society, it was in this little column, this little kind of police column. The rest of the paper was made up of stories that would help build this community.
Currie: Can you give me some examples of what you mean by stories that would help build the community?
Cooke: Adam was a very interesting man. He believed in sensational headlines. He thought that that would bring attention to the paper. So he once came in—we saw him once a week when he came—to discuss the content of the paper, go over the stories. One story, I've forgotten what it was about, but he thought the headline should be "White Race Doomed." I'll never forget that. Big headline with some sort of cartoon or picture illustrating it. But the headline was "White Race Doomed." We had a long editorial discussion. "We don't want the white race to be doomed! What we want to do is participate in the life of the country." And we finally talked him out of that sensational headline. I've forgotten what the story was, but it had to do with some group that was trying to build the black community. It seems to me the story had to do with the National Education Association, which was meeting in Cleveland or some place like that, because Doxey Wilkerson, who afterwards became general manager of this paper, was very active in the National Education Association [NEA]. He had made a presentation about black students in white colleges. It had to do with a positive story like that.
But anyway, Adam thought that the headline should be "White Race Doomed." Anyway, the white race wasn't doomed, obviously.
Currie: Was this financed by—
Cooke: The interesting thing about that paper was that its orientation was toward building this community. His best friend politically was Ben Davis, Ben Davis was like the editorial department behind the editorial department. [Laughter.] He really advised Adam as to what kind of stories he felt, as an activist in the community, should go into the paper. He really gave him a lot of good advice, and the paper became a reflection of what black people wanted, needed to do, their participation in the school system, in government, you know. It started out as a very good paper. In my opinion, it's just a shame that it didn't live.
Currie: So do you know whose money financed it?
Cooke: I really don't. I wouldn't be responsible if I said. I don't know.
Currie: Was Adam Clayton Powell at the Abyssinian Baptist Church at that point?
Cooke: Yes, because it was after the paper was founded that he became congressman. He was at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and he was a sensational minister. He participated on our picket line at the Amsterdam News. [Laughter.] He organized a ministers' picket line for us.
Currie: This would have been about 19—
Cooke: '35, the strike. The People's Voice came into being after that and died in 1947. I know that that was the last of the People's Voice.
Currie: So you went from the Amsterdam News in what year to the People's Voice?
Cooke: It must have been about 1940. Yes, around 1940, '41.
Currie: How long did you end up staying at the People's Voice?
Cooke: You asked me about who financed it. I really don't know, but I know that there was an element that wanted to get rid of Adam as the editor, wanted to take the paper over, and it was done, as I remember it, in a very sneaky way. What was the man's name? He was very active with some very progressive people like Ben Davis, but he became a real enemy of the party and of political growth in this city, and he must have had some backing. Somebody must have wanted to get rid of Adam. He lost the paper to this man—I'm trying very hard to remember the man's name. He lost it to him. Fredi Washington—you don't know who she was?
Currie: No, I don't.
Cooke: Fredi Washington was the first black actress who ever had a role in a movie that wasn't an Aunt Jemima role. She was in "Imitation of Life," and she looked like a white person. Some of the big moguls out in Hollywood had—I'm straying.
Currie: No, no. Please, this is interesting.
Cooke: These big moguls who had contacted her after her role in the "Imitation of Life," felt that she had great potential as an actress. If she were not black, if she would change her race, her name, that they could make a real star out of her, that she was the best thing in that picture. I remember becoming interested in Fredi at that time. I was at the Amsterdam News. She made a wonderful statement, saying that she enjoyed her work in the movies, but she wanted to make it as a Negro actress, and that she would not change her name or race for anybody. She was a Negro, and she wanted to make her way as a Negro. She happened to be Adam Powell's sister-in-law. Adam had married her sister, Isobel.
After she made this statement and it was pretty well publicized, Adam started the People's Voice and asked her if she would be the theatrical editor. I think I mentioned her before, how we used to have dinner together every night, and I would talk with her. She certainly was as progressive as I. So finally, after about a year of just playing around with ideas, I told her that I was a member of the Communist party. She said, "I knew it." And Doxey and I recruited her. She wasn't active in the party in the Harlem area, but she was active with some group that was working in the theater. Why did I get off into this?
Currie: Because I asked you what year you had gone to the People's Voice.
Cooke: Anyway, the People's Voice was having financial difficulty, and we knew it. Fredi knew it, I knew it. So Fredi and I felt that it would be good if we could relieve the paper of our salaries for a short time. We both took a leave of absence at the same time in June of this particular year, and we were just about to finish our leave when Doxey Wilkerson called me. He always called me Lady. He said, "Good morning, Lady."
I said, "Good morning."
Currie: Let me just turn over the tape quickly.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: So Doxey Wilkerson called you and said, "Good morning, Lady."
Cooke: He said, "I have been fired from the paper."
I said, "That can't be!"
He said, "Yes, I was fired this morning."
I said, "I will be the next one fired, I predict."
He said, "I don't think they'll touch you."
I said, "Of course. If they fire you, they're going to fire me." I called Fredi and I said, "Fredi, Doxey's been fired. I know I will be fired."
And she said, "And I will be fired." It happened just in that sequence.
The morning after Doxey called me, my lease was to end. That very morning I got this letter signed by a man that I'd always felt was a friend—he was a lawyer and he was an advisor to the paper—saying that they no longer needed my services.
I called Fredi. She said, "I got mine, too." So actually, I feel they were trying to get rid of people who had any political clout.
Currie: Were you all Communist party members?
Cooke: Well, Doxey was, I was, and Fredi was. But immediately afterwards they fired a few others who were good trade unionists. They fired them one by one. Florence Murray, who was a very good reporter, very good writer, was fired. Doxey's secretary, Madeline, who was very, very good, was fired. Everybody on that staff was not Communist, but they were firing anyone who was active in the Newspaper Guild. I think that was the biggest thing.
Currie: Were all these people active in the Newspaper Guild?
Cooke: We were all members of the Newspaper Guild. It was a closed shop.
Currie: Who was the person in back of these firings?
Cooke: Max Yergan. That's the name I've been trying to remember. It's funny how these things come to you. Max Yergan had—I can't say that he was ever a Communist, but he had participated in many activities with well-known Communists, and he leeched onto Paul Robeson, who was never a Communist, never a member of the Communist party. I feel a lot of people are Communists who don't even know it, you know. But he made his reputation going around with Paul and participating with Paul. After Doxey left, Yergan became general manager of the paper, and all of us were fired one by one. This began the death of that paper. It died soon after that.
Currie: So he had wrested control from Adam Clayton Powell?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: So Adam Clayton Powell was no longer in charge?
Cooke: No, he wasn't. No. It would not have happened that way had he been, but I think it must have had a weak financial structure, and Max was able to control it by bringing in money—and I always felt it was enemy money—into that paper.
Currie: Enemy money?
Cooke: You know, people who were against the progressive attitudes taken by the People's Voice.
Currie: So what year were you fired from the People's Voice?
Cooke: The end of the paper, I happen to know. I happen to remember that because it came up in the McCarthy hearings. So this had to have happened in 1946, '47.
Currie: So you spent six years at the People's Voice?
Cooke: I would say five or six years.
Currie: A good long time. Why don't we talk a bit about what you actually did at the People's Voice. What were you hired to do?
Cooke: I was hired in a very strange capacity, as the assistant managing editor. I felt quite incapable of that type of job, but I said, "I have to do it." The managing editor was a man by the name of John Louis Clark, a very, very good journalist. He taught me, really, how to write headlines, how to put a paper together, how to make a paper up, and I was a fast learner. It didn't take me long to learn these things. So much so that, unfortunately, he was a very nice person, but he was an alcoholic. I shouldn't say "but." A nice person who was, in my opinion, an alcoholic. He got so that he trusted me. I learned how to put that paper together. I learned to do it by myself, write headlines, spot the stories, where they should be, etc.
I must say that Doxey was learning as fast as I was, because as general manager, one of his jobs was to see that the political orientation of the stories was correct, that many things were correct. Not that they had to have a Communist orientation, but they had to be pro-rights of the black people. It had to be like that.
Currie: So there was no question that you were not objectively reporting the news.
Cooke: No. That's right. So I would write the headlines. Doxey never learned how to do that. I would take the stories in to him and he would check the headlines. If he had any question about it or criticism, we discussed it and straightened it out. We worked together very well. Then we took the paper down to the Village someplace, where it was made up—a print shop.
Currie: Where was the office of the People's Voice?
Cooke: The office was on 125th Street. It had to be like 210 West 125th Street. It was right over the Woolworth store, which is still there. There were offices up over the Woolworth. They're no longer there. There's a new Woolworth, but it's at the same location.
Anyway, I would take the copy in to Doxey and discuss problems I might have. I had a problem with a friend who did a column from Washington, one of the Murphys, George Murphy. He never learned to—he just wrote and wrote and wrote. I told him because we were a tabloid, nothing could be long. We had to get a lot of copy into it, and people had to learn how to capsulize. I remember writing to him. I said, "George, you have three half-pages." We asked people to do their copy on half-sheets so that they would realize they couldn't just write and write and write.
Currie: What are half-sheets?
Cooke: You know the legal size paper?
Cooke: Just divide it in half.
Currie: So you wanted them to write little?
Cooke: Yes. George's column had to be contained within three half-sheets. Never! And I remember talking to Doxey about having so many problems with this copy, because often some of the most important things would be at the end. So you had to cut it sometimes right in the middle. So I wrote again to George. We were good friends. I said, "Look, George. We really have to have your column within three sheets." But he just kept writing in the same manner. So Doxey, who was friendly with George, too, said to me, "Tell him that you'll just have to lop off after three sheets. Whatever is on the next has to go." George didn't believe it. So we started cutting it after three sheets, and he complained, "Some of the most important things were at the end." I said, "Well, get it in within three sheets." That was the type of problem we had. George learned how to do that.
Currie: This was a different experience for you, having to manage writers.
Cooke: That's right. I didn't do any writing at the People's Voice, none whatsoever. I remember once I got to work early and some little incident happened on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, and I was the only one in the office. I went out and did a little short on it. When Doxey came in and said, "Who did this?" I thought, "Oh, my God, I guess I've lost my touch." I said, "I did. What's wrong?" He said, "It's the best thing I've seen for a long time. You mean to tell me you write like that and you're not writing?"
I didn't have time to write. Really, it turned out I was managing. I was assistant managing editor to no managing editor, because John Louis Clark finally just resigned. I remember Adam saying to him, "Who's going to run the paper?" He said, "Marvel. She's been doing it, anyway." I became assistant managing editor to no managing editor. They would not hire a woman as a managing editor, and I was happy, because the designation "managing editor" was not within the Guild contract. Assistant managing editor was.
Currie: So you couldn't have been in the Guild?
Cooke: I couldn't have been in the Guild.
Currie: So you didn't want to be managing editor?
Cooke: No, I didn't want to. I just inherited the job. I wanted to be out in the street, writing stuff. I didn't want to be managing editor.
Currie: Did they pay you the same as they were paying John Louis Clark?
Cooke: No. No. I got my same—I've forgotten. It was a very small salary, like $85 a week. I think that that was it, because of a conversation my husband and I had afterwards. Eighty-five dollars a week, that's what I was hired at, that's what I got the whole time I was at the People's Voice.
Currie: You never got a raise in five years?
Cooke: No! The paper didn't have enough money.
Currie: Did anyone get a raise?
Cooke: No. No.
Currie: How were the women paid as compared to the men?
Cooke: They were paid according to position, just as the men were. I know Florence Murray, who was the best reporter on the staff, got paid the same as the male reporters. I had a lot of trouble with the men.
Currie: What were the problems with the men?
Cooke: They didn't want a woman criticizing anything they wrote. For instance—I remember his name but I'm not going to say it—the sports editor was almost illiterate. It so happened that I had been married to a man who knew about sports, and I could have been a sports editor, really. But I'd get his copy and it would almost kill me, it was so—there wouldn't be a sentence in the whole thing. It was just terrible. So I rewrote everything he did. He went in to Doxey and complained about me. He said, "She murders my copy. I just can't function with her."
So Doxey, who was a friend of mine, as well as a comrade, called me in and said, "What's this between you and (he mentioned the man's name)?"
I said, "Nothing. I just try to make his copy readable."
He said, "Well, he's complaining about you, that you just murder his stories."
I really didn't know how to criticize a person. I didn't want him to lose his job, particularly, but I wanted Doxey to understand what I had to put up with. This man turned in a particularly bad piece of copy. It was on one of our little half sheets. I "accidentally" left his copy the way it was in the basket that I used to take in to Doxey before it was sent to the printer. I knew Doxey would call me in. I was prepared for it. He looked very puzzled. He said, "What is this?"
"Oh," I said, "I've been looking for that. That is part of So-and-so's copy."
He said, "You mean to tell me that this is the way he writes?"
I said, "All the time and worse than this." So I had my problems. I'm sure that the fact that I was a woman played a part in this man's criticism of me. He didn't want to work under a woman.
Currie: Did you think about firing him?
Cooke: Thank God I wasn't in the position to fire or hire. That was Doxey's business.
Currie: So why do you say "thank God"?
Cooke: Well, because I would never want to be in the position of firing somebody, unless he was really a thug or something, you know. There were too few jobs around then. I would hate to have been put in that position. I don't remember what happened to him. That was near the end of my time at the People's Voice. I don't really remember what happened to him. I see him. He's still around.
Currie: Is he still working as a journalist?
Cooke: I think he must be. I don't know where or who would hire him, but that's all he ever did. You see, unfortunately, too many—and I think too many not only black journalists—but too many journalists have not been trained, even in how to handle the English language. It's a fascinating field, and they got into it one way or another, but not through an ability to write.
Currie: So why do you think these people were hired in the first place? Didn't he have to show copy that he'd written?
Cooke: We inherited this man that I just told you about. Most of the people on the People's Voice wrote quite well. They may not have been trained journalists.
Currie: They may not have been trained journalists, but they knew how to write copy?
Cooke: That's right. Fredi was very interesting. I don't think that any black paper up to that time—I'm not talking about the black papers now—had ever had a columnist who was as well versed in her field, or his field, as Fredi was. She had worked as an actress, as a dancer, and she'd worked in Hollywood, but her copy was miserable. She couldn't write a straight line. But I knew that this column was important to the life of the paper. I remember that what I would do was to edit her copy the last, when I could spend a lot of time on it. She realized what I was doing to make it readable. Fredi was just a natural born whatever she was. She had never had any formal schooling. But I knew she was important. Her name was important to the paper, and her copy, the things that she was presenting about difficulties blacks were having in the theater, was important. So I would spend hours rewriting that copy, not changing her ideas, but rewriting that copy to make it readable. She was offered a job on one of the white dailies as a result of this column, the theatrical column, and I was flattered. She said, "Well, you'll have to hire Marvel Cooke, too, because I can't work without her." She never left, but anyway, it was quite a compliment to me.
Currie: So she knew?
Cooke: She knew. She said, "I wish I could put it like that." But anyway, it was an important column. She was important to the paper. It was an important contribution that the paper was making to the arts, and I was willing to work hours and hours and hours to make it palatable.
Currie: What about the other women on the staff? How did you manage them?
Cooke: I didn't. We just worked together well. For instance, Florence Murray was very good. I have a book of hers here. Florence Murray was a very good journalist. She was a very good investigator. She wrote well. I had no problem with any of them, and we liked each other. I never felt like a boss, and they never treated me that way. We got along fine.
Some of the men resented me. The sports editor before the one I just spoke about, who wrote well—no, he came after. As a matter of fact, this man must have left. Yes, he did, because Joe Bostic came after. Joe knew how to write, and his sports columns were pretty good—were good. I shouldn't say "pretty good." They were good. He didn't like to work under a woman. He gave me quite a bit of trouble.
Currie: What did he do?
Cooke: He would say, "What do you know about sports? What do you know?"
I said, "Maybe I don't know what you know, but I feel I know how I'd like to read it. I think I know a little bit about presentation." So we managed, battling back and forth like that. It wasn't too bad, but I know that he would have preferred working for a man.
Currie: You said you were hired as assistant managing editor, and you weren't at all sure you deserved that.
Cooke: Because I had never worked in that capacity. All I'd done was write. I never worked in that capacity. But I have a feeling—this is only a feeling—that Ben Davis, who was the spirit behind the editorial board, credited me with more ability than I thought I had at that time, and he influenced Adam and his associates to hire me as assistant managing editor.
Currie: John Louis Clark, who was, as you say, alcoholic, what had his background been as a journalist?
Cooke: He had been the editor of the Kansas City Call before he came to New York, and he had worked with Roy Wilkins, who was a trained journalist, and had been the editor of the Kansas City Call. John had quite a background and he was really very clever—but unfortunately, was an alcoholic.
Currie: So he was well qualified to be managing editor.
Cooke: Oh, yes. There was no doubt about that. I'm sure, if I go back into it, that he taught me a lot about writing headlines, about make-up, about all of the things you needed to know in order to edit a paper.
Currie: Was it difficult working for him? I mean, he must have been erratic if he was an alcoholic.
Cooke: Well, I was so stupid, I didn't really realize it. I just knew he was absent, he wasn't there, and the paper had to go to bed. It had to go to bed. I was committed to the paper. I knew it was having financial problems, and we just couldn't fool around. We had to meet deadlines. We had to do this. So I functioned that way.
Currie: And you didn't question that you were doing his job?
Cooke: No, it didn't occur to me. I think I felt I was learning so much, I was gaining skills that I didn't know I had.
Currie: Do you think if that were to happen to you today, you'd feel the same way?
Cooke: I don't think so. I possibly would have made a complaint about it, you know, in an organized way, not just pop up and make a complaint, but through the union, and see if we couldn't straighten it out. Of course, in those days, not as much was known about alcoholism as is known now. I imagine a lot of our journalists, as in other creative occupations, were alcoholics.
Currie: So there was nothing said specifically about his alcoholism?
Cooke: Just accepted it. We had a woman on the staff who was an alcoholic. She was also a good writer. Right in the middle of the day—there was a bar across the street from the People's Voice—I would send somebody over to the bar to get her. I said, "She'll be over there. Tell her to come get back here. We need this story."
Currie: There certainly is a tradition of a hard-drinking journalist.
Cooke: I know. I know. Unfortunately.
Currie: What were some of your other duties as assistant managing editor? Did you see all the copy before it went out?
Cooke: Every bit. Everything. Not the advertising copy, but every bit of the editorial copy went through my hands. I didn't think it was anything unusual then. I was young and had a lot of energy, and it never occurred to me that this was a lot of work. Then when we'd go down to make up the paper, that was something. I worked pretty well with the men in the printing office. Doxey, who knew nothing about make-up, would go down there, get up on one of the make-up tables—
Currie: A light table?
Cooke: Yes. And go to sleep. We'd come out of there at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, after the paper had been made up. I had assistance from the men in the print shop, and somebody from
the office would be there with me. Often Florence Murray, the woman I spoke about, would come down with me. She had a good background in news and make-up, because her father was the publisher of a paper in Alexandria, the little town in Virginia, very close to Washington. He had a paper there, and she had grown up in a newspaper. She was very good and very helpful.
Currie: So she knew how to help you make up the paper?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: I have to say it sounds like most of these men were sort of skating along. [Laughter.]
Cooke: Well, I guess they were. I guess they were.
Currie: I mean, Doxey went to sleep, the managing editor—
Cooke: Doxey did his job.
Cooke: His job wasn't an editorial job; it was sort of an advisory position. He was the general manager, and he set the tone of the paper. He did a lot, but had nothing to do with the Jimmy Higgins work to get that paper out. He saw to it that I got proper transportation home and things like that. [Laughter.] I think Doxey was really very misplaced. I think it was an improper decision—I don't know who made it—for him to leave Howard University as a professor, to get into this horrendous field, you know.
Currie: Why do you say that?
Cooke: Well, because I am sure—what was the man's name who was president of Howard so long? Oh, yes! Mordecai Johnson.
Currie: I used to know that.
Cooke: I know that name, too. Anyway, it was felt by students at Howard that when Mordecai Johnson left Howard, Doxey was the natural inheritor of the presidency. He would have been a tremendous president, because he understood so well the problems that black people generally, and particularly students, had. He would have been wonderful. I just feel that it was unfortunate for education—for Doxey—that he was ever lured out of the field of education into this crazy, crazy profession.
Currie: Was the People's Voice a weekly newspaper?
Cooke: Weekly. As a matter of fact, there have been, if any, very few black dailies.
Currie: That's what I understand.
Cooke: Which I am going to talk about that when I talk about going into the Compass, because I had difficulty.
Currie: How many people worked for the People's Voice?
Cooke: You mean entirely in all divisions?
Cooke: Let me see. I can only estimate at this long distance, but I would say there were ten in the editorial office, maybe six in the business office, and maybe four or five others.
How many would that make? I don't imagine there were ever more than twenty or twenty-five workers at the People's Voice.
Currie: You were all located in the same—
Cooke: In the same general area, the floor over the Woolworth's. It was not even divided. We were sort of in sections. There was a reception desk. I remember it very well. And the business offices, which included advertising, and then in the front of the building, which was the back as you came in, editorial offices.
Currie: So you were all out in the open?
Cooke: That's right. Except Doxey had an office. We had a library, which had a door to it. The editor had an office, which I never physically—I could have gone in, but I never physically moved into that office. When we had conferences and things like that, we had them in that office.
Currie: So after he left, you just left that office empty?
Cooke: That's right. I didn't even want physically to go in there.
Currie: Why is that?
Cooke: I don't know. I just always worked with people. I never wanted to work away, secluded, you know.
Currie: Was there ever a time at the People's Voice where you had to make a tough decision about a story, killing a story, or assigning a story?
Cooke: Well, of course. Any "editor" would have had to do that. There must have been many times like that. I think I was in the decision-making of keeping a story within three half pages. Don't write too long. We had to make stories short and effective.
Currie: Did you ever have to kill a story?
Cooke: Of course you would have to.
Currie: Do you remember any?
Cooke: I don't remember. I couldn't remember. That's an awful long time ago. But naturally, a story would break, and they did often, I remember that, that we hadn't contemplated in planning for the next edition. Something would have to go. We tried to keep the paper as fresh as possible. We had to! We had competition. Or we were the competition.
Currie: So who was your main competition?
Cooke: Amsterdam News, actually the only competition we had.
Currie: How did your circulation do in comparison to theirs?
Cooke: It did very well for a while. All the time we were there, it did very well, until these—I mentioned Max Yergan and his—I'm sure that they were sent in to destroy the paper. It did quite well. I know so many expressed that they hated to see the paper die. It played the sort of role in this area, anyway, that PM and the Compass played in New York City, and possibly it died for the same reason that those papers died.
Currie: What role did they play, and why did they die?
Cooke: Are you talking about the Compass now?
Currie: The People's Voice.
Cooke: I feel that there were forces here in this area—there still are, I guess—that were against the kind of leadership that Adam Powell and his paper played in this community. And it died because it was too progressive. There were forces that didn't want to see it thrive. They'd rather see a sensational paper. We felt our paper was quite sensational when it exposed discrepancies of a landlord.
Currie: A slum lord.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: But that's something the Amsterdam News was not doing?
Cooke: At that time, it was not. I have a feeling that now it does that. But at that time, they were more interested in the type of story that caused me to leave there: "Killed Sweetheart, Slept With Body," which the People's Voice would never have headlined. They may have capsulized that story in that column that they ran, but they never would have played that story up. They would play up a slum-lord story that caused devastation to the general population.
Currie: What was the thing you liked the most about the job at the People's Voice?
Cooke: Oh, the excitement of being where the news was and handling it and helping make the decision to dispense it to the community. I enjoyed it very much. I didn't enjoy not writing, because at that time I felt that I was going to be a fine American writer. [Laughter.]
Currie: About how old were you when you came to the People's Voice?
Cooke: Maybe thirty-six or thirty-seven, in that age bracket. Yes, about that.
Currie: What's the thing you disliked the most about the job?
Cooke: Not writing. Not having the time to write. I felt that I had some ability and that I could have contributed to the editorial polish of the paper.
Currie: Then from the People's Voice, you went to the Compass?
Cooke: Yes, but I think that there is a story that should come in here. It has to do with the Newspaper Guild.
Cooke: Richard Carter was a young writer on the Daily News or one of those papers. I think he had been at the Herald Tribune. But he felt that he would love to become an organizer for the Guild. The Guild was new, and when he joined the staff, he said that he would prefer to work with the two black units. A friend of mine at the Guild headquarters called me and told me about Richard Carter, that he wanted to work with the uptown units. We were called the uptown units. She thought it would be very good if he talked with me. I remember exactly what I said to her. Her name was Gladys Bentley. I said, "Is he to be trusted?" And her answer was, "All the way."
So she set up a meeting for us at Frank's Restaurant, and I recognized him immediately. He was quite young. He was under thirty. We had a long discussion about the Guild, and he became a really very good representative of the two uptown units. Whenever we had any problem with the management, he was always there and did a heck of a job. It was very interesting, because Richard Carter is the product of a very affluent family, of course not black.
He grew up on Fifth Avenue, in the sixties someplace. But he was very interested in trade unionism, and he was a heck of a good trade unionist. When the paper died, he was in there all the way fighting for protection of the workers. He, afterwards, left the Guild. I don't know why he left. He started working on PM.
Currie: I need to change the tape.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Currie: You were talking about PM. Could you just tell me a little bit about what PM was?
Cooke: PM means "afternoon." What was that person's name, from Chicago, who wanted to get some tax relief, and he started the paper? Marshall Field. Actually, the story was that he was seeking tax relief and he started this paper with a very good staff.
Currie: It was a very liberal paper?
Cooke: Very liberal. It went very deeply into social problems facing New York City, and it did a number of stories about Harlem and what was going on in Harlem. All of us who read the press were delighted with the entrance of PM into the newspaper field here. Dick Carter was one of my friends in the Newspaper Guild, a liberal person and a good writer, who was lured to work at PM.
PM didn't last too long. As a matter of fact, only for a very short time. I think it may have started about 1947 or '48, and Marshall Field, after he got his tax relief, sold it out to somebody. I don't know to whom. It became known as the Star, and then finally the Compass. Jack McManus was the editor of PM, and he went through the Star and into the Compass staff.
Currie: Were the Star and the Compass different papers?
Cooke: For possibly some legal reason, they couldn't keep the name PM. I don't know. But they generally had the same kind of editorial focus. It was just a line from the PM to the Star to the Compass.
A man by the name of Corliss Lamont, a millionaire liberal here in New York, he's still living, bought the Compass.
By this time, the People's Voice was no longer in existence, and good trade unionist that he was, Richard Carter, at a Compass Guild meeting, moved that the next editorial vacancy should be filled by a "qualified" black journalist.
At this time I wasn't working, and a vacancy did occur. My name was proposed. I'll never forget the day I went down to be interviewed for the position. I didn't realize this was a history-making thing, because this was the first time—well, I'm getting ahead of myself. But anyway, I told my husband, who knew Richard Carter, that I had this offer and I was going down to have an interview. I remember he said to me, "Don't you dare accept less than $100." I had made $85 a week at the People's Voice.
So I went down to be interviewed, and I was interviewed by friends. The city editor had been a friend of mine in the Guild. As a matter of fact, he was a very good newspaperman. He had been city editor of one of the dailies around here. He had helped us design and set up the People's Voice. He was a very good journalist and was city editor of the Compass. His name was Sol Abramson. He told me what my duties would be and introduced me to the people on staff I didn't know. I knew a lot of them because of my activity in the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: What did he say your duties would be?
Cooke: I would be a reporter assigned to whatever came up. I thought this was quite challenging, especially since I'd had that hiatus at the People's Voice, where I did no writing at all.
Currie: He introduced you to other people on the staff?
Cooke: Yes, those I didn't know. There were only two or three that I didn't know, anyway. They knew me. It was a very friendly atmosphere. I remember Sol taking me to the elevator and he said, "We haven't discussed salary." He went on, "I feel very embarrassed to tell you how little the salary is. It's $125 a week, but the paper is new and is struggling, and this is what we pay." I was kind of surprised. I'd never made $125 a week.
I remember coming home. I was still in the larger apartment. Cecil said to me, "Did you get $100 a week?"
I said, "No."
He said, "You didn't? I told you not to take anything less. You've got to get at least $100. What did you get? What are they paying you?"
I said, "One-hundred and twenty-five." But that's how I went to the Compass. I always felt that there could have been somebody better suited to that job than I. But there was nobody in the black press who had been as active in the union as I had been.
Currie: And you knew all these people.
Cooke: Yes, I knew them, and they were very protective of me.
Currie: Protective in what way?
Cooke: Well, Jack McManus was no longer in the Guild because of his position.
Currie: He was the editor-in-chief?
Cooke: Yes. Jack McManus gave me a very, very hard time, and rightfully so in the beginning, because in the black press—and it still is true, I imagine—we had at least three or four days to develop a story. I was accustomed to taking my time to go into the background, you know. I wasn't accustomed to that kind of pace.
Currie: A daily pace.
Cooke: Yes. I was approaching stories in a not-correct manner. Jack McManus was quite right when he criticized me in the beginning, but my friends on the staff realized what my problem was and they helped me overcome it.
Currie: What did they do?
Cooke: Well, they said, "You know, you're on a daily now. We don't have time to go into backgrounds in the way you have been accustomed to. Maybe tomorrow you can bring another facet to the story. It has to be done at a different pace than you've been accustomed to." I understood that, and I think I was young enough then to have made the adjustment. It wasn't that hard.
But I still seemed to have trouble with Jack McManus. Everything I wrote, he criticized. Finally, Richard Carter—I call him Dick—and the other members of the union, felt that I was being unfairly criticized. "Let's make a complaint about this." I'll never forget the day we faced Jack McManus. I didn't want to go in with the committee, but I had to. Dick said, "We on the desk can't understand why you complain so much about Marvel's copy. It certainly is superior
to some others on staff." And he mentioned a few names. "You don't have any complaints about their copy, but every time something by Marvel Cooke is brought into your office, you have a complaint about it."
And I must say, to his credit, Jack McManus said, "Well, I'll tell you what happens to me. I'm not accustomed to women on the desk, and when I walk out there and see her, I feel I can't use my four-letter words. I just can't express myself the way I want to."
I remember my answer to him. I said, "I don't use those words myself. Actually, they never have been in my vocabulary, but I know them. I couldn't have walked the streets of Harlem and written stories and not be familiar with them. I can write them and they don't disturb me. It just disturbs me that people are unable to express themselves except in these kinds of words." After that, we started getting along. But I found myself still trying to please Jack McManus. I worked so hard to please Jack McManus, I was sort of like in a straitjacket, you know.
I remember I was doing a story on Brownsville. There was some disturbance in the black community. There was a very good reason that I was assigned to that story. I remember sitting down, trying so hard to please Jack McManus, who was a very fine writer himself, I remember his calling me in after I turned in my copy. He said, "Marvel, this story is almost good, but it isn't what we need. Would you like Dick Carter to rewrite it?"
I remember getting so angry. I liked Dick's writing. I still admire him as a writer. But I said, "Nobody, nobody rewrites my stuff. I'll do it myself." I was about to go on vacation the next day. I remember going back to that typewriter and writing the story the way I felt like writing it. And I remember going in to Jack's office and putting it down on the desk. I said, "This is the best I can do. I hope it pleases you." I felt it would not, because I approached it very differently than what I thought, "I must please Jack McManus."
I came home. I had some guests here, one staying overnight, a friend of mine from Minnesota. I got a telegram the next day and it was from Jack McManus. I waited until my friends left before I read it. I said, "I know he's going to fire me or something." I called Jack, and he said, "Marvel, it's the best copy that's ever come in here." He said, "There are a couple of things that I would like, to discuss with you, a couple of things, but it is beautiful copy." I went down and we straightened it out. It was something minor.
Currie: So what did that tell you?
Cooke: Well, I knew what the paper was about. I agreed with its perspective, but I write the way I want to write. I'm not trying to write for somebody else; I'm writing for myself and expressing things the way I want to.
Jack died soon after that. It turned out that he had planned to do a book, the best writing from the Compass, and he had intended to make that the lead story.
Currie: What a compliment!
Cooke: Yes, but that's what he told me, and I believe he meant it. After that, we became very good friends.
Currie: Were you the only woman in the newsroom?
Cooke: That's true. I was not only the only black, but the only woman, so I had a double, you know, burden to bear.
Currie: How was it being the only black and the only woman in a news room like that?
Cooke: I don't think it bothered me too much being the only black, because I'd been the only black all my life from grade school, you know. That didn't bother me so much. But being the only woman did bother me, because I felt, in Jack's case, after this incident, I felt that he was being a little tentative about the stories I was assigned to cover.
Currie: How would they do that?
Cooke: I wouldn't be assigned to something that was violent. I did get into one because I was black. There had been some violence in Brownsville.
Currie: This is the story?
Cooke: No, it wasn't the story, but it was my introduction to Brownsville. I'm recreating things.
Currie: That's great!
Cooke: Some young black man who had gone afoul of the law had been sent to an institution for the mentally unbalanced. Because of overcrowded conditions,—he was one of the least violent,—he had been released. He lived in Brownsville, a section in Brooklyn. He suddenly went berserk and went out of his house, and he killed a couple of people, one or two. I don't know how many. But the community was in turmoil over this incident.
There was a very good newsman and a friend, who is now not living, named Dan Gilmore, on our desk. He had been assigned to this situation in Brownsville. He called the office and he said, "I think Marvel is the only person that can get through this community. The community has locked arms around that family. It's a well-liked family, and they're not letting any newsmen through. A white newsman can't get through, can't get into that woman's abode. I think Marvel's the only one who can do it."
So I went over to meet Dan. We actually, with some suspicion, did walk through that community. Because of my racial identity, I was able to go through. They didn't suspect me. They didn't want any media attention, the community didn't. They were protecting this young man's mother. I'll never forget. I think I even mentally visualize that apartment. We walked up the steps. She lived on the second floor. We knocked and said who we were, and she said, "I'm not talking to anybody from a newspaper." And I remember saying to her that, "I am black. Somebody's going to write this story. It would be better for you to have reporters who are sympathetic to the situation here than to have it sensationalized the way it will be." So she let us in.
I remember that Dan said to me—we took a taxi back to New York—he said, "You take this part of the story. I'll take the other." We actually had the story almost written in the taxi before we got to the Compass—we were hitting a deadline. Oh, everybody was so excited about the fact that we were the only paper in the city that had that story.
So when Dan and I came in to work the next morning, I remember Sol, the one that I had seen when I went to get the job, he was the city editor, was pleased with this story. Ted Thackery, the general manager, called Dan and me in. Everybody said, "You're going to get praised for this story. It's a good story. You approached it properly."
We went in. We got hell. Ted Thackery said, "No other paper had a story like this! What do you mean by this story?" Oh, he gave us hell.
Currie: Why did he do that?
Cooke: I don't know. He wasn't the editorial department. He just thought maybe we'd gone berserk on this story.
Currie: That's interesting. Because no one else had it, he didn't want you to have it?
Cooke: He said, "It's sensationalism, and we don't go for sensationalism." It wasn't sensational. We were just telling the truth.
Currie: And everybody else would have run it if they could have gotten through.
Cooke: That's right. But anyway, he didn't like it, and we came out crestfallen. Well, the people in the union were mad as heck at that. Afterwards, things settled down in Brownsville and it was proved we had done a good job.
Currie: And the other Brownsville story that you were writing?
Cooke: After that, we felt, in an editorial conference, that it might be a good thing to do, a good, in-depth story about race relations in Brownsville. I was sent over to do it.
Currie: What was Brownsville like?
Cooke: Brownsville was a mixed community. I don't know what it is now, but part of it was completely black and part of it was not, and there were conflicts, many problems. I don't remember what the story was like, but anyway, I was sent to do it. I think I chose to do it. I think I suggested it, that it might be well to have a story on Brownsville. But I was still trying to please Jack McManus.
Currie: Did you treat different people in a different way when you reported on them? Did you feel a special responsibility, for example, to report on Brownsville? Did you feel constrained, because this was a black community that you were reporting on?
Cooke: No. No. I think I reacted mainly to slum conditions that caused many outbursts in the community, you know. I don't think I just took a favorable attitude. I didn't have a favorable attitude to people just because they were black. I did—and still [do]—resent slum conditions that cause violence in communities.
Currie: What about because you were a woman? Do you think you looked at stories in a different way?
Cooke: I don't think so. I don't think so. I never thought about it at the time. I wasn't conscious of it.
Currie: Did you propose stories?
Cooke: As a matter of fact, I did propose the slave-market series.
Currie: Tell me how that came into being.
Cooke: Well, many, many years ago, when Roy Wilkins was editor of the Crisis—no, before he was editor, I had heard about the slave market in the Bronx, and I had done a very not-in-depth story at all, just a little story, about the slave market. I think I gave it that name. When Roy Wilkins became editor of the Crisis, he used to come to my house a lot. He lived in this apartment, in this complex.
Currie: Everybody's lived here.
Cooke: That's true. So a young woman who was running for alderman or something, a young black woman, was very good politically, but she was harem-scarem. She was kind of nutty. Anyway, she used to come to my house a lot, and she started talking about the slave market. Roy was fascinated, and he asked her if she would do a piece on the slave market for the Crisis. She said yes. Of course, the other woman, who was visiting me at the time, and I knew that she would never do it. She just wasn't disciplined enough. And she didn't. We felt kind of responsible,
so this woman and I went up to Westchester Avenue and we did a little piece—it was constrained by space—for the Crisis on the slave market. We did it, and we let her use her name on it. But I actually became fascinated with the slave market at that time. It was many years after that, that I said something about it in an editorial meeting of the Compass.
Currie: And you did something at the Amsterdam News on it?
Cooke: A little, but it wasn't in-depth. It was just that it was there and it was a shame. I didn't say it was a shame, because that would be editorializing, but I presented it that way.
So the editorial board bought it. They thought it would be a good idea. I did go up and establish the fact that the slave market was still thriving. As a matter of fact, thriving better then than it had in days before, because we were deep in the Depression at this time. So I remember getting myself together—I think we were in this apartment then—trying to look like I thought the women on the slave market would look.
Currie: Essentially, just for the record, the slave market is made up of day workers?
Cooke: Day workers, yes. People who needed to augment their very small income in order to live. They did it this way. They'd go up and stand and be assessed as to their brawn, and hired by the women of the community to do day work.
Currie: And there was a place in the Bronx where they would go?
Cooke: There may have been more than this one place, but I did know about Westchester Avenue, about 176th Street. I'm not quite sure, because I don't know the Bronx that well. But I know it was Westchester Avenue.
Currie: So you decided you'd pose as one of these women?
Cooke: Yes, pose. I had never done anything like that before.
Currie: Whose idea was it that you were going to pose?
Cooke: It was mine. It would take a black woman to do it. I was the only woman on the staff, and thank God I was black and I could do it. So I remember getting myself together like I thought these women—I'd seen them, so I knew how to do it. I had my proper paper bag with my work clothes in it. I went up and stood with several women at that corner, hoping to get hired. The women were suspicious of me because, I guess, no matter how hard I tried, I didn't look quite like they looked.
Currie: How did they look?
Cooke: Well, their nails weren't done, you know. I mean, their lifestyle was so different from mine that I guess I just didn't look the way they looked. They were suspicious of me. They didn't know what I was doing up there. They had never seen me before. I remember my husband used to drive me up there and drop me two blocks away, and he'd say, "I wouldn't speak to you for anything in the world. You just look awful." But I obviously didn't look "right." So I remember there was a bet on at the paper that I would not get a job.
Currie: Why is that?
Cooke: Because they didn't think I could look like these women, you know. I didn't look like I could do day's work, anyway, and nobody was going to hire me. And the bet was, I remember, a quart of Scotch. If I didn't get a job, I would give them a quart of Scotch so they could have a party, and if I did get one, I'd get a quart of Scotch.
So I went up there several days, I think at least four days, and stood there hours. I had five days to get this experiment going. I stood there hours with my little bag, looking downcast and harassed, and I couldn't get hired. Nobody would hire me.
Currie: Did someone talk to you?
Cooke: Nobody! They'd just look at me and pass me by. So the last day—this was the last day of the experiment, I said, "I'm just going to owe my co-workers a quart of Scotch. I'll never get hired." A man came up to me. We were standing at a corner where there was a men's store—featured shirts and things like that. And a man came up to me and he said, "Are you looking for a job?"
I said, "Yes, sir."
And he said, "Do you clean?"
I said, "Yes, sir." I thought to myself, "I know what you're supposed to do."
Currie: You know what you're supposed to do, but you don't really clean.
Cooke: That's right! [Laughter.] So there came a rap on the window of this store, and a man beckoned to me: "Come here." He said, "I've noticed you out there. No woman should go off with a man, because you don't know, really, what he wants. If I were you, I would not take that job."
So I went back. I said, "The man in the store has hired me." And I thought, "This is the end." I went back to the corner and stood there for a few minutes. Then I was very hungry, and there was a ten-cent store, Woolworth's, up the street. I thought, "Well, I'll go up there and get a cup of coffee or something." Walking up the street, a woman, I guess, noticed my bag and my downcast look. She said, "Are you looking for work?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am."
Currie: She was on the street, too?
Cooke: She had obviously come from that corner, and there was nobody on it, because I had just left. I was the last one. So she said, "Do you do day's work?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am." This is the first time in my life I had ever said "ma'am" to anybody. I said, "Yes, ma'am."
And she said, "Well, I came to the corner too late to get someone. Would you work for me?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am!" I didn't say it like that, but that's the way I felt. "I got my quart of Scotch now!"
Anyway, I will never forget that experience as long as I live. I had a woman who used to come in once a week to help me, and that very day, Rebecca was at my house, but I never asked her to do things I was asked to do.
Currie: Did you get in her car with her?
Cooke: She didn't have a car. We walked to her apartment, which was close by. She had exactly the number of rooms as I have here, not as well arranged or anything. Of course, it would be better if I had linoleum on my living-room floor now, because it couldn't be as dirty as this carpet is. But she had linoleum all the way through her apartment. Her bedroom had linoleum on the floor, the living room, kitchen area. She didn't have a real kitchen. She said, "I want you
Page 110 to clean the bedroom first." And she gave me a pail of water, not a mop, but a washcloth. I had to do it on my knees, wash up this woman's floor on my knees. I had never—my mother had had people working for her in Minnesota. Nobody had had to do anything like that! But I did it. I was very happy to do it, because you know, it was part of the story.
She was cooking, and I noticed she was very clean and I wouldn't mind eating anything that she cooked. I remember it was lamb stew and it smelled very good, and I was getting hungry. I had to do the bathroom on my hands and knees. Just before I was to do the living room also on my hands and knees, she had asked me what my name was, and I said, "Marjorie." I said "Marjorie" because if she called me anything else, like Kathleen, then I wouldn't answer. But it began with M-A-R. So I said, "My name is Marjorie." So she said, "Marjorie, would you have something to eat?" I thought, "Thank God!" And she sat down and gave me some crackers and a glass of tea. I wasn't used to drinking hot things out of a glass, but a glass of tea and some marmalade or something like that, and she sat there and ate her lamb stew. You know, I couldn't imagine doing Rebecca, who was here at my house, that way. That's what she gave me to eat, and she ate her lamb stew—with relish.
When we got through, I finished up the living room on my hands and knees, and she asked me would I do windows. I said, "That's one thing I don't do."
Well, I'm a little ahead of the story, because the girls on the corner had decided I wasn't a plant, and they had become friendly with me. They said, "You've never had a job. You've never done this before. If you get a job, be careful to see what time it is that you go in, because they have a way of setting back the clock on you. If you've put in five hours, they'll say it's four. But you set your clock with whatever time you see in that house," and gave me a few other pointers like that. I had set my watch. She had a clock on the wall, the kitchen wall, and I'd set it with that.
So anyway, I did her floors, all of them, and then she asked me to iron. I am the world's worst ironer. I don't believe anyone irons as poorly as I do. What she had was some men's shirts and some curtains, the kind of curtains that have the flounces around them, you know. I ironed those shirts, and I told my husband afterwards I didn't put a wrinkle in them. I didn't know that I was capable of ironing that well. But I ironed well, and I ironed those curtains with the flounces around them. I was so tired, I was about to drop dead.
So she said, "Well, I have some windows I would like you to wash."
I said, "Well, I don't do windows." I thought, "I've had enough experience here with this woman now."
Currie: You had enough for the story.
Cooke: Yes. I said, "I don't do windows." I said, "By the way, I have some children. I always am home when they come home from school, so I have to leave."
So she said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, Margie, because I really like you."
I said, "Thank you."
She said, "Would you come next week?"
I thought, "You've seen the last of me!" I said, "Yes, ma'am. I'll be up on the corner." [Laughter.]
The pay was seventy-five cents an hour. That was sort of standard. So I had set my watch and it was now three o'clock. I had gone in there at ten o'clock. So I was owed five times seventy-five cents, whatever that is.
Currie: You were owed five hours.
Cooke: Five hours. She had set her clock back to two o'clock. I said, "There's something wrong with your clock. It must have stopped, because I set my watch with it, and my watch says three o'clock."
She said, "Oh, yes, I guess it must have stopped." But she was going to fleece me out of that seventy-five cents.
Currie: Let me turn the tape.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Currie: She was trying to fleece you out of the seventy-five cents.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Did you get the seventy-five cents?
Cooke: Yes, I did. She said, "Oh, my clock must have stopped."
I said, "Yes, it had to, because my watch is accurate."
So she said, "Margie, I'm looking forward to seeing you next week. You can come straight here."
I said, "You can meet me on the corner."
So I went to the ten-cent store, I called up the Compass office, and I said, "I worked today. You owe me a quart of Scotch."
Sol said, "Get it. Go home and take a drink and go to bed and come in tomorrow." [Laughter.] That's how I got that story. You see, I did it in five parts, but I had got enough material from the girls on the street, the women who were there trying to get work, and the man who tried to get me to work for him, which made me realize that this was possibly a red-light district, too, you know, where women could be picked up to be used in that manner.
Currie: Do you think some of these women were prostitutes?
Cooke: I don't think they were. I don't know. I would never try to answer that, because it's possible that some of them would have gone off with that man, knowing what they might be getting into.
But the difficulty that we all had with this series, the presentation of it, was this is largely a Jewish community and we did not want to make this an anti-Semitic story. So we had to be very careful in the presentation. I must say that Sol Abramson, who was the city editor, and Dick, went over the series with a fine-tooth comb. Sol was Jewish. I never have known whether Dick is or not. It never has come up between us. But Sol was. He worked very hard so that there was no anti-Semitism in the story whatsoever. I was very proud of that, you know.
Currie: This is an interesting example that if you hadn't been black and hadn't been a woman, they wouldn't have gotten the story.
Cooke: That's true, absolutely true. I started this series, [with the sentence] "I was a slave." I afterwards did a series on prostitution, and I remember Sol saying to me, "I hope you don't come in here and start this one with, 'I was a prostitute.'" [Laughter.] But anyway, it was an interesting experience.
Currie: What about the series on prostitution?
Cooke: It was my suggestion, also. I felt that the fact that a woman is a prostitute does not mean that she is by nature a prostitute, but that certain circumstances in her life had made it impossible for her to get into the work force, for one reason or another. There are and were many black prostitutes. How I prepared for that series was to attend Women's Court for a couple of weeks, where these women who were prostitutes, who had been jailed, would come before the judge. There would be trials.
To me, I remember sitting there thinking, "My God, I want to get out of this court as fast as I can. I'm bound to see somebody in here I know. Some day I will see somebody I know, and I'll be embarrassed." Because it became apparent that many of them had gone into this field of work because it was impossible to get work otherwise.
I remember I used to carry the current copy of the Compass to see what was going on while I was away. I remember one day going to the ladies' room at lunch break, and a very beautiful black lady, young woman, was in the washroom. She was sitting there. I felt that she was possibly one of the prostitutes. She spoke excellent English, and she was beautifully dressed. She looked like she could be a friend of mine. She could easily have been a friend. So she said, "What is that paper?"
I said, "Oh, it's the Compass." I didn't say I worked on it. I said, "It's the Compass. Do you know the Compass?"
She said, "No."
I said, "I think you'd be very interested in it. It's a very good and a very liberal paper. Would you like to read it?"
And she said, "I'll give it back."
I said, "No, you can have it. You keep it." Her case came up that afternoon. It was held over until the next day. Of course, I was in the court the next day. I said, "This is the last. I'm not coming back in here anymore. I've heard enough stories, anyway."
Currie: What kind of stories did you hear?
Cooke: Well, of course, everybody said that they were not out to pick up a man. But it was obvious what they were, and nobody went into the social reasons that caused them to go into that line of work. This woman worked as receptionist at a massage parlor. The massage parlor was raided, and she was picked up in the raid, although she was not actually prostituting herself. She worked for a house of prostitution. It looked like they were going to be found guilty. She was there with two other women. She was the only black; the other two women were white.
We got together again at lunchtime, when I went to the washroom. It turns out she said, "I hope that nothing happens to me, because my husband is a seaman. He's not in town now." Her husband was—and this is actually the truth, just like I ran into this girl this day—her husband was a young man from Minnesota—a member of a family I knew very well. His mother and my mother were very good friends. I had said when I went in there, "I'm going to run into a friend." You know? I remember. I'll never forget that. That was my last day in Women's Court.
Currie: Did you interview her?
Cooke: No, I didn't. Dick and I went down to a bar prostitutes were known to habituate.
Currie: You tried to get picked up?
Currie: Well, how did you do that?
Cooke: Well, Dick was sitting down at the end of the bar. I felt from stories I had heard in Women's Court that police often set these women up. They pick them up. A man next to me got very friendly with me. Dick was watching from the other end of the bar. He said, "You know, I like you."
I said, "Well, you're pretty nice."
He said, "Would you like to go and have a little date with me?"
I said, "Date?"
He said, "You know what I mean."
I said, "No, I don't."
By this time, Dick came up and he said, "You know, I've been watching you. I'd like to have a date with you, too." So I got out of it that way. Dick got me out of that one. I would have got out of it, anyway, but—
Currie: So you just wanted to see.
Cooke: It turns out he was—Dick felt he was a policeman. Dick had sat there, watching and hearing the conversation. The man was trying to pick me up.
Currie: So he was a policeman?
Cooke: Yes, he was a policeman.
Currie: Then you wrote a story about it?
Cooke: I did a whole series on prostitution. I can't remember what other series. I did the Slave Market series and the one on Brownsville. But otherwise, I did the Jimmy Higgins work of any reporter, you know.
Currie: You've used this term "Jimmy Higgins." What does that mean? Is that a journalistic term?
Cooke: I don't know. I thought it was. I did the routine work, just day-to-day work. I did whatever came along. But I did those two or three series that interested me a lot.
Currie: What was the thing you liked least about working on the Compass?
Cooke: There was nothing I liked least. I liked working on the Compass. As a matter of fact, I was very unhappy when the Compass closed. I was deep in the Rosenberg case at that time.
Currie: You were covering it?
Cooke: Covering the Rosenberg case. I know I was sitting in court that particular morning, the day after the election of that particular year. Corliss Lamont had not won, although we all voted for him. But you know, it's pretty hard for progressives to win-even now. Anyway, it was nearing the end of the Rosenberg case.
Currie: Had you covered it all along?
Cooke: I hadn't all along, but it was assigned to me at some point for some reason that I don't remember. But I was fascinated with this case, and it's always played a big part in my life. You know, when we talk about McCarthy, I remember that case. It was so obvious to me, as a reporter, that these people were being set up because they were progressive, you know. I think that Ethel was on the stand, when one of the workers from the paper came to me and said, "They want you back at the paper right away."
I went back. The paper was closing. Corliss Lamont had got everything he could out of the paper and he was dumping it.
Currie: How much notice were you given?
Cooke: It just seemed, as I remember it, it was as of that moment, but we possibly got the notice dictated by in our contract. Anyway, that was the end of my working on a newspaper.
Currie: How long had you been at the Compass?
Cooke: Maybe two years, not more, not less. About two years. It was very exciting—the most exciting time I had as a journalist.
Currie: What made it so exciting?
Cooke: Because I was able to do a series like the slave market, which I think—I don't know now, in retrospect, I don't know how well I did it, but it exposed a social ill. The story on prostitution, showed how women are exploited. I spent a whole day in jail at Women's House of Detention while I was doing research for that series.
Currie: Was that on the prostitute story?
Cooke: Yes. I've forgotten how I got in. I think some friend got me in. I talked with the women who had been set up or had really been prostitutes. It was very interesting to me to work at that level, you know.
Currie: To really feel the impact?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Why were you able to do that at the Compass and not at other papers?
Cooke: Well, in the first place, at the Amsterdam News, I didn't work long enough as a reporter. I wasn't developed. I did know about the slave market, for instance, but I didn't realize what impact revelations about it might have. And I wasn't there long enough. I got to the People's Voice, which I adored, but I was doing the mechanical work. I'm glad I had the experience, because I learned how to put a paper "to bed". But I was not able to do any reporting. I could have assigned somebody to such a story. Often, for instance, Florence Murray did stories I would have liked to have done.
Currie: What were some of those stories?
Cooke: I can't remember now, but they would be stories of some social significance. But I wasn't working, you know, really as a reporter. At the Compass, after I broke through the strangle-hold that the editor put on me, I was able to do many things that I enjoyed doing and exposing. It was creative work, you know. It was creative work.
Currie: We've been going for well over two hours. Maybe this is a good place to stop today, and we can pick up tomorrow.