Interview #1 (pp. 1-22) September 26, 1987 in Harper's Ferry, WV
Women In Journalism
Interviewees
Ruth Cowan Nash

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Knight: First of all, I want to say how honored I am that you agreed to participate in the project.

Cowan: Well, how honored I am that you selected me.

Knight: It's really interesting for me to find out how you grew up and where you came from. You were born in Salt Lake City.

Cowan: I was born in Salt Lake City, and lived there for a number of years. My father was a prospector, a mining prospector. Then after his death, I was about seven or eight years old; I'm not quite sure. I'd have to get the details out, and I can get that information for you.

Then my mother had been down to Florida to look into the way you went about getting a homestead, and she found that out, and got a homestead and a stone and timber tract, each 160 acres. So when my father died, we moved down there, and she put down a small house. Also, we had about four or five acres that were cultivated or made ready for grapefruit and orange trees; that's what we were going to raise down there, my mother. She had a pretty rough time of it, because I don't think she knew an orange tree from a grapefruit tree. [Laughter]

We lived there until—you had to live on a property, when you get it from the government, under homestead rights, so we fulfilled that requirement. It's, if I'm not mistaken, one and a half or two years, but that would have to be checked for correctness. And then we decided to go back and take a look at Salt Lake City—and that's where I was born, in Salt Lake City—and see if we wanted to move back in that area. It was pretty rough on my mother, trying to raise grapefruit and oranges down there. [Laughter] She didn't know anything about that stuff, and it was hard to get it done.

But it was lovely down there, just lovely. That's where I first learned to love animals, farm animals. We had a lot of chickens, and it was my job to take care of them. And so I went out and fed them, and I made pets out of them. I had one big rooster called—-let's see, what did we call that thing? It wasn't Gigantic, but it was something like that. [It was named Fatty]. And I had a rooster that I'd keep around in the house. I can show it to you. [Laughter] It just reminded me of my first real pet, and I used to carry him under my arm when I went around the place. The other chickens used to follow me. So when we left that place, and we had to put out the food for these chickens, of course, they were sold and all that, and I worried. And I still worry about what happened to those chickens. [Laughter] My first pets.

Then we moved back to Salt Lake City.

Knight: How old were you when you moved back?

 

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Cowan: I imagine—well, I was made ready for the seventh or eighth grade; I'm not sure at that time which they had in the St. Mary's Academy. It was a private school, and I had started my life out there, my educational life, in that school, because my mother thought that I really should learn something. She felt the private schools taught you something. My mother had been a teacher when she grew up, so I guess she knew a little something about it.

I went to school there and finished the seventh and eighth grade. I tell you, I stutter on my age, because later on, I'll give you some details about trying to earn a living when they didn't want to hire you under a certain age. So I remember going in to one place, and my first question is, "How old do you have to be before you can apply here?" And they told me, and I said, "Well, I'm it." I wasn't; I was younger. [Laughter] And I've always had a difficult time with that. [Laughter] I told the government if they wanted to really know how old I was, they could do the research; I didn't care. [Laughter] I was too old now to care!

So where were we? I was telling you something about this.

Knight: You moved back to Salt Lake City.

Cowan: Moved back to Salt Lake City, and I finished school there, St. Mary's Academy, the grammar school. And then my mother decided she didn't want to live in the cold climate there. We had just more or less camped out in an apartment there in the place where my mother and father had lived before his death. My mother then—-well, we moved around, seeing where we might like to live, because we had a little money from that sale of property that we had and also a little other money.

So we came to San Antonio, Texas. My mother liked it, and I just thought it was wonderful. So she decided that travelling around and trying to investigate what you might do, and where you might want to live, and my mother felt that she wanted to get some kind of work to do and just exactly what it would be. She was a teacher when she grew up, so she thought, naturally, she would go back to teaching. Well, I didn't want to be moving around anymore, so she found a place in the Ursaline Academy that would take me in on that basis, not as a student, necessarily, but that I could board there.

I went out and got a job with—the name is Marks, the last name—a very large and very well established department store, and I was in the books section. I liked to read books, so I borrowed just about every book that they bought, practically, and became quite an authority on books, and people could come in and ask me what a book was like and so on and so forth.

So I decided I wanted to go back to school, so I talked with the superintendent of the place, and he said, yes, it would be all right, if I could get in shortly after lunch. So I made an arrangement with the Ursaline Academy for me to go to school. This must have been a very unusual arrangement, because here was I, working on the outside, living in this convent, which was a school, and a very well recognized school in San Antonio, and now arranging to go to a public school. I enrolled in the Main Avenue High School in San Antonio, and I found that I was pretty advanced in certain subjects. So we got me transferred. Well, it took me a little over two years to get out of high school there. Then, of course, by that time, I was ready for college, so I maneuvered around and found that I could get into the University of Texas.

 

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The women's association connected with the grammar schools in San Antonio, the mothers, the parents, had some children in school there, and they liked me and invited me to come and visit them. They had a lovely home in San Antonio and went other places in the summer and so forth. And somehow or other, I was always tagging along with them [the John Cunningham family]. I didn't have much family. My mother was travelling around and trying to find out where she wanted to live, and could never make up her mind.

In the meantime, the deal on the Florida property went on the grounds; the man couldn't make the payments. So she got involved in a lawsuit, and you know what a lawsuit is. It goes from one stage to another. So it was all right with her if I stayed in San Antonio, stayed with these people on weekends, and went to college. So I got up there, I packed my suitcase and went up to—I was a nervy little thing. [Laughter] And went up to enroll—I started to say "enlist"—-enroll in college, and went in to see Mrs. Casis, who was the dean of women, and she hadn't seen me before. I put my suitcase down, and I said, "I came to enroll here."

And she said what did I want. Well, I didn't know what I wanted, so she thought, "Well, here's something I better talk to." [Laughter] So she took me around and sort of showed me what college was like. It was fine, and I wanted to do it. She was really quite a person. I'm not sure if it was Mrs. Casis or Miss Casis; you better make it Miss Casis. She was quite well known; she was the dean of the college at the time, the dean of women at the time I was in there.

Knight: This is the University of Texas at Austin.

Cowan: The University of Texas at Austin. I think I must have amused her, I guess, because I was just about ready to take over the college. [Laughter] And so they got me enlisted and that sort of thing, and I lived at the Catholic—the Catholics had a sort of dormitory there, Newman Hall. So I lived there, with the understanding that I was to go back and forth to the college. Well, that's what it was for. It was for college children that were enrolled in the college and had to have a place to stay. So that started my career in Austin, Texas, in college, and I did pretty well.

Knight: Let me go back a little bit. Tell me about your mother.

Cowan: My mother was very precise, very well educated for her generation, comes from a good family, the Baldwin family, up in Connecticut, around in that area, and she had gotten a job teaching, and had gotten out to Utah. She was very dignified, and she carried herself very erect. You notice I scrooch down like that? [Laughter] I can't sometimes stand up to these people. She was a little hard to stand up to, so I was kind of glad to go to boarding school, if you don't mind my saying so, and I'm sure she wouldn't, because I think I was a nuisance. [Laughter] Because she said, "Oh, it's so hard when you have a child. You've got to consider children, too, you know, when you're travelling around."

And I thought, "Well, I'll perch someplace." So I did. That's how I began to perch in San Antonio. Well, it was agreeable with my mother, and she visited relatives in Oklahoma and that sort of thing and back and forth. But she got involved in this lawsuit, as I told you, and we lost it, of course. I don't know. My mother wanted one way, and I wanted another. I can't explain it any other way, because I was very definitely going to get an education, and I did very well in Austin, well enough so that later on, they did offer me various kinds of little jobs in the teaching profession over there.

 

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Knight: What kinds of expectations do you think she had for you? What do you think she wanted you to do?

Cowan: She wanted me to get educated and—I don't know what she wanted. I think she then thought we would settle down. She wanted to do her part by getting possession of this land or possession of some money from it, and that's where she got—and then she began to get ill, and occasionally she was hospitalized. Then she did wind up in an institution. There wasn't much I could do about it, because she was a little too firm for me, and I was ambitious to get something done. Then, let's see, where was I? I was in Austin, Texas, getting educated.

Then I was going back and forth, visiting this family in San Antonio. Their name was Cunningham. When I graduated from college, I got an offer to teach in the high school where I had gone, if I was qualified. So they tested me to see if I was qualified, and I was qualified. I wasn't too much older than some of the students I had. [Laughter] But of course, I had to be very precise, and I imagine I was an awful bore. [Laughter]

So then I taught there for about two years, and then suddenly decided that—well, one of the members of this family, Mary Carter, that I had moved in with was on a newspaper. Let's see. She was the sister of—well, first of all, this name Cunningham. John Cunningham and Elva Cunningham were the two people that took me in. They were the heads of the family. She was named Mary Carter, this woman I'm telling you about. She was then working on the San Antonio Evening News, and John Cunningham was the attorney that represented the interest of this paper. It was the San Antonio Evening News and another paper connected with it. San Antonio Evening News was the afternoon, and the other paper was for the morning. And I was on the afternoon paper. I started out by, on weekends, doing movie reviews that Mary Carter didn't particularly want to do. She had a beau at that time and was interested, and she wanted to have a little recreation. And so I did the movie reviews, and I liked it, and I did other kinds of things.

So I finally decided that if the San Antonio Evening News would take me on, I would quit the teaching business and go on a newspaper. Well, at that particular time, I remember, one of my things that I was covering was the San Antonio Board of Education, and I went in on the day when my resignation was presented, and here were people on this board, very shocked that I was going to leave the teaching profession to go on a newspaper. [Laughter] Well, I wasn't shocked; I was anxious to get on it. So I covered everything that I possibly could cover in San Antonio for the paper, just because I was maybe good at covering shows. Mainly, that's all I was going to cover. I was going to cover anything I found uncovered, and that's exactly what they wanted. So they gave me a lot of jobs to do, and I did pretty well.

I decided I would free-lance, because I was making money on the side anyway. It was already agreeable with the paper that I go ahead and do that. Then, of course, it was only a few dollars that I made on the first story. But anyway, I got a series of papers that depended on me, and one of them was the Houston Chronicle. And they wrote me and asked if I would like to come down for the Convention. [1928] So I showed up down at the Convention and did pretty well down there.

Knight: Which Convention was this?

Cowan: It was the Democratic Convention in Houston, national. And did pretty well in that. And the UP saw me somehow or other, and offered me a job. So I went to Austin, Texas, back to Austin, went into the press room there, and was on the United

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Press. I wasn't in charge of the—there were two of us on it, but I had my assignments, and I just covered everything I could find to cover. I never was shy about covering a story. If it happened, I went and covered it. [Laughter] I suppose that's how I made my reputation and how I got tired out, too, because I always kept that way.

So from Austin, a chap came through who was on the staff, executive staff of the—who am I working for now?

Knight: UP.

Cowan: Yes, I'm working for the United Press, using the name, R. Baldwin Cowan to conceal my sex. And he came through. No, he called up first, and he said, "I want to speak to the chap Baldwin who runs the United Press bureau."

I said, "Well, at the present time, you're speaking to her."

He said, "No, no, I want to talk to him."

I said, "There ain't no 'him' here." [Laughter] So he came up to see, and there was no "him" there. It was his day off.

And he said, "Look, United Press does not hire a woman. I'm awfully sorry."

And I said, "Well, maybe I'll get another job." [Laughter] So this happened all in the press room. So I was really fired, as it were, from the United Press then.

So I sat down, and I got the address of the AP in New York, wired Kent Cooper and said, "I have just been fired from the United Press because I'm a woman. Haven't you got in your big, extensive organization a place for a woman? I'm available."

And back that same afternoon came an offer for a job in Chicago. I didn't believe it! [because the date happened to be April 1st] And I thought the men were playing a joke on me. So I took it all around. Finally, I went down to the Western Union office, and I said, "Did you get this telegram?"

And they said, "Yes. Congratulations!"

And so I wired, "I'll be in on such and such a date." And it was in the next few days. Of course, I had to give UP few days, even though I was fired.

So I showed up in Chicago, and that's how I got on Chicago. And when I got in, I was met by a chap who knew me, through coming through San Antonio, and he was with the International News Service. He came down to the train, to get me off the train, so I wouldn't get lost in the big city. [Laughter] We went around to see a little of the city, and I turned up late in the afternoon at the AP, and they said, "We've been waiting all day for you, scared to death something had happened to you!"

I said, "No, I was looking the town over." [Laughter]

So they said, "Well, come on in. You can look it over from here from now on." And that's when I started with the AP. Well, of course, none of those organizations had women in those days, and the AP had a woman for a while, but they let her go, or she left—put it that way.

 

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And then they put me on, and didn't know what to do with me. That was all right with me. I went out and got a story. Or when they'd talk over what was going on during the day, I said, "Could I help out on that?" or something of the sort. I wasn't a bit shy about that kind of thing. Well, they gave me a desk and a typewriter and told me to get busy! [Laughter] That's how I started, really, with the AP. You can't just sit around and wait for people to tell you what to do. And so I liked it awfully well, and worked there, went on the conventions when they came, you see. They brought their staffs with them, but nevertheless, here I was in the picture somehow or other.

The World's Fair started off. I have two volumes of pictures and my stories and that sort of thing that I saved from the World's Fair. They gave me an office down at the World's Fair, so I really was a full—time person on the job, and I used to get so mad because the fair didn't close 'til midnight. [Laughter] Well, I didn't stay always that late, but I had quite a lot of jobs on the Fair to do. I saved pictures and other people's stories and that sort of thing, and sent up two big volumes, or maybe there's more than that, of the history of the World's Fair in Chicago. Of course, I think I'll leave the stuff, when I die, to the place out there in Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society or the AP, because it's really a very detailed account of the fairs in that time, in that area.

Now where was I? I've got to get out of Chicago, haven't I? [Laughter]

Well, Kent Cooper came by, and I have a very nice book in there I want to show you.

Knight: His autobiography. I saw that when I was here.

Cowan: Yes, you saw it. Did you see the little note written in it?

Knight: Yes.

Cowan: Yes. Well, some day I'm going to be able to read again, I hope.

I had good assignments in Chicago, and not all necessarily about women. I covered the medical society, the national convention of the medical society. Many national conventions, because somehow or other, I didn't regard myself as a woman, and therefore should be limited in what I could think and what I could do and what I wanted to do. And I think that's a mistake so many gals make; they feel, "Well, I'm a woman, and they push me around." They don't push you around any such thing; you push them back and go do your job, and you'll get on the front page. And that was the thing to do.

So then, I think, Kent Cooper—well, he came through several times, and I talked to him. He said, "Where would you ultimately like to go?"

I said, "Washington, D.C."

So a job opened in Washington, D.C., and they telegraphed out there and said, "We'd like to have Ruth Cowan in Washington." So I showed up in Washington, and that's how I got here. Now here I am in Washington. Now, you want any more background? That's it! [Laughter]

 

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Knight: Well, what I'd like to do is go back and ask more detailed questions about some of the things you've already told me.

Cowan: Okay.

Knight: I'll go back and just go on, because I've got a nice sense of where you went.

Cowan: Yes, you've got a sense of how I rambled around and what kind of a person I was.

Knight: Yes, I've got a clear sense of that, I think. Tell me more about your house. Did you have any brothers and sisters?

Cowan: No. I had no family at all.

Knight: So it was just your mother and you.

Cowan: Just my mother and me.

Knight: Your father had died.

Cowan: My father had died.

Knight: Did you know him? Do you remember very much about him?

Cowan: Yes, I remember quite a good deal, and I saw him just shortly before he died, maybe a few days. And my mother didn't want me going out very much, and so he invited to take me to a show or something like that, and I got all dressed up and ready and waiting at the convent, and he never showed up. He fell in the street that afternoon. He was not well. He hurt his head, and he didn't live, and I didn't know what had happened. The nuns were all so nice to me, and everybody was so nice to me, wondering what in the hell had happened. [Laughter] And so a few days later, I found out that my father died. My mother was back to bury him. He was buried, and then we took off to Florida. That's how that was.

Knight: You were seven, I think you told me?

Cowan: Seven or older, somewhere in there. Don't ask me my age at that particular time. I don't know. [Laughter] I'm afraid that I'll contradict myself, which I undoubtedly would. [Laughter]

Knight: When you were around the house, did you discuss current events with your mother, or politics? Was there an interest in that kind of thing in your house?

Cowan: No, not particularly, but I read an awful lot. My mother was terribly interested in this lawsuit, and she had a lot of people there. We had some mutual friends in town. But I never discussed much with my mother. I don't think she thought I was too bright. [Laughter]

Knight: Did she work while your father was still alive?

Cowan: No. She painted china. She was a good china painter, and she sold some china, but that wasn't her living. My father had enough money to keep us aboard. [Laughter]

 

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Knight: And then when he died, did she go back to work immediately?

Cowan: No, she didn't work at all. We went to Florida.

Knight: And how were you able to support yourselves?

Cowan: Well, she had this 360 acres of land coming, and, of course, 160 was—well, multiply 160 twice, and you know how much land it was—one was a homestead, and the other was a stone and timber. She qualified for both of those tracts of land. Then she didn't work at all. We had enough money to feed ourselves, from my dad's leavings.

Then we travelled around the country, and she couldn't quite decide where she wanted to settle down. That's how that moved around. Then, of course, the lawsuit started, and she went back there to try to win it, and she didn't get it done. It was just a very bad case.

And I was left in San Antonio, but I was willing to do it. I stayed at the convent, you see, for a while, and then got to know this other couple. See, Mrs. Cunningham was president of the Parent-Teachers Association, and that's how she knew me, and she took me home. I thought the home was very nice, so I moved in, I guess! I don't know. [Laughter] And Mary Carter was the newspaper gal. We all got along fine. John Cunningham was a very prominent lawyer in San Antonio.

Knight: So they adopted you, kind of.

Cowan: Practically they absorbed me into the family. I consider that almost my home. Then went on to the University, you see. Then when I would have some spare time, I went back to this place and stayed there. Yes, I moved in. I was in their home. They had three sons, and we all got along fine. I can get along with people.

Knight: Was your mother very religious? Was it a very strong Catholic upbringing?

Cowan: No, my mother was not a Catholic.

Knight: She was not a Catholic.

Cowan: No, she was a Christian Scientist. And I think she was pretty upset when I signed there—the Catholic school there was an excellent school, and she knew it was a place where I would be safe. She didn't expect I'd go out and get a job and start running the town or something. [Laughter] But that's what happened. Then, of course, I wanted to go to college, and the first place I turned was to a Catholic school in Austin, Texas. But it was too far from the University, and they weren't particularly anxious to have me, and I wasn't particularly anxious to stay there, because they would want me to go to school there, and I wanted to go to the University of Texas. So then they had this Catholic—where the kids, we roomed and boarded there. It was a boarding house for them. What do you say? A dormitory. And so I moved in there. That was Newman Hall in Austin, Texas, and I moved in. It was agreeable that I get a job and that I would be working back and forth. I wasn't under all the disciplinary things. This hall owned a couple of houses there, in which they took in faculty members. Well, they parked me in one of these places, and I loved it. [Laughter]

 

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Knight: But you weren't Catholic yourself?

Cowan: No!

Knight: You were just working with them.

Cowan: Yes.

Knight: How did you choose the University of Texas at Austin? What made you choose that college?

Cowan: I think it's probably the one that I knew the most about, and also, I believe, the eldest son of the Cunninghams was going to Austin at that time. But that's the way I got to know it, and liked it, and got along fine there.

Knight: What kind of expectations for yourself did you have? Did you ever daydream about what you'd be when you grew up, or anything like that?

Cowan: I thought I might possibly be a writer. That was in the back of my mind. And I think it was sort of the predominant thing, so I fit right in with this family, with which I lived. Mary Carter, you see, was a writer on the San Antonio Evening News. I got on the San Antonio Evening News.

Knight: What kind of writing did you think you wanted to do when you thought about being a writer early on?

Cowan: I didn't have any specific idea what kind of a writer I wanted to do. I know that I wanted to write something; I wanted to be somebody; I wanted you to respect me. [Laughter]

Knight: Whose work did you admire when you read all the time? Who were your favorite authors?

Cowan: Oh, gosh. Name a few of them. I read most of them. I can't say that I had any real favorites. I read for an education. I know that I did that. I was a kind of shy person.

Knight: Really?

Cowan: Shy but aggressive.

Knight: Dangerous!

Cowan: [Laughter] So anyway, I got places. Somehow or other, people—I think they were amused, more than anything else. And when I kind of discovered that, I didn't exactly like it. [Laughter] But I think that's what it was.

Knight: Did you do any writing when you were in high school or before you got to college?

Cowan: No, I was too busy getting out of high school. You see, I got through in a little over two years. College was—well, I finished, all told, a little over three years, but I broke it in the middle to do some—well, they shipped me around various schools to train me. Then the high school where I'd gotten my main education took me on. [Laughter] Algebra, of all things! And of course, I wasn't much older than

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some of my students. [Laughter] And I was told I couldn't go with any of my students, and I said, "Who wants to?" [Laughter]

Knight: [Laughter] That's really funny.

Cowan: I never let anybody get ahead of me, if I possibly could, but I wasn't brash. In fact, I was very shy. But I was hell-bent I was going to make something out of myself. I didn't know exactly what, but I knew something, and probably it was in the writing field, because, you see, everything that I did brought me toward that. Of course, Mary Carter had a great deal to do with it, and I covered some of the movies for her, and some of the plays and that sort of thing. Oh, I know that I got interested in doing some play writing, if I could possibly do it, but it wasn't a dying thing. I just had to succeed; I had to go on and on and on.

Knight: Were you always a good student?

Cowan: Oh, yes.

Knight: Were you successful in that way?

Cowan: Yes. Except when I got to the University of Texas. My mother came to visit me, and my grades went "bang." She didn't like some of the things I was doing, and this, that, and the other, and I felt she ought to leave me alone and let me get my education finished. [Laughter] And she wanted to go on. Well, she had this lawsuit to tend to, and that got to be a—so she led her life, and I led mine.

Knight: Do you think she was proud of you?

Cowan: I don't think much proud of me, no. I think she was too concerned with trying to get this land back and that sort of thing. I think she regarded me sort of—I felt as though I was a nuisance. So I had to be independent, you know, take care of myself. Didn't want to be a nuisance to anybody. Still don't. [Laughter] And it's a very strong trend I have. Anyway, it served me pretty well.

Knight: Now, how did you decide what to major in in college?

Cowan: Well, I had English as the main major, and then I had a lot of history. I think English and history were probably my two main things. Then pretty soon I got a job. Well, I had a job in the library there, the state library, and everybody helped me. I have so many people to thank and to be appreciative. I got in the library. Of course, I borrowed every book they had that wasn't tied down. [Laughter] I read everything. I was a fairly good secretary, but I didn't know stenography or anything. Of course, you didn't have to know it so much. But I could type, and I could compose a letter.

Then after being in the state library, I got a job in the engineering department, in their semi-library in the main office of the engineering department. I didn't know much about engineering, but nevertheless, I guess I did all right. I didn't get fired. If I needed a job, I just went out and hunted one up. And if I found one, I tried to adjust to what its needs were.

But I always remember that I liked writing on the paper. Then, as you see, I lived more or less permanently with the Cunningham family. When I went back to San Antonio and started teaching, even there, I lived with that family. Whenever they moved or anything of that sort, I moved with them. Mary Carter and I had the same

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room and that sort of thing, and I adjusted to their way of living. It wasn't a hard one to take. [Laughter] I imagine you gather that. I knew friends of theirs, and I had dates, of course, and they came home. I had been very carefully brought up in the beginning, so I had fairly good manners. Then they got a very large place out near the country club, and I moved out with them, then finally moved on my own.

Knight: Did you do any writing in college? Did you work for a college newspaper or anything like that?

Cowan: No. I can't remember writing anything for the newspapers.

Knight: So you basically learned by doing, when Mary Carter asked you to do these things.

Cowan: Yes.

Knight: Was she a college-trained journalist? Had she gone to journalism school?

Cowan: No, she hadn't gone to journalism school, no. She just somehow or other got a job doing movie reviews, and was darn good, and they put her on the movie review. Then I showed up, and she was dating, and Saturday night, she'd like to shine herself and get free of some of those things. Does that mean anything to you? Everything must be awfully confused.

Knight: No, I'm keeping track of it.

Cowan: Okay. I know, but I jump from one period to the next.

Knight: Everybody does. It's the way we think.

Cowan: I've done a lot of interviewing myself. Don't forget.

Knight: It was your stock and trade.

Cowan: Overseas and Washington, Chicago, back in Austin, San Antonio, and then overseas, finally.

Knight: Do you think having a college degree made any difference in the future work that you did or the jobs that you got?

Cowan: Oh, gosh, yes.

Knight: How?

Cowan: Oh, absolutely. Well, for one thing, it gave you better command of language, of English, and it gave you education. You got to know different kinds of people and adjust to different kinds of people. Oh, no, college education—I got so I could adjust to almost any crowd. When I found that I was on the paper and I'd get sent out on assignment, I knew a little something about it. What else did you ask me about that? What was your main question?

Knight: I was talking about writing in college, and if you'd done any writing in college. You said that you hadn't really. I asked if a college education was valuable.

 

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Cowan: I was pretty darn busy doing my lessons. You see, I had to work in the afternoons, and I got a job working, oh, I guess, from 1:00 o'clock on, or 2:00 o'clock on.

Knight: Because you put all the money together for college yourself?

Cowan: Most of it, yes. Oh, I didn't live very high, I can assure you of that, but I lived very nicely. I had a little money.

Knight: I'm going to turn this [tape cassette] over.

[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]

Knight: So you basically worked your way through school.

Cowan: Yes. I was very careful how I spent my money.

Knight: You taught, then, for two or three years, you were a teacher, as I recall?

Cowan: Yes. I got out and then taught at the same school where I had gone to high school.

Knight: And you taught algebra?

Cowan: I taught algebra. What did I say? How did I move out of my teaching there? I want to be sure and get the same thing.

Knight: Did you approach the paper about taking you on full-time? How did that occur that you got taken on?

Cowan: Yes, I approached the paper. Mary Carter took me in, and I got to know the managing editor and so forth and so on, and I was doing some of the stories for her. They knew it, you see, so they gave me assignments, and then, finally, took me on. Then she eventually quit and got married. Then I worked for the San Antonio Evening News for, I guess, a couple of years.

Knight: Do you remember your first day on the job at the paper, the San Antonio Evening News, your first full day as a reporter?

Cowan: Not especially, no, because I had done so many other kind of odd jobs on the paper.

Knight: I see. And who actually did the hiring? Who hired you?

Cowan: Walliser. Gosh, that's not quite the right name, but it's awfully near the right name. He was managing editor, and he had an office right off of the city room, and, of course, he knew what the city room was doing. He knew Mary Carter and Mary Carter's connections, the Cunningham people, so it was a very natural thing that they gave me a chance. I know that I didn't want to be a society reporter.

Knight: Had they offered that to you?

Cowan: No, they didn't. [Laughter] I think I probably said something about it on the way. I can say pretty frank things. And I really wanted training in courts, and I got training in courts. I helped cover the Al Capone case, and I had a very good

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story. I had a feature instinct, and I remember walking down the aisle, and Al Capone was coming toward me, and he was limping. I looked down, and I said, "Ooh, new shoes. They hurt, don't they?"

And he said, "Yes." I used that as my lead, and you know where my story landed, don't you? [Laughter] That kind of thing. But I tended toward news I could do—fast news. But I liked the kind of a nice little—what do you call it?—feature angle to things. So I was really developed into a first-class reporter out in Chicago.

Knight: Tell me a little more about the San Antonio paper. What did you learn there? What did you learn from that first job, do you think, looking back?

Cowan: Well, I had a desk right along with the other men. They had it all cut out like this, and your typewriter was in there. Then they'd give me very odd assignments like they gave the other people, and I had an awful lot of conventions, and I learned to cover the conventions, and I learned exactly how you got your news, and I learned to interview people, which is sometimes not a gift you're born with. And you have to be interested in the person and interested in what the person is doing, or you don't interview very well. I was interested in just about everybody that I came in contact with, so I got a lot of interviews, and apparently did all right. I learned how to write my lead paragraph. I was shown by other men just exactly how to do things, and I got along with people who worked in the offices without much trouble. I didn't have any difficulty.

Knight: Were there other women on that first paper with you, besides Mary Carter?

Cowan: Not in the city room of the Evening News, no, there wasn't any woman there. But the society editors had very good ones in there.

Knight: Why didn't you want to be a society reporter?

Cowan: Oh, just write about parties? I didn't want to write about parties. It's all right to go to a party, but write about it? No. Let somebody else write the parties. I wanted to write stories about the real facts of living, I guess. [Laughter] I don't know. But I know that that was that way. Of course, I've written lots of society stuff; you had to when you worked in Washington. You covered the White House; you had to write very good society stuff, and apparently I did.

Knight: Did you ever feel that you were assigned or not assigned a story because you were a woman at that first job?

Cowan: Oh, I'm bound to have felt that way sometime or other, of course, because that's the way men felt. I can remember one time that a man had something—I'd been out of town, and I came back and found a man was doing one of my jobs, and I said, "Hey, get the hell out of that." I didn't say it that way. [Laughter] That's the one time I protested, and I can remember it brought a big laugh from the city desk. [Laughter] But no, I never had any jealousy on various stories, because I always felt I could handle a story. My idea was getting published, and how would I handle this story to get published, and where was the feature angle in it, more than anything else. A story had its news angle. If a train comes in and falls off a track, that's news. But if it just comes in, and you want to find out something about it, maybe it's the people that were on it. You might find some different ones on there. Now, what else do you want to know?

 

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Knight: What else do you think you learned from that first job? You said pretty much other reporters told you about how to write a lead, and you kind of learned from them. Did you have any editors that had particularly helped you?

Cowan: Oh, yes, we had two. We had a city editor. The organization aboard papers, especially papers not necessarily the AP or anything like that, but even including the AP, you have a city editor, you have assistant city editors, and you have other reporters. No, you'd get big crosses like this through some of the stories—"Do that over again." And you'd go back and you'd do it over again. But later on, I got so that I could—calling in a story, for one thing, that's another technique you have to learn. And I used to write my outlines out like this and then call it in. And then covering trials. I never turned down a story or anything like that. Of course, in that day and time, you had stories at all hours of the day and night.

Knight: What kind of hours did you work at that first job?

Cowan: My first job, I came on about 9:00 o'clock in the morning and was supposed to work 'til around 5:00 or 6:00. But I worked just almost any time, and I liked to get night assignments.

Knight: How come? Why?

Cowan: Well, I suppose because they didn't think I should have them, I think. [Laughter] Then I would get assigned to the opera, for example. Now, I don't know one note from another, but I covered the operas, and I didn't know anything about opera. So I just went out and got hold of people that starred in it, and wrote stories about them. Then they got somebody to do the actual covering of an opera. So I got to know all of—you see, the Chicago Opera Society at that time was just tops. So I got to know them all. And I was backstage and everything else. I wasn't pushy, but I always seemed to be able to get around.

Knight: So you were at San Antonio just for one year, in 1928. You worked for the San Antonio Evening News.

Cowan: I think that's about the time. I can't say just one year. Now, some of my books carry that stuff. Who's Who, you know that collection?

Knight: Yes, that's where I looked up the information about you, was in Who's Who.

Cowan: Was it Who's Who itself, or was it that Who's Who of American Women?

Knight: Who's Who itself.

Cowan: Well, American Women, I think, has more in it, and I discovered—-I cleaned off one of those shelves the other day that I had all that stuff, and you might want to take that first.

Knight: Okay, I'll look at it.

Cowan: My husband, when the Who's Who publication was going to put out this series of Who's Who Among American Women, he wrote to them and gave them my background and that sort of thing. [Laughter] He always thinks that's the way he got me in that thing. Now, there's a whole series of them in there that I thought maybe you'd be interested in seeing, way back in that day.

 

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Knight: So you went from the San Antonio Evening News, then, to the Houston Chronicle?

Cowan: Well, the Houston Chronicle, I just worked down there over that particular convention.

Knight: Just the one convention. Then that's when UP got interested in you?

Cowan: Yes, it was a little after that, and they wrote and asked if I would like a job.

Knight: What were you writing under? What was the name you were writing under then?

Cowan: I wrote under the name of Baldwin Cowan, or R. Baldwin Cowan, or sometimes Ruth Cowan, depending on what I was writing.

Knight: What do you mean it depended on what you were writing?

Cowan: Well, covering something that might go in the society section or the society page, it was, naturally, Ruth Cowan. And then if it was a real honest-to-God he-man story, it was R. Baldwin Cowan or Baldwin Cowan.

Knight: You made that decision?

Cowan: Yes, I made my own decision.

Knight: Why did you—I mean—

Cowan: I never signed my own name to a story. I left that to the city editor to do, and that's the way they worked it out, wherever I worked. Well, I worked all kinds of stories in Chicago, all kinds of conventions. I went in and picked up the assignments. "I want you to cover such and such a thing." I went out and covered it; that's all there was to it.

Knight: Tell me about this name business. So when you were in San Antonio, what name did you write under? You wrote under Ruth Cowan?

Cowan: Yes, when I was on the San Antonio Evening News, I wrote under Ruth Cowan. I wrote under the name of Ruth Cowan.

Knight: And that changed when you moved to United Press?

Cowan: I see what's gotten us off the track there. I was doing a lot of stories on the side and selling them on the side, and it was all right with the management; they didn't care what I did.

Knight: To what other places?

Cowan: Oh, I would send a memo, "Can I cover this?" Or "Would you be interested in this story?" And send it on the telegraph, telegraph them out. In those days, you could send these things out collect. Then I developed quite a number of papers that would call on me. Instead of having a correspondent constantly in San Antonio, they would have a part-timer, and the part-timer was me. I also got the Houston Chronicle.

 

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Knight: So mostly papers in that region?

Cowan: The Houston Chronicle itself. What's the name of the editor down there? She had a cabinet office at one time. Don't say that I can't remember that name. But I want to be sure it's not the Houston Post. We'll have to look up. Oveta Culp Hobby.

Knight: Oveta Culp Hobby.

Cowan: Which one was she on?

Knight: I'm not sure which paper, but you got to know her through one of the papers, the paper that she worked on?

Cowan: The United Press sent me to Austin, Texas. That's when I was on the legislature there. I don't know how you can keep track of all this.

Knight: You were working for the San Antonio paper, and you were selling your stories to other papers around the region.

Cowan: Yes. Right.

Knight: When you covered the convention, the Democratic Convention, was that when the United Press became interested in you?

Cowan: I think probably it was. I took a vacation from the paper in San Antonio. They didn't want to send me down to Houston, but this other place said they would send me. So I went down, and the San Antonio Evening News got a little disturbed about it. But I think at that time I used the name of Baldwin Cowan. Going out and writing to some paper like the New York Times or any of these other papers, "Is there anything in this area that I could cover for you, that you're interested in?" I learned how to write those letters and send them to the managing editor or the city editor. I had that big red book, you know, whatever it is, that lists all the names. I could always thumb through and find out who was on the paper, you see. Then I found a story that they might be interested in, and I'd look down and see what paper was interested there. And I'd send these queries out. In those days and time, they didn't mind you sending them collect, you see. So then I would get back, and then I would establish these relationships. That's how I got this Houston paper.

But anyway, I knew her [Oveta Culp Hobby] down there. And how I met her is, when I was with the United Press, and I got assigned and sent to Austin, Texas, here I am right back in the place where I had gone to school and all that sort of thing. And I was on the Senate side, and Oveta Culp Hobby was parliamentarian, not elected, but a hired member of the staff on the House of Representatives. And I got to know her that way, before she married. But I covered her.

Knight: Did you purposely use the name Baldwin to prevent them knowing that you were a woman?

Cowan: Yes. Definitely. R. Baldwin Cowan, or just plain Baldwin Cowan. Oh, absolutely!

Knight: Did you start out using Ruth Cowan and had you had any turndowns? I mean, what made you make that decision?

 

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Cowan: Oh, I must have had turndowns, or I must have been advised, "We don't care for women," or that sort of thing. And then I also sought to represent them. It was all right with the management at that time. See, the salaries weren't—you couldn't hardly live on them. [Laughter] So you could pick up things on the outside. They didn't seem to mind. They always had to know what you were up to.

Knight: What kind of money would you get for these stories that were picked up, do you remember?

Cowan: Five and ten dollars, something like that.

Knight: Would you use the same story for multiple papers, or were they all different stories?

Cowan: No, I would arrange them so that the lead paragraph would fit in with whatever they were.

Knight: So you had like a little wire service for all these papers.

Cowan: I was a little wire service unto myself, I guess. You might put it that way. So I had several clients. Then at night, when I was not working with the—where did I do that? Yes, I was in San Antonio. I used to go over to the office of the—what do you call them? Oh, that send their copy out. What's the name of where you go to send a telegram? Western Union office. Yes, Western Union office. And they always knew that I was coming in, possibly, and they had a typewriter ready for me, and I'd pound out stories like that, and then they'd go out like this. They went out that way.

Knight: You must have worked incredible hours.

Cowan: Yes, I did! [Laughter] And if I saw that that was the way to do it, I did it. It never bothered me.

Knight: So how did you come to the attention of the United Press, then? How did they know of you and your work?

Cowan: Oh, let's see. How could it possibly have been done? Some story I must have sent that they knew, or they heard of me some way or other and asked me to do something. Then I got sent down to Houston, Texas, and I think it was by the United Press. I know the home town paper didn't like it much.

Knight: Did they know you were a woman when they hired you, the United Press?

Cowan: Did they or didn't they?

Knight: Or were you hired more or less by mail or phone?

Cowan: No, don't you know I told you about this man calling up?

Knight: Right.

Cowan: Yes.

Knight: They only hired you by mail or through telegram.

 

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Cowan: Yes, something like that. There were two of us on my desk, so maybe the other guy hired me. See?

Knight: I see.

Cowan: That's probably how I got on the job. And I was in the news room, and we had a long row of transmitters and that sort of thing. I never learned to do any of that. I don't know why; I just never did.

Knight: So how different was your job at the United Press than it had been at the paper?

Cowan: Well, with the United Press, you were writing for a wire service, and a paper, you were writing for a paper. There's a great deal of difference.

Knight: Did you prefer one over the other?

Cowan: No. Then, of course, I had my own little collection of clients that I had.

Knight: You were still doing those?

Cowan: Oh, yes! Then the Western Union—I did a pretty good business, and the Western Union would hold my telegrams, you see, and I'd call in and find out if anything had come in for me. So I got busy. Then I solicited stories. If I saw something was happening that I thought would interest another town, I'd take this big book, you know, like this, and look up and see what papers were in it, send out a query: "Can I help you?"

Knight: And United Press didn't mind that you had your other clients on the side?

Cowan: They probably didn't know it. No, I don't think there was much overlap. No, I was just an institution all by myself. I didn't know it. [Laughter]

Knight: Do you remember what kind of money you were making at San Antonio and what kind of money you made for the United Press? Do you recall?

Cowan: Very small. I don't like to say what it is. It was small.

Knight: I remember Beth (Campbell) Short was telling me she got an offer, when she got out of college, I guess, in 1929, for $25 a week, which she said sounded pretty good to her at the time.

Cowan: Yes, I think it was about like that. Oh, gosh, yes. That would have been big.

Knight: Were you paid the same as the men on the paper?

Cowan: No, of course not. That's the reason why you'd go out and get some stuff on the side, see.

Knight: I see.

Cowan: But then I loved to write, and that's one way I could get around and see things and meet people and that sort of thing and keep on the go.

 

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Knight: So you worked for United Press for about what—for about a year or so before they found out. Less than a year?

Cowan: Less than a year when this chap came in. And he said, "We don't have women." So I said, "Well, you've got one now."

So he came up and said, "I'm sorry. We can't keep you." Well, he and I became very good friends. Then in London, I met him, and we were at a bar, and he said, "One of the worst things I did was fire you."

And I said, "Yes, I thought so." [Laughter] We were both on the invasion at that time.

Knight: Was this a written policy of United Press?

Cowan: No, it's just the way they did.

Knight: Just the way they did.

Cowan: Oh, sure.

Knight: But then subsequent, you'd been hired by someone else, obviously, who didn't pay attention to it, whoever hired you for the United Press job.

Cowan: Well, they hired me under the name of Baldwin Cowan, undoubtedly, you see.

Knight: But your co-worker had never let on to any of the superiors.

Cowan: No, he never let on, no. It didn't make any difference to him, you see. [Laughter] He probably was on my side.

Knight: So how long did it take you before you contacted AP? What did you do? What was your reaction when they first told you that you couldn't work for United Press any longer?

Cowan: Well, I told you about how he called up and said, "We don't have women." Then he came up. He saw I was a woman. He told me he was very sorry, but that I couldn't do it. And I said, "Well, I guess I can't." So after he left—it was done in the city room there, I mean, in the press room, so everybody kind of felt sorry for me. The chap that was in charge of the UP at that time, that was his day off. So I sat down, and that's when I sent my telegram on to Cooper in New York. I knew this was going to happen.

Knight: Eventually.

Cowan: Yes. And so he wired me back right away, and he said, "I know that the AP in Chicago is looking for a woman, and I'm recommending you." Well, that was Kent Cooper. So the room went in, you know, and when my telegram hit them, they said, "Okay, let's take her." So I was on the way.

Knight: How long did it take for you to get relocated?

 

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Cowan: A few days. I didn't have much to pack, and I just got busy and got on the train and got up there.

Knight: That was a change.

Cowan: I went to the biggest hotel in town. I always did things like that. [Laughter] I looked it up in the telephone directory and it said the biggest hotel, so I signed up for the damned hotel. [Laughter]

Knight: Chicago must have been a big change after San Antonio and Houston.

Cowan: Oh, sure! Oh, it was very big. They had trains that run around on tracks up in the sky.

Knight: The L, yes.

Cowan: [Laughter]

Knight: Describe the office to me. How were you set up there?

Cowan: Well, they didn't know exactly what to do with a woman coming in, you see, on the staff.

Knight: Were you the only one?

Cowan: Sure! Well, the switchboard operator was a woman, and the secretary was a woman, the secretary to the boss. And I suppose the men said they didn't want me at the main desk, so they put a little desk out to the side there, and that's where they put me. It suited me all right, fine. They could keep out of the drawers in that desk. [Laughter] One time, I remember, the switchboard operator was just about where that place was, and I said, "You know, there's only one thing wrong with this thing. I haven't got a private telephone." Well, I never did get that private telephone. [Laughter]

I was a big joke to a lot of them. I got to know and I got along fine with them. I've got a good sense of humor, and I knew that I was intruding on their place, and well, I just got along, that's all. I kept to myself pretty well. They said, "You have a woman." This is what the gossip would be: "It disrupts the whole place. A woman is making goo-goo eyes at the men," and all that sort of thing. Well, I didn't make any goo-goo eyes. When it came time for me to go home, I went home. I had no romances around the place.

Knight: Had you decided that? Had you made a decision about that side of your life, when you decided to go into this work?

Cowan: No, no. I didn't intend to be in there permanently, but I was not going to interrupt the way in which the AP and the rest of them operated. Of course, I didn't tell them that I didn't see any of them that I'd fall in love with yet. [Laughter]

Knight: Did you socialize at all with the other reporters up there? Did you make friends?

Cowan: Oh, sure. We'd go down for breakfast and coffee and that sort of thing. Then I knew the families of the other people. That's what I did more than anything else, and I would be invited for Christmas and Thanksgiving, out to their homes. But I

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didn't date, didn't make a policy of dating any of the ones that were there. That's not because I didn't find people that were not attractive to date, but they were all married, and I had my work, and they had theirs. But we could go down for a cup of coffee, for God's sake. Every morning we'd do that; I can remember that all right.

Knight: You said you kind of kept off to yourself. Did you work at winning their respect?

Cowan: Oh, yes, definitely.

Knight: What did you do? Tell me a little bit about how you felt and how you approached your work, knowing that they weren't really happy about having you there.

Cowan: It had to be good work. I told myself that. If at all possible, it had to be a scoop. Well, you can't get a scoop every time, but it had to be a little unusual and well written and well done. I never got mad when they said, "Oh, for God's sake, do this over." Once in a while, I got that, but I would try to get—and I asked their opinion about what they wanted and how they wanted it developed. Not too much, because they wouldn't want to make you dependent upon them. No, I caught on to the knack of how you started a story, and then if they think, "Okay, that was good."

I can remember the managing guy in Chicago got up from his desk and came over—"Congratulations. That's one of the best leads I've ever read." [Laughter]

And I said, "See?" [Laughter] Well, everybody laughed. I was a joke to them, and I worked it that way, to make them—I don't know. I've got a good sense of humor, and I laughed at things as they went along. Then sometimes I managed to get Underwood to talk things over with me on what we thought such and such a story would merit, especially when a convention was coming. Not a big convention, but a national convention of certain things, and I'd tell them. I got pretty knowledgeable on what news was and how it functioned. Then I got to know the families and was accepted in the homes of these people. I didn't disrupt the office. That was always the thing—"You have a woman in, and you've got turmoil on your hands." Well, that's nonsense.

Knight: Were there any of your fellow reporters that you were never able to win over?

Cowan: Never tried on all of them, no. If he didn't want me, that's okay. He didn't want me on assignments? Okay with me. No, I can't remember ever having been turned down when somebody said, "Well, Ruth can go along with you and get you something." And then I would tell what I was doing, and I did have the self-confidence to feel that I could do something that was worthwhile for the AP on a story, that I didn't need to have to—of course, I didn't tell the UP what I was doing, something of that sort. And they would say, "Well, what are you going to cover?"

And I'd say, "Well, I'm thinking about so and so. I think I'll interview so and so," not talking about going over to a convention meeting. You see, Chicago was a convention place. "I think I'll find so and so and see if they've got anything that's any good." And then I'd usually say, "You got anything on your mind?"

And then they would say, "No, you go get something." And then when I got through with it, the man who was in charge of the story was still there, I turned it into him. It seems to me that's the only way to work it, anyway. So that I never had the reputation of being hard to get along with, that I know of.

 

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Knight: Were there any other women hired while you were there?

Cowan: No. From Washington, where did I go? I came from Chicago. I came to Washington. Then Washington was very different, you see. And I lost my luggage, and I had to find it.

Then they did have some women in Washington on their feature desk. What was the name? Sigrid Arne, she became a good friend of mine. Of course, they all looked me over. Then I was on the news desk. Who's that gal you were talking about earlier in the day?

Knight: Beth Short.

Cowan: Beth Short, yes. Her husband died, didn't he? She didn't marry again, did she?

Knight: No.

Cowan: I think it was Beth Short I succeeded.

Knight: That's true. You did. I think we'll stop for the day, and next time I come back, we'll talk about Washington and some other things.

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