The story of The Forum's 'girl reporter' who conquered Hollywood, but never forgot the folks at home
Trailblazing journalist Muriel Babcock started her journalism career selling Saturday Evening Posts as a child in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and she'd end it being one of the most powerful editors in the business.
FARGO — How have I been an employee of Forum Communications for more than 30 years and not have known of this awesome former employee?
Muriel Babcock worked for The Forum 100 years ago, and died the very year I became a full-time employee here. So for those reasons I, obviously, never got the chance to run into her in the break room. Man! I wish I had. Instead, I had to learn of her story through The Forum's archives.
The weathered old newsprint tells the story of a trailblazing, driven young woman who could have very easily been dismissed in the male-dominated world of news. Instead, she decided she would go ahead and conquer it.
Who was Muriel Babcock?
Babcock was a Forum staff writer in the 1920s before becoming one of Hollywood’s most important journalists. We’ve all seen those movie magazines from the ‘20s and ‘30s dishing the dirt on the biggest stars of the day. Well, Babcock was the chief disher-outer.
She interviewed and shared news about the biggest stars of the day, including this priceless nugget from June 17, 1934:
“It was a hot and hectic day for fan worship in Hollywood last Sunday. Clark Gable almost had his pants torn off by a crowd of hysterical fans at the Grand Central Airport.”
But before all of that excitement, she was the "girl reporter" from Wahpeton, N.D., in a 1920s smoke-filled newsroom full of men.
From the heartland to Hollywood
Babcock was born March 19, 1900, in Minneapolis. She grew up in Wahpeton, where her father worked at an implement dealership. Early on she was hooked on news, selling the Saturday Evening Post as a child and setting up her own newsstand in high school.
She attended the University of North Dakota, but also worked as a secretary to Fargo Forum publisher Norman B. Black, which eventually led to a job as a staff writer at the paper. She also was a correspondent for the Grand Forks Herald. She wrote human interest stories and was in charge of the movie column.
By 1923, she had moved to California to attend the University of California and work for the San Francisco Examiner. By the late 1920s, she moved to Hollywood where her career really took off.
When she first got to Southern California, she wrote movie columns for the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Examiner. She also became one of the first women reporters to cover a major sporting event when the 1932 Olympic Games came to Los Angeles. Her favorite athlete? Babe Didrickson, who she said was “a whole show in herself."
More honors, accolades and promotions followed. By 1939, she had been named the editor of the No. 1 movie magazine in the country.
'Lanky Blonde Forum Reporter'
When Babcock received the major promotion to become editor of Picture Play, the nation’s top movie magazine, The Forum’s headline read, “Once ‘Lanky Blonde Forum Reporter’ Now Editor Of National Movie Magazine.”
The editor wrote of her "quite a girl, yes sir, quite a girl,” commenting on her tall and “boyish” figure.
Did these cigar-smoking newsmen ever ask themselves what her height, hair color and figure had to do with her accomplishments as a journalist? So far in my extensive archival research I’ve never found a headline that read, "Short, fat, brown-haired man promoted.” I’ll keep looking.
When she climbed the corporate ladder even higher by being named executive editor of four different magazines, a headline profiling Babcok proclaimed, “Lady Editorship Is Job Sans Glamour To Miss Babcock.”
Is a “lady editorship” different than a regular one? Maybe she smoked Virginia Slim cigarettes behind her pink typewriter while reminding her male colleagues to quit calling her "honey"?
Keeping in touch
By all accounts Babcock was a “big shot,” but she didn’t seem to forget her roots. She did a few interviews over the years with Forum reporters, often asking them to fill her in on what was going on “with the folks back home.”
One of my favorite finds was a letter Babcock wrote to Roy Johnson at The Forum dated Feb. 23, 1939.
On the powder blue Picture Play letterhead paper, she talks about her reporting philosophy, “People like to read about people.”
But the best part of the letter was her opening paragraph which, I think, helps you really get a feel for what her early days at The Forum were like:
“Dear Roy: I surely do remember the old AP room and how I used to snitch cigarettes. You may be interested in knowing that now I’m a big girl and grown up, I don’t like the taste of cigarettes and smoke very rarely.”
Into her later years, Babcock extended her reach into publishing, even editing a book about the Kennedy family in 1962. Three years later, in 1965, Babcock retired from her “big shot” career.
She died in Long Island, N.Y., in 1988, survived by many nieces and nephews (and at least one journalist at today’s Forum who'd give anything to have shared a cup of coffee with her in the break room.)
Special thanks to Don Person, who first tipped me off about Muriel Babcock.