08/25/2011 10:19 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

How I Became a New York Celebrity 75 Years Ago

Seventy-five years ago today, my mother and I took New York City by storm. We were the toast of the town as reporters and photographers from New York's newspapers, wire services and radio networks crowded into our 14th floor suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Tower to interview us.

Actually, they were there to interview my mother, a 39-year-old farmer's wife from southern Minnesota who suddenly found herself a celebrity after being named the nation's best rural correspondent of 1936 by The Country Home Magazine. But I shared in her spotlight. I was only seven weeks old, born the day she learned she had won a $200 prize and a trip to New York and Washington for a column she wrote in the Fairmont (Minn.) Sentinel about harvesting grain.

Indeed, I was the focus of the article that appeared in the New York Times the next day, August 24, 1936, under a one-column, four-deck headline: "Rural Journalist Not Awed By City: A Bit Stunned by its Size, but She Finds Country and Urban Reporters Alike; Here as a Prize Winner; Correspondent of Blue Earth, Minn., Has Recipe, Untried, for Stuffed Peacock."

As the unnamed Times reporter wrote:

Her left arm snug about a 7-week-old baby boy, Mrs. Susan Frawley Eisele of Blue Earth, Minn., picked stoically at a portable typewriter with two fingers of her right hand in her room at the Waldorf-Astoria yesterday afternoon.

'Zzklklklklklklkl, jkjkjkjkjkjkl,' she wrote, for the benefit of photographers. The baby stretched a pink hand toward the white organdy rosette at his mother's black bodice. The last flashlight went off, the camera men said, 'Thank you,' and Mrs. Eisele stopped typing. A friend took the baby, Albert Alois, to its nurse, Mrs. William Hines.

Her star treatment is chronicled in yellowed clippings from the New York newspapers she gave me before her death in 1984. The headlines like that of the Herald Tribune, reflected a common theme: "Lights of City Fail to Dazzle Rural Writer: Mrs. S. Eisele, Best Correspondent, Prefers Kerosene of Blue Earth, Minn.; Brings 2-Month-Old Baby; Wants to See Sights, Not Interested in Night Clubs."

The Herald Tribune's article was accompanied by a three-column photo of her sitting at a portable typewriter while holding me in her lap. (I was "rocked in the only rocking chair in the Waldorf Astoria," she later told readers of her column. "It took him less than a week to become used to city life. Little Albert won the hearts of photographers with wide and ready smiles. A born diplomat, that baby.") The Sun, which ran a similar photo, echoed the same theme in its headline and story, as did the Post, World Telegram, Evening Journal and American.

Speaking with traces of her native South Carolina accent and holding me until I raised a fuss because of the photographers' flashbulbs, she quickly disproved the stereotyped notion of the country bumpkin journalist.

"Someone asked what she thought about rural and urban journalism," the Times reported. "'I can't see that there's much difference,' she said. 'You write what you see and we write what we see. Of course, you see a more sophisticated kind of life here; we see the simpler things. But I think we're trying fundamentally to do the same thing. I think that a journalist's highest function is to present life as he sees it.'"

She said her definition of news was not reporting about world events or famous people, but "about the weeds and the crops and the roadsides and the weather and the children," as she had in her prize-winning column, which was about the hard work and shared satisfaction of neighbors helping each other harvest their grain. By drawing material from her life with my father, also a writer, and my two older brothers and the lives of her rural Minnesota neighbors, she said a writer could provide glimpses of truth and beauty by faithfully reporting the reality of everyday life.

For example, she told reporters she was in a cafe in Blue Earth one day when the town's fire sirens went off, signaling a fire in the country. "I was afraid that something had happened at home," she said. "Then a man came in and said, 'Hell, that's just a farmer's strawstack on fire.' Straw -- that's gold to a farmer, it means everything. But a fire in a strawstack wouldn't worry a man in town, just as a fire in town wouldn't worry us in the country. I thought there was a story in that."

She confirmed the image of New Yorkers as popularized by fellow Minnesotan F. Scott Fitzgerald, in an article she later wrote for the Fairmont newspaper. "Everyone in New York, as far as I can see, smokes and drinks. I never saw a drunken person, but it seems to me that the women particularly try to outdo each other in drinking -- they try everything -- and seem to get away with it. They smoke almost constantly. No one in New York dresses other than ordinarily. I was disappointed in this because I expected them to be fashion plates."

As for New York's Jazz Age reputation, she was equally forthright. "The night clubs are night clubs, no fooling. The women there are actually naked, and no illusions. But I think there is more undress on the streets of Blue Earth than New York." Calling the Stork Club "dishwaterish," she told the Fairmont Daily Sentinel, "The Hollywood Night Club on Broadway is supposed to be more representative of the flesh. The chorus girls are beautiful. Girls just like we have in Fairmont and Blue Earth -- with maybe a little less on. The jokes are old: just the same kind of jokes as those your husband comes home and tells you -- if you let him -- after a day at the office, or during threshing, and these entertainers at the night clubs don't know any more about what they are doing that we know."

But when asked in an NBC radio interview what she thought of another Minnesota writer, Sinclair Lewis, and his harsh portrayal of life in small towns like her own, she dismissed him with these words: "I liked 'Main Street' very much, but that was the last good book Lewis wrote. Novels of small towns or of the farm can only be written by those who live there."

And, like many tourists then and now, she found few bargains in New York stores. "It is impossible to shop in New York unless you go for miles to find a reasonable place," she wrote. "I wanted to get a hat there, and went to one of the shops in the Waldorf Astoria, and they had nothing cheaper than $18.50."

My mother assured the assembled reporters that their jobs were safe. "Broadway's lights may be bright and famous, but Mrs. Eisele wouldn't trade her kerosene lamps for all of them," the United Press correspondent wrote. "Neither would she swap jobs with any of New York's newspapermen. Their assignments may cover more sophisticated doings, but to Mrs. Eisele, threshing, fall plowing, cattle slaughtering and lard-making, about which she writes, are just as important and not much different."

She explained that she had begun writing seriously only four years earlier, as a form of therapy after the death of a two-year-old daughter on Christmas Day, 1932, a day after my brother was born, and that she and her husband both wrote in the light of a kerosene lamp after putting their children to bed. "That makes as good a light as your electricity, and I wouldn't trade," she said.

The Herald Tribune described her as "a plain but exceedingly intelligent women," while the Times wrote an editorial declaring that she "has defined the profession of journalism in words that will make all good newspaper men proud." However, the Times also challenged her view that a journalist's "highest function is to present life as he sees it," declaring that "The newspaper man should be content to describe the things that he sees. There is a big difference between what a man sees and 'as' he sees it."

During a weeklong visit, she paid a call on Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the summer City Hall in the Bronx; had tea with President Franklin Roosevelt's daughter Anna at the New York Democratic Women's headquarters; sat beside the presiding judge at a session of the city's Night Court; met renowned industrial designer Donald Deskey, a native of Blue Earth; was given a tour of the city and wined and dined at top night clubs and restaurants.

"Mayor Yearns to Be Columnist," the American reported above a three-column photo of LaGuardia presenting my mother with a five-foot-long pencil in recognition of her column, called "With a Penny Pencil," which he offered to guest edit. When my mother told him she had not seen any babies in New York, LaGuardia replied, "Oh, we have plenty of babies. That is one thing we haven't any depression on."

Although disappointed by the gothic vastness of St. Patrick's Cathedral, where her immigrant Irish father worshipped on his arrival in this country in 1888, she called the Cathedral of St. John the Divine "a gorgeous church." And while she was unimpressed by the Stork Club or Jack Dempsey's restaurant, which she compared to a "being in a pool room or barber shop -- uncomfortable for a woman," she was thrilled by her first sight of the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, and by New York itself. Despite the city's "metallic soul," she found it "bigger and more wonderful than I ever dreamed of."

Nevertheless, she echoed the classic judgment of many first-time visitors to New York, saying, "But I wouldn't want to live here. I have my inspirations from the soil and I have to stay there to get them."

My mother's visit attracted the attention of syndicated columnists Walter Winchell, Westbrook Pegler and Dorothy Kilgallen, who devoted entire columns to her. Pegler wrote that the big city reporters were surprised to find that "she is neither illiterate nor a wide-eyed and somewhat apprehensive Aunt Samanthy in a sunbonnet, afraid to leave her hotel on account of 'them white-slavers who lurk in every New York doorway waiting to snatch a country girl to a fate which is worse than death.'"

Noting that the same prize had gone to a rural Missouri woman the year before, Pegler commented, "Two years running, now, country ladies have come to New York to be astonished, and neither one has attempted to blow out the electric light. Possibly both of them, when they were let alone at night, turned to the Wall Street closing prices to see what was doing today."

Like Kilgallen, Winchell not only wrote a laudatory column but invited my mother to author a guest column, which she did a few weeks later. In it, she called the New York journalists "as fine a group of men as I have ever met." She added, "This, above all, endeared New York to me. I formerly had the small town idea of metropolitan newspaper men: hard-boiled, heartless, nervy people who pried into private affairs and broke hearts and laughed at you behind your back. Well, they weren't like that at all."

In his column, Winchell agreed with my mother's assertion that "reporting here and in the sticks is essentially the same." But he advised her "of the opportunities and evils she'd be up against" if she ever decided to "transfer her portable to the local city rooms... This burg offers the best opportunities, coin and adventure of any, but it also ranks high in double-crossings, headaches and disappointments."

He added, "One of the grandest things about New York, Mrs. Eisele, is that every once in a while a yarn breaks that gives each paper a chance to turn a reporter loose on some big time writing. As happened the other day when Peter, the bear, broke out of the zoo and had to be shot. Every rag had a piece on the incident which has this reporter scattering orchids to the authors of all of them."

Winchell said he agreed completely with my mother's statement that "a journalist's highest function is to present life as he sees it," adding in words that any present-day journalist probably would agree with: "Very well said. But the trouble is too many readers want you to see it their way."

When Winchell died in 1971, my mother recalled wondering "if he was going to make fun of me or slay me with his sharp tongue and pen." But she was pleasantly surprised. "I shouldn't have been so suspicious," she wrote in one of her columns. "Walter Winchell and I fell in love with each other from the moment we met... After the interview, he told me to keep being myself, not to let anyone make me over, and that he envied me my humdrum life."

From New York, we went on to Washington, where my mother was supposed to meet President Roosevelt, who, ironically, had gone to Minnesota to attend the funeral of Governor Floyd B. Olson, the radical, flamboyant and controversial three-term governor who was planning to run for the U.S. Senate when he died of cancer at age 45.

But she got the star treatment there as well. The Washington Times-Herald ran a page one story with a photograph of her holding me while reading Winchell's column in the Herald, under the headline, "Sorrow Inspires Mother To Become Prize Writer: Best Rural Correspondent Visits Here; Tells Views." (She and I also made our first visit to the White House, strolling through the gates, unchallenged, with my nurse pushing me in a stroller; when I made my next visit, in 1965 as a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press, security was considerably tighter.)

After returning home, my mother wrote a 13-part series about her trip for the Minneapolis Journal in which she expressed her admiration of the nation's capital, as well as her ambivalence. She wrote that she was deeply impressed by the White House and Capitol building and the city's monuments, but declared, "Washington is not a city. It is the soul of America clothed in white marble flesh."

However, she never got over her love affair with New York. In the guest column she wrote for Winchell, she said:

Before my trip east, I thought that inhabitants of New York would be in some strange, ineffable way, different from small town dwellers. I was mistaken and disappointed. I found you folks to be pretty much like the folks here at home or in Minneapolis. I had expected New York to be plainly tattooed upon its inhabitants. But it wasn't. And try as I would, I never discovered the mark. You were gentle, conservative, cultured, alert, discerning, sympathetic -- just like next door neighbors.

But find New York, its significance and its essence, we did, Mr. Winchell. Otherwise, it wouldn't have made sense. Your skyscrapers are New York. They are the cathedrals of commerce and industry in which your city worships. They are beautiful, inspiring and siren-like. No wonder you love New York. I was coming back from Staten Island... and suddenly that exquisite skyline of yours broke into view! Shameful sentimentalist that I am, I felt like going down on my knees at the sight -- and thanking God that He made men with intellect and vision strong enough to conceive such magnificent architecture. For certainly, the skyscraper represents man's material progress in exactly the same way that the cathedral represents his spiritual progress.

And now that I have caught the real spirit of New York, I love it, too, and it seems to belong to me as well as to you, Mr. Winchell. That is how it should be. New York should belong to the whole United States, not just to New Yorkers. We should be proud of it and it should be Our City, as London is to England, and Paris is to France. No sectionalism or jealousy should deprive the citizens of this country from pointing with pride to this wonder city of yours and ours. It can never be overshadowed or duplicated.

In her final article for the Journal, however, she proved she hadn't been seduced by life in the big city. "In the East, we Midwesterners are regarded with amazement," she wrote. "It is hard for them to realize that we are the same people that they are. That we dress, live, act and think just like they do. Only we are more leisurely about it. We seem to have a longer day here. Sometimes we think Easterners regard us a people living in a far-away land. We, the people of the Midwest, are going to have to sell our country to the East. With our fertile fields and lovely scenery and composite population, we have a combination that will stand up against anything any time."

My mother, who never returned to New York, continued writing her column after the death of my father in 1951, until shortly before her death at age 86 in 1984. But she never forgot her visit to New York, and Winchell's sage advice.

In 1975, in a letter to my then 12-year-old daughter, she summed up her New York trip: "I saw the Bowery and Chinatown and most of the seamy side of New York as well as the gilded. I met all the celebrities and famous news people and such, and I was wined and dined. I tried to be myself and not attempt to put on a false front and it seemed to go over big. Maybe that is the way we should always act. I found out that the higher up a person is, the more approachable he is. I felt right at home in New York and loved it and still do."

But she proved badly mistaken when asked by reporters on that day in August, 1936, what her baby son would be when he grew up. "Little Albert, she promised, would not be a writer," the Herald Tribune reported. "I'll be satisfied to make a good plain dirt farmer out of him. I don't want him ever to get the writer's itch."