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Amazing Grace

Rajni George 

Rajni George remembers Fleet Street’s first woman Grace Wardell, who at her adopted home in a few weeks ago.

Directly I saw that hat, I knew there was going to be trouble,” said Frank Owen, legendary of The London Evening Standard. Did he have an inkling then that the young reporter he had just hired would one day be Fleet Street’s first woman —  the indefatigable Grace Wardell, glamour girl and groundbreaking journalist, who turned 102 this March and shortly after, on June 11 at her home in

“Everyone should have two husbands,” she told me once, eyes twinkling. I thought about how much it must take to genuinely engage a remarkable woman like Grace, my oldest friend in Kodaikanal, our common hometown. She lived through two World Wars and three husbands, reported from London through the Blitz and hung out with the likes of — and just a couple of years ago, shortly after a big birthday bash celebrating her centenary, hopped onto a friend’s motorbike for a joyride. This was a woman who lived life kingsize. 

Born in London on March 23, 1908, to Ethel May Graveling, a classical pianist, and John Christian Russ, a Danish-German businessman, Grace attended a fine girl’s school but the family’s circumstances had changed in the Great War, and she soon set aside her dreams of becoming a painter. At 16, she spent her first summer out of school touting Electrolux vacuum cleaners by the seaside in Folkestone. Later in London, she learnt shorthand, and worked at the printing firm, Monotype Corporation. Among her friends there was Stanley Morison, designer of Times New Roman, and the illustrious Eric Gill, typeface designer and sculptor. At 20 she was hired as a secretary, working for a friend of her brother’s at an advertising agency.

I asked Grace about being a working woman in the 1920s. “You did not need academic degrees in this field or that to make your way in the world; you just needed curiosity, stamina and hands-on experience. Luckily, in a man’s world, I never felt discriminated against.” “In my first real company job, I worked as a seamstress at The House of Worth. I learnt a lot and even won a dress competition at DH Evans, Oxford Street. All through my professional career, except for gloves and hats, I hardly ever went to shops. I made my own clothes always, and it was always Vogue patterns, never anything else.”

One day she was told there was a job going at the London Daily Mail, an assistant editor position. “I gathered such information as I thought would be useful to them, and I got the job,” she tells me, in her distinctive idiom. “Later, I basically learned on the job without anyone knowing.”

As Women’s Page editor of the London Daily Mail (“I got the job when my editor left to have a baby”), Grace used her intuitive and artful understanding of style to stake her claim in the world of haute couture journalism. And thus she made a reputation for herself, in an era before the Anna Wintours of the world. As a reporter at the Paris Dress Show, Grace told me; “I wore my Vogue outfits, which were, of course, all homemade. People I knew, journalists, would always spare a few words of admiration for the cut of my clothes — and the couturier!” She recounted these stories with great enjoyment, but the Grace I knew was unimpressed by big names; she was rejoicing in the pure adventure of having been there.

The year the Second World War was declared, the second of her youth, Grace was holidaying in historic Dubrovnik, off the coast of Yugoslavia,with Hadziovanovic, her boyfriend at the time.  “She was seriously in love with this guy,” says her son Mark, “he was the son of a notable local family, but she never saw them again because of the war. Later he contacted her through diplomatic channels in America but by then she was already married to my father. Que sera sera.”

The war caught up with Grace that year in the form of a cable from her editor at the Daily Mail: ‘SUGGEST RETURN IMMEDIATELY’. She widened her eyes expressively — “He didn’t tell me war was imminent and I had no idea!” At the last couture show in Paris, Grace was among the last foreigners to quit the city before Hitler came marching in, and caught the last steamer across the Channel, as the Germans advanced. I can just picture her, in one of her hats — chic, beribboned, tipped to one side — wistfully looking at her beloved Paris as she left it behind.

On her return, she discovered that the Women’s Page was no more. instead hired her to report on wartime London. One of the first in a series of human interest stories that she did for The London Evening Standard was on the evacuation of children from the London slums. She tells of a moving countryside excursion with these Cockney kids who had never been on a train ride outside of the city, capturing the reactions of a little boy; he looked out the window and exclaimed, “There’s no fish and chip shops, and nothing under the beds!”

Later Grace moved to The London Daily Express, where she was hired as assistant editor. Then, she narrates, “Paul Holt went to Russia to enthusiastically cover our Soviet allies, and I got his job. Except for Sunday, I had full control as features editor.” This was when she became the first woman on to be in charge of a quarter of a daily’s contents. Grace was 31, and fully occupied with the events unfolding around her. The newsroom would call on her for articles, while bombs were falling; the Luftwaffe and RAF fighter planes roared overhead. “Something glorious came out in that stolid English character when it was put to the test,” she told me, summing up, jauntily: “For me, it was a far cry from the Women’s Page!”

After the war, Grace married an American and moved to the US, eventually joining The National Enquirer as an editor after they split up, and staying on. She covered the Thalidomide tragedy from a personal perspective, the first sex change operations, two-headed babies, the sleepless man and other strange stories. “Brilliantly written crap,” a fellow British copywriter called it, “for which I was well paid”.

In 1962, Grace’s third marriage took her to North Wales, where she restored her husband’s historic home. There, in 1968, an unfortunate car accident took her husband’s life, and she herself suffered severe damage to her legs. One leg still in a caliper, Grace decided to seek out her son Mark in south India, where he was, at the time, a sadhu of sorts. She was enraptured, and soon returned to stay for good. Both Mark and Grace cared for many local children, engaging with the community that had become theirs.

In her living room, we looked at pictures of old beaus. Grace had many interesting boyfriends and husbands — all journalists: The London Daily Mirror’s Bill Herbert, Edmund Antrobus of Yank, and playwright and journalist Simon Wardell. She had her last proposal, I discovered, just a year or so before her death.

For Grace, men were wonderful friends and she told me about the times she spent with the great poet — “an ironical admirer of her sleek French hats”, Mark remarked. Thomas was one of the many admirers of her fantastic collection of millinery. Walking down the street with Grace, who was wearing one of her classic French headpieces, he is said to have asked out loud, “What am I doing out with a woman in a hat like that?” It is clear Grace has always needed creative work and companionship in order to feel alive and unfettered by convention.

Old sepia prints show us Grace’s lovely, impish face, and the clean lines of some of her delightful patterns. She described one particularly elegant evening dress, with a closed neck — “People keep chucking their bosoms about now, they didn’t do it then!” — and later, in New York, the thrilling reactions of swanky boutiques to her signature outfits. “I went to a store on Fifth Avenue wearing a suit I’d made. It was a musty black, with a white echo to it. The lining was white too. A lady came up to me and told me, ‘That’s the head tailor over there, he wants to know where you made your suit’.” Cannily, and, it seems, effortlessly, Grace was always in vogue.

As I bade her farewell at our last meeting, we posed for pictures and Grace gave me little pieces of womanly wisdom, sotto voce. But as I waved goodbye, the image I was left with was not this one, but another, perhaps more recent, more vivid, than the ones we were looking at. At her 100th birthday party, guests of all ages — from three to 80 — danced and sang, and watched as Grace, a bottle of wine down, waltzed in the arms of the municipal lawyer and then sat down to catch her breath. Still sitting, she continued to dance, her hand moving through the air in a mad, playful snake dance. There’s a reason she was called ‘amazing Grace’.

Rajni George is a freelance writer and editor

First Published: Sat, July 10 2010. 00:37 IST