Katharine Whitehorn was funny, frank and fearless – a true trailblazer
Tributes to pioneering columnist who helped beat the drum for Camden's libraries
15 January, 2021
By JULIA LANGDON
THE original definition of a “trailblazer” is someone who cuts a path through wild country so others might follow, and that is the role that Katharine Whitehorn performed for women journalists of my generation.
More than that, however, having hacked her own way through the undergrowth of Fleet Street in the 1960s she used the vantage point she secured as an Observer columnist to illuminate the ways of the world for all her women readers. And in the passage of time, quite a few men as well.
She wrote about the world as it was, reflecting the reality of the lives of working women and rejecting the anodyne picture-book presentation that had previously filled the feature pages of the nation’s newspapers.
She was funny and frank and fearless and her readers loved it. Famously, she brought out the inner slut in all of us, shining a torch into the dark places in all our kitchens and making us feel better about ourselves as we proudly hung up the sign reading “Only dull women have immaculate houses.”
Her insight and sensitivity was harnessed to a remarkable ability to convey her meaning in words of straightforward common sense.
Even today I can quote her from memory, in a column that must have been written over 50 years ago – and I haven’t looked this up to check.
“Motherhood,” she wrote, “is finding a sausage in your purse. Motherhood is finding your purse in the dustbin. Motherhood is not finding your purse.”
Somehow Katharine Whitehorn found the confidence to do this from the combination of her genetic inheritance, a privileged education – six secondary schools and Cambridge University – and a few rackety years that took in studying in the United States; working as a waitress, a model and a short-order cook; teaching English in Finland and a spell employed in a charm school.
She never needed a lesson in charm herself and it was perhaps inevitable that her sparkling, bright-eyed curiosity brought her into journalism.
She worked for Woman’s Own, Picture Post and the Spectator before joining the Observer in 1960 and becoming that newspaper’s first woman columnist in 1963. Although there was a break of 15 years from 1996, during which she became an agony aunt for Saga Magazine, she returned as a columnist to the Observer in 2011 and appeared regularly until three years ago.
She knew how to survive and she shared that skill, too, with a wide readership in a series of books on surviving life’s difficulties.
Her best-known book, published originally in 1961 and still in print today, was Cooking in a Bedsitter. The book was republished in 2008 and an updated version was adapted for a radio series with an ironic commentary in the author’s own unforgettably cut-glass tones.
When she developed Alzheimer’s and needed full-time care, her two sons made a poignant gesture of selling the writing desk at which she had worked throughout her life to raise funds for the charity Dementia UK to fight the disease.
Ms Whitehorn married the author Gavin Lyall in 1958. He died in 2003 and the immense grief that his death caused her would lead in due course to her own interpretation of how it felt to live and survive the loss of such a love as theirs.
And even since her death, her wisdom has helped others. A friend of mine told me only yesterday how she had sent Katharine’s article on grief to another widow mourning yet another early death of a much loved partner in life.
‘She pierced the male club’
BY VICTORIA BRITTAIN
In today’s media world where women have power as newspaper editors, managers and columnists, and front the most prestigious TV and radio programmes, it is hard to reimagine the clubby, patriarchal, entitled male media world where Katharine Whitehorn shone as a unique female figure.
She cracked open that club for us, not only by her funny, clever, original columns on women’s realities that brought her surprised admirers among colleagues, but by her encouragement of any young woman that journalism could equally be their life.
To a poorly educated and unworldly young woman immured in a lonely country house by crippling shyness and an injury that had her on crutches, Whitehorn’s weekly columns in the Observer were a vision of escape to an impossibly glamorous world.
In a moment of desperation and unusual boldness, I wrote to her, in longhand, asking if I could become her assistant. A letter came back by return of post, chiding me for wanting to be her assistant.
“You should be after my job,” she wrote.
Her brisk and kindly advice was to write to the editors of every newspaper and magazine I had ever heard of, asking straight out for an interview for a job, any job.
“Among all those boys coming forward, they’ll notice you.”
Decades later in journalism I appreciated how unusual her efficient kindness was. I’m sure she never forgot that her own luminous career was launched by the kindness of a photographer, Picture Post‘s own star, Bert Hardy, getting an editor to notice her buried at the bottom of the sub-editors’ desk.
From that magazine, she went on to Woman’s Own and the Spectator before arriving at the Observer in 1960 as fashion editor. In those days, the women’s pages were, of course, edited by a man, George Seddon.
Whitehorn always generously credited him with guiding and nurturing her. Her love of clothes and her natural style fitted the job, but her true originality and her verve for every aspect of life soon emerged and brought her a wider canvas. The Observer was her home for nearly 40 years and she was very much part of its golden years under its owner and brilliant editor David Astor.
He gave Whitehorn a column in 1963 “to write about matters of social concern in a personal way”.
Whitehorn’s warmth and down to earth manner must have put this shy man at ease – not an easy achievement. And in the febrile world of 1960s feminism her columns were an easy-going personal vision of women’s rights and abilities to choose, illustrating this particular “matter of social concern” brilliantly.
A real journalists’ journalist
By DAN CARRIER
REMEMBERING Katharine Whitehorn, journalist Ruth Gorb said: “She was an absolute delight – charming, intelligent and a great newspaper woman.
She would always help young journalists and was particularly kind to female journalists. She could sometimes seem autocratic – she had a very cut-glass voice – but that wasn’t the case.”
Living in Provost Road, Belsize Park, saw Ms Whitehorn become involved in community issues and offer support to groups such as the Camden Public Library User Groups.
She lent her voice to campaigns to ensure libraries would remain open and funded by Camden Council when cuts put their future at risk.
Elaine Hallgarten, who was a member of C-Plug and the Friends of Belsize Library, added: “Everyone’s first impression was how charming she was, and how she had this terrific sense of humour. She had a lot of oomph, she lived close by to us and was always willing to help the library, by giving talks, for example.”
Former Ham and High editor Matthew Lewin told the New Journal: “When I first moved to Camden, I lived in a bedsit and her book Cooking In A Bedsit was a life saver – you just needed a pot and knife. “Later on, I was so pleased to meet the person whose book I had used so often, and she didn’t disappoint. She was a real journalists’ journalist.”