Obituary: Janet Murrow

By Miall, Leonard | The Independent (London, England), December 23, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Janet Murrow


Miall, Leonard, The Independent (London, England)


JANET MURROW saw the Second World War from a front-row seat. In 1937 she and her husband, Edward R. Murrow, later the United States' best- known broadcaster, moved to London. At the beginning of the war she worked with Mrs Winston Churchill in the London "Bundles for Britain" Office. She supped at the White House the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She was one of the first recipients of the King's Medal for Freedom, awarded for her contribution to Anglo- American relations. Later, she gave great support to her Alma Mater, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, America's pioneer institution for the education of women.

She was born Janet Brewster, in 1910, a Connecticut Yankee of Anglo-Swedish stock, the elder daughter of a prosperous car dealer, whose ancestor had crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower. Kingman Brewster, President Carter's American Ambassador in London, was her first cousin.

In late 1932, when she was the president of the student body at Mount Holyoke, she happened to share a carriage with Ed Murrow on a train journey down to New Orleans. Both were on their way to a conference of the Institute of International Education, which helped to bring out refugee German scholars. Murrow had just become its Assistant Director. Janet Brewster was doing postgraduate work in economics and was a gifted summer repertory actress. The fellow travellers' long discussion was not limited to the conference agenda. In New Orleans Murrow invited Brewster to breakfast. He ordered strawberries. It was midwinter and she was impressed. After a courtship largely conducted by letter they married in 1934, honeymooned in Mexico, and settled in New York. A year later the Columbia Broadcasting System engaged Murrow as Director of Talks, and in 1937 sent him to London as its European Director. Murrow did not act as a reporter himself until pressed into service the night Hitler's storm troopers took over Austria. He then made the first of over 5,000 broadcasts to the United States which rapidly brought him to the front rank of American radio correspondents and made him a popular hero on both sides of the Atlantic. In the early weeks of the war Janet Murrow helped to evacuate schoolchildren from London to the countryside. She also broadcast for the CBS network, contributing short sketches of Britain at war. Shortly before Christmas 1940 she organised the London office of Bundles for Britain, working alongside its honorary chairman, Clementine Churchill, who became a close friend. By the middle of 1941 American women had sent to Britain 500,000 pieces of clothing, 72 mobile feeding units and $2.5m in contributions. After Churchill became Prime Minister the Murrows were frequent guests at 10 Downing Street. On the first night of the London Blitz, while Murrow prowled the streets gathering information, Janet climbed through the roof door of their Hallam Street flat, close to Broadcasting House, to watch the bombardment of the East End. As the planes drew nearer she headed for the stairway door which had snapped shut from the inside. Shrapnel fell around her as she tried desperately to signal for help from pedestrians running for shelter in the street below. Eventually she caught the attention of a lone passer- by who raced up six flights of stairs to release her and conduct her safely to her flat. Janet subsequently told Murrow of her dilemma. Should she invite him in for a drink? Would he think it improper? She decided she had better not. Murrow, the youngest son of a poor lumberman's family in the American North-West, laughed uproariously. "Only a girl born in Middletown, Connecticut, who went to Mount Holyoke," he declared, "would think twice about inviting in the man who had just saved her life!" During the heavy bombing of London Janet Murrow was again busy arranging for the evacuation of children, this time not to the English countryside, but to homes generously offered in the United States.

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