In a memorial service in 1987 for a long-time New York Times employee, then-Publisher A.O. Sulzberger recalled how she caused him problems by often ruffling the feathers of New York's high and mighty. It was up to him to offer explanations:
I played a round of golf with a young woman who obviously had more on her mind than her putting. After the third hole, she couldn't hold back. "That was a terrible piece Charlotte Curtis wrote about my mother-in-law," she exploded. "Why did she have to write about all those diamonds and furs and the like. I was mortified."
"I'm sorry," I replied. "But what did your mother-in-law think about it?" "That's the terrible part," she replied. "She loved it."'
Such is the story of Charlotte Curtis, who from 1961 until her death in 1987, served as women's page and society reporter, women's page editor, associate editor and columnist for the New York Times. Her irreverent style, which included price estimates of the gowns of New York's most elite society matrons, paved the way for her rise at the Times and led her to become the first woman to have her name on the Times masthead.2 She also was credited by some writers of the 1960s and 1970s as the journalist who expanded "women's" and society news from recipes, bridal gown descriptions, and women's club chitchat to controversial topics such as abortion and divorce.3
Curtis's rise at the Times came during the 1960s and 1970s, an era when few women held top editorial jobs at the nation's major newspapers. Some top news managers at the Times, including Sulzberger and former Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, credit her rise to an extraordinary writing talent and the willingness to work hard. Her husband said it was because of a combination of diligence and a steely determination to succeed.4 Some former co-workers and observers, including feminist author Gloria Steinem, say it went beyond that: she maneuvered by developing friendships with the men who ran the Times.5
Curtis walked a fine line as she rose through the ranks of the male-dominated Times of the 1960s and 1970s. Her personal papers, previously closed to the public but made available to the author by Curtis's husband, indicate that it was a combination of this innovative style and her ability to cultivate friendships with top Times editors that led to her success. In addition, she came to the newspaper at a time when a top editor was seeking variety from the staid, competent, hard-news style that characterized the Times, and he saw her as a fresh voice and a needed change of pace.
To nearly everyone who knew her, Curtis' personality was a series of contradictions. She believed men and women were equal in every way, yet she opposed the use of "Ms." as a reference in the Times. She was a shy person who shunned personal confrontation, yet she often ridiculed the rich and famous by quoting the silly and self-incriminating comments they sometimes made at public gatherings; she was a vocal and long-time supporter of civil rights, yet she had ambivalent feelings about the growing feminist movement; and, while she was not reluctant to meet with the vice president of the Times to protest an editor's treatment of a friend or to criticize the demotion of a fellow employee, she did not join or speak publicly about a sex discrimination lawsuit filed against the newspaper in 1974 by many of her longtime co-workers.6 Curtis became one of the most powerful and visible women on the Times during the late 1960s and 1970s, but her lack of participation in this lawsuit came with a price: some who knew her believe it cost her the respect of many of the women at the newspaper.
When first encountered, Curtis seemed a clone of the Junior League types she frequently covered; throughout her life, she wore simple, classic dresses and limited quantities of discreet gold jewelry. But physical appearance and manner were the extent of her resemblance to a demure young woman. …