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That Reminds Me: The Witches of Femail


AMONG the books I have most enjoyed recently is Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, a collection of magazine essays by the American New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese. The title piece beautifully describes the sporadic generosity and peevishness of Ol’ Blue Eyes as he deals with the adulation of the public and his vast entourage.

There are encounters with Peter O’Toole and the boxing legends Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali, the latter of whom meets Fidel Castro in a tragi-comic visit to Havana.

Talese also describes how his father, an Italian tailor, manages to survive having cut a hole in a Mafioso’s trousers just before the gangster arrives to pick them up.

But the chapter which strikes most of a chord with me is the first – VOGUEland, written in 1961. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Each weekday morning a group of suave and wrinkle-proof women, who call one another ‘dear’ and ‘dahling’, and can speak in italics and curse in French, move into Manhattan’s Graybar Building, elevate to the nineteenth floor, and then slip behind their desks at Vogue – a magazine that has long been the supreme symbol of sophistication for every American female who ever dreamed of being frocked by Balenciaga, shod by Roger Vivier, coiffed by Kenneth, or set free to swing from the Arc de Triomphe in maiden-form mink.

Not since Sappho has anybody worked up such a lather over women as have the editors of Vogue. With almost every issue they present stunning goddesses who seemingly become more perfect, more devastating with the flip of each page. Sometimes the Vogue model is leaping across the page in mocha-coloured silk, or piloting a teak-tipped ketch through the Lesser Antilles, or standing, Dior-length, in front of the Eiffel Tower as racy Renaults buzz by – but never hit her – as she poses in the middle of the street, one leg kicking, mouth open, teeth agleam, two gendarmes winking in the background, all Paris in love with her and her dinner dress of mousseline de soie.

And later:

The noses of Vogue heroines are usually long and thin, as are the noses of many Vogue editors – noses they can look down upon their generally shorter, younger and less sophisticated Condé Nast relatives at Glamour magazine, also located on the nineteenth floor. It is usually quite simple to tell the two staffs apart because the jeunes filles at Glamour, in addition to possessing a high quote of noses that Vogue might dismiss as ‘eager, retroussé,’ are also given to smiling in the elevator and saying, ‘Hi’. A Vogue lady once described the Glamour staff as ‘those peppy, Hi people’.

One day a wide-eyed, newly hired Vogue secretary went bouncing into an editor’s office with a package, and said ‘Hi’ – at which the editor is supposed to have cringed and snapped, ‘We don’t say that around here!’

The reason I so much enjoy Talese’s skewering of the fashionistas is that during my many years at the Daily Mail I frequently had to brave the horrors of the Femail department.

These venomous, talent-free harpies had their own large office adjacent to the newsroom. If one of them wrote something for the main paper, it would invariably be near-gibberish and littered with mistakes. Woe betide the humble, usually male sub-editor who crossed the Femail threshold with a query.

As you passed through the door heads would turn and there would be an audible hiss. All attention would then return to the computer screens in a display of synchronised apathy. Eventually whoever was in charge would look you up and down contemptuously and say: ‘Yes?’ (At one time the Femail editor was Paul Dacre’s faithful lackey Peter Wright, known as the Chief Tampon, who turned eye-avoidance into an art form. You could be alone in a lift with him and he would turn away rather than meet your gaze. Shortly before I retired, one of his successors when presented with a question said: ‘I’ll email you. What’s your name?’ I had worked with her for almost 30 years.)

Something about toiling on Femail turned the most easy-going reporters into highly-strung prima donnas who despised the mere mortals in the news department. One day I received a stinging memo from a callow youthette complaining that I had butchered her copy and advising me to try harder in the future. Her submission of 1,600 words arrived just before deadline and I had five minutes to cut it to 175. I didn’t bother replying because, in Femail country, you were always in the wrong.

If you wanted to get on at the Mail, you needed to work in the Features department, of which Femail was a part. I was quite happy beavering away on news but when a very bright and ambitious trainee named Helen asked my advice on career advancement I suggested she move to Features, which she duly did after I sang her praises to the editor.

She was horrified at what she found. Unlike on news, where we tended to cover for each other’s mistakes, this was a dog-eat-dog snakepit, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor. Helen was constantly badgered to come up with ideas which senior executives then presented to the editor as their own – unless he didn’t like them, in which case they blamed Helen. What a cut-throat bunch of bastards. It wasn’t long before Helen realised that she was far too principled to prosper in such an environment and was on her bike.

Nightingale Ronnie

WHEN I lamented the demise of whistling some time ago, several readers reminded me about Ronnie Ronalde, the London-born music-hall singer, yodeller and siffleur. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he was hugely popular around the world and was seen as a rival to Sinatra and Bing Crosby. He had his own BBC radio show and in 1949 he filled the 6,000-seater Radio City Music Hall in New York City every night for ten weeks.

His biggest hit was If I Were a Blackbird, which opens with his avian trills. This was in the UK Top 20 for six months. Other successful numbers included Bells Across the Meadow and In a Monastery Garden, which was his show finale for many years. Here he performs the Tritsch Tratsch Polka on his 75th birthday. He died in 2015 at the age of 91.

A Ronnie Ronalde tribute act is at the centre of the climax to Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 drama series Boys From The Blackstuff. This is set in a dingy Liverpool pub called the Green Man following the funeral of the central character George Malone. As a menacing thug goes round inviting customers to ‘shake hands’, giving him the opportunity to crush their fingers, ‘Ronny Renaldo’, played by Hans Lindhuber, sings and whistles If I Were a Blackbird. He is thrown through the pub window and, lying on the pavement, croons Singin’ The Blues.

Old jokes’ home

‘I wish I had enough money to buy an elephant.’

‘What on earth do you need an elephant for?’

‘I don’t. I just need the dosh.’

A PS from PG

He expressed the opinion that the world was in a deplorable state. I said, ‘Don’t talk rot, old Tom Travers.’ ‘I am not accustomed to talk rot,’ he said. ‘Then, for a beginner,’ I said, ‘you do it dashed well.’ And I think you will admit, boys and ladies and gentlemen, that that was telling him.

PG Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to

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