Elizabeth L Banks
1870-July 18, 1938
Sometimes I get extremely determined when I find someone interesting that I want to profile and yet can find little or nothing about them in order to give viewers of this web site the information I want to give. Such is the case with Elizabeth L. Banks. I have found very little on her and yet I am 'antsy' to give you, the reader, SOMETHING.
Born in Taunton, New Jersey to John and
Sarah (Brister) Banks, Elizabeth Banks has been eluding me for weeks.
After a month of waiting, I finally received a call from my
local library that they had indeed gotten in for me, her first
autobiographical book, "The Autobiography of a Newspaper
Girl." When I went to the library to claim my 'interlibrary
loan,' I was thrilled to see the book in excellent condition and as I
returned to my car with it, I just had to take a moment to
remove it from its plastic pouch to thumb through it. An hour later,
I was still sitting there looking through this book, written in 1902,
which was a First Edition, and for whatever reason, feeling shivers
run up and down my spine and 'goose bumps' upon my legs and arms.
This book has entranced me.
Now, on with the story of Ms. Banks. As said earlier, she was born in Taunton, NJ. Early childhood details seem to be unavailable. Apparently her family relocated while she was still in school, to Wisconsin. Her autobiography thru 1902 opens as she is leaving the family and going off to earn her own living. Often while preparing to go to the female seminary college of Milwaukee-Downer, she was reminded by relatives (she never mentions a mother and father) of the sacrifices they were making for her to get an education. She was told to give great care to her graduation gown, as it had been bought in the general store with a precious ten pounds of butter and eight dozen eggs.
What she wanted, was to be a reporter. She was a self taught typist and stenographer who, after sending out many copies of her résumé, was able to attain a job working for a grocer as a typist for only eight dollars a week. She's been dubbed as one of the "Type-writer Girls." After complaining to the grocer and pointing out how she was being stared at while sitting in the window typing, he promptly dropped the curtain. She wrote an article titled "All about Typewriter Girls" and mailed it off to her local paper, where it was, on that Sunday, published. This resulted in a job working at a publication called the "Daily Hustler." She became a society reporter for papers in St. Paul and in Baltimore. Shortly thereafter, as a result of one of her assignments, she met a man who acquired for her a position as Secretary for the American Minister to Peru in 1892. While there, she awoke at 5 AM to a great shaking of her bed, and heard people screaming through the streets to be saved. Sure that it was "one of those South American Revolutions," she went immediately to her typewriter and typed a dispatch to be sent off to Washington---
"A Revolution broke out at five this morning and nobody knows what it is about. The streets run with blood, the populace cry out "Save us! Save us!" while the soldiers run them through with bayonets. The president of Peru will be beheaded and his head stuck up on the top of a pole in front of the Cathedral, as it is customary to treat Presidents during revolutions. All the staff and family of this Legation are safe. Will wire you again later."
A few minutes later, when the minister and
staff came hunting her, she handed him the dispatch to be signed and
sent, at which he became uproarious with laughter, and explained to
her that what she had just witnessed was nothing more than an
earthquake. She was embarrassed, but took it all in stride and also
had a good time with it for many months to come.
Following that, she came back to the United States and worked for a short time before deciding to go to London. While there, in 1894, she wrote a series of articles entitled "The Almighty Dollar in London Society." The story came about as a result of finding that she'd had some English ancestors who "weren't worth a groat." On her way home from this discovery, she had stopped into a secondhand shop and found quite an aristocratic looking oil portrait. She bought it for nearly nothing, took it home and hung it on her wall. She claimed this to be an ancestor of hers. Hitting upon the idea, she went back to other secondhand shops and bought many more oil portraits and developed her own aristocratic "family." She went to see an editor about not writing up her work favorably and when he told her it was only because she had submitted no work to him for print, she was speechless. She had come there to scold him, and now could not. Instead, she told him that she had come to tell him about how easy it was for Americans to "buy ancestors and pedigrees in London and pass them off for their own." Astonished, he challenged her to the proof. She then wrote her series and, as a result, Queen Victoria made a ruling that introductions of Americans to court would be made, from then on, only through Ambassadors. According to the 1938 edition, Volume 20 of Who's Who in America, the ruling was still in force at that time.
Her first book, "Campaigns of Curiosity," was published September 14, 1894, and much to her dismay, was published in America with no copyright. In approximately 1895, she returned to America. And became a "yellow journalist." After only a few years of that, she went back to London, where she was in 1898. In my possession, thanks to Mark Winchester, is an article on "yellow journalism' that she wrote for the English publication, "Nineteenth Century. " Mark was kind enough to fax to me her article in its entirety from 1898, in which she expounds on the women involved in the phenomenon called "Yellow Journalism." In it, she discussed having been asked by a New York editor to dress the appropriate part to 'walk the streets' in a dangerous section of town and make certain that she got herself arrested for doing so. At which point she would be hauled off to jail, and have a story ready for the next morning's paper of other "ladies of the night." She refused the assignment and many more after that, becoming known about her office as "The Great Objector." She was more than qualified to write the article on "yellow journalism," as she had spent quite some time doing exactly that type of work in America. About a woman's part in "yellow journalism" she wrote:
"The part which women play in the yellow journalism of America is a very important one. There are almost as many women as men employed on the various staffs, and those who work on the space system earn sometimes even more money than do the men--indeed, one of the good points of the yellow journalism is its tendency to recognise the equality of the sexes so far as the matter of pay is concerned. For the 'exposures' which are constantly being undertaken by these journals, women, because of their acknowledged tactfulness, are more often employed than the men."
She went on to close the article with:
"....But when all is said and done, they ( the men) are never asked to risk more than their lives in the getting or the manufacture of news while the woman reporter frequently takes her life in one hand and her honor in the other when she goes forth in the pursuit of 'copy.'
After 1902, I can tell you little about
her. I awaited for many months her second autobiographical book
as another interlibrary loan. It has yet to appear. I think it will
probably never arrive. What I can tell you is that she was a
peaceful, passive woman that would stoop to lift a caterpillar from
the sidewalk and place it in the grass, so that it would not be
squashed under an unobservant foot. Although easily moved to tears by
the plight of a fellow human or defenseless animal, she could also be
quite demanding of her rights to be treated as any other journalist
and not just a 'woman journalist.' She loved animals dearly and took
in every stray that was found or left upon her doorstep. According to
The Who's Who in America volume 20 1938 edition, in 1914 she founded
the Authors' Belgian Fund and Dik's fund for the Allies. She
originated and wrote a series of essays titled "The Lady at the
Round Table" in a publication called "London Referee"
using the pen name of Enid. Under the name of "Mary Mortimer Maxwell"
she wrote the serials "An Englishwoman in New York" and "The
All-British Woman." She wrote an additional nine books (some about
dogs) after 1902, of which eight were probably fiction. She ended
"The Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl" by saying that she had
decided to take up writing fiction and was going to become a book
author. Her last book, written in 1928, "The Re-Making of an
American" is autobiographical, and is the one I awaited for so
Below is an interesting excerpt from her first autobiographical book. Early in her career,she made a vow as a 'sister' to never violate another woman by writing and publishing something that would be hurtful.
"One day a stranger entered the office, and, seeing me in my corner, said "Ah! I see you've got a lady editor in your office!"
"Well, yes," responded the city editor, "but besides being the lady editor, she's one of the best all-around reporters I've got on my staff."
It could not have been half an hour after that remark was made, when the city editor came over to me, with the air of having an important commission for me.
"I've got a fine thing for you," said he, "if you can pull it through."
Then he explained that a certain well-known actress, who had appeared in a play the night before at one of the theaters, had suddenly forgotten her part, put her hand to her head and gone off the stage, as though in a dream. The play was almost brought to a standstill, but her understudy had managed to take her place till the fall of the curtain. It was thought the actress was intoxicated. In former days she had been an American society leader and had got stage struck. When she had given up her home for the footlights a very disagreeable scandal had followed her.
"Now," continued the city editor, "I've sent four different men to see that woman to-day, trying to get an interview and her version of last night's affair on the stage, but she sends down word she's ill and confined to her room and unable to see anyone. But I believe she'd see you, because you're a woman and can go right up to her room. Go and interview her. It'll be a great story, and we'll even scoop the New York papers. Find out if she was drunk last night. Find out everything you can from her. Make a big special of it. You can have all the space you want. If you manage it---well, I'll just say you won't be sorry you tried to please me."
In fifteen minutes I made my way to the hotel where the actress was staying, sent up my card and was admitted to her bedroom. So beautiful had been the pictures I had seen of this woman, that the wan, thin face, actually ugly from dissipation, that looked up at me from among the pillows, gave me a most disagreeable start.
"I'm glad a woman has come to me at last," she said, as she tossed her head from side to side. "I'm in disgrace, alone, forsaken, even by my own parents. I've made a mess of my life. Listen, and I'll tell you how I did it and about last night at the theater too."
Then, without my having asked her a single question, the woman poured into my astonished ears a story of such pathos and horror as made me start back and cry: "Hush! hush! Don't talk to me any more. You will be sorry tomorrow, but then it will be too late."
"No! I shall not be sorry," she exclaimed, "I must talk or I shall lose my reason. I must tell some one of my troubles. Your face does not look hard and cold. Though you are a stranger, something tells me you are my friend."
"I am a newspaper reporter," I said simply. "You knew it from my card and I told you I had come from a newspaper as soon as I got to your room."
The woman rose up on her elbows. Her yellow hair lay scattered over the pillows, and with her bloodshot eyes gazing intently into my face and clutching my hands tightly in her own, she exclaimed:
"Yes! Yes! I knew you were a reporter, but you are also a woman and I know you will not write a word of what I have told you. I have told you my story in confidence, and you will keep it."
"No! No! Not that! Not in confidence!" I cried, trying vainly to snatch my hands from her grasp that was now like iron. "You have talked not to me, but to my paper. Oh, you knew it, you knew it. I must print it. I am helpless to keep it out. Why, I'm a woman with a living to earn. I have no one in all the world but myself to depend on. I must do what my editor tells me. He has sent me to get an interview with you, and you have given it to me. I owe a duty to him, to my paper. It would be cheating to hold it back."
The woman's eyes burned into me, her nails dug into the palms of my hands as she tightened her grasp. She had told me, of her own free will, a story for my newspaper, a story for other newspapers, a plot for a novel, and now she said, "I have told you in confidence and you will keep it!" I thought of my city editor, waiting at the office for my return. I could see him smile the "Well done, good and faithful servant" smile upon me when I should walk in and stop at his desk to say: "Yes, I've got a great story from her! She talked and told me everything!" This woman, who clutched my wrists so hard and said to me, "You will keep it!" who was she, that she should cheat me out of what was mine, should block the way to my future success, should hurt me in the beginning of my newspaper career? An outcast! A woman disgraced and spurned and disowned!
"Let me go! Let me go! You talked to a reporter, knowing she was a reporter. Now take the consequences!" I made another effort and got my hands free from her while she sank exhausted on the bed. "I must go now," I continued; "I am sorry I cannot see things the way you seem to see them. I am a working woman, with a hard struggle before me. When my editor tells me to do a thing I have no choice but to obey. the world is very hard on women. I'm sorry for you."
I was turning the handle of the door. "Come back, just one minute," said the woman. I will not touch you, I won't take your hands again."
"You said just now that the world was hard on women. So it is. And women are also very hard on women. I've had more experience than you have had. I know the world. Let me tell you that very seldom has a woman gone to destruction but another woman has had a hand in sending her there. By printing what I have said to you this afternoon, you will ruin me."
"You are ruined already," I said doggedly. "I cannot hurt you."
"You will send me to hell and others with me. You will make my name a byword in the gutters. By making a public character of me again you will bring renewed shame to my parents. You will make my little sister, who has all her beautiful life before her, hang her head in the presence of all her companions. I say you will do this. I mean that you can do it. Are you going to do it? Tell me, are you going to do it?"
"I will not do it," I said. My hands fell limply at my side and I stood transfixed. "I will not print a word you have told me, now or ever. I promise." The woman had conquered.
"You have promised! Oh, you have promised!" she exclaimed, a glad look flooding her poor, thin face. "Will you promise me something else?"
"Perhaps," I answered. I was crying now. I was not a journalist. I was only a woman.
"Promise me that in your work, as long as you live, you will never try to get fame or money by writing things that will hurt women like me. Promise that you will never for the sake of your own success tread on another woman and try to crush her."
"I promise!" I answered simply. Then I slipped out and closed the door. Once outside the stifling air of the room and away from the woman's presence, a strange, unaccountable feeling of terror took possession of me. I seemed to have bound myself in chains of iron and when I reached the street I gave myself a shake, under the impression that perhaps the fresh air and the blue sky and sunlight would make them drop from me; but the chains still seemed to bind me. What had I done? I had entered into a compact which, at that moment it seemed to me would be a sort of mortgage on my whole future life. I had promised always to refrain from writing anything that would hurt women like the one I had been talking to. I promised never to crush any other woman in my climbing of the ladder to success. Again I shook myself. but the chains still clung, and. thinking that I could really hear them clatter as I walked along the street, I returned to the office.
I passed by the city editor's desk. "Hello! It took a long time!" he exclaimed. "Did she talk?"
"Yes," I answered, "she talked a great deal, but I promised her I would not write a word she said."
He jumped from his chair, an angry light in his eyes. "You promised! What do you mean? Have you a story, the story I sent you after, and do you say you will not write it?"
"That's it, yes," I answered. "She forgot I was a reporter and told me everything, and then I promised I would not write it."
His face grew first red, then white. He was angry and justly so, but he made a tremendous effort to control himself. "If you were a man," he said quietly, "I would dismiss you from the staff instantly for rank disregard of the interests of your paper. As you are a woman, I will say that you have not the journalistic instinct. You will never be able to do big things in journalism. You can edit your own page, but you'll never be a really successful journalist. The fact is, you're all woman and no journalist."
I remained on the Southern paper for some time after that and attended conscientiously to my woman's page. The city editor grew friendly again, but he gave me no more "special features" to do, for "special features" could only be worked up by "real live journalists," as he frequently explained to me.
Take a lesson from this woman---Be kind to