• U.S.

Reporters: Sociologist on the Society Beat

4 minute read

“Bostonians are an elegantly athletic lot,” began the story in the New York Times. “They prove it periodically by swirling, twirling and swooping about in graceful dance patterns until beads of perspiration materialize on their aristocratic brows.” The byline belonged to Charlotte Curtis, 36, a supercharged, auburn-haired divorcee who probably ranks as the first society reporter in journalistic history to publish the fact that proper Bostonians sweat.

The Times’s Curtis was covering an upper-crust Waltz Evening in Boston’s Sheraton Plaza Hotel, and she could not resist noting that the ballroom temperature steadily ascended from 59° to 64°, impelled by all that genteel exertion. Nor did she refrain from logging the other leisure pursuits of Mrs. E. Sohier Welch, patroness and architect of the bash. In her spare time, reported Society Reporter Curtis, Mrs. Welch crusades against billboards, litterbugs, and “laws that prevent the sale of birth control devices in Massachusetts.”

One-Line Profile. Until Charlotte Curtis made the scene, this sort of irreverent high-society coverage seldom got into type. By tradition, practice, choice and affinity, the typical society reporter gossips about her sources in their own terms. The Times’s girl on the beat studies her subjects with the detachment of a professional sociologist.

Before descending on Boston last week, she classified Miami as “a youthful city of indeterminate social standing” with “the third largest Jewish population in the world.” Then she proceeded promptly to her point: “However, there are no Jewish members in the Surf Club, the Bath Club or the Indian Creek and La Gorce Clubs.” When the Miami News, which subscribes to the New York Times News Service, reprinted the Curtis story, it scrupulously deleted that part of it. In a profile on Los Angeles society, Miss Curtis needed only one line to show how that city tends to view the U.S. She merely quoted the party host, who, on being told that the young Angeleno at his elbow had just entered Harvard, responded: “What’s the matter? Couldn’t you get into Stanford?”

Against Copelessness. Charlotte Murray Curtis’ society reporting blends a proper background with the perspective of the competent reporter. Born of strong-willed and well-to-do parents—her mother, who served in the U.S. Legation in Switzerland, was the first woman to be admitted to the U.S. Foreign Service—Charlotte grew up in Columbus, Ohio, talked her way into summer assignments for the Citizen (now the Citizen-Journal) while still at Vassar. “She had the disposition of a thoroughbred—overtrained, overbred and tense,” recalls a colleague still on the paper. “She had a pride in being able to cope. She was against copelessness.”

Sent to cover everything from circuses to fashion, Charlotte chafed at her lack of opportunity to make use of the sociology she had studied at Vassar. In 1961, after a short-lived marriage, she headed for New York. The Times took her on as a fashion reporter, but Charlotte kept submitting extracurricular stories—one on a college reunion, another on June weddings at West Point—that were too original in concept not to print. Two years ago, Clifton Daniel, then Times assistant managing editor and now managing editor, shifted Charlotte to the society beat and urged her to give her sociological approach to the subject full rein. “The Times has never been interested in social chitchat,” said Daniel by way of explanation, “but in applying good journalistic standards to an area of news, society, that is important to all of us.”

Like an Exam. In San Francisco, Seattle, Palm Beach, Paris, London, New Orleans, the Hamptons, Charlotte drew a fresh and unawed bead on society, a word she never drops without a qualifier: “Society with a capital S,” “society—if there is a society,” “socalled society.” Invariably she arrived in a city armed with a better understanding of the natives than the natives themselves: “I bone up as if I were going to have to take an exam.” Before descending on Boston, for example, she combed the libraries. She waded through Standard & Poor’s (“Finance is such an important part”) and a WPA history of Boston, digested The Education of Henry Adams and genealogies of the city’s first families.

In two years on the beat, Charlotte has been asked by five publishers to do a definitive book on Society. Although she finally yielded to Atheneum, she is less than exuberant about the commission: “I’ve just started,” she says. “I haven’t been to Denver yet.”

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