It’s the early 1920s and Lotta Dempsey is nervously walking into the MacDonald Hotel in Edmonton to meet the subject of her interview, Miss Charlotte Whitton. It’s the first time Dempsey has been entrusted with covering an official visitor on national business. Mr. MacPherson, the city editor of The Edmonton Journal, had only assigned the story to her because one male reporter was held up at city hall and another had called in sick. Not only had Dempsey never interviewed someone so important, she hadn’t been sure why Whitton was important?it turned out that she was the new director of the Canadian Welfare Council, appointed by prime minister Arthur Meighen himself. Whitton was on a national tour, crusading for professional standards in health care for child immigrants.
The two women meet in the lobby. Whitton is in her late 20s, not many years older than Dempsey, and is crisp in her tailored suit and white shirtwaist. On Whitton’s suggestion, they go up to the mezzanine for tea. Dempsey doesn’t know where to begin. Sensing her discomfort, Whitton carefully puts down her tea cup and looks at Dempsey with warm, womanly understanding. “You haven’t been doing this type of assignment long, have you?”
“No,” stuttered Dempsey. “The man who was supposed to be here. . . .”
“We can do as well as any man,” says Whitton firmly. “Now get out your book and pencil. Write carefully and I’ll tell you what you are supposed to ask me, then I’ll tell you the answers.” Patiently, Whitton interviewed herself.
For Dempsey, the Whitton story was a crash course in the art of reporting. Years later she would recall, “I studied it, took it apart, reassembled it and began to see how these things work.”
Generally, how things worked for women at the time is encapsulated in a piece that appeared in The Toronto Star in 1924. Entitled “Says Women Mistaken in Asking Equality,” it said in part: “To do the things men do, just for the sake of showing we can do them?how foolish. . . women’s sphere is the home. Perhaps she can do things in the outside world, superlatively well. But the home is still her kingdom. Let her do the work that calls her, by all means, provided it does not make her neglect her linen cupboard, her kitchen and her looks.”
If the home was supposed to be a woman’s kingdom, the newsroom was ruled by men. The roaring twenties may have been a time of flappers and new freedoms, but within newspapers women were barely tolerated. “Having women around would restrict our language,” was a common explanation for their exclusion. Alberta, Lotta’s home province, had just 50 women journalists in 1920 (a decade and a half earlier there had been only 16 in all of Canada).
Elizabeth Dingman, former women’s editor of the Toronto Telegram, remembers the unwelcoming atmosphere in the newsroom even in the 1940s. “Women journalists were too sexually free. That’s what everyone thought. I heard stories about a lot of women that weren’t very nice. They weren’t true either. But lots of people thought that women shouldn’t be journalists, it wasn’t a ‘ladylike’ profession.”
That was Dempsey’s father’s attitude. While Lotta longed to be a reporter, he insisted she pursue a “respectable” career. So after graduating high school, she dutifully went on to get her first-class teaching certificate. Hired by a one-room schoolhouse in Four Corners, Alberta, she lasted eight weeks. Her marriage to a young English accountant named Sid Richardson, in May 1923, about the time her teaching career was ending, wasn’t much more successful: the couple separated after six months. Years later, Dempsey would recall, “I was too spoiled, too immature for serious dedication to a marriage. A newspaper was deadly competition for my affections. When I could not learn to attend to both husband and job, the job would win.”
The job had come about in September 1923, when she managed to talk her way into a $17.50-a-week position at the paper. There, the 18-year-old Dempsey was taken under the wing of Edna Kells, editor of the women’s page and the only other woman reporter at the Journal. Kells and Dempsey were boxed off in the back corner of the building; the few other women who worked for the newspaper were secretaries or clerks. Women reporters were almost always relegated to the women’s pages because, the prevailing thinking went, they simply didn’t have the capacity to cover hard news. A typical women’s page was a pastiche of recipes for dishes like scalloped cabbage and egg croquettes, plus hints on things like window shopping and dyeing clothes (“For successful dyeing we must know a good deal about color, because a colored garment can be dyed only certain colors related to the color it already has”). The “newsy” section would cover events like charity dinners or meetings of organizations like Big Sisters, while the social columns listed everything from which prominent socialites had entertained friends at tea to announcements like, “Mrs. Arthur Miles is opening her summer place in Coburg the end of June.” Poetry, short stories, and quotations from “wise men” were also regulars.
At first, despite the blatant discrimination, Dempsey was just glad to be a reporter. But after four years at theJournal, her need for more excitement and adventure pushed her to the Edmonton Bulletin. It was a morning paper with a younger, more energetic bunch of newshounds, and her salary was $40 per week?a sum practically unheard of, especially for a woman. She covered stories in Vancouver and Winnipeg, touring Indian reserves and Mennonite settlements, interviewing trappers, traders, and university professors. But Dempsey still wanted more. In 1929, she approached her publisher, Charlie Campbell, for a leave of absence so she could attend a six-week journalism course at Columbia University. “I have no use for journalism courses,” snapped Campbell, “They’re a lot of nonsense.” Crushed, Dempsey was turning to go when he added, “But I’ll pay your salary and expenses for a six-week ‘course’ with some of the editors and reporters I know on a few American newspapers with real guts.”
Dempsey’s itinerary included the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Portland Oregonian, San Francisco News and theL.A. Herald Examiner. Then, managing to squeeze another two weeks from Campbell, she went to Hollywood, the first of many visits there. She got on the train to come home, full of anticipation and keen to use all her new skills. But before she crossed the border, the world had changed: the date was October 24, and the stock market had just crashed.
In Edmonton, many of Dempsey’s colleagues ended up out of work; she was lucky?while her salary was cut back to $28, she still had a job, although now it included making up pages, writing heads, and bashing out a shopping column that brought in extra advertising money. In the wake of the crash Lotta was forced to move above a tailor shop with her mother and father. Dempsey’s father had run a fruit store, the Bon Ton, which catered to the carriage trade; he had mortgaged the family home in an attempt to save the store, and lost them both. Dempsey’s parents cleaned the shop below in lieu of rent. No bathroom in the apartment meant using the one downstairs and frequenting the Y for showers. All three lived on Lotta’s salary until her father got a job selling vacuums and her mother started selling baked goods to the local drugstore.
One day after the Depression finally eased, Campbell called Dempsey into his office. On his desk were five crisp $100 bills, a reward for working diligently through the harder times. She announced, “If you give me those, Mr. Campbell, I’ll be off to Toronto as soon as I can get a [train] pass.”
So, in 1935, at the age of 30, already with 12 years experience under her skirt, Dempsey arrived in Toronto with a plan and some connections. Tommy Wheeler, editor of the Star Weekly, had already bought some of her pieces. Byrne Hope Sanders, editor of Chatelaine, had visited Edmonton three months earlier and told Dempsey there might be a position available at the magazine. She also had a place to stay with two girlfriends who had moved to Toronto from the Calgary Herald and were renting a flat overlooking Queen’s Park. Wheeler hired her on a freelance basis, but three weeks later Sanders offered her the assistant editor position at Chatelaine. Dempsey would hold this post on and off until 1950.
Chatelaine was a place where Dempsey excelled. She wrote over 300 articles while she was there, under her own byline and three pseudonyms. “Carolyn Damon” wrote fashion, “Annabel Lee,” beauty and?significantly?the more authoritative “John Alexander” was the name she used for features. “It was great fun, at long last, to choose names I liked,” Dempsey would recall?the willowy 5 foot 9 reporter was plagued her entire life by cracks like, “Here comes a lotta Dempsey.”
Dempsey’s writing style meshed well with the magazine. Poetry was a great love, and her writing had a hint of verse. One of Dempsey’s many features, “New Eyes for Christmas,” published in December 1936, about a blind boy who gets his sight back, captures the warmth Dempsey wove into her writing. “Somehow, I think Billwill see Santa Claus this year. Life couldn’t let him down when he is so full of the joyousness of all he looks at. And he is so sure. You see, being blind the first nine years of his life has given him pretty vivid powers of imagination. He’s just emerging from a dream world as swiftly beautiful as only a world unseen could be.”
A beauty article bylined “Annabel Lee” hints at another of Dempsey’s enthusiasms. “You know what eyebrows can do to a face. You’ve seen Garbo’s, and wondered; Dietrich’s, and marveled,” was how she started the piece on the dos and don’ts of eyebrow plucking. Dempsey had in fact seen Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows up close during her Hollywood visit in 1929. She would return repeatedly, staying for up to two months on assignment. The hardest interview she ever had was with Humphrey Bogart: “The day I was to see him he had just begun to get acquainted with a new leading lady, a tall, mocking model who had come from New York. He was so besotted with the charm of that angular, witty young woman, he simply couldn’t speak with any intelligibility to anyone else. Her name was Lauren Bacall.”
After only a few months at Chatelaine , Dempsey met Richard Fisher, a local architect, and they were married in December 1936. Two and a half years later, they had a son, Donald (Richard already had two boys from his first marriage, Alson and John). Dempsey took two years off after Donald was born, but kept writing her beauty column at home.
Alson remembers his parents had a very active social life. “They threw parties every couple of months and had reams of invitations to others.” The Royal York and the King Edward Hotel were favourite dancing venues and watering-holes for Lotta and Dick. Unfortunately, Dempsey’s career and social habits didn’t leave much time for family. “Lotta was a very distant person and I don’t think that motherhood suited her particularly,” says Alson. “She was certainly not the wicked stepmother. She quit work and tried to do the job, but she wasn’t up for it, and the minute she had the chance to go back to work she took it. If there was anyone who was said to have printers’ ink in her veins, it was her.”
The fact is Dempsey was no chatelaine herself, being neither domestic nor maternal. In the late fourties, she and Dick hired a gay houseman named Stanley who did everything from cooking the meals to buying Dempsey’s underwear. “He became a member of our family until his death 22 years later. He supplied us with flowers, sustenance, and a deep affection,” recalled Dempsey. However, Donald and Alson don’t remember Stanley fondly; in fact, neither will say anything about him.
During the fourties Dempsey couldn’t sit still. She did public relations work for the War Time Prices Board and was a CBC newsroom editor from 1940-44, then returned to Chatelaine as women’s editor. Being out of newspapers during the war years meant Dempsey was spared the experience of other women journalists when peace came. Elizabeth Dingman recalls a night out in Montreal, soon after the war ended, when she was working as hotel and rails reporter for the Gazette . “I was sitting at a banquette with two or three friends at the Samovar one night and sitting at the next one was a tall and handsome man in an air force uniform. I got the impression that he thought he was pretty important. We got into conversation and I said I was a reporter with the Gazette . He said to me, ‘Come Monday, you won’t be in that job anymore.'” Dingman turned away, thinking the man was “nuts” but on Monday she found him sitting in the city editor’s chair. “When the war ended, it was the idea to get women out of the newsroom and into the back. I refused,” she recalls.
After several more moves, including two short stints at the Globe ,Dempsey took the editor’s job at Chatelainein September 1952. But she missed writing and she was too soft to be effective as editor. She did, however, make a great discovery during her seven months in charge. Doris Anderson recounts how Dempsey rescued her from the advertising department: “I was a kid right out of university and no one gave me the time of day. Lotta knew I was from the West and gave me a chance as soon as she could see I was interested. I was ambitious and impressed her. I was on the editorial staff pretty quickly. Within six years I was editor.”
In February 1953 Dempsey settled at the Globe and stayed there until 1958. Her column in the women’s section was pure Dempsey: personable, poetic and funny: “Babette, a peppermint-pink poodle, was being walked up and down the lobby of the Chateau Frontenac. . . the color will last two months, fading gradually from Schiaparelli to a wild-rose tint. . . it’s a new U.S. fad, and the arrival of Babette on Quebec City’s high hill is a token of the opening of the tourist season in New France.”
Dempsey’s columnist status helped her avoid the widespread discrimination against women that was still the norm. At the National Press Club in Washington, for example, women were not even allowed in the building until 1955 (and were not allowed membership until 1971). After years of pressure, the men thought of a solution. Women reporters could cover speeches from the balcony in the ballroom, although they couldn’t sit down because the space was too narrow, and while the men sat comfortably below eating lunch, the women got nothing. “I remember being in that damned balcony crowded up against Pulitzer Prize winners like Miriam Ottenberg and Marguerite Higgins. You entered and left through a back door, and you’d be glowered at as you went through the club quarters. It was discrimination at its rawest,” Bonnie Angelo, chief of the Newsdaybureau during the balcony days, has said of that time.
In 1958 the 53-year-old newspaperwoman moved to the Star as a columnist. There she won her own important battle for women reporters. One Sunday afternoon in the early sixties she was working late at the old Star building on King Street when managing editor Charles Templeton brought in his two small children. Templeton asked if Dempsey would take his daughter to the loo. Eager to make a point, she quickly obliged. At all the papers Dempsey had worked, there had been no women’s washrooms on the editorial floor. Women reporters had to trek up or down to the advertising, circulation, or business offices, where other women worked in low-paying service jobs. The Star was no different. So with the boss’s daughter following close behind, Dempsey took an extended route down to the business level. On their trip back, Dempsey whispered, “Tell Daddy what a distance girls have to go wee wee in these nice, big, shiny offices.” Facilities were promptly installed.
It was at the Star where Dempsey met Marilyn Dunlop, who would become like a sister. “I became the medical reporter for the Star and there was a long passage way at the end of the newsroom which was known as ‘peacock alley’ and the special writers sat in it,” Dunlop recalls. “So Lotie and I started sitting together. She would have been the brightest writer in the peacock’s tail. The most vivid writer. She had a magnificent generosity of spirit that came through in her writing.”
Dunlop still remembers the first time she read Dempsey’s work. It was in 1949, the year the passenger ship the Noronic burned in the harbor. “Lotie had gone to the morgue and had done a story on a man who was looking for his wife. She saw this man holding the hand of his wife and wrote in her column, ‘With this ring I thee wed.’ It was so sensitive and so moving that I became a fan right then and there.”
When the two became friends she discovered Dempsey’s “delightful sense of humour and hearty laugh.” Wherever she went people took notice of Dempsey. She wore big hats, carried big purses and always smoked cigarettes with a long holder. She had large pockets sewn into her clothes so she would have a notebook and pencil accessible at all times. When she was frustrated and couldn’t find something, she would empty the contents of her purse right onto her desk.
Dunlop also recalls how Dempsey had a predilection for klutziness. On one occasion when the two went to a local seafood restaurant for lunch, Dempsey walked into the foyer and set her purse on the lobster tank in order to take her coat off. The maitre d’ gasped as he watched her handbag sink to the bottom. Without missing a beat, Dempsey politely asked the man to retrieve her soggy purse.
This kind of mishap was classic Dempsey. She loved telling the story of how, while covering the royal tour in 1952, she and her fellow reporters cruised the Ottawa River, mingling with Princess Elizabeth and her prince, Philip. As the ship approached the shore, Dempsey was eager to get off and file her story first. She leapt from the bow onto what she thought was solid ground. Unfortunately, the Eddy Match Company had spewed wood shavings into the river, creating the illusion of land. Dempsey hit the water with a momentous splash and sank into the icy murk. That evening the news carried a report about an unidentified journalist had fallen into the Ottawa River. Dick was listening to the radio with one of his sons and with a sigh said, “That will be your mother.”
Or there was the time she set an American Airlines plane on fire with a cigarette and her raincoat. Or the time she locked herself out of her room, naked, in a posh Chicago hotel. Or when she tried to curtsy and fell into Prince Philip. “My gift from whatever spirits hover over new babies was an invisible banana peel, with a lifetime guarantee. I come. . .I see. . . I fall flat on my face in so many different ways and places there’s often not a dry eye in the house,” was how Dempsey described her slapstick side.
She had been at the Star three years when Dick died of a heart attack in 1962, an indirect result of his heavy drinking. “They drank, they smoked, they danced, they died of alcoholism?you know, they had a really rippin’ good time,” says Dingman of this generation. Dempsey later blamed Alson for his father’s death and didn’t speak to him for about four years. “I considered the blame, or a portion of it, to be with her for keeping him on the bloody party circuit,” he says today. “It was more convenient to blame me than herself. The things that make you the maddest are your own mistakes.”
Dempsey partied and drank, too, but always managed to stay focused on her career. When problems would arise at home, she would rush down to the newsroom. “I don’t think Lotie felt complete or like herself if she wasn’t writing,” says Dunlop. It was her sanctuary, a place where she could go when things were tense.
The sixties newsroom was seldom a sanctuary for women, but that didn’t seem to affect Dempsey. Most women tried to ignore the injustices and were thankful they had jobs at all. Dempsey was thankful she had a venue for her writing. As Herbert Whittaker, former theatre critic at the Globe , remembers, “For a whole generation of Canadians, Lotta was a daily friend through her newspaper columns. Invading a man’s world of print, she was, for me, the crusader who opened up a woman’s point of view to countless readers at an important time in their development. And she did it with an exuberance, enthusiasm, and frankness not then fostered by the papers of her day.”
That exuberance stayed with Dempsey till the end. Following her retirement from the Star in 1981?the same year she married Arthur Ham, former chairman of anatomy at the University of Toronto?Dempsey continued to freelance for theStar and for the weekly paper in the community north of the city where the couple moved. Ham developed Alzheimer’s disease and required professional care; Dempsey was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer of 1988 and lived her last days in a nursing home in Markham. But Anderson remembers Dempsey still had the same verve she always had. “Even in the nursing home, she never moaned about her problems. They didn’t change her. She would turn the conversation around and ask me questions about my life.”
Dunlop thinks Dempsey ran faster than she could go sometimes, “It never occurred to her that women couldn’t do what men can do in the world. It’s hard for women who have done what they wanted to do and had a career and everything to sometimes realize that. I don’t think she ever felt like she was being put down or put aside. She never reached a place where she couldn’t climb any higher because she was where she wanted to be.”