Eileen Jackson retired from the Union at 70. Then, at the behest of Tribune editor Neil Morgan, she returned in 1981 to write a column in the Tribune.
We stood outside her Mission Hills home. She nodded toward a two-story house half a block uphill and said, "That was my father’s house." She led the way down stone steps set into a steep incline, toward her own house. Halfway down the steps, she stopped, looked back over her shoulder, and laughed. "Last Sunday we tried to have a party here. But our friends are too old. They couldn't manage these steps. We moved the party to our daughter's place."
"When I was twelve, I started my newspaper career, writing social news about all our neighbors for the Ramona Sentinel.”
A brilliant blue light wool dress flattered her willowy frame, drew out the blue of her eyes; muted brownish auburn hair was combed away from a slender face graced by high cheekbones, by skin unacquainted with time: Mrs. Everett Gee (Eileen Lois Dwyer) Jackson, born in San Diego the week of the San Francisco earthquake. As reporter and society columnist for San Diego's Sun, for the short-lived Journal, and during the forty-two years she served as the Union's society columnist.
Mrs. Nixon had her for tea to the vice president's home in Virginia. Mrs. Nixon served tea and took Mrs. Jackson all through the house, "from top to bottom."
Mrs. Jackson has interviewed the wives of eight United States presidents, has met and written about luminaries as varied as philosopher Bertrand Russell, prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and the prince of Tonga. She has covered the social phase of national political conventions, inaugurals, royal weddings, the 1957 ten-day royal progress through North America of Queen Elizabeth II and her consort. Prince Philip. She retired from the Union at seventy. Then, at the behest of Tribune editor Neil Morgan. Eileen Jackson returned in 1981 to write a column that appears beneath her byline every Thursday in the Tribune.
"President Roosevelt looked up at me with a look that said, 'Where have you been all my life?’ and then indicated to his men, She is to stay’"
Queried as to why he asked Mrs. Jackson to come out of retirement and resume writing. Neil Morgan said. "The thing any community that grows like a rocket needs is roots. And that's in very short supply in San Diego. Eileen is caretaker of roots. She's a historian. She puts family life in the perspective that no one else has been able to do. She’s unique. She's the only one. There may never be another like her."
Anyone who’s not known her, noted Morgan, might imagine her to be stuffy. But there's nothing stuffy about her, he said. "She's elegant in the truest old sense of the word — elegant, warm, and corporeal."
The vast living room of her Mission Hills home is made more spacious by a high, vaulted cathedral ceiling. As she showed me around the room, she pointed to an outsized chair in which she’d seated the also outsized prince of Tonga during his visit in 1965. "He felt the chair first," she said of the 375-pound nobleman, "to see if it was safe!"
There were books everywhere. Among the titles were those over which she lingered fondly, those that her husband Everett had illustrated. One of those books was George Prescott's The Conquest of Peru. "I remember when Everett received a telegram from the publisher, asking him to illustrate The Conquest of Peru," she said. “Everett wired back and said, But I've never been to Peru.' And Everett’s publisher then wired hack. ‘Neither had Prescott’!"
During the afternoon, she returned repeatedly to Everett — “my greatest social asset." She praised his charm, his wit. his artistry and scholarship. "Everett," she said, "is far more interesting than I. He's who you should be talking with." The tapping of typewriter keys could be heard from upstairs. "That’s Everett," she said, "at work on his book." Everett Jackson, for three decades head of the San Diego State University art department, has been married to Eileen Jackson since July 21, 1926.
She settled cozily on a high-backed sofa. From a stack of leather-bound scrapbooks, she pulled out a volume in which she'd saved stories written in her teens. "My father loved the country, and we lived for two years — from 1916 to 1918 — on a little ranch- west of Ramona. When I was twelve, I started my newspaper career, writing social news about all our neighbors in the Earle School District where we lived, for the Ramona Sentinel.”
In high school, in San Diego, she wrote a column for the Russ, San Diego High School's newspaper. She was removed from her position as columnist when in her column she answered the question, "Should a girl kiss her date?" with "Most assuredly, yes." Later she was made Russ editor — "its first girl editor." During high school and continuing on after graduation, while she attended the Normal School (now San Diego State University), she wrote for the San Diego Sun, covering the society beat and on general assignment. In 1925, still a teen-ager, she was the second woman to cover the San Diego courthouse beat.
Oh, yes, she agreed, when I said it must have taken courage, in those days, to do what she did. "When I was eighteen, it's unbelievable what I would do. I wouldn’t do some of those things now! When you're young, you know, you’re fresh." And, no, as a teen-ager, she wasn’t a bit shy. “I get more shy," she said, “as I get older."
Still protesting it was Everett, not she, who was "the interesting person," she told this story. Early in the Twenties. when she was a “cub” on the Sun, she was sent to interview the Metropolitan Opera contralto Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, who kept a vacation home in Coronado. Eileen Dwyer met with Madame Schumann-Heink in the U.S. Grant lobby. The diva looked Miss Dwyer over and said, "You're very young."
"Oh no, not very," responded the Suns cub.
"Have you been many places?" the diva asked.
"Oh, yes," she said, she had.
"Have you been in the East?"
Again, Miss Dwyer answered in the affirmative.
And then Madame Schumann-Heink moved closer and asked, "How far?"
To which she answered pertly, "Arizona!"
Meanwhile, at the Sun offices, the editorial staff began to suffer misgivings at having sent the cub. They feared Madame Schumann-Heink might be upset, even insulted, by their having a youngster query her, a girl. Someone suggested that Max Miller, author of I Cover the Waterfront, go by the Grant to check the interview’s progress.
When Miller arrived, said Mrs. Jackson, "I was doing fine, scribbling away and asking everything. Mr. Miller turned to Madame Schumann-Heink and asked, How are you doing?’ Madame Schumann-Heink said, She’s very young, isn't she?’ To which Mr. Miller, razzing me, replied, ‘Oh, about thirteen, I think.' "
After her interview with the diva. Eileen Dwyer went back to the Sun and wrote the story from whose yellowed pages, more than sixty years later, she was reading:
“(Madame Schumann-Heink): ‘I have eleven grandchildren. I’m sixty-four years old. I eat lots. All my teeth are my own, and I don’t powder my nose. And now, Miss Reporter, what else do you want to know?’ “
Looking up from her scrapbook, Mrs. Jackson asked, "Wasn't that cute?" and then turned back to reading. " 'What else, indeed, I said... ”’ She interrupted herself again and exclaimed, "Oh, see, I was just a kid!"
Encouraged to continue. Mrs. Jackson read: " What else, indeed. I said, when America’s most beloved prima donna, Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, will interview herself in her own charming way, it's up to the reporter to keep still. She’s beautiful, and she’s wonderful. But more, she is frank and just lots of fun to talk to. You get just what you expect when you meet the great diva, even if you expect a great deal' "
Running a hand over the clipping, she said, "This is so old you can't believe it."
October 1924, the eighteen-year-old Miss Dwyer literally "in the clouds" aboard a small airplane, covered her first wedding as a reporter for the Sun. The ceremony, which united Mildred Ward and Glenn H. Brentner, took place 3000 feet above Ocean Beach, while below, in the sand, 7000 beachgoers watched.
After the birth of Professor and Mrs. Jackson’s first and only child, Mrs. Jackson was hired by the Union in 1934. At that time, newspapers all had women’s pages. These pages carried information considered the province of the "gentler sex": news of the social set, engagement and wedding announcements, cooking hints, fashion forecasts, tips on etiquette, child-rearing advice. Men, said Mrs. Jackson, often edited those pages, but "girls mostly did the writing." Seven days a week Mrs. Jackson reported social doings, and she also wrote a social editorial, two columns long, twice a week.
In those years, it was said that a lady had her name in a newspaper only when she was born, married, and buried. But when society folk engaged in charitable work, they would turn to the newspapers for publicity for their benefits. "Always," said Mrs. Jackson, “they did that. But for their own private social life, they didn’t then have a reporter come in with a camera. And a lot of them still don’t today.”
When Mrs. Jackson went to the Union, the society people weren’t in the column. "I thought, 'We aren’t covering society here. I think we ought to. If I could only know Mrs. Spreckels.’ The Spreckelses owned the Coronado Hotel, North Island, Coronado, the ferry system, and the newspaper."
So Mrs. Jackson dialed the number for Claus and Ellis Spreckels. The butler answered. "I asked if I might speak with Mrs. Spreckels. But I was told. No, she didn't come to the phone.’ ”
Then, one afternoon at a horse show in Coronado, Mrs. Jackson espied Mrs. Spreckels. She noted that from time to time, Mrs. Spreckels lifted up her brooch and glanced at a watch she had hidden beneath the jeweled cluster. In her coverage of the show, Mrs. Jackson mentioned Mrs. Spreckels' brooch/watch arrangement. "This was daring, to write about this,” said Mrs. Jackson. "About as daring as you’d think of doing. That was pretty personal."
She waited several days before again dialing the Spreckelses’ number. Again she asked for Mrs. Spreckels. The butler said. "Yes. she would like to speak to you." Mrs. Spreckels came to the telephone and asked Mrs. Jackson, "Where did you see that?" meaning, of course, her glancing at the secreted watch. Mrs. Jackson explained, "I was in the press box. above you."
"She said to me. You're pretty enterprising. What do you want?’
"I said, Well, you know what I thought. I thought. "The social people aren’t in the paper.'" " Mrs. Jackson explained to Mrs. Spreckels her plan: If Mrs. Spreckels would submit to an interview, then other society ladies would "all fall into line."
"Mrs. Spreckels said, 'All right. I’ll meet you.’
“I thought she'd meet me at her home. But she didn’t. She said, Meet me at the club’ — the Cuyamaca Club."
The ladies met. Mrs. Spreckels brought a selection of her first editions, of which she was a collector. They talked. Mrs. Jackson wrote her story, which appeared in the Union. The two women soon became fast friends, a friendship whose initial stages were spurred by both women having a child of the same age. (Ellis Spreckels had had three children, and then, late in life, as “an afterthought," a little girl.) Mrs. Spreckels sent a chauffeur by for the Jacksons' daughter, and the two girls became playmates.
"She wanted to know writers and artists," Mrs. Jackson said of her new friend. "It is true of some people who live the social life, they like to know the writing crowd and the artists’ crowd. Mrs. Spreckels wanted to branch out and meet some of them."
Mrs. Jackson was able to introduce to Mrs. Spreckels artists who formed a part of the Jacksons' acquaintance. "Mrs. Spreckels mentioned that she wanted to meet Donal Hord. He'd won a Guggenheim fellowship that year." Mrs. Jackson paused and pointed out on the wall a painting by Hord. "I went to visit him. He lived in an alley near here. I told him, Mrs. Spreckels wished to meet you,’ and he said, Well, all right, but what do I serve her?’ I said, ‘Just a cup of coffee, Donal.'
"I’ll never forget that afternoon. We entered his studio. Donal said, Mrs. Spreckels, would you like a cup of coffee" and she answered, 'Yes, that would be nice, Donal.’ He brought the coffee and asked, 'And cream?’ Yes, she wanted cream. Well, Donal got out a can of Carnation and the chisel from what he’d been working on, and he hit the can and opened it. Mrs. Spreckels loved it, just loved it."
Precisely as Mrs. Jackson had hoped, after her story about Mrs. Spreckels appeared in print, other ladies of the Spreckels’ set agreed to be interviewed. Soon, the Union had twenty-five stories about society women and their hobbies.
One segment of the population with whom social San Diego has always mixed is the navy. "This is a navy town. We’ve always liked the service set here. (We’ve always called it the ‘service set.’) There was a great interchange. Anytime we could meet them, we liked to have them. As Mrs. Spreckels said, They are traveled. They know the world.’ She thought the service set were more interesting than the villagers."
But the navy, Mrs. Jackson lamented, is no longer as much a part of things as they once were. "There isn’t that interaction.' the way it used to be. There was a great interchange when they had stewards and could reciprocate and could give nice parties. Then, everybody would love to go there.” But now that the navy no longer has stewards, “at least not in their homes, their quarters, they don’t have those kind of parties. They have clubs now. A lot of them go to their clubs."
Because of her work as a society columnist, said Mrs. Jackson, "We went a great deal. We go a lot now. As Everett said, just today, ‘It’s wonderful to see friends I haven’t seen for twenty-four hours.’"
I laughed. She smiled and said, “He’s very witty. He’s cute."
By no means does Mrs. Jackson commit to print every event she attends. In fact, she noted, "People often will say, I’d rather not have this in. Because I couldn’t have everybody." A lot of people are still very reticent about being in the paper." (She admitted, however, that wherever she goes, “between the bathroom and the front door, I get a lot of news!")
Rarely, she said, do people call you, as a social writer, to write about their private parties. "What they will call you about, even today it is true, are benefits. But they don’t call much about what they’re doing socially. They will invite you to the party. Then you may ask for permission, if you want, to write about that party. But many times they don’t want it. They’re inviting you to their party for themselves.
"But now I notice that some reporters say. ‘I haven’t time to go for myself.’ The reporters who are covering don’t have time to go to social events and just be.
"One thing today, writing about social life, you have to be very careful...” She paused. "Through my column, people were robbed.”
She explained. “At one time, writing about upcoming dinner parties, you’d say so-and-so was going to have a dinner party, and you would name the guests. Well, the police called me one morning and said, ‘We believe someone is using your column to plan burglaries. Sixty people have been robbed.’
“I said to the police that I didn’t think my column was being used. The burglar had robbed a lot of people who had never been in the column. But the police asked if I would help them to find the burglar, and I agreed to do so.”
The San Diego Museum of Man was giving a Halloween party. The police asked Mrs. Jackson to announce the party in her column, together with a list of names of people who planned to attend. She was then to give the list to the police, and they would arrange to have a policeman in the house of each person named.
“I arrived at the party. People said, ‘They caught him, they caught the burglar!’ I said, ‘No, that’s a Halloween joke.’ ‘But no, no,’ they said. ‘The police have caught him!’ They had!”
The police found some of the stolen goods cached in the burglar’s house. “It was odd," Mrs. Jackson said. “He had something of a Robin Hood way about him — he was decent about some things. If he picked up a watch with your grandmother's photograph in the case, even if the watch happened to be valuable, he’d toss it in the nearest post-office pickup box."
Once all the stolen goods were gathered together by the police, a morning coffee was held for those who had been robbed. "For all the leading people," Mrs. Jackson smiled. " ‘If you haven’t been robbed,’ I wrote at the time, ‘you aren’t in society.’"
One of San Diego’s leading socialites found several of her valuables among the créme de la créme’s collected swag. The socialite complained, however, that part of what she lost remained missing: her S&H Green Stamps. "I had three or four books, all pasted in," the socialite said.
And Mrs. Jackson asked her, “What were you going to do with them? With the stamps?"
The woman replied, “I was going to buy Christmas presents for the help."
After the burglar’s conviction, Mrs. Jackson went to visit the district attorney. She still couldn’t believe the burglar had used her column to plan his escapades. "The district attorney was a friend of mine, he was in dancing school with me, one of my first dates. So I asked him if I could interview the burglar before he went to San Quentin. He said, ‘Yes, you may. But no story.’"
At the county jail, Mrs. Jackson asked the burglar, "Did you use my column to plan your burglaries?"
"He was very nice, and he said, Oh, yes, and I miss it now!' " She laughed.
“In talking with the burglar, I asked him, ‘Could you tell me anything that would help to keep people from being robbed?’ He allowed that the burglars' union wouldn't like his giving me hints, but that he would offer me a few suggestions. ‘Women,’ he said, tend to try to hide their jewelry in among their lingerie. They think we won’t look there. We do.’ ”
Mrs. Jackson took the opportunity of her visit with the burglar to inquire after the fate of the three still-missing Green Stamp books. "I asked him, ‘What did you do with the rest of my friend’s Green Stamp books? You only returned two or three of the books.' He said, very indignant, ‘She didn’t have that many. She only had two or three.' I asked him, ‘What did you intend to do with the stamps?' And he said, ‘I wanted to buy Christmas presents with them.' ”
Mrs. Jackson laughed for a moment but then continued in a more sober tone. "Today, you have to be very careful in writing about trips people have planned. I do not print anything about a trip until after the travelers have returned — unless, of course, they’re in a secure condominium. And I call each person, alert them to the fact their name will be mentioned."
Wasn’t that a time-consuming process? “Mmm, yes," she agreed. "It does take a lot of time. But you get news! And when, for instance, I write about a benefit, I like to tuck in things about people. So when I make these calls, I get the little extra dividend.”
She gave an example. "There is a big flower show coming up. A woman who is going to talk at the show has written a book on weddings and entertaining. And someone I telephoned said to me, ‘You know, a lot of people who are going to have weddings are going to turn up at the flower show.’ And so I asked her, Who’s having weddings?'
“So, I’ll print all of that — upcoming weddings — and get every bride in town to go to the flower show. And they will, if they know the author of the book on weddings will be talking. That builds up their benefit. If I can get that extra little thing, it helps."
At a party, did she take notes? “No, I never took notes.” As soon as she left an event, however, she’d begin to write. "Once, though," she offered, "I was taking notes, and a man I knew said, Why, I’ve never seen you take notes before.’ I said, ‘Well, all at once, something happened to the news reporter. So I’m here covering the navy, learning just how many ships are going to come in here. This is news.’
“That,” she said, “was something you didn’t get wrong. So, for something like that, I did take notes. But if you say, in a society column, ‘The person looks beautiful in a dress,’ they’re not going to sue you if you haven’t got their dress the right color!
"Speaking of colors, we were all right up on fashion in those days. In 1957, when I covered Queen Elizabeth in Canada, I was seated with men from Reuters of London and others. The men from Canada said to me, Now, we know all the people who are coming in here, and you don’t know them, so we’ll help you. But will you tell us what the women are wearing, what the colors are?' And I, indicating one woman, said, ‘Now she’s wearing a lovely mushroom.' He said —’ she paused and wrinkled her face in an exaggerated expression of disgust — “he said, ‘Mushroom? I never heard of it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, it’s the latest thing!' "
We talked a bit, then, about the special nature of “high society” in Southern California, an area that even previous to World War II saw so many “new people” arrive and enter “society.” In the longer-settled East Coast cities, where acceptance in the social set was a matter of birth, “new people" might not have been as easily able to enter society as they did in, for instance, San Diego.
“Do many people move to Boston?” asked Mrs. Jackson rhetorically. "I don’t think so. Of course, almost no one I know of my age was born here. Some came here perhaps when they were small, the parents came here. But I know very few people who were born here in 1906.”
She didn’t feel that there is an “in” society and an “out" society in San Diego. “Even in the early days, the social set weren't snooty," she said. Not that there hasn’t been a continuity in San Diego society. In 1909, Mrs. Jackson noted, “the Charity Ball, our classic ball, was founded. A lot of the families who went then are still going.” But "new people” attend as well. “We have an influx of very nice people here.”
Becoming involved in charitable works will "help people to meet people and get in. I always say to a newcomer, If you want to feel happy and not lonely in a new community, work in the historical society, work for the library. But do something to be a part of the community.' ”
Society today "doesn't have that structure of who’s in and who's out. If you’re a nice’ person, you can be a part of it. If you help out with benefits, well, that’s what they like today."
Who of all the famous people she’d met, had most impressed her? "Oh,’’ she said without hesitation, "Franklin Roosevelt."
On the night before her assignment to write about Eleanor Roosevelt's tour of the Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, in October of 1935. a reception was given President Roosevelt at the Hotel del Coronado. No press were invited. "It seems," explained Mrs. Jackson, "that some of the social leaders here knew me. ‘Come on in,' I was told, and we’ll say you’re our daughter.’ Stupidly, because the Secret Service knew I was the press. But I went in with them."
No sooner had Mrs. Jackson entered the room in which President Roosevelt, from his chair, was holding court, than the Secret Service asked her to leave. "President Roosevelt looked up at me with a look that said, 'Where have you been all my life?’ and then indicated to his men, She is to stay’
"I never saw such a charming person as Franklin Roosevelt. Never. He had such warmth.”
We returned to the scrapbooks. “Look at me,” Mrs. Jackson exclaimed, showing a photograph taken just before the 1948 elections on Harry Truman's private train. Bess Truman, the Truman's daughter Margaret, and Mrs. Jackson all wear the moderately elaborate hats that were then á la mode. "Wasn’t I fancy-looking there? I sure did wear hats, didn't I?" Mrs. Truman, known for being "press shy," was very gracious and charming, recalled Mrs. Jackson. But it was Margaret, the Trumans’ only child, who really gave the interview.
Mrs. Jackson's favorite among presidential wives? "Oh, definitely Mrs. Nixon. I count Mrs. Pat Nixon more as a friend, really. I interviewed her at least six times. The first time in May 1956, in Washington, when her husband was vice president.
“She didn’t like to give interviews. What happened, my daughter was living in Falls Church, Virginia. She was ill. I had to rush back to help take care of my two little grandsons. I had been in Virginia for several weeks when my editor at the Union here telephoned and asked, ‘When are you ever coming back?’ I said, Pretty soon.’ He said, ‘Mrs. Nixon is not the First Lady, but she’s just about. She’s doing so much for Mrs. Eisenhower at this time, and appearing more. Could you interview her?'
"So I called Nixon's office. She doesn't give interviews,' the secretary told me. But Mr. Nixon would be happy to see you.’ I said, 'Well, this is a woman's page. We don't have men on it.' I had a feeling the Nixon office didn't want to annoy the Copley Press. So they said, Well, she can see you for about fifteen minutes.'
“Mrs. Nixon came to her husband’s office on the day appointed for our interview. We sat there, she and I, for one and one-half hours. We just never stopped talking. My wardrobe,’ she said. ‘I need more than I can afford.’ I said, ‘I do, too.’ Mrs. Nixon said, ‘What I like to do is this. I wear a little pink hat and with it the same basic black dress, They say to me then, "I love your pink outfit.” I put on a blue hat, they say. "I love your blue outfit.”’
"Weren't we a sight?” Mrs. Jackson moves the leather scrapbook to rest on my knees and shows the photograph taken that day — May 20, 1956 — of herself and Mrs. Nixon. "Look at those hats. Look at those gloves. And look at the animal heads on that!” Mrs. Jackson indicated a "fur piece" tossed with proper Fifties' nonchalance about the shoulder of her suit. “Being on the Zoological Society board, as I am, I wouldn't dare wear that now!”
Asked to read a bit of what she wrote that day, Mrs. Jackson complied: " 'I don’t see how she does it, says every woman in social Washington of “Popular Pat." I call her "Patrician Pat," the elegant blonde wife of one of the most important figures in the American political scene today. Vice President Nixon. The comment made in honest admiration and amazement refers to her success as the most social housewife in the nation. We hasten to add she is social, but not for superficial or personal reasons, but because her role as Second Lady in the land demands that she attend countless official functions such as state dinners and benefits....'
" ‘Pat, as she is affectionately called by everyone from cab drivers to the First Lady, has never had the slightest personal social ambition, and yet she has become one of the capital’s most gracious hostesses and most sought-after guests....
“ ‘Her double career as capable homemaker and indefatigable official social figure came into every conversation we had in social Washington, at the White House, with the Senate wives, with the wives of Cabinet members, and has been stressed in the press as a challenge to young housewives in and near Washington and across the nation.' "
Before Mrs. Jackson returned to San Diego that spring, Mrs. Nixon had her for tea to the vice president's home in Virginia. Mrs. Nixon served tea and took Mrs. Jackson all through the house, "from top to bottom. I had a lot of fun there. Just as we left, it was kind of cute I said, 'My daughter and the little boys are waiting outside.’ Mrs. Nixon saw the members of our family waiting for our tea party to end. She thoughtfully insisted on coming out to the car to meet them, followed by Checkers, the family dog, and the two mother cats. Just then, the vice president drove up.
“ 'Good,' Mrs. Nixon said, Now you can all meet the Boss' My grandsons, however, they being little boys, were more thrilled with Checkers and the cats than shaking hands with the vice president!”
After Mrs. Jackson returned home, Mrs. Nixon — in her own hand — wrote to praise the article about her and added. "I hope the news from your daughter has been encouraging. It is hard to believe you are a grandmother."
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Jackson, "I have always loved her. She was a doll, absolutely a doll to me."
There was a pause in the conversation, and I remarked that her career has been an unusually long one. She agreed. On her eightieth birthday, friends staged a celebration at the U.S. Grant Hotel. She was, she said, "overwhelmed. More than 600 guests arrived. When I surveyed the assemblage. I realized I’d covered the weddings of most of the guests.”