The English Department’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Committee hosted its annual interdisciplinary conference on May 2, 2019 at LaGuardia Community College (LaGCC). This year’s theme was “Body Politics.” The main co-organizers of this event, Dr. Meghan Fox and Dr. Anita Baksh, along with many more contributors helped in making this day a success. The […]
She challenged the stereotypes of her gender, demonstrating that a woman is also able to go out on the streets and find those tough and complex stories that many prefer to avoid. Pursuing a life in which books, anecdotes, reports, and writings became her passion, Edith Evans Asbury decided to follow the journalism pathway with fervor and determination during her life. Known for her extensive journalistic work in The New York Times City Room, Asbury built her own legacy. She left her hallmark not only in New York journalism history but also within the memory of those who had the pleasure of knowing her.
“She understood The Time’s Ochsian standards of fairness, integrity and good taste— traditions she absorbed into her bones,” Arthur Gelb, former editor of The New York Times and Asbury’s colleague, recalls in his book “The City Room.” He remembers her as “talented,” “able to demand—and get—the same type of hard-news assignments given to her male peers.”
Born as Edith Snyder on June 30, 1910, in New Boston, Ohio. Edie, as she was sometimes called, was the oldest of 16 children. Her journalism career began to take shape in The Cincinnati Time-Star during the summer of 1929, and she was so successful that she decided to leave her studies at Western College for Women.
The following year, her life took a new turn. She married Joe Evans, and together they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. There, Asbury returned to her studies and attended the University of Tennessee, getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree in American history in 1932 and 1933.
Asbury joined The Knoxville News Sentinel as a reporter from 1933 to 1937. According to Gelb, Asbury started to practice her skills in general assignments during her last year of work in the newspaper. He notes, “She flourished among the all-male city staff, covering everything from police news to President Roosevelt and, before long, she became the paper’s star.”
In 1937, her life turned again in a different direction and to another city. She separated from Evans, left her established life in Tennessee and moved to New York City in those difficult times when the Great Depression hit the economy.
It was not easy for Asbury to find a job, and despite this, she telegrammed her editor in Knoxville to resign because of a work opportunity in the city. Thanks to her strong skills and persistence, Asbury was able to find multiple jobs before she arrived at what would be, the climax of her career.
She reported for The New York Post for almost six months. She also worked in public relations for the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where she acquired knowledge of the city’s housing issues, a topic that she would cover in depth later in her career. The Associated Press was her next stop, where she covered a few stories and gained experience as a rewriter. Although the latter was not something she enjoyed, she was able to accomplish it with success.
In 1945, she married Herbert Asbury, journalist and author of “The Gangs of New York” and got divorced in 1958. During this marriage, Asbury started to work as assistant editor for women’s news at the New York World-Telegram and Sun, but her passion was not traditional women’s pages.
In a recent interview for the Gardiner-Shenker Scholars Program, Barbara Ross, a close friend of Asbury and executor of her estate, describes Asbury as an innovative and expansive person. Ross notes, “She was a bit of a trailblazer. [Although] she has worked on features, she wanted to pursue hard news stories.”
With that thought in mind, Edith arrived at The New York Times in 1952, determined and with a firmed proviso: working as a journalist in the City Room and not reporting on so-called ‘women’s issues.’ Her first article was about a Saint Nicholas ceremony in Westchester County, New York. But, with the passage of time, she demonstrated her strong skills in journalism and investigation on several important topics and gained the admiration and respect of everybody within The New York Times, changing the mind of those men who thought women were not capable of performing at the same level.
“When Edith was covering Criminal Court, she would cover the whole trial and The New York Times would send a man down because they didn’t think she could handle the deadline,” Ross says.
Notwithstanding, nobody and nothing could stop her: not the complexity of the major news items assigned to her nor those who did not trust her journalistic ability, not even the fact of not earning a salary equal to that of her male journalist colleagues. Guided by her innate capacity for investigation, Asbury continued to do what she was passionate about.
“She was intrepid and relentless in her search for facts. She was often my choice for covering such trials [including The Black Panther trials,] since she would always probe far beyond the testimony,” says Gelb. His words are confirmed by Ross, who mentioned that Asbury “didn’t do the easy thing. She would talk to people who were witnesses, would chase down family members and look at the literature that was being handed out. I think that she was willing to tackle anything.”
And it was precisely that flexibility at the time of her reporting that led her to go out to the street and cover the simplest story to the most controversial, whether at the local or national level.
Events, parades, urban city stories such as the World Trade Center construction, Greenwich Village, education, politics, and elections. Asbury also got involved in civil rights and the justice system, covering family and surrogate’s courts, crimes, corruption, and the famous Black Panthers’ trials. She reported about housing and health issues alongside the New York City boroughs, nursing home scandals, birth control, and adoption.
Her work as a journalist also gave her the opportunity to interview great personalities such as Amelia Earhart and Georgia O’Keeffe, but she became the subject of a number of anecdotes herself. Her obituary in The New York Times recalled Asbury’s encounter with Mayor John V. Lindsay. Asbury supposedly made him so angry during a phone call that he slammed down his telephone, to the point of breaking it. Another Asbury anecdote that stands out was captured in a 2006 interview with Dan Barry, a Times reporter. Asbury recalled one editor who never treated her fairly, who died on the job; she confessed to having felt very “delighted.”
However, there were always people who believed in her and treated her as she deserved. One of them was Robert E. Garst, former Assistant Managing Editor at The New York Times, who, according to Ross, respected and supported Asbury very much. Asbury and Garst fell in love and started a hidden romance. They thought nobody in the office noticed, but Ross reports that it was actually a badly-kept secret. In 1971, they got married. But unlike a fairy tale with a happy ending, Asbury was widowed in 1980.
At that time, Asbury was already an icon, recognized for writing outstanding articles. In May 1952, she was elected as President of the New York Newspaper Women’s Club, which gave her its Newspaper Award of Merit for “outstanding achievement in the field of journalism of benefit to the City of New York” in 1964. Asbury was recognized with the Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild of New York because of her reporting and successful battle in a family adoption case. She was even one of the first women accepted into the Inner Circle in 1973.
And it was there, where her friendship with Ross and with some other women in the field began.
“The twitches,” as they called themselves, speaks to the originality and the striking personality of Asbury, since she came up with this singular name. Ross still remembers Asbury saying: “We’re not witches and we’re not bitches. We’re twitches.”
After retiring from The New York Times in 1981, Asbury continued writing or offering advice to the newspaper’s reporters. According to Ross, during Asbury’s last years of life, her health deteriorated until she stayed in her apartment: “[she] sat in her recliner, watching her battery operated portable radio, because the only thing working was her ears, and she could listen to NPR.”
The “queen mother of the pointed question,” as Dan Barry called Asbury, stopped listening to her radio on October 30, 2008. Edith Evans Asbury passed away at age 98, but her articles, her stories and the pages she wrote became a valuable legacy for New York journalism history.
Her essence as a person, her unique and tenacious personality, her work as an exceptional journalist, her commitment to the truth, and her courage to challenge a world and an era in which women did not have equal opportunities, live on in spite of her death, keeping Asbury’s presence and memory more alive than ever.