Elsa Maxwell vs. Mary Margaret McBride

The Mike Wallace Interview I watched a couple more programs from The Mike Wallace Interview program (several of the shows are archived online by the University of Texas here). I watched the interview with Elsa Maxwell (recorded November 1957) and the interview with Mary Margaret McBride (June 1957).

I was familiar with Maxwell, having seen any number of clips of her on the Jack Paar show and on panel shows from the ’50s. She was, basically, kind of famous for being famous. Her claim to fame was throwing parties for the sophisticated set (she also wrote a column about the sophisticated set for the sophisticated set). I always thought she was supposed to be something of a wit, but having watched the Mike Wallace interview, she strikes me as kind of an intolerant, name-dropping gasbag. I see little charm there at all. It was amusing that she had recently said that her idea of a “nightmare party” guestlist would include Elvis Presley (“an utterly unattractive man with no talent”), Jayne Mansfield, and Nikita Khrushchev. You might not be a fan of these people, Elsa, but, let’s face it, that would have been a GREAT party! She comes off as a mean-spirited snob who seems to have wafted through life from feud to feud. She insists in the interview that she is loved by well over 20 million people. I’m wondering if she was loved by TWENTY people.

Mary Margaret McBride, on the other hand, was actually loved by millions upon millions of people. Beloved, even. Basically, I’d only ever heard of MMM in off-hand references to her in a couple of episodes of I Love Lucy, and I guess I assumed that she was a sort of early TV host of a program geared to women — a Martha Stewart type. What I learned from the Mike Wallace interview (which is much, MUCH more bearable than the Elsa Maxwell interview) is that MMM was an early female radio pioneer. She was one of the most popular personalities on radio, and she had a very strong, emotional bond with her mostly-female listening audience in the ’30s and ’40s. She’s often described as being the Oprah of her day. She interviewed movers and shakers and spoke in a folksy manner that is extremely comforting. I love this woman! In fact, I just ordered a biography of her that came out in 2005.

Although both Maxwell and McBride hail from humble mid-western backgrounds (Maxwell from Iowa and McBride from Missouri), they couldn’t have turned out more differently. You get the feeling that Maxwell wouldn’t be caught DEAD back in Keokuk but that McBride would be the first to turn up with a fresh-baked apple pie for a community picnic back in Paris, Missouri.

Interestingly, the two had something else in common. At first it struck me as annoying when Wallace asked both extremely successful women if they ever regretted not marrying — he tried his best to get them both to admit to loneliness and a lack of fulfillment. (I don’t think he would have pursued this line of questioning with a man.) But, in listening to the way the women answered the “spinsterhood” question, one is able to read between the lines — they were both lesbians.* Even though she had lived with her companion for over fifty years, Maxwell is on record with her hypocritical views on homosexuality (which I saw quoted here in an interesting blog that came up on a Google search). McBride, whose companion of over twenty years had died just a couple of months before the Mike Wallace interview, seems heartbroken and lost, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have heard her talk about their life together in a down-home way that wouldn’t have sounded all that shocking (much like her admission to Wallace that she had once considered marrying a man in Italy only to leave him as soon as she got pregnant).

One woman immersed herself in vacuousness and was hateful and boastful and wouldn’t consider inviting people to her parties who weren’t beautiful. The other was down-to-earth and curious, and she connected with her audience on a human level. Maxwell described homosexuality as a “disease” and a “perversion,” and she suggested people ostracize gay men and women and maybe they’d just go away (while she herself was spending her days and nights rubbing her own less-than-beautiful shoulders with “depraved” celebrities like Noel Coward and Cole Porter). Maxwell was all about exclusion. McBride talked to her audience and to her interviewees as if they were friends — she had a wide variety of people on her show, including black guests, which, at the time, was a very unusual occurence. McBride was all about INclusion. Guess which of the two women had a sparsely-attended funeral? Guess which one is considered one of the most effective spokespersons of the modern advertising era?

La Maxwell and Mary Margaret

Two of the most famous women of their day — and hardly anyone has heard of them today.

(Interestingly, MMM, queen of the pitchwomen, would never hawk anything she didn’t believe in — including cigarettes. Wallace’s show was sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, and he’s shilling for them throughout the show as if there’s no tomorrow. During the Maxwell interview he does a couple of live commercials, intoning: “It’s a man’s kind of mildness: no filter … no foolin’.” During the MMM interview — in which his tone is uncharacteristically friendly and concerned — his cigarette proselytizing is kept at a minimum. MMM probably appreciated it.)

* Edit 6/29/08: Having just read It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride, a biography of MMM by Susan Ware (and written about it here), I’m not so sure about MMM being gay. She had an intense relationship with Stella Karn her closest friend, her business partner and her radio producer, but it’s unclear whether they had a lesbian relationship. One comes away from the book feeling that maybe MMM was asexual. MMM’s life was, in many ways, an open book that she shared freely with her listeners, but this part of her life still seems to be something of a mystery.

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4 responses to “Elsa Maxwell vs. Mary Margaret McBride

  1. My dear,

    I do not usually leave messages. But I felt I should because I found your comments on Elsa and Mary Margaret interesting, insightful, helpful. I, too, have been consulting Mike Wallace’s interviews online, and find him pretty obnoxious. But then the Cold War tough guy pose was in vogue.

    Re Mary Margaret’s involvement with Stella Karn, if you can find a copy there’s a book called “Heterodoxy,” which is about a Greenwich Village women’s organization by that name that dated from the suffrage movement into the 1940s. The author of this book (Judith Schwartz) says that Mary Margaret and Stella were indeed partners. I have spoken to the author, and she insists it’s true. I did not know about Elsa. Do you know who her partner was?

    It’s nice to be in touch. Lisa

  2. Thanks for your comments, Lisa. I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by MMM. She seems like such a sweet and unassuming person for someone who was one of the most popular media figures of her day. A week after I wrote this, I read the Susan Ware biography of MMM and wrote about it:


    The author seems as puzzled by the MMM-Karn relationship as most people do. Both of them were such interesting women!


  3. When I was a kid I lived next door to Mary Margaret.. She used to play tapes of her interrviews for me. I also remember Stella Karn, who lived in her own house on MMM’s property and had Edith Head as a house guest frequently.
    I remember one time when Mary Margaret franically called me to come over to kill a fly that had gotten in to her house. She had screen doors seperating the rooms in her house which was a converted barn. My father was a good friend of hers. I remember him saying ” She’s quite a broad”.

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