The world speaks on her page
"Newspapers and newspapering have always been my first loves. I am somebody who is endlessly curious, which I guess is a prime requisite in this business. I really want to know what is going on and who is doing what, and where and when and how it all comes out. And I like to learn it all, instantly."
That is Charlotte Curtis, one of the most influential women in journalism, speaking. She is associate editor of the New York Times and, more important, editor for the past six years of its trend-setting and much imitated op-ed (opposite editorial) page of opinion and commentary.
Sitting behind a huge desk in her paneled office on the 10th floor of the Times building, she looks fashionably well groomed and very small and fragile. This appearance belies her drive and her intense single-mindedness when it comes to wrestling with important events and working in the turbulent crosscurrents of today's ideas.
To put her page together she must deal each year with 20,000 to 25,000 unsolicited manuscripts. And she invites contributions on such topics as inflation, energy, foreign policy, and productivity. She also places copy from several regular Times columnists, such as Russell Baker and William Safire.
"My range is 360 degrees," she says. "I like the page to be open and eclectic, and there is nothing I wouldn't publish as long as it was in good taste and had something important to say." Diplomat George Kennan, movie star Mae West, and French President Charles de Gaulle have been among her contributors. Pieces have come in from poets, housewives, scientists, welfare mothers, firemen, and professors. She has accepted a contribution from a member of the Ku Klux Klan and from the head of the Communist Party in Italy.
Almost anyone, anywhere, is free to speak his mind on the op-ed page, and Miss Curtis delights in their differences.
"We have also run memoirs, discussions about Peter Rabbit, excerpts from forthcoming books, small vignettes representing both fact and fiction, and short stories with rare wit," she says. "At any given time we are likely to have pieces from Asians, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Europeans on the page, because our thinking is global, and I go out of my way to get them."
Her page gets bags of fan mail from readers. "A whole string of books have been generated by articles that appeared on the op-ed page," the editor says."Two books have been published of collections of op-ed articles and art. And the art itself has been celebrated with exhibitions in the Louvre in Paris and shows in New York and Paris."
She says that she finds the balance and breadth of her page by readings widely in a vast number of publications and by traveling as often as she can. She hopes to get to China this fall after the political conventions and plans return visits to the Arab world and Africa. And yes, she keeps her hand in writing by doing occasional book reviews or feature or news stories.
She is also working on her third book, but it goes slowly. Her best-known book is "The Rich and Other Atrocities," published in 1976 and written from her experiences as a reporter and social critic of manners and mores.
Her social life is generally with friends who are as fascinated with the news as she is. "Essentially our conversations have to do with what is going on in the world. We thresh it out, theorize, and extrapolate."
She works prodigiously hard and agrees with a colleague that the nicest thing about working for the New York Times is that it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and one can come in and work day or night, which she does.
She can follow her work schedule because of her commuter marriage to William E. Hunt, a neurosurgeon in Columbus, Ohio. They maintain homes in both Manhattan and Ohio and commute for weekends. Her trips to Columbus are somewhat more frequent than his to NEw York, because she likes to keep in touch with what people in the Middle West are thinking.
"Our life is not as complex as it sounds," the editor says of her marriage. "Neither of us are at home very much and we have hired help. I have little interest in cooking, or domesticity generally."
She says that when she married for the second time at age 39 it was to a man who allowed her to be herself and to follow her own star. To Jane Adams, author of the book "Women on Top," she said, "My life has in it all the elements that matter to me, a job I Love and am good at, a relationship that enriches me, and choices I am satisfied with having made. What matters most to me is the chance to learn something that takes me into new ideas and new worlds, and to deal exquisitely with the complexity of those ideas." She says she has never yearned for, nor missed, children.
The world of publishing is still chiefly a man's domain, says this editor. "In many cases, women working in the news business are the invisible employees that men don't seem to see a good part of the time.Although women have come some way in journalism, there is still a long, long way to go. Getting to the top is never easy."
Miss Curtis has been firmly ensconced in the newspaper world since she was a student at Vassar and worked during summer vacations on her hometown paper, the Columbus (Ohio) Citizen. After graduation, she continued on the Citizen, writing on everything from politics to state fairs, courts, religion, crime, and art and movie criticism.
She came to the New York Times in 1961 as family/style editor, and she is credited with changing the traditional concepts of women's news reporting and writing. "Since we were in the midst of a social revolution we dared talk about things like abortion, singles adopting children, alcoholism, and mental depression," she says. "IT was considered quite revolutionary at the time, but many other newspapers fol-lowed our lead."