by MADISAN HINKHOUSE
Florabel Muir was a pioneer for women in journalism, from being the first female reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune after getting her start at a lesser known Salt Lake paper called the Salt Lake Herald, to being the first woman to witness and report on an execution. In this analysis of the life and career of Muir, I will explore these implications and other aspects of her career in the world of journalism.
Muir, born in 1900, grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming. She credited her upbringing for her ability to handle the “rough and tumble” side of journalism, meaning blood, fights and murder. Muir described Rock Springs as a mining town where rugged people had a better chance of survival, and most arguments were settled with fists. She was the youngest of eleven children. She wrote in her autobiography, Headline Happy, “Being a nonconformist from an early age, I developed a great strength of will to keep myself from being swamped by dos and don’ts from the rest of the family.” (Muir, 3)
The non-conformity began when Muir attended college at the University of Washington, where, following in the footsteps of her sisters, she studied to be a teacher. She went to work for the student newspaper to make extra money. This is where she was “bitten by the bug.” Muir writes about the time she spent as a teacher in rural Wyoming, but teaching was not what she wanted to do. (Muir, 3-4)
She made her way to Salt Lake City in search of a reporting job. Muir posed as an experienced reporter in an attempt to land a job. The language she learned while at the student publication helped her sound more experienced than she was. Even with this language and prior experience Muir worked odd jobs for nearly three months before getting a reporting job with the Salt Lake Herald. (Muir, 2-5)
Her career in professional news began in 1926 as a police reporter, according to an obituary published in Boxoffice in 1970. In her autobiography, Muir reflected on the hardships she faced being a woman in an industry dominated by males. She recalled when she got her start with the Herald: “Women were not looked upon as proper instruments with which to get out the gutsier parts of the newspaper.” (Muir, 3) In this time, the 1920s and 1930s, editors allowed women to cover societal events and club pages. According to Muir, those beats bored the “bejesus” out of her. This boredom inspired her determination to cover murders, robberies and malfeasance with the boys. (Muir, 3; Boxoffice)
Although The Salt Lake Tribune was her first choice, it had never had a female reporter and the editor, Forest Lowry, had no intention of hiring one. Eventually Francis Matson, editor of the Salt Lake Herald, gave Muir a job covering the City and County Building. (Muir, 3-5)
In regard to landing the job, Muir wrote: “Matson was motivated primarily by a sly urge to dish out a cowering insult to a veteran Tribune reporter, Tom Higgs, with whom he had been feuding, by sending a girl to cover the beat against him.” (Muir, 4) This is only the beginning of the obstacles Muir faced in the journalism world solely based on her gender.
Muir worked hard to make a name for herself in Salt Lake City covering murders and scandals. She wrote in her autobiography about a time when she ruined the only good shoes she had by tramping through blood and gore to get information on a murder for a story. She wrote about sneaking around policemen to prevent being arrested for breaking and entering. “I do not intend to convey the impression here that walking around in blood is standard practice among newspaper reporters, but it does seem in retrospect that I have had more than my share of it,” Muir wrote in her memoir. (6)
She eventually landed a job with The Salt Lake Tribune as the newspaper’s first female general assignment reporter. While at the Tribune, Muir made it clear to her editor that she was not going to cover society or club news, which was the standard for women journalists. A history of the newspaper describes Muir’s career following her time with the Tribune as “violence studded.” She covered gang wars, murder and sensational trials. (Malmquist, 419-420)
Muir’s breakthrough for women reporters came when she was the first woman to cover the legal death of a man whose story she originally covered when he murdered his lover. During her time in Salt Lake City, Utah law stated only men could witness executions, leaving women out of a possible story during an already turbulent time for women in news, as discussed above. In order to cover the execution, Muir went to Utah’s attorney general and was ruled a reporter, not a woman, according to a 1944 article in Time. (Muir, 28-29)
Muir was successful in her push to cover the execution, but was provided a male back-up reporter, just in case she became ill while witnessing a man die. As it turned out, her backup is the one who fell ill watching a man die in front of a firing squad. (Malmquist, 419-420)
She writes a detailed and insightful chapter in Headline Happy about covering the execution. She remembered her editor telling her she had handled the story better than expected, considering she was not the reporter who became sick. She observed, “I graduated into the big time that day. I could handle a story like a man. That was very important to me.” (Muir, 32)
Through her career, Muir moved on to work for the New York Daily News, where she wrote a daily column, according to a 1932 story in Variety magazine. Muir wrote columns that were syndicated to Chicago and Los Angeles, giving her a wide readership and well-known name among journalists. (“Florabel Muir succeeds”) She spent time in her career covering Hollywood-esque beats while also heading out on multiple special assignments according to another article in Variety. (“Charterer as a Scenarist”)
In her autobiography, Muir relates a colorful story of a time when she was shot in the “derriere” while following an infamous New York gambler for a story. It happened in July 1949 when she followed Mickey Cohen to various night spots around Hollywood. She wrote that she was waiting for someone to kill him in hopes that she would be there when it happened. She succeeded, but not without scars. When the shooting began, a bullet hit an object and then Muir, but she got the “newsbreak” that several other reporters missed because they gave up and left before the shooting started. (Muir, 1-2)
Muir found herself in trouble later in her career, once for buying and reselling liquor licenses and once for spitting in the face of another reporter, according to Variety. The story, published October 14, 1953, detailed how the former got her fired from a beat at the L.A. Mirror, and that she didn’t resign, as other news outlets reported.
At the end of her career, Muir was widely respected by fellow writers and journalists. One Variety reporter observed in 1938, “Many of Miss Muir’s kidding phrases were fine bits of reporting and evidenced a showmanship slant of the principals.” From my research, I conclude that Muir enjoyed the peak of her career between 1926 and 1938.
A 1950 review of her autobiography published in Variety praised Muir and cited her “delicious sense of humor and double barreled talent for superb writing craftsmanship.” The book accounted the adventures of her exciting career in journalism.
Muir died of a heart attack at the age of 80. In the New York Times obituary she was quoted as saying, “I was having a talk with my croaker the other day. He says ‘Florabel, your ticker ain’t worth a pot in hell—you take it easy, so I guess I will.’”
While researching and reading her autobiography, I grew to admire Muir’s love of journalism of being a reporter. She claimed to be suffering from an occupational disease called “Headline Happy,” which she described as a “wonderful, stimulating form of looniness in the like of which is found only in the newspaper game.” She wrote that colleagues found her expeditions to get stories crazy. She claimed they were right: she was crazy about journalism. (Muir, 1)
Madisan Hinkhouse is an alumna of The University of Utah with a fiery passion for journalism and the First Amendment. She enjoys fly fishing, skiing and spending more time outdoors than indoors.
“Florabel Muir resigns,” Variety, February 16, 1932, 3.
“Charterer as a Scenarist,” Variety, June 21, 1932, 53.
“Florabel Muir, Take a Bow,” Variety, December 28, 1938, 45.
“The Press: Florabel,” Time, November 13, 1944, 70.
Florabel Muir, Headline Happy (New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1950).
“‘Headline Happy’ Is Just That,” Variety, October 25, 1950, 61.
“Miscellany: Florabel Bounced By L.A. Mirror,” Variety, October 14, 1953, 2.
“Florabel Muir succeeds Hedda,” Variety, February 9, 1966, 4.
“Florabel Muir, 80, of The Daily News,” The New York Times, April 28, 1970, 41.
“Florabel Muir, 80, Dies following heart attack,” Boxoffice, May 4, 1970, 4.
Malmquist, O. N. The First 100 Years: A History of The Salt Lake Tribune, 1871-1971. Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society, 1971.