"Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt"

“Is it Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt?” Journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, blindfolded and grinning, was making a guess in the direction of the mystery guest on the October 18, 1953 episode of What’s Your Line, a long-running game show on CBS.


It was a softball for Kilgallen, my favorite panelist. Watching her go is one of the show's great pleasures, and she appeared giddier than usual when she narrowed in on the answer. 

But something seemed off. I toggled back to the beginning of the segment and there it was, a tight shot of a hand scrawling a name on the chalkboard before panning out to reveal the guest. When Roosevelt wrote her name in neat cursive, she didn’t write “Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” Kilgallen’s winning answer. She wrote “Eleanor Roosevelt.” 

The former First Lady didn’t correct Kilgallen, but Amelia Earhart may have. “I am constantly referred to as ‘Mrs. Putnam’ when the Times mentioned me in its columns,” she complained to the newspaper’s publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger. The editors were technically right. “A married woman or a widow, if addressed as ‘Mrs.,’ is referred to by her husband’s Christian name, not by hers,” advised The Art of Editing as late as the 1971 edition. “It is ‘Mrs. John Smith.’ If he dies, it is still ‘Mrs. John Smith.’ If they are divorced, it is ‘Mrs. Helen Smith.’” It took a bit more prodding before “Amelia Earhart” appeared in the Times—as a personal favor. 

Other women were subject to the Times style guide.

In 1985, Louis Auchincloss wrote a letter to the editor about Geraldine Ferroro, the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee the previous year. In the letter, Auchincloss identified her as “Geraldine Ferraro”' and “Mrs. Ferraro,” yet the Times ran it under a name he never used to identify the first woman to run on a major party ticket: “Mrs. Zaccaro.”


A year after Auchincloss’ letter ran, the Times changed its policy. In my search for the precipitating event, I learned that  Betsy Wade, a Times copy editor, had been campaigning for it since 1953, three years before Roosevelt went on What’s My Line. In 2020, journalists Amisha Padnani and Veronica Chambers, along with Times reporters and editors, took a closer look at the tradition. 

I recommend the entire series, but my favorite article is by the great Jennifer Schuessler on the shifting descriptions of Ray Eames, the wife and design partner of Charles Eames. 

[The designer’s collaboration] was a point frequently underlined by Charles, who spoke about the design process in terms of “we,” “us” and “ours”—not that the world seemed to really hear it. Until the 1970s, the titles of museum exhibitions about their work tended to omit her name. In a 1973 profile in The New York Times titled “Casual Giant of Design,” Charles Eames describes their relationship as “an equal and total alliance.” But the article is described in the paper’s index as being about Charles and his “wife and assistant.”

On a related note: 

If you’re new to Jennifer Schuessler, who covers culture at the Times, make sure you follow her work. She’s always breaking the latest history news, scandals and more. 


See you next week! Until then, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram, and SMK titles on Bookshop and Amazon