Women in business. Some day the phrase may seem like a quaint vestige of a bygone era. Would we ever devote an issue of a publication to men in sports? Or men in politics? But for now, and for the past several hundred years, at least, women in business, academe, science, and many other endeavors, including sports and politics, have had their own special concerns and challenges.
One measure of that: The many examples of men and women working together, accomplishing significant milestones or creating significant bodies of work, and having the man receive the credit, with the woman relegated to a footnote, or total obscurity.
Jo Nivison, for example, was an accomplished painter whose work was shown along with that of Picasso, Man Ray, and Modigliani. The New York Times compared her favorably to Georgia O’Keeffe and John Singer Sargent. After 15 years of success she married Edward Hopper, and she appeared in every one of his paintings featuring a woman between 1923 and 1967, when he died. Today people remember him, but not her.
And so it has gone with such figures as Shirley Graham Du Bois, a talented author, composer, and playwright, whose career was eclipsed by her husband, W.E.B. Du Bois; Eslanda Goode Robeson, who studied anthropology at the London School of Economics and wrote a book rejecting the idea of African primitivism, but who lived in the shadow of her husband, Princeton native and athlete-lawyer-performer Paul Robeson; and Rosalind Franklin, a Ph.D in physical chemistry from Cambridge University whose X-ray image of the DNA molecule was key to understanding the structure of DNA, but who was ignored in history. The names remembered now are James Watson and Francis Crick.
Yet this state of gender inequality should not exclude the converse: That sometimes a woman can steal the thunder from the man working alongside her — the exception that proves the rule.
One such exception was Jane Jacobs and her mentor, William H. (Holly) Whyte.
Jacobs was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and moved to New York after her high school graduation, hoping to become a writer. She freelanced for a dozen years, eventually married a young architect, and got a job with Architectural Digest, a Time Inc. publication. Her work there took her to a national conference on cities (as a last-minute stand-in when her male editor couldn’t make it) and to Philadelphia, where she interviewed Edmund Bacon, the well known Philadelphia planner (and father of actor Kevin Bacon — one degree of separation).
In 1961 Jacobs published her seminal work in urban planning, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The man who kick-started that literary effort was Whyte, a Fortune magazine editor who had recruited Jacobs to write an article for a series he was editing in 1958 on “The Exploding Metropolis.” There were challenges for a woman in a man’s field. “Who is this crazy dame,” the Fortune publisher asked Whyte. But with Whyte’s backing Jacobs received a Rockefeller Foundation grant for $10,000 (about $86,000 in today’s money) that underwrote “Death and Life.” And when the writing took longer than expected and she needed more money, Whyte gave another assurance to the Rockefellers (“I believe a great and influential book is in the making,” he said), and she got another $8,000.
Jacobs’ critically acclaimed book (except for Lewis Mumford’s derisive review titled “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies”), and her ongoing battle with New York planner and builder Robert Moses, who had proposed to develop a superhighway through her neighborhood, made her a media darling. Jacobs, often described as a housewife, won the battle against mighty Moses, and she ultimately won the hearts and minds of urban planners and advocates for cities large and small. She was subject of not one but two biographies, as well as a collection of her magazine and journal articles — all published in 2016, the 100th anniversary of her birth.
One year later a website devoted to urban planning, www.planetizen.com asked its audience to rank the “most influential urbanists.” No. 1 on the list was Jane Jacobs. No. 12 on the list, after such luminaries as Frederick Law Olmstead, Lewis Mumford, and Le Corbusier, was William H. Whyte.
In 1958, when Whyte and Jacobs first crossed paths, Whyte was the known quantity, Jacobs the unknown. Whyte, a 1939 Princeton graduate and a Marine veteran who had fought on Guadalcanal, had published his bestselling book, “The Organization Man,” in 1956, and was known as the man who had coined the term “groupthink.” While studying the men — and their women — of the Organization, Whyte had begun to observe the suburbs into which they and their families were moving. That led to a book called “The Last Landscape” in 1968. While considering the great waste of resources in the face of suburban sprawl, Whyte then turned his attention to the form of habitation that would maximize those resources. His book, “City: Rediscovering the Center,” was published in 1988.
But today, if you were a student of urban planning, the first name you would likely hear would be that of Jane Jacobs. If you were to mention William H. Whyte, the response would often be, “Oh, like Jane Jacobs.”
Dig a little deeper and you find that Whyte not only was obscured by Jacobs, but he also was disparaged by an apparently condescending description he gave of her career leading up to “Death and Life.” As Whyte described it in a book preface in 1992, Jacobs was an unknown when he solicited her article for Fortune, a person who “had never written anything longer than several paragraphs.”
In fact, Whyte and Jacobs had more in common than first appeared. His college degree (in English) notwithstanding, both Whyte and Jacobs had no credentials in architecture or urban design (though Jacobs had married an architect who helped her decipher blueprints she came across in her reporting). In addition both had gained valuable writing experience during the war. She had worked for the Office of War Information and as senior editor of a State Department magazine, Amerika. Whyte contracted malaria during combat tour at Guadalcanal, was sent home, and ended up as a Marine Corps instructor and the writer of seven pieces on intelligence and its management for the Marine Corps Gazette.
Whyte’s alleged put down of Jacobs’ early writing efforts might have been for dramatic effect, casting her as an unknown waiting to be discovered by a savvy editor. When he told his own story of getting hired at Fortune, he was self-deprecating, noting that he had “no marketable skills,” and only the pieces from the Gazette to show the editors. In fact the seven pieces constituted more than 28,000 words of insightful writing.
Both Jacobs and Whyte have had a significant impact on the way in which we view and study cities today. While Jacobs’ work inspired biographies and is quoted by countless numbers of architects and planners, Whyte’s approach to public spaces and urban design led to nonprofit advocacy groups and for-profit businesses that have shaped the built environment from coast to coast.
One dramatic monument to Whyte is Bryant Park in New York. It was a haven for drug dealers and a public eyesore before Whyte created a plan that made it the dynamic urban gathering place it is today. The story of its renaissance will be told in a forthcoming Rutgers University Press book by Andrew Manshel, an advocate of urban revitalization. “More attention ought to be paid to the finely grained thinking of William H. Whyte,” Manshel has said. “Whyte was a close observer of people’s behavior in public spaces and emphasized the importance of the many subtle design features that make people comfortable in parks, plazas, and public buildings.”
And, in assessing his legacy, Whyte’s role in Jacobs’ career should not be overlooked. The pivotal moment came in the late 1950s, when the Rockefeller Foundation had grown concerned about the failures of urban renewal, which until then was nothing more than “slum removal” and its replacement with housing projects. The Rockefellers asked Whyte, by then assistant managing editor of Fortune, for recommendations of critical thinkers in the field of urban planning, people who deserved support for research and writing. From the contributors’ list to Fortune’s “Exploding Metropolis” feature, Whyte provided two names: Jane Jacobs and Grady Clay, then the real estate editor of the Louisville Courier Journal and later the influential editor of Landscape Architecture magazine.
The piece by Jacobs, “Downtown Is For People,” had been one of the high points of the Fortune issue. Shortly after it came out, Whyte corresponded with one of the program officers at Rockefeller and with her editor at Architectural Forum, who had “loaned” Jacobs’ time to Fortune for the project. As Whyte, one year younger than Jacobs, handwrote at the top of the memo to his fellow editor, “Look at what your girl did!”
Condescending? No more so at the time than if today a feminist showed appreciation for Whyte’s editorial acumen by saying: “Attaboy, Holly.”