It’s 1972, around 2 or 3 am, and I am alone in the Rome office of Reuters International News Agency. Being the most junior, I am often responsible for doing these night shifts. When I think nothing else is going to happen, I can go home as long as I leave a number (landline in those days) with head office in Fleet Street where I can be reached in an emergency. I send London the usual telex message saying ‘Rome office downclosing’ with my number and then suddenly remember, the Italian telephone company had, capriciously, just changed it. So I quickly send a chaser. Normally the unknown telex operator in London responds with a crisp one liner: ‘Message received. Good night.’
But that night he sprang into action with a personal response.
“Would Miss Rubinstein please make up her mind where she is spending the night?”
Both his action and my response – I thought it was hilarious – tell you how it was to be a female journalist, especially an agency journalist, in the 1970’s. Of course I was treated differently and, mostly, I relished that. I remember often saying that I couldn’t believe I was being paid for doing something that was so much fun!
I had been hired just six months previously, aged 20, the first female on a prestigious graduate trainee scheme that took six students per year and I was often reminded that the chances for other women at Reuters depended on how well I performed. In my interview I was asked how I would deal with the threat of rape from a marauding army should I be sent to cover a war? I’m still not sure what the perfect reply should have been.
I spoke French, German and some Russian so I was sent – of course – to Italy since, although I spoke no Italian, Head Office decided that Moscow, Paris and Bonn were all too dangerous for a woman. But in Rome I stood a better chance of corrupting Italian officials, the reasoning went, so I was sent on an expensive Berlitz ‘Instant Italian’ course and then shipped off. In fact, the opportunities for corruption were few and far between. Once I persuaded the Maitre D of an expensive restaurant to allow me in and sit on a banquette next to Elizabeth Taylor in order to ask her if her marriage to Richard Burton was really over, while he kept a line of male paparazzi outside. Taylor was charming but declined to answer. On another occasion I was sent to the police station dealing with the kidnap of young John Paul Getty which was shut, but my bureau chief was convinced they would open for me. Sadly, the very junior police officer I managed to question knew nothing about the imminent ear amputation and failed to give me a scoop on the unfolding grisly tale.
I returned to Fleet Street after 6 months training ‘in the field’ and endured a period of good natured if relentless scrutiny of my clothes and make up whenever I walked into the 5th floor newsroom of 85, Fleet Street. Truthfully, I basked in the attention. Lunch was in the canteen as Fleet Street was an urban desert in those days. I can’t complain that I was expected to cover fashion or flower shows but it was an undeniably male environment where Raymond Chandler type trench-coated reporters, just passing through London awaiting their next posting, would endlessly re-tell war stories, a cigarette in one hand, gin and tonic in the other. The pub after work, where some of my male colleagues could down a dozen or so pints, was the centre of life. I realised this was never going to be a place where I could thrive if I had to make a single glass of white wine last for an hour.
And in 1977 I became pregnant, which required a visit to ‘Personnel’. Suddenly, I became Mrs Sebba. After all I surely couldn’t possibly continue as Miss Rubinstein, a foreign correspondent at Reuters, if I was expecting a baby. In fact I couldn’t continue there at all, but that’s another story.
Anne Sebba is researching a book about Paris from 1939-49 through women’s eyes