In an era when most women’s mag­a­zines were show­ing read­ers how to knit an egg cosy for Easter, Fleet Street ed­i­tor PHYL­LIS DIGBY MOR­TON was cov­er­ing taboo sub­jects such as sex and in­fi­delity. Anne Sebba pro­files the pi­o­neer who made her mark in the man’s

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Phyl­lis Digby Morotn blazed a atril tho­rugh male-dom­i­nated Fleet Se­tret in the 1930s

Phyl­lis Digby Mor­ton was a pi­o­neer – a ground-break­ing fe­male jour­nal­ist in an era when Fleet Street was dom­i­nated by men. Ap­pointed as ed­i­tor of a new women’s mag­a­zine in 1930 when she was only 29, she launched an in­no­va­tive ad­vice col­umn deal­ing with hith­erto taboo top­ics. She be­came one of the best-known fash­ion and beauty writ­ers of the day, and her mar­riage to the so­ci­ety cou­turier Henry Digby Mor­ton (known as Digby) con­firmed her celebrity sta­tus. Yet to­day her name is largely for­got­ten.

Phyl­lis was born in the first year of the 20th cen­tury, the youngest of six chil­dren, to a mid­dle- class lit­er­ary fam­ily in Brix­ton, South Lon­don. Her fa­ther, James Har­wood Pant­ing, was a suc­cess­ful writer of ad­ven­ture sto­ries and a chil­dren’s mag­a­zine ed­i­tor (it was Pant­ing who first pub­lished Trea­sure Is­land, as a se­rial) and her god­fa­ther was H G Wells.

A free spirit from the start, in March 1917 Phyl­lis ran away to get mar­ried at Kens­ing­ton Reg­is­ter Of­fice at the age of 16 (she fal­si­fied her birth date on the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate, claim­ing she was 21). Her first hus­band, whom she seems sub­se­quently to have wiped from her his­tory, was an en­gi­neer called Noel Ernest Her­berte. The cou­ple’s only child, a daugh­ter they named Valery, was born al­most three years later, when Phyl­lis was 19. But the mar­riage failed and Phyl­lis was soon a di­vorced sin­gle mother who needed to earn enough money to look af­ter her daugh­ter.

Phyl­lis found work on a de­tec­tive mag­a­zine, where she was paid £6 a week to write about fa­mous crimes (she later said it was through this that she met in­ter­est­ing peo­ple from all walks of life, many of whom had spent time in jail) and then (fol­low­ing a brief, ac­ci­den­tal ca­reer as a ra­dio ac­tress for the BBC) worked for a va­ri­ety of Fleet Street pub­li­ca­tions un­til, in 1930, she was ap­pointed ed­i­tor of Woman and Beauty, a new monthly mag­a­zine started by Amal­ga­mated Press. ‘I was fear­fully crit­i­cised for putting Beauty into the name, for in those days any English­woman who went to a beauty sa­lon for her weekly fa­cial did it quite furtively,’ she wrote. Yet dur­ing the first five months of 1935 she re­ceived 38,260 let­ters, an av­er­age of 7,652 a month, mostly seek­ing ad­vice and guid­ance on beauty, dress, com­fort and ef­fi­ciency in the home. Even the young

Princess Eliz­a­beth recog­nised her in­flu­ence, meet­ing Phyl­lis on the Woman and Beauty stand at the 1948 Ideal Home Ex­hi­bi­tion and com­ment­ing: ‘I think this mag­a­zine is a great help to women.’

Phyl­lis sent a per­sonal re­ply to each let­ter. She wrote a col­umn un­der the pen name Ann Sey­mour, and was also re­spon­si­ble for com­mis­sion­ing short sto­ries and pages of ad­vice, some from doc­tors, about is­sues of the day that were not be­ing openly dis­cussed else­where: war­time love af­fairs, grief, anger and lone­li­ness.

In 1942 she de­voted sev­eral edi­tions of the mag­a­zine to dis­cus­sions of in­fi­delity and adul­tery. In one ar­ti­cle, en­ti­tled ‘Can a Man Love Two Women at Once?’, the (male) writer com­forted women by telling them that a man does not ac­tu­ally love two women at the same time. He might fall in love with an­other woman but ‘he’s got to fall out of love with you first’. In other words, if you for­give him a dal­liance, every­thing will be all right in the end.

Other war­time pieces ad­dressed anx­i­ety as to whether women could have a baby af­ter 40 and gave ad­vice to ‘young, healthy, vi­tal, hap­pily mar­ried wives’ on how to sub­li­mate their sex drive while sep­a­rated from their hus­bands. The fe­male au­thor of this piece con­cluded, ‘The fact is that the sex im­pulse is largely bound up with artis­tic cre­ation,’ and ad­vised women to keep busy with some sort of artis­tic ac­tiv­ity to take their minds off sex.

Phyl­lis was one of two women ed­i­tors (the other was Au­drey With­ers of Vogue) in­vited dur­ing the war to join a spe­cial com­mit­tee at the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion, set up to in­ves­ti­gate the so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems fac­ing women’s forces. She was also on the ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee es­tab­lished by Min­is­ter of Labour Ernest Bevin to dis­cuss the need to re­cruit women into the work­force.

By this time Phyl­lis had mar­ried again, her sec­ond hus­band be­ing the Ir­ish-born cou­turier Digby Mor­ton, five years her ju­nior and founder of the Lachasse fash­ion house (H G Wells gave her away at their wed­ding in 1936). They lived in a pent­house in May­fair and be­came one of Lon­don’s most pho­tographed cou­ples, with mag­a­zine fea­tures cel­e­brat­ing their glam­orous style. They made a good team: he loved cook­ing and in­te­rior de­sign; she was the one with the busi­ness brain, who or­gan­ised their busy so­cial lives, bol­stered his ca­reer by en­sur­ing he re­ceived pub­lic­ity and drove the car.

In 1940 Phyl­lis and Digby were on a trade mis­sion to the United States, sail­ing on the SS City of Benares, when the ship was tor­pe­doed by a U-boat 600 miles from land. The Benares was car­ry­ing 90 evac­uee chil­dren, in some cases en­tire fam­i­lies, on their way to safety in North Amer­ica, most of whom were lost. Phyl­lis later de­scribed how she spent 20 hours in a lifeboat wait­ing to be picked up. ‘Dur­ing those in­ter­minable hours I learned that those who seem too del­i­cate and highly strung to stand any fierce or­deal are the ones who face up mag­nif­i­cently to dan­ger and en­dure silently.’

Only 13 of the 26 who started out in the lifeboat sur­vived. Phyl­lis spent the night try­ing to com­fort 14-year- old Pat, ‘who had swum to [my] boat when her own over­turned and who didn’t know what had be­come of her mother and sis­ter…[and try­ing] to keep Fred, the ship’s car­pen­ter, awake be­cause he’d had no sleep for two nights and the cold of the sea is like snow, once you fall asleep it is fa­tal. Per­haps when the war is over I may be able to tell the full story of the sink­ing of the City of Benares,’ she wrote in her Woman and Beauty col­umn in 1942.

In Fe­bru­ary 1944, as the war still raged, Lord Rother­mere, owner of the Daily Mail, per­son­ally of­fered Phyl­lis the hugely pres­ti­gious job of as­sis­tant ed­i­tor at the news­pa­per. It was

In 1935, Phyl­lis re­ceived 7,652 let­ters a month. She sent a re­ply to each one

the first time a woman had been of­fered the post and it was a role she would have rel­ished. But, ac­cord­ing to Phyl­lis, the ap­point­ment was ve­toed by the then ed­i­tor Bob Prew, who told her that he would take free­lance pieces from her but did not want her in the of­fice as his sec­ond-in-com­mand. She wrote in her di­ary that night: ‘Proof con­clu­sive – Fleet Street is a man’s world. How long, oh Lord!’

Phyl­lis con­tin­ued at the helm of Woman and Beauty un­til 1950, and the mag­a­zine folded shortly af­ter she left. She then be­came beauty ed­i­tor of Woman’s Own and set up the in­no­va­tive Beauty Club of Great Bri­tain, a non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, pro­vid­ing talks, dis­counts for sub­scribers and a news­let­ter. She in­sisted that ‘some of the hap­pi­est mo­ments of my life have been when, in the course of my job, I’ve helped a woman to make the very best of her­self… turn­ing ugly duck­lings into swans’.

Through the Beauty Club she hoped to em­power women by dis­cussing sub­jects that were of­ten con­sid­ered taboo else­where, such as sex, acne or plas­tic surgery. In 1957 she wrote: ‘Fa­cial ug­li­ness, even if su­per­fi­cial, im­poses a se­ri­ous hand­i­cap that fre­quently de­stroys hap­pi­ness and en­dan­gers chances of eco­nomic sur­vival. Yet in nearly all cases even the gravest of these de­fects can be elim­i­nated or greatly re­duced by skil­ful plas­tic surgery.’

A com­mon thread in the hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles she wrote through­out her life was the idea that cul­ti­va­tion of per­sonal at­trac­tive­ness was a worth­while goal for all women, how­ever clever they were. As she fre­quently re­minded read­ers, a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man had once said to her: ‘There is no place in my of­fice for the girl who isn’t in­tel­li­gent enough to know how much ap­pear­ance counts.’ She also be­lieved that mak­ing the best of your­self was not only a per­sonal morale booster but was im­por­tant to please ‘him’. ‘Give your­self the looks he likes,’ she wrote, or ‘Six sim­ple steps to the look he’ll love’ – deeply un­fash­ion­able views to­day.

Phyl­lis’s re­mark­able com­bi­na­tion of tal­ent, style and en­ergy won her many ad­mir­ers although, un­like her hus­band, she does not have a men­tion in the Ox­ford Dic­tionary of Na­tional Bi­og­ra­phy. ‘[Phyl­lis] is pretty as a pic­ture and pow­er­ful as a rocket launcher, and any­thing she touches be­gins to hum and buzz and send out sparks within half an hour,’ wrote fel­low jour­nal­ist Amanda Mar­shall in the 1950s.

Felic­ity Green, her­self a grande dame of Fleet Street and now in her 90s, started her own ca­reer work­ing for Phyl­lis as a teenager, hav­ing left school early and writ­ten a let­ter beg­ging her to take her on. ‘ Woman and Beauty was a rule-break­ing, pocket-sized pre-1960s mag­a­zine that was way ahead of the game,’ she has said. ‘When other mag­a­zines were teach­ing read­ers how to knit an egg cosy for Easter, Woman and Beauty wrote about vir­gin­ity, frigid­ity, in­fi­delity and style. Woman and Beauty changed my life, as did Phyl­lis.’

Phyl­lis was also the au­thor of two books, in­clud­ing one of ad­vice for teenagers, pub­lished in 1947 and said to be the first in the UK aimed at girls of 17 to 19. But although the pub­lish­ers claimed on the jacket that ‘no one in Eng­land to­day could be bet­ter qual­i­fied to in­flu­ence the teenage girl in her tastes and ap­proach to life’, there was no men­tion of the au­thor’s ob­vi­ous qual­i­fi­ca­tions: that she her­self had been a teenage bride and a teenage mother. Ac­cord­ing to her grand­daugh­ter Suki, an artist, Phyl­lis’s daugh­ter Valery had been sent abroad to a con­vent in Bel­gium to be ed­u­cated, re­turn­ing only in the hol­i­days. Phyl­lis never talked about Valery in the of­fice but kept a photo of her in a drawer. The fact of her moth­er­hood was sim­ply not a sub­ject for dis­cus­sion. Yet as adults mother and daugh­ter – close enough in age to be sis­ters – be­came very close. Later, when Phyl­lis be­came a grand­mother, ‘she was more like

Woman and

Beauty was a rule-breaker. It was way ahead of the game

a kind and gen­er­ous fairy god­mother’, says Suki. ‘I al­ways called her Phyl­lis.’

It’s hard to see Phyl­lis as a woman who lacked courage, yet she came to be­lieve that she should have fought to take up that job at the Daily Mail. ‘Many’s the time I’ve re­gret­ted my lack of con­fi­dence, be­cause now I shall never know what might have been,’ she said in an in­ter­view many years later. And she never did write in any more de­tail about her 1940 or­deal in the Benares lifeboat. She had walked off the boat look­ing amaz­ingly el­e­gant, but the trauma of see­ing so many die was a real-life drama she did not want to re­live.

In the 1960s Phyl­lis and Digby Mor­ton moved to the Cay­man Is­lands. Phyl­lis was writ­ing al­most un­til the end, her fer­tile imag­i­na­tion un­stop­pable, and there is a sheet in her ar­chives from her fi­nal years headed ‘Ideas for Sto­ries’. But she missed the buzz of life in a city and of hav­ing a con­stant sup­ply of books to read. Her daugh­ter Valery died sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly in 1978, Digby in 1983 and Phyl­lis, heart­bro­ken, a few months later in 1984. Her grand­daugh­ter Suki brought her ashes back to Eng­land to be buried and has lov­ingly pre­served her cut­tings, pho­tos and let­ters. They re­flect a woman way ahead of her time, one who should be cel­e­brated for her courage, vi­sion, pi­o­neer­ing spirit and her deep de­sire to help other women achieve their full po­ten­tial.

Anne Sebba is the au­thor of Les Parisi­ennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s, pub­lished by Orion, price £9.99. To or­der a copy for £7.99 un­til 8 Oc­to­ber, go to you-book­ or call 0844 571 0640*

Clock­wise from top: Phyl­lis meets Sal­vador Dalí, and with Princess Eliz­a­beth at the Ideal Home Ex­hi­bi­tion in 1948; Phyl­lis and Digby af­ter be­ing res­cued when their ship was tor­pe­doed in 1940

Phyl­lis, top left, giv­ing a talk at the Beauty Club of Great Bri­tain in 1952 and, above, on the cover of its Oc­to­ber bul­letin in the same year; with her Woman and Beauty art ed­i­tor Gor­don Stape­ley, top right

Above: the ground-break­ing mag­a­zine Phyl­lis edited from its launch in 1930 and, op­po­site, a Woman’s Own por­trait of her from 1956

Clock­wise from above: Phyl­lis on her wed­ding day in 1936 with H G Wells, far left, who gave the bride away; mod­el­ling one of her cou­turier hus­band’s cre­ations; with Digby in the roof gar­den of their May­fair pent­house flat, 1954

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