Seattle Writer Goes Undercover to Report on Depression Conditions:
Who Was ‘Mystery Woman’ Who Assumed False Identities?
by Margaret Robe Summitt
Cousin Lidablanche, you must have been restless as 1931 drew to a close.
Lidablanche ROBE, my third cousin, had left her parents’ home in Pueblo, Colorado, and had been in Seattle seven years. She had been living the catch-as-catch-can life of a stage actress, freelance writer and reporter. After staying with her uncle and aunt in Seattle, she took rooms in hotels on Pioneer Square. In 1926 she had styled herself a “dramatic critic” (Polk’s Seattle City Directory). The Great Depression, however, had put a damper on her pocketbook as well as many others.
Lidablanche, you craved adventure. What else inspired you, as a single woman, to sail from Seattle to Hilo, Hawaii in 1928? You wanted to be young, or to be thought of as young, so you gave your age to immigration authorities as 25, when in fact you were 37! Then you returned to Uncle Leroy and Aunt Ada BAIRD at 5515 28th Ave NE in Seattle. When the 1930 Census taker came to that address you told him your occupation was a writer of fiction. You decided you had to strike out on your own, so you took a room downtown at the Hotel Frye, at 2nd and Yesler, opposite that imposing building, the King County Courthouse, and the Smith Tower, and quite close to King Street Station. You heard the train whistles day and night and thought about doing something adventurous, as well as something that would bring in some much-needed coin.When Lidablanche gave her birthplace to the immigration authorities as “Paris, Texas,” I am inclined to believe her. That town, at 50 miles distance, was the closest trading point to the mission. Family life among the missionaries was very close. They all joined in the teaching and operations at the school. The extended family included Lidablanche’s parents, Robert Chalmers ROBE and his wife, Leila Blanche LAUGHLIN (they were second cousins); her uncle John Miles ROBE and his wife, Anna LAUGHLIN (they were second cousins too, brothers marrying sisters); and her grandparents, William Bay ROBE and his wife Sarah Marie HUNTER. The future reporter’s outlook on social issues was shaped by the missionary spirit of her grandparents and parents. Her grandfather William Bay ROBE had been sent by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions to be Superintendent of the Old Spencer Academy for the Choctaw boys, close to Doakesville, Indian Territory. He had inscribed on the bell at the Wheelock Indian School “Defend the poor and fatherless.”
After graduating from Rush Medical School in Chicago, her father, Dr. Robert Chalmers ROBE, came to Pueblo, Colorado. Lidablanche, the oldest surviving child, was listed as age 9 in the 1900 Census for Pueblo. In that year Dr. ROBE was elected 1st Vice President of the Colorado Medical Society. He wrote against abortions in the Transactions of the Colorado State Medical Society for 1902, hoping to arouse “a discussion or sentiment which will aid in checking one of the greatest evils of this or any past generation.” He wrote “A Plea for National Medical Legislation” about this time, and although I have not seen this pamphlet, I imagine that abortion was one of the evils for which he prescribed harsher legal penalties.
Her mother, Leila Anna Laughlin ROBE, moved in Pueblo society circles. In addition to her women’s clubs, she had served for many years as Pueblo chapter regent for the Daughters of the American Revolution. She founded and organized the first high school PTA in Pueblo. Her Red Cross and defense work during World War I took her on charity work to many small towns in southwest Colorado.
Restless, Lidablanche left Pueblo seeking a career as an actress and writer and came to Seattle probably because of her aunt and uncle. Uncle William Leroy BAIRD was father to Hugh BAIRD, the owner of a Ford automobile dealership. Cousin Hugh was the rock of financial stability for his extended family during the Depression years. He employed at the Ford dealership both his son, Hugh Jr., and his father William Leroy, under whose roof Lidablanche was staying in 1930.
In the waning weeks of 1931 it was arranged that Lidablanche ROBE would go undercover, disguised as a homeless, jobless young woman, and write a series of articles for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about what it was like to be in that condition. Although the paper tells us that this story was assigned to her, I think it likely that Lidablanche pitched the idea to the P-I herself, in order to make an opportunity out of her likely shaky financial situation. In any case, the paper’s features editor was pleased.
Disguised as “Mary Reeves,” Lidablanche spent ten days living among Seattle’s economically displaced until she found a job. “I assumed the character of Mary Reeves just as I have done every character that I have ever played in the theatre, so that never did I feel my own personality. Her feelings were my feelings and her life was my life. Had I eaten excellent meals, crept back to my hotel at night, and slept in a good bed, I would not have been playing the game. That would not have been Mary Reeves. I did not do anything but what she would have done.”
In her articles she chose to tug at the heart-strings in the manner of today’s tabloids, but she did not embellish in the style of “yellow journalism.” Her aim was to make a serious, if dramatic, plea for better social services. Like a hard luck story in a tabloid of today, the story was one that the features pages readers could readily identify with. Lidablanche, despite wearing steel-rimmed fake glasses and an old black cloche hat, was strikingly pretty, and presented herself as having standards of social behavior in line with those of the P-I’s middle-class female readership.
As the heroine of these touching episodes, she freely makes use of exclamation points for the sake of rendering her account a “thrilling adventure,” as the teaser of January 8, 1932 called it.
On the Monday after Christmas, 1931, Lidablanche was awakened by the hotel’s desk clerk. She described how she carefully disguised herself in shabby clothing and bade good-bye to the gay little Christmas tree in her room. She carried a battered wicker suitcase containing, among other garments, a maid’s uniform, and an old green purse with the names of employment agencies. Hurrying down the alley behind the hotel, she soon sprained her ankle. Limping to the City and County Building, she received no sympathy from the woman at the free employment window: she was told that no jobs were available, and to take a list of employment agencies.
Here, however, she met an unemployed woman who suggested that she spend the night at the Y.W.C.A. infirmary. This sympathetic Good Samaritan had a smile and words of encouragement for all the women and families in her condition. Lidablanche, nevertheless, declared to herself that she would not accept charity; rather than stay at the ‘Y,’ she left to seek work as soon as she was able to walk again. At this point she emphasizes that the refusal to accept charity was the constant refrain of the job-seekers she met. As the second day ended, the hunger gnawing at her stomach drew her down to an immense soup kitchen set up in a shed at Pier 3, at the end of Spring Street. About 2,500 people were fed there that night, Lidablanche reported. After wolfing down doughnuts and goulash, she decided to spend the night at the King Street Station.
Learning that the women’s waiting room was not available for sleeping over, she offered to be a companion to a female passenger waiting for an early morning train. She ended up sleeping on a large table, as an ungallant gentleman took the stuffed chair for himself. The third day began with her decision not to line up among the shabbiest, most miserable-looking men she had ever seen standing outside the door of the Millionair Club at 412 Main St. “I could scarcely believe that they received applications from women job seekers, so didn’t even inquire.” Instead, she went to the University, where she inquired at the social and athletic clubs whether any waitresses were needed to serve meals on New Year’s Eve. Here she received courtesy, but no offers. A visit to a commercial agency lined her up with a position at a fraternity house, but this proved to be a cruel joke. It was a prank played by one frat house on another, the boys having placed the ad merely to have girls sent out to a rival frat house.
The commercial agency did line up a job for Lidablanche to serve a New Year dinner to a family at the Union Manor Apartments. For this she earned $1.30. She described the party girls who loitered on the streets at New Year’s, looking for dates or for a chance to go to a dance or ride in a fancy motorcar. With her first real pay in her pocket, she spent the night in a 50-cent hotel room.
The next day being Saturday, all the agencies were closed. Lidablanche decided to try the Social Welfare League in the Thompson Building at 621 Fourth Ave. The officious employees there required a background check and, having no immediate positions available, told her to return to the ‘Y.’ At that point Lidablanche was desperate enough to ask for charity. Even so, by her definition charity meant offering to work for food.
Stating her case simply to Clifton HALLBERG, the young manager of Hallberg’s Café on Pine St., she received both sympathy and a hot meal. She spent Sunday night sleeping in a theater with other women under the supervision of a matron, feeling safer there than unescorted on the streets by daylight.
On Monday, learning of a maid’s job for which she would have to compete with other applicants, Lidablanche desperately tried to raise $2, which was the agency’s placement fee. She could not get anything for the watch she tried to pawn, except the pawnbroker’s advice that she promise the agent the fee out of her first wages, and that she give the agent a little something on the side. Returning empty-handed, she pleaded with the agent, who gave her until the next morning to raise the fee, as the prospective employer was coming to interview applicants. Once again a charitable restaurant owner gave her the money.
Feeling sick from a cheap sandwich she had eaten the day before, she found a nurse in a 2nd Ave. department store who gave her some medicine, and a clean bed for 50 cents from a sympathetic hotel proprietress. The medicine and rest allowed her to interview for the maid’s job at $40 per month, which she secured. She won the job “chiefly because the woman who hired me wanted someone who could talk French to the children in her home…I happened to be able to do something the other girls looking for housework could not do.” On Wednesday, which was the tenth day after her adventure began, Lidablanche arrived at 8 a.m. at the Von HERBERG residence. She was of course forced to reveal her identity to her employer. Mrs. Von HERBERG was, needless to say, greatly surprised.
Looking over her experiences, Lidablanche wrote a final article with seven recommendations. Welfare agencies, she said, although they must make background checks, should take care of their clients’ immediate needs. Welfare agencies and job bureaus should not be closed on weekends. Restaurant leftovers should not be wasted, and the quality of food served at soup kitchens should be improved. Placement fees should be charged to the employer, not the job seeker. A hotel for women, providing shelter and food at cost, was sadly lacking in Seattle. Finally, prospective employers should not discriminate against unemployed women of middle age or over. She discussed these seven points in detail with examples from her experience, and ended with a plea to the P-I’s readers “to do what you can to lighten the burdens of the unfortunate, unemployed women.” She praised Seattle Mayor Bertha K. LANDES for organizing aid for unemployed beyond-middle-age women.
The paper informed its readers that the photographs accompanying these articles were posed after the fact, as an accompanying photographer would have given away Lidablanche’s secret identity. She was too ashamed to return and reveal her identity to one of the café owners who had given her money, so this incident was reproduced as a cartoon drawing.
These articles are dismissed by a media scholar, the late Sandra HAARSAGER, as “serialized fiction.” HAARSAGER, a professor of journalism and mass media at the University of Idaho, calls their tone “sensational.” Nevertheless, despite Lidablanche’s frequent use of exclamation points, nothing in them suggests that she was inventing merely for effect.
HAARSAGER’s critique of Miss ROBE’s articles is part of a larger blast aimed at the P-I’s editors, whom she takes to task for suppressing the cruel truth about the Depression: Seattle’s bank failures, 25% unemployment rate, and other cold facts were deliberately passed over in silence as the paper set a “reverse agenda” approving Herbert HOOVER’s promises of prosperity “just around the corner” and the confidence of William Randolph HEARST (the P-I’s owner) that big business would provide a solution. On its other pages are found editorials complaining about the banking system—from a capitalist’s point of view—and about shaky financial deals in foreign countries such as Peru. Above every masthead is the helpful information that want ads are to be found on the first page of the classified section. Articles illustrated with photos of cute children report on charity events staged by women’s clubs for the benefit of the jobless. The P-I evidently handled the Depression’s local impact with kid gloves, choosing to focus its readers’ attention on human interest stories and photos.
It is not known how much Lidablanche was paid for her series of investigative articles, nor whether she continued to combine journalism and acting. Through 1934 she continued to reside at the Hotel Frye.
They tell me you were married, Lidablanche, in 1933, to Norman Donald MacLEOD. Was it the impulse of a moment? I can’t find him listed as having a wife in any of the Seattle city directories. Since he sold advertising to the Seattle Star, did you meet him during your work as a journalist?
In March-April 1938 Lidablanche sailed from Los Angeles to New York on the S. S. Virginia. This time she gave her residence as the Lowell Hotel in Seattle, and her age as 30! (She was in fact age 47). The following year, 1939, her father died in Pueblo.
The coming of World War II likely had an enormous impact on her life. I imagine her divorce in 1944 had something to do with it. She moved back home to Pueblo to be with her mother and her maiden sister Anna Constance. When her mother died in September 1945 Lidablanche was living in the family home. Not surprisingly, I don’t find Lidablanche MacLEOD in the Social Security Death Index, at least under that name. Social security, in the broader sense, was something she sought for all her life. On the other hand, as she was comfortable with pseudonyms and assumed identities, and knew she could fend for herself if necessary, she may be hiding in the standard genealogical finding aids.
And so you pass out of the Seattle picture, cousin Lidablanche. On the other hand, your BAIRD relatives had a lasting impact on the Eastside. But their story will have to wait for another time.
Interview with John M. Robe, Indian Pioneer History Project for Oklahoma, transcribed for OKGenWeb by Margaret Robe Summitt, June 2001.
Ora Eddelman Reed, “The Robe Family—Missionaries,” Chronicles of Oklahoma, vol. 26 (1948), pp. 301-312.
Obituary of Mrs. Robert C. Robe, Pueblo Chieftain, Wednesday, 26 September 1945.
Articles by Lidablanche Robe, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A teaser appeared Friday, January 8, followed by her articles on January 11-19 and Sunday, January 24, 1932. Except for the latter article, installments did not appear in the Sunday papers.
Sandra Haarsager, “Choosing Silence: A Case of Reverse Agenda Setting in Depression Era News Coverage,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 6, no. 1 (1991): 35-46. Professor Haarsager, author of a feminist biography of Seattle Mayor Bertha Knight Landes, died this past October.
Ancestry.com, Seattle Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957; New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.
Dr. R. C. Robe, “Abortions,” Transactions of the Colorado State Medical Society, 1902: 287-291.
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