How We Met: Penny Vincenzi and Marjorie Proops

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The Independent Culture
Penny Vincenzi, 54, has written for Vogue, Nova and Options magazines. Her first two novels, Old Sins and Wicked Pleasures, were best-sellers; her third, An Outrageous Affair, was published last month. She married advertising consultant Paul Vincenzi in 1960 and they have four daughters.

Marjorie Proops's age is a closely guarded secret. A life- long socialist, she joined the Daily Mirror in 1954, where her Dear Marje agony column now receives 50,000 letters a year. Her marriage to Sidney Proops, a civil engineer, last-

ed from 1935 until his death

in 1988; she has one son.

PENNY VINCENZI: I came to the Mirror in 1962. Marje was at the height of her fame. I saw her sweeping in lots of times and thought how wonderful she looked. She had great glamour. When I first met her I'd been at the Mirror for about a year, as a secretary. I wanted to be a journalist.

The man I was then working for said, 'I've heard Marje Proops is looking for a secretary - why don't you go and talk to her?' I was frightfully excited and not terribly hopeful, but just to go and be interviewed seemed like heaven.

I went down to the third floor, where she had an office off the newsroom. My first impression was of glamour - it was when she had the wild glasses and she smoked all the time and she had a cigarette holder always in her hands. I think she was wearing a red suit. She looked very vivid, vibrant, exciting. I was absolutely gobsmacked.

After a while she said, 'I think we'll suit each other very well, when can you start?' I said, 'There is just one little thing,' and she said, 'Yeeees?' - she had this lovely chuckle - and I said, 'I'm pregnant.'

Now in those days, you didn't go on working when you'd got a baby, you just didn't. But I said, 'Oh, it's not going to make any difference,' as one does with one's first baby - you really believe that, and I couldn't see any problems. It said everything about her that she took me on none the less.

She was so ahead of her time in doing that. She was so good to me, I can't tell you. My mother didn't live near me, and Marje became another mother to me. I wasn't very well when I was about six months pregnant, and she used to pack me off home after lunch every day, which she certainly shouldn't have done, and if somebody said, 'Where's your secretary?', she'd say, 'Oh, she's off doing something for me' - that sort of thing.

She knew I wanted to be a journalist, and she started letting me help to do research and get quotes from people. I wasn't supposed to do it - in those days the Mirror was very union- dominated and I was in the secretarial union, not the National Union of Journalists. But it was a very good training for me.

I found out what fun journalism was. I also found out how important it was to work for someone like her. She had huge standards - she was a perfectionist. And she was passionate about her readers. There was no length she wouldn't go to if she thought someone was really in trouble.

I worked as her secretary for about a year and a half. Then I moved along the corridor and went to work for Felicity Green, who was the fashion editor. Felicity was looking for a fashion assistant, she'd got to know me - but there was this thing of the union. It wasn't so much that the NUJ wouldn't let me in, but this other union that wouldn't let me go. Marje took them on - it was a big battle. She rang me at midnight at home and said, 'Even if you were asleep I knew you'd want to know - you're in]'

We stayed friends, we went on having lunch together. We still do, and tell jokes and giggle and gossip. We've always been in touch.

At the time, I was very awed by her - I was about 21, and she was around 40, a huge success - but now I'm completely unaware of the age difference. We have more common ground than an awful lot of people I know who are my age. Once you have shared memories with someone, then that's very important. I think in some ways we are alike - I hope so.

She is very, very family-minded. Whatever happens to Marge, her family is there, a sort of solid backbone to her life, and that certainly applies to me too. She would drop everything if her family needed her, and I do too. We're both terrible gossips. When we go out to lunch I always save up funny stories because I know she'll like them. As I've got on, I've tried to be as helpful to young people as she was to me. It was an incredible stroke of luck, meeting her, and I think you have to pass that kind of thing on.

MARJORIE PROOPS: The first time she hovered into my life I was women's editor of the Mirror and I was very keen always to promote as many of the bright girls as I could. When I first entered this profession, there were very, very few women, most of them typists - I was a kind of oddment. I had some power, which I was able then to use to promote and encourage others. Penny was one of them. What I loved about her and still love about her is her great sense of humour - plus of course her writing skill.

I believe that women should be entitled to do whatever they want to do. The fact that women inevitably have to bear the children does not mean that they should be like placid cows in a field. If they want to pursue a career, the fact that they are pregnant or that they are mothers shouldn't prevent them. I realised Penny was pregnant, but she wanted to work, and I thought 'Good on you, girl.'

I think it was easier for her to work for a woman who had been pregnant herself. I worked all through my pregnancy and when my son was growing up, so it made it easier for me to understand the problems. If she wanted to go home because she was feeling sick, nobody would know except her and me.

It was easier for me to support

her than if she had been working for a man, because men are very unsympathetic, even now - although they

pay lip service to it all and pretend,

they get irritable.

I needed somebody like Penny to make me laugh and give me a feeling of self-confidence and self-worth. Men have this automatically, on the whole. She gave me the feeling that I could do it all. It wasn't just 'Take

a letter, Penny', it was a far, far

closer relationship than that. I went through her pregnancy with her, I adored her husband.

When she was working for me, she was a member of the clerical union, and in those days, you could not move unions - she was slotted into position as a typist, stuck for life. At that time I was a very active member of the NUJ and Mother of the Chapel. Because of that I did have a bit of bottle with the union and I was determined that I was going to get Penny into the NUJ, because in those days the Mirror was a closed shop and she wouldn't have stood a chance otherwise. So I worked very hard at it and I was lucky. I imagine I did it the way I usually work with men, a cross between cajoling them and flattering them. It was a great triumph, it was very important for her and it was really the start for her being able to be a writer.

I've been very, very lucky with the people I've worked with - I've been able to establish this kind of close relationship which goes beyond the boundaries of work.

I've never subscribed to the attitude of 'I'm the boss and you're the worker' or ever seen myself in that role. For 30 years now, we've remained close friends, and we still giggle like a couple of kids.

Trust is immensely important. I could tell Penny absolutely anything, and if I said to her, 'Don't tell anyone,' she wouldn't.

She was one of the few people I told about my breast cancer. I didn't want it spread around, to have people say, 'Oh, heard about old Marje? She's dying, she's got cancer.'

We both share - it sounds so awful and corny I can hardly bring myself to express it - this family values thing. We both believe in marriage, in the idea of one partner for ever - it doesn't happen to us all, it didn't happen to me, but I'm happy this has happened for her.

We both think it's a good idea for kids to grow up with two parents. I can't see either of us ever marching up and down the streets saying 'Down With Men' because we both like men and think they're here to stay, so we have those attitudes in common. It's very hard to identify the subtleties of friendship - honesty and trust, shared beliefs and interests, and certainly a shared sense of humour. It's some kind of magical mystery ingredient. -

(Photograph omitted)