Obituary: Janet Murrow

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The Independent Culture
JANET MURROW saw the Second World War from a front-row seat. In 1937 she and her husband, Edward R. Murrow, later the United States' best- known broadcaster, moved to London. At the beginning of the war she worked with Mrs Winston Churchill in the London "Bundles for Britain" Office. She supped at the White House the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She was one of the first recipients of the King's Medal for Freedom, awarded for her contribution to Anglo-American relations. Later, she gave great support to her Alma Mater, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, America's pioneer institution for the education of women.

She was born Janet Brewster, in 1910, a Connecticut Yankee of Anglo-Swedish stock, the elder daughter of a prosperous car dealer, whose ancestor had crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower. Kingman Brewster, President Carter's American Ambassador in London, was her first cousin.

In late 1932, when she was the president of the student body at Mount Holyoke, she happened to share a carriage with Ed Murrow on a train journey down to New Orleans. Both were on their way to a conference of the Institute of International Education, which helped to bring out refugee German scholars. Murrow had just become its Assistant Director. Janet Brewster was doing postgraduate work in economics and was a gifted summer repertory actress. The fellow travellers' long discussion was not limited to the conference agenda. In New Orleans Murrow invited Brewster to breakfast. He ordered strawberries. It was midwinter and she was impressed.

After a courtship largely conducted by letter they married in 1934, honeymooned in Mexico, and settled in New York. A year later the Columbia Broadcasting System engaged Murrow as Director of Talks, and in 1937 sent him to London as its European Director. Murrow did not act as a reporter himself until pressed into service the night Hitler's storm troopers took over Austria. He then made the first of over 5,000 broadcasts to the United States which rapidly brought him to the front rank of American radio correspondents and made him a popular hero on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the early weeks of the war Janet Murrow helped to evacuate schoolchildren from London to the countryside. She also broadcast for the CBS network, contributing short sketches of Britain at war. Shortly before Christmas 1940 she organised the London office of Bundles for Britain, working alongside its honorary chairman, Clementine Churchill, who became a close friend. By the middle of 1941 American women had sent to Britain 500,000 pieces of clothing, 72 mobile feeding units and $2.5m in contributions. After Churchill became Prime Minister the Murrows were frequent guests at 10 Downing Street.

On the first night of the London Blitz, while Murrow prowled the streets gathering information, Janet climbed through the roof door of their Hallam Street flat, close to Broadcasting House, to watch the bombardment of the East End. As the planes drew nearer she headed for the stairway door which had snapped shut from the inside. Shrapnel fell around her as she tried desperately to signal for help from pedestrians running for shelter in the street below. Eventually she caught the attention of a lone passer- by who raced up six flights of stairs to release her and conduct her safely to her flat. Janet subsequently told Murrow of her dilemma. Should she invite him in for a drink? Would he think it improper? She decided she had better not.

Murrow, the youngest son of a poor lumberman's family in the American North-West, laughed uproariously. "Only a girl born in Middletown, Connecticut, who went to Mount Holyoke," he declared, "would think twice about inviting in the man who had just saved her life!"

During the heavy bombing of London Janet Murrow was again busy arranging for the evacuation of children, this time not to the English countryside, but to homes generously offered in the United States. She served on the British-American Liaison Board, which helped to ease friction between American GIs and British civilians. She travelled throughout England lecturing for the American Embassy and for the Ministry of Information on American life to schools, civil defence units and other groups. She also gave a course on American history on BBC schools programmes. In 1946 she was awarded the King's Medal for Freedom in recognition of her services to international understanding.

In autumn 1941 the Murrows returned for a short visit to the US - their first since Christmas 1938. On 7 December they were getting ready for a game of golf in Washington to be followed by supper at the White House and a private briefing for President Roosevelt on the situation in Britain. The news of the Japanese bombing of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor broke that afternoon. When Janet telephoned the White House she was told the meal was still on. The Murrows ate scrambled eggs with Mrs Roosevelt while the President conducted a cabinet meeting.

Murrow's turn in the Oval Office came shortly after midnight. Roosevelt asked him about morale in England and told him of the actual damage at Pearl Harbor: "Did this surprise you?" "Yes, Mr President." "Maybe you think it didn't surprise us!" Murrow said later: "I believed him."

The President had not declared that his remarks about the damage to the fleet were off the record. Janet Murrow watched her husband pace the hotel room for the rest of that night trying to decide whether he should tell the story the President had given him. In the end he decided he ought not to, in the interest of national security.

In 1944 Murrow began an affair with Pamela Churchill, the daughter of Lord Digby - the separated wife of Randolph Churchill and later, as Pamela Harriman, President Clinton's ambassador to France. Their relationship was open knowledge, and Janet Murrow subsequently described it as "Quite an experience for Ed . . . She was a great beauty."

In September 1944 Janet, exhausted both by her work and the strain on her marriage, returned to the United States. Murrow sent her many conscience- driven letters and cables, and in November he flew out to join her. They had a holiday in Florida, played golf, and had a good time, she recalled.

It was particularly good because at 35, after 10 years of repeated disappointments, Janet found herself pregnant. Their son, Casey, was born in London in November 1945. Murrow returned to New York in mid-December to discuss his future with CBS. Pamela, whose divorce from Randolph Churchill was now absolute, headed also for New York and for 10 days she and Murrow went everywhere together. He returned to London to tell Janet he wanted a divorce. Three weeks later he cabled Pamela in Palm Beach: "Casey wins." She was shattered.

The Murrows flew home to New York in March 1946, leaving many friends from their nine years in London. Janet was deeply involved in motherhood and in establishing homes in both New York City and Pawling, NY. Ed steadily enhanced his reputation with radio news analyses and television documentaries, notably See It Now, the programme which toppled Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In 1961 President Kennedy made him Director of the United States Information Agency. A heavy chain smoker, in 1965 he died of a brain tumour. The Queen had awarded him an honorary knighthood shortly before his death.

Janet, who had always hankered after an academic career, returned to Mount Holyoke College in 1970. She worked for nine years in its Art Museum, eventually becoming the Executive Director of the Art Advisory Committee. She also served for two 10-year terms as a member of the Board of Trustees, and travelled widely, raising over $2m on behalf of the college. She frequently came back for long periods to stay in England, her second home.

Janet Huntington Brewster, public servant: born Middleton, Connecticut 18 September 1910; married 1934 Edward R. Murrow (died 1965; one son); died Needham, Massachusetts 18 December 1998.