Obituary: Marjorie Proops

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The Independent Online
Marjorie Proops was a great deal more than an agony aunt, a brilliant writer, a campaigning journalist, and a social commentator. She was the nation's confidante. Into her office for over 30 years the letters came, millions of them, cries for help, for encouragement, from men as well as women, in the certain knowledge that they were writing not to a stranger but a friend, to "Dear Marje" - there were envelopes addressed simply thus, which safely reached her - and that behind the witty by-line, the funny drawings, the glamorous photographs, was a woman of extraordinary perception, tolerance, and hard-headed wisdom.

She was born Rebecca Marjorie Israel, in Woking, the elder daughter of Alfred and Martha Israel (their surname was later changed to Rayle by her father, in resigned deference to prejudice); she spent her childhood living over her father's pubs when the family moved to London. She became a socialist at the age of five on discovering the demand for a saloon bar as opposed to a public one. At much the same age, she fell in love with her mother's newspaper, the Daily Mirror. The page she later had in the paper would have been headed differently had she not been taunted as a child with the tag "Becky the Jew girl"; "Marjorie" was safer.

She was gifted rather than clever at school, starring only at English and art and having a fine contralto voice. Advised against matriculation by her teachers, she took a course at Hackney Technical College which taught her to draw and led her to her first job, working in a studio near Smithfield for 15 shillings a week. Her mentor there was one Rose May, whom Marje sought to emulate in every way, from her heavy make-up and extravagant hats to her habit of heavy smoking. It took the discovery of a blocked carotid artery almost half a century later to wean her from her cigarettes and the long holder that became closely identified with her.

Her first published work was a drawing of a baby for a knitwear catalogue. Encouraged by this and other minor successes, and in the spirit of enterprise that was to distinguish her entire life, she took on her own studio for 3s 6d a week and went freelance. Within months she was taking commissions from several women's magazines as well as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.

Her mother, however, was more interested in Marje's marital prospects; Marje was gloomily aware that she was failing her in this respect when she set out in search of a partner at the tennis club on Christmas morning in 1934 and met Sidney Proops. He bought her a hot lemonade, revealed his admiration for Jesus of Nazareth, whom he considered the first socialist, and won her heart; three days later they were engaged - on the strict (and for those days unusual) understanding that she could continue with her career. She and Proopsie - so nicknamed by her to distinguish him from the other Sidneys of her acquaintance - were married in Shacklewell Lane Synagogue, in Dalston, in November 1935.

The marriage was not entirely happy, although proclaimed as such by Marje herself for the 53 years of its duration and resulting in the birth of her beloved son Robert in 1941. Proopsie, whatever his shortcomings in private as a husband remained, outwardly at least, a loyal and supportive consort to his wife. Marje and Proopsie, whatever their differences, shared a strong socialist ideology: they fostered a small boy from a children's home (with fairly disastrous consequences) and then more successfully befriended, and eventually gave a home to, Made Okubadeju, now a successful pathologist, from Nigeria, who called Marje "Mum" and whom she always regarded as a second son.

Hugh Cudlipp hired Marje Proops in 1939, to draw hats and represent the Daily Mirror at Ascot under the by-line "Sylvaine". He put her on a retainer of six guineas a week during the Second World War and took her on as columnist at the Mirror in 1954. He remained a huge force in her life; she often declared herself his creature.

She wrote her first article during the war for Good Taste magazine and first entered the field where she was to become best-known by writing a government information booklet on VD; she said she never saw sex in quite the same romantic light again.

In 1945 she went to the Daily Herald as Fashion Editor, under Hugh Cudlipp's brother Percy, and became Women's Editor in 1950; she never learnt to type or do shorthand, and wrote all her copy in longhand (rather harder to read after her stroke in 1979), developing the effortless, classless style that she never changed; "as acceptable", said her friend and long- time colleague Felicity Green, "to readers of the Times or the Telegraph as the Mirror". Bob Edwards, one of her editors, asked her if she had anyone to help her turn out her pieces. "She drew herself up to her considerable height and said she wrote every single word that appears under her name."

It was during this period at the Herald that she had a glimpse of her future. The paper's advice columnist, Mary Marshall, had died. Marje Proops became worried by the letters piling up, and took it upon herself to open and answer them. What she found in those letters in terms of human misery appalled her; she contacted the psychologist Eustace Chesser, asked him if she could come and see him, and went through the more difficult letters with him. Chesser was greatly impressed by what he called her humility in seeking advice.

Hugh Cudlipp hired her as a columnist on the Daily Mirror in 1954; he has described her since as "the first British journalist to attain the Instant Recognition status previously enjoyed by film stars". It was her ability to make friends with, to get along with, the subjects of her column that made her pages so original. They all genuinely liked her: she became Dame Edith Sitwell's "little friend", Cary Grant's frequent luncheon companion, the then Duke of Bedford's partner in a midnight sandwich at Woburn. Sophia Loren talked to her wistfully of her longing for children. She cuddled the Archbishop of Canterbury (thinking his beatifically outstretched arms were welcoming her, as indeed they might have been), enticed Barbara Castle on to a donkey, and listened to Mary Wilson's poetry hot from the pen. She knew all the politicians and attended political conferences of both Labour and Conservative parties. "Immediately Marje arrived," said Geoffrey Goodman, a long-time political commentator and colleague at the Mirror, "people would stop looking at the PM, whoever it was, Margaret Thatcher included, and rush over to talk to her. And she loved it. She was such a true star." As Percy Cudlipp had said, she was a sexy writer. She had glamour, pizazz, pulling power. She was a huge part of a huge success, one of many starry names littering the firmament of the Daily Mirror.

One of the most important, if less starry, was that of Phillip Levy; a tall, quiet, immensely impressive man, he was the Mirror's chief legal adviser from 1955 to 1970. Proops's 20-year-long passionate love affair with him was conducted with immense discretion, both at the Mirror and at home; she swore that her husband never knew about it. (She first revealed it herself to her biographer Angela Patmore, in Marje: the guilt and the gingerbread, 1993.) And, much as she adored Levy, she never considered leaving Proopsie, and often said that in the end, when they had both died, it was Proopsie she missed more.

Gradually the nature of her page changed towards the end of the Sixties; she began to write about more serious subjects, reflecting the letters of her readers, about the birth-rate of illegitimate children, about the Pill, drug addiction, the abortion law, sometimes hanging a whole feature on one letter. Hugh Cudlipp, ever sensitive to the demands of a newspaper, had observed the success of her "Dear Marje" advice column, which ran from 1971 onwards in the weekly magazine Woman's Mirror, and suggested she did the same thing for the Daily Mirror. Proops was doubtful; despite her admiration for "Dear Abby" in the United States, perhaps her closest role model, she found it hard to see how she could be all things to all men; sexy writer, starry columnist and serious adviser as well. Cudlipp was rightly convinced that she could. But she took her work immensely seriously; this was not just journalism, it was a crusade. She drew on a team of experts, including Chesser, developed connections with the police, with doctors, with the Church, insisted on a team of secretarial help to ensure no letter went unanswered. Only the more light-hearted problems appeared in print; the darker, more complex ones she answered personally, even taking telephone calls from desperate cases, referring them on to whoever she felt best to help.

Proops became a campaigning journalist, changing people's perceptions to an extent now hard to imagine, so thoroughly did she break new moral ground. Never a militant feminist (she always said she liked men too much for that), she was nevertheless a huge champion of women's causes. She spoke out in favour of pre-marital sex, of contraception, of open, unequivocal sex education, of a more tolerant attitude to homosexuality.

By the Seventies, she had become an establishment figure; she served on two government committees, one on One-Parent Families, appointed by Richard Crossman, and the other the gambling commission chaired by the late Lord Rothschild. She was taken seriously by the Establishment, quoted in the most lofty newspapers, granted an exclusive interview with Princess Anne, reviewed by Bernard Levin and in the New Statesman, and involved in Leo Abse's campaign for a change in the laws on homosexuality and children's rights.

She and Proopsie lived in a modestly grand house in St John's Wood, north London, and she drove a rather dashing MGB GT and dressed with great style; but she never abandoned her socialist principles, was a staunch member of the NUJ, and her proudest achievement was her appointment by her then editor, Mike Molloy, as Assistant Editor of the Mirror in 1978.

She was appointed OBE in 1969, named Woman of the Year in 1984, given a place in Madame Tussaud's in 1977 - and in 1971 appeared on This is Your Life.

Ill-health stalked her later years: she sustained a stroke during a by- pass operation in 1979, had two hip replacements (after a long spell in a wheelchair), breast cancer in 1992 and, perhaps most seriously, a psychiatric breakdown in 1986. She conquered them all with her triumphant courage; and her page never failed to appear.

She worked in four Mirror buildings, survived 10 editors of the Daily Mirror, and three proprietors, not least Robert Maxwell, with whom she had a flirtatiously successful relationship, while not entirely approving of what he was doing to her beloved newspaper.

"Marje is made of tempered steel," said Felicity Green. "Much more many- faceted than anyone might realise. A wonderful, warts-and-all character and the warts are what make her much more interesting." She often declared her passionate desire to die at the Mirror; "then the cleaners can come and sweep me up". Her last column was published last Tuesday: it could be said she very nearly achieved that ambition.

Marje Proops failed no one, ever: not her readers, her editors, her family, or her friends. There could perhaps be no greater tribute to her than that.

Penny Vincenzi

Rebecca Marjorie Israel, journalist: born Woking, Surrey c1911; journalist, Daily Mirror 1939-45, 1954-96, Assistant Editor 1978-96; Fashion Editor, Daily Herald 1945-50, Women's Editor 1950-54; OBE 1969; journalist, Sunday Mirror 1992-96; married 1935 Sidney Proops (died 1988; one son); died London 10 November 1996.