Obituary:Mollie Panter-Downes

A Londoner by birth, Mollie Panter-Downes was a New Yorker writer for 50 years. In the 1930s she sold the magazine a few poems, some short stories, and a piece about Jewish refugee children coming to England. In 1939, with war approaching, Harold Ross, the editor, was desperate to find a London correspndent, and his fiction editor, the redoubtable Katherine White, suggested Panter- Downes.

On 2 September, a cable arrived at Roppelegh's, the old house where she, her husband Clare Robinson, and their two small daughters lived in the Surrey countryside near Haslemere, asking her to try doing a regular "Letter from London". Panter-Downes cabled back: sorry, evacuees were being billeted on her, no time for writing. But then the evacuees were cancelled - Roppelegh's was in the backwoods, too far from the local school - and Panter-Downes cabled again: yes, she'd have a go. The arrangement worked out.

Thereafter, weekly or fortnightly, for the duration, a London Letter came out of Roppelegh's. Robinson was in the Gunners, a nanny helped with the children. Panter-Downes went up to town for several days mid-week, staying at the Lansdowne Club, and then back home put together some 1,500 words. The typed copy was taken several miles to the nearest station, often by Panter-Downes herself on a bicycle, and given to the train guard who at Waterloo handed it to a Western Union representative for cabling to New York. There it needed almost no editing - Panter-Downes's writing, even when not sent by cable, was concise.

So the readers of the New Yorker learnt about the war in England, from the Dad's Army days to rockets. They read of the notable plum crop of 1939, the evacuation of pets as well as children, the introduction of the wheatmeal loaf. She didn't skimp the bad news - in her piece of 19 May 1940, she wrote: "It is now clear to the man in the street, reading his paper as he goes home to the neat suburban villa which may soon be matchwood, like the villas near Rotterdam and Brussels, that Hitler is out to win in the next six or eight weeks by any means he can, several of which will be bad for the population of this island." In 1940 she foresaw a four-year war. Although prescient about Churchill's gift for leadership, she was later caustic about his hostility to criticism and failure to get rid of dead wood in his team. She presented the difficulties not just in terms of losses of ships or of Libyan territory but, when rubber-growing Malaya fell and January 1942 was pipe-bursting cold, in terms of no more hot-water bottles.

The effect her Letters had in Washington pre-December 1941 can only have been useful. The British temper, whether displayed in early shocks to what she called the sahib mentality, or in the buoyant response to the straight talking of Sir Stafford Cripps, found a splendid spokesperson in Mollie Panter-Downes. Weather reports might have been forbidden in England, as useful to the enemy, but New Yorker readers learnt, a week late, whether the sun shone or rain fell in London. In the bad moments she retained her humour, but also in the best: "In the spring, a young or old Englishman's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of invasion." Those thoughts had of course come in 1940, but this was 1942 when we were beginning to think of invading them.

A reader today of Panter-Downes's war Letters is taken back to the blackout, to gin in short supply and not much coal in the scuttle - which, if brass, no longer had a maid to clean it. She notes the Harrods-going bourgeoisie, as short of coupons as anyone, forced to buy second-hand clothes. Occasionally her desire to give voice to the people "of all classes" - arch-Cockneyisms overheard in bars and buses - produces what now sounds like patter for Stanley Holloway; but her willingness to seek out working-class Londoners was evident in a self- effacing report about the family of a Wapping dustman, several times bombed out, lastly by a V-1 in 1944. In the fine New Yorker stable of war correspondents, which included Janet Flanner, Rebecca West and A.J. Liebling, she held her place.

Her father, a colonel in the Royal Irish Regiment, was killed at Mons early in the First World War. She and her mother lived first in Brighton and then in a Sussex village, with not much money. Seeking independence, she wrote stories and poems. Her first book was a love story, The Shoreless Sea, written in 1922 when she was 16, serialised by the Daily Mail and published by John Murray a year later; it was reprinted seven times. In 1946 she wrote One Fine Day - "turning the pillow", in Virginia Woolf's words, from much fact to fiction. It is ultimately a more serene book than Woolf could have written: an evocation of a single day in the life of an upper-middle-class housewife, a youngish woman going grey, shopping for groceries, worrying about husband and child, worrying about the house and garden. Its unity and perfect limpid tone convey not only a world on the point of being lost but also the radiant relief of coming through the war. "We are at peace," thinks Laura Marshall, when she ends the sun- filled day on top of a Sussex down. "We still stand."

Panter-Downes went on writing "Letter from London" into the 1980s. She wrote reporter pieces and profiles on such subjects as the British Museum and E.M. Forster. Her England didn't really take in the Beatles. Her charming book about an Indian hill-station, Ooty Preserved (1967), and her perceptive account of the Swinburne/ Watts-Dunton menage, At the Pines (1971), largely appeared in the New Yorker. Her loyalty to it was matched by the loyalty to her of William Shawn, Ross's successor, to whom she dedicated One Fine Day. But her writing connection with the magazine didn't long survive its takeover by Newhouse, and Shawn's sacking in January 1987. Then, she said, the New Yorker "had begun to die".

She wrote in a garden house at Roppelegh's, where she and her husband Clare lived for over 60 years. (Fieldmice now and then gnawed her manuscripts.) Roppelegh's stands in a small wooded valley, with a stream running by. It was called West End when they found it; Clare renamed it after its 1453 owner, Richard de Roppelegh. It is a Puck of Pook's Hill sort of spot, where one feels any recent century of Enlglish history might come alive. In her writing, Mollie Panter-Downes conjured much out of the creaks and silences of old houses. The interior of the Pines was like "a rich dark cake, stuffed with Pre-Raphaelite fruit". Roppelegh's reminded one of Laura's house in One Fine Day, "a tyrant house" needing care, but also a loving partner.

Panter-Downes didn't talk of her childhood but often referred to her fortunate adult life: one house, one job, one husband. She met Clare Robinson in 1926 and married him in 1927. She used to say the main fright of her life came in 1949 when her younger daughter, upset at not going to the same school as a friend, absconded and camped out with the friend in a field near Petworth; they weren't found for eight days. At the age of 81 she was thrilled when Virago republished One Fine Day as one of their Modern Classics. She was modest about her own work - "I'm a reporter. I can't invent" - but sweetly inquisitive about that of younger writers who called and were given lunch, tea, and a going-away present of logs from Clare's woodpile.

She died at 90, the same age as Rebecca West, whose death she had written about in a New Yorker Letter in 1983. Years before, she wrote, Rebecca West had sent some foie gras, a large bottle of scent, and a French taffeta scarf to "a younger woman writer who was going through a bad time of anxiety". Panter-Downes typically didn't say, but it can be guessed who the woman was who Rebecca West thought "needed a bit of spoiling". But fortunately the bad times in the greater part of her life were not frequent. There were - and she shared them with her readers - many fine days.

Anthony Bailey

Mollie Patricia Panter-Downes, writer: born London 25 August 1906; London Correspondent, the New Yorker 1939-87; married 1927 Clare Robinson (two daughters); died 22 January 1997.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed