Plenty to laugh about

Profile: Marjorie Scardino; Peter Popham on the first woman chief executive of a FT-SE 100 company
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The Independent Online
Marjorie Scardino, newly appointed chief executive of Pearson, the media conglomerate, has a bit of an image problem. "Whatever you do, get better clothes!" commented a shareholder of WH Smith, where she sits on the board, as she prepared to go out and about on company business. Talking to us on Friday she reluctantly agreed to have her photograph taken. "I hate it," she explained. "I'm a terrible, terrible subject - and I haven't had my hair cut in so long..."

So this is another breed of successful businesswoman. We're familiar enough with the ball-breaking, power-dressing, Tina Brown approach. But here's something different: a woman who worries about how she looks - but too late to do anything about it.

How does a woman at the top come by such an attitude? You could put it down to long immersion in the unusual corporate culture of the Economist, where Scardino was first chief executive of the north American company, then of the whole group. The Economist's main peculiarity is its insistence on anonymity: its journalists get no bylines, its executives give no interviews, the annual report carries no executive mug shots. You can see how such fierce effacement of the individual might take its toll and how, as a result, employees might become more and more vague about their appearance.

But the theory that Marjorie Scardino has been ground to a frumpish pulp in the wheels of this stately British organ does not bear close examination. The Economist was long noted for its extreme solemnity. This is no longer the case: in the latest annual report there is a gag on most pages. Some are quite good: ("Deckhand on the Titanic, Southampton, 1912: 'God himself could not sink this ship'.") One boldly pokes fun at the paper's past pronouncement on cars: (The Economist, on modes of transportation, 1911: "The motor car will never usurp the place of the horse.") The inclusion of these was Marjorie Scardino's doing. The woman may lack suitable clothes, but she's certainly feisty.

Scardino would rather the discussion about her focused on an issue other than gender - "nobody wants to be known for some attribute they can't control," she points out mildly - but in Britain at least there is going to be no getting away from it for some time. For one thing, she's the first woman to be given the top job in a FT-SE 100 company. But more compellingly, her appointment is the latest episode in an amazing family saga, a sort of urban fairy tale which should be told to young children in their beds at night to explain how beautifully and strangely the modern world can work when all the parts fall into place.

Marjorie and her husband, Albert - at 49, she's a year older - were both born and raised in the deep South; she in East Texas, 60 miles from the Clintons across the border in Arkansas, he in Georgia. Both retain vestiges of that leisurely, ironic, fruity drawl of the South, though hers has largely been tidied now into American received pronunciation.

The politics of civil rights, the burning issue of their youth in the South, defined and framed their lives together. Both were active in the movement - rare among southern whites. At college in Texas, when the town paraded with cheerleaders and bands to welcome the homecoming football team, she followed on behind in a cart pulled by a mule, protesting about poverty. Meanwhile, Albert marched alongside Martin Luther King.

Social concern channelled them both into journalism, and at the West Virginia bureau of Associated Press he filed his first story for the new night editor. Her first words to him were, "Whoever told you you knew how to write?" They have been together ever since.

AFTER a spell in California studying law (she) and journalism (he), they moved to Savannah in Georgia, made a documentary film together then set up a weekly newspaper. She was the publisher, he the editor; the initial investment they attracted was about $100,000 (pounds 63,000). "Savannah had two newspapers at the time," Albert recalls, "a morning and an afternoon, published by the same company. It was a cosy little place. Listed in the rates for advertising in the paper was the cost of a story, run as if it was regular news. A picture would cost another $50.

"Ours was a very sober paper of news and analysis, along the lines of the New York Times; but the notion that you were publishing stories that were true was unfamiliar. Every time we turned round we had another massive story on our hands. Journalistically it was like dying and going to heaven - the joy of being tarred and feathered every 15 minutes. People took our vending machines and threw them in the river. One day Marjorie and I walked into this little sandwich bar, and everybody left. Same thing happened in the bank. But we played a part in putting 35 public officials in jail, from the clerk of court to the state labour commissioner."

After seven years of this their spunk was rewarded in 1984 when Albert was given a Pulitzer Prize, America's highest literary award, for editorial writing; the first time for 20 years that a regional paper had won. By the following February, however, the paper was dead: killed, Albert maintains, by the abrupt removal of the legal notices that provided one-third of the paper's revenue.

They were on the road again. "Marjorie said, 'I'm a warrior, I can get a job if I want one, so you go ahead and find a job for yourself and I'll follow'," Albert recalls. "So I did." Helped by his Pulitzer, he tumbled feet first into the New York Times.

With even more luck, Marjorie was plucked from nowhere - she was still living 800 miles from New York in Savannah at the time, caring for their new baby, their third child, with Albert visiting at weekends - and given the job of running the Economist's North American operation.

She quickly fell in love with the paper. "It did something of incredibly high quality, which helped people to understand the world," she says. Albert adds to that: "Freedom of expression is my religion and newspapers are my churches." From their brave little backwoods chapel, both of them were instantly transported to two of the medium's biggest cathedrals.

It was during the New York period that the balance of success in the relationship began to shift. Albert left the Times to work as press secretary for Mayor David Dinkins, and quickly got into difficulties. The first press secretary in memory to address the press corps as "y'all", he infuriated the hacks by trying to get them to address his boss as Mr Dinkins instead of Dave. His "bow-tied Southern manner and contentious style made him an easy target for barbs," according to Newsday, and after 14 torrid months he resigned.

Marjorie, meanwhile, was roaring ahead: she not only doubled the Economist's circulation in America to 200,000 but helped give it a certain cool cachet. Both Presidents Bush and Clinton have been photographed with a copy tucked under their arm. "It got to the point where she was dramatically more successful than me," Albert recalls. "She turned what had been a very modest American business into a real barn-burner. She enjoyed a relentless string of good fortune. While I was busy getting us run out of our second town, she was doing a magnificent job of keeping the family finances in trim."

Soon after Albert's Dinkins debacle, Marjorie was promoted to run the entire Economist Group from its St James's Street headquarters in London, and the family decamped again. Four and a half years on, they are emerging from the womb of the Economist into the harsh light of interviews and celebrity. Albert still writes and works intermittently as a lecturer on American media and politics, but is now firmly established as "principal carer" for the children, aged 17, 15 and 11.

The latest and most improbable twist in the story is that Hal, the youngest of the children, has become a Hollywood film star, appearing in The Indian in the Cupboard and two other films. Albert accompanies him as "stage mother", and guffaws at the memory of Meryl Streep ringing to ask his permission for her to have lunch with Hal.

The Scardinos show every sign of still being in scandalously good shape: a beacon of hope to all working couples who would love to be able to juggle work and home, fulfilment and responsibility, even half as well as they seem to have done. Do the two of them still have anything to talk about? "Are you kidding?" says Albert. "Three or four nights ago I was dead asleep when Marjorie shook me - it was three in the morning! - because the presidential debate was on television. 'What did you think of Dole?' she asked. We've both got a passion for public issues and debate. It's the most stimulating, continually evolving relationship I could imagine."

Perhaps the richness and strength of their relationship help to explain how Marjorie Scardino survives at the top without turning into some kind of terrifying machine. "Albert's the smartest person I've ever met. He's the adviser I turn to first," she says. "Someone said that a female executive has to be more macho than a man. I hope not. I hope as women come into their own they are able to develop a wide variety of personalities, like men. I like having a few laughs, like anyone else."

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