Profile: Marjorie Proops: Marje's mirror image: Britain's most famous agony aunt has been as unhappy as her readers. Linda Grant explores a pretence that deceived millions

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AN ELDERLY Jewish lady who lives in the respectable London suburb of Barnes has again come up trumps in the circulation wars between Britain's tabloids. Few people, after a year of Squidgy and Fergie and toe-sucking, could have expected it, but last week Marjorie ('Marje') Proops was doing what she has always done best - selling newspapers. And not just the Daily Mirror, which she has served loyally and famously for more than 50 years. The Christmas Eve revelation that Britain's best-known agony aunt had had a largely sexless marriage accompanied by a secret 30-year affair with a Mirror lawyer, prompted pages of coverage in the Sun, the Daily Mail and Today.

It may well be her greatest gesture; certainly it is her most ironic. For three decades she had been advising the middle-aged, the unattractive, the badly-dressed, the troubled, the lonely - apparently from a platform of impeccable marital stability and common sense. The disclosures in a new biography, Marje: The Guilt and the Gingerbread, not only cast a different light on that idea, they may also be her revenge on all those who thought only the young and beautiful have anything to hide.

When the details of her affair broke, many who knew her were not surprised. The story had been common knowledge at the Mirror for years. But even to the uninitiated, Marje's behaviour had always belied the persona of the happily-married housewife she adopted in her column; 'She fancied men like mad. She would insist on going to the places where waiters would kiss her hand and she would always be waving and saying, 'That's my boyfriend',' says one former Mirror colleague. 'As a young woman, one felt in her presence that one was a dreary old bag. She just loved chaps and needed them.' There seems to be a consensus that she was deeply attracted to Robert Maxwell. 'She obviously fancied him something rotten,' says a rival agony aunt.

Marje as she and her newspaper created her does not look a woman who led a life complicated and compromised by sexual secrets. The paper's monogram of her with outsize specs and cigarette holder (later replaced by a pen when she gave up her 50-a-day habit) suggest forthright talk and glamour, a mixture of raunchyness and down-to-earth Labour Party support, which exemplified how the Mirror saw itself. But a closer reading of her replies to her worried readers may have told a different story. According to another agony aunt 'Every agony aunt says what a lovely person Marje is but they'll also say how strange her answers are. She lives by secrecy. It is part of her personality. There's a lot of deceit in her life and it's not an attractive characteristic.'

PERHAPS her most enduring secret is her age. The new biography, by Angela Patmore, does nothing to demistify her date of birth but according to two conflicting sources (one heard it from a relative, the other glanced at her passport) she was born in 1910 or 1911. This means her next birthday is her 82nd or her 83rd. Throughout the years of the Pill, herpes, one-parent families, Aids and Madonna, much of the nation has been harkening to advice doled out by an an Edwardian, born into an age, not just pre-video but pre-wireless.

She was born Rebecca Rayle (shortened from Israel), in Dalston, east London, where her father was a publican. She dropped her first name in favour of her middle name, Marjorie, after a bout of playground anti-Semitism, when she was nicknamed 'Becky the Jew-girl'. She was a gawky girl who compared herself unfavourably with her pretty younger sister, Jo-Jo. In fact hers are the looks that teenagers loathe but become middle-aged women well, with their angularity, elegance and distinctive features. Afraid of the competition from Jo-Jo's attractions, she never brought men home until her first real boyfriend, Sidney Proops, whom she met at a local tennis club, proposed. They were married on 21 November 1935 at a local synagogue and honeymooned in Bournemouth, a conventional spot for young Jewish couples. Theirs was an entirely intellectual relationship. He was a liberal socialist with deeply patriarchal views.

The wedding night was a disaster. 'When it got to bedtime,' she told Angela Patmore, 'I was confronted by this great big ugly penis which terrified the life out of me. And Proops was dressing it up with a condom before pushing it into me. It was a tremendous intrusion, and it was frightening, disagreeable.' Six years later she had her first and only child, Robert.

After leaving school she had worked as a commercial artist and in 1939 she joined the Mirror as a fashion illustrator, where she was eventually taken up by the then editor Hugh Cudlipp and made woman's editor and general features writer. While she was building her career Sidney Proops, an engineer with Bovis, was away in the army. When he came back from the war in 1946 the couple's sex life was no better. After two years she told him that he made her flesh creep when he touched her and she must leave him. He retorted that he would fight her in the divorce courts for their son. Marje's version is that she did not want Robert to become a tug-of-love child. She reached an accommodation with Proops: she would stay if they never had sex again.

To Robert, however, Marje's story was a fantasy: 'I think that all she ever wanted to do was preserve the status quo,' he is quoted as saying in the book. Father and son clearly loathed each other and the boy was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight. The household became a fictional setting for her column, concealing what was actually an extremely unhappy family.

It was not until 1958, when Marje was in her late forties, that she met Phillip Levy, a Mirror lawyer. To colleagues at the Mirror, he was 'a bit of a dry stick. It was known they were close friends, but he didn't look particularly like a Lothario.' For Marje, Levy was the great love of her life, the man who gave her sexual fulfilment, a committed bachelor who lived for 20 years in a hotel. (According to Today last week, however, the hotel address was a convenience so that Marje would not discover that he was living for most of the time with Meli Meitner, an Austrian intellectual with whom he retired to Brighton and over whose grave his ashes were scattered.)

When she took over the advice column in the now defunct Woman's Mirror in 1959 (before moving it to the Daily Mirror in the early Sixties), agony aunts were answering questions like whether the presents should he returned after a broken engagement. 'Dear Marje' was and is classic tabloid journalism. 'She has a gift for identifying the crest of the wave without offending anyone,' says Claire Rayner. Her feminism is pragmatic: she has campaigned vigorously for abortion but advised wives whose husbands go to the potting shed to read porn magazines to join in the fun. Her underlying message has always been that sex is good for you but companionship is better. She cultivated an image of contented family life with Proopsie, as she called her husband until his death in 1988, the occasionally cantankerous, but always loyal and supportive spouse. It was an idealised image of Thirties Jewish family life. Today her entry in Who's Who records when she married, but does not mention Sidney's name.

Despite a bout of mental illness and a bad fall which punctured a lung and broke two ribs, she is still driven to the Mirror several times a week by her chauffeur (one of her company perks - she is said to be paid 'a pittance') where she and a staff of nine answer an estimated 25,000 letters a year, a third from men. Many a Fleet Street journalist has begun her career as one of Marje's secretaries. She was also the first to use professional consultants such as psychiatrists. From January she extends her empire, ousting the Sunday Mirror's agony aunt, Virginia Ironside, nearly half her age.

HER rivals are admiring, at least in public. To Gill Cox, of Woman's Realm, Marje has been 'an inspiration to us all because she was the first to be recognised as a personality and the first to take the job seriously.' For Virginia Ironside, she remains 'a life-enhancer'. Her Mirror colleague, Ann Robinson, believes that she is 'the greatest professional, the most meticulous, dedicated and resourceful. To her only excellence is acceptable.'

If the recent revelations make her personal life seem a mess and her column a hypocritical travesty, there are those who point out that this may give her more than ordinary insight into her readers' difficulties. 'When you look at her column you see she's a great one for compromise, which is not the vogue at the moment,' says a Mirror colleague. 'She still has an element of 'put on a nightie and some scent behind the ears' as a solution to marital difficulty, and she might not be wrong. Her life is an example of compromise.'

In many ways it is surprising in an industry besotted by youth that a younger woman, Ironside, should have to make way for the Edwardian Marje. Virginia Ironside is certainly very hurt by Marje's failure to warn her that she was going to lose her job. 'I felt that she was a special friend. She's such an old charmer she could have got me eating out of the palm of her hand.'

But to those with more experience in the business, Marje's expansion into the Sunday market comes as no surprise. 'Behind everything there is a rock-hard mind and an ability to get her own way,' says a Mirror colleague. To one agony aunt 'the flame of her ambition has never for a moment flickered. She would never have retired.'

Another colleague believes she is delighted at the tabloids fighting over her personal life. Although she has said she revealed the details of her marriage and affair because of guilt, she must have known, the colleague points out, what kind of book would sell.