Anne Scott-James: Journalist who breached Fleet Street’s gender barrier and later became a gardening expert

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:07

Anne Scott-James was one of the first top-flight women journalists to cross the barrier between writing principally for and about women to more universal topics. From 1960 to 1968 she wrote a widely-read column in the Daily Mail, a precursor of the legions of opinionated female columnists who now proliferate in the national press.

After giving up the column she embarked on a new career as a writer on gardens, so successfully that she was invited to join the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society.

When she quit Oxford in 1933, two years before she would have taken her finals, journalism was scarcely a realistic career choice for a woman of 20.

Her parents were appalled at her decision to leave Somerville, where she had gone up on a scholarship. Yet despite her analytical turn of mind she was not attracted to academic life and was impatient to start paid work.

It was rare for women of her generation and class – her father was a reasonably prosperous writer and critic – to think about taking a job; but she was determined not to do what was expected of her by playing the role of contented wife and mother, or at least not until she had started to make her way in some kind of satisfying employment.

In the depths of the depression that was not an easy aim to fulfil. In one of her early job interviews, with a biscuit manufacturer, she was told: “We do not employ women, except at factory level.” It took her six months to find her first permanent post, on the fashion magazine Vogue, as assistant to the managing director and knitting editor.

Soon she graduated to editorial duties and finally became beauty editor.

In 1938 she made a further gesture of independence by buying a small cottage that had taken her fancy on the chalky Berkshire Downs. It was to prove one of the defining acts of her life. For more than 50 years, through her three marriages, she found it a constant source of delight and inspiration and it fuelled the enthusiasm for gardening that was to shape the second half of her career.

She was still working for Vogue when the Second World War began. It was then, too, that she married Derek Verschoyle, the raffish literary editor of The Spectator. He had just been conscripted into the Royal Air Force and, like many couples faced with that situation, they decided to marry in case the worst happened. In her 1993 memoir, “Sketches from a Life”, she recalled: “The marriage lasted just a few months and later, when we were divorced, it was as though it had never happened.”

A year after the start of the war she wrote to the editor of Picture Post, the first British weekly magazine devoted to photojournalism, suggesting that he should commission an article about Vogue. He agreed, and she wrote and organised the text that accompanied the pictures. Organisation was one of her strengths. She was a tall, imposing woman, not far short of six feet, and even if some of her colleagues found her intimidating they respected her talent as a writer and her capacity for getting things done.

The following year Picture Post’s new editor, Tom Hopkinson, asked her to join his staff as women’s editor. It was a period when women were taking over many of the jobs vacated by men who had been conscripted into the armed forces, and much of her work for the magazine reflected that.

For one feature, she and other female journalists spent a few days experiencing this new way of life for working women: her own assignment was as a bus conductor in Coventry. She also initiated articles supporting the campaign to get householders to grow their own food, and offered advice about how to cook and preserve it.

It was on Picture Post that she met her second husband, Macdonald Hastings, the paper’s chief war correspondent as well as an expert in country matters and later a successful author.

They had two children: the elder of them, Max, went on to become editor of The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard. Yet although the marriage lasted 18 years, Anne confessed in her memoir that it had been effectively loveless: “The truth is that we were two decent people who deceived ourselves in the heat of war that we had common tastes, but were totally incompatible.

Mac was very right-wing, I am a convinced liberal. He liked sporting people, I liked artists. His ideal holiday was deer-stalking in Scotland, mine was church-crawling in France.

He had a passion for firearms, which terrify me. We both liked the country, but Mac saw it as a theatre for field sports and I liked looking for flowers in the fields.”

A few weeks before the end of the war she left Picture Post to become editor of Harper’s Bazaar, a women’s magazine in direct competition with Vogue.

She wrote later that the move had been a mistake: it was especially frustrating to be publishing articles about fashionable clothing and food at a time when both were still rationed. None the less, her six years as editor had their high points. She launched Elizabeth David on her career as an influential cookery writer and published the early work of such literary talents as John Mortimer and John Betjeman, who became a good friend.

She left the magazine to write a book, In the Mink, an exposé of the fashion industry, published in 1952.

Soon afterwards she was invited to join the Sunday Express as women’s editor, and was given her own weekly column – the Anne Scott-James page.

She had a roving brief and travelled to some of the world’s major troublespots in the 1950s, notably the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc countries.

In 1959 she was appointed as woman’s adviser to all the Beaverbrook newspapers, including the Daily Express and the London Evening Standard. The following year she moved across Fleet Street to the Daily Mail as a feature writer and a year later she began writing a weekly comment column that attracted a wide following for her astute comments on issues of the day. She much enjoyed the freemasonry of Fleet Street and was especially gratified to be admitted to the company of some of the big names of journalism – nearly all of them men – in their fabled drinking sessions in El Vino’s wine bar.

After her divorce from Macdonald Hastings in 1962 she set up house with her daughter Clare, while Max chose to live with his father. Five years later she married Sir Osbert Lancaster, the cartoonist, writer and designer whose first wife had died three years earlier.

He was best known for the pocket cartoons that he had been drawing for the Daily Express since 1939, featuring the sharp-tongued socialite Maudie Littlehampton.

Some thought that Anne shared many of Maudie’s characteristics, although she cannot have been modelled on his future wife because the two had not met when the cartoon character was born.

Osbert’s public persona was of a pompous English gentleman and on first acquaintance she found him supercilious. After a time she detected that this was merely a mask and by her own account they enjoyed 20 years of happiness until his death in 1986. “I can scarcely believe my good fortune at meeting and being loved by such a man in my middle age,” she wrote.

Soon after that third marriage she gave up her Mail column and began her second career as a freelance garden writer, as a result of an invitation to undertake a series on gardens and gardeners for Queen magazine. In later life she was never sure whether she had made the right decision: certainly she missed the cut and thrust of Fleet Street, and its camaraderie.

Her gardening articles, though, were a great success and were collected into a book in 1971. There followed several other books on the subject.

The two most successful were the story of Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst, Kent, and a brief history of pleasure gardens, for which Osbert provided charming illustrations.

The latter, published in 1977, was written and drawn just after Osbert suffered a stroke which left him with impaired vision. In her memoir, Anne said that she had initiated the book project so as to relieve his depression at his disability. She was modest about her own contribution to it, describing it merely as “a series of essays to accompany a set of drawings on which my husband was suddenly and unexpectedly moved to embark”.

However, it was a fresh and engaging work on a subject that has since been written about in numerous volumes, at greater length but with less insight and economy.

Osbert’s health deteriorated, and for the six years prior to his death he became less and less capable of undertaking the social life that he had so valued. He needed ever more nursing, and Anne provided it uncomplainingly.

In 1978, to her surprise, she was appointed to the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society for a four-year term. She believed that the principal reason for the appointment was to get female representation on the Council; but she took to it enthusiastically and for many years afterwards was a perceptive judge at RHS shows, including Chelsea.

She was a regular at the Chelsea show until the last few years of her life, when she could not get about except in a wheelchair. Although friends and relatives offered to take her there, she declined: after so many years when she had gone on her own two feet, she did not want to be seen there as an invalid, relying on the help of others.

Yet although physically frail, her mind remained sharp to the end, and to keep it so she engaged, well into her nineties, in exercises such as reading Virgil and Flaubert in the original Latin and French.

Michael Leapman

Anne Scott-James, writer and journalist: born 5 April 1913; married 1939 Derek Verschoyle (marriage dissolved), 1944 Macdonald Hastings (marriage dissolved, one son, one daughter), 1967 Sir Osbert Lancaster (died 1986); died 13 May 2009.

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