Millicent Fenwick, Her Way Millicent Fenwick, Her Way
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  Amy Schapiro   Interview with
Amy Schapiro

Q: What inspired you to write a book on Millicent Fenwick?

A: My history professor in college, Charles McLaughlin, told his students to choose a thesis topic that we were interested in enough to write a book about it. For me, a seed was planted and this book was born.

Q: What were your perceptions of Fenwick before you began your research? Did they change, and if so, how?

A: It was actually my Mom's idea to focus on Millicent Fenwick as the subject of my history thesis. When I began my research on Fenwick I knew very little about her. I thought she was a senator from NJ when in reality she served in the House of Representatives (after four terms in congress she decided to run for the U.S. Senate, but lost). As I began my research I quickly learned she was much more than the “pipe-smoking grandmother." I had no idea that her mother died on the Lusitania or that she was a descendant of the Stevens family who were instrumental in founding Hoboken, NJ and the Stevens Institute of Technology. Every corner I turned was filled with more interesting tidbits on her life, from modeling to writing Vogue's Book of Etiquette.

Q: You are the first author to have access to her personal papers, through her son, Hugh. How did that happen? Were there any restrictions? What specific insights did you gain from those papers?

A: I met Hugh Fenwick at his mother's funeral. I had conducted a telephone interview with him five months earlier for my college thesis. Following the funeral I was invited back to the Fenwick home for a reception. Hugh and I stayed in touch and within a year he granted me the exclusive authorization rights to his mother's private papers. This included unlimited access to the Fenwick attic in which I found correspondence from Millicent's father, grandmother, and of course, her. The most valuable items were her personal journals, photographs, and correspondence with her husband. Hugh discovered these precious items in his mother's nightstand following her death. This material gave me a much greater understanding of the private Fenwick. There were no restrictions on the material nor did Hugh ask for editorial license to change anything that I wrote.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Fenwick?

A: There were so many things. Learning about her short-lived marriage was one of the most interesting things I discovered and I think readers will enjoy learning about it as well in the “Love, Scandal, Marriage" chapter. After her husband left her with two children to raise, Fenwick exemplified the strong single professional mother long before women were commonly in the work place.

Q: Fenwick came from a privileged background, but after separating from her husband, she was for a time, an unemployed single mother with tremendous debts incurred by her husband—all this during the Depression. How did she end up beginning her career as a writer and editor for Vogue during this difficult time?

A: Luck. Her friend, Minnie Astor, sat next to Conde Nast at a Newport dinner party and he asked Mrs. Astor if she knew anyone interested in writing for Vogue. At the time, Fenwick was an aspiring writer looking for a literary agent. Although an agent ended up rejecting her material, Millicent landed the job at Vogue as a caption writer. She gradually moved up and wrote some feature stories and Vogue's Book of Etiquette in 1948.

Q: How did Fenwick become so actively involved in politics? What made her decide to run for public office?

A: She often credited others with urging her to run for office, but she was always active in the community beginning with the local board of education. After she retired from Vogue she became more engaged in statewide activity in the Republican Party and eventually was elected as a state assemblywoman before running for Congress. Although she emerged rapidly on the national political scene she had been active in grass roots politics for decades.

Q: Fenwick, a woman who never graduated from high school, was truly a groundbreaker for women in government, as a Congresswoman. What made her so successful? What drove her?

A: She often quoted Woodrow Wilson, “The business of government is justice," and she strongly adhered to that principle. Fenwick's passion for her work and desire to rid the world of injustice was what motivated her, but it was her personal touch that made her successful. She genuinely cared about the welfare of her constituents, listened intently to their concerns, followed up on issues brought to her attention, and spent hours responding to constituents with handwritten letters. The public loved her style, candidness, and integrity. Her strong moral beliefs prompted Walter Cronkite to call her the “Conscience of Congress."

Q: Was Fenwick truly the inspiration for Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury character Lacey Davenport?

A: I'll leave it up to the reader to determine if Fenwick was the inspiration for Davenport.

Q: What do you think her professional legacy is?

A: She was passionate about protecting human rights around the world. During her freshman year in Congress, Fenwick was the primary architect behind the establishment of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which still exists more than a quarter century later. This bipartisan commission was unique in that it paired members of the legislative and executive branches together, something that then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried unsuccessfully to foil.

Q: What is your goal in publishing this book? What do you most want readers to know about Fenwick?

A: There are several memoirs, but few biographies about female legislators. I think a lot can be learned from Fenwick's life that I hope would inspire others interested in pursuing a life of public service. I think she embodies the type of politician the public is yearning for—a candid, straight-talking, sincere, and hard-working elected official. Because she led such a full-life, I wanted to give readers the whole picture of who she was and how that shaped her as a public figure. I want the reader to see her as more than a caricature, as someone who made a difference.