If you were asked to name the most popular woman author of the early twentieth century, what names would you recall? Perhaps it would be Edna Ferber, author of Showboat and Giant, Pearl Buck, who wrote exotic stories about China, or Betty Smith whose novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn topped the best-seller list for weeks.
But what about Elsie Robinson? Her name is unlikely to spring to mind, yet during the first half of the 1900s, she was the most widely read female author in America. Why has she been forgotten?
Elsie Robinson was born in 1883, in Benicia, California, a town at the outer edge of the San Francisco Bay area. The community had been developed during the last years of the California gold rush and was still filled with the adventurous spirit of the miners who had built it. Elsie was sent to the only public school in town and was an excellent student, but when she graduated, her parents did not have the money to send her on for higher education.
There were few opportunities at that time for an ambitious girl to get education or to find work, so Elsie turned to the traditional option of marrying an educated and prosperous man. Elsie felt that she was lucky when the pastor of her church introduced her to Christie Crowell, a young widower, who had come to California to visit friends and recover after the death of his wife. He was introduced to Elsie by the pastor of her church and soon found they had many interests in common. After months of courtship, Elsie and Christie became engaged, but their path to marriage was not smooth. Crowell’s family refused to sanction the marriage unless Elsie travelled to their home state, Vermont, and attended finishing school. Elsie agreed, so she took the train across the country by herself, to spend a year at the boarding school. After graduation, she and Christie had a quiet wedding at the Crowell family home. Elsie’s own family was not at the wedding because they could not afford the long trip across the country.
Elsie tried to fit herself into a traditional married life, but there was trouble from the start. She did not feel at home with the Crowell family and had difficulty fitting in with their conservative ideas, while her husband accepted their views completely. In those days women were often told that having a baby would ensure a happy marriage, but even that didn’t work for Elsie. Her only son, George, was born in 1904 with severe asthma, which he did not outgrow. Even after he started school, he was frequently confined to his home when he should have been in the classroom. Elsie, of course, was confined with him.
During her long, quiet days at home, Elsie began writing and illustrating stories to entertain her son and soon realized that she was good at the work. She began to search out opportunities for publishing her stories. When she gathered her courage and sent a story to the local newspaper, they published it and asked for more. Finally she found an agent who specialized in publishing articles and stories for children and distributing them by mail. At last she had an outlet for her energy. Before long she was hired to illustrate two books for children and she began to believe she might have found a career for herself.
But still she and her husband continued to drift apart and George continued to suffer from bouts of asthma. Eventually, Elsie made up her mind to take George to California where she believed his health would improve.
Elsie took George to California in 1912 and was able to find several jobs in writing and editing. Her ability to illustrate her own work made her more valuable than most other writers. Unfortunately, she was not able to earn enough money writing books to support herself and her son.
But Elsie would not give up. In 1915, she moved to a mining community and started working as a laborer in the gold mines. Few other women would have attempted such hard, physical labor, but Elsie was determined to survive. It was a difficult life, and she was the only woman working in the mine. As months went by, she was able to succeed and to earn the respect of the other miners. Gold mining, however, was a dying industry in California and the mine closed in 1918.
Elsie moved back to San Francisco, more determined than ever to find a career in writing. She persisted, sending material to newspapers and publishers. She wrote articles for newspapers in both Oakland and San Francisco and her readership grew with each new column. Her most famous column was called Listen World, which soon became known nationwide.
By 1921, she was hired by William Randolph Hearst to write for his string of newspapers. She signed a contract for $20,000 a year, making her the highest paid journalist in the country. After that, Elsie Robinson did not have to worry about being able to earn a living.
A few years after reaching this goal, however, in 1926, Elsie lost her son George. He had never completely overcome his asthma and died of a respiratory illness. Elsie never got over his loss. Her life then became filled with work. Having lived through a scandalous divorce from her first husband, Elsie wrote a memoir that sold well. She had two other husbands, both of whom seemed better at spending her money than in earning their own.
When Elsie died in 1956, she was still writing columns and influencing people. But today most of her work has disappeared from public view. Fortunately, we now have a biography, Listen World: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert (2022). It is good to see samples of Elsie Robinson’s columns available again.