Amol Rajan, the new editor of the Independent, is being widely congratulated for becoming the first non-white from an ethnic background to be named editor of a national newspaper in the UK. The 29-year-old Calcutta-born Rajan deserves every good wish, but he’s not the first to have broken through.
Rachel Sassoon Beer, editor of the Sunday Times and the Observer between 1894 and 1902, claimed that title more than a century ago. Her story is fascinating— and heartbreaking.
Beer was born in Bombay in 1858 into the super-rich and philanthropic Sassoon family of pro-British Baghdadi Jews. They made their fortune on opium and cotton after establishing themselves in Bombay, where the patriarch David Sassoon fled after being banished from Baghdad by the pasha. Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh describes them as a family “which had hobnobbed with English kings, intermarried with the Rothschilds.” Rachel was David Sassoon’s granddaughter (and aunt to the poet Siegfried Sassoon). When her father was sent to England to expand the cotton business, Rachel and her mother joined him.
Beer’s extraordinary life story is lucidly and honestly related in a recent biography, The First Lady of Fleet Street by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. “First Lady of Fleet Street” is a worthy sobriquet for someone who was Britain’s first non-white editor, first woman editor, and its only editor to simultaneously edit two rival Sunday newspapers. Both papers were owned by her husband Frederick Beer.
Aha! you think. A proprietor’s wife who rode his coattails to the editor’s chair. Not quite. While there’s no doubt that her wealth and social status helped—the Beers entertained the Prince of Wales and were thick with the Gladstones—let’s not forget that Rachel was a Jewish woman who became editor in an anti-Semitic, misogynist era when women were not allowed to vote, banned from libraries, and denied university degrees because of the belief that too much brain work caused breakdowns and infertility. This superstition would come back to haunt Beer.
Excluded though she was from the news tips passed around with the port, Beer quickly proved her editorial chops. A natural newspaperwoman, she relished a good political dust-up and used her editorials to champion social change. Women journalists were expected to write on gardens, home and food, but Beer’s first editorial in the Sunday Times discussed the Sino-Japanese war over Korea and the implications of the Russian tsar’s illness. As an editor, her political views were mixed. She was unambiguously in favour of women’s advancement and union and worker rights, and campaigned for a Public Amusements Bill advocating the use of culture to prevent crime and to reform criminals. She was also a cheerleading imperialist and—no surprise—an ardent fan of her Bombay-born compatriot, Rudyard Kipling. Her weekly editorial bore the legend “What should they know of England, who only England know?”—a line from Kipling’s poem The English Flag. “I am an Imperialist but I want to be an Imperialist peacefully,” she once said. This comes off as naïve or, worse, disingenuous, and recalls her editorial defending the opium trade against the indefensible charge of it being an evil racket.
Biographers Negev and Koren say the Beers did their utmost to assimilate into English society, taking things to parodic levels when they had their English coat of arms razored onto the back of their black French poodle, Latin inscription included. But Rachel also made no attempt to hide her Eastern roots. One room in their Mayfair mansion was designed in the Moorish style with poufs and hookahs. Sartorially, she liked to break out the Indian bling—ropes of pearls, shoulder-to-arm coral-and-gold bracelets, and a diamond tiara. Her “oriental aristocratic features” frequently provoked comment. One newspaper proprietor remarked snidely that the Beers’ complexions had “a suggestion of un-European darkness.” Most vicious of all were the jottings of the notorious French anti-Semite Charles Esterhazy who described her as having “a blackish chicken neck, plucked of all its feathers,” “the most fantastic Jewish nose that was ever produced by the twelve tribes,” and “a ruffled mane, not curly but woolly—characteristic of this race, and badly dyed with piss-colour henna.”
Beer had the last laugh, though, because it was Esterhazy who gave her her shining hour as an editor presiding over the biggest story to rock Europe at the time—the Dreyfus affair. Beer broke the mother of all scoops in the Observer by wresting a paid confession from Esterhazy of having, under orders, forged a document to frame the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus of being a traitor and a spy. The gross injustice of the Dreyfus conviction and the imprisonment of Emile Zola for writing J’accuse made Beer into a passionate Dreyfusard and dynamo of editorial leadership, earning her the respect of her two newsrooms.
What broke her was the strain of nursing her beloved husband through a long illness while simultaneously bringing out two Sunday papers. After Frederick’s death she found herself unable to write her editorials, and was sometimes found to be incoherent. Worried that she might bestow her fortune on the many charities she patronised, her family stepped in. Stunningly, when she was 45, after one interview, she was declared insane. The lunacy expert, one Dr Savage, who diagnosed her, was the same doctor who also certified Virginia Woolf a year later. Beer was too broken to fight, but Woolf had her revenge by using Savage as the model for the “almost infallible” nerve doctor Sir William Bradshaw in Mrs. Dalloway.
Declared unsound, Beer was not allowed to write her own will, and her brother filed to be executor. “Can this be so?” asked the astonished judge. “I thought she had been the person editing the Observer.” But it was so, and her massive fortune and jewels were divided among her waiting nephews, among them the great but grasping war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote a gleeful little ditty in anticipation of his inheritance from “Auntie Rachel.” The two newspapers, now rudderless and with sinking circulations, were sold.
In her public and private life, Rachel Sassoon Beer inhabited a no-woman’s land. Her intensely conservative Baghdadi Jewish family disowned her for marrying Beer. Though Beer’s family was from Frankfurt’s ghetto, they had converted to Anglicanism. Rachel chose to be baptised too. But when she died in 1927 aged 69, the Church didn’t consider her Christian enough, so she was buried in unconsecrated ground. Her wish to be lain alongside her husband at Highgate was unfulfilled. Her tombstone had no mention of him, reading: “Daughter of David Sassoon.” Shamefully, the Sunday Times carried not so much as a line marking her death. Her coffin was covered with her favourite flowers, forget-me-nots. A final irony in the life of an extraordinary woman destined to be repeatedly forgotten.
Nina Martyris is the culture editor for The Times of India Crest