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Penelope Perrill Has Found the Fountain of Youth

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, July 26, 1931


Penelope Perrill Has Found the Fountain of Youth

By Howard Burba


             After associating in a professional way with Penelope Perrill for more than a dozen years the conclusion has been forced upon me that the reason Ponce de Leon failed in his search for the fountain of youth was due wholly to the fact that he looked for it in the tropics instead of in a newspaper office.

            Penelope Perrill, the most remarkable newspaper woman ever to come under my observation in a long life spent wholly and entirely in the newspaper game in a good many cities, has found the fountain of youth.  The secret of youthfulness, for which mankind has searched since the days of father Adam, is no longer a secret to her.  She found it, along with the secret of success, in the field of literature.

            A fortnight ago admiring friends were halting at Penelope Perrill’s desk in the editorial room of The Dayton Daily News to lay tissue-wrapped and ribbon-tied tokens of love and esteem upon her desk.  About her the rattle of typewriters and the click of telegraph instruments was incessant.

            Up from the depths of the pressroom came the rumble of the heavy presses as they labored at their task, and from the street below came the whine of grinding auto brakes as drivers fought for a place in congested traffic lanes.  Out in the world it was just another day.  In The News office it was an event-for Penelope had reached her 71st milestone!

            Rolling from the typewriter of this silvery-haired ‘tapper of the keys,’ as she so quaintly terms herself, was a sheet of copy paper bearing at a topmost corner the simple words: ‘From the Window.”  Across the way a nervous city editor watched the clock and wondered if it would reach his desk on edition time.  Out in the homes of Miami Valley residents a loyal army of admirers awaited the paper in which that same “copy” would appear.

            The little beaten path that associates have made to her desk was heavy with traffic this day.  Smiles were there, as they always are on the faces of those who visit the desk of “this harried scribe.”  But today they seemed to reflect a more glorious meaning.  And just as the big clock on the wall neared the home edition “deadline,” there was a whirr and a flash as the typed sheet was jerked from its moorings, a “that’s that” as its author tossed it upon the city editor’s desk.  And then she told those of us who had never ceased to marvel at her, a secret the whole world surely must be anxious to learn-how to be youthful at seventy-one.

            Penelope Perrill maintains that her long association with youth is really all there is to the secret.  She was youthful-just 39-when fate turned her a losing card.  That was back in her native city of Columbus and, merely to keep the record straight, just 32 years ago.  A business failure necessitated a quick and radical change in the domestic life to which she had for quite a few years been accustomed.  There were two mouths beside her own to fee, two children dependent upon her for the necessities of life.

            Then fate dealt the cards once more, and she found herself at the desk of the managing editor of The Columbus Dispatch, and applicant for a place on the editorial staff   Through the clouds that had suddenly darkened her sky, there came a gleam of sunshine, an omen of a brighter day.  She was assigned to duty as editor of a page devoted to women and the home. A little later, her ability and enthusiasm having impressed the managing editor, she was assigned to the theaters.  For 15 years she “covered” this department for The Dispatch and later in Dayton.

            But reviewing shows, and especially in an era long before the moving picture had been dreamed of, was at best but a part-time job.  There were leisure hours, if one wanted to idle them away.  Penelope Perrill wasn’t of the idling type.  So she created a new department, and the first of its kind on any Columbus newspaper.  She originated a “Betty Fairfax” column, in contradistinction to the “Beatrice Fairfax” column.

            Then in the passing of time, and through the kindly offices of a newspaper friend in Chicago who at the last moment wouldn’t take the job, she went to London to work for a syndicate.  The syndicate was short-lived, however, and London was then, as now, a long way from Columbus.  Thrown upon her own resources, and once more with a card in her hand that fate apparently made it impossible for her to play, she knew despair.

            “Try being out of a job on the opposite side of the Atlantic ocean, a stranger in a strange land, and with no such thing as thumbing your way home,” she said to me in relating the story of her early struggles in the newspaper game, “and you’ll know what it means to tangle up with fate when said fate is not overly kind.”

            But hours of despair were turned to something approaching joy-and there were experiences.  They must have been of the kind that try the soul, for even as she spoke of them she raised her hand and smilingly said: “Heavens!  Don’t let’s even think of them again!”

            Here the struggle for bread began all over again.  With no permanent employment, it became necessary for her to call upon every resource and to exploit every lead that promised the turning of an honest penny.  She was acquainted in Fleet street she went with the offerings of a free-lance writer.

            The London Daily Mail was the property of Lord Harmsworth, better known in later years as Lord Northcliffe, and on his paper she worked at space-rates.  The few dollars thus gained were sufficient to sustain her, and London, fascinating, beautiful, marvelous-and terrible withal-soon smiled upon her.  The years spent delving into many things brought something of a reputation and the wonder is now how she could have refused Lord Harmsworth’s invitation to remain and assist in handling theaters on The Mail!  Possibly it’s just one of those things only a homesick woman can understand.

            Today in a storehouse of memories she finds joy in recalling that during her stay in London she was the only woman who had, up to that time, been granted an interview with Lord Kitchener, and likewise the first of her sex to personally interview for any newspaper the celebrated Lord Roberts, beloved “Bobs” of the Britons, and commander-in-chief of the British army.

            She was the only person, man or woman, to interview Sarah Bernhardt alone, and without attendants, on her last appearance in this country.  On that occasion she found the Bernhardt private car on a siding in the woods where it had been placed to await the passage of another train.  It was Penelope Perrill who introduced to the great star the word “burr,” her small dog having come frisking from the nearby wood literally covered with them.  Today she recalls Mme. Bernhardt’s hearty laugh as she heard the word, and her translation of it into French as “beurre,” meaning “butter.”  It was on this occasion that Bernhardt explained her lameness, an affection of the knee, and possible the forerunner of the trouble that ended in the amputation of a leg.

            Lord Asquith, not then knighted, was but another of the long line of notables who found it impossible to resist her appeal for an interview.  And that interview she recalls was at famous old No. 10 Downing street.  Here she met Lady Asquith, the famous “Dodo,” though at that time not prominent as an author.  It was the lady of the house who revealed that there had been no bath room in No. 10, until they came, though the lack of it was considered nothing deplorable in those days.

            “They had a quaint old thing that passed for a bath tub,” says Mrs. Perrill, “even though it wouldn’t have been worth powder and lead to blow it up.”

            She interviewed the Duchess of Devonshire, a very proud and haughty lady who insisted that the American must be a “journalist,” and that being one she was, therefore, quite apart from a “reporter.”

            One day she tagged the king of Spain and Princess Ena (later to become the queen of Spain) when these young people escaped from an entourage of servants and roamed through London window-shopping and gazing happily at the trousseau displayed in various windows along Regent and Oxford sts.  These two held hands and chatted happily in French, enjoying themselves hugely and joyously.  It made a marvelous newspaper story, but in that day no one dared to spy on royalty and report such doings.

            “Hush!”  You mustn’t repeat it!  Such doings at Buckingham or Kensington can never be!”  That was about all the satisfaction this American “tapper of the keys” received when she carried to an editorial desk a bit of racy gossip-and yet the truth- from the abode of England’s royal family.  One reads the private affairs of our president and feels quite out of it all unless some bit of gossip is retailed.  But it’s different in “dear old Lunnon.”

            Mrs. Perrill knew Phillip Gibbs, now Sir Phillip.  She spent a day with Ellen Terry at her suburban home not far from London.  She interviewed Sir Henry Irving, Sir Beerbohm Tree, Sir George Bancroft, Sir Charles Wyndham-stars of the British stage.  Her theatrical work in Columbus stood her well in stead during her stay in London.  I have an idea that but for this experience the wolf would have had its tail caught in the door of her London quarters in “Blessed Bloomsbury.”

            Back in her native land she was none the less successful in the matter of face-to-face and heart-to-heart talks with notables.  She recalls a brief conversation with General Grant when a child, when he asked as a pleasantry if she wouldn’t be his little girl: she remembers as though it was only last week when Paul du Chaillu, famous explorer, seriously insisted upon adopting her.  These little incidents are set down here as proof that Penelope Perrill must have been quite a good-looking miss in what some of us still tenderly refer to as “the good old days.”  Can you look at the picture herewith- a picture made less than one week ago-and dispute it?

            We talked of the other highlights in her busy, crowded life, back even to the days when pinafores were the pride of her girlish wardrobe.  She recalled the funeral of Abraham Lincoln as though it were yesterday.  She was a girl in Columbus then-just five years of age.  But graven on her memory is a picture of the crepe-decked funeral train and the vast seas of faces along High st. as the casket containing the martyred chief of a war-torn nation was borne to the Capital where it lay in state.

             Penelope Perrill was the first American woman to make a flight in a hydro-lane.  Though it was, she confesses, an inocuous one, it was a thrill no other woman had enjoyed up to that time.  That is why she doubtless feels an inclination to smile when someone speaks of Amelia Earhart and Ruth Elders as being “pioneer” birdwomen.  Yet don’t imagine for a split-second that Penelope Perrill would think of detracting from their well-earned fame along aviation lines.  She has had more fun in 71 years on earth than all the women aviators in all the world will have in all the years to come.

            For 13 years, day in and day out, Penelope Perrill has tapped the keys of a much abused typewriter in the office of The Daily News.  True, you know her best as the author of “From the Window,” or for her book and musical reviews.  We who work along side of her know here for a genius far beyond these simple tasks.  Is there any type of “story” going into the makeup of a modern daily newspaper that Penelope Perrill hasn’t covered-or can cover again if the necessity arises?  The answer is an emphatic “No!”

            Every day this woman 71 years young, rides from her home in the pretty little village of West Milton, 17 miles removed, to her desk in The News office.  And every day she comes with an enthusiasm that is an inspiration to those who work alongside her.  Happily and ideally married to Dr. Gainor Jennings, one of the best known physicians of Miami co.’ affectionately enshrined in the hearts of a son and two grandchildren in Seattle and a daughter and granddaughter in Dayton, she knows the joy of home-life.

            She loves life-and how she loves it!  She has suffered mental terrors; unhappiness, doubt-yet she has smiled through them all and from all of them emerged with an abiding faith in all humanity.  “No one wants tears” has always been Penelope Perrill’s doctrine.  She has learned that always there is happiness just around the corner, so she smiles and travels on happily hoping that THE corner will be the next one she come to.  She knows it will be something fine and splendid when it does come-she has waited so long for glimpses of glory, when the average person, one more faint of heart and more shallow in faith, would have quit in despair.  But always the fine and splendid things she hoped for appeared - and always they brought renewed patience and added faith.

            Penelope Perrill lays claim to being Ohio’s oldest newspaper woman-in point of service.  She has spent exactly 32 years and six months at “the desk.”  If there is another claimant to this honor-with a desk record to equal that-we have not learned her name.  Alice VanSickle lays claim to longer years of service, but this excellent newspaper woman counts many of her years as a free-lance writer.  Mrs. Perrill has been “in the harness” and “on the pay-roll” during the entire time of her newspaper work.

            Out in the news room a little while ago, the reflected sunlight streaming upon her hair and giving it the brilliance of molten silver, I watched her as she tidied up her desk preparatory to the daily bus ride back to her home in West Milton.  Now a pause to answer the telephone, now turning to smile and pass a word of cheer with a nearby co-worker, halting just a moment to fit a few books more snugly beneath her arms- books she will read and tell you about a little later on.

            Then I caught her eye and summoned her aside.

            “I don’t know another thing to tell you-go on and write what you will,” she said, guessing my thoughts.

            “You’ve told me that the secret of your long life in the newspaper game is an association with young hearts.  Now, listen.  After experiencing all the things you have experienced, why are you in Dayton?”

            “And she quoted the Bard:

            “‘He that hath a wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprises, to great enterprise either of virtue or mischief.’  Women, you know, have been known to give hostages to fortune!  But hostage are nice things don’t you think?”