McDonald, Lucile S. (1898-1992)

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 10/01/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11121

Lucile Saunders McDonald distinguished herself in the fields of journalism and popular history through a prolific lifetime career that produced several thousand news features and columns, 13 published books on local history, an equal number of children's books, and countless contributions to magazines, journals, and anthologies. By the age of 23 she could call herself the first female news editor in Oregon, the first woman general-assignment reporter for the Portland Oregonian, and the first female news reporter in South America. From 1942 to 1966 she was a popular feature writer for The Seattle Times. In later life she enjoyed a reputation as a local historian, in demand as a speaker for clubs, school groups, and historical societies.

Early Years

Lucile Saunders was born in Portland, Oregon, on September 1, 1898. Her father, Frank Saunders (1861-1930), worked for much of Lucile's youth in a cracker factory owned by his wife's family in California. Her mother, Rosa Wittenberg Saunders (1867-1944), was critical and demanding and suffered from epilepsy. Her sister, Iris (1906-1999), was eight years younger. With a mostly absentee father and an emotionally distant mother, Lucile found herself left to her own devices at a young age.

Lucile graduated from high school at the age of 16 with dreams of a career in newspapers, but her parents made it clear they could not help with her goal of attending the journalism program at the University of Oregon in Eugene. She did receive encouragement from Judge John H. Stephenson, a neighbor and mentor who had been a reporter in his youth. Excerpts from Lucile's diary in 1915 provide a window to her thoughts:

"August 30: I am thinking about work and am not feeling very gay. I have watched the want adds [sic] in the papers every morning and have not seen a thing that would fit me. The college question is still undecided. September 1: My birthday -- I am 17. September 10: Have decided to go to college and am too busy preparing for it. Think of it, college with $24.85 in my purse. No one thinks I can do it but here's where I cut loose and try. ... September 12: Well, I'm here! Domiciled as a hired girl in a nice little room with a Turkey red comforter on the bed. That was my first impression last night" ("Lucile Saunders McDonald: Her Freshman Year ...," 2-3).

For about two years Lucile stuck it out at the university earning, mediocre grades but gaining valuable experience on the school paper, the Oregon Emerald, as well as on the Eugene Daily Guard, the city's newspaper. With little financial support from her parents (her father sent her cookies and crackers from the factory and an occasional dollar bill), she eked out a living with a litany of menial jobs and shared living situations. It was easy to become discouraged. At one point she wrote in her diary:

"I wonder when this ne'er-do-well stunt will cease to be. It is rather interesting, if unprofitable, while it lasts. As a last recourse there is always the choo choo back to Portland" ("Lucile Saunders McDonald: Her Freshman Year ...," 19).

At the age of 18, without a degree, Lucile Saunders embarked on a series of short-term jobs with various newspapers throughout Oregon. Dogged job-seeking landed her an interim stint as society reporter (the only "woman's job" she ever held) at The Coos Bay Times, which lasted a scant month and ended with Lucile enduring a drunken rant from the editor. This was followed by nine months as a beat reporter and news editor at The Bend Bulletin, a year and a half at The Oregon Statesman in Salem as telegraph editor, and a longer stint at The Oregonian in Portland, where she started as a glorified receptionist and worked her way up to general assignment reporter. Opportunities arose, in part, when male workers were called to serve their country in World War I.

With seemingly boundless energy, she tackled any and all assignments. She earned a reputation as a woman unafraid to go out at night on assignment, enter an opium den, or ride a captured German U-Boat down the Columbia River. She often took on extra work, learning nearly every aspect of the business from selling advertisements and working in the bindery to writing headlines and dummying up pages.

Adventures

By the age of 22 Lucile Saunders was a young woman with a variety of journalistic job experience tucked under her belt. She had worked for six newspapers in five years and might have continued on that course, but she was a woman of ambition looking to rise above the pack. With a dose of high school Spanish behind her, she conceived a plan to travel alone to South America and try her luck as a foreign correspondent.

On New Year's Day, 1921, she embarked on a five-month southward journey with Buenos Aires as her goal. Along the way she collected story material and submitted features to trade and travel publications in the U.S. Her most successful venture was the difficult side trip to Machu Picchu by horse and foot. The famed "Lost City of the Incas" in Peru had been "discovered" by American historian Hiram Bingham just a decade before. Lucile McDonald counted herself the first white woman ever to have visited the site; she proudly wrote in her memoirs that she sold the story of the adventure to five different publications.

Arriving at her destination, Lucile was able to obtain employment with both The Buenos Aires Herald and the local branch of the United Press (UP) wire service. In that city she earned the nickname La Lechuza, the night owl, for her habit of walking out alone at night in quest of stories. A year later, with hopes of a job with UP in the States, she headed to New York City. Among her catalog of "firsts" she now listed first female general-news reporter in South American, first female press-association night editor, and first female foreign correspondent for trade papers (The Timberman and The American Exporter).

A year in the Big Apple brought both new experiences and new frustrations as she had to prove herself all over again to the head of the New York UP office. She did have a chance to hone her interview skills with some high-powered luminaries, including Irving Berlin, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Dr. Adolf Lorenz, and Thomas Edison; the latter provided only written answers to a set of questions. A disastrous interview with famed dancer Isadora Duncan ended with Lucile being thrown out of her hotel suite for asking personal questions.

Travels with Mac

Lucile Saunders married her Oregon "heart interest," Harold D. "Mac" McDonald (1898-1971), on Christmas Eve, 1922, in New York City (A Foot in the Door, 75). They were both 24 years old. She kept the event a secret from her employer, who did not approve of married women working.

From this point on McDonald struggled to balance marriage and family with her career in an era when that was a foreign concept. In her autobiography she wrote:

"From the time we married my remaining career was influenced by our desire to be together in surroundings that suited him. I loved Mac and had had my fling in South America. It was time to do something for him even though it meant a sacrifice of my ambitions" (A Foot in the Door, 113).

Nonetheless, in the very next paragraph she describes promising a series of articles to a New York paper about their cross-country honeymoon trip.

Marriage brought new opportunities for travel beginning with that honeymoon road trip from New York back to Portland. A photo of the happy couple at a campground shows Lucile's Corona typewriter set up on a packing box.

Mac, a student and forest-service worker when Lucile met him, rose rapidly in the service of Caterpillar Tractor Company. In 1925 his work took the young couple to Cordova, Alaska, where Lucile obtained work at The Cordova Daily Times as a reporter and editor. Far from the demands of big-city journalism, she made the most of things by seeking out human interest stories from the locals, a practice that served her well in her developing career as a feature writer.

Mac's career path then led to the Near East and Europe, with stays in Istanbul, Athens, Alexandria, Budapest, and Paris. Son Richard was born in 1927 in Paris. While stationed in Istanbul, Lucile served as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Returning to the States in 1932 the family settled in Wenatchee for several years, but soon relocated again, first to Mexico City and then to New York City. They finally settled permanently in the Seattle area in 1940 -- first in the Windermere neighborhood and then on the Eastside near Kirkland. Everywhere she lived McDonald absorbed information and local color for both her freelance journalistic efforts and future book ideas.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, with their son grown, Lucile and Mac were able to travel for leisure. They took a number of trips to exotic locations, including Bangkok, the Azores, New Zealand, Australia, and the South Pacific, as well as returning to Europe and the Middle East. As always, McDonald used the experiences to produce a number of feature stories for The Seattle Times, her employer at the time.

McDonald wrote little of her home life. There were difficulties: Her husband, ever the traveling salesman, was often absent. Later he developed serious medical problems which at times required the services of a home-care nurse. Son Richard acknowledged that his father became addicted to painkillers in his later years ("Talk about Lucile ..."). Mac died in 1971. Shortly thereafter, McDonald moved to a home in Bellevue's Enetai neighborhood close to her son and his family.

In 1935 Lucile and Mac adopted a three-year old girl named Carol. The child had emotional problems, likely stemming from a traumatic separation from her birth family. She eventually became a ward of the state and had little contact with her adoptive family thereafter.

New Opportunities: The Times years

World War I helped McDonald get her "foot in the door," as she liked to put it, in the field of journalism. World War II brought similar opportunities for women, as many men were conscripted or volunteered for war service. After Pearl Harbor housewives were expected to pitch in where they were able and McDonald paid her dues rolling bandages, doing child care for mothers working in the defense industry, and attending a course designed to prepare for the possibility of the evacuation of children from the coast. She soon acknowledged that for her this type of work was "drudgery" (McConaghy interview) and set her sights on returning to newspaper work. With the help of a friend on the staff of The Seattle Times she was able to obtain a position as a copy reader (copy editor) for that paper in 1942. One of her duties, she recalled, was to screen all the comic strips for anything off-color.

Within the year McDonald was able to move up to work in the Features Department, where she felt her true calling lay. Her first feature, an illustrated story about the filling of Seattle's tide flats titled "Seattle's 'Made Land,'" appeared December 27, 1942.

Altogether she spent 23 years at the Times, the most prolific period of her life, turning out some 1,200 feature stories, in addition to book reviews and news articles. Although officially retiring in 1966, she continued to provide occasional stories and reviews for the paper for another decade.

McDonald worked with a number of staff photographers at the Times. She enjoyed a long, productive relationship with artist Parker McAllister (1903-1970), who turned out remarkable watercolor illustrations based on photographs for the covers of paper's Sunday magazine. Their collaboration began with a series on the pioneers of Washington in the year of the territory's centennial, 1953. For the next 12 years the two explored many corners of the state for original stories. A number of features sprang from McAllister and McDonald's shared interest in the early explorers of the state's coastline.

McDonald's efforts for the paper included a 32-part series based on the diaries of pioneer James G. Swan (1818-1900) that appeared between 1959 and 1962, a 42-parter about the maritime explorations of the Pacific Northwest appearing from 1954 to 1956, and a series on islands of Puget Sound (1960), as well as numerous features and human interest stories on non-historical topics. The James Swan series, which became the basis for one of McDonald's history books, Swan Among the Indians (1972), brought Swan's diaries, with their fascinating firsthand accounts of both pioneer society and Northwest Indian cultures, to widespread attention. In the course of her research McDonald transcribed nine volumes of the diaries, a great service to future researchers as the transcripts were considerably more legible than the fading pencil scrawls that made up much of the originals.

A Man's World

Although the twentieth century brought more and more women into the work force, it was still a man's world in the journalistic trades. McDonald was fully aware of the need to prove herself in an arena where she encountered everything from skepticism and protectiveness to open hostility and harassment.

McDonald's papers are peppered with reminders of the difficulties facing a woman job seeker in a man's world: The Oregonian wrote her, "If we decide to employ women as copyreaders, your application will have first consideration," and the publisher of The Oregon City Enterprise told her, "I am not going to be responsible for a girl out alone as late as you'd have to be" (A Foot in the Door, 31, 49.)

In a letter to a friend shortly after beginning at The Seattle Times she described the atmosphere of the newsroom during World War II:

"I work for a man who is a bearcat. When he blows up, the air is blue with smoke -- profane smoke. His vocabulary is extraordinary, but thus far none of it has been directed at me. He got over saying, as he did when I first came there, that I was 'that damned woman.' ... One of the girls said I ought to be thankful to have a desk of my own, as I work in a quiet corner. Most of the other women are handed around from one roost to another. The place is full of women. They filled up one section of four desks with them and called the place Virgin Island" (quoted in McConaghy interview).

She prided herself on doing a "man's job." In an oral history interview, she explained to Lorraine McConaghy the difference between women's work and men's work in the newspaper field:

"When I went into newspaper work, the average newspaper had a society editor and a woman's club editor, and a newspaper like The Times or The Oregonian would have one woman on general assignment. So my aspiration was to be that woman on general assignment. And that was all I supposed I could do to get ahead. But when [World War I] came along, editing jobs opened up, and all kinds of reporting jobs" (McConaghy interview).

New Ventures

Beginning in her thirties, McDonald began a second career as a writer of children's books. Her contributions to juvenile literature included non-fiction and historical fiction books for children and a series of 11 mystery books aimed at teenage girls, as well as many stories published in children's magazines. The mystery books, written in partnership with local author and writing teacher Zola Ross (1912-1989), often drew on historical themes and places familiar to McDonald. In the 1956 Mystery of the Long House ("Romance and danger for Barbara as she digs up the secrets of the past"), the heroine is chased by a bull, assists with an archaeological dig on the fictional Cordova Island in the San Juans, and encounters a mysterious house with an unfinished interior, all incidents drawn from McDonald's own adventures.

Travels with her young son, Dick, spurred McDonald to write educational books for children. Her first effort, Dick and the Spice Cupboard, a child's fantasy of being escorted down the Corridor of Time by talking spices, appeared in 1936. Another successful volume, the Giant with Four Arms, was inspired by Dick's fascination with windmills on the island of Rhodes.

As she cultivated her knowledge and love of local history, McDonald turned to writing books drawing on the body of research she was building through her journalistic efforts. The first to appear was Washington Yesterdays (1953), a compilation of the features she and artist Parker McAllister had produced for The Seattle Times on the occasion of the territorial centennial. Thirteen more history books followed.

She found others to work with, including Swiss-born photographer Werner Lenggenhager (1899-1988), with whom she collaborated on two pictorial histories about Washington architecture. In 1987 she partnered with her son, Richard, on the book The Coals of Newcastle.

After leaving the Times, she immersed herself in the affairs of several historical societies, in particular the Marymoor Museum in Redmond and the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society (PSMHS). With an interest in boats and maritime history, McDonald offered her writing skills to the society's journal, The Sea Chest. Although she chafed at having to submit her articles for review by an editorial board, she eventually joined that group and contributed a total of 91 articles to the journal, more than any other author. Mike Mjelde, a past editor of The Sea Chest, recalled her contributions:

"When I became editor of The Sea Chest in 1991, Lucile was considered a valuable member of the editorial board because of her depth of knowledge. We viewed her as an honored member and she helped us in choosing suitable articles for publication. We also appreciated her giving us permission to publish excerpts from her [unpublished] maritime history of the Washington Coast" (Mjelde email).

McDonald was active in a number of professional organizations for writers and journalists, notably the Seattle Free Lances, an organization of local writers she joined in 1942. She remained an active member for the rest of her life, even writing up a short history of the group a few months before her death. She and Zola Ross spearheaded the first Pacific Northwest Writers' Conference in 1956.

An Active Retirement

McDonald stayed active as a writer until the end of her days. Decades of interviews and collected material on a multitude of topics provided fodder for books, articles, and newspaper columns even when she was no longer able to travel widely. During the years 1977 to 1987 she penned more than 400 weekly columns for The Bellevue Journal American under the heading "East Side Yesterday."

Shirley Will, a friend from Puget Sound Maritime, recalled visiting McDonald at her home on Lake Washington in Juanita, where the family had moved in 1945:

"She had a bedroom up to here with file cabinets ... taller than she was. She was a little lady. She had everything organized in beige-colored file cabinets" (Will interview).

In her last years McDonald held out hope of seeing a few unpublished manuscripts finally in print. One in particular, the perhaps poorly-titled Guardians of the Cannibal Coast, was a collection of historical essays about the Washington coast. She also planned a book about the Columbia River and one about Spanish explorers in the Northwest. Diminishing interest in her books became a constant frustration for her. In one letter to a publisher she writes:

"My former markets have changed owners or gone out of business and I am completely out of touch with the trade. You would never know that for about 18 years I edited the Seattle Times book page along with my other duties or that my name is on 31 books as either author or co-author" (McDonald to "Mr. Bolotin").

She then goes on to enumerate several unsold manuscripts, including both non-fiction volumes and children's books. In discussing the latest rejection of a juvenile mystery with a book editor she comments "I realize that in this age of 'Star Wars' it is plainly old fashioned" (McDonald to "Gloria").

The last book published before her death was a history of the San Juan Islands, a compilation of 68 articles that had appeared in The Friday Harbor Journal.

Even death could not stop her. Her final published works appeared after she passed away in 1992. These were a collection of her articles from The Journal American, edited by historian Lorraine McConaghy and brought out under the title Lucile McDonald's Eastside Notebook (1993), and her autobiography, A Foot in the Door: The Reminiscences of Lucile McDonald (1995), edited by her son Richard McDonald and fleshed out with passages from her diaries and correspondence.

Legacy

Lucile McDonald was no armchair historian. She put herself on the front lines, often traveling quite literally to the ends of the earth to interview locals in remote spots. A photo taken in her late fifties shows her sitting in a canoe jotting down notes while speaking to a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe on the shore. Little that she collected was wasted: Interviews became articles, articles became books, and unpublished books were plundered for articles.

While she may not have been as scrupulous as some in sourcing her material, McDonald nevertheless made extensive use of primary-source documents, drawing on old maps and land-use documents, correspondence, journals, and other papers found in archives. A great deal of her work was drawn from personal interviews, a habit of an experienced journalist. Although rarely taped or transcribed (she relied mostly on hand-written notes), these interviews served as a treasure trove of oral history before that term came into wide circulation.

Some have noted a tendency toward sentimentality or melodrama in her writing, particularly early on, a common phenomenon of the day. However, any deficiencies in the quality of her writing were balanced by the sheer volume of her output.

McDonald passed away from pancreatic cancer on June 23, 1992, at the age of 93. Granddaughter Kathleen McDonald described visiting her grandmother in the last weeks of her life to find her "holding court to people visiting her, interviewing her, calling her and asking for information. My grandmother would often be resting in the living room with people working at her dining table" (K. McDonald email).

Recognition for Lucile McDonald came in the form of awards from the Washington State Historical Society (1980 and 1981), the National Science Teachers Association (1981), the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild (1987), the Bellevue Arts Commission (1989), and many others. On March 9, 1991, McDonald was honored at a women's history conference in Bellevue; Washington First Lady Jean Gardner (b. 1938) presented her with a certificate signed by Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) proclaiming that day Lucile McDonald Day.

Historian Lorraine McConaghy summed up McDonald's legacy in her introduction to A Foot in the Door:

"She never forgot her 'audience,' as she called her readers, and tried to write for everyone. Lucile Saunders McDonald was a popular historian and a historical journalist. That was a noble calling, and she was eminently successful at it" (p. xviii).


Sources: Lucile McDonald with Richard McDonald, A Foot in the Door: The Reminiscences of Lucile McDonald (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1995); Eleanor Boba interview with Kathleen L. McDonald, September 5, 2015, notes in possession of Eleanor Boba, Seattle, Washington; Eleanor Boba interview with Shirley Will, August 13, 2015, audiofile in possession of Eleanor Boba; Kathleen L. McDonald, email to Eleanor Boba, September 5, 2015, in possession of Eleanor Boba; Mike Mjelde, email to Eleanor Boba, September 2, 2015, in possession of Eleanor Boba; Ron Burke, email to Eleanor Boba, July 24, 2015, in possession of Eleanor Boba; Megan Carlisle, "Lucile McDonald -- A Lifetime of History," Eastside Heritage Center Heritage Reflector, December 2008, p. 4; "The Keeper of Eastside History -- The Story of Lucile McDonald," Eastside Heritage Center Heritage Reflector, spring 2015, pp. 1-2; Richard McDonald, "Talk about Lucile to the Bellevue Historical Society," typescript dated May 16, 1996, Richard McDonald Collection, Eastside Heritage Center, Bellevue, Washington; Lorraine McConaghy interview with Lucile McDonald, April 6, 1985, transcript in Life on the Homefront Collection, Museum of History and Industry, Seattle; Vivian Elvidge interview with Lucile McDonald, April 6, 1989, transcript in possession of Eastside Heritage Center, Bellevue. Washington; Lucile McDonald, "Lucile Saunders McDonald: Her freshman Year at U. of O." (undated typescript quoting diary and correspondence), University of Oregon Libraries website accessed July 20, 2015 (https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/12942); Lucile McDonald, "Wilkes Expedition Ended Era of N.W. Maritime Discovery," The Seattle Times, September 30, 1956, p. 49; Lucile McDonald Papers, Manuscript Collection No. 2234 (001-003), Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Lucile McDonald to "Mr. Bolotin," July 1, 1987, and Lucile McDonald to "Gloria," March 30, 1982, Box 27, Lucile McDonald Collection, Accession No. 2234-3, Special Collections, University of Washington; "Guide to the James Gilchrist Swan Papers," University of Washington Libraries Special Collections website accessed September 30, 2015 (http://digital.lib.washington.edu/findingaids/view?docId=SwanJames1703.xml;query=james%20gilchrist%20swan;brand=default); "Lucile McDonald Day," Washington State Ceremonial Proclamation, March 4, 1991, Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington.

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