Katharine Whitehorn knew very well that she would be best remembered for one column among the thousands she wrote in almost six decades. It was published in The Observer in 1963 and in it she called herself a slut. She was not, of course, describing a Waynetta Slob style of slut, just one of those disorganized women who resort to inking their legs to disguise holes in black stockings, and who can be identified by the safety pins holding up their hems. If you have ever taken an item of clothing out of the laundry basket because it has become, relatively, the cleaner thing, she said, then you are one of us. Her candor clinched her fame and inspired dozens of confessional female columnists to admit to their fallibility: it was such a far cry from the prissy perfectionism of most postwar advice to women.
What she wrote was exactly right for the time. A generation of women responded with amazed delight, and became her loyal readership for half a century, looking to her for wit and common sense about marriage, children, divorce, money troubles and old age.
It was in the chic, sparky Spectator of the late Fifties (with Brian Inglis as editor and Bernard Levin a fellow contributor) that Whitehorn first became noted for writing on subjects that were unusually feminine for a serious political weekly. She made it clear that women were being pushed around — intelligent working women could not take out a mortgage without a male signatory — and this was not acceptable. David Astor poached her for The Observer in 1960, and she never looked for a different berth, though her quarrels with Astor, who disapproved of working mothers, were legendary. Loyalty, with wit, was one of her abiding qualities. Her skill was in making commonplace subjects interesting — iniquitous banks, life in the gynecologic ward, repulsive things about cats — which would be collected into an anthology called Only on Sundays in 1966. “The whole business of weddings is extraordinary”, “Why on earth do people have children?”, “The pleasures of buying a house are clouded” — brisk, clear thinking was her stock-in-trade. This was one reason why she was appointed to the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority (1965-67). The Wilson government wanted to reduce the voting age, believing that young people would be more likely to vote Labour, and needed a readable report. Much of the Latey report is unmistakably Whitehorn. One section begins: “We have to confess that it would not actually keep us awake at night if people under 21 were to serve on a jury”; another, “In Roman law, young people were divided, like Gaul, into three parts”. The age of majority was duly reduced to 18.
Her candor clinched her fame and inspired dozens of confessional female columnists to admit to their fallibility: it was such a far cry from the prissy perfectionism of most postwar advice to women.
Katharine Elizabeth Whitehorn was born in 1928, the daughter of Edith and Alan Whitehorn. Her father, a distinguished teacher of classics and cricket at Marlborough, encouraged her to think of herself as clever; her aunt Margaret Gray became headmistress of Godolphin and Latymer School, “a beacon in girls’ lives”, Katharine wrote. Yet Kath was rebellious as a girl, moving from one school to another.
Roedean left the most lasting mark on her voice and manner, but she cycled away from it in the middle of term and was much happier at Glasgow High School for Girls. Years later, when asked for a contribution to the Roedean development fund, she replied: “I must confess it is all one to me if the jolly old school, far from developing, falls off the Rottingdean cliffs into the sea.”
She read English at Newnham College, Cambridge (“gateway to heaven” thanks to the men she met there) and was mentored by the Yeats scholar TR Henn. She achieved a respectable 2:1 “without anyone ever having required me to read Scott or Proust or Henry James or Trollope”.
On graduation she ran an English-speaking club in Finland and held a Fulbright scholarship at Cornell. Afterward, living in a bedsitter in rationed London, she worked at Methuen, getting it to publish Dorothy Parker, inviting John Betjeman to edit a volume of advertising verse and commissioning a book on lip-reading for the deaf, as her mother by this time was hard of hearing. (This gave Whitehorn many anecdotes, such as the one about accompanying her mother to the GP. “And when did you last move your bowels?” asked the doctor. “Oooh … before the war, certainly,” replied Mrs Whitehorn.)
Having decided to switch to journalism in 1955, she landed a job in 1956 as a reporter on Picture Post, off Fleet Street, under the editor Lionel “Bobby” Birch, in whose office she quickly made friends and, in her words, “attracted a good deal of male attention”. The job (“which I wanted more than heaven” she telegraphed her parents) was hers after the great photographer Bert Hardy photographed her in an iconic pose: sitting in a circular skirt on the floor by a gas fire, surrounded by milk bottles and laundry, for a feature entitled “Lonely in London”.
At the magazine she met her husband, Gavin Lyall, a Cambridge graduate, witty and jazz-loving, who had been an RAF pilot, and later wrote successful thrillers and screenplays drawing on that experience. They married in 1958 before she joined The Observer and began writing on fashion: “I was filled with a crusading zeal to get the British woman out of that limp cardigan at all costs”. French journalists decided that she looked like Simone Signoret.
What she wrote was exactly right for the time. A generation of women responded with amazed delight, and became her loyal readership for half a century.
To her delight after many miscarriages, the first of their two sons was born in 1964; she was thanked by readers for advising that a glass of gin at bath-time (not waiting till later) was a good idea. Bernard, the elder son, is a film editor and writer, and Jake lives in California where he works in IT. She was a devoted and supportive wife when Lyall’s spy stories went out of fashion and money was tight because of paying school fees.
Luckily her Cooking in a Bedsitter was an instant best seller in 1961. The essence of its appeal was that it told a single girl how to rustle up something impressively delicious, presenting it with insouciance as “something I seem to have cooking in this pot”. Lyall supplied the chapter on booze. At times apologetic at home about her fame outside it, she would quote her husband’s jokes in her Observer column. Once she told how she had tried to bin a pair of his faded, ragged underpants, whereupon he snatched them back, protesting: “But they were my father’s!”
To her friends’ surprise and her own slight embarrassment as a left-winger, she took on a directorship at Nationwide Building Society and Nationwide Anglia estate agency. She also worked, without pay, for the Patients Association; in 1972 she joined the board of the British Airports Authority, where she could “put the questions that none of the men would demean themselves by putting”; she sat on the civil service selection board and the BBC’s committee on the social effects of television.
In her 2007 autobiography, Selective Memory, she gave a flavor of her life as a working mother: “I did the column, got the pages away, went to Bush House to do a broadcast, finished my letters, met the others at the cinema, then boarded the night sleeper to Darlington to do an interview, then another train to Leeds to talk to someone else, then on to the Metropole where I was chairing a thing on electoral reform, then another night sleeper home — oh, I forgot to say I also did a TV short in Leeds. Then we packed Jake off to a history weekend (he had to be there at 8.15) and went to the Lords.” A motor cruiser on the Thames offered weekends of relaxation.
As her reputation for being pragmatic and funny grew she was often invited onto the radio show Any Questions, despite believing that her voice, upper-crust and unfashionably drawling, counted against her. It was a welcome accolade when in 1982 St Andrews University students elected her their first female rector, after a series of male comedians such as John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor. She said: “I am highly honored and delighted, because the alternative is being appalled.”
Extremely pretty and always well turned-out but without vanity, she was in person quite unlike the “slut” of her famous column. She avoided mixing with people who did not share her orthodox liberal views. Like all her family, she had a social conscience and thought everyone else should have one too. She wrote presciently about banks and the inflexible authority they imposed on helpless customers. She wrote tellingly about menial jobs and miserable lives. Visiting a biscuit factory with music going full-blast, she asked one woman: “Why do you go to work?” The woman yelled back: “To have someone to talk to!” Privately dismayed and sometimes reproving when her female friends’ marriages broke up, she nonetheless continued to point out in print that when a man left a marriage “his mates will not say ‘the louse’ but ‘I wonder what was wrong with her’.”
Whitehorn was associate editor at The Observer from 1980 to 1988. The editorial team that dropped her column later realized their error and implored her to return, which she did. Her handbooks on subjects such as “surviving” children and money problems went out of date, but Cooking in a Bedsitter was being reprinted decades later and the advice she dispensed about how to manage a plate, a glass, a handbag and a cigarette remains unforgotten.
In 1997 she became the agony aunt for Saga magazine, where she dispensed sound advice for two decades. People in old age are far from serene, she would say, so she never had to invent problems. Grandparents wondered how to keep in touch with grandchildren after divorce; singletons wrote about loneliness and companionship; people of every class complained about ingrate children expecting to be financially supported for ever. She was fond of a Siegfried Sassoon poem about aging and loss, which included the line “For death has made me wise and bitter and strong”. Widowhood certainly made her wiser and glad to occupy her well-paid berth at Saga. When Lyall died at 70 in 2003, the family gathered to scatter his ashes at his favorite mooring on the Thames, “where we were always happiest”.
In 2017 Whitehorn returned to Newnham for a feature in the alumni magazine, Cam. Asked to define in three words her time there, she replied: “Free. Happy. And useful.”
Katharine Whitehorn, C.B.E., journalist and agony aunt, was born on March 2, 1928. She died on January 8, 2021, aged 92