Allison Gilbert, LISTEN, WORLD!

Allison Gilbert, LISTEN, WORLD!

Listen to CBS News correspondent Julianna Goldman’s first Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books interview as she talks with author Allison Gilbert about her latest book, Listen, World!, which she co-wrote with Julia Scheeres. Allison shares how she first discovered the book’s subject, columnist Elsie Robinson, the shortcomings of history curriculums around the country when it comes to teaching about women, and some of the most inspiring stories from Elsie’s life. Julianna and Allison also discuss how we can all embody Elsie’s confidence and self-sufficiency and what she would likely have to say about our current world today.


Julianna Goldman: Allison Gilbert, thank you so much for the time. I am so thrilled to be chatting with you and to discuss this amazing book, Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman. As I read this book, I devoured it. As a journalist, every page, I was like, how do I not know about Elsie Robinson? How is she not taught to every young woman or any aspiring journalist to begin with? Let’s just go back to the beginning. She might have been America’s most-read woman who no one really knows about today. Tell us, who was Elsie Robinson?

Allison Gilbert: Elsie Robinson, by the way, was the perfect person to commune with, so to speak, during the pandemic. She was all I read. She is all I thought about. My coauthor and I, Julia Scheeres, just fell in love with Elsie Robinson. She was the William Randolph Hearst dynamo. She was his highest-paid writer. She was the most-read woman. She had more than twenty million readers for her column. Her column was called, which is why the book is called, Listen World! She had a lot to say about pretty much everything.

Julianna: It’s funny you said that you wished that you could’ve talked to her during the pandemic. As I was reading, I thought, my god, she’s timeless. She was not only ahead of her time, but she is someone you want to — her opinions, you want her to weigh in on all of the world events happening right now.

Allison: It’s really interesting that you say that because in a really personal way, she was somewhat — I don’t want to overstate it because it sounds a little bit trite. I only found out about Elsie Robinson because my mom died. I found a poem written by Elsie hidden inside one of my mother’s books after my mom passed away. I looked to Elsie Robinson over time, once I discovered that she was a columnist, for her advice, for her advice on parenting, for her advice on being a mom, for her advice on tough love versus holding your child close and just wrapping them in bubble wrap. Then of course, she writes about more than just family. She wrote about racism and capital punishment and anti-Semitism. Her take was somewhat unapologetic. She was blistering and not very concerned with ruffling feathers. I truly appreciated that tone. It felt very confident to me. Beneath that self-assuredness was a lot of really important lessons that I internalized, that I brought to my own marriage, that I brought to my kids, and that I kind of look to in my reporting when I write other pieces now. She just had this, like what you said, a timeless sensibility that I was captivated by.

Julianna: I want to circle back to when you first and how you learned about Elsie Robinson. The blowing caution to the wind, you start the book where she is going to William Randolph Hearst for a pay raise. It’s just such a great way to begin.

Allison: What was so remarkable about that discovery I think goes to why no one knows Elsie Robinson’s name today. The only reason why we discovered what she had to say about her pay, about the time off that she wanted, about the grueling pace that she had to endure writing column after column for all of Hearst’s papers across the country is because we found a letter in the William Randolph Hearst archives at the Bancroft in California. No other researcher who was doing a piece, let’s say, or a book about William Randolph Hearst probably even cared about this one letter written by a columnist whose name they didn’t recall. In this letter, she talks to William Randolph Hearst in a way that I — I don’t know about you. I found it to be shocking to talk to your boss in such an upfront, I would say a little bit confrontational, way. She was so confident in her value of what she was worth to the Hearst empire that it was emboldening for her. She went for it. She wasn’t fired after that letter. She got what she wanted. He sent her on this whirlwind tour immediately after and put her up at the Warwick, which is one of his hotels in New York City, and threw a huge luncheon in her honor. In some ways, her boldness worked.

Julianna: Oh, my god, I wish I had read that before going into previous contract negotiations. I really felt like that letter should just be required reading for anyone who’s going in to advocate for themselves.

Allison: When I read it the first time, I gasped. I literally gasped out loud because I could not believe, first of all, as a researcher, the discovery of this letter, but also because it wasn’t the only one. She was just as forthright when she talked to her other bosses. We found other letters, too, to her boss, her editor, the publisher at the Oakland Tribune out in the Bay Area. This is kind of a repeat, rinse, wash behavior. She did it again and again. I should say, all her bosses, by the way, they were all men. She didn’t double back and recalibrate. This was how she behaved by necessity because there were no other people to go to. There were no women allies, perhaps, that she can go to. These were the men. These were her bosses. She wanted to get what she was worth.

Julianna: I feel like as a trailblazer, just her life was remarkable also. You look at the path that she took, and you think to yourself about all the women in history who we’ve learned about. They had to overcome so much to break these ceilings. She was a miner. Talk a little bit about the path that she took. She started in California.

Allison: This is related to your question. At her core, she was a mom. The reason why this is important to talk about is that she would do anything for her son, who was chronically ill. Her marriage was just unraveling. It was loveless. It didn’t provide her joy. It didn’t provide her solace. It was cold. She wanted more out of life, not just for herself, but for her son. She left at a time when women were not leaving their husbands. In 1912, she was like, I am out of here. She left. What gave her and her son happiness together was that Elsie had this incredible proclivity for writing children’s stories. She was a remarkable artist. She drew these incredible illustrations. Here’s the lesson for all of us. She took what gave her joy, what she knew she had talent in doing, the writing and the illustrating, and she brought those talents to the Oakland Tribune, where she was living. She’s like, look, here’s what I have. You do not have a children’s section right now in your paper. Let’s do one. She sold them on the idea of a children’s section. She became Aunt Elsie of the Oakland Tribune.

Julianna: She was working in a mine at the time.

Allison: Right before then when she was trying to really hone her craft — you’re right. Thank you for bringing that up again. I had forgotten you asked me that great question about the mine. She had no money. She had left her husband. She was desperately poor. She had to make ends meet. She had to feed her son. She went to the gold mines of California. We found out it was exactly the Ruth Pierce mine. I can tell you how we found out about that. It’s a whole other story. For three years she was a common laborer six hundred feet below the surface of the earth running away from dynamite blasts, digging with shovels, with picks, with a wheelbarrow crating in the rocks, and searching desperately for that gold streak where the gold was. She was the only woman at the Ruth Pierce mine. All the other workers, of course, were men. Elsie had grit, man. She really dug deep when she needed to. By the way, that experience became tons and tons of wonderful anecdotes and stories for her fiction. She didn’t only write her column. She was also a fiction writer. She was a poet. She used that experience, like we all do in our writing, to craft other stories.

Julianna: I love how you wrote the book by incorporating her own voice. She had written a memoir. She led a public life and a private life. While you hear her voice throughout — for example, when she left her husband in Vermont and then moved back to California, she moved back with a man named Robert. Then she stops writing about Robert. You try and fill in some of the holes, but there are some things that are just left to history.

Allison: There were some amazing breadcrumbs that Julia, my coauthor, and I followed about Robert. There was no doubt there was an affair. There is no doubt that Robert had his own history and baggage, shall we say. He had his own story. He represented for Elsie, this hope and this artistic flair that her husband lacked. Her husband who she left just kept her really buttoned up in a very formal New England existence. She wanted this escape. That’s what Robert represented to her, in some cases — I don’t know if you thought this when you were reading Listen, World! — almost a foil. I think Elsie really used Robert as her excuse to get out and to follow the path back West. I think Elsie really saw him as a ticket to kind of latch onto his trip back out West. In many ways, I think their affair was something that brought them together, a time where both of them were just at the depths.

Julianna: That’s an undercurrent, a theme that runs throughout her life, is seeing doors and going through them and not wasting opportunities.

Allison: You know what? I love that you picked that up. I find that too. I feel like Elsie was full of a, pull up your — what’s that saying when you pull yourself up from the bootstraps? She was not about licking her wounds. She was not about crawling under the covers and hiding. I am sure she had those moments like we all do. I do. She was someone who saw the horizon. She was someone who saw the future, who knew that it was worth fighting for. She had many demons and many bad days — she called them mudholes — that we all get sucked down. We all need to navigate around these mudholes. If you can, you reach the mountain top, she says. I just love that quote too.

Julianna: That attitude, it came through in her writing without her needing to divulge too much of her own story and her own personal details.

Allison: I was just going to say, you mentioned how Julia and I use so much of Elsie’s own words. There was a real reason for us doing that. I don’t think we could write better than her, to be quite honest. She was such a great writer, so sharp-tongued, so swift of mind, so declarative in what she had to say. What we did is that we just kind of braided her thoughts, her points of view throughout the entire book. Then we knew that readers would not go to find her original writing. We knew that the likelihood of people going to find her 1934 memoir is probably nil. We give it to you so you don’t have to do any of that work. We use her voice to propel — I hope you agree — the story forward. Instead of us as the authors just telling you what Elsie experienced, we allow Elsie to tell you what Elsie experienced from her column, some of them back from 1918, 1922, 1924, throughout her entire career until she died in 1956.

Julianna: At the time, she was the highest-paid woman in the Hearst company? Is that right?

Allison: Right. She was made the highest-paid woman writer. She was somewhat of a unicorn. The reason — there are many, I believe. One of the primary reasons I think she was able to get that kind of financial backing is because she also drew, in many cases, her own accompanying editorial cartoons, her own political cartoons. We had talked about how she began, that she had this incredible facility for drawing cartoons for her son George when he was young. That kept going. It’s very rare even today for a writer to also include their own cartoons. Normally what happens even today is that a writer writes, and an illustrator illustrates. An illustrator will get the assignment about what a piece is about and provide that artwork to accompany somebody else’s column. In Elsie’s case, she did both. I think that commanded quite a price tag.

Julianna: I don’t want to give too much away because her life really was marked by, as you said, grit, perseverance, and tragedy as well. At the end of the day, why don’t we know more about her?

Allison: Oh, my gosh, I have so many theories. That’s the number-one question. I’m so glad you asked that. Here’s one. Here’s one answer that I could not believe. Both of my kids went to public school. This really was shocking to me when I learned this. The National Women’s History Museum has done an exhaustive report. What they found is this. In US public schools, kindergarten through twelfth grade, only twenty-five percent of all historical figures taught in the classroom are women.

Julianna: Elsie Robinson would have a lot to say about that.

Allison: That’s incredible. We’re talking now, today in 2022. Only twenty-four percent of all the historical figures taught in our schools are women.

Julianna: It’s terrible. It’s a disgrace.

Allison: It’s a disgrace. I learned the reason why. One of the reasons why that’s the case, if you think about it — it kind of made sense to me once I learned. The way we learn history, the way our kids learn social studies is, by and large, very masculine. What I mean by that is this. This is what the education experts say. This is not my opinion. This is what the educational experts say. When we learn about war and peace, when we learn about the economy, when we learn about geographical lines shifting as a result of, let’s say, war and peace, all of the people who are at the center of those seismic shifts tend to be men. Whereas if we were thinking and learning and teaching about other big shifts that take place, whether it’s voting rights or immigration or the arts or journalism, labor rights, civic lessons, those areas tend to be where women shine, where women have had leadership roles. Those are not taught as regularly in our social studies classrooms. I find that to be a part of the reason why Elsie Robinson has been forgotten.

Julianna: Do you think that part of that is because as women we don’t do enough advocating for ourselves and standing up and singing our own praises?

Allison: I think that it goes far larger than that. This is systemic. This is what educators are looking at right now. There is a council of social studies educators throughout the country. They are working on changing the Common Core curriculums throughout the United States. This goes so far beyond blaming us.

Julianna: I didn’t mean to blame women. You talk about how we need to think — there’s a wonderful line at the end of the book where you said, “There’s a lesson here for all of us about taking control of how we’ll be remembered by future generations, if only within our own families.” You talk about how Elsie Robinson, she wrote her memoir, but there was some carelessness, not on her part, but that the ownness is also on us to be able to tell our story. I was just thinking it’s a lesson that women, beyond the systemic barriers .

Allison: I see where you’re coming from.

Julianna: We should take a page from Elsie Robinson and advocate for ourselves, to fight for ourselves, and to sing our praises.

Allison: I think what you’re talking about is very true. When it comes to how our families will remember us, there are many times where I think as moms or anyone, we kind of shy, maybe, from being in front of the camera. Maybe we don’t feel pretty that day. Maybe we feel fat that day. We just want to have a picture of our kids and not be in that picture ourselves. That’s a way of editing ourselves out of that kind of in-perpetuity experience that other generations might have of us. I think that’s the part. Elsie Robinson, she doesn’t get off scot-free by not being remembered. She did not donate her archives, her papers to a historical society or a library or an archive. Where did those documents go? That’s the great mystery. We have archives of some incredible women, incredible men throughout this country in repositories coast to coast. Elsie Robinson’s were scattered. I feel like that’s the lesson that you’re talking about. How can we own our own paper trails and to make sure that we tell our spouses or our significant others or our children, what’s actually the most important to us?

Julianna: Said way more articulately than myself. I want to go back to how you discovered Elsie Robinson. You said it was after your mother passed away. Also, you’ve said that this took eleven years to write and research. Talk about the process of it.

Allison: My mom passed away very shortly after I graduated college. My brother and I went back to our house. We were cleaning out her belongings to get our childhood home ready for the next stage, which was, for us, selling it. Inside one of my mom’s books, there was this piece of onion skin paper. Remember that old onion skin paper? She had retyped a poem that was called “Pain.” It was about grief and loss. It just was like a slap across my face. It was like that Moonstruck moment. Remember that movie, Moonstruck? Snap out of it. It was like that. It was just like, be grateful you had a mom worth missing, was kind of the message of this poem. It was like, stop your bellyaching. You’re so lucky you had a mom worth missing. That tone struck me in that moment because my mom was also very tough lovey. If I had a question when I was growing up, I had to spell something, she would say, “Go look in the dictionary.” She was not going to coddle me at all. The poem that I read that was attributed to someone named Elsie Robinson spoke to me because it was almost like my mother would have said these very words. That is what set me on the path. On and off, on and off over the course of many years, I started gathering more and more intel about Elsie Robinson. Then eleven years ago, I had a heart-to-heart with my literary agent. I said, “This is the book that I want to write next.”

It was a hard sell, I must say, not because my literary agent didn’t believe in the story. Once you read that memoir, it’s hard not to believe in the Elsie Robinson story. Many authors are advised, well, is it Abraham Lincoln? Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln. Is it Julia Child? Everyone knows Julia Child. Meaning, that a biography tends to be written about someone whose name we know. Because Elsie Robinson’s name, nobody knew, he was just preparing me for a tough road to sell this biography to a publisher. We had our work cut out for us. That was eleven years ago. I struggled with how to tell the story. There are many ways. I was experimenting with how to recast her amazing rags-to-riches story, this trope that we’re all familiar with. I just wasn’t able to nail it. It took me many attempts. Finally, I realized, you know what? I need to bring in a partner. I need to find someone, a writer who is going to help me as a team to tell this story in a way that I can’t do on my own. Enter in the best collaborator, the best partner, a dear friend now, Julia Scheeres. This book has her handywork all over it. We were this incredible team. We wrote this entire project via Google Docs. She was incredible.

Julianna: Never together? You were separate?

Allison: No. Julia’s based in California. I’m based in New York. The only time that Julia and I were actually together in person reporting on the book was when — I should’ve mentioned this earlier. You mentioned when Elsie Robinson was a goldminer in California. That town where she was a goldminer is now a ghost town, completely. Julia and I had to go see this ghost town for ourselves. I flew out to California. We got into a car. We drove hours and hours into this incredible deserted area. We explored this ghost town together. That was the only way we could tell those stories. That is such a rich part of her story, her being in this town called Hornitos in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She and I went to this ghost town together.

Julianna: Do you think publishers today are still as reluctant to buy books like this about women especially who are unknown? Do you think that there’s a movement afoot to try and get these names out there to combat the twenty-four-percent statistic that we talked about?

Allison: I don’t know. What do you think?

Julianna: I think there should be, right?

Allison: Yes, I think so too. That’s a really hard question for me to answer. I know in this particular case, the Elsie Robinson story was a definite hard sell. I hope that if there is — I cross my fingers that this book lands with a receptive audience. I hope it softens that path for future writers of women’s histories. That’s what my hope would be. I would love this to kind of clear out the cobwebs so more of these stories can be told.

Julianna: I hope so too. Two final questions. Of course, you can’t read this and think, okay, when is this movie? When is this going to be turned into a movie? Who would play Elsie Robinson.

Allison: That is such a good question. I have my fantasies. Who do you think?

Julianna: Oh, god. You know who I was thinking of? Who’s the British actress? I just listened to her in a book on tape of The Midnight Library. Shoot, what is her name? Let me look it up. You tell me as I’m looking it up.

Allison: Take two. Boy, the fantasy of the Elsie Robinson story coming to the big screen or little screen I think is something that would be exceptional, and exceptional not just because she herself is such a great story and the fact that she worked in a gold mine, a lone woman amongst so many men. There’s so many incredible parts of her story that would actually be great for the medium. I actually hope it reaches people in that way because it’ll just allow more little girls to see a powerful woman own her destiny. I mean that completely. There was not one part of Elsie’s story where someone came to her, knocked on her door, opened it, and said, come with me. I will make you famous. Come with me. You don’t have any contacts. You don’t have any money. I will show you the light. I will magically lay out this magic carpet for you to come be this acclaimed newspaper columnist. Of course, that’s a fantasy. No one does that. If Elsie’s story can help other little girls see for themselves that you create a destiny, that you can go knock on someone’s door yourself knowing that you have that chutzpah, knowing that you have the credentials to back it up, and the talent, I would love there to be, as you said — thank you for saying that — a movie or a streaming series. I think her story has lessons that so many of us — what?

Julianna: Carey Mulligan is who I was thinking of, who I was imagining.

Allison: Interesting. I like it.

Julianna: Finally, Allison Gilbert, we’ve talked about Elsie Robinson. If we want to learn more about Allison Gilbert, where do we go? What’s next?

Allison: Thank you very much for asking that. Just I’m on social everywhere as @AGilbertWriter. I honestly love to hear from folks. If you’re listening, please do reach out. So many times and hours we’re just alone, writers, in our room isolated. Now is the time I get to share Elsie. I get to explain what I’ve been working on for so long and share this magical woman that I’ve been proud to get to know over these last few years. If I can share, if I can talk, if we can banter back and forth about your experience of listening to Elsie Robinson and learning about her, boy, I would love that.

Julianna: Allison Gilbert, bravo. Thank you.

Allison: Thank you so much.

LISTEN, WORLD! by Allison Gilbert

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