The Caucus Blog of the Illinois House Republicans: The Grand Duchess

The Caucus Blog of the Illinois House Republicans: The Grand Duchess

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Virginia Marmaduke (right) with the Eisenhowers at the
Illinois Pavilion during the New York World’s Fair.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 

Right from the start of her distinguished journalism career, Virginia Marmaduke had been clear about what she wanted to do.

“I wanted to be a police reporter and cover blood, guts and sex,” she recalled. She did just that for nearly four decades, opening doors and redefining the roles women played in journalism in Illinois.

Marmaduke came along at a time when women journalists were often consigned to the entertainment beat or other similarly frivolous topics at their newspapers. But Virginia Marmaduke had no use for that: she was a hard news reporter, and that’s where she was determined to do her work.

Born in Carbondale on June 21, 1908, Virginia Marmaduke dedicated her life to journalism. She learned to write as a student at Ursuline Academy in Arcadia, Missouri, where teachers spotted her potential and encouraged her to consider writing as a profession. She studied journalism at the University of Iowa and then broke into the field in 1930 with the Herrin Daily Journal. She brought a unique perspective to a male-dominated industry, reporting the news in a way that stood out from the others.

It was an eventful time to be a newspaper reporter in Williamson County, Illinois, as gang wars and violence seemed to dominate the news. There she developed her skill for covering mobsters, crime and vice.

She got interviews with the wives of southern Illinois coal miners who had lost all their money gambling in a local casino. Her stories on the impact the establishment was having on the community drove the point home so hard that the casino was forced to leave town.

In 1943 Marmaduke was hired by a newly-established Chicago paper, the Sun, and assigned to cover crime in the city, a demanding assignment to be sure. Her coverage of the colorful characters who dominated Chicago’s underworld in the 1940s turned heads and forced her critics to take her seriously. Her most heart-wrenching story concerned the grisly murder of a 6-year-old child in the city in 1946, a story she covered extensively, doing more than 600 interviews and even coming to know the killer and members of his family.

One editor nicknamed her “Duchess,” (he claimed that “Ms. Marmaduke” was too hard to shout across a crowded newsroom) and the nickname stuck. By the end of her long career she would be widely known as the “Grand Duchess of Journalism.”

Her reporting got results, and she didn’t limit her coverage just to stories about crime. In 1947 she put together a series on cerebral palsy which got the attention of members of the Illinois General Assembly. Her accounts of the illness led to the creation of the Illinois Children’s Home hospital which was established specifically to treat children with cerebral palsy. Mayor Richard J. Daley would later appoint Marmaduke to the Chicago Board of Health.

When the Sun merged with the Daily Times in 1948, Marmaduke was one of the reporters who made the move to the new Chicago Sun-Times. Not long thereafter she became a member of the editorial board, the first woman to hold such a position at a Chicago paper.

She moved to the Chicago Tribune but stayed on the crime beat, sometimes at great personal risk. In one instance she had to fight off a gangster with her spiked heel. At the same time, however, she was also granted interviews with two presidents and Queen Elizabeth II. She would later joke about missing a tremendous story right in front of her: she said that she had observed that the Queen seemed to have put on some weight, but was as surprised as everyone else when a short time later the Palace announced that a prince would soon be born.

Along the way she covered horse racing at Maywood Park, making her the first woman to have a sports byline in a Chicago paper. She later said her most embarrassing moment came while interviewing Frank Sinatra just after covering a livestock show with a “non-citified substance” still clinging to her shoes.

In the 1950s she made the move to television, appearing on the biographical show “This Is Your Life,” and then hosting her own local talk show in Chicago. Her radio show on WGN was called, “Coffee With the Duchess,” and later, “A Date With the Duchess.”

She left the newspaper business in 1960 and went into public relations. In that role she earned the honor which she later said was the proudest moment of her life: hosting her home state’s Land of Lincoln pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

A year later she retired and returned to southern Illinois, living the rest of her life in a log cabin on a Perry County property her family had owned since 1831.

Her career was fondly remembered by many, including the members of the Chicago Press Veterans Association who named her Press Veteran of the Year in 1979. In 1992 she was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame.

In retirement Marmaduke used her skills for a wide range of causes. She was named a Lincoln Academy Laureate in 1984, an honor bestowed by the Lincoln Academy of Illinois for those “whose achievements have brought honor to the state because of their identity with it…by their dedication to those principles of democracy and humanity as exemplified by the great Illinoisan whose name we bear.”

She kept on writing. Her letters to the editor became so famous that they were collected and published by Southern Illinois University under the title, “Marmaduke at Large: Running the World From a Typewriter.”

Sir David Attenborough, Richard Peterson,
and Virginia Marmaduke, 1986. Photo from siu.edu

She was an ambassador and fundraiser for the university for 30 years, calling SIU-Carbondale the “loveliest university in the whole state.” To this day the school offers the Virginia Marmaduke Mass Communication and Media Arts Endowed Scholarship to students majoring in journalism or radio, television and digital media. SIU also hosts the Marmaduke Lecture Series for distinguished journalists, founded by a gift of over $1 million from Marmaduke estate.

Virginia Marmaduke, the Grand Duchess of Journalism, who broke down barriers and redefined the role of women journalists in Illinois, died November 8, 2001, in Pinckneyville.

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