“It’s one o’clock, and here’s Mary Margaret McBride.” During her heyday in the 1940s, this clarion call by announcer Vincent Connolly alerted millions of radio listeners each weekday to the start of another informative and entertaining program whose host was a master raconteur, insightful interviewer, maker of engaging small talk, and expert pitchwoman. During her twenty-plus-year radio career beginning in 1934, Mary Margaret McBride helped to develop the talk/interview show format as we have come to know it. Both as “Martha Deane” at WOR, and then under her own name at CBS, NBC, and ABC, she was among the first to speak extemporaneously to her listeners and was able to connect with her audience on such an emotionally intimate level that they felt she was their friend. She also used her interpersonal skills to become one of the best interviewers in broadcasting, putting her guests at such ease that her conversations with them proved especially revealing and entertaining. And thanks to her habit of reading two books per night and her virtually photographic memory, McBride often dazzled her guests on air by quoting long passages from their books to them from memory. In her self-effacing style, she described her fondness for interviewing authors to Edward R. Murrow: “I liked almost anybody who wrote a book about something he had done, you know, that would interest other people.” Among her guests over the years were Carl Sandburg, Robert E. Sherwood, Eleanor Roosevelt, General Omar Bradley, Harry S. Truman, and Pearl S. Buck.
Mary Margaret McBride was born in Paris, Missouri, in 1899. Her father, Thomas Walker McBride, bought farms, fixed them up and sold them. Her mother, Elizabeth Craig McBride, was a homemaker. Mary Margaret was the eldest of four children and the only girl. According to Sheila Clough Crifasi in her 1996 profile of McBride, Mary Margaret was greatly influenced by her grandfathers. Her maternal grandfather was a Baptist minister who instilled in Mary Margaret an appreciation of the values of the Bible and of temperance. From her McBride grandfather, a scholar, she received encouragement to read Latin and Greek poetry, the classics, and to write. Through her mother’s guidance, Mary Margaret became well trained in the arts of homemaking and hospitality. From the age of six, she attended William Woods College, a private boarding school. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri, from which she earned her degree in two and a half years. Before graduating, she worked as a part-time reporter, copy “boy,” and society editor at the Columbia Times.
Following graduation from college McBride worked briefly in the U.S. Senate and then became a cub reporter for the Cleveland Press in Ohio. Her successful human interest reporting led to a year-long stint in Washington, D.C., as a special correspondent for the Press. She then worked briefly as assistant to the publicity director of the Interchurch World Movement (a historically important predecessor of the National Council of Churches) in New York, before joining the New York Evening Mail as a reporter. As Crifasi describes it, “She soon hit her stride as a writer, selling features to the Saturday Evening Post and other popular magazines. When the Mail closed in 1924, she devoted all her time to magazine articles for top publications…She collaborated with Paul Whiteman on a series on jazz for the Saturday Evening Post. The pieces were compiled into a book published by Sears. Now McBride entered the world of books and even had a bestseller with Paris Is a Woman’s Town, written with Helen Josephy.” McBride would write or coauthor over fifteen other books throughout her career.
McBride’s success as author and magazine writer continued throughout the twenties, and was only hampered by the crash of 1929 and the onset of the Depression. With encouragement from her best friend and business manager, Stella Karn, McBride auditioned for and was selected by WOR to be host of a daily afternoon women’s program. Under the station-owned name “Martha Deane,” McBride portrayed a helpful, fictional grandmother with several children and grandchildren, telling stories, offering advice, skillfully pitching products and interviewing guests. McBride quickly tired of the fictional grandmother persona, and eliminated it from the program.
McBride was so popular with her listeners at the height of her career that she received thousands upon thousands of letters from them, as well as such gifts as food, dolls, books and needlepoint samplers. As Allen Churchill, in his 1949 article on McBride in the American Mercury points out: “Her first five years in radio were marked by emotional ceremonies which packed the commodious Grand Central Palace in New York. Her tenth anniversary was held in the vastly larger Madison Square Garden, into which 20,000 of her followers crowded after 125,000 had requested tickets.” And her fifteenth anniversary celebration was held at Yankee Stadium, which was filled to capacity for the occasion. McBride’s enormous popularity with her listeners helped her become one of the most persuasive pitchwomen on radio, akin to Arthur Godfrey in her ability to talk up and sell her sponsors’ products. In 1952, Forbes magazine called her one of “America’s Twelve Master Salesmen.”
Susan Ware, author of It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride: A Radio Biography, points out that McBride was also a subtle participant in the nascent Civil Rights movement in the forties. Ware states that perhaps partly due to the influence of her friend Eleanor Roosevelt, McBride included African Americans among her many guests on her nationally heard program, and thereby contributed to the breaking down of color barriers.
While continuing at WOR until 1941, in 1937 McBride began a similar program under her own name three times a week nationally on CBS. This eponymous program moved to NBC as a daily show in 1941. In 1948, NBC also attempted a Mary Margaret McBride Show on television, situated right after The Texaco Star Theatre with Milton Berle, but it lasted only three months. Daytime radio was the medium best suited to Mary Margaret McBride, and vice versa. She stayed with NBC until 1950, when she moved her program to ABC for the next four years. In 1954, McBride retired from network radio, coinciding with the death of her longtime manager and partner, Stella Karn. In 1960 she relocated to her West Shokan, New York, home and appeared on a syndicated New York Herald Tribune radio program. McBride had a three-times-a-week local program on WGHQ in the Catskills until her death in 1976.
But Mary Margaret McBride is best remembered as someone who provided companionship to her daytime listeners. As she told Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person, referring to a sampler one of her listeners had made and sent her, “but here’s one that you’ll love; can you see this?
‘Two old friends
And a cup of tea
One of them you
And one of them me’
“One of my listeners moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia, and I was her only friend—she didn’t know a single soul, so she made this. Isn’t that kind of sweet and nice?”