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Introduction & Biographical Essay
Alice Rohe became a newspaper writer in the 1890s and joined Theta Sigma Phi, the first American journalism professional society for women, when it was established in 1909. Although she worked primarily with words, not images, Rohe was a journalist at a time when reporters often made their own photographs to illustrate their writings. As the first female overseas bureau chief for a major American press service in Rome during World War I, Rohe held a professional position that placed her in an ideal location to make photographs to illustrate her articles for Leslie's Weekly and National Geographic. After World War I, Rohe also functioned as a photojournalist when she made pictures for the Red Cross in the Balkans in 1919.
The Library of Congress has not yet identified photographs by Alice Rohe among its holdings but will continue to seek examples of her work in, for exmple, the Red Cross Collection. Researchers interested in learning more about Rohe can pursue her career through published newspaper and magazine stories in the general collections and through the Rohe Family papers at the Douglas County Historical Society in Lawrence, Kansas.
Born January 15, 1876, in Lawrence, Kansas, Alice was the daughter of Adam and Alice Park Rohe and the elder of the two surviving Rohe children. Her father was a sketch artist during the Civil War, and had some of his work published in Harper's Weekly. Attempting a career as an artist, he found that the young town of Lawrence could not sustain his dream, and he relied on sign painting and exhibition design to support his family. "Allie" accompanied her father when he worked as a "landscape architect" at regional fairs in the 1880s and 1890s.1 This experience might have led to her interest in visual images and photography.
From 1892 to 1896, Rohe attended Kansas State University where she was a founding editor of the school's weekly newspaper in June 1895. She also became a member of the women's fraternity Pi Beta Phi, which began in 1867 to create a sense of unity among the early generation of women who attended college.
Rohe worked first for the Lawrence Journal and later for the Kansas City Star.2 In about 1900, Rohe and her sister Margaret, chaperoned by their mother, moved to New York City where they attended plays in the evenings and wrote theater reviews, drama criticism and stories for publication. During the day Rohe worked at the New York Evening World, a Pulitzer paper. Her boss was the city editor Charles Chapin, a fellow Kansan, and a practitioner of sensational "Yellow Journalism."3 An exacting taskmaster, Chapin reportedly fired 108 journalists during his tenure. He gave Rohe her own column called "The Girl From Kansas," which ran regularly on page three.4 Her chatty columns commented on young professional women adjusting to the novelty of life in the city.
After five years of working day and night, Rohe contracted tuberculosis. She went to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for treatment and paid her sanatorium fee through freelance writing from about 1910 until about 1914. Her coverage of a notorious 1911 celebrity Denver murder trial is cited in the book Alienation of Affection. Rohe's articles appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, New York Morning Telegram, and New York Evening Mail, as well as in magazines such as Human Life, Town Topics, Munsey's, and Young's.
Denver was a center of adventure and wild politics. Rohe often wrote for the Rocky Mountain News whose owner, Senator Thomas M. Patterson, was a committed supporter of equal rights who hired numerous notable female reporters. Rohe's entry in the 1915 Who's Who in American Women indicated that she "favored woman suffrage," "was interested in social reform," and had written on the "woman question." Her article on a Baha'i religious gathering about women's rights is just one example of her suffrage reporting in 1912.
At the time, Denver was also home to George Creel who had started as a reporter in Kansas at the same time Rohe did and who went to New York when she did, as well. Creel worked initially for the Rocky Mountain News but soon became Denver's Chief of Police and an ardent supporter of woman suffrage. His path would cross Rohe's again when the United States entered World War I. In his book How We Advertised America, about his work as the head of America's World War I propaganda organization, the Committee on Public Information, Creel singled out Rohe's contributions to his efforts.
United Press Overseas Officer
During World War I, male reporters went off to cover the European battle fronts even before the United States joined the war, and more women moved into reporting jobs. In 1914, Rohe went to Rome to work as a United Press (UP) staff correspondent and was also a correspondent for the Exchange Telegraph of London. Until 1919, she managed the Rome office of the UP international bureau, the first woman to head an overseas bureau for one of the big news agencies. The UP job may have come about in part through her brother-in-law Jack Howard, heir to the Scripps-Howard newspaper empire, whom Margaret Rohe had married in 1909. Rohe operated the UP office in an ancient monastery cloister with the aid of an assistant from the Vatican and claimed to be the only American correspondent in Rome. She is credited with photographs of regimental groups in Rome for her article in Leslie's Weekly.
Rohe's articles, like those of other war reporters, read like "live news stories" rather than communiqués of facts. Shaped by the exacting requirements of her previous reporting experience, Rohe went into the countryside to gather the news directly, in contrast with most correspondents who waited for their Italian counterparts to tell them what was happening. By 1916, she was collecting her own stories about the war's impact on civilians. For example, one of her headlines reads: "Women Weep in Rome's Poverty-Stricken San Lorenzo District For Their Men Who Are At the Front."
In 1918, Rohe wrote a lengthy article for National Geographic titled "Our Littlest Ally," about San Marino, a 24 square mile enclave in Italy that had maintained its independence since 301 A.D. She provided seventeen photographs to illustrate her story. People at the town of Rimini who saw Rohe en route to San Marino accused her of being a spy and imprisoned her because of her camera but later released her and she went on to prepare her story. On another wartime trip as she pursued her interest in Etruscan objects while examining an ancient tower at Ravenna, people declared her a spy and began to stone her, but she escaped.5
There may have been good reason for the Italians to accuse Rohe of spying. U.S. war propaganda chief George Creel referred to her as "one who prepared illustrated feature articles for the daily press and the periodical press" and a "valuable volunteer."
Between the World Wars
At the end of World War I, Rohe participated in The Balkan Survey as a member of the Red Cross Publicity Department, writing about delivery of aid in Greece, Macedonia, Rumania and Constantinople and speaking admiringly of evidence of feminism and women's strength of character.6 With her nose for news, she interviewed the King of Greece and Queen Marie of Rumania, commenting, "Crowned heads are always good copy." In the Christmas 1919 issue of Good Housekeeping, Rohe published "Queen Santa Claus," a photographically illustrated article about the Queen's inspiring visit to her subjects after the country had been ravaged by war.
Some of Rohe's post-war articles continued to mine her war experiences. In 1920, she published "Snaps of Macedonia" in Travel, illustrated with her own and others' photos. She described the exhaustion that people of all ages felt in this area that had been traversed by conquerors since the Roman Empire. She mentioned the town crier who called out the news in a town where there was no newspaper and pointed out that when the town widows "passed in a black ribbon-like file where their husbands had been hanged by the Bulgars, the women did not stop to listen--news no longer has interest for them."
After World War I, Rohe, like many other female reporters, may have experienced hostility against women in men's jobs. Women were often relegated to so-called "women's topics" rather than front page news. Whether by choice or necessity, Rohe specialized in cultural news for the rest of her career.
Rohe returned to Italy in 1922. Passenger lists and census records from the years 1922 through 1935 indicate her birth date as 1882, some six years after her actual birth date of 1876. As she aged, Rohe may have felt a need to present herself as younger. The variety of magazines in which she published articles suggests that she worked freelance, without the security of a salaried staff position, and a more youthful age may have helped her line up writing assignments.
An inveterate newswoman, Rohe continued to hustle. She gained access to leading cultural and political figures and published in well-respected journals. She interviewed then reclusive dancer Eleonora Duse and obtained the last interview actress Sarah Bernhardt gave before her death in March 1923. She interviewed American writer Ezra Pound and became a friend of sculptress Nancy Cox McCormack Cushman who operated a studio in Rome 1922-1923. Rohe wrote about Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello for a New York audience and translated one of his comedies into English for a Broadway performance. In 1927, she ran a column about Alfredo and the virtues of Fettuccini Alfredo, which he had invented in Rome in 1914. She also had easy access to the new Italian Premier Mussolini and became one of the first to predict his rise to power.
In "As I Look at Life," her 1925 article for Cosmopolitan, Rohe presented herself as hard-working and energetic, although temporarily depressed. Privately, she suffered from deteriorating health and much of her correspondence with her brother-in-law Roy Howard, who handled her inheritance from her father, concerned her illnesses and perpetual lack of money. In 1928, she reminded Howard of her earlier entreaties that he establish a book department in the New York Telegram and employ her as part of it. He ultimately gave that opportunity to Dorothy Parker, who became famous, even notorious, in the role.
Women journalists and photojournalists alike suffered disproportionately from financial difficulties during the 1920s and 1930s. Ruby Black, president of the national women journalism society Theta Sigma Phi in 1931 and first manager of an employment bureau for members, noted that female journalists could not get reporting jobs at the same pay as similarly qualified men.
In 1935, Rohe returned to the United States because of the political repression she observed in Italy as Mussolini put into effect the plans he had told her about years earlier. With 39 years of newspaper reporting to her credit, she retired from writing when she left Italy. Rohe lived at the New York City's Barbizon Hotel, which had opened in the 1920s as one of the earliest boarding hotels for women establishing careers. After World War II, Rohe divided her time between New York and Italy, indulging her interest in Etruscan art and antiques in Perugia. She was living with her sister's family in New York when she died on April 7, 1957. She bequeathed her collected Etruscan objects to the University of Kansas.
Rohe was a feminist who put into practice her beliefs that women had strengths that traditional domestic roles did not tap. She entered a profession that many women joined in the 1890s because it required no advanced degrees, extensive examinations, or certification licenses. Rohe also joined the professional organizations for women that recognized the formal entrance of women into the work world. She worked hard at her writing and her photography, but at the end of World War I she received none of the European awards given to her male contemporaries. She gradually seemed more tired and bitter about the costs she had paid to pursue her dream, but her career set her apart from the many unmarried women whose obituaries lead with the word "spinster." The headlines for Rohe's obituaries refer to her as a newspaper woman. Ultimately, Rohe's being in the news profession helped make the job more acceptable for women who succeeded her, and her photographs visually document the scenes she described in engaging, effective ways.
1 John M. Peterson, "Forgotten Kansas Artist: Adam Rohe," Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 17 (Winter 1994/1995):4.
2 Chapin is remembered today as "The Rose Man of Sing Sing." Famous writer and columnist Irving S. Cobb also worked for Chapin and was a friend of Alice Rohe.
3 The Chronicling America Web site can be used to find and read her articles, [add Web address]
4 Ishbel Ross, Ladies of the Press: The Story of Women in Journalism by an Insider. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936, p. 370.
5 Red Cross records show that she worked in the Balkans from March 1, 1919 until August 16, 1919. Her mail was sent c/o Anne Sutherland, RFD #40, Darien, CT. Rohe may possibly have crossed paths with American photographer Lewis Hine who also participated in the Balkan Survey for the American Red Cross. He was in Italy in the summer and fall of 1918 and in Greece, Serbia and other Balkan states in December 1918 and the early months of 1919.
6 Alice Rohe to Roy Wilson Howard, July 5, 1928, Family Correspondence, Papers of Roy Wilson Howard, 1911-1966, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2011. Last revised: January 2012.