Murrow, Janet Brewster, 1910-09-18-1998-12-18

Janet Brewster Murrow (1918-1998), daughter of Jennie Johnson and Charles Huntington Brewster, an automobile dealer, became a successful BBC and CBS correspondent, wrote scripts, articles, stories and reports, and assisted her husband, Edward R. Murrow in his broadcasts especially during World War II. She organized and worked for charity organizations and various U.S. and UK government agencies from 1938-1945. She had excellent academic credentials, had tried out successfully as an actress, and was an accomplished pianist. Janet served on numerous boards after the war and worked tirelessly to foster and maintain Murrow's legacy after his death.

History of Murrow, Janet Brewster

Born September 18, 1910, in Middletown, Connecticut, Janet Huntington Brewster was the daughter of Jennie Johnson, daughter of Swedish immigrants, and Charles Huntington Brewster, an automobile dealer. One of her ancestors was the renowned William Brewster, the Reverend Elder of the Pilgrims Church of Plymouth, a fact that greatly impressed the young Edward Murrow.

At high-school, Janet Brewster was an outstanding student, head of the debating society and editor of the school magazine among other offices. She then went on to graduate in sociology and economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1933. At the time she considered work at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York. She was also a talented actress who played several roles for a summer stock company in New London, New Hampshire, including the lead role in Sidney Howard's The Late Christopher Bean. Of course, it was rather difficult to find appropriate work during the Depression in the early 1930s. And so, Janet Brewster ultimately moved back with her parents and taught freshman English and commercial law at the high school in Middletown, CT.

As president of Mount Holyoke's student body, Janet Brewster had traveled to a National Student Federation of America (NSFA) conference in New Orleans in late 1932. It was during this trip that she became further acquainted with Edward R. Murrow, then president of NSFA. Janet Brewster married him on October 27, 1934. In the years to come, she calmly accepted her role as housewife and hostess in assisting her husband in his work, his contacts, career, and social life. Yet, she also carved out niches for her own various professional endeavors.

Janet and her husband moved to London at the beginning of May 1937. They first lived in a comfortable two-story apartment on Queen Anne Street and then moved to Hallam Street in 1939, where they ended up staying until 1946. Throughout the next nine years, Janet Murrow had the difficult task of keeping the household running, keeping accounts, hosting her husband's many guests, organizing enough food and supplies for them given war-related shortages, supporting her husband, keeping up with her various volunteer and paid jobs, and dodging innumerous bombing attacks.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Janet Murrow assisted in evacuating children from London to the countryside and eventually to the U.S. (the American Committee for the Evacuation of Children). She "organized the London office of Bundles for Britain, working alongside its honorary chairman, Clementine Churchill, who became a close friend. By the middle of 1941 American women had sent to Britain 500,000 pieces of clothing, 72 mobile feeding units and $2.5m in contributions." (Leonard Miall "Obituary: Janet Murrow" in The Independent (London), Dec 23, 1998 (online). Founded by Natalie Wales Latham in New York in late 1939, Bundles for Britain was a U.S. women's organization producing and shipping needed supplies to Great Britain. Janet Murrow eventually became executive chairman of its London Committee and, in fall of 1941, she returned to the U.S. ahead of her husband to give a series of lectures about Bundles for Britain and the war. For that trip, she also wrote a report summarizing her findings about the British Women's Voluntary Services across Great Britain, and donated all lecture funds minus expenditures to her organization. Increasingly frustrated with the organization's complexity, scope, and decentralization, and with shipments decreasing after the United States entered the war, she resigned her chairmanship in spring of 1942. She did remain a member of the London committee, however.

Sometime before 1938, Janet Murrow began to write scripts for the BBC, but it wasn't until November 23rd of that year that she made her first of several radio broadcasts for CBS, which she continued throughout the coming years. In contrast to the BBC, American broadcasting companies traditionally and CBS, in particular, assigned women correspondents to cover the so-called woman's angle. And so Janet Murrow largely but not exclusively talked about "food rationing, the scarcity of cosmetics, the dream of postwar nylons, [or] the separation of parents from their children." (Kendrick, Alexander. Prime Times: The Life of Edward R. Murrow. (Little, Brown and Company: Boston 1969) In addition, she wrote all of her husband's scripts portraying conditions inside bomb shelters, which he refused to enter. Janet Murrow also edited many of his scripts and other writings. While she was not paid for doing CBS broadcasts, she clearly did help to reduce her husband's workload. In fact, her husband did not encourage Janet to do more broadcasts, despite the fact that she wrote well and had an excellent deep broadcasting voice.

Throughout the war Janet Murrow also wrote articles and stories and cabled news to Liberty Magazine. For a brief time she worked for the British-American Liaison Board, an organization that attempted to reduce tension between British civilians and American soldiers in Britain. She lectured throughout England both for the U.S. Embassy, the Office of War Information, as well as the British Ministry of Information on American Life, and she wrote scripts for a BBC school program series on American history.

Janet and Edward's son, Charles Casey Murrow, was born in November 1945.

Janet, Casey, and Edward R. Murrow left London to return to the U.S. in March 1946. Only a few months later, on July 14th 1946, Janet was among the first to be awarded the British King's Medal for Services in the Cause of Freedom, recognizing her contribution to Anglo-American understanding.4 Once back in the States, Janet set up and organized her family's life in New York as well as on their farm in Pawling, New York, and eventually their life in Washington, DC.

She still made the occasional broadcasts with her husband or as a substitute for him. In 1953, for example, Janet and her husband reported together on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and on June 21, 1957, she substituted for her husband,who was in Burma, on Person to Person. Viewers and press reviews lauded her performance, and the program was soon considered one of the best in this popular series.

In 1949, Janet Murrow was elected to the Board of Trustees of Mount Holyoke College, a position she eventually held until 1970. As Board member she traveled widely, raised over $2 million, and was named National Chairman of the Fund for the Future in 1963. In 1970, five years after her husband's death, she returned to Mount Holyoke College to work for its Arts Museum, later holding the position of Executive Director of the Art Advisory Committee. She was also a member of the boards of both, National Public Radio and the Henry Street Settlement in Greenwich Village. She was the chairman of the board of directors for Reid Hall Inc. and she was director of the board of the English Speaking Union in New York.

In the decades following her husband's death, Janet Brewster Murrow was tirelessly active in furthering his legacy. Already in 1965, Janet and her son Casey attended the dedication of the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, presided over by Vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey. In 1969, she donated some of her husband's papers to Tufts University. She donated her own papers plus the remaining papers of her husband to Mount Holyoke College in the decades that followed.

Janet Brewster Murrow died on December 18, 1998, in Needham, Massachusetts.

  • Janet Brewster Murrow and Edward R. Murrow family papers
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