Observer writer who revolutionised journalism with her bold, witty columns that tackled social concerns in a personal way
In the column she contributed to the Observer from 1963 until 1996, Katharine Whitehorn, who has died aged 92, did much to revolutionise the journalism that women wrote and read. She made her readers laugh, told them to stop trying to be perfect and brought their private concerns to public attention in ways that liberated lives – men’s as well as women’s. She then became the agony aunt for Saga magazine’s million readers over 50, answering their questions in her witty prose for 20 years from 1997, and also returned to the Observer from 2011.
She was a survivor, and she survived in style. A defining image of her adorned the cover of Whitehorn’s Social Survival (1968): the author in sparkling party mode, showing how to hold a bag, gloves, plate, cigarette, drink and fork in one hand, while leaving the other free “for shaking”. She claimed to have learned the technique while teaching in a charm school. While most such tricks and paraphernalia fell away in her lifetime, she went on.
By the 1980s she had published a clutch of How to Survive handbooks – Children, in Hospital, in the Kitchen and Your Money Problems – as well as selections of her acclaimed journalism. Her best-loved book was her first, Cooking in a Bedsitter (1961, originally published as Kitchen in the Corner: A Complete Guide to Bedsit Cookery). Clever hostesses – including herself – went on serving her dirt-cheap, delicious recipes to their guests into the next millennium, though glad to forget its required equipment – “an asbestos mat” to sit on the gas ring; a tin-opener “that can work without covering the whole room in blood”. The book sold well for 40 years and the original edition was republished in 2008; it immortalised the lifestyle it outlived, in which even people as glamorous as the young Whitehorn “entertained” in one room.
In the column in December 1963 that made her name, she declared she was a slut. She was confessing not to promiscuity, but the secret habits of a slattern, defined by asking “Have you ever taken anything back out of the dirty clothes basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing?”
Such boldness would look tame a decade later, as journalists such as Jill Tweedie led women to an unimagined liberation from taboos, constraints and inequalities: but for female Observer readers in the 60s it was groundbreaking. Time magazine profiled her as “the Observer’s most uninhibited and uninhibitable staffer”, conjuring a rackety character who had “proved impervious to the polish of six secondary schools and Cambridge University” and become a journalist after touring the US working as a waitress and short-order cook.
But while Whitehorn could play a slut in print and a rebel in interviews, she also performed convincingly on a conventional stage. Associates discerned a firm and, to some, straitlaced morality that disapproved of men who left wives and women who stole husbands. She enjoyed her respected status in the establishment and rarely appeared less than immaculate.
Public life attracted and suited her. She sat on the Latey committee on the age of majority (1965-67) and the BBC advisory group on the social effects of television (1971-72), and was an adviser to the Institute for Global Ethics (1993-2011). She was rector of St Andrews University (1982-85), vice-president of the Patients Association (1983-96) and patron of Central Middlesex Relate (from 1997); she also accepted a few non-executive directorships (one, she admitted, because it gave her a car). The International Women’s Forum gave her their Women Who Make a Difference award in 1992, and friends thought she was the best peeress the Lords never had. In 2014 she was appointed CBE for services to journalism.
However, the woman famed for expressing her personal views spoke little of her personal life. A fellow grande dame of Fleet Street realised, after decades of friendship, that while Whitehorn had drawn her out about her family and background, she had deflected questions about her own; and so cleverly that her fellow journalist had not noticed.
Katharine came from an intellectual, middle-class family and a long line of Presbyterian ministers; her maternal grandfather, the Rev Herbert Gray, helped found the Marriage Guidance Council in 1938. Her father, Alan, taught classics at Bradfield college, Berkshire, and was a housemaster at Mill Hill school, north London, and, later, at Marlborough college, Wiltshire; her mother, Edith Gray – married at the age of 20 following a year at Glasgow University – “never had a paid job, though she was an excellent housemaster’s wife”, as Whitehorn wrote.
Time magazine was right in that Whitehorn did attend several schools – she ran away from Roedean – but still got into Newnham College, Cambridge, to study English in 1947. On graduating, after doing a few of the odd jobs available to an educated young woman in 50s Britain, such as publisher’s reader, she landed one at Picture Post. Bert Hardy, Picture Post’s celebrated photographer, recorded that in 1956 he used her, then “a lowly subeditor on a women’s magazine”, as a model for a feature on loneliness in London. One picture showed her at Waterloo station with a suitcase, looking forlorn; another, smoking alone by the gas fire in her own bedsitter, surrounded by drooping garments on a clothes-horse but still looking like Simone Signoret. Hardy was so impressed that he spoke to the editor, who gave her a job.
When Picture Post folded in 1957, Katharine and a colleague, Gavin Lyall, pooled their pay-offs on a holiday together. At Delphi they got up to photograph the sunrise, and Gavin proposed. “Dawn is not a moment we have seen much of since,” Katharine conceded later, but their marriage lasted until his death in 2003. She dedicated Cooking in a Bedsitter to the husband she adored, “who rescued me from bedsitters for good”.
After spells at Woman’s Own and then the Spectator under Brian Inglis’s editorship, she joined the Observer as fashion editor in 1960. She always attributed her success to George Seddon, who edited the women’s pages and nurtured her talent – “he invented me”. In 1963 David Astor, the paper’s owner and editor, gave her a column, “to write about matters of social concern in a personal way”.
This was the Observer’s golden age. It had lost readers but gained authority from its stand on the 1956 Suez crisis, and until Astor’s departure in 1975 his gifted writers made it a force for liberation abroad and social reform at home.
Whitehorn became a star attraction, holding her own among the male intellectuals in the office who before her eruption had scorned the women’s pages, if they noticed they existed. Surveys proved that Whitehorn’s column pulled in as many readers as such leading writers in other fields as Colin Legum, Neal Ascherson and Hugh McIlvanney.
Her first column was on Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, which triggered the women’s liberation movement. Whitehorn’s feminism was not forceful, but it caused conflict between herself and Astor, whose difficulties with his mother, the MP Nancy Astor, had given him strong views on maternal responsibility.
For Whitehorn, who loved her career as well as her husband and sons, it was a living challenge. She managed to turn the argument to her advantage, however, gaining the editor’s permission to work at home, while appearing in the office enough to make her presence felt.
Her attendance at the Wednesday morning editorial conference was de rigueur. This ritual assembling of the paper’s chief players was a forum that could intimidate strong men. Whitehorn presented cogent arguments on subjects on which she had knowledge and authority: it perhaps enforced an eloquence in her conversation that could seem pre-scripted. A colleague remembers noticing her fingers twitching her elegant red skirt through one polished contribution: it was the first time it had ever occurred to him that she might be nervous.
In the office she was respected and in print she appeared invincible. But she hid insecurities. Her husband developed a successful career writing thrillers and she deferred and was vulnerable to his judgment on her own work. “He edits my stuff before it gets out of the house,” she admitted. Suzanne Lowry, her next favourite editor after Seddon, noticed in the 80s that she came into the office in tears behind her dark glasses if Gavin did not like that week’s column, and banned her from showing it to him, saying: “I am your editor, not Gavin.”
Whitehorn weathered the Observer’s changes of ownership and editorship through four decades, contributing long pieces of reportage as well as her column. But in time it went into a world of readers fed to satiety by younger columnists, male and female, pouring out inconsequential intimacies that were anathema to their progenitor.
Her departure in 1996 was not happy. In earlier years she had resisted tempting offers elsewhere, and she felt that her loyalty to the Observer had not been reciprocated. When Saga offered her the agony aunt job, she took it gladly. She liked earning her living. Though some people thought the evolution less than she deserved, she proved as popular in her new role as the old one, bringing to it the humour and humanity, common sense and wisdom, for which her friends and readers loved her.
In 2011 the Observer, now under the editorship of John Mulholland, regretted its action and its magazine editor, Ruaridh Nicoll, reinstated a weekly column by Whitehorn. She also wrote longer pieces for the Guardian, and gladly accepted occasional radio and television work. The death of her husband had brought great grief. Nevertheless she rallied, relishing her new freedom to enjoy her interests with friends. “I have plenty of people to do things with,” she said. Then added wistfully, quoting the journalist Felicity Green: “I just have no one to do nothing with.”
Whitehorn refused to write her memoirs in Gavin’s lifetime. Now she embraced the task with gusto. Her autobiography, Selective Memory, was published in 2007. On its last page she mused that the most decorous way to end it would be “to drop dead in mid-sentence and have someone else finish it with a tearful appreciation”. This did not appeal, and perhaps seemed unlikely. “So for the time being, I’ll just keep going.”
In her final years she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and her last Observer column appeared in September 2017.
She is survived by her two sons, Bernard and Jake, and two granddaughters, Megan and Ruby.
• Katharine Elizabeth Whitehorn, journalist and writer, born 2 March 1928; died 8 January 2021