‘Late Starter’ Writes On Telecommunications, Famous Women

Seeking a wedding ring, Irish-Italian journalist happens upon a thriving literary career and becomes a Lady

Brenda Murphy Maddox ’53 never thought she would amount to much.

“I was a late starter in everything,” says Maddox. “It’s a miracle how I got to Radcliffe at all...I felt like the stupidest person around, I was overawed by my classmates and I didn’t stand out in any way.”

But 50 years after coming to Radcliffe, Madox has written articles for The Economist, the London Times and the Daily Telegraph. She’s authored eight books and won two Los Angeles Times Book Awards, the British Silver Pen Award, a Whitbread Award nomination and the Critics Circle Award for her writing.

Born to a working class Massachusetts family, Maddox grew up the child of a widowed, bed-ridden mother who struggled to save enough money to send her to college.

The Irish-Italian Maddox remembers arriving at Radcliffe feeling like she didn’t belong in the social stratisphere of Boston debutantes and sophisticated New Yorkers.

“I knew I was smart, but I only applied to Radcliffe and Simmons because I knew that because of my mother I couldn’t go too far from home,” she says.

But she quickly caught up with her peers intellectually, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.

She went on to a successful journalism career, but felt like she lagged behind the other Radcliffe graduates socially.

“I was one of the few girls to leave the gates of Radcliffe without a diamond ring around her finger,” she says.

While she did not find a ring on her finger until six years later, Maddox is now a “Lady,” wife of Sir John Ryden Maddox, and has two grown children.

But for Maddox, her life still revolves around her writing, which she says comes naturally to her.

From Elizabeth Taylor to the Pope to telecommunications, Maddox has delved into many other lives and many subjects—and she doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.

“I’ve always liked my colleagues and working. The alternative is pruning the roses, and that’s not for me,” she says.

A Slow Start

Maddox describes her childhood in Bridgewater, Mass.—only 30 miles from Boston—as “a world away” from Harvard Yard.

Her father, a doctor, passed away when she was very young, and Maddox grew up taking care of her invalid mother.

Cost was also a consideration, and since Radcliffe’s tuition was $200 less a year than Simmons, Maddox chose the Cambridge route, working during the summer and living in cooperative housing to lessen the room and board costs.

Still, moving from her small public high school to Radcliffe presented “total culture shock in every way,” Maddox says, when she arrived on campus in September of 1949. “I came from a place where I was one of two people who loved reading books,” she says.

Maddox said that at first, she didn’t feel as thoughs she quite fit into the social puzzle of wealthier and more connected girls. Unlike them, she had grown up as a pious Catholic, Irish-Italian American who regularly went to church.

“We didn’t have a network to plug into,” she says.

Maddox’s priest warned her that she would be entering a different world at Radcliffe.

In high school, she won the Bridgewater Catholic Women’s Club scholarship, but her priest was reluctant to write the check, fearing that Maddox would be influenced by Harvard professors to give up on religion.

Maddox said that the priest still wrote the check, but that he was right—it took only two years before she gave up her Catholicism. “At a certain point, I realized that I don’t believe a word of this,” she says. “I left the church at Harvard, and I’m certainly not religious anymore.”

Socially, Maddox was a misfit from the start, and at first did not have an easier time academically.

She concentrated in English, specializing in Anglo- and Irish-Literature, but failed the standard entrance exam for English majors on her first try.

By the end of her time here, she was elected into the prestigious honor society Phi Beta Kappa and had written a thesis on Yeats.

Maddox says her struggle was for the best. In failing the entrance exam, she was forced to take the then-infamous “English A” course, in which she found a mentor who encouraged her to write.

Maddox also credits much of her journalistic and romantic success to a science course at Radcliffe, “Geology 1A.”

“When I later became a journalist, and science suddenly became news with Sputnik and everything happening, the editors asked us, ‘Who wants to write about this?” and I put up my hand,” she says. “I wasn’t afraid because I had taken all this science at Radcliffe.”

Science also led Maddox to her husband, John, a former physicist-turned-journalist, whom she met in 1958 at a science conference in Geneva, “after all of [her] friends were already married.”

And despite coming from a home that was different than many of her classmates’ roots, Maddox says she has fond memories of the other Radcliffe students.

“I really enjoyed meeting and going to classes with the other girls, and I found the courses stimulating, but I didn’t have a date every Saturday night,” she says. “For me, the social scene was trying to get home and see my mother.”

She doesn’t remember ever being frustrated with Harvard men, “except if they didn’t notice me, or if I didn’t look pretty enough,” she says. “I played the game by the then-rules, and I certainly wasn’t a feminist.”

And Maddox says the exclusion of women from libraries, dining halls and dorms at Harvard never bothered her much.

“We wouldn’t go into Lamont [Library] like we wouldn’t go into a men’s room,” she says. “You never thought of making a protest of it.”

Although Maddox says she went home so often in her first year that even the dean commented on it, the academics eventually drew her into the core of Radcliffe life.

“I didn’t have any ambition, I just wanted to get through [college],” Maddox says.

Falling into Place

Maddox says she never thought she would end up a writer, but “just fell into journalism and writing—it’s all about just asking the right questions.”

After college, Maddox took up all sorts of odd jobs until she landed a position as a writer for the Quincy Patriot, the daily paper for Quincy, Mass.

Maddox says she had “no inkling” that she would go into journalism while she was at Radcliffe, where she was too afraid to try out for The Crimson or The Radcliffe News.

But at the Quincy Patriot, which provided a “great training ground” for her in a remarkably egalitarian atmosphere, she found her perfect match.

“Journalism and I just clicked, and I never looked back,” Maddox says of her first newspaper job.

Maddox remained at the Quincy Patriot for about three years.  

“The only thing a woman couldn’t cover was a trainwreck,” she says.

Maddox, however, still felt out of place as an unmarried career woman in a world where the ultimate goal for a Radcliffe woman was to be a young wife.

She says she became frustrated when she couldn’t find another journalism job in the U.S., and at the same time felt inadequate for not having a husband.

She remembers applying for a public relations position at the large department store Filene’s, and being asked what she wanted to be doing in five years.

“The only answer was ‘married with children,’ but it was a catch-22, because if you said that, then why would they hire you?” she says.

Maddox never got the Filene’s job, and ended up moving in 1959 across the ocean to England to attend the London School of Economics.

The still-single Maddox felt London could be the antidote to her claustrophobic Boston world—both personally and professionally.

“I had seen London travelling one summer, and it seemed to me the kind of place where it was alright to be a woman and not be married,” she says. “And after all, as Samuel Johnson says, ‘Tired of London, tired of life.’”

Maddox remained in London, where she got married and eventually landed jobs at Reuters and The Economist, where she worked for about 20 years and became the House Affairs Editor.

As at the Quincy Patriot, she found the atmosphere more egalitarian than at most work places.

In fact, Maddox remembers The Economist as employing more women than most papers—although she admits that this was, in part, only possible because unlike most papers, The Economist does not use bylines, and thus could disguise the fact that half the articles were written by women.

She praises the field of journalism because “there was never any gender bar.”

Narrating the Road to Fame

Maddox’s literary agent in America, Ellen Levine, says that Maddox has a particular talent for “accessible writing—you don’t get a distance or chasm that you often get when writers are very serious about their revered biographical subjects.”

A prolific writer of articles, books and columns, Maddox is particularly fond of the genre of biography—“it’s better paid than journalism,” she says—and also writes numerous book review for The Washington Post, The Times and The Times Literary Supplement. “

“It’s the approach to writing that matters more than the subject,” she says. “I look for new things that would interest me and something that I could weave together in a new way—it doesn’t matter if it’s telecommunications or marriage.”

Maddox has written many books about women—some famous, some lost in history—such as Elizabeth Taylor, Rosalind Franklin, and the wives of James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence.

Levine praises Maddox for her biographical skills.

“She has a talent for making peoples’ lives come alive, she makes them almost novelistic. Brenda is really interested in people, and she really wants to probe to get the essences of people,” says Levine.

At The Economist, she focused on telecommunications, writing about three or four articles a week, “because I was a working mother and no one else wanted to do it,” she says.

Although at first undesirable, with the rise of technology and cable television, telecommunications turned out to be a topic of international attention, and The Economist soon began sending Maddox on trips to Washington, D.C. to cover federal telecommunications legislation.

Maddox’s first book Beyond Babel: New Directions in Communications was based on articles she wrote on telecommunications for The Economist.

Writing seems to run in her family.

Maddox has two children, both of whom are also writers: a daughter, Bronwen, who went to Oxford and is now a foreign editor of the Times, and Bruno, who graduated from Harvard in 1992 and is now a novelist.

Maddox concedes that although her father was a doctor and her mother was a square dance caller, “everyone in the family has always had a great knack for telling a good narrative line.”

She says that she hopes to continue to write, “shaping the future, and seeing how the future is shaped.”

“I’m very market-oriented,” Maddox says. “I’ll find something that interests me and that interests people soon.”

—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at schuker@fas.harvard.edu.