In a corner office on the 13th floor of the New York Times building, a 68-year-old woman with high cheekbones and stooped shoulders pecks rapidly on a keyboard. She shimmers in a burgundy organza shirt – more of an evening wear than office attire. She is Gail Collins, and whether it is in fashion or journalism, this venerated columnist follows her own rules.
Born to a middle class family in Cincinnati, Ohio, Collins grew up at a time when women could not buy houses or sign leases without a male co-signor. But, at the age of 15, she had published her own comic book and was running the newspaper at the all-girls Catholic school, Seton High School. However, it was not until she was an undergraduate student at Marquette University in Wisconsin that she began to challenge the status quo. Speaking in a low but commanding tone, she recounted a story about an incident that shaped her personal identity.
By 1965, Collins, already a talented writer, wanted to become editor of her university’s only student magazine. Because of the position’s prestige, faculty members were assigned to choose two students – one male and one female, to be co-editors of the magazine. Just before the interview, one of the male students cut a deal with Collins – he would recommend her to be the copy editor as long as he could be the graphics editor. She agreed, but once she met the panel, she discovered that another candidate had insisted that he would only take the job if Collins were his co-editor. To break the stalemate, the faculty presented her with the option of choosing a co-editor. “Without knowing what came over me I said, I want to have the position to myself. To my surprise, they agreed and I became the first editor-in-chief of the magazine.” Reflecting on the boldness of her decision, Collins continued, “It was the first time that I realized that you could simply ask for what you want even if it is not in line with the status quo.”
However, when she moved to Connecticut after graduation, she discovered that there were limited jobs for journalists. Rather than buckle under the frustration of being an unemployed graduate, Collins approached smaller newspapers in Connecticut and offered to cover the delegations in the state legislature for a small fee. Thirty-five newspapers accepted her proposal and in 1972, she started her own news service called the Connecticut State News Bureau. In the years that followed, Collins worked with notable publications such as The New York Daily News and the New York Times where she gained a reputation for being an unabashed liberal.
As an op-ed columnist with the Times, her wry sense of humor and her deft ability to simplify complex political issues earned her a loyal following. In 2001, she became the first female to sit on the editorial board of the New York Times. Although, she retired from the board six years later, she retained the plush corner office that overlooks the chaotic bustle of Manhattan. Surrounded by a collection of books, a vase of fresh roses and statuettes of the Supreme Court justices, it is hard to believe that this 5-foot-1 woman with disarming hazel eyes and soft brown hair is the same person who decimates the egos of politicians with linguistic verve and minimal regret. But in a moment of somber self-assessment, she confessed that she sometimes questions the ethics of her approach.
A couple of months ago, for example, Collins who is an unabashed liberal called Senator Ted Cruz’s office to find out his position on an issue. She admits that his press aide was helpful, but that did not stop her from writing a damning piece about the Texas Senator. When the article was published, the press aide wrote a letter to Collins expressing how hurt he was. “It is always a tender moment when I get a letter from a senator’s press person saying: “You know I went through a lot of trouble, I got you the information you wanted and now you’ve got this thing out making my boss look stupid…” Her voice dipped briefly, as if she were seized by guilt, but she continued “And there’s nothing I can do to make them feel better because if I did that, it is probably because I thought their boss was stupid.” She concluded in an unapologetic tone.
At the same time, the visibility of her column mean Collins is not isolated from criticism either. Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College was vocal in his critique of Collins. “Her attempts to be funny often consist of recycling tropes from past columns…the most famous case of this was her obsession with Mitt Romney’s dog. I know some people found it funny, but I objected to the way she portrayed it as some sort of deep character insight into a presidential candidate. ” Nyhan said about Collins’ portrayal of Mitt Romney in 2012 presidential elections. Bob Somerby, a progressive media critic believes Collins could use her stature to address real issues that affect Americans rather than focusing on the shortcomings of Sarah Palin, Mark Sanford and Donald Trump.
With over fifty years of experience in media, Collins shows no sign of slowing down. She has published six books ranging from When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present to The Millennium Book which she co-wrote with her husband Dan Collins. When she is not writing, Collins, who does not have any children, indulges in reruns of Buffy the vampire and Madmen. “She is almost always in a good mood,” says Isabella Moschen, her research assistant. “If readers send her a handwritten note, she makes it a point to write back.” In spite of Collin’s distinguished accomplishments in journalism, she does not take herself too seriously. In fact every day, between attending various meetings and writing articles, she can be found munching on a bag of freshly microwaved popcorn as she perfects the wording of another witty column.
Photo credit: www.nymag.com