Sylvia Porter: America's Original Personal Finance Columnist (Director's Choice)

Image of Sylvia Porter: America's Original Personal Finance Columnist (New York State Series)
Release Date: 
November 20, 2013
Syracuse University Press
Reviewed by: 

“. . . an excellent job of bringing Ms. Porter into the reader’s life, sharing her successes and challenges, and enlightening us as to the role this woman played in the lives of many women . . .”

Tracy Lucht has painted a portrait of Sylvia Porter with precision and clarity. For anyone younger than 30, the name Sylvia Porter may have little or no meaning, but for those who grew up in the 1940s through the 1970s, hers is a name that brings memories of learning about finance and how to handle its many nooks and crannies.

In Lucht’s book, Porter is portrayed on the one hand as a complex person, but on the other as a woman who saw herself in simpler terms, yet still expected to succeed; one who never saw failure as part of her life’s work.

The book is completed in a simple five chapters and yet gets into this woman’s life and her beliefs in detail.

Married three times, Ms. Porter kept her first husband’s name throughout her public life, although her second marriage to Sumner Collins was her most productive on both a personal and professional level. Collins, a political conservative, and Porter, a political liberal, found the differences in their beliefs complemented their married life. She remained married to him until his death. She married her third husband, James Fox, two years after Collins’ death. A public relations executive, he “. . . set about corporatizing and sustaining Porter’s brand through third-party business ventures and products.”

For women, Sylvia Porter brought feminism to another level. Ms. Porter insisted that women should take control of their financial and professional lives; that they should not acquiesce to earning less than men for doing the same work; that they should strive to pursue a career; and yet within her own marriage she believed that women had a role to play that was different than men’s.

Ms. Porter’s fame began as a columnist who talked to middle America about bonds; who educated the average American about how to properly handle their money and how to prepare for retirement. As Lucht explains it, “Financial journalism was a fairly vacant field when Porter began her career, a situation that worked to her benefit.”

It was during the war years of the 1940s and beyond that Ms. Porter’s columns became more active with her plain common sense approach; her “second person” viewpoint; and her use of “superlative statistics.” At the beginning of her career, Ms. Porter wrote her own columns following this approach.

As her fame grew, and along with it many more and expansive responsibilities, Ms. Porter found it necessary to outsource work to ghost writers. Although she would read their columns to ensure their writing spoke to her style, it was clear that she would remain the boss, frequently not giving credit to her writers for their work.

Politically, Ms. Porter’s liberal leanings drew toward supporting the middle class American through education and political programs. Although liberal in her beliefs, she accepted roles in the political arenas of both Republican and Democratic presidents, and assisted in advising and establishing programs in the administrations of both President Gerald Ford and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

One of the most interesting discussions in the book talks about her role as presidential adviser. In this chapter, Lucht discusses Ms. Porter’s relationship with the Ford administration immediately following President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The economy at that time was in a precarious position and became President Ford’s first priority calling inflation “Public Enemy No. 1.”

He established a series of meetings, culminating in a final summit to address the problem, inviting a variety of economic experts to participate. Although Ms. Porter’s intention was to decline to take a leadership role in the proposed plans to address inflation, Lucht refers to a “. . . miscommunication between Ford and Porter . . . Porter might have allowed the president to believe she was willing to play a more active role in the campaign.”

This chapter details the WIN campaign and the Citizens Action Committee to Fight Inflation, with Porter as its chair. As time progressed, the committee did not fare well, dropping the WIN campaign in March of 1975, and eventually changing its focus to energy.

As Lucht describes Ms. Porter’s experience during this time, “Porter had put herself at the center of the nation’s news agenda. The visibility may have helped propel her to the top of the bestseller lists when Sylvia Porter’s Money Book came out in 1975, but the misadventure had hurt her reputation.”

As the book winds down toward Ms. Porter’s death in 1991, one is saddened to see her depart. Ms. Lucht did an excellent job of bringing Ms. Porter into the reader’s life, sharing her successes and challenges, and enlightening us as to the role this woman played in the lives of many women who followed in her footsteps.