In this undated photograph, Mary Margaret McBride (right) interviews Goldena Howard, a local Missouri historian, during a broadcast from the University of Missouri library. [State Historical Society of Missouri, Mary Kathy Dains Photographs, P0300-014950]

Described as neurotic and ample, Mary Margaret McBride became a great success on network radio while disclosing to the world her insecurity and guilt. As portrayed in her obituary in the New York Times, her accessible personality delighted “millions of American housewives five days a week for more than 20 years.” 

Mary Margaret McBride was born in Paris, Missouri, on November 16, 1899. She once said her father, Thomas Walker McBride, was “a farmer with itchy feet, and no sooner would he get a run-down place in shape, then we’d move to another spread that needed fixing up.” Her “warm and loving mother,” Elizabeth Craig McBride, was the daughter of a Baptist minister. Mary Margaret attended Paris public schools until her great-aunt Albina sent her to William Woods in Fulton, Missouri, then a preparatory school, and the University of Missouri with the understanding that she would eventually “become associated” with William Woods. (Her great-aunt had given the school a large gift.) After one year at the university, Mary Margaret informed Albina that she wanted to be a writer. The money stopped, and Mary Margaret took a job at a Columbia newspaper for ten dollars a week to finance her education. She graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1919. 

McBride’s ambition was to work for a newspaper in New York City and write a great novel. In her first job she went as far as Washington, DC, where Douglas Meng, an old family friend who was assistant sergeant at arms of the US Senate, desired to start “a news service, as a sideline, to supply small Missouri newspapers with on-the-spot Washington news.” McBride stayed in Washington for less than a year.

During the next decade McBride held a variety of jobs, moving first to Cleveland to work as a general reporter at the Cleveland Press, which after a year led to a publicity job in New York City at the Interfaith Council headquarters. When the council had financial difficulties, McBride secured a job with the New York Evening Mail, where for the first year she worked as a “sob sister,” reprinting heartrending stories. Her first “front-page splash with a by-line” was an interview with two elderly women who had lost everything in a fire. When the Mail was sold in 1924, McBride lost her job but was paid $100 per week for a year to complete her contract.

Stella Karn, a freelance publicity agent, persuaded McBride to take advantage of the situation by writing freelance magazine articles, and from 1924 to 1929 she wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, and several other publications. McBride also wrote books as a ghostwriter, as a collaborator, and on her own. During this time she invested in the stock market, rented an apartment on Park Avenue, had an agent and a secretary, and vacationed in Europe.

McBride lost her investments because of the stock market crash, but the Great Depression did not immediately affect the magazine market. She earned $40,000 in 1930, but during the next four years she experienced the most difficult times in her life.

In 1934 McBride auditioned for a possible women’s program on radio station WOR and became Martha Deane, a kindly grandmother devoted to her large family. In fewer than three weeks on the air she became confused about “her family” and told her audience: “Look, I’m not a grandma, nor a mother, nor am I married. Why don’t I just be myself?” She continued to use the name Martha Deane as long as she worked for WOR. McBride refused to advertise products that she did not like and either tested them herself or paid a laboratory to do the testing. She visited plants, met executives and workers, and told stories in her commercials about her experiences. Influenced by her Baptist upbringing, she refused to advertise tobacco products and alcohol. Listeners believed she “would only recommend the best.” While still at WOR, she also edited the women’s page of the Newspaper Enterprise Association Syndicate from 1934 to 1935 and in 1937 began appearing on a weekly fifteen-minute CBS program using her own name.

In 1938 the University of Missouri School of Journalism awarded McBride its honor medal. Two years later Missouri’s governor, Lloyd Stark, proclaimed November 22 as Mary Margaret McBride Day in Missouri, and she returned to Mexico, Missouri, for the event. That same year she left WOR. She did not like the fifteen-minute format at CBS and in 1941 took a position with NBC for a weekly forty-five-minute program. There she secured an audience of millions with her half-hour interviews, fifteen minutes of homemaking tips, and ad-lib commercials. 

McBride interviewed a great variety of people, ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sally Rand and from General Omar Bradley to a flagpole sitter. She was well-regarded for her ability draw out her interview subjects. Once when she was late for a show, she explained to her audience that she “had got caught in [her] corset zipper,” which required the building janitor to disengage her and her physician to patch her up. She received about a thousand letters a week, and if one of her shows contained controversy, the number increased as much as fivefold.

Stella Karn arranged the celebration of McBride’s tenth anniversary on the radio at Madison Square Garden. On her fifteenth-year celebration she broadcast from Yankee Stadium with sixty-five thousand people in attendance. William Woods honored her twice, first by asking her to give the graduation address (the first woman to do so) at the fiftieth anniversary of the college and then by awarding her an honorary degree of letters at the school’s centennial.

McBride retired from network radio on her twentieth anniversary and moved to her home in the Catskill Mountains. She broadcast three times a week from her living room and continued to write books as well as a daily newspaper column for the Associated Press. On April 7, 1976, Mary Margaret McBride died at her home after a long illness.

Further Reading

Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989.

McBride, Mary Margaret. A Long Way from Missouri. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.

———. Out of the Air. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.

Obituary. New York Times, April 8, 1976.

Obituary. Missouri Historical Review 71, no. 1 (October 1976): 126.

Ware, Susan. It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride: A Radio Biography. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Published March 8, 2024

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