The First Lady of Fleet Street: The Life of Rachel Beer — Crusading Heiress
and Newspaper Pioneer
Bantam Books, 348 pages, $30
By Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren
In an era when women were not permitted to vote, when marriage was the only vocation that proper girls were encouraged to pursue, when doctors linked too much “brain work” to nervous disorders and infertility in women, Rachel Beer challenged Victorian conventions of womanhood. As the editor of two influential British broadsheets, The Sunday Times and The Observer, it was her perpetually ink-stained hands that produced some of the most incisive editorials of the late 19th century. It was also her scoop that would help clear the name of Alfred Dreyfus, the French–Jewish military officer infamously framed for treason.
The Beers counted Members of Parliament among their friends, and they frequently hosted private concerts and charity benefits inside their ornate London manse. But by the time Rachel Beer died in 1927, at age 69, the campaigning “editress” had been relegated to obscurity. Not even The Sunday Times, which Rachel had run for the better part of a decade, published her obituary.
With their absorbing new biography, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren — a writing team with a penchant for rescuing fascinating women from the dustbin of history — restore Rachel Beer to her rightful place in the annals of journalism. (Assia Wevill, Yehuda Amichai’s translator and Sylvia Plath’s rival for Ted Hughes’s affection, was the subject of their 2006 biography, “Lover of Unreason.”) In their latest collaboration, “The First Lady of Fleet Street: The Life of Rachel Beer — Crusading Heiress and Newspaper Pioneer,” Negev and Koren have turned out the first definitive account of Beer’s life, work and dramatic decline.
“The First Lady of Fleet Street” is a remarkable work of scholarship. But, perhaps because Rachel rarely wrote about personal matters and left behind no diaries, the book provides few clues into her emotional life: her ambitions, marriage, friendships and mental status toward the end of her life. It draws heavily on the editorials she wrote and on the history of the wealthy Sassoon family, into which she was born on April 7, 1858.
Rachel Sassoon was the only daughter of trading scion S.D. Sassoon and his wife, Farha. For centuries, the Sassoons were among the most prominent Jewish families in Baghdad, and they claimed to trace their roots to King David. In the 1830s, the family patriarch, David Sassoon, left Baghdad and settled in Bombay, where he accrued an immense fortune supplying China with cotton, metals and opium.
Rachel was still a toddler when her father moved the family to London. S.D. Sassoon “set out to be a Jew at home” — the family was Orthodox and spoke Judeo-Arabic — “and an Englishman in public.” Before he died of a heart condition in 1867, when Rachel was 9, S.D. applied for a coat of arms and purchased Ashley Park, a sprawling country estate.
Farha raised their four children, Rachel and her three brothers, at Ashley Park. At the piano, Rachel showed great musical promise, but honing her skills at London’s Royal Academy of Music was out of the question. “In affluent families like hers, playing an instrument or holding a brush were merely respectable pastimes for a woman, not potential careers,” Negev and Koren write.
Rachel thought better than to marry for anything but love and rejected “hordes of suitors.” A “stay-at-home daughter” and volunteer nurse, she was pushing 30 by the time she married Frederick Beer, a newspaper proprietor whose family wealth, made in railroads and submarine telegraphy, dwarfed her own. Although the Beer family had deep roots in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto, Frederick was born to a gentile mother and baptized in the Anglican tradition. The family broke ties with Rachel over her marriage to a non-Jewish man and her own conversion to Christianity.
Frederick had inherited The Observer from his late father and, while Rachel had no journalistic experience to speak of, she “was brimming with ideas for the paper, most of them stemming from her desire for social change.” When she clashed with members of the editorial staff, Frederick purchased Rachel a newspaper of her own. In 1894, Rachel became the editor of The Sunday Times. She wrote crusading editorials, conducted probing interviews for her “Witness Box” column and introduced into the paper’s pages games, contests and other amusements. Two years after she took the helm at The Sunday Times, with Frederick’s health in rapid decline, Rachel added to her workload her husband’s duties at The Observer.