Sylvia Porter: America’s Original Personal Finance Columnist
By Tracy Lucht
Syracuse University Press, 230 pages, $24.95
The reveal came on July 20, 1942, when the New York Post’s popular financial column ran under the name of Sylvia Porter. Since starting at the Post seven years earlier, the columnist had hidden behind the gender-ambiguous byline S.F. Porter. At a time when women were banned from the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and kept out of corporate stockholders’ meetings, who would seek out financial advice from someone named Sylvia?
As it turned out, three American presidents, half a dozen U.S. Treasury secretaries and tens of millions of middle-class Americans would seek it. So pervasive was her influence that in 1960, Porter’s image graced the cover of Time magazine.
In a new biography, coinciding with the centennial of her birth, Porter (née Feldman) is credited with creating the personal finance column. Now a mainstay of American business journalism — and a niche in which women have been particularly successful — the personal finance column, which sought to offer up plainspoken financial advice to the masses, was revolutionary back in the 1930s and 1940s. “Here’s what’s going on and here is what you can do to protect yourself,” is how Porter explained her formula.
The stock market crash of 1929, which took place when Porter was a Hunter College freshman, fueled her interest in economics. By the time she graduated and began her reporting career several years later, the field of business journalism had been badly sullied for failing to predict the economic collapse that led to the Great Depression.
After freelancing for financial trade publications, she joined the Post in 1935, covering topics such as government bonds and corporate debt restructuring. She took on ambitious special projects such as a 10-part series about women in finance, and an exposé of the American holdings of IG Farben, a German chemical company fueling Hitler’s war effort. (Infamously, IG Farben manufactured Zyklon B, the deadly gas that was used in the Nazi gas chambers.)
Porter would describe her early work as a “crusade to try to put these economic developments that affect everything we do into language that the average man and woman can not only understand, but will want to read because they are really interested.”
As her following grew, the Post’s executive editor thought it high time to capitalize on the fact that its star columnist — by then, she was also the paper’s financial editor — was a woman. The flurry of media attention that followed the disclosure highlighted Porter’s conventional good looks and her feminine style. She was dubbed the “glamour girl of finance,” with one headline trumpeting: “A Financial Editor Can Be Beautiful!”