Harmon’s Histories: Missoula newspapers battle over saucy society column

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

“(An) estimable young lady of this city…will attempt every Saturday to dish up society as she finds it in Missoula, writing of it in her own particular manner.”

With that, the Missoulian launched a new society column which would grace the pages of its 1894 Saturday editions. The young columnist, it reported, would write under the nom de plume (pen name) of “Violette Gleamer.”

The columns were a satirical jab at the crosstown Western Democrat’s stuffy social columns on the city’s “swell set.” While it was widely believed the author was the Missoulian’s city editor, he repeatedly denied it.

It started out innocently enough, with the Missoulian and the Western Democrat exchanging friendly barbs over this anonymous column, but after a few weeks, the series suddenly disappeared amidst controversy.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First, we have to appreciate and delight in these articles.

The initial “racy letter” by Violette Gleamer appeared on the front page of the Missoulian on January 13, 1894, suggesting (oh, my!) that “harmony does not dwell among the entire swell set.”

The columnist admonished “the members of perhaps the two leading families of the town (for allowing) anything to intervene to create factionalism. This can but bring about the most undesirable result.”

Ms. Gleamer accused Missoula’s south-siders of refusing to mingle with the north-siders, citing a recent snub. “One of the masculine leaders in our social set is nothing if not an admirer of one of the prominent members of the North Side Club and for this and for no other reason was he not asked to the reception given by the South Side Club.”

The columnist reminded those involved: “During the coming season there will be a number of small parties, composed of members of the swell sets of Anaconda, Butte and Deer Lodge, visiting us, and it would really be a matter of sincere regret if the factionalism which now exists is not done away with.”

The following week, under the headline, “VIVACIOUS VIOLETTE VICIOUSLY VIOLENT,” Gleamer wrote that she “was somewhat amazed at the very considerable adverse comment (from the swell set) that was passed upon my last article.”

“I cannot conceive why they should become offended; what I said was certainly intended for the social betterment of the community, and while the shoe may pinch the feet of the principals in this unfortunate existence of affairs, it will be only temporary.”

Violette also found, “no little amusement…by the number of ridiculous conjectures as to the author of these weekly articles; and while I know of no serious reason why my readers shouldn’t know whom I am, I believe that my aims in ascertaining what information I may have to impart will be better served by not just yet publishing my real name.”

Over the next few weeks, Violette took aim at the short-comings of some of the men of the “upper crust.” She accused them of poor breeding in everything from eating pie with a knife to parting their hair in the middle, something that “smacks too much of effeminacy, and what is there that disgusts a girl sooner with a man than effeminacy? Nothing, certainly.”

Men’s collars were “ill-shapen” and no one, in Violette’s opinion, could “tie a four-in-hand scarf well.” Their boots were “neglected,” their hats “dilapidated,” and their nails “shocking (and) deplorable!”

Violette castigated any man who, in his haste to make money, neglected his appearance. The columnist said that may be acceptable in business, but it is not “when he goes out in society. That is an unpardonable breach, and such a man is unbearable.”

The article brought a quick rejoinder in the form of a letter to the editor signed, “One of the Under-dressed.”

“My dear old maid, girl or mother, which ever you are … (this) is an age of reason, money-making and horse sense and we poor devils of men have something else to think of besides making parlor ornaments of ourselves for the benefit of the well-bred orbs of our lady friends. It is you women who keep us ‘broke’ most of the time, it takes money you know to keep you ‘smartly gowned.’

“You know yourself, dear Vi, that if Miss So and So went to Mrs. So and So’s afternoon tea, or yellow coffee ‘smartly gowned’ and you were not smartly gowned but just becomingly dressed, you know … you would go home, stamp your pretty foot, or perchance your No. 7 hoof, and vow you ‘wouldn’t go again, so there now!’ Now honest, wouldn’t you, Vi’? That seems to be the general way of your sex, at least.”

Ouch!

Meantime, someone signing his name only as “Biodaous,” wrote a letter to the editor of the competing newspaper, the Western Democrat, to proclaim, “Violette Gleamer is a man … and it does seem a little strange to me that he should regret the fact that there are no well-groomed men in Missoula.”

Implying Violette was actually the Missoulian’s city editor, the writer proclaimed, “Mr. Gleamer was not so well groomed himself the first time I saw him. In fact he looked as if he had not been groomed, or curried either, for some time. He had on a pair of ice cream pantaloons, the bosom of which had refused to accompany him any further in his travels.”

The Missoulian fired back, “vouching its professional honor, in support of the statement that no member of its staff, or any individual connected with this office in any capacity is identified in any manner with the preparation of the articles. The papers, as heretofore stated, originate from an estimable person who stands high in Missoula’s society and who is in position to discuss the sayings and doings of their members in manner stated.”

Violette, for her part, responded directly to Biodaous, but rather less directly to his charge: “The absurdity of his assertion is so apparent that I shall not attempt to discuss it. Why should people stop to consider whether I wear pants or pantalettes? (Only) a woman — and one belonging to my set, at that — is in a position to acquire the knowledge of our doings and reporting the same weekly to the dear readers of the Missoulian. Let us have no more of this mysterious business.”

Well, there was certainly more mystery to come.

After a run of only a few weeks, the Violette Gleamer columns ceased as suddenly as they had burst upon Missoula’s social scene.

The disappearance coincided with a story in the Western Democrat newspaper charging Ms. Gleamer (who it called a “backwoods critic” and “journalistic gypsy” who never had “an original idea”) with “gleaming” an entire section of one of her columns from a copyrighted article from the Bacheller & Johnson syndicate. To support the plagiarism charge, the paper printed the two articles side by side.

The Missoulian editor responded the next day: “The Western Democrat persists in attributing to the Missoulian what it pleases to term the sins and omissions of Violette Gleamer, leaving the inference that this paper is responsible for … the articles. (We have) assured in every possible manner that the Gleamer papers do not originate in this office, and while, on their first appearance, the authorship was attributed in jest to the city editor of this paper, we do not believe that any of our readers will now believe that to be fact.”

The paper went on to quote Violette Gleamer as saying she had “acquired the pernicious habit (plagiarism) from one of her newspaper friends,” an apparent reference to a Western Democrat editor. The Missoulian article concluded its jab at the Western Democrat with, “Take a tumble, Dave, before Joblotzsky’s Bee Hive (a local unsafe building) falls down on you.”

In the end, the Missoulian opted to write the columnist out of the paper, by sending “Vivacious Violette” to Washington to, “report (on) the sensational Pollard-Breckenridge-seduction-breach-of-promise-$50,000-damage-suit,” a trial we wrote about in the Missoula Current back in July of last year.

While I would never condone plagiarism, I’ll admit to a bit of sadness at the demise of the Gleamer columns. They were a hoot at a time Missoulians needed a good chuckle.

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.