I did not fight the umbrella which blew inside out as I stepped from the streetcar. Instead, I clung tighter to my nearly soaked cloche to hold it in place against the icy rain that slanted sideways across Pennsylvania Avenue. Navigating the slick pavement carefully, I swam through the midafternoon crowd, mostly women and a few men too old or broken for service, who were waiting in line at the Red Cross canteen truck for coffee, or making their way between government buildings and the makeshift tent offices that lined the Mall.
Brushing the raindrops from my overcoat, I slid under the awning that shielded the security booth outside the Department of State Building, pausing to fumble for my press pass. The guard eyed me incredulously as he scrutinized my credentials. Ignoring him, I gazed up at the White House, pale against the stormy gray clouds. Something moved on the roof above, the swivel of an anti-aircraft gun pointed upward. My heart skipped. Washington was a city occupied not just by the thousands who had come here to work, but by the army that defended it as though the Germans might at any moment descend from the sky.
Lowering my eyes, I caught a wistful glimpse of my disheveled reflection in the window of the guard booth. I’d left the rooming house in good form to a sky that, if not sunny, had certainly not suggested this downpour. Arriving at the Post, I expected a day like most I’d had these past few months, typing stories from shorthand notes on a Remington at a desk barely wide enough to hold it, pressed close to a dozen other girls. I didn’t mind; I needed work and I was grateful that my high school secretarial course had qualified me for it. Though it would have paid a few dollars more, I had dreaded the prospect of working as one of the government girls at the War Department. I couldn’t bear to endlessly type letters telling families that their sons were not coming home, seeing Charlie’s face in each of them.
During my first few months at the news bureau, the work had been quiet and predictable. But one afternoon nearly two weeks ago, a man with his sleeves rolled up had opened the door to the steno pool. “Italian?” he bellowed. A cloud of cigarette smoke appeared before him as he exhaled, making him seem a gray-haired dragon. The room fell silent. Chip Steeves, managing editor of the Washington Post, never came into the typing room. “My secretary is out and I need someone to call a translator.” Impulsively, I raised my hand. Then I looked around. I was the only one and I started to lower it.
But Mr. Steeves was already weaving his way through the desks, descending upon me. “You can find me someone to translate Italian?” He spoke through the cigar stub clenched between his teeth.
“No.” I looked at him squarely. “I can do it myself.”
He eyed me for several seconds, his face a scowl. “Well, come on,” he barked impatiently, as though I, and not he, had hesitated. I could feel the eyes of the other typists on me as I walked from the room.
“Montforte, isn’t it?” he asked, surprising me as we entered his office. The desk was covered in piles of papers, the floor littered with dirty coffee cups.
“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “Addie, that is Adelia.”
He didn’t introduce himself; he didn’t need to. Chip Steeves was legendary as journalist and terror. “You’re the girl who caught that mistake in the U-boat story.” I straightened slightly. My job was only to type articles, not proofread them. I had seen an error in one of the stories, though, a date that I knew from my own reading was wrong. I had pointed it out to Mr. Steeves’s secretary, who oversaw the typists. But I did not know that the message had been passed on—or that I had received credit. “That was good work. You speak Italian?”
“Yes. I was born in Trieste.” Being foreign-born was not something that one announced loudly these days, and I’d worked hard to remove all trace of an accent. This might be the first time it was an asset.
He thrust out a pen as if he might hit me with it, and I fought the urge to cower. “Well, translate this, Adelia Montforte.” I took the paper he offered and moved an overflowing ashtray from the nearest chair, then perched on it and scrawled the translation hurriedly. It was a cable about a skirmish that had taken place near Salerno, brief but with a few military terms I wasn’t quite sure I’d gotten right.
When I finished, I handed it back to Mr. Steeves, who scanned the page. “This is good.”
“I could do better with more time,” I offered.
“Couldn’t we all? But you don’t botch the feel of it, like the real translators do.”
After that, Mr. Steeves sent more translation work my way through his secretary. But he had not reappeared himself—until this morning. “Montforte,” he hollered as he stuck his head into the steno pool, causing me to jump. I’d leapt up and grabbed my pen and pad, assuming it was another translation job. But when I started for the door of his office, he waved me away. “Be at the State Department this afternoon at three.”
I stared at him blankly. “Me? But why?” He tossed me a press pass and disappeared into his office.
The guard handed back my pass now, along with a visitor’s badge, which I pinned to the collar of my blouse. I stepped uncertainly into the massive lobby of the State Building, marveling at the high chandelier, better suited to a ballroom. But before I could take it all in, Mr. Steeves appeared, grabbing me by the arm. He led me unceremoniously past a marble staircase, down a corridor and into a room with a long oak conference table. “The deputy secretary has called a meeting with the press to talk about our coverage of our allies, making sure it doesn’t hurt the war effort, that sort of thing.”
“I don’t understand. Isn’t there something you need me to translate?”
He shook his head. “Nah, kid. My cub reporter’s been called up so I need someone to help me cover the meeting. You were the best one for the job.”
“The best one? I’m a typist. I can’t possibly cover a story.”
“Just take one of the chairs against the wall and take notes. And don’t say anything,” he instructed, then disappeared into a group of uniformed men clustered in the corner.
I took off my overcoat and folded it in the lap of my navy blue skirt, noticing as I sat down a run in my nylons. Then I tried to smooth the wrinkles from my pleated-front blouse. I was the only woman in the room, except for the one setting out coffee cups. The war might have brought women to work, Rosie the Riveter and all that, but in high-level Washington meetings like this, the seats at the table were still reserved for the men.
The door opened and a man I recognized from the papers as Undersecretary of State Edward Stettinius came in. “Be seated,” he said, as the others came to the table. “I’ve only got a few minutes so I’ll be brief. I’ve called you here to ask for your help in talking to the American people about the war.” He launched into a discussion of a new initiative by the Office of War Information to work with the press on the way it would communicate information about the fighting.
I scribbled furiously. Though I frequently typed the shorthand notes of others, I had seldom taken dictation and I feared I would not be able to keep up with Secretary Stettinius’s rapid English. But as I listened, I became absorbed by what he was saying. The relationship between newspapers and government had always seemed adversarial, one seeking information and the other holding it back. But he was speaking now of ways they could work together. “I’m happy to take your questions,” he concluded a few minutes later.
A correspondent from the Washington Star whom I did not recognize raised his hand, then spoke without waiting. “It sounds good on the surface—but isn’t it something of a conflict of interest?” I had been wondering the same thing: Could the newspapers still maintain their independence and integrity while working with the government?
Secretary Stettinius offered a vague explanation of how it would all work without compromising the independence of the press.
“Surely you aren’t suggesting we show you our stories before they go to press?” another reporter pressed. “That would be censorship.”
“No, of course not,” Secretary Stettinius replied, looking tugging at his collar. “We simply want to be a resource.” Across the room, Mr. Steeves folded his arms, unconvinced. “My deputy will be in touch with each of you individually to discuss specifics,” Secretary Stettinius promised, cutting the questions short. He rose, signaling that the meeting was over.
As the newsmen stood and chatted among themselves, I tried to catch Mr. Steeves’s eye, but he was engrossed in conversation with a foreign correspondent. I made my way toward the door of the too-stuffy room, uncertain whether to wait for him or return to the bureau.
As I neared the massive foyer, a door across the hallway opened, letting loose a low din of chatter from another meeting. I started past. “Then we are agreed,” a voice broke through the others, unexpectedly familiar. I stopped mid-step. “We’ll meet again when we have the plans drawn up.”
Charlie! My head swiveled in the direction from which the voice had come. It couldn’t be. I craned my neck, trying once more to hear the voice. I had imagined him so many times since coming here, seen him in every uniformed soldier on the street corners. But I’d never heard his voice.
I stepped toward the door of the other room, not caring that I had no business being there as I scanned the crowd. “Oh!” I cried so loudly that a man in front of me turned to stare. I brought my hand to my mouth as Charlie’s broad shoulders appeared above the others. Joy surged through me, making my head light. It really was him. But how? There was no reason on earth for him to be in Washington. He was meant to be off training somewhere or deployed, not standing in front of me, tall and glorious. Had he come for me? No, there was simply no way he could have known I was here—which was exactly how I had wanted it.