This Peorian—a photographer, correspondent, columnist and explorer—dedicated her life to living large at a time when women were denied that very privilege.
Ruth Robertson loved telling about her childhood encounter with a fortune teller in the woods not far from home. “The main thing she told me was that I would be a success in life,” she wrote in her diary. “‘But what was I to be a success in?’ I asked. She said it all depended on me.”
As fortunes go, this one was an understatement. Over her long career, Ruth became the first woman to photograph Northwestern University and Notre Dame football games from the 50-yard line; the first allowed onto the infield at Wrigley Field; and the only female photographer at the 1944 Democratic and Republican conventions. She was also the only female war correspondent in the Alaskan theater during World War II. From there, she traveled up in bombers to the U.S./Russian boundary waters; 2,000 miles through the Aleutian Islands; and, more than once, to the North Pole.
But the “success” that earned Robertson her spot in history occurred in a nearly impenetrable and largely unheard-of corner of the Venezuelan jungle. There, she became the first non-native person of either gender to stand at the base of Angel Falls, where an engineer who accompanied her certified it was the world’s highest, plunging nearly 18 times further than Niagara Falls. The pictures she took and the stories she wrote gained Robertson international acclaim. The world wanted to know how this woman, who stood little more than five feet tall, had succeeded where four teams of male explorers had failed.
There is one other place on the planet Robertson was extremely successful: Peoria. Here, she arrived as a teenager. Here, she lived for nearly two decades. Here, she opened a photo studio. And here, in 1939, the Peoria Evening Star hired her as its first “girl photographer.”
Ruth Robertson’s exploits are recognized, as they should be, with a banner in the history section of the Peoria Riverfront Museum. But other than that, she’s gotten little notice in the city that helped make her what she was. That’s too bad for a number of reasons. Patricia Hubbard, her literary executor, puts it this way: “She did have a good time there. She totally loved working for the newspaper… This is where she got her start.”
And it wasn’t easy. Nothing in her life was.
Robertson was born in Taylorville in 1905; her parents married the next day and divorced within a year. Her father disappeared from her life, and Ruth was effectively orphaned when her mother died. She was raised by a grandmother who, according to Hubbard, “detested her for this curse [of illegitimacy] on the family” and made her childhood miserable. Within a few years, Ruth’s father reappeared, bringing her to Peoria. They lived for a time in Averyville, in what Hubbard describes as “like a camper on a truck chassis.” Eventually, he became a photographer and artist.
Over the years, Robertson developed a passion for photography and began a newspaper career that would take her to the doorstep of the Star in 1937. When the newspaper replied, “NO WOMEN,” she wrote in her diary that she began submitting pictures to be used for free. She called her efforts “a one-woman competition with the men on the paper’s photo staff.” It took two years, but she was victorious, though it wasn’t easy. The male photographers “never forgave me,” she wrote. Soon she was writing columns as well; one was entitled “Peoria and Her People.”
Hubbard believes it was in Peoria that Eleanor Roosevelt showed Robertson how to get a better camera angle. No, that is not a misprint. Robertson was setting up her camera when the First Lady came down off the stage, saying something like, “No, dear, you want the best shot of me,” and pointing out a better spot. “Ruth said, ‘ER was absolutely right,’” Hubbard recalls. The list of celebrities Robertson photographed and interviewed included the likes of Bess and Harry Truman, Arthur Godfrey, Margaret Mead, Prince Philip, Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial, John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Dionne quintuplets.
No Easy Battle
Meanwhile, her reputation grew. In 1942, she moved to Chicago to work for Acme Newspapers (later United Press International). With a male colleague, she co-founded Press Syndicate, an independent news service. Soon, she was getting assignments denied to other female journalists, such as photographing the World Series from the field. But it wasn’t easy. She had to listen to spectators shout, “Get that woman off the field!” Eventually, she got off on her own accord—so she could go to Alaska, where a Japanese attack was feared… and you couldn’t be sure of the Russians. She photographed U.S. and Russia military movements and flew with pilots bombing Japanese targets.
Easy? Hardly. The commanding officer in Fairbanks declared he wanted no newspaper woman on his base, threw her into detention, where she stayed for 34 days, and called the War Department. But Robertson had contacts there, too, and placed her own calls. The general proved no match for the likes of Congressman Everett Dirksen and Illinois Gov. Dwight Green. Robertson stayed; the commander was recalled.
To Venezuela and Beyond
After the war, she went to work for the New York Herald Tribune, where, as was typical in the post-war newspaper business, she was supposed to write soft features thought to interest women. She was dreadfully bored. That’s when an encounter with a group of Venezuelan pilots at a bar changed her life; soon, she was on her way to Venezuela to write promotional features about the airline they worked for and the American pilots it was hiring. The job lasted little more than a month, but that was long enough, she wrote, to decide there was a “whole chunk (of the country) to be explored and articles to be written and photographs to be taken.” That work, mostly freelance, would occupy her for 12 years. It would also fuel her obsession with Angel Falls.
She’d heard tales of falls supposedly a mile high and started inquiring. The head of Pan-American Airlines in Caracas told her it was named for a pilot named Jimmy Angel, who’d “discovered” it in 1935 and taken pictures from the air. But no one—that is, no non-native person—had been able to reach its base, photograph its full length or measure it. “It would make a worthwhile news photograph,” she wrote in Cherun Meru, her book about the journey she undertook in 1949. “The reporter in me envisioned a group chopping a pathway through the jungle-choked hinterland to find and to measure this.”
Almost no one else envisioned it. Food would have to be carried, and no one knew for how long. She likely would encounter poisonous snakes, stinging ants, biting flies, scorpions, tarantulas and fleas that burrowed under your toenails. There were those four previous failed expeditions. The trek would be by foot and water—upstream. She’d have to persuade others to join her. And wasn’t she a woman? The challenges only made Robertson more determined. “She was a fighter, and I think all that comes from her childhood,” says Hubbard. “Her childhood was just as hard as getting to Angel Falls.”
The group she led consisted of 10 natives and four white men. They never encountered a poisonous snake, which was fortunate because they’d lost their snakebite kit. But the list of hardships they did encounter was lengthy: constant rain that spawned huge flash waterfalls and threatened to flood their canoes; sharp vegetation that slashed their shoes and skin; stifling heat and slick, mossy rocks; natives who feared the evil spirits and insisted she paint red symbols on her face.
The funding they’d been promised disappeared just before they left. The radio quit working. They couldn’t find the airstrip they’d hope would take them part-way, and a trip they thought would take less than two weeks took three. But an enchanted Robertson reached the falls on May 12, 1949—where she began taking pictures that appeared in newspapers all across the United States. Rockefeller Center covered its windows with enlargements. National Geographic published her account and photos—17 pages altogether. The White House congratulated her. Life, Newsweek, The New York Times and Glamour magazine wrote about her. As it turned out, Angel Falls was not a mile high, “only” 3,212 feet. Still, nothing in the world compared.
Robertson spent another decade in Venezuela, forced out, according to Hubbard, when government forces disturbed by her newspaper accounts of a communist insurrection bombed her house. Married by then, she fled with her husband to Mexico, where she worked as an editor. In 1966, she returned to the United States, living in Texas when she wasn’t out lecturing about her adventures. She died in 1998.
Preserving Her Past
Hubbard met Robertson in 1991, learned the spectacular nature of her career and archives, and began working with her to preserve them. By then, Robertson had suffered multiple strokes. “When I first met her, she just burst into tears and said, ‘I thought my work would be lost forever,’” Hubbard recalls. No one would care; everything would end up in the dump. Again, it wasn’t easy. The response of one women’s college Hubbard approached: “We can’t take her archive; who knows who she is?” “But that’s the point,” Hubbard says. Indeed.
Those archives, which include photos and columns published in Peoria, are preserved at the University of Texas in Austin. Dan Morrison, a photographer and journalism professor who helped put together an exhibit there in 1993, wrote that Robertson was “one of the cadre of tough, daring and talented women who dared to step beyond the social boundaries of the time and meet life head-on and on her own terms.”
Hubbard, who used to lecture on Robertson, says women sometimes wept upon hearing her story. “She is the hero archetype,” Hubbard explains. “She overcame adversities, she went out and accomplished the task, and she came home. Ruth is the hero within.”
I believe she should be a treated as a hero in her adopted hometown of Peoria. iBi
The November 1949 edition of National Geographic Magazine containing Ruth Robertson’s account of her journey to Angel Falls may be viewed at the Peoria Public Library. Her book, Cherun Meru, is available through inter-library loan, and many of her pictures can be viewed on the web at ruthrobertson.org.