Audrey Whiting Obituary

Audrey Whiting-Nener, pioneering woman journalist who doubled the circulation of a national Sunday newspaper. Born Hull May 30, 1927, died in London, January 6 2009. Married once, 1954, second wife of Jack Nener (died 1982), editor of the Daily Mirror. No children of the marriage.

None of the feted legendary men of Fleet Street—no Cudlipp or Christiansen, no Edwards or English or Evans -could claim to have doubled the circulation of a national newspaper.

But one woman could and did.

Audrey Whiting, who died on Tuesday, took the circulation of the old Sunday Pictorial (now the Sunday Mirror) to an historic circulation of six million with a truly sensational scoop.

I read this story in 1955 when I was eleven years old and even now can remember the intro: “The least surprised woman in Britain today is ..”

It was the story of a young German woman who claimed – in the days long before IVF or any form of assisted conception – that she did not lose her virginity until two years after her daughter was born. In those days, I didn’t know much about sex and reproduction but even I knew that a man was needed to start the process.

The whole thing seemed completely incredulous and as I read it, I became fascinated both by the story itself and the entertaining, racy way it was written. It seemed so clever that, unusually for an eleven-year old child, I also noticed – and never forgot - the name of the woman who had written it. That story by Audrey Whiting was my introduction to popular journalistic writing at its best, and the first newspaper story I can ever remember reading. At that age, I swallowed it wholesale but learned, much, much later when I had become a journalist myself, that Whiting did not even believe the story she wrote.

However, it was one of the scoops of the decade and was reprised on BBC Woman’s Hour in 2001. It ran in the Pic for five weeks, and was the culmination of an investigation by Whiting and a team of doctors.

Whiting started reporting straight from school on her local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, moved rapidly to the Yorkshire Evening Post and was on the Daily Mirror in London at the – then – remarkable age of 21.

Even more remarkably, for a woman in the cut-throat era of the late 1940s, she was appointed the paper’s Paris correspondent at 23 and New York correspondent two years later, also opening up Hollywood as a base for Fleet Street stories and starting a trend that others were obliged to follow by staffing that city.

The English film star community, led by such luminaries as Elizabeth Taylor, and the Anglophile American stars loved her approach and admired her professionalism as well as her accuracy in reporting and happily divulged what would became known as ‘the secrets of the stars’ to her.

Later, as chief European correspondent, she uncovered bizarre stories from the Benelux trading consortium about unusual tariff agreements which were the forerunner of the mysterious tales that would years later emerge from the “common market” and the EU.

Her natural reporter’s ability had been honed to perfection by Ken Hord, then news editor, a ruthless master of his craft who had quickly realised that wherever in the world he sent her, she would produce great stories.

In 1953, covering the coronation, she had noticed the close relationship of Princess Margaret with Group Captain Peter Townsend, a royal equerry. The editor, Jack Nener, refused to print the story (which would become a cause celebre), telling Whiting that he was “not prepared to spoil the Queen’s special day.”

Whiting and Nener married later that year, to the great amusement, not to say bemusement, of their colleagues. Nener was a short and short-tempered foul-mouthed character – his initial greeting to Marje Proops, on being introduced by Cudlipp, had been “Pleased to fucking meet you” – while Whiting’s deferential and charming manner masked her inner core of reporting steel. More importantly to the office wags, at 6ft 2inches tall she towered over her new husband. Editorial supremo Hugh Cudlipp described their wedding as “The night of the long wives” and co-workers referred to the couple as Jack and the Beanstalk or “The Long and the Short of it”.

Celebration of the union went on for days in the pubs around Geraldine House in Breams Buildings, the Mirror HQ before the move to Holborn Circus.
After the marriage she was transferred to the Mirror‘s sister paper, the Sunday Pictorial, as in those days it was not allowed for husbands and wives to work on the same paper. It was while working there that she stumbled across an otherwise unnoticed article in The Lancet reporting the claims of a young German woman that she had not lost her virginity until two years after the birth of her daughter.

Stories emanating from Germany then, as now, were often considered incredible and read in Fleet Street with the proverbial pinch of salt. But the point of the Lancet story was that in spite of thorough medical examination doctors had been unable to disprove the woman’s claim, and the coverage in the medical journal added credibility to it.
Whiting not only wrote the story but had the inspiration to add a paragraph at the end asking readers whether they knew of anyone with a similar experience, and inviting them to write in.
Responses arrived at the Sunday Pictorial by the sackload. Women claimed to have conceived via contact with lavatory seats, the secondary use of towels and from shared bath water. Others simply claimed to have produced miracle virgin births.

With such reader reaction the story ran for five weeks, at the end of which the Pic had experienced its own miracle rebirth – doubling its circulation to six million, a record in its history.

Whiting also achieved fame as a Buckingham Palace correspondent. Again, she was the first woman in that role.

Former boxing writer (“Mac of the Pic”) turned theatre critic Bernard McElwaine joked that she got the job “because she was the only one who could see over the wall”. In fact she had befriended a former royal nanny and governess called Marion Crawford, a young working-class Scot who had almost single-handedly been responsible for the upbringing of the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. “Crawfie” had apparently been given permission by the Queen Mother to “leak” suitable stories about the princesses to the American press in the belief that, if done discreetly, it would somehow improve Anglo-American relations. But when the former nanny was identified as an “official” source, she was immediately ostracised by the royal family who claimed to despise what they described as her treachery in selling secrets for cash. Whiting remained, almost solely, as the woman’s friend and confidante.

Through other contacts she was the first to hear of the pending divorce of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, but when the Palace denied it, the Sunday Mirror followed the official line. Similarly, the Palace dismissed her enquiry about the imminent engagement of Princess Anne to Mark Phillips and the paper felt obliged to kill the story – two days before the public announcement.

Not surprisingly, then, she had little time for the mandarins and the internal machinations of Buck House. Nevertheless, she was one of the few journalists who were invited personally to attend the wedding of Charles and Diana.

Nener had retired owing to ill health in 1961. Rapid inflation meant that his once substantial salary became a relatively pitiful pension and Whiting continued to work to support him. Although considered by some to be the doyenne of royal reporters, she never went on a royal tour because she was unwilling to leave her ailing husband alone at home. Nener died in 1982.
Whiting suffered a stroke in August and died peacefully in St Pancras hospital on Tuesday.
Liz Hodgkinson

Audrey Whiting is celebrated in Ladies of the Street, Liz Hodgkinson’s entertaining account of pioneer and leading female Fleet Street journalists.

Gentlemen Ranters web site - January 2009