Ask McGehee

Betty Bienville was a pen name used by Nettie Chandler (1869 – 1943) and her sister, Mary (1875 – 1956). Both were descendants of attorney Daniel Chandler whose Government Street mansion was converted into McGill Institute in 1896. Their family tree even included Florence Chandler Maybrick who, in 1890, was the first American woman to be sentenced to the British gallows for murdering her husband with arsenic.

When Nettie and Mary’s father died in 1894, the family fortune was long gone, and the older Nettie found work as a clerk in the post office. A decade later, John L. Rapier hired her to be the society editor for the Mobile Register. Just how the former “stamp clerk” was selected for such a position has gone unrecorded, but she brought her sister, Mary, along as her assistant.

At the start of the 20th century, newspapers had finally recognized a previously unreached market: females. Old taboos about mentioning a woman’s name in print were replaced by a new generation of women who relished reading their names in the “ladies’ pages” of local papers.

Betty first appeared in the 1920s as a character writing to her friend Babs about the comings and goings of Mobile society. Babs could read all about the previous week’s children’s birthday parties, graduation teas, engagements, weddings, bridge parties and the travels of generations of local matrons. No detail was overlooked – from the gowns worn to the colors of mints in the candy dishes.

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The sisters were still working for the Register when Mobile Press bought it in 1932. When they were finally hired by the new paper, they were in for a shock. For years they had written their column in longhand. Their new coworkers refused to accept copy that was not typed – a problem since neither of them could type.

Needing a paycheck, the women found a solution. Mary, who once described herself as “just a period after Nettie’s name, ” became the typist. As Nettie dictated the laboriously long ramblings of Betty Bienville, Mary would attempt to type it using just two fingers.

In 1936, local author and artist Emma Langdon Roche wrote, “to be mentioned in a Betty Bienville letter satisfies for many a common craving in the souls of mortals – the desire to be publicly recognized. Most men read the column even though they deny the allegation.”

After Nettie’s death, Betty vanished from the pages of the Press-Register, and by the 1950s, the column would be replaced by the observations of a former Mardi Gras queen, Cornelia McDuffie Turner. Today an entire world of “social media” allows Mobilians to satisfy that “common craving” aptly described by Miss Roche.

Text by Tom McGehee

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