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Felicity Green: 'The first lady of Fleet Street'

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Felicity Green

Felicity Green

Felicity Green meets the queen

Felicity Green meets the queen

Clippings from Felicity while she worked at the Daily Mirror

Clippings from Felicity while she worked at the Daily Mirror

Felicity Green gave a lot of publicity to mini-skirt pioneer Mary Quant

Felicity Green gave a lot of publicity to mini-skirt pioneer Mary Quant

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Felicity Green

In the clattering surrounds of a bijou café on London's Marylebone High Street, Felicity Green, the first lady of Fleet Street, offers a wonderful juxtaposition about her career. "I've always hated writing," she says po-faced, slowly stirring her tea."I've hated writing all my journalistic life. When I had a weekly column, my husband used to sit me at the typewriter, give me a glass of wine and shut the door."

"Some journalist…" she smiles.

Green is sharp and warm and gifted with a quiet humour. Not what I expected.

As the first woman associate editor on Fleet Street at 27, she went on to become the first female to sit on the board of a newspaper at the Mirror Group. It was a significant crack in the glass ceiling.

Her influence on the women's pages of the Sunday Mirror and Daily Mirror, reaching a daily circulation of over five million, encouraged and stirred the Youthquake and social vanguard of the swinging sixties.

Green gave a voice to the ground-breaking creations of Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon; championed the frames and shots of David Bailey and Terry O'Neill; made household names out of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy.

As Sassoon says in her remarkable new tome, Sex, Sense and Nonsense: "Felicity Green put the swing into the sixties".

Raised in Dagenham, a working-class area skirting on the East London/Essex belt, the directionless adolescent was introduced to Woman and Beauty magazine. She felt compelled to compose a letter to editor, Phyllis Digby-Morton.

"She invited me to her office and within 10 minutes said, 'I'll give you a job if you give me one promise - hold your stomach in'."

Felicity winks on cue: "And I've been trying to do it ever since…"

She eventually moved on to head up the PR department at WS Crawford's advertising agency and it was working here where she got the call from Hugh Cudlipp, tabloid titan of the Mirror Group.

"I was summoned to his office and he said, 'We have a new magazine called Woman's Sunday Mirror, what do you think?' I said, 'I think it's awful,' and he said, 'So do I'."

Seduced by her honesty, Cudlipp offered her the position of associate editor on the spot. It was 1954 and at 27 Felicity was the first woman to become senior editor at a national newspaper on Fleet Street.

Teamed with revamping the fashion pages, her method was simple - keep the pages fun, informative and accessible for all. Including men.

She redrew layouts, offering a fresh eye to the increasingly influential British fashion scene. She employed photographers like John French and John Cowan to bring a glossy magazine quality gripped with a gritty spontaneity.

Showcased throughout her book, which charts an astonishing career path in a catalogue of archived cuttings, are shots of a keenly styled Grace Coddington and kittenish Jill Kennington in outlandish, flirtatious settings which thrilled readers.

During the first years, however, her controversial seniority attracted a rumble of silent hostility.

"I remember the features editor pulled me aside and said to me, 'You must be relieved that all that animosity and hatred is going away'. I was completely unaware or conscious of it. The Mirror was a sort of island of its own behaviour.

"So my attitude was to remain kind and nice to people. You'll simply get it back."

With a bright, dissecting gaze, there's a graceful charisma and direct approach. Felicity befriends on first sight. It's been her secret weapon since the early days at Woman and Beauty.

Her style is clean and classic. Dark wide-leg trousers under a monochrome check print. Her actions are somewhat slow and a little laboured - though no more than myself some mornings...

The waiters are charmed and dutiful towards the woman who is less than two years shy of her 90th birthday and barely scraping 5ft 1in.

"It's only a short walk from my home," she mentions in a fey rasp. "I always tell them to make my tea a little weaker. Every time."

This buoyant wit undoubtedly helped cultivate lifelong relationships with fashion's high rollers, notably mini-skirt innovator Mary Quant.

"She changed the world. I put her fashions in the Mirror again and again.

"I remember the chairman of the paper, Cecil King, said to me, 'When are you going to stop putting those ridiculous short skirts in my Daily Mirror?'

"And I replied, 'Not until they stop being news' to which he said, 'Well they better stop soon or I'll fire you'."

Legendary stylist Vidal Sassoon remained one of her closest friends, right up to his death two years ago. He paid tribute to Green in her book and reminisced of their playful relationship, saying, 'She was extraordinary, with ideas far ahead of the press. And she was also so fun'.

Felicity, who went on to become managing director at Vidal Sassoon UK after she left the Mirror, purses her lips as she fondly remembers their time together. "We became really close friends but he never cut my hair. Sometimes, I think, why didn't I ask him?"

As the faces of the swinging sixties, Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton formed important facets of Green's career - in contrasting manners.

"I never met Jean and I tried to book her a few times and it just never happened. I actually regard it as a failing on my part, not to have gotten her into the Mirror. I still feel guilty."

Alternatively, Green enjoyed a close relationship with Twiggy. But circumstance over the years has heaped strain on their friendship.

"I worked with Twiggy and her boyfriend, and then manager, Justin de Villeneuve so often. Both such fun.

"Together, they had huge success but then they had a falling out and split up. And when she sees how much I have of him in the book, she'll never speak to me again.

"But that won't keep me awake at night. To me, he created her from nowhere to a worldwide success. And she's not the girl she once was."

Thirteen years after her appointment as associate editor, Felicity received an ominous summons from Cudlipp.

"I was convinced he was going to fire me."

She was way off. Cudlipp made her director of publicity of the Mirror Group, the first woman to do so. She'd burst through the glass ceiling.

Despite the ground-breaking move however, inequality remained and she found it difficult to ably operate.

"There were 15 people in the publicity department; the bosses at first level were all male, at the second level were all girls.

"It didn't take me too long to figure out who were the clever ones and I started to promote the girls.

"And the boss of publicity quit. He didn't appreciate the change."

But Green could only stretch her influence so far. Old establishment attitudes continued their obstacles.

"I remember when Hugh left and the new managing chairman asked to see me. And he was a typical…" she flinches for a moment, "…man."

"He said, 'How do you like my tie? It says, I'm a male chauvinist pig. Doesn't it make you laugh?'"

The final straw came when, after nearly 18 years with the Mirror group, Felicity learned of a new appointed director's salary - his was £30,000. Hers was £14,000.

"I resigned right there and then and went to work for Vidal." The shock at being paid so much less still rankles today.

After several years at Sassoon's UK HQ, she was lured back to journalism in the mid-eighties by the Daily Express, before moving on to advise the Telegraph board. She then progressed into lecturing in journalism at St Martin's School of Art, where she still heads classes. Sometimes.

"It can't all be about work," counsels Green, before quizzing me on my own career goals.

She glances at her watch. Minutes have seamlessly drifted into hours and we've barely spoken about husband, Geoffrey Hill, whom she married in 1952 and enjoyed 39 years together before his passing in 1992. I wonder if Green's accidental trailblaze affected their marriage?

"He worked in the family cigar business and was the world's worst businessman. And when it was bought by another company, he stayed there for four years, then left and never worked again. I tried to persuade him to get a job and he said, 'My job is looking after you'.

"He was a generous, wonderful man who loved being with me and I loved being with him. We had 39 fantastic years together."

On paper, an acutely modern set-up for those days. "It worked for us. He looked after me. I looked after him."

A pioneer in industry. A pioneer at home. Spending hours with Felicity Green is to spend hours with a very special person, someone whose achievements tower and rise beside an inspiring humility.

"I think I'm actually incapable of feeling conceit," smiles the journalist. "I have a natural pessimism and I have a great difficulty of feeling success. Although, it's a bit late for that naturally.

"But only the nicest people have that. The ones who don't, they're unbearable. You encounter that all your life."

Sex, Sense and Nonsense is out now

Mary Kenny

 "Fleet Street in the sixties was the greatest fun: often drunk, sometimes corrupt, usually cynical. And yet hilarious and a land of opportunity. Men outnumbered women by about six to one, which was highly unequal, but great larks: when there is a shortage of females, females are more special. Irish women were particularly welcome, in my recollection, as we were thought wild, rebellious and outside of the English class system, as well as natural talkers and thus, writers. 'For Mary, who is learning to write almost as well as she talks', wrote my editor, ambiguously, on the fly-leaf of a book. Editors took you to lunch at the Savoy if you were a good girl; they shouted across a newsroom: 'Get the next flight to Paris'. You could interview almost anybody; celebrities were much more accessible. Ah, youth is wasted on the young - I didn't appreciate half enough at the time!"

Polly Devlin

“I never physically worked in Fleet Street. As a monthly glossy, Vogue was a very far cry and I wrote my own column for the Evening Standard for only six months in total in the sixties. But sent it in. And when I worked in the seventies for the Sunday Times or Observer or whatever as the occasional guest columnist, again I sent my stuff in. I didn’t have an office. I didn’t have a Fleet Street life and I think I would much rather have stuck pins in my eyes. Which really says it all. At the beginning of my career, I hardly knew Felicity and never had the chance to work with her. I got to know her years later when I was older as a friend rather than in a professional capacity. And when I got to know her, I admired her greatly and thought her a wonderful, inspiring woman and a true trailblazer.”

Irish Independent