Maribel Vinson is a revered name in American figure skating. She was a three-time Olympian, a bronze medalist behind the gold medalist Sonja Henie and an exacting coach who trained hundreds of young talents before dying in a plane crash in 1961.
But she had another distinction that is almost forgotten: Maribel Vinson was the first female sportswriter at The New York Times.
Vinson was already a magna cum laude Radcliffe graduate and a bronze medalist when she reported to work at The Times in 1934 at age 22. The Times was a different place then, a nearly all-male preserve. Women were still decorously referred to as “Miss” or “Mrs.,” even in sports headlines.
There had been female reporters at the paper before, starting with Sara Jane Clarke, who wrote as Grace Greenwood in the 1850s. But their numbers were “pathetically meager,” wrote Nan Robertson in her book “The Girls in the Balcony.” And none of them had ever written for sports.
The sports editor at the time was Bernard William St. Denis Thomson, known in the office as the Colonel. (Gay Talese revealed in “The Kingdom and the Power” that he had actually been an army captain, not a colonel, and served in World War I as a trainer of pack animals.) Regardless of his rank, he was fond of barking orders to his underlings, military style.
He had hired Vinson “hesitantly and after considerable soul-searching,” the Times columnist Arthur Daley wrote years later. “He regretted it the very first day” when he realized that he would not be able to swear as much.
Years later, though, Vinson recalled of her colleagues, “They soon found out I could outdrink them,” according to one of her skating students, Frank Carroll (who would later coach some of the world’s most renowned skaters).
Vinson was not just some celebrity author who swanned in to dash off a few skating articles. She plunged right into the daily grind of a real sportswriter. She amassed 189 bylines in her first 12 months, and covered track, tennis, swimming, lacrosse and horse shows.
Under the banner “Women in Sports,” her first column reported on the Curtis Cup matches for amateur golfers and added notes about a fencing exhibition at the Hotel Astor and field hockey in Prospect Park.
Even at her young age, her prose reveals that she was a pro, seriously and carefully laying out the news of every event, even if it was low in the sports pecking order. Within the limits of The Times’s strict rules and sometimes stiff house writing style, she managed to impart some flavor to her coverage.
In reporting on an outdoor swim meet in Manhattan Beach in 1935, she wrote, “It was not a water hazard but a mental hazard that Miss Rawls had to face in the medley race. For the sprightly, laughing Southerner is literally ‘frightened to death’ by lightning, and it must have been small comfort to see a telephone pole a block away struck by a bolt and burning merrily away.”
Her bylines almost always appeared over accounts of women’s sports. No one sent Vinson to write about a glamorous event like a bowl game, a prize fight or the World Series (although Carroll says she often attended such events with her male colleagues). Instead, she plied her trade at places like the Heights Casino in Brooklyn for squash, the Pelham Country Club for golf and Jones Beach for archery.
Daley acknowledged that while Vinson was “never completely accepted” by The Times’s boys’ club, she was eventually “warily admitted to the gang.”
Amazingly, Vinson juggled full-time sportswriting with full-time athletic pursuits. On Jan. 13, 1936, she reported a squash story from the Cosmopolitan Club in Manhattan. On the 15th, she sailed for Germany and the Winter Olympics on the liner Washington. (It was an era when boat sailings were big news. The Times reported that Sergei Rachmaninoff was also on board; Vinson made the boat by just 10 minutes and forgot her uniform.)
On Feb. 2, her byline appeared again, over a story about the women’s ski team. On the 13th, she finished fifth in her third Olympics. She also placed fifth in the pairs competition alongside George Hill. On March 3, she was back on the squash beat, reporting from London, and before the month was out she was back reporting on badminton from New York.
Vinson wrote her last article for the Times in 1937 (“Miss Amory Victor With Miss Phipps,” on the results of a “Scotch foursome” golf match) and began her coaching career.
Vinson seldom got to show it in her articles about college field hockey, but she was an intellectual powerhouse. Carroll remembers that in the 1950s, “We drove around a lot to rinks and would discuss the philosophers I was studying at Holy Cross, like Thomas Aquinas. We’d talk about the Latin language, the differences between ecclesiastical Latin and classical Latin. She was one of the most brilliant women I’ve ever met.”
They drove so much, Carroll notes, because Vinson was not allowed to teach at her home rink, the Skating Club of Boston. “She was brutal, and they didn’t like that … She was a very tough, tough mentor. She demanded discipline.”
Vinson kept at writing, penning three books about figure skating and contributing off and on to The Associated Press and Boston Globe.
She raised two daughters, Maribel and Laurence, and both became elite skaters. (Laurence took after her mother and wrote poetry.) In 1961, mother and daughters, along with 15 other members of the U.S. skating team, died when their 707 jet crashed in Brussels on the way to the world championships in Prague. It was a devastating day for United States skating, and made front page news nationwide.
Vinson’s legacy lives on through coaches like Carroll, who trained Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, among others.
And through all the women sportswriters who have graced these pages.