Pegeen Fitzgerald, First Lady of Radio Chatter, Has a Formula for Long Life: Don't Stop Talking
Sixteen expensive stories above Central Park, an energetic septuagenarian with lively green eyes sits down before the microphone at her dining room table, fumbles with a pair of earphones and inquires, “Am I supposed to talk now?” No need to ask. Pegeen Worrall Fitzgerald has been ebulliently chatting into microphones for half a century. For much of that time she and her husband, Edward, a World War I flying ace who died in 1982, were a reigning New York institution, airing their highly individualistic opinions and even their domestic squabbles to a devoted daily radio audience. During the ’40s the Fitzgeralds were the highest-paid ($160,000 a year) couple in radio, and Don Ameche and Frances Langford did a network spoof of their format, The Bickersons, which was perhaps more famous—but no more captivating—than the original.
Pegeen was fired from New York’s WOR in 1983 because the station wanted a more “contemporary” lineup. Listeners, including columnist Earl Wilson, were outraged. Happily, within two months, she was back on the air at WNYC, the city-owned public-broadcasting station, where she still holds forth for 90 minutes each weekday. She will talk about practically anything—and did, with writer J.D. Reed.
Radio programming these days seems to be mostly talk—about celebrity, sex, finances and psychology. What has kept you on the air for 50 years?
According to the historians, Edward and I were the first talkers, but when people ask me what I do, I haven’t the faintest idea. My sister Eve, who lives on the West Coast, visited recently and said, “I don’t think you’re very talented. You sound just like you did at home.” The programs, I guess, are true-to-life soap operas.
How did you get started?
In 1936 Edward and I had separate radio shows in New York, but few people knew we were married. One day I overheard two women on the bus. One said, “I’ve heard he’s pretty good-looking and that he likes the ladies.” Come to find out, they were talking about my husband! I started thinking, wouldn’t it be a good idea for us to do a program that was kind of like an overheard conversation? That way I could keep an eye on him, too.
You sometimes argued on the air?
Oh, we disagreed like any couple. But one time was memorable. Edward had been an actor as a child, and if he thought I was dropping my voice he’d make a little theater gesture, raising his hands. I don’t know why, but that would drive me crazy. One morning I did it to him. He got so mad that he got up from the table and went back to bed. I had to finish the program alone.
What are some of the places you’ve broadcast from over the years?
We had a 22-room triplex on East End Avenue that was so big we rode bicycles around inside, and we once rented a Fifth Avenue penthouse with an actual lawn. For nine years in the ’50s a wealthy sponsor rented us a whole island off the Connecticut shore, including a mansion. When we lived in the Hotel Pierre we had a deal with the keeper in the Central Park Zoo across the street to feed the seals when we were on the air. The barking made a nice background sound. Henry Ford II was our neighbor. I never met a more henpecked man. His first wife, what’s her name, would follow the poor fellow out into the hall and berate him like a common fishwife. I was embarrassed for him.
Have any other domestic problems ever intruded on your program?
Mrs. Woo, my cleaning lady, doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Chinese. She thinks I’m just a crazy lady who sits at the table and talks to herself. She has a mania for running the vacuum cleaner when I’m on the air. I suppose the worst, though, was when Frances Beneby, our housekeeper of many years, died in 1971. We discovered her body just before airtime and we went on anyway. All the listeners knew her, so we didn’t mention it until the next day. Frances used to go to the movies in Harlem to see Eddie Anderson, the comedian who played Jack Benny’s valet, Rochester. She called him “Dark Gable.” Variety gave Frances a lovely obituary.
You must have met many interesting people over the years. Does anyone stand out?
Through my work with animals I met Albert Einstein, who asked me to give him a cat, which I did. Later its tail got caught in his refrigerator door. It was a very peculiar-looking cat after that—the tail just kind of hung there. I thought he should have had the tail amputated, but Einstein wouldn’t do it. Anyway, Edward and I used to visit him in Princeton. One Sunday afternoon we were sitting on his porch swing when a thunderstorm broke. Einstein ran into the house and brought out his violin and played along with the thunder and lightning.
Why have you had so many imitators, and why have you outlasted them?
I think it’s because what I do sounds so easy, Variety once counted 78 couples who were doing shows. Ten years later they found that all of them were divorced or dead.
In the ’40s you and Edward were among the highest-paid radio performers. Is your work as lucrative now?
On public radio I only make a fourth of what I did on WOR. It’s lucky I have commercials on other stations, because I’m a spendthrift. Edward used to say, “We go first class or steerage, but never second [class].” I’m not stuffy about commercials, but I tell the truth. I always had a coffee sponsor, although I don’t drink it. I used to say, “Ladies, if you have to, make coffee for your husband, but hold your nose while you do it…”
Your fans are said to be some of the most devoted in radio.
The tub in the guest bathroom is full of fan mail. That’s the only place it will all fit. I never send form letters. If people enclose their phone numbers, I’d rather call them up and chat. Because they know of my love for animals, elderly listeners will often leave their pets to me in their wills. Once, someone died and left a note on the refrigerator to deliver their cats, dogs and two mynah birds to the Fitzgeralds. Those birds sang East Side, West Side all day and all night. It nearly drove us crazy. We had an English nightingale at the time, and it drove him crazy, too.
You’ve said that radio is just a sideline to your real work of caring for animals.
I feel that. I have 508 cats in five shelters in Connecticut and New York. Most of them are aged pets that no one will adopt. I’m also president of the Millennium Guild, the animal rights group co-founded by George Bernard Shaw. We battle against using laboratory animals for testing by industry. We stopped Rev-Ion from using a test that blinded thousands of rabbits every year to determine the toxicity of cosmetics. Companies don’t think of me as a little old lady in tennis shoes.
Do you have any hobbies?
I used to race antique cars. I could go 90 mph in my 1907 Pope-Hartford. I’ve still got a 1937 Ahrens-Fox fire engine, but I can’t drive it because I recently had an operation; I don’t have the strength back in my arms yet.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a tiny town called Norcatur, Kans., population about 250. I was blessed to have unusual parents. My father, a realtor, insisted that all seven of his children know their prayers in Latin, double-entry bookkeeping and how to play poker. One day I found a page of Women’s Wear Daily blown up against a barbed-wire fence. I was fascinated and got a subscription. It wasn’t too long after that that I left. I went into public relations and advertising, first on the West Coast, later in New York. I’ve never really considered myself a performer. I’m a businesswoman.
You’ve supposedly never revealed your age. Will you tell us?
The FBI did a security check for the July 4 Statue of Liberty broadcast we did, and they kept calling back to find out my age. If they can’t find out, you can’t. I’m no young pullet. I got married in 1930. But I’m a working woman, and working women are silly to tell their ages. Men, too.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m doing an oral history of my life and times on tape for Columbia University, and I want to keep broadcasting. Edward was on the air until two weeks before he died. I want to do the same thing. People who retire, I think, dig their own graves. I plan to work for another 20 years.