CARBONDALE - Virginia L. Marmaduke, Illinois' grand duchess of journalism, who covered crime, corruption and carousers in an era that relegated most female reporters to the society pages, died at 2:45 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8, 2001, at Pinckneyville Community Hospital. She was 93.
Nicknamed "Duchess" by a Chicago editor who thought her last name too much of a mouthful for hollering purposes, Marmaduke spent the bulk of her 35-year print and broadcast career in the Windy City.
Along the way, she piled up an impressive list of firsts.
She was the first woman on the Chicago Sun's editorial staff, the first woman in Chicago with a sports byline (earned covering harness racing at Maywood Park), one of Chicago's first (if not its first) female crime reporters, and the first woman named Press Veteran of the Year by the Chicago Press Veterans Association (in 1979).
She also got the Sun to install the city room's first lavatory for women so female reporters didn't have to trek two floors up to use the society reporters' facilities.
Marmaduke hit the big time in 1943, landing a beat covering "blood, guts and sex - not necessarily in that order," as she liked to say, for the Sun. She wrote about murder and mayhem, the famous and infamous, the memorable and the forgotten. And she was as colorful as anything that appeared in her columns.
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She once attacked a gangster with a spike-heeled shoe. She donned a skimpy costume and rode an elephant for a story about the circus. And she interviewed Frank Sinatra with clumps of a "non- citified substance" (from a livestock show she had covered earlier in the day) still sticking to her shoes. (That was, she said years afterward, her most embarrassing moment.)
Marmaduke survived the Sun's merger with the Times, only to move to the Tribune when that paper offered her more money. She jumped to radio to emcee a program called "Coffee With the Duchess" (later changed to "A Date With the Duchess") and ended up on television, broadcasting both as the Duchess and as "Ruth Jamieson," a video advice dispenser with a manner described by Variety magazine as "clinical but kindly."
In 1964, Marmaduke went to the New York World's Fair as hostess for Illinois' Land of Lincoln pavilion - the highlight of her career, she said 30 years later.
When the fair ended, Marmaduke retired, moving into a log cabin she built near Pinckneyville on land that had been in her family since 1831. From there, she embarked on a second career as an energetic, unpaid booster for a host of good causes ranging from cancer research to education. In 1984, she became a Lincoln Academy Laureate, an honor conferred on outstanding Illinois citizens who contribute to the betterment of humankind.
In 1992, her fellow reporters inducted her into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame.
Born prematurely in Carbondale to Harvey C. and Blanche Marmaduke on June 21, 1908, the 3.5-pound scrap of the scrapper-to-be looked like a "skinned squirrel," her father said on his first glimpse of his only child.
Marmaduke spent her first nine years in the two-story house at 500 S. Poplar St. where she was born. But in 1918, the Illinois Central Railroad promoted her father, and the family moved to an apartment on Chicago's South Shore.
At the Ursuline Academy in Arcadia, Mo., where she finished high school, Marmaduke's teachers helped her hone her language skills, convincing her that she could become a professional writer.
After she graduated from the academy, she told her father she wanted to be a "newspaperman." He sent her to the University of Iowa, where she enrolled in the journalism school, worked on the student paper and met Harold E. Grear, whose family owned the Herrin Daily Journal.
Marmaduke left school to marry Grear in 1930, moved to Herrin and began working for the paper, writing about everything from gardening clubs to gambling joints. She also sold ads and swept the floors.
She might have spent her entire career there, but when America entered World War II, Grear went to Washington, D.C., and, Marmaduke said, found himself "another gal." After her 1943 divorce, Marmaduke returned to Chicago to be near her folks, then began looking for work.
The Sun's editor, shorthanded because of the war, was glad to get her.
She wrote the story that would always stay with her just three years later. First at the scene when police discovered the severed head of 6-year-old Suzanne Degnan in a sewer, Marmaduke conducted more than 600 interviews in covering what became known as "the crime that shocked Chicago." Years later, she would say during a WSIU-TV documentary on her life that she never liked to talk about this story much as she had come to know the murderer and his family and felt nothing but sorrow for them.
And then there was the story that got away. Interviewing Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s, Marmaduke noticed that the royal personage looked a little tubby but put it down to a need for "new foundation garments." Only later did she realize that another little prince was on the way.
Marmaduke always called herself a "pencil-and-paper reporter." She used those skills in retirement both as a tireless writer of letters to the editor (a collection of which were reprinted by Southern Illinois University in 1984 as "Marmaduke at Large: Running the World From a Typewriter") and to promote pet projects, among them the advancement of SIU.
Marmaduke's body will be cremated. A memorial service will be held at a later date. Pyatt-Harrawood Funeral Home in Pinckneyville is in charge of the arrangements.