In 1957, a party was going on inside the cluttered city newsroom of the Los Angeles Herald-Express on Georgia Street in downtown L.A. Rumpled reporters gathered ’round as an emcee presented Agness “Aggie” Underwood, the first female city editor of a major newspaper, with an oversized baseball bat, in honor of her 10th year on the job. Tough-as-nails Aggie, with her disheveled appearance and a “voice that would seduce only a foghorn,” had long kept a regular-size baseball bat on her desk to keep order. She also had a starter pistol tucked inside a drawer, which she would shoot when the newsroom got too quiet. Aggie’s new bat was as tall as she was and inscribed with the words: “To Aggie, Keep Swinging.” During her entire, illustrious career, she never stopped.
Aggie had been fighting since she was a kid. Born into an old Irish family in San Francisco in 1902, Aggie and her sister were essentially orphaned when her mother died when Aggie was 6. The girls were passed around among family members in Indiana and Illinois. “The milk of human kindness,” Aggie said looking back on her childhood, “can be vinegar in one’s kin.” The girls also spent time in the foster system. At one abusive home, Aggie poured ketchup on the head of her foster mother to protect her little sister from a beating. After dropping out of high school her sophomore year, Aggie found her way to Los Angeles, where she worked as a waitress and lived at a Salvation Army home. In 1920, she married a soda jerk named Harry Underwood, and they quickly had two children.
Times were tough. “I got my first job on a newspaper,” Aggie recalled years later, “because my husband wouldn’t buy me a new pair of silk stockings.” A girlfriend got her a temporary job on the switchboard of the Los Angeles Record at 612 Wall St.; it was one of the smallest of the six L.A. papers fighting for readership in the burgeoning metropolis. She soon was taken under the wing of the Record’s women’s section editor, Cynthia Grey (real name, Gertrude Price), for whom she acted as a catch-all assistant.
In 1927, during the thrilling chase and capture of notorious child murderer William Edward Hickman, Aggie was enthralled with the hum of the newsroom. In her autobiography Newspaperwoman, she remembered the exciting time:
As the bulletins pumped in and city-side worked furiously at localizing, I couldn’t keep myself in my niche. I committed the unpardonable sin of looking over shoulders of reporters as they wrote, I got underfoot. In what I thought was exasperation, Rod Brink, the city editor, said: “All right, if you’re so interested, take this dictation.” I typed the dictation — part of the main running story. I was sunk. I wanted to be a reporter.
A quick study with an unmatched fearlessness and work ethic, Aggie rose through the ranks, from women’s section reporter to general assignment reporter. Always unconventional, she brought her curious son and husband along to cover the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, her reporter’s instinct saving them from a collapsing two-story wall. She became legendary for her hard-boiled quips. While viewing the cold, sheet-covered body of movie actress Thelma Todd after her mysterious death in 1935, Aggie purportedly said of the men who surrounded her, “Can you imagine what any of these guys would have given to be under a sheet with Thelma Todd?”
That year, Aggie made a move to the big time, to William Randolph Hearst’s famous afternoon daily, the Los Angeles Herald-Express. Hired as a general assignment reporter, she paired up with photographer Perry Fowler, who was just as tough as she. “Making our rounds like early-morning milkmen,” she recalled, “we hit what was called the ‘milk run’ — clearing up coverage of big and little crimes, ranging from rapes and more rapes to robberies, burglaries, wife beatings, missing girls, major traffic accidents, drunk-rollings, filmdom brawls and all the complications that blot police records.”
Though Aggie was apprehensive at first about joining the cut-throat Hearst system, she soon found it fit her like a glove. “The Herald thrived on sensationalism and wanted to get the story at any cost,” says Christina Rice, senior librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection and editor of The First With the Latest!: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City. “Aggie was such an intuitive reporter that she delivered the goods.”
“Every big news story is sensational, that's what makes it a big story,” Aggie remembered. “All we did was make sure the reader understood that.” To get the latest big story, Aggie worked punishing hours in every type of weather and never bothered to buy a raincoat or wear a hat. A policeman attempted to block her — a vulnerable woman — from entering the danger zone as she covered a fire in Malibu. “It’s all right, lad,” a senior sheriff scolded. “She’s been to a hell of a lot more of these things than you have. Go on through, Aggie.”
Aggie became especially known for her coverage of the sensational murders of the age. “Favorite occupation is following a good murder,” her editor joked. “Favorite story, a good murder. Favorite photograph, a good murder, favorite fate for all editors, good murder. Help!”
According to L.A. Times historian Cecilia Rasmussen, “Aggie prided herself on christening murder cases with catchy names. In a moment of inspiration — and calculation — she dropped a white carnation on the body of a waitress who had been stabbed to death, just to give the story a name: “the White Carnation Murder.” When she told her photographer to take a picture of her creation, a cop objected — and Underwood smacked him with her purse.”
Aggie became a master at reading people during times of stress and tragedy. When Laurel H. Crawford’s entire family died in a one-car traffic accident near Mount Wilson Observatory, Aggie was immediately suspicious of the man’s dress and demeanor. When a policeman asked her what she thought of the accident, she said, “I think it smells. He’s guilty as hell.” She was right.
Aggie also developed close relationships with several famous female murderers, including the elegant sociopath Louise Peete, who was arrested for murdering her employer. According to Rice:
When Peete was first arrested, Aggie noticed that she refused to acknowledge the male reporters who were addressing her by her first name. Aggie started addressing her as “Mrs. Peete” and got the story. Maybe Peete was accused of murder, but she still considered herself a lady! Aggie reported on the trial and was sitting next to Peete when the death sentence was handed down. She turned to Aggie, pinched her chin and said, “Now don't you cry.”
A cynical Aggie’s internal response? “I’ve never sobbed a story in my life. I’m a reporter. As for weeping, I was too busy to think about hydraulics. I wanted to get to the phone with the verdict and the quotes, and I did.”
Aggie would go to any lengths to get a story, often eschewing what are today considered standard journalistic ethics and standards. She was not afraid of cursing out public officials or getting into fistfights with uncooperative interviewees, once even telling off a surly Frank Sinatra. “I guess I enjoyed — and still do —scrapping,” she admitted.
When covering trials, Aggie would cajole lawyers into “switching witness order so she could make the most exciting deadline.” She had a large network of city and court officials in her pocket, and would use them to get the story, fairness be damned. “Once,” she remembered, “I quietly dialed the phone of the desk of the clerk just before he was handed the verdict. He let the receiver lie open, and as he read, his words were carried to the Herald-Express city desk and the rewriteman a couple of minutes before deadline.”
She also was willing to sacrifice her own body for a story. She claimed to have been fainted on twice, the most memorable being a large woman whom she had just informed of her husband’s tragic death. “I was pinioned under her bulk until the photog, who had gone to his automobile for flash bulbs, came in and extricated me,” Aggie recalled. “I was bruised, but I was sorer at the photog for not being there to shoot the picture of the collapse of that tremendously heavy woman.”
“It seems that journalistic ethics in general were very different in Aggie's time than they are now,” Rice says. “I'm frequently amazed by the images we come across in the Herald photo archive here at the library that show the families of murder victims grieving in their homes or the accused sitting in jail cells, dramatically lit. Since the Herald leaned heavily toward sensational reporting, that was certainly the culture there, and Aggie did not have a problem with it.”
As a reward for her brilliance and devotion, Aggie was promoted to the desk of the city editor in 1947. Her workspace was three battered desks, arranged in a T-shape and covered in work. “I’m not arty,” she wrote, “but running the desk seems similar to directing an orchestra. … Where as a reporter I was concerned with one story, now I must keep tabs on, originate and move scores. Instead of being befuddling, the chores are exhilarating.”
“As a boss, she expected a lot from her staff but was one of those people that elicited so much respect and devotion that they did not want to let her down,” Rice says. Aggie had always reveled in the familial aspects of newspaper life — as a reporter she had frequently thrown parties at her house for co-workers and associates, or boozed it up with newsworthy subjects including Errol Flynn.
As a boss, she encouraged a jovial newsroom, buying reporters beers when it got too hot in the newsroom, and getting each of her reporters a special Christmas tie. “One morning Bevo Means and Perry walked up,” she remembered in Newspaperwoman. “Bracketing me between them, counted in unison, 'One, two, three,' and each planted a kiss on my cheek, then scooted away to his assignment.”
Divorced, with her children grown, Aggie lived for the Herald. She would cut short vacations to get back to work, and often answered “city desk,” even when she was at home cooking dinner. “Shortly before 9 a typical day ends for me — city editor at work, and mother when I go home,” she wrote. “I look at the alarm clock and make sure that it is set for 4:30 and that the alarm lever is pulled out. I take the telephone to my bedside — to be handy if a big story breaks during the night.”
Clear-eyed and no-nonsense, Aggie understood her main job was to produce sensational stories — and to live up to the Herald motto: “The first with the latest.” Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, her newsroom continually produced the goods, with little praise from the front office. “I can't recall one Hearst executive ever saying 'nice work' over a story I'd covered,” she said, “or even buying me an ice cream cone on my birthday. So help me.”
In 1964, the Herald-Express merged with the Herald-Examiner. A victim of the shakeup, Aggie was packed off to the top floor, an assistant managing editor — or in her words, a “half-assed executive.” Bored with her new figurehead position, she retired in 1968. She was sent off with a huge party at the Hollywood Palladium, which was hosted by her friend Bob Hope.
For a lifelong thrill seeker and workaholic, Aggie had a surprisingly happy life in retirement. “She spent time at home doing things she never had time for before, like gardening and cooking,” Rice says. “She was very social, often visiting with friends and family. She made herself available for interviews and had no problem reminiscing about her time at the Herald.” When her grandsons discovered what a big deal she had been, they asked her about famous L.A. cases — including the Black Dahlia murder. “When asked for the name of the killer,” her biographer Joan Renner writes, “all she would say was, ‘He’s dead and it doesn’t matter anymore.’”
Aggie died in 1984, some of the secrets of Los Angeles no doubt still locked in her steel-trap mind. “In terms of her work with the Herald, it [Aggie’s life] shows that Los Angeles really could be the gritty, grimy land of noir, filled with a host of stranger-than-fiction characters,” Rice says. “That Aggie was able to rise through the ranks as a woman without a high school education also fits into the narrative of Los Angeles as a land of opportunity. It's a city that can inspire dreams and break them.”