To commemorate the death last week of hard-hitting journalist Mike Wallace, I would like to recall his controversial 1957 interview with a frail 78-year old Margaret Sanger, as described in the Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter, # 38, Winter 2004/5, in an article by our associate editor, Peter C. Engelman. The 39 year-old Wallace invited Sanger to appear on his ABC program, Mike Wallace Interview on June 3, 1957, but she was reluctant to be interviewed because she had heard “things” about the program. She finally agreed to appear, when Wallace cancelled the program, bowing to the demand of his sponsor, Philip Morris, which was being pressured by the Catholic Church. Angered by these threats and Wallace’s response, Sanger reacted by tentatively scheduling an interview with a Wallace’s old show Night Beat. Wallace responded by quickly signing Sanger to a contract for the interview.
“Good evening,” Wallace began his live program at 10pm on Saturday night, September 21, 1957, opposite the formidable Western program,Gunsmoke, “what you’re about to witness is an unrehearsed, uncensored interview on the issue of Birth Control. It will be a free discussion of an adult topic, the topic that we feel merits public examination. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Philip Morris.” On a bare, darkened set with cigarette smoke curling, sat Wallace under one spotlight, as he introduced Margaret Sanger, sitting opposite under another spotlight, as as a crusader who opened the first birth control clinic, went to jail eight times, suffered long separations from her children, a break-up of her first marriage, and “constant harrowing social abuse” for her allegiance to the cause of birth control.
Sanger looked all of her 78 years, the poor lighting and smoky haze accentuating her withered appearance. Weakened by heart problems over the past decade and a host of other ailments, Sanger also seemed uncomfortable, fidgety, unsure where to look at times. But the interview started off well. She handled Wallace’s first question, about the origins of her crusade, with relative ease. “I saw women,,” she told him, “who asked to have some means whereby they wouldn’t have to have another pregnancy too early, after the last child, the last abortion, which many of them had. Certainly there are numerous things [...] that really made you feel that you had to do something.” She cited her mother’s premature death after bearing eleven children as a motivating force.
Wallace, sounding at times more like an interrogator than an interviewer, suggested that maybe Sanger was “driven emotionally toward the birth control movement because of antagonism toward the church” stemming from her troubled upbringing with a Catholic mother and atheist father.
She responded: “No I don’t think I had anything of the kind in mind–I was–I was what I would call a born humanitarian. I don’t like to see people suffer, I don’t like to see cruelty even to this day and in nursing you see a great deal of cruelty and unnecessary suffering. At that time, there was no opposition as far as the church was concerned, any church. It was mainly the law, Federal Laws and State Laws, that one had to–to think of. The church was not in my mind at all.”
On the issue of population control, however, Sanger seemed to have trouble hearing Wallace’s questions and began stumbling over her words, beginning a thought but not having a clear sense of where she was taking it. When Wallace turned again to the Catholic Church, Sanger regained some of her old vigor. Wallace asked her to comment on the official position of the Catholic Church on birth control-–that any contraception is used “unethically and unnaturally” since “the immediate purpose and primary end of marriage is the begetting of children.”
SANGER: “It’s very wrong, it’s not normal-–it’s-–it has a wrong attitude towards marriage, toward love, toward the normal relationships between men and women.”
WALLACE: “Well the natural law they say is that first of all the primary function of sex in marriage is to beget children. You don’t disagree with that?”
SANGER: “I disagree with that a hundred percent.”
When Wallace asked Sanger what she thought the Church’s motive was in forbidding birth control, Sanger refused to give an answer.
WALLACE: “Have you heard it said, that the reason that the Church is against birth control is because they want more Catholics?”
SANGER: “I’ve read it.”
WALLACE: “Do you believe it?”
SANGER: “Yes. If you read their papers at Boston, that that’s what had happened in Boston in Massachusetts. They had simply outbred the Protestants and they–they-–in Boston in Massachusetts they had control. I read that in their own papers.”
The interview then began to disintegrate as Sanger grew flustered over Wallace’s successful reduction of the topic to a personal debate between Sanger and the Church. She now looked for traps and unfounded accusations, and sounded defensive and unsure of herself. She had prepared some index cards with possible answers to some of his questions, but never referred to them.
Wallace presented the argument that birth control encouraged promiscuity, quoting from a magazine article that claimed it “tends to weaken the moral fibre of the community. Immunity from parenthood encourages promiscuity, particularly when unmarried persons can so easily avail themselves of the devices. Do you doubt that?”
SANGER: “I doubt it.”
When Wallace asked her what her feeling on the issue was, Sanger replied, “My feeling is that love and attraction between men and women, in many cases is the very finest relationship; it has nothing to do with bearing a child, it’s secondary many, many times and we know that–you see your birth rates and you can talk to people who have very happy marriages and they’re not having babies every year. Yes, I think that’s a celibate attitude [...] It’s an unnatural attitude to take–how do they know? I mean after all, they’re celibates. They don’t love, they don’t know marriage, they know nothing about bringing up children nor any of the marriage problems of life, and yet they speak to people as if they were God.”
Wallace then returned to Sanger’s views on the Catholic church, and she again became frustrated and flustered. He then asked her about her own views of divinity and sin.
SANGER: “I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world–-that have disease from their parents that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all such a thing just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin–that people can–can commit.”
But when Wallace asked her if she believed infidelity was a sin, Sanger, even more flustered, answered, “Well, I’m not going to specify what I think is a sin. I stated what I think is the worst sin.”
Wallace then asked Sanger about ways to reduce the divorce rate. When she began to discuss marriage counseling services at birth control clinics, he interrupted Her.
WALLACE: “May I–-may I ask you this could it be that women in the United States have become too independent–that they followed the lead of women like Margaret Sanger by neglecting family life for a career?” He was referring to the independent life she maintained during her second marriage to J. Noah Slee.
Sanger claimed she had enjoyed a happy marriage, though she did not discuss birth control as a tool for balancing family life and career. When Wallace implied , that in her own life she chose work over family, Sanger was shocked and could only muster a grandmotherly smile as she showed the camera snapshots of her grandchildren. She then obediently plugged the sponsor with an awkward endorsement of Phillip Morris cigarette. smoking.
In the days and weeks after the interview, Sanger’s friends and supporters uniformly attacked Wallace and his interview technique, but Sanger knew she had missed a rare opportunity to promote birth control to a wide audience. She wrote her niece, “I had a good time at those moments of his confusion! He was, of course, speaking for the R. C.’s as instructed. It was sad I did not get in anything about world wide Birth Control work.” To a friend, she noted that though Wallace “got a few replies that knocked him pale in the face. I had a good time, even though the time was wasted as far as Birth Control was concerned. The questions he asked were old stuff to me. I’d almost forgotten how I used to answer them.” (MS to Olive Byrne Richard and to Ellen Watumull, Oct. 9, 1957 Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collections (MSM), Reel 52, frames 540, 950.)
In December 1957, after Wallace sent Sanger an engraved cigarette box as a Christmas gift, she replied, “It is certainly a good reminder of a most amusing evening. . . . I have had so many letters, phone calls, and personal talks about the Mike Wallace interview. Some of my admirers hope to get a chance to ‘kill’ you one day, because you caused them to spend their valuable time listening to ‘crazy’ questions about the Roman Catholic religion and not a word about the world-wide spread of birth control practice and education. I have a letter from a listener who writes she is convinced that ‘Mike Wallace is a Roman Catholic.’ So it goes.” (MS to Wallace, Dec. 19, 1957 [MSM S53:121].)
If Sanger had been younger and in better health, she would no doubt have been less flustered by Wallace’s questions, and not thrown off by his interview style. But given her age and condition, perhaps this was an early example of so-called “gothcha” journalism. More likely it was Mike Wallace being Mike Wallace. When asked about the interview in 2004, Wallace called Sanger a “genuine pioneer,” and did not recall her being flustered or nervous, but rather “sure of her ground.” It is perhaps more a testimony to Sanger’s own history and reputation that he thought her tough enough to take on!