During the Great White Male Host Dance-off of 2014-15, people complained that no women were named as successors to any of the major late-night shows. Now we have Sam Bee and Chelsea Handler, and decades ago we had Joan Rivers, but she wasn’t the first. That crown goes to Faye Emerson, who was more than the first female late-night host; she was the queen of early television.
If you think women aren’t taken seriously as late night candidates now, consider 1950. It was post-war America, the men were home and the women were expected to resume their careers as mothers, housewives, or perhaps teachers and secretaries if they were really bold.
Enter Faye Emerson. Born on July 8, 1917, she was first an actress in war dramas and other hard-boiled movies of the 1930s and 40s. After she married the President’s son, Elliott Roosevelt, she was thrust into publicity opportunities like interviewing Stalin during a trip to the Soviet Union. When she appeared on a game show in 1949 with her husband, she was so smart and witty she felt she had to apologize on-air for upstaging him. Her talent was noticed, however, because she received an offer for her own CBS show later that year. While doing that show, she also signed with NBC for the Faye Emerson Show, making her the first woman with two simultaneous shows on television. She could talk pearls or politics, and her habit of wearing evening gowns with plunging necklines earned her the tag of “The High I.Q. in the Low-cut Gown.” Her next show would be a travelogue, Faye Emerson’s Wonderful Town, showcasing cities around the country in 1952.
After her divorce from Roosevelt, Emerson announced her upcoming marriage to entertainer Skitch Henderson on-air, something that simply wasn’t done back then. She and her new husband teamed up for their own show, Faye and Skitch, in 1953. Not only did she have her own programs, she was the go-to person for panels and substitute host duties. She occasionally covered for Edward R. Murrow on his show, Person to Person, and for Garry Moore as well. While she could be the ultimate glamorous TV presenter, she also showed America she had a brain, discussing civil rights, unions, blacklisting and women’s rights, and debating conservative personalities like William F. Buckley. She was so well-known to audiences that she garnered the nickname of “Mrs. Television.”
Emerson’s thoughtful opinions, quick mind and lessening coyness earned her many detractors, who brought up her looks and curves often in an effort to demean her and diminish her role as a social commentator.
As television shifted from talk shows to pure entertainment ,Emerson took her leave from the glowing box in everyone’s living room in the 1960s and spent a well-earned retirement in Europe, where social views were more forgiving. She ended up in Majorca, Spain, where she passed away in 1983. Today her name is largely forgotten, but her legacy lives on in people like Barbara Walters, Lesley Stahl, Rachael Maddow, and Oprah Winfrey, along with so many others. Below is one of the few remaining episodes of Emerson’s show. At the 6:30 mark, she interviews William Cimillo, a bus driver who abandoned his route and drove to Florida, becoming a folk hero along the way. Enjoy.