- Camacho's Violet
Beyond the blockade of old newspapers and reference books atop her desk, an African violet in full bloom commanded the windowsill. It was impossible not to stare: the plant, a voluptuous mound of dark, downy leaves bursting with vivid purple flowers anchored by tiny yellow knots, overflowed its twelve-inch clay plot, making the generic office furniture seem drabber, the old photos yellower, the travel souvenirs that much tackier.
Only one thing in that office outshone the violet: the woman it belonged to. Squat and steely with merry eyes and a flash of silver hair, she was closing in on eighty and couldn't have stood more than five feet tall. But she brandished a withering wit, a maniacal laugh, and an unparalleled memory for facts and figures, which proved handy in her position as Newsweek International's chief of research. Her job was to ensure the accuracy of every story in the magazine, a calling she answered with the kind of ferocious efficiency and peerless attention to detail that inspired fear in sloppy correspondents and relief in anxious editors. Between wheezy guffaws, she would bark into the phone in rapid-fire Spanish or French, doggedly pursuing a correct spelling, accurate date, or up-to-the-minute death toll. Her given name [End Page 105] was Mathilde and her nickname Dita, but most everyone called her Camacho.
The violet became my pretext for wandering into her office. I'd admire its prodigious flowers or touch the soil to see if it needed water.
But what I really wanted was for Camacho to cultivate my own budding career as a journalist. It was 1989—the Berlin wall was about to come down, the World Wide Web on the verge of inception—and I had just been hired as a New York-based writer for Newsweek's overseas editions. Fresh out of journalism school, I had no idea what I was doing and was surrounded by men who at least pretended they did. Lonely and intimidated by all the swagger, I instinctively turned to Camacho, the only other woman in the department working full-time.
She embodied the perfect blend of wise grandmother and trailblazing feminist. Back in the 1940s, she had been one of the first female foreign correspondents at Life magazine. She arrived at Newsweek in 1973, three years after a group of women employees successfully sued for equal opportunity as writers and editors. It wasn't until many years later, when I read Lynn Povich's stirring account of that episode, The Good Girls Revolt, that I realized how much I owed my career to them. But at the time, no one loomed larger in my mind than Camacho. I longed to absorb some of her confidence, her knowledge, her sense of adventure. I wanted to unleash her rapturous laugh.
We had gotten off to a rough start. Prospective hires had to undergo a writing tryout, and I was up against four young researchers on Camacho's staff—her "children," she called them—for two empty slots. They had earned their opportunity for promotion through months—even years—of slavish fact-checking; I landed my tryout through the connections of a J-school professor. Worse, my previous work experience consisted primarily of writing greeting cards.
The four-week audition proved grueling. The job required distilling reams of reporting from foreign correspondents into compact, breezy stories for the magazine's international readership. My first assignment concerned sectarian violence in a market in Uzbekistan, a place I'd never heard of. "You let this one get away from you," said Steve, the senior editor, returning my first draft with a few original phrases [End Page 106] floating like severed branches in a sea of green criticism. Luckily, Steve found it endlessly amusing that my resume included Mother's-Day-card writer and seemed inclined to cut me some slack.
I found Uzbekistan on a map; Steve talked me through the basic formula of a news-mag story: lede, billboard, money quote, supporting details, kicker. I stayed past midnight that first Friday—standard practice, I would soon learn—and returned with everyone else early Saturday...