While searching for stories to make me shake and shudder this Halloween, I didn’t have to look farther than the clippings I’d collected on National Federation of Press Women’s 1962 Press Woman of Achievement (now known as Communicator of Achievement) winner, Agnes “Aggie” Underwood. From the start of her career as a reporter for the Los Angeles Record and during her years for William Randolph Hearst’s Herald-Express, Underwood knew only too well, real-life mysteries can often be the most spine-tingling of all.
Underwood never intended to become a reporter. She never had aspirations for a newsroom. She did wish for a pair of silk stockings, which her husband told her they couldn’t afford. Threats to get a job and buy them herself happened to be answered when a close friend phoned her the next day about a temporary opening as a switchboard operator at the Los Angeles Record. That “temporary” spot quickly led this bright and eager young woman a permanent position in the newsroom after “engineering” an exclusive interview with a widow of a murdered man.
Among those assignments Underwood covered for Hearst were the untimely deaths of fabled Hollywood actresses of the era including Thelma Todd (whose autopsy Underwood would attend), and Jean Harlow. She wrote and reported on nearly every major murder case in the city, culminating with what would become the most notorious unsolved Los Angeles mystery in seventy years, Black Dahlia.
On January 17, 1947 the bisected and blood drained nude body of a young woman was found on a barely developed street at Leimert Park. In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Underwood stated she was the first reporter to arrive at the site of the dumped corpse. The dead woman would be identified, with the help of new technology being used at the Herald-Express, as Elizabeth Short from Medford, Massachusetts. Underwood also claimed that the popularization of Short’s “Black Dahlia” nickname was the result of information she had received from a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective who after questioning Short’s Long Beach friends learned of the nickname after they had seen the popular 1946 Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd movie, The Blue Dahlia.
Prepared to follow the case until it was solved or went cold, Underwood was pulled from it, without warning or explanation, and promoted to city editor of the Herald-Express; the first woman city editor of a major daily U.S. newspaper.
The California Press Women recognized Underwood as a woman who “talked tough, worked hard and lived simply to stay on top of her job,” awarding her its first Golden Flame Award in 1952.
Known for wielding a sawed-off baseball bat and keeping a starter pistol handy at her desk, Underwood was known for running a staff of hard-nosed reporters and photographers who called her “Aggie” (the nickname she had acquired while working at the Record until her retirement in 1968).
Among her many career awards, in 1962 she would receive three: June 28, 1962, Medallion Award as “The Most Outstanding Woman in Journalism” inscribed, “Aggie is a shrewd ex-crime reporter and long-time member of the Herald-Examiner staff” by National Federation of Press Women, during its Denver, Colorado conference; July 7, 1962, the Award of Merit, Military Order of the Purple Heart, of California and July 18, 1962, by unanimous vote, a resolution from the Los Angeles City Council. Mayor Samuel W. Yorty proclaimed “Aggie Underwood Day” in Los Angeles. During that same year, Underwood would appear on the CBS-TV show “To Tell The Truth” where panelists had little trouble identifying Underwood with her position recognizing her authenticity, journalistic instincts and “unmistakable air of authority.”
At the time of her death in 1984, Underwood was remembered by former co-workers and staff for having earned her reputation “as an old-time newspaperman’s newspaperwoman.” First as an “imaginative police beat reporter” and later “as a hard-driving, tough-talking city editor” who was much loved, loyal, generous in spirit and help whenever needed, and knew “how to inspire reporters to do their best efforts.” The Herald Examiner lauded Underwood at the time of her death as “undeterred by the grisliest of crime scenes” and having “a knack for getting details that eluded other reporters. As editor, she knew the names and telephone numbers of celebrities…and the bars her reporters frequented. She cultivated the day’s best sources, ranging from gangsters and prostitutes to movie stars and government officials.”