Edward R. Murrow's Biography

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Life apart from Work

Edward R. Murrow as a baby, circa 1909 In what he labeled his 'Outline Script Murrow's Carrer', Edward R. Murrow jotted down what had become a favorite telling of his from his childhood.

“Edward R. Murrow, born near Greensboro, North Carolina, April 25, 1908. The third of three sons born to Mr. and Mrs. S. C. Murrow, farmers. About 40 acres of poor cotton land, water melons and tobacco. Earliest memories trapping rabbits, eating water melons and listening to maternal grandfather telling long and intricate stories of the war between the States. This experience may have stimulated early and continuing interest in history.

Family moved to the State of Washington when I was aged approximately six, the move dictated by considerations of my mother’s health. …Family lived in a tent mostly surrounded by water, on a farm south of Bellingham, Washington. My father was an agricultural laborer, subsequently brakeman on local logging railroad, and finally a locomotive engineer. The tree boys attended the local two-room school, worked on adjoining farms during the summer, hoeing corn, weeding beets, mowing lawns, etc. My first economic venture was at about the age of nine, buying three small pigs, carrying feed to them for many months, and finally selling them.The net profit from this operation being approximately six dollars. In later years, Edward R. Murrow at age 6 or 7 in grade schoollearned to handle horses and tractors and tractors [sic]; was only a fair student, having particular difficulty with spelling and arithmetic.

Beginning at the age of fourteen, spent summers in High Lead logging camp as whistle punk, woodcutter, and later donkey engine fireman. Became better than average wing shot, duck and pheasant,primarily because shells cost money. Last two years in High School, drove Ford Model T. school bus (no self-starter, no anti-freeze) about thirty miles per day, including eleven unguarded grade crossings, which troubled my mother considerably. Only accident was the running over of one dog, which troubled me…."1

Edward R. Murrow, 1920sBorn in Polecat Creek, Greensboro, N. C., to Ethel Lamb Murrow and Roscoe C. Murrow, Edward Roscoe Murrow descended from a Cherokee ancestor and Quaker missionary on his father’s side. His mother, a former Methodist, converted to strict Quakerism upon marriage. Ethel Lamb Murrow brought up her three surviving sons strictly and religiously, instilled a deep sense of discipline in them, and it was she who was responsible for keeping them from starving particularly after their move out west. From an early age on, Edward was a good listener, synthesizer of information, and story-teller but he was not necessarily a good student. His name had originally been Egbert -- called 'Egg' by his two brothers, Lacey and Dewey -- until he changed it to ‘Edward’ in his twenties. Edward R. Murrow’s oldest brother, Lacey, became a consulting engineer and brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve. An alcoholic and heavy smoker who had one lung removed due to lung cancer in the 1950s, Lacey committed suicide in 1966. Edward R. Murrow pictured with brothers Lacey (left) and Dewey (right) at Quaker Hill, Pawling, 1949Murrow’s second brother, Dewey, worked as a contractor in Spokane, WA, and was considered the calm and down to earth one of the brothers.

Understandably and to his credit, Murrow never forgot these early years in the Southern and Western United States and his family’s background as workers and farmers. Throughout, he stayed sympathetic to the problems of the working class and the poor. Characteristic of this were his early sympathies for the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) 1920s, although it remains unclear whether Edward R. Murrow ever joined the IWW. By the time Murrow wrote the 1953 career script, he had arguably become the most renowned US broadcaster and had just earned over $210,000 in salary and lucrative sponsoring contracts in 1952. This was twice the salary of CBS's president for that same year.2 In the script, though, he emphasizes what remained important throughout his life -- farming, logging and hunting, his mother’s care and influence, and an almost romantic view of their lack of money and his own early economic astuteness.

Of course, the official career script does not mention other aspects important in his life. Murrow had always preferred male camaraderie and conversations, he was rather reticent, he had striven to get an education, good clothes and looks were important to him as was obtaining useful connections which he began to actively acquire early on in his college years. He was, for instance, deeply impressed with his wife’s ancestry going back to the Mayflower. Edward R. Murrow and Janet Brewster Murrow believed in contributing to society at large. Both assisted friends when they could and both, particularly Janet, volunteered or were active in numerous organizations over the years. In 1954, Murrow set up the Edward R. Murrow Foundation which contributed a total of about $152,000 to educational organizations, including the Institute of International Education, hospitals, settlement houses, churches, and eventually public broadcasting. Janet Brewster Murrow usually decided on donations and James M. Seward, eventually vice president at CBS, kept the books until the Foundation was disbanded in November 1981.3

Edward R. Murrow and unidentified people in the late 1920s or early 1930s Edward R. Murrow buying shirts in London, late 1930s

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1 The Outline Script Murrow's Career is dated December 18, 1953 and was probably written in preparation of expected McCarthy attacks.
2 See here for instance Charles Wertenbaker's letter to Edward R. Murrow, November 19, 1953, in preparation for Wertenbaker's article on Murrow in the December 26, 1953 issue of The New Yorker, Edward R. Murrow Papers.
3 Letter by Jame M. Seward to Joseph E. Persico, August 5th 1984, in folder labeled 'Seward, Jim', Joseph E. Persico Papers, DCA.