An Ode to Vera Brown, Detroit's "Sob Sister"

In 1930, Detroit was a highly competitive newspaper town. There were three papers here: The Detroit Free Press – bastion of the morning news; The Detroit News, the afternoon conservative teller of tales; and The Detroit Times, the free-wheeling tabloid-style rag whose pinkish-white pages held some of the most outrageous reporting in the city.

Vera Brown was The Detroit Times’ beloved sob sister, a woman hired in part to fill a certain kind of role in the newspaper. Female reporters tended to be the gossip columnist, the society tattler, the women’s pages editor. Vera Brown was all of that plus one of the best writers, interviewers and social commentators of the day – or of any day, to be honest. Imagine the emotiveness of Mitch Albom, the intelligence of Steven Henderson and the acidic wit of Nolan Finley all wrapped into one attractive package. Well, add a cigarette hanging from her lips and her signature felt hat sitting jauntily to one side, and that’s Vera.

Vera was born in 1895 in Grand Ledge, Michigan. Her parents, William Brown and Mertie Durham, moved the family to Detroit so William could go to work in the Packard plant. Vera was their only child, and she was a spoiled willful one at that. She graduated from high school and went to the University of Michigan, where she worked for the Michigan Daily through to her graduation in 1918. Two days later, she was on staff of The Detroit News, working alongside some of the toughest SOBs in the business. 

I heard about Vera Brown when I wrote about an infamous 1931 murder trial of a woman named Rose Veres, also known as the WITCH Of DELRAY. Vera kept popping up in the book as I was writing it, forcing herself into the story. And, as a smart writer, I let her in. And I don’t regret it. 

She spent 10 years at The Detroit News and became its most noted female reporter. She left in 1930 to join the Detroit Times, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper that was known for playing fast and loose with the facts. 

As my friend Dan Austin of Historic Detroit dot org will tell you: “When Hearst bought the Times, it had a daily circulation of only 26,000. A year later, it had exploded to 150,000, reaching a peak of about 440,000 daily in 1950.”

She became an infamous member of the staff there, and stories of her wild ways filled newsrooms and newspages. She willingly worked 14 to 16 hours a day. She never missed a deadline. Editors were scared of her. One once wrote: “I never got over my vague nervousness that she would outmaneuver me on some story.” Police feared her on scenes. She didn’t take guff from anyone. As the story goes, she once showed up for an audience with the Pope in a black nightgown because she claimed she didn’t own a black dress. She wrote 14 books – one became a movie (the “most movie ever made in Hollywood” she would later say) and several were turned into radio series. Her titles included “Wild,” “Reckless Lady” and “Tarnished Fame.” 

Vera wrote about everything Detroit loved: Music. Baseball – she even covered the 1934 World Series for The Detroit Tigers. Crime. Strikes. Spy stories. She wrote about Elvis when he came to town and played the Fox Theater in 1956. She is infamous for writing in her snappy style: “He rarely gets a haircut, does a kind of hillbilly derivative. When he winds himself around a mike and gives out, the kids go crazy. Nothing like it since the early Frank Sinatra days. Only way to keep calm about all this is to try to remember how silly you were in your high school days.” When she met the King, she demanded to know why he needed four Cadillacs. He weakly responded: “I just like automobiles.” She had a front-page column in the Detroit Times known as “Our Times,” and everyone wanted to be in it. 

But she was best known for being an aviator. She loved airplanes and flying. Vera Brown covered aviation for the newspapers, so she decided she would learn to fly so she could better cover her beat. Stories of her flying adventures filled even the rival newspapers. One told a tale of how she flew in air shows, carrying her clothing in the baggage compartment of her plane. When she would arrive at a stop, she would climb out of the plane, pulled off her white coveralls, helmet and goggles and do a lightning change into her street clothes. Five minutes after landing in a new port, she’d have her nose powdered, a white panama hat on her head and be ready to greet the welcoming party of city officials. 

(Another tale had her attending a fly-in by movie star Cary Grant on a new B-28 bomber. Vera, covering the story, was irritated the bomber was late and complained to the general in charge: “When is that God Damn bomber going to get here?” The general, taken aback, reported her language to Vera’s editor. The editor chided Vera about her language to a general. Vera reportedly stood up and shouted to the newsroom: “I did NOT say g-d d-m bomber. What I SAID was, g-d d-m B-28.” She sat down, lit a new cigarette and turned out a masterpiece of a story.)

She held a private pilot’s license, but she was working toward a limited commercial license so she could perform bigger tricks and fly alongside the best. That is when the 30-year-old reporter crashed into Lake St. Clair after doing a series of spins – stunting to impress the people watching from the beaches and roadways. 

She had already done a series of spins, maneuvers she needed to demonstrate to examiners to get her commercial license. That is when her plane went into what they called a “flat spin,” in which the machines lost flying speed and fell out of control. Vera, ever the aviatrix, said she had nearly regained control when the plane struck the water.

She was able to climb out of the cockpit and stand on the wing until she could be rescued from the partly submerged plane. Rumor had it that her airplane hit a ship along the lake, spilling its content into the water. Remember, this is during Prohibition, and that ship was said to be carrying some expensive and very tasty rum. I’m sure it gave the fish swimming in the lake and the Detroit River an afternoon to remember. 

She remained at the Detroit Times for the rest of career. Even as her sight failed, she continued to write stories that uncovered society’s weaknesses, highlighted people’s achievements and ripped the mighty to shreds. When the Detroit Times closed abruptly in 1960, Vera was somewhat ready to retire: She was completely blind by then. However, she later would become a city commissioner on Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh’s Commission on Children and Youth – she loved children even if she never had any of her own.

She was a friend to other writers, especially female reporters, whom she tried to help establish and raise up within the newspaper ranks. She was a foe to the powerful and a friend to those who needed it. Vera Brown died at age 80 in 1976, but her legacy remains in my writing and as a mentor. Moreover, there is a Vera Brown Endowment Fund assists any blind or vision-impaired impaired student at Wayne State University requesting assistance for books, housing and tuition.