Far Ahead of Her Time

Ann Cottrell Free was a journalist in the noblest sense of the word.
Not just a reporter, though report she did.
Not just a writer, though the body of literature, poetry, and reportage she created was immense, purposefully conveyed, and powerful.

Yes, she was a journalist, a descriptor which attests to the level of excellence she attained and maintained through the written word during a career of significance which spanned decades.

She was a pioneer as well and a courageous crusader of the highest order. Blending assertiveness with tact and a unwavering desire to present the news accurately and fairly, expose injustice, and right wrongs, she became through skill, diligence, and dogged determination one of the most respected and prolific practitioners of her craft of her era.

“My mother was a very strong person,” said Elissa Blake Free of the 1934 Collegiate alumna, recipient of her alma mater’s Distinguished Service Award in 1992, and a 1996 Virginia Communications Hall of Fame inductee. “She stood up to power. She feared no one.”

Early in her high school years, a young and, by her own admission, academically unsuccessful Ann Cottrell transferred to the Collegiate School for Girls located at 1619 Monument Avenue. In an oral history which she dictated to her daughter and son-in-law over the course of a year in the late ‘90’s, she joked that she failed every class but English at her previous school.

“My life really changed once I went to Collegiate,” she told Elissa.  “I had hockey, I had poetry, I had drama, I had some good friends, and that was wonderful. Collegiate awakened me intellectually and taught me self-discipline. And I loved athletics.”

Recently, Elissa presented the well-used, weathered hockey stick her mother used as a goalie for Collegiate back in the day. It was a precious keepsake, she said, that her mother retained throughout her life as a symbol, perhaps, of that joyous time when she found her voice and developed her love of learning and competitive spirit, all off which served her well throughout her exhilarating professional journey.

“Throughout the years, she would always talk about her dear Collegiate,” Elissa said. “She blossomed there. The Collegiate experience was deep in her. It opened up the world to her.”

Indeed, it did.

In 1936 while still a student at Barnard College, 20-year-old Ann Cottrell accepted a position as a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. After a post-college stint as a press agent for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, she landed a job with Newsweek and quickly transitioned from clipping newspaper stories in the magazine’s New York headquarters to becoming the first woman to serve as a full-time Washington correspondent not just for Newsweek but for the Chicago Sun and the New York Herald Tribune as well.

Based in D.C. during World War II, she penned pieces about myriad historically significant issues including the impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the subsequent declaration of war, women in the military, and the human and economic ramifications of the mobilization effort. She also wrote extensively about the work of Eleanor Roosevelt and was a regular at the First Lady’s all-female press conferences.

“She was one of the youngest people doing that,” her daughter said. “She always called her Mrs. Roosevelt. That’s what everybody called her back then. Later on, she went to Geneva when Mrs. Roosevelt was involved with the framing of the Declaration of Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt was very kind. She wrote letters of introduction for my mother before she went around the world which gave her incredible entrée to people and places that she never would have had without that help.”

Following her stint in Washington, she served as a special correspondent for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in post-was China where she wrote of the plight of refugees who endured the famine that beset the nation, government corruption when she learned that relief supplies were being diverted, and problems which German and Austrian Jewish refugees experienced in China.

From 1947 through the mid-50’s, she traveled the world as a correspondent from outposts ranging from French Indochina (now Vietnam) to India to the Sinai Desert to hot spots in Europe. Among her many other assignments, she documented U.S. efforts to rebuild post-war Europe (the Marshall Plan), the influence of Mahatma Gandhi, and the transfer of power in India from the British to the Indian government.

“She said it was incredible to be in India for the transfer of power and also how dangerous it was because of the riots,” Elissa said. “They were on a train that had to be stopped because they found a bomb on it. It sounded like she came close to getting killed in the riots because people would stampede.”

In the late ‘50’s following her marriage to James S. Free, the Washington correspondent for the Birmingham News, and the birth of Elissa, she turned her attention to writing about animal rights issues. For her efforts, the Animal Welfare Institute awarded her the Albert Schweitzer Medal in 1963.

In the ‘60’s, she focused on environmental issues, and her columns about such topics as pollution, ecology, and conservation drew the interest of Rachel Carson, who used her experience and expertise while writing her transcendent work, Silent Spring, which was published in 1962. 

After Carson’s death in 1964, Mrs. Free kept her memory alive by leading a campaign to establish the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, delivered a speech entitled “Since Silent Spring: Our Debt to Albert Schweitzer and Rachel Carson,” and, for her efforts, earned the Rachel Carson Legacy Award.
“My mother was always championing the underdog,” Elissa said. “That’s what she really cared about. That’s why she was always writing about people in need, human rights, animal rights, race relations. That was her passion. That’s what drove her.”

Over the years, Mrs. Free also wrote two books, Forever the Wild Mare and Animals, Nature, and Albert Schweitzer, and a collection of poems, No Room, Save in the Heart.

Ann Cottrell Free passed away October 30, 2004. The next year, the National Press Club established the annual Ann Cottrell Free Animal Reporting Award.

“She was brilliant,” Elissa said of her mother, “and she was extremely kind. She was zany. She was funny. It was just fascinating to be around her, actually, because there was always something going on, almost like a three-ring circus, but in a good way. And she was ahead of her time. She was like that on everything: her animal work, her writing about the environment. She was really ahead of her time.”
 ~Weldon Bradshaw