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Margaret Rupli, NBC War Correspondent

This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.

Margaret Rupli (also known as Margaret Rupli Woodward, 1910 – 2012), a native of Washington, DC, had a long and distinguished career in public service. Her career as a war correspondent for NBC radio was much shorter, lasting only from January to June, 1940, but it was dramatic. The few items from that time she was able to save were donated to the Library of Congress by her cousin Robin Rupli in 2015.  Small as it is, the Margaret Rupli Collection neatly and compellingly compliments one of the largest components of our recorded sound holdings, the NBC Collection, in which more than 40,000 hours of radio broadcasts from 1935 on are preserved.

Margaret Rupli at work in Holland, April, 1940. From the personal collection of Margaret Rupli.”

After earning an MA in economics from the University of Chicago in 1939, she met and married David Woodward, a British journalist who was sent to the Netherlands when war broke out in September. They lived first in Rotterdam, then in Amsterdam. Early in 1940, she inquired about work at the American Embassy, and was told that NBC had just called, looking specifically for a female correspondent. CBS had just hired Mary Marvin Breckinridge in this capacity, and this prodded NBC to add a woman’s voice to their European team, which was headed by Max Jordan.

Rupli and her husband were forced to flee the country after the Nazi invasion on May 10, 1940. She carried with her a few scripts and drafts from her 1940 broadcasts, some correspondence and clippings, and two photographs. But there was a little more: waiting for her in the States were two recordings of her broadcasts she had arranged to have made, and when they donated to the Library more than eighty years later, it was found that neither of them were duplicated in the NBC Collection.

In the past, private companies with access to network lines would, for a fee, record programs off the air onto thin metal discs for individuals to play at home. In this way, Rupli preserved two broadcasts that bookended her time on NBC neatly: her portion of the March 10, 1940 “European Roundup” that also included reports from Helsinki, Paris, London and Berlin, and her broadcast from the S.S. Roosevelt when it docked in New York harbor with over 700 war refugees.

The NBC Collection has only the second half of the March 10, 1940 broadcast, but Rupli’s report from Amsterdam was in the first, and it was preserved on one of the discs she had made for her own use. The NBC Collection also includes a report on the departure of the S.S. Roosevelt from Galway, Ireland on June 1st, 1940, but not its arrival, which is on the second Rupli disc.

In her March 10th broadcast, Rupli told listeners:

“The Dutch are anxiously watching spring developments in Europe, for Holland has already suffered as much from the war between the Allies and Germany as the belligerents themselves. She has lost twenty ships and 236 men by mines, by torpedoes and recently also by bombing from the air. Trade is badly hit. I walked through the streets and harbors of Rotterdam yesterday and found the normally thriving city quiet and depressed. Rivercraft that usually ride up and down the Rhine lying idle all along the canals and rivers. Everywhere on the streets are the most glorious tulips and roses being sold for practically nothing because they can’t be exported. I went down to Scheveningen –the Atlantic City of Holland – and found the beach roped off with barbed wire because there was the danger of unexploded mines being swept in from the North Sea. A number of such mines exploded at various points along the coast. You can imagine the problems with fishing. Mobilization costs just about a million dollars a day and men are having to be trained as soldiers instead of as skilled craftsmen. Farmlands have been turned into fields of water, with occupants being moved to other parts of Holland…”

Dutch radio network microphone positioned on a dyke to capture the sound of water for Margaret Rupli’s broadcast of April 13, 1940, unknown location along the “Dutch Water Line..” From the personal collection of Margaret Rupli.

The following month, she reported further on this unique, though ultimately futile, defensive effort, the so-called “Dutch Water Line.” This used the country’s system of dykes to regulate the level of water in strategic areas to be too deep for troops to wade in, and too shallow for boats or ships to sail on. In this she was aided by Captain Plaizier of the Netherland Field Army, who had worked as a civil engineer in the United States and spoke English quite well. The broadcast took place in an isolated, unidentified outpost at the Water Line and aired live over NBC, but the content had to be approved by Dutch military censors in advance. Her interview with Captain Plaizier was scripted, though they do their best to sound spontaneous. The time spent on pre-planning the report seems to have allowed for the inclusion of some effective dramatic devices. The visit to the outpost is framed by two spirited songs sung by soldiers to accordion accompaniment, and during her talk with the Captain, a Dutch radio network microphone microphone was placed on a stone barrier to pick up the sound of the water itself.

Rupli kept a photo of that microphone as well as drafts of her script. Thankfully, this particular broadcast is preserved in the NBC Radio Collection. (Call number – RWA 4995 A5). She made her last broadcast from Amsterdam on the evening of May 9th, hours before the Nazi invasion. This broadcast does not survive, but a portion of her script was among her papers. In it she notes that all army leave has been suspended, and a German spy was arrested that morning, yet the Dutch were taking matters in stride, and the evening papers gave their front pages over to war news from England, Italy and Norway.

The Nazi invasion of the country began before sunrise on May, 10, 1940. Rupli was an American citizen and might have kept reporting from Amsterdam while the United States was still neutral in the war, but her husband was English. His country was at war with Germany, and he would have risked becoming a prisoner of war.

They escaped on a British coal barge, and Rupli made a broadcast about their experience for the BBC. She continued to work for NBC in Paris during the German invasion, though no scripts or broadcasts are known to survive. On June 10th, Rupli made her last broadcast for the network from the S.S. Roosevelt. Most of the passengers were refugees from Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Of them she said:

“…they are all conscious of their good fortune in comparison with the suffering refugees of Europe. I have had the experience of refugees leaving Holland under fire, and know how it feels. All the passengers want to have their share in seeing that America is spared—with views as to how this is to done by running the usual gamut from isolationists, who are scarce, to the many who want see America give material aid immediately to the Allies.”

Back home, she found NBC’s offer of a ten-minute weekly broadcast from stateside unappealing, and traded her broadcasting career for her pre-war job in the Labor Department. Later she would work in the State Department and the Foreign Service. She enjoyed a long and happy retirement in her Washington, DC home. Her cousin, Robin Rupli, donated her collection to the Library of Congress in 2015, a welcome addition, and an unusually good fit!

To listen to Margaret Rupli’s broadcasts and learn more about the NBC Collection don’t hesitate to contact the staff at the Recorded Sound Research Center.

One Comment

  1. John Woods
    April 24, 2020 at 8:06 am

    Well done

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