Jill Jackson is a native who began her career in New Orleans. She was the first female sportscaster in America, a Hollywood gossip columnist in 1,700 weekly newspapers to this day and she boasts a namesake salad on the menu at Brennan’s – you just can’t get much more famous than that.
On New Orleans airwaves in the mid-20th century, this blonde with a pageboy hairdo was a top local media personality. Everybody who rode a bus or streetcar read her entertainment column in Rider’s Digest, New Orleans Public Service, Inc.’s newsletter. She was a graduate of Isidore Newman School and Newcomb College and, when she permanently re-located to Hollywood some 40 years ago, she left a local legacy.
But time hasn’t slowed Jill Jackson down.
Her memoirs have been published online at the Newcomb Center for Research on Women Web site (www.Tulane.edu/~wc/jilljacksonmemoir.pdf). The title is the quip made by an old out-of-work vaudeville performer who had taken a job tidying up after the elephants in a circus and, when a friend urged giving up the undignified occupation, had exclaimed “Whaaattt! And Leave Show Business!!!” In the book, Jackson’s breezy attitude (and a memory of performing similar chores after an elephant appeared on her WWL-TV show) comes through in a series of snappy anecdotes about her media adventures in New Orleans from the 1940s to the 1960s and her life as an entertainment columnist in California since then.
Interviewed by telephone from her West Hollywood apartment, Jackson makes for good copy. “I’m still not a feminist,” she insists, after confirming the difficulties male sports reporters made for her (forcing her to sit outside the press box at football games in the rain, not providing convenient ladies’ rooms). Was it miserable? “Don’t be silly. I was having a ball. I loved every minute of it!”
In her book, she mentions with gratitude those who helped her career along, one of whom was Mildred Fossier. Fossier, a friend from Newcomb, recalls the pair acting in the dramatic club in college and then at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. While there, the two young actresses “got into a lot of mischief,” Fossier remembers. Once they started a rumor that Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck was planning to attend a rehearsal. Then they gleefully watched the resulting havoc. Jackson “was a good actress … her sense of timing was pure comedy,” Fossier says.
While at the theater, Jackson became friends with Peggy and Henry Dupré, and an invitation to be on Peggy Dupré’s WWL Radio show sparked a love for the medium, while her experience writing for the New Orleans Item newspaper provided a skill in reporting.
Jackson was an accomplished athlete, a golf and tennis champion, but injuries put her on the sidelines. Her interests in sports and radio soon would coincide, as she explains in her memoirs:
“Henry Dupré, of WWL, said, ‘Help me cover the Louisiana State Women’s Golf Tournament.’ I did. Richard Jones of Jax Beer heard me and asked, ‘Would you like to try a five-day-a-week, five-minute sportscast?’ I would and I did on WSMB for seven years and it made history.”
The Jax sponsorship also resulted in her taking up the professional name, Jill Jackson, which she has kept even though that sports show had ended by 1950. (Jackson’s given name, she insists, remains a guarded secret.) She would continue with her sports reporting career on WWL.
Jackson was resourceful in getting her stories. Women were barred from Tulane’s football practices, so she observed from a nearby oak tree. The Quarterback Club luncheons were also closed to women. But, since the events were held at the St. Charles Hotel (where Jackson was a resident, living in the suite that had once belonged to writer Lyle Saxon), the waiters were glad to pass on the gossip.
“For a shiny 50 cent piece (remember when this was), they told me everything that went on inside,” Jackson’s memoir notes.
Jill Jackson covered events including races at the Fair Grounds (once running into difficulty because she was broadcasting predictions of winners), deep-sea fishing (with a sprightly account of an uncomfortable stay at the Oleander Hotel on Grande Isle) and baseball (while on air with Dizzy Dean she dropped her purse and Dizzy regaled the audience by describing the contents).
Jackson’s stock in trade was her humor. She always closed her Jax Beer sports show with a rhyme appropriate to that day’s topic, once ending a hunting story with “I know a duck who seldom quacks. But when he does he says Jax, Jax, Jax.”
Jackson was ultimately elected a member of the Associated Press Sportscasters’ Club and was made a member of Esquire magazine’s sports poll (where her membership card was made out to Mr. Jill Jackson). She was also a union member, at one time being in the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Actor’s Equity and the American Guild of Variety Artists – and that one came about because of her off-site broadcasting.
Jill Jackson left the studio for a weekly stint with a radio show from Brennan’s Restaurant. Owner Owen Brennan was a good friend and a skilled promoter of his business, at that time located on Bourbon Street. Jackson’s program showcased celebrities dining there.
A popular novel of the 1950s was Dinner at Antoine’s by Frances Parkinson Keyes. One character in the novel was a blond radio personality. “My mother thought that was me,” Jackson admits. The novel had one lasting effect in that the title inspired Owen Brennan to feature Breakfast at Brennan’s.
Jackson’s namesake salad at Brennan’s is described as “iceberg lettuce, chopped hard boiled egg, crumbled bacon, blue cheese, chives and Jackson dressing.”
Jackson moved to WWL-TV with her own interview show. She had switched from sports to entertainment coverage and seemed to have met every movie star and actor who visited the city. This led Charles “Pie” Dufour to suggest that she write an entertainment column for the Rider’s Digest.
Her celebrity acquaintances, and her regular visits to California, finally led to a move to that state. She even appeared in some films, including Airport. For 18 years her column appeared in The Times-Picayune. Her only other local outlet was The Driftwood of the University of New Orleans, while the late Don Lee Keith taught journalism there.
Jackson was working on her autobiography when she spoke with Beth Willinger, now a research professor at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. Online publication seemed appropriate. “I was most attracted to the story because she was the first female sportscaster in the U.S., as far as we can tell. Also, she was right at this bridge over radio and television in New Orleans, an interesting time historically,” Willinger says.
Jackson still turns out 800-900 words a week on her faithful Olivetti typewriter (“I’m a technophobe,” she admits). She may not have visited the city in years but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still have an interest in what goes on here. She gets right to the point:
“So, are Brad and Angelina going to sell that house in the French Quarter?”
These days who will tell us such things? Obviously, Jill Jackson is missed.