Financial writer Sylvia Porter is dead of emphysema at 77

June 07, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Sylvia Porter, whose 57 years of newspaper column translated financial and economic "bafflegab" into plain English for plain folks, died Wednesday of emphysema at her home in Westchester County, N.Y. She was 77.

Porter broke new ground as a woman journalist, pioneered in personal financial advice and wrote consumer advocacy columns before the idea had a name.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and I walked into a vacuum," she told reporter Ellen James in a 1980 interview for The Evening Sun. Her signature column "Sylvia Porter" has appeared in this newspaper since 1978.

"I was not only the first woman in the field," Porter said, "I also walked into a vacuum where men were writing 'peer talk' to each other, trying to impress each other with the depth of their bafflegab."

"Bafflegab" was her favorite term for the pedantic gobbledygook that infected almost all writing about money matters until she came along.

"Before her, there was very little meaningful economic or financial news for the general reader," said Leon M. Cohn, a writer for the Kiplinger Letters who worked with Porter on a government securities newsletter for 17 years.

"She simplified things," Cohn said, "and despite that, she maintained accuracy and integrity, which is a gift."

Porter told James: "I tried to combine the writing of economics with simple writing, which meant you had to know what you were talking about . . . which wasn't easy."

She had in fact earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and graduated magna cum laude from New York's Hunter College in 1932 with a bachelor's degree in economics.

"Absolutely worthless," she told James, with perhaps typical acerbity.

Porter worked at first for an investment counselor, then at a brokerage house and also took graduate business courses at New York University.

In 1934, she began writing a weekly column for American Banker and a year later she moved to the New York Post.

She became the Post's financial editor in 1938 and the writer of a daily column first called "Financial Post Marks" then "S.F. Porter Says," a gender-concealing byline that didn't change until 1942 when she began signing her column Sylvia F. Porter. She'd written two successful books as Sylvia Porter by then.

At her peak, Porter reached some 40 million readers in 450 newspapers worldwide with her column.

About 150 papers, with about 25 million readers, currently carry the column, said Steven Christensen, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. The column ran three days a week in '' the New York Daily News and was syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Co. She had moved to the News in 1978.

"She insisted her copy be written and edited as tightly as possible," Christensen said. "She wanted to pass on information that really helped Americans make the best judgment on how to spend their money. She had a real down-home approach."

Porter became wealthy, but never hoity-toity.

She'd advise her readers to shop thrift stores to stretch their dollars. She explained how divorce affected tax bills. She cautioned against credit card scams.

Her column Wednesday warned against grifters who were working a "census fine" con. Today's suggests checking your car before going on vacation.

She addressed her readers directly: "The heaviest artillery you, an American consumer, have in the federal arsenal is the mail fraud statute. . . ."

"She was clearly on the side of her readers," Cohn said. "She warned against risky things."

Porter had turned to economics after her mother lost $30,000 in the 1929 stock market crash. Porter had been a history and literature student at Hunter. She told an interviewer she wanted to know what had happened to her mother's money.

She was born Sylvia Feldman on Long Island, N.Y., on June 18, 1913. Her father, Louis Feldman, a doctor, died in 1925. Her mother, Rose, became a successful milliner. She urged her daughter toward a career of her own.

Porter's brother, John L. Feldman, a physician and a surgeon in California, told Time magazine that they were an intellectually and culturally oriented family that "didn't think it was unfeminine for a girl to think.

"If anything," he said, "we rather thought that intelligence added to womanliness."

She was married three times. She was divorced from her first husband, Reed R. Porter, in 1941. Her second husband, G. Sumner Collins, died in 1977. Her third husband, James F. Fox, a public relations executive, announced her death yesterday.

In addition to her husband and brother, she is survived by a daughter, Chris Del Cuore of Norway, Maine; a stepson, Sumner Collins of Medical Lake, Wash.; and two grandchildren.

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