Virginia Graham Pioneered in Early Television and Survived Cancer
Virginia Graham enjoyed multiple careers, and she believed that serving others and maintaining a sense of humor were the most important life lessons.
Virginia Graham often remarked that she had been reborn in 1951, although her original birth had occurred on July 4, 1913.
Virginia Graham Survives Cancer
In the spring of 1951, during a routine medical examination, doctors discovered that she had cervical cancer. She entered a hospital immediately and the doctors told her that she had just a slim chance for survival. Then according to Virginia, something happened to change her whole life. She said that she prayed and “ I knew right then that I’d pull through and I did.” She spent the rest of her life working for charity and maintaining her sense of humor.
Virginia had already lived a busy life before her cancer caused her to rethink it. She was born in Chicago on July 4, 1913, to David S. and Bessie J. Komiss. Her father, David, owned a chain of women's clothing stores. "He was a deeply religious man and used to read me Bible stories when I was a little girl. He was interested in music and art and we used to go to concerts and museums together," she recalled.
Virginia Moves to New York and Forges a Career
In 1931, when she was 18, Virginia graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in anthropology. After her graduation, Virginia worked as a model and in advertising, but her main interest still remained in writing.
She enrolled at Northwestern University in the speech and journalism program, but interrupted her graduate work by moving to New York and marrying Harry William Guttenberg on May 2, 1935. Harry Guttenberg was a theatrical costumer and president of Louis Guttenberg and Son, the oldest theatrical costume company in the United States.
After her daughter Lynn Karen’s birth, Virginia worked for WMCA, a local New York radio station in 1936 as a script writer. She wrote the first dramatic commercials ever used on radio and did ghost writing for singing star Mae Murray’s “Advice to the Lovelorn” column.
Just before World War II, Virginia left WMCA to join the American Red Cross Voluntary Services. She earned the rank of master sergeant in the motor crops and also served as a Gray Lady and a first aid instructor. For her wartime Red Cross activities, she received a citation from the Colonel of Mitchell Field, the Army Air Forces base on Long Island.
Charity Benefits and Replacing Margaret Truman
In 1947, Virginia was one of the fourteen women who founded the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and she visited almost every state in the United States doing telethons to raise money for charities. She did at least 100 free benefits a year at luncheons and dinners in New York and New Jersey and raised more money for charity than anyone else in the country. She worked for the Heart Association in Chicago, the American Cancer Society, Multiple Sclerosis and the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundations..
Because of her charity telethons and her story being featured on NBC TV’s “This Is Your Life” in February, 1956, Virginia came to the attention of NBC executives who were looking for a replacement for Margaret Truman on “Weekday.” This was a daytime radio variety show that lasted three and three quarter hours from Monday through Friday. Virginia was hostess from February to July of 1956, and was friendly warm, and enthusiastic in her interest in people. “The thing that has occurred to me more and more over the years is the great similarities in people, regardless of their titles and position in life,” she said.
Television Hostess and "Girl Talk"
For two decades she presided over television talk shows including "Food for Thought" from 1956-1961; "Girl Talk from 1963-1969 and "The Virginia Graham Show" from 1970-1972.
'Girl Talk' was enormously successful. In its heyday it drew an average audience of 2 million who tuned in five days a week to watch Miss Graham interview the most celebrated women of the day, including Olivia de Havilland, Pearl S. Buck, Gloria Swanson, Louise Rainer, Ilka Chase, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Marian Javits, Hermione Gingold, Barbara Walters, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers.
In the early days of television Virginia frequently appeared on Jack Paar's "Tonight" show and substituted as host on "Strike It Rich" and "The Big Payoff." She also appeared on the "Roseanne," "Rosie O'Donnell" and "Tom Snyder" shows.
Best Selling Author and Lasting Sense of Humor
After her husband Harry died of kidney disease in 1980, Virginia wrote a best selling book called Life After Harry: My Adventures in Widowhood. Virginia died on December 22, 1998,in New York at age 86. No matter what life challenges she faced, she maintained her sense of humor, "If you can laugh, you can get through anything," she said.
Virginia Graham, Life After Harry: My Adventures in Widowhood, Dell Reprint Edition, 1989
Virginia Graham, Look Who’s Sleeping in My Bed!, Memoir, 1993
Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, Dear Joyce, Dear Ginnie: The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, BBC Audiobooks, 2000.
Jean Libman Block, Virginia Graham, There Goes What's Her Name: The Continuing Saga of Virginia Graham, Avon Books, 1966.
Jean Libman Block, Virginia Graham. Don’t Blame the Mirror, Meredith Press, 1967.