Aloha, Milly Littlejohn

Hawaiian farewell to a classic newswoman

His Girl Friday: Milly Littlejohn in the 1950s
His Girl Friday: Milly Littlejohn in the 1950s

Milly Littlejohn died last week. Though she was a local resident in the Nineties, it’s unlikely any of you ever met her except perhaps backstage at the Austin Music Awards. Yet if it weren’t for Milly Littlejohn, I might never have come back to work for the Chronicle in 1991 after a sojourn to Hawaii.

In October 1988, I moved with my then-husband Rollo Banks to Honolulu, where he’d been based since he and Ed Hardy worked under “the dean of American tattooing,” Sailor Jerry in the early Seventies. Hawaii was gorgeous, very much the paradise of photos and films, but at the time it had no real audience for original rock music, in part because it boasted a unique native music in hula.

Yet the endless summer of palm trees, papayas, and pupu platters bored me, so I took a quickie job at a video store. After six weeks of watching all the movies I wanted, I got itchy for something a tad more meaningful and hit the classifieds again. Hmmm, a tourist publication group called Guide Magazines was looking for an assistant editor that could also write a chatty, three-dot style column of thinly disguised promotions for tourists.

I wasn’t sure of the editor part, but the column had my name written on it. Some quickie reading of the local tourist rags – and there were plenty – and scanning the daily newspaper for a few upcoming events helped me with the “audition” column. I inflated my limited newspaper experience at the Austin Sun and Chronicle, trumped up a resume, and sent it in with the faux column.

About four days later, the crisp professional voice of Milly Littlejohn left a message on my answering machine saying she would like to interview me for the job. I sweated the whole interview process and was genuinely shocked when she offered me the job. Then I was terrified: I really had no editorial skills to speak of, other than what I’d gleaned at the Sun and Chronicle, which hardly amounted to more than basic proofreading and a passing knowledge of type fonts. I felt like a fraud.

Milly was tall and slender, with more salt than pepper in her hair, and wore glasses. She’d look over her nose at me struggling to measure ad spaces by inches and then mistranslating them into picas. With endless patience, she presented me with my own pica ruler. Damn picas, they deviled me to no end. Numbers had never been my strong suit, and my flats were constantly being sent back for being a half-pica off. Whatever I imagined being an editor was, measuring picture holes wasn’t in the frame.

Because she had old-school newspaper experience – the kind you see in His Girl Friday – Milly sat down and worked with me and the blasted pica ruler until I got it through my head. She taught me about widows and orphans and how to break phrases on a headline. She critiqued my writing gently and reminded me of the rules of grammar and style constantly.

What she didn’t have to teach me was how to write the column. That I took to instinctively, erupting purple prose about luaus, sunset dinner tours, Pearl Harbor, and humuhumunukunukuapuas for the Guide to Oahu magazine she edited. We attended cheesy luaus, went underwater in a small submarine, and sometimes got invited to events where people like Imelda Marcos mingled.

As the junior editor, I edited the Guide to Maui and Guide to Hawaiian Island editions. That meant Milly and I sometimes traveled to other islands on business. We’d get taken to macadamia farms, marched through pineapple and sugar cane fields, and visited ancient volcanoes. We once watched from a Lahaina hotel balcony as a humpback breached the surface toward the tiny isle of Molokai, and considered ourselves incredibly fortunate to be alive and witnessing such a site.

I spent some time with her after we both relocated back to Austin from Honolulu in June 1991. Her granddaughter Ann interned with me during South by Southwest one year, and a few years later, it seemed best that she be moved closer to her children, and to a facility that could care for her too. We Skyped last year, though my webcam did not work well enough to be seen, and it would be the last time we communicated before she died last week.

So, here’s a toast to Milly Littlejohn, a frothy drink in a carved-out pineapple decorated with little umbrellas. I still have that pica ruler.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle