Obituary: Mamie Magnusson; made her name in journalism when women were rarely seen in news rooms

Mamie with husband Magnus in 1989
Mamie with husband Magnus in 1989
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Born: 24 October, 1925, in Glasgow. Died: 12 April 2012, in Balmore, near Glasgow, aged 86.

Due to her married name, Mamie Magnusson inevitably found herself referred to as “the wife of Magnus”, the famous TV presenter on Mastermind who grilled lesser mortals seated in the famous black chair. But Mamie was a brilliant journalist in her own right, indeed a pioneer of women’s journalism in the post-war years, initially at the Sunday Post and later at the Scottish Daily Express on Glasgow’s Albion Street, at the time every young Scottish would-be journalist’s dream.

It was on the Express that she met Magnus in the early 1950s and they married in 1954. They’d started, so they finished, but only in 2007 when Magnus, who was assistant editor of The Scotsman through most of the 1960s and later Rector of Edinburgh University (1975-78), passed away.

During their marriage, according to friends, Mamie brought much of her down-to-earth Glaswegian common sense to many of the books credited to Magnus, who had been born in Iceland but brought up in Edinburgh – almost an alien world to Glaswegians before the M8 was built – where his father was Iceland’s Consul-General.

Having broken into the business at the Sunday Post like so many of Scotland’s best journalists – it was the only paper you could join without a union card while the rest were “closed shops” – she made her name at the Express, using her woman’s touch to get “human interest” stories her male colleagues could not get.

Mamie Ian Baird (yes, that’s Ian – her father John, janitor at Bankhead Primary School, was expecting a boy) was born in Rutherglen, Scotland’s oldest royal burgh in the south-east of Glasgow, on 24 October, 1925 with a twin sister, Anna. She went to Rutherglen Academy. Her elder brother was Archie Baird, who went on to become a legend at Aberdeen FC and a Scottish international after having been a prisoner of war during the Second World War.

Having the middle name Ian did have its complications, although perhaps not quite to the extent of Johnny Cash’s Boy Name Sue. Mamie did, however, regularly get letters addressed to Ian Baird Esquire.

That notwithstanding, the byline Mamie Baird in the Express became a magnet for readers more used to reading articles by men.

Maimie was “headhunted” by the Express in 1947 due to her success at the Sunday Post (the latter did not use bylines but word got around as to who wrote what). She had one of her first big scoops in 1947 when Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, was about to marry Prince Philip of Greece, later given the title Duke of Edinburgh.

Mamie famously showed up at Birkhall on Deeside, where Philip and Elizabeth were on honeymoon, rang the doorbell, got her glove caught in the door, and expected to get removed from the premises pronto. Instead, she was invited inside and had an exclusive glimpse of the honeymoon suite to share with her readers.

Magnus and Mamie had five children and eventually settled in Blairksaith House, Balmore, north of Glasgow, where she died. One of their sons, Siggy, tragically died in 1973 at the age of 11 when he was hit by a vehicle after walking behind his school bus. Mamie was devastated but Magnus told her, according to friends: “The children have lost their brother. Don’t let them lose their mother as well.” That helped her pull through a mother’s worst nightmare.

She went on to write several books, including well received histories of the Women’s Guild and of the Scottish Mutual Assurance Society.

Before her illness, she was also much in demand as an after-dinner speaker, notably for the Scottish Literary Agency, speaking throughout the UK on its behalf.

“Her secret springs from a wonderfully observant eye, first revealed well before her marriage to Magnus,” Herald columnist Jack Webster wrote in 1982.

“She stood in her own right as Mamie Baird, one of the finest journalists of her day.”

Commenting on her public speaking, she told Webster: “I made people laugh to the point that, once when I was addressing an old folks’ club, one poor man wet the floor! Another one said he had never laughed so much – and he died the next day!”

Mamie suffered from increasing dementia over the last eight years. She is survived by her twin sister Anna, one son and three daughters, including Sally Magnusson, who started her journalistic career at the Scotsman and is now a TV presenter.

PHIL DAVISON