Mary Sue Welsh Discusses Her New Book One in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra

Out of the 500 companies in the Fortune 500, only 21 of them are led by a female chief executive officer. When Edna Phillips joined the Philadelphia Orchestra -- an equally illustrious group in her time -- as principal harpist, she was the ensemble's first female member, becoming one in 100. And not only was she the group's first female player, she was the first woman to hold a principal position in any major American orchestra.

Author Mary Sue Welsh recently penned Phillips' biography, One Woman in a Hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra, about Phillips' life in the orchestra, how she survived in a world dominated by men, and why her story is relevant for today's women.

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Welsh says when she started working with Phillips on the book in 1990, it was to help her write her memoir, but when Phillips became ill, they put the book aside. After she passed away, Welsh says, she still wanted to tell the stories.

"She had a wonderful memory, and she just remembered it all," says Welsh. "They're such good, wonderful, important stories. I thought, well, I could go ahead and write them as a biography. So I went and did a lot more research and backed them up."

Welsh says she originally wanted to help Phillips with her memoir because she was fascinated by her stories.

"She knew such great people, and frankly she remembered such funny things about them," says Welsh. "She had the sharpest eye, and she would catch funny mistakes, personality quirks. And I thought it was wonderful, because they were great musicians but they were also human."

Phillips joined the Philadelphia Orchestra when she was just 23 years old, after the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski discovered her through her teacher and Stokowski's friend Carlos Salzedo, who is generally regarded as history's greatest harpist.

Phillips had been practicing the harp for only five years and was still in the midst of learning under Salzedo at the Curtis Institute of Music when she received the audition with Stokowski.

Welsh says Phillips thought she was auditioning for the second harp position, but Stokowski being the great innovator he was, recognized her talent and hired her as principal harpist, to the shock of everyone.

Even though Stokowski was used to taking risks and being cutting edge in the musical world, Welsh says he was still a little worried about hiring Phillips.

"He did so many adventurous things that you wouldn't think he'd be so worried about it, but he was apparently," says Welsh. "And, yes, it was a risk. But it was just one more thing he did that was groundbreaking. He pioneered ways to record music, and he was very interested in technology. He was using synthesizers and would experiment with electronic things, so he was a big trailblazer, that's for sure."

And he would have to be, considering it was 1930 and not only were women not allowed in the great orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, or the Boston Symphony, women weren't expected to have careers at all.

Phillips wasn't entirely a novice when it came to performing with an orchestra. She had been a member of the orchestra at The Roxy Theatre, a premier movie palace in New York City known for its theatrical and lavish performances.

Welsh says that during Phillips' time at The Roxy she was second harpist, and the orchestra did four shows a day, seven days a week. Phillips was chased by many of the men, says Welsh, and while their come-ons and the lifestyle surrounding the theatre actually frightened her, they helped prepare her for how to act once she joined the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"When she came to Philadelphia, she was kind of prepared and she stayed aloof," says Welsh. "She didn't want to mix up with the men; she wanted them to know she was serious about her work. And, heavens, she really was, because she had to work so hard to live up to this high, wonderful orchestra."

Her aloofness didn't allow her to escape the advances of Stokowski, however. Welsh says that Stokowski was known as quite the playboy and ended up having three wives, including Gloria Vanderbilt, plus an affair with Greta Garbo.

"She was very savvy, and when he made advances at her, she got out of it and without getting fired, which is a difficult thing," says Welsh. "She had this wonderful teacher [Salzedo], and he warned her not to get mixed up with any of them, but he was really meaning Stokowski. He warned her not to get involved with him or she'd be thrown away like an old shoe."

Welsh says that through outwitting Stokowski's advances she actually gained his respect, and eventually she gained the respect and even friendships of her fellow players.

Phillips' achievements in her career and her work ethic can still provide great lessons for women today, says Welsh.

"It was hard work, and she worked very hard," says Welsh. "She just made sure that she was going to be the best at what she did, and she was very courageous. And, quite frankly, she was savvy not to get involved with anybody. Because she had to have their respect to move forward, otherwise she really wouldn't have had such a good career."

Phillips didn't believe there was any reason she shouldn't be allowed to perform with the orchestra, regardless of its history of not allowing women, says Welsh. She felt that if she could play well enough, she should be able to perform with the orchestra.

Welsh says that despite her hard-working mentality and desire to remain aloof in the beginning, she still had a lot of fun, and she loved her life around her. Eventually her demanding schedule did prove to be difficult, particularly once she had children and was traveling so much after the World War II. Phillips ended up retiring and went on to do other things in the music world, says Welsh.

Although the premier orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, were extremely popular during Phillips' era, Welsh says, the general public has sort of lost touch with them now.

"While she was there, Stokowski made it the hottest ticket in town," says Welsh. "They say his second wife married him to get into the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was a very big deal at the time. The music was great, and he was showman. He knew how to attract crowds. It became a very important part of Philadelphia's life."

After Phillips, Stokowski hired a few more women through the 1930s, but the other larger orchestras wouldn't have female principal players until 1952, says Welsh. It wasn't until the orchestras started holding blind auditions that women started to represent a larger, more equal number.

Phillips' talent and ability to gain entry into the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra at such a restrictive time, plus her savvy intelligence, which allowed her to maneuver through the male-dominated world, is what makes her story so appealing.

Welsh, who met Phillips during her time as executive director for the Bach Festival of Philadelphia, says one of her favorite memories of Phillips is her laugh.

"She had a warm, wonderful laugh," says Welsh. "She was so perceptive and fun, and she was kind of a profound person, very thoughtful."

What are you reading?

Tenth of December, a bunch of short stories by George Saunders, and Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

What was the last book you read?

Let's see, before this, I don't know. I read so many books for this book that I'm not sure. Oh, you know, it was Tina Fey's BossyPants.

What are your favorite kinds of books to read?

I'm an English major, as they say, so I like literature. I like a lot, but I'm also not good with names. But F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby has to be my all-time favorite book.

How do you pick your next book?

Well, just what I hear about, through reviews, and I belong to some book clubs, which I haven't had time to do because I was writing so much. But I look forward to that now. I'm enjoying not writing for a minute.

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Darryle Royal
Contact: Darryle Royal