Wyndham Robertson: A matriarch built on her own terms

By Sammy Ferris

Wyndham Robertson’s mission in life is to have a good death.

She has written the obituaries for everyone in her family. When her older sister passed away last year, she wrote to honor their lifetime of sisterhood. She tears up when thinking about Blanche Williamson’s death. She put that love into a crafted gift to their family. The power of honoring life in death.

During the pandemic this past year, Robertson decided it was time to write her own obituary too.

Death at 84 years old feels more like last call at a bar after a night spent with good friends and good martinis. Something inevitable and sweetly crushing. And for Robertson, something that should be talked about as such.

Writing her own obituary was a no-brainer. Robertson laughs that she is not sure who else in her family would do it anyways. Her lifelong career as a writer and her candidness have prepared her for the task.

Neither morbid nor nostalgic. Necessary and on her terms.

Robertson has always been a woman inspired by intention. Born in 1937, she is the youngest of three. She feels lucky to have been born during the Depression. It was rare and brimming with the kind of hope necessary to survive. The hope born from reviving a dying country by going to fight a war in another.

The kind of hope which would allow a girl from Salisbury, North Carolina with a dream of being a Rockette, to move to New York City and work at Fortune Magazine for over 40 years.

Engagement of Her Own

Marriage had never interested her, unlike many of her female peers. She saw engagement as employment, and if she was going to be an employee anywhere, it was going to be somewhere she could write. It certainly was not going to be because of a ring on her finger.

Necessary and on her terms.

After graduating from Hollins University with a degree in Economics, she moved to New York City. Her father told her she was not allowed to get an apartment or a job for at least a month, certain that she would return home to North Carolina.

Robertson spent those first few weeks speed dating with job interviews. Unable to commit until a month had past, Robertson went on speed dates all over the city with the confidence of someone who had nothing to lose.

The economy was coming out of a recession, and she was in an uncommitted relationship with Manhattan. She played the field.

Her first job was at Standard Oil doing research. Carol Loomis met Robertson after she had been there for a few years. Feeling called to change, Robertson traveled to Europe for three months with her cousin. Before she left, her boss referred her to Loomis who was working at Fortune Magazine. They agreed to discuss about job opportunities when Robertson came back.

In Spain, she received a postcard from Carol: check back in immediately upon your return.

A New Beginning

Fortune’s structure was nothing short of overtly sexist. All writers and editors were males who had females labelled as researchers at their beck and call. Loomis wanted Robertson to come on board as a trainee researcher. She knew it was below Robertson’s qualifications, but also knew she would easily move up the ranks.

Robertson agreed with one condition added in her contract: if she wasn’t promoted in a year, Carol had to fire her.

Necessary and on her terms.

Within six months, she was promoted to researcher. The magazine was in its prime and its prestige was a passport. Robertson accompanied writers on trips across the country interviewing business titans like Henry Ford and drinking martinis in expensive bars.

Her catch-me-if-you-can intelligence and American girl good looks made her a weapon in the business journalism world, and her unimposing charm and irreplaceable candor made her a writer.

In 1968, after a series of promotions, she became the first female Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune.

Necessary and on her terms.

No Regrets

Robertson’s ability to elicit respect and trust commanded her love life in the same way it did her career.

She turned down four proposals in her life, though somehow managed to maintain friendships with all of the men. The one proposal she did accept was from Wally McDowell during her early twenties. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the only man who would ever hear Robertson say yes.

She laughs remembering how it ended after a few weeks when she fell madly in love with someone else. She broke it off with a clean conscience, confident he would move on and marry a different person.

And while he did, she did not.

Dating was fun for a classically smart and beautiful woman like her. She has always loved men, usually having more than one “sweetheart” at a time.

Dating never went further than that. She has no regrets about being single, recalling her thirties when women and men would look at her with pity for her status. Since turning 60 years old, the most common response she hears is now is “lucky you.”

She is a matriarch with no children of her own. That role, she has filled by giving to her nieces and nephews. When she was invited to the 1991 Super Bowl, she brought her nephew Julian Williamson as her date. To him, she is the kind of aunt who made living in New York and working as a single woman feel like the obvious choice.

Robertson did not set out to refuse marriage. She simply refused to believe that marriage was something to set out to get.

Julian believes she is one part self-sufficient and one part scared. Not one to take risks, Robertson is relentlessly independent. A person who at 84 and in need of a new hip, will refuse anesthesia during the surgery rather than risk damaging her mind by going under.

A bold act rooted in fear of losing her mental acuity before it’s her time.

Wyndham Robertson does not believe that the great beyond resembles a family reunion. She believes that there is something waiting, but what that looks like she does not pretend to know. There are people “up there” who would want to see her again, but not vice versa. How would God decide that dilemma?

In talking about her legacy, she will be happy if her life is remembered at all.

Although Robertson never joined the Rockettes on stage, she crafted an extraordinary life. Charming and intelligent, she is a walking cocktail of southern manners and New York worldliness.

She is, in a word, unforgettable.

When Robertson’s time does come and her family reads the obituary she wrote, she will be remembered. A matriarch who, in life as well as in death, will always have the last word about who she is.

Edited by: Natalie Huschle