Dorothy Lerner Gordon
1889 – 1970
Dorothy Lerner Gordon—musician, broadcaster, author—dedicated her talents to the entertainment and education of children and young people. Born in Russia on April 4, 1889, she was the daughter of Rosa (Schwartz) and American diplomat Leo Lerner. The youngest of four sisters, she spent much of her childhood in Europe as the family followed her father to Italy, various Balkan countries, France, and Germany. Gordon credited her early experiences in Europe with her interest in stories, songs, and folktales of various cultures—an interest that helped to bring her to the stage and then into broadcasting. During these childhood years, her family also recognized her musical talents and offered her training in voice and piano.
The Lerner family returned to the United States, and in 1910 Dorothy Lerner married Bernard Gordon, whom she described as “a very prominent, busy lawyer.” Her responsibilities as a wife and a mother to two sons occupied the early years of her marriage, but by the 1920s she had begun her stage career. Spurred by her interest in music and her disappointment in the lack of suitable entertainment for children, Gordon began to mount stage shows for young people. Her repertoire included folk songs, which she sang in the costume of the appropriate country. She toured the country giving concerts to enthusiastic audiences.
In 1923, she began her broadcasting career when the Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America invited her to do a recital of folk songs on the radio. During the 1920s, however, Gordon saw radio primarily as a means of advertising. As she traveled around the country performing, she would stop at local radio stations for an interview and perhaps sing a few songs. At first, she disliked the medium because she felt that performers needed contact with their audience. But by the 1930s, as she witnessed the potential reach and educational benefits of radio, she became a strong advocate.
During the 1930s, she moved more directly into commercial radio. She became the musical director of the American School of the Air, a five-day-a-week program that examined a different topic each day—history, geography, science, current events, and music. She was the “Song and Story Lady” on the Children’s Corner, where she narrated and dramatized folk stories. As well, in 1939 she produced Yesterday’s Children, a program that featured the favorite childhood books of a famous person. After telling or dramatizing the story, Gordon would have that week’s guest explain why he or she had loved that story as a child. Throughout this period, Gordon continued to tour the country doing live performances. It was on these tours that she discovered the breadth of the radio audience. Radio, she learned, was bringing literature and music to rural Americans.
In 1941, she turned her attention in a somewhat different direction. She felt that radio could also bring news and current events to children. She became the director of children’s programs for the radio division of the Office of War Information. Her work there made her realize the enormous possibilities of radio for bringing information to both children and adults. Two years later, she initiated the Youth Forum, which brought young people together to discuss current events. Not initially designed for radio, the first Youth Forums were sponsored by the New York Times and held at Times Hall in New York City. In 1945, however, the Times bought WQXR and began broadcasting these programs weekly. Gordon always insisted that the Youth Forum include children from all racial, religious, and social backgrounds. After a few years, she began to include an adult “expert” on each program who could serve as a resource and answer questions for the young people. Among the illustrious guests were Averell Harriman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Golda Meir, Norman Thomas, William O. Douglas, and Ralph Bunche. The Youth Forum moved to television in 1952 and continued to broadcast for seventeen years. When she died on May 11, 1970, Gordon was still serving as moderator of the weekly television program.
In addition to her careers in music and broadcasting, Dorothy Lerner Gordon was the author of numerous books. All Children Listen (1941) discusses her views on the impact of radio on children. Many of her other books were written specifically for children, for example, You and Democracy (1951) and Who Knows the Answer? (1965).
All Children Listen (1941); You and Democracy (1951); Who Knows the Answer? (1965).
Gordon, Dorothy Lerner. The Reminiscences of Dorothy Gordon. Oral History Collection, Columbia University (1951); NAW modern; Obituary. NYTimes, May 12, 1970, 39:1; UJE; Who’s Who of American Women (1968); WWWIA 5.