by Jane Lenel
Ella Russell Torrey, who now lives in Cathedral Village in upper Roxborough, was born Aug. 7, 1925 in Philadelphia and lived in Edgewater Park,NJ, on the Delaware River. A graduate of Moorestown Friends School, Torrey’s focus was on modern dance and English at Bennington College, but she left Martha Graham and Shakespeare behind after graduation in 1947 and pursued an interest in international relations. She soon found her way to the United Nations, newly created in 1945, where she served its prime charter aims of maintaining international peace, fundamental human rights and the equal rights of men, women and nations. She spent the next 50 years of her career working toward these goals.
Her first move was to Paris where — though clearly not her chosen beat — she got a job as fashion editor for the Chicago Tribune (“From Neck to Navel”). Then, one step closer to her interest in the United Nations which, in Paris at the time, was dealing with the Arab-Israeli issue, she obtained a position on Al Misri, then Egypt’s largest daily newspaper.
There she was the only woman among seven Arab men; her job: editing their “needy” English. One advantage at Al Misri, she says, was her off-hour gatherings at the local bar (drinking Coke or lemonade) with reporters covering the U.N. and U.S. State Department officers attending U.N. meetings. From these meetings came the suggestion that she apply for work at the U.S. Mission to the U.N., a branch of the State Department in New York when she returned home.
That she did in 1949 and there, as information officer, she wrote secret and unclassified reports on all U.N. meetings of the Security Council, General Assembly, and committee meetings. Each night these reports were sent to the Secretary of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense, Labor and Budget offices in Washington, and to U.S. embassies overseas, providing information and background needed to formulate major U.S. policies on such issues as the Arab-Israeli conflict, German unification and Chinese representation at the U.N.
She was also rewarded with a position serving Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been appointed by President Truman as a U.S. delegate to the UN. Ella handled correspondence, edited and scheduled speeches and briefed visitors and the foreign press. Her job also included accompanying Mrs. Roosevelt to meetings, with the added responsibility of giving her a nudge to avoid being caught by a photographer if she nodded off during the endless translations of speeches. (She also gave a similar warning one time to U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who was also the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, passing him a note from an admirer cautioning him not to slouch.)
About her relation with Mrs. Roosevelt, Torrey said, “I wasn’t afraid of her at all. Working days began with staff meetings and then scheduled U.N. meetings around 10 a.m. Lunch was either an official meeting in the delegates’ dining room or, as Mrs. Roosevelt preferred, in the cafeteria where she carried her own tray, and we sat with secretaries, guards and U.N. staffers.
“It became very personal, and I was often invited to eat dinner with her and visit occasionally at Val-Kil in Hyde Park. She was a lonely woman.” Torrey also remembers a painful moment when Mrs. Roosevelt was asked: “To what do you attribute the failure of your six children?” Her troubled answer: “I do not consider my children failures, but I was away from the White House so often, as I had to be Franklin’s eyes, ears and legs.”
After Mrs. Roosevelt left the U.N., Torrey worked for U.N. Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge as well as ambassadors, U.S. government officials and Congressional representatives. “It was a scary time during the McCarthy era, and the FBI kept track of me.”
The U.N. came to an end for Torrey when she was married in 1954 and joined her husband in Cambridge, where he was attending the Harvard Business School. From there, commuting to Providence, R.I., and later living in Bethlehem, PA, she became director of local World Affairs Councils and started model United Nations programs for area high school students.
Ella’s husband, Carl G. Torrey, was in market research, a graduate of Yale and the Harvard Business School. He developed the baby formula, Infamil, for Mead Johnson Pharmaceuticals. He died in 1999.
In Evansville, Indiana, still following U.N. concerns, she was president of the George Washington Carver Community Center, which was successful in integrating schools. “I loved the Midwest,” she said. “You could do things for people more easily out there.”
Her final move with her husband and four children was to Chestnut Hill in 1970, where she worked for 10 years as community affairs director of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. The organization initiated major national and international travel programs to increase income and membership, and conducted adult education programs in six suburban areas. It also established discussion groups on international issues with prominent visitors. Ella filled her “spare time” writing six booklets on the U.N. and international affairs for the Philadelphia school district.
(Two of the Torreys’ children have died: Carl, a nationally ranked squash player, and Ella, former president of the San Francisco Art Institute. Another son, Russell, is a computer expert and lives in Villanova with his wife and four sons. A daughter, Elizabeth, lives in Bethesda, Md., with her husband and two young sons. She was formerly with the Agency for International Development.)
From 1981 to 1987, Ella was executive director of the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia for over 4,000 foreign visitors per year seeking business, cultural and government connections in the Philadelphia area and learning about the U.S. Constitution.
Throughout the years, always immersed in U.N. concerns, Torrey has lectured on the organization’s many operations she believes much of the public is unaware of, such as disease control by the World Health Organization, scientific research exchanges through UNESCO, worldwide communication for farmers and aviators through Weather Watch and the Meteorological Organization, and nuclear watchdog surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and of course, its peace-keeping efforts.
Now in “retirement” at age 85 in upper Roxborough, she continues these lectures and adds membership and activities in a number of internationally focused area groups. She is also a board member of Chamounix Youth Hostel and the Philadelphia Global Association and a member of Friends of the Wissahickon.