Remembering Lydia Ratcliff, my personal finance soul sister

My personal finance soul sister

A pioneer in sustainable farming, Lydia Ratcliff was the kind of woman who’d walk into the kitchens of some of New York City’s finest restaurants with an animal carcass slung over one arm and a designer bag on the other.

Now, if you know me at all, or even if you don’t, you may wonder what I could have in common with this uncommonly interesting person.

Yes, I’ve bought a few fancy handbags in my day, but mostly I carry a nylon backpack everywhere. And though I once milked a cow (and I recall I had a knack for it) that’s been my closest brush with livestock.

What Ratcliff and I shared was a job. We were both ghostwriters for Sylvia Porter, the first woman­—in fact, the first person—to write about personal finance for middle-class families. Ratcliff died last week at age 84, and The New York Times just ran her fascinating obituary. The piece explains that she started writing for Porter in 1963, before I was even born. Twenty-five years later, I would be lucky enough to be sitting where Ratcliff once did.

During the time I worked for Porter, she was syndicated in more than 150 newspapers nationwide. My job was to write two of her three columns that were distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, with its New York flagship, the Daily News. Another career coincidence: Ratcliff also had a stint in her youth at Time Inc., where I worked for Money magazine early in my career.

I often felt it was divine intervention that landed me a gig with Sylvia Porter. (Actually, the way I got the job was a little more down to earth—thanks to my dad’s think-outside-the-box job search advice. You can find that story in the pages of my guide for parents, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not).) It set the course for the rest of my working life: I not only learned a lot about money, but I also found a passion for financial literacy that has sustained my career for decades.

Sadly, things didn’t end well between Porter and Ratcliff. After the publication of Porter’s best-selling guide Sylvia Porter’s Money Book, a tangle over royalties created a permanent rift, according to Tracy Lucht, who wrote the book Sylvia Porter: America’s Original Personal Finance Columnist. In fact, in 1986—just two years before I started working for Porter—Ratcliff was awarded $15,000 of the $26,000 she felt that she was owed, according to the Times. I don’t remember hearing about that when it was going on.

Anyway, Ratcliff was destined to make her mark elsewhere. In 1965, she embarked on an amazing second life in which she raised animals in a humane way—and sold her meat to high-end establishments like Daniel and Jean-Georges.

I’m sorry that I never met Lydia Ratcliff. It seems like she was a real pip. If I could have had dinner with her, I would have taken her to one of her favorite places, picked up the check, and paid in cash. That’s one lesson Sylvia Porter would have applauded.

Photo credit: Jenny Attiyeh/ThoughtCast

financial columnist Lydia Ratcliff obituary Sylvia Porter


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