Women’s History Month: Lee Jaffe, Port Authority’s Legendary First Female Director of Public Affairs

By Lenis Rodrigues, Media Relations Staff

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Lee Jaffe was a brilliant woman from a small Pennsylvania town who worked as the Port Authority’s Director of Public Relations from 1944-1965. She served as the agency’s spokesperson and earned recognition as the “voice” of the Port Authority.

Before joining the agency, Jaffe was a Washington correspondent for the Wichita Beacon. According to a 1965 New York Times profile, her first assignment was covering the Veterans’ Bonus March on Washington, which President Hoover countered with troops and tear gas bombs.

Associates told the Times that Jaffe showed up in spiked heels and white gloves. Her cab driver didn’t want to let her out at the Anacostia Bridge, saying “it’s no place for a woman.” She agreed, but jumped from the cab because, as she noted, “it’s a good place for a reporter.” For so many women already having a tough time breaking through the glass ceilings in the world of journalism, Jaffe’s comment was a rallying cry.

She also worked at the Binghamton Press and the Northwestern Miller Trade Journals. She was a member of the United States Senate and House Press Galleries and the White House Correspondents Association, and served during World War II as an information officer in the Office of War Information, assigned to the Office of Price Administration (OPA) for Metropolitan New York.

Like the contributions of so many accomplished but unsung women of her time, her greatest influence occurred behind the scenes.

Jaffe rallied the support of the public and the press on every major capital program undertaken by the Port Authority at the airports, seaports and the bus terminal, reporting to Executive Director Austin Tobin. She established close working relationships with editorial writers and reporters at all of the region’s daily newspapers, keeping them continually informed of Port Authority news and human-interest stories.

According to her colleagues and associates, Jaffe lived, slept and breathed the Port Authority and had a particular talent for sharing the agency’s message. “She was ingenious. She knew a good story and how to develop it,” said one of the region’s reporters. “And if you needed more [facts], she would get them and call you right back . She was head and shoulders above anyone else in the public relations field.”

For an idea of Jaffe’s influence, start with 1945. That year, there were 29 favorable editorials, according to summaries prepared by Tobin for the Port Authority Board of Commissioners. The next year, the number was 280, and it grew to 317 in 1947.

Beyond public relations, Jaffe left her imprint on other areas of the the agency. Although the initial architectural plans for the World Trade Center Twin Towers called for the construction of two 80-story towers, Jaffe thought it wouldn’t be exciting enough to attract multi-national tenants. According to news accounts, as Jaffe and Tobin discussed the possible design of the towers, she said, “Why not make it taller than the Empire State Building?” Tobin agreed, as did Port Authority commissioners.

After 21 years of devoted service to the Port Authority, Jaffe retired. “It’s been fun. I loved every minute of it,” she told the New York Times.  Jaffe seldom took more than one week’s vacation a year and was accessible at any hour of the day or night to provide information concerning the agency. She belonged to a number of public relations organizations and to the Foreign Press Association, Aviation/Space Writers Association, Women’s City Club of New York and Women’s National Press Club. And she lived a full life outside the agency with her husband Isadore and their beloved Myna bird, named Pretty Boy, and a Maltese Terrier.

On the eve of her retirement, she went to a routine meeting — or so she thought. She walked out of it not with a pad full of notes, but with the Port Authority’s Distinguished Service Medal. In 1944, The Port Authority started its Medal Awards program to acknowledge the contributions of dedicated long-term employees, and to reward heroism and other achievements by staff.

The medal points to “her valuable counsel and advice have been sought on every decision of major significance and that her unfailing ability to outline a course of action for the Port Authority to meet the public needs has always been of great assistance to her colleagues,” said the commissioners.”

The commissioners praised Jaffe for “imaginatively” telling the story of the Port Authority, and the confidence and respect the agency commanded from the news media during her tenure.

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