‘Manly Man Marries Fertile Woman’: The headline that never happened

In Iowa newspaper lore, it’s the headline that had to happen at some point. In 2007, Mason City Globe Gazette columnist Richard Johnson tried to find it and came up empty. He wrote, “like all good mysteries, [it] remains shrouded in the mists of time.”

However, through modern research methods, the truth can be told.

“Manly Man Marries Fertile Woman” never appeared as a wedding announcement in any newspaper in that area. This includes all permutations of “Manly [man|youth] [marries|weds] Fertile [woman|girl].”

It’s time to put this myth to rest — and find out who set everything in motion.

A brief overview of wedding announcements

The giveaway is that the headline construction is all wrong. Such phrasing wouldn’t have been used. Wedding announcements in the 1920s and 1930s used names of local residents in the headline or the last names of bride and groom in subhead-size type. The 1990s-2000s versions of the latter are where Jay Leno got material for that part of “Headlines.”

Decades later, there were often two announcements: An engagement blurb featuring a full-column headshot of the bride-to-be, and a recap of the wedding with a photo of the bride in her gown or the couple at the ceremony. Until the late 1970s — and until later still in personals pages — the wedding story was often the last time a woman was referred to by her own first name and not “Mrs. [Husband’s Name].” (Yes, to today’s sensibilities this is extremely sexist, and it also makes digital searches tricky.)

From Northwood to Hollywood

The first appearance of MMMFW in the Northwood Anchor after 1946, when continuous archives start, was in a column by editor John van der Linden on August 10, 1950:

“I remember when I first went to work at the Globe Gazette about 10 years ago that Enoch Norem wanted me to be on the lookout, when I was writing headlines, to be careful about the chance of getting one reading ‘Fertile Girl Marries Manly Youth.’ I got a big kick out of that — but never had a chance to write such a headline.”

On July 9, 1997, the Anchor thought it ran MMMFW in the 1950s. It didn’t.

An item was buried on the edge of Page 8 of the Manly Signal on July 10, 1952:

“Mark Connelly of the Hollywood Reporter is quoted in a recent Coronet magazine as saying ‘There are two towns in Iowa named Manly and Fertile. It gets real embarrassing to the society page scribes when a Manly man marries a Fertile woman.'”

Nearly half a century later, on August 1, 1996, the Signal was still looking:

“[We’ve] never run across the original story that reportedly spawned an item in Reader’s Digest and a bit on the Johnny Carson Show. … We believe it was sometime in the 1940s, but we don’t have time to dig through a decade’s worth of papers. Any assistance with tracking down this bit of trivia would be appreciated.”

A quarter-century after that, digging through a decade’s worth of papers can be done in seconds. MMMFW is not there.

Cerf’s up in Mason City

MMMFW is typically attributed to the Globe Gazette, the closest daily newspaper. Its archive at newspapers.com starts in 1929.

Between 1929 and 1959, the phrase “Manly man” appears in three headlines or subheads on a page that also contains the word “Fertile.” None are wedding stories.

The earliest confirmed appearance of MMMFW in the Globe Gazette is January 2, 1954. It’s in an item referring to New York publisher Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House. “Cerf’s letter [to the editor] had to do with the ancient Globe-Gazette headline passed along by him to the November Reader’s Digest: ‘Manly Man Weds Fertile Girl.'”

The November 1953 issue of Reader’s Digest was obtained via eBay. The reference was in a filler on page 35.

“Two suburbs of Mason City, Iowa, believe it or not, are named Manly and Fertile. This led to a famous Globe-Gazette headline on the society page reading, ‘MANLY YOUTH WEDS FERTILE GIRL.'” — Bennett Cerf in The Saturday Review

Cerf is a little loose on the definition of “suburb.”

Notice that the description in the newspaper, mere weeks after its first publication, has already mutated: “Youth” became “Man.” A run-through of the Globe Gazette archives using “Manly youth” again yielded no wedding stories.

Taking on a life of its own

The legend escaped all containment in 1956. On July 13, the Chicago Tribune ran a column by Thomas Morrow with the headline “Hazards of Country Editing.” It ran in the Globe Gazette the next day and in the Mitchell County Press-News of Osage, 20 miles east of Manly, on July 19. The key parts are condensed below.

MASON CITY, IA. — It would not be fair to say that W. Earl Hall, newspaper editor, was jumpy before this thing happened. … Someday, he knew this thing would be there in the paper, and there was nothing he could do about it. …

What then was this fret that rode Editor Hall until that fateful day 25 years ago, when [it] finally came about and left him relaxed? In Editor Hall’s circulation territory are two Iowa towns …

Each day, he opened the paper, looked warily about, shook his head and waited for the next day. Then one day, he opened the paper and there it was in 30 point type.


[Hall] smiled happily as he recalled the end of waiting. “I called in the reporters,” he said, “and I said, ‘From now on we will not use the names of towns as adjectives.'”

But, as shown here, with resources unavailable to any room-sized computer in 1956, this never happened. It wasn’t there “25 years ago” in 1931, and hasn’t been since.

Globe Gazette columnist Johnson’s attempt to find MMMFW in 2007 cited likely suspects as Henry and Rua (Goodell) Doebel:

Ann Johnson of Northwood met Rua in 2001 at an open house in Hanlontown. …

“I said to Rua, ‘Your name is Doebel, and you live in Hanlontown? I thought the Doebels came from the Manly area.'”

“She shot right back, ‘That’s right. I went to Manly and found Henry Doebel and brought him back here and married him, and the Preacher Smith married us and the newspaper had a headline that said, ‘Manly Man marries Fertile Woman.’ “

The Signal’s headline on April 2, 1925 was small and simple: “Goodell-Doebel wedding at Hanlontown.” The Rev. Carl Schmidt officiated. Three days earlier, the Globe Gazette’s headline only used their last names. (Special thanks to the Mason City Public Library for finding it.)

The headline absolutely does not appear in the Forest City Summit, a weekly 12 miles west of Fertile. It is referenced three times, including February 8, 1994, when the editor wrote, “I haven’t researched to see if it was the Summit that printed the headline. Does anyone else know?”

As Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story. Iowa’s most famous newspaper headline never existed. Bennett Cerf, author of many midcentury humor books, took a joke that had percolated here and there, and popularized it through one of the nation’s most widely read magazines. The legend has been printed ever since.

Jeff Morrison is the writer behind the website “Iowa Highway Ends.” He grew up in Traer and now lives in Cedar Rapids. A version of this column was originally published in the Between Two Rivers newsletter on Substack, betweentworivers.substack.com. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative. Please consider subscribing to the collaborative at iowawriters.substack.com and the authors’ blogs to support their work.