Iowa’s most famous headline that never was

Debunking ‘Manly Man Marries Fertile Woman’

July 27, 2023 2:25 pm

Distance sign at the intersection of U.S. Highway 65 and Iowa 9 on the outskirts of Manly, Iowa, on May 21, 2023. (Photo by Jeff Morrison)

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.”

In late 2021 or early 2022, eight decades of the Manly Signal became available online. Here’s a sampling of Signal wedding headlines in 1936:

  • “Glenys Cobeen is New Year bride / Marries Arnold Swedberg in ceremony at Lutheran church” (Jan. 9)
  • “June weddings of interest here are announced / Dan Cupid has had a busy month, here and elsewhere” with last names in subheads (July 2)
  • “Manly girl was married Saturday / Esther Russell becomes the bride of Recorder Harvey Gaarder” (Nov. 19)

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.)

In the 1960s, the Signal usually used “Announce engagement” for the first item, and last names for the second.

  • “Announce wedding plans” for Sheryl Lane, with headshot (June 21, 1962), and then “Lane-Kelber nuptials performed Saturday at Sacred Heart Church” (July 12, 1962) with photo of couple.
  • “Chapin-Monroe wedding held at Plymouth church,” with photo of couple (Dec. 5, 1963)
  • “Whannel-Rusley wedding held,” with closeup photo of couple (April 2, 1964)
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Dietrich of Manly announce the engagement of their daughter, Helen, to Alan Halsne, son of Mr. and Mrs. Magnus Halsne of Fertile, Iowa.” A Manly woman and a Fertile man on May 28, 1964! The follow-up was just “Dietrich-Halsne wedding held Saturday at Bethlehem Lutheran” on July 2.

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 Aug. 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 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 Aug. 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.

Fertile and Manly are towns in Worth County, Iowa. (Map courtesy of Iowa Highway Ends/Between Two Rivers)

Cerf’s up in Mason City

MMMFW is typically attributed to the Globe Gazette, the closest daily newspaper. Its archive at 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.
  • Here’s how the Globe Gazette handled weddings in the summer of 1931:
    • “Frances Hill and Fairfield Resident Wed / Vows Taken at Little Brown Church; Wedding Dinner in Form of Picnic” (June 2, 1931). If only one member of the couple was a local, the other’s hometown was used.
    • “Mildred Biegler is married to Helmer Vaage of Fertile” (June 30, 1931). A Fertile man, but not the goal of this search.
    • “Fisher-Wittenburg wedding conducted; pair live on farm” (July 23, 1931). Last names only.

The earliest confirmed appearance of MMMFW in the Globe Gazette is Jan. 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.

The legend escaped all containment in July 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 Feb. 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.

This column is republished from Between Two Rivers through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and its member writers to support their work.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jeff Morrison
Jeff Morrison

Jeff Morrison grew up in rural Traer and lives in Cedar Rapids. He was formerly a copy editor at the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette and is now looking for a job. He has run the website Iowa Highway Ends for two decades and has visited every incorporated town in the state. In addition to the blog on his website, he writes at Between Two Rivers on Substack.