During the 20th century, two women had a decisive impact on the male-dominated oil industry. One was the muckraker journalist Ida Tarbell, whose history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. contributed to its dismemberment.
The second woman, also a journalist, was Wanda Jablonski, whose remarkable influence over the international oil industry extended from the 1950s through the 1980s. Jablonski’s success paved the way for female journalists to move into higher profile journalistic positions and also for future generations of energy writers and editors.
In Queen of the Oil Club: The Intrepid Wanda Jablonski and the Power of Information, reporter and historian Anna Rubino tells the story of how Jablonski was able to forge extraordinary relationships with oilmen and OPEC officials alike, unveil the mysteries of the international oil business, and advance the debate that led to the creation of OPEC and its eventual rise to power. As Dan Yergin writes in the foreword, “Her life and her work have much to teach us about her era, oil and politics, and her own craft – and about independence and courage.”
There was no door closed to Wanda, who felt as home on the desert as she did in corporate boardroom. Rubino, who worked for Jablonski’s Petroleum Intelligence Weekly in the 1980s, discusses her legendary mentor.
P&GJ: What prompted you to write your book?
Rubino: Wanda led such a colorful, adventurous life, but it wasn’t until after her death in 1992 when I read some of her stories from the 1950s – from her interview with a Saudi king in his harem to her sparring with the Shah of Iran – that I realized her story just had to be told. She was such a pioneer as a journalist and as a woman. Although I received exclusive access to her papers, she didn’t keep diaries so I had to search through public and private archives and interview over a hundred people who knew her, including senior oil executives and former oil ministers. And they certainly had a lot of stories to tell.
P&GJ: How did Wanda become so influential?
Rubino: Because her father was a Mobil Oil geologist, she grew up speaking the language of derricks and drill bits. She knew the difference between sweet and sour crude. As an investigative reporter for the New York Journal of Commerce and then Petroleum Week from 1944-1961, her deep knowledge of the industry helped her dig up one scoop after another. Although she had to hide behind the gender-neutral byline of “W.M. Jablonski” for the first dozen years of her career, she had become so famous by the late 1950s that she was known only by her first name, Wanda. During her prime, oil companies and oil-producing country officials depended on the information she published every Monday morning.
P&GJ: What was her role in the creation of OPEC?
Rubino: Wanda was dubbed “OPEC’s midwife” because in 1959 she introduced the two men who were the intellectual founders of OPEC – Venezuela’s oil minister, Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, and the man who would become the first Saudi oil minister, Abdullah Tariki, over Coke or whiskey, she would say, depending on her audience. They would have met anyway, she readily said, but what really made a difference was that her extensive coverage of their efforts and their perspective gave them credibility in the 1950s when they were generally ignored by the Western press and underestimated by the major oil companies.
P&GJ: What were some of the greatest challenges she faced?
Rubino: Wanda certainly faced challenges as a woman in not one – but three – male worlds: the oil industry, the Middle East, and business journalism. As she wrote from Saudi Arabia in 1956, people were so amazed to meet a “lady oil expert” that they looked at her as though she had two heads. Once she founded her own newsletter, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, in 1961, which quickly became known as the “bible” of the international oil industry, she also dealt with threats, boycotts, and charges of spying from both industry and OPEC officials.
P&GJ: Why was Wanda so driven to succeed?
Rubino: One of her long-time friends, former Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, told me that as an only child, she wanted to prove to her father that she was as capable as any boy. Her ex-husband told me that because The New York Times refused to hire women as business reporters in the 1950s, she was determined to become known as the world’s best oil reporter – and she succeeded.
P&GJ: Wanda seemed to thrive in playing both sides of an issue, whether it was between oil companies or oil companies and producing nations. How did she do this and did it come at a cost?
Rubino: The oil industry was Wanda’s world. She appreciated all involved and developed long-term relationships with oil executives and producing country officials. What she was after was business intelligence. Although she upset sources and friends at times with her scoops and commentaries, she was known for her independence and honesty. Her goal was to enlighten and elucidate. She was most proud that the general press regularly cited her publication as “authoritative” and “reliable.”
P&GJ: What were some important discoveries you made during your research?
Rubino: The most significant scoop from my interviews is Sheikh Yamani’s explanation of how Wanda got him out of de facto house arrest after King Fahd fired him in 1986. One of my most exciting discoveries was finding newly declassified documents in the British archives that proved it was a senior Iranian official who was spying for the British in 1963 – not Wanda – as some OPEC officials had charged. But what’s most significant historically is that I show the pivotal role she played in 1960 with the creation of OPEC and the influence she had over four decades.
P&GJ: What was the legacy that Wanda left the energy industry and business journalism?
Rubino: Her legacy for the industry is that by getting more information in print, by explaining all aspects of the industry and making it more transparent, there’s more likelihood that all sides – oil companies, producing countries, and consumers – can communicate and plan more sensibly. Although deeply anti-communist and a proponent of market capitalism, she came to question and finally challenge the oil majors’ efforts to maintain total control of the industry. As for business journalism, she was the first American woman to create an important business publication aimed at a specialized audience. Her career underscores the importance of investigative reporting – reporting that requires time, money, skill and persistence to dig for information and explain its significance.
P&GJ: Could Wanda have achieved the same accomplishments in today’s world?
Rubino: Today’s oil industry is more complex than it was in the 1950s and coverage of the industry is more widespread. But in a world that fears peak oil, climate change, energy blackmail, and increasingly volatile prices, it’s as important as ever to have probing, substantive reporting that gives a clear view of the choices we face.
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