Holley Snaith is passionate about history. She has researched and written about many prominent American figures of the 20th Century, as you will see in the interview below. She is a historian, content writer, editor, and entrepreneur who takes care to share historical life events accurately and strives to dispel misinformation when she comes across it.
This is the second day in a row that we look to history for inspiration, with AJ Schenkman guest posting yesterday on women in the Civil War. Let’s create more opportunities to highlight women who changed the world.
Disclosure: This sponsored interview features historian, writer, and editor Holley Snaith, who shares inspiring stories of 20th-century American figures in politics, entertainment, culture, and music.
Interview with historian Holley Snaith
Thank you, Holley, for taking the time to be here. I love your zest for learning about the past!
Have you always had a strong interest in history?
In many ways, I have always been an old soul. I cannot even count how many times someone said, “You were born in the wrong era.” When I was around five years old, I became hooked on I Love Lucy. This was more than 50 years after the show first aired, but for the longest time, I thought black-and-white television shows and movies were still the norm! My friends at school did not see the appeal that I did, and I loved that my unique interests made me stand out.
In middle school, I ardently studied royal dynasties, like the Windsors and Romanovs, and I was intrigued by different forms of government. Then in high school, after I read The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, I shifted to studying the New Deal and World War II era.
Since then, my focus has remained on 20th-century American history, but in addition to political history, I also write about entertainment, cultural, and music history. It is incredible to see how so much has come full circle.
I grew up listening to classic country music, and my first article to be published in a reputable publication was on Loretta Lynn. It is the same with classic movies, which I loved to watch as a kid. For a few years, I left those interests behind and explored different career avenues. Now, here I am, researching and writing about these amazing individuals that were a part of my childhood.
I’m curious, what was your first job as a historian?
In high school, I interned briefly at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, because I was completing my big senior project on the creation of the March of Dimes (which was founded by FDR in Warm Springs). Not only did I get to learn about the charming town of Warm Springs and the beginnings of the March of Dimes, but I also spent time as a docent in the museum and the Little White House.
I enjoyed talking to people from all over the country and answering their questions about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. By that point, I had been studying them for a couple of years and was thrilled to share my knowledge with those who were curious. I spent a few minutes in the Little White House by myself at dusk. Since FDR died there in 1945, it was a bit eerie, but what an experience for a 17-year-old fascinated by that history!
Since then, you have worked with several prominent organizations. Can you share a bit about your time with the Richard Nixon Foundation on the Pat Nixon project?
When I attended the 75th anniversary of the FDR Library in Hyde Park, I met one of President and Mrs. Nixon’s daughters, who briefly told me about the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, and the massive renovation it had just undergone. Since I had just completed a historical restoration project at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park and was thinking about what I wanted to do next, what she told me planted some new seeds.
I made a few connections and soon was moving from the East Coast to Southern California to intern with the nonprofit Richard Nixon Foundation. Within a couple of weeks, they ended up hiring me as a Development Associate. For the next few months, I was strictly learning about fundraising and donor management. All of that was important and has since served me well, but I missed the historical research and sharing my knowledge. I asked if I could work in Research and Development, and thankfully, I got a yes.
I did several little research projects, but the most important one was curating an exhibit on Pat Nixon at her alma mater, the University of Southern California. I spent time working with the Nixon Library on finding the right photos and communicating with the staff at USC. I got all the photos and their respective captions printed and drove to the university’s campus to get everything set up for the big unveiling, and there was a nice luncheon at USC with one of Mrs. Nixon’s granddaughters in attendance to celebrate the new exhibit.
That was the last project I completed before leaving the Foundation, and far as I was concerned, I ended on a high note. The exhibit remained at USC for about two years and was very well received.
Wonderful. Can we talk a bit about when you met Madeleine Albright? How did that happen?
Right after graduating from college, I moved to the Hudson Valley to intern at the FDR Library. There, I worked in three departments: the Archives, Museum, and Public Programming. While working in the Museum, I helped with the curation and installation of Madeleine Albright’s “Read My Pins” traveling exhibit. Seeing her incredible pins and learning about the individual history of each one of them was very interesting.
Then, in Public Programming, we scheduled for Secretary Albright to come to the Library to talk about the pins. Of course, there was so much preparation involved in this event, and I was honored to be given at least some responsibility in its execution. But what I was not expecting was for the Library’s director to ask me to be one of the first people to greet the former Secretary of State when she arrived. It was one of those moments when you say, “Is she talking to me or someone else with the same name?” But she was talking to me!
Finally, the big moment arrived, and there I was, the intern at the front of the line welcoming our first female Secretary of State. I will always remember her firm handshake and the sparkle in her blue eyes. For the brief minute we chatted, she focused only on me, which made me feel important. She was a smart, witty, and kind woman.
Secretary Albright was the first “famous” person I met while working there, and I was a bit awestruck, but she put me at complete ease. The icing on the cake was watching a news segment of her visit to the Library and seeing me standing right behind her. I honestly had no idea there was a camera there, but that is a priceless memory.
You have nonprofit experience as well. What was it like helping at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center?
When I was in the middle of working on the restoration project at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, it was brought to my attention that the nonprofit Eleanor Roosevelt Center was looking to hire a program assistant for their summer Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Program. After talking to my supervisor with the National Park Service, I applied for the position, interviewed, and was hired!
It was only a three-month job, but it was the hardest work I have ever done. We hosted 84 high school-age girls from 13 different countries for two sessions of 9-day workshops.
There was scheduling and logistical work involved that I had to take care of before the sessions began, and we also spent a total of four days in New York City, visiting the United Nations, CNN, the Cosmopolitan Club, and other sites. We were constantly on the go. I saw these amazing young women engage in stellar leadership workshops and watched them discover the leader within them.
It was very gratifying to know I played a part in this program. I also led a workshop on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, so I was also able to share my knowledge of the Roosevelts and engage with the girls.
What a great program for girls! I wonder, what is the most surprising thing in history you have learned during your career so far?
That is a great question, and one moment that remains in my mind happened when I was interning at the FDR Library. The head archivist took us on a “behind the scenes tour” of the archives, so we were fortunate to see artifacts that few people had seen, and one of the items was the book President Roosevelt was reading when he passed away in 1945. The book was titled The Punch and Judy Murders, and ironically, the chapter he left marked was called “Six Feet of Earth.” That sent chills up my spine.
In researching individuals considered “well known” in history, whether it be in politics or entertainment, I have found that so much that has been written about these individuals in magazines or books is either wrong or misconstrued. We know that there is a lot of false information out there today, but even before the creation of social media and the multitudes of news outlets, there were plenty of untrue stories being printed. Some of those legendary stories live on today, which is unfortunate. So, there are times I write to try to set the record straight.
More questions for Holley Snaith:
To someone who wants to be a historian one day, what is one piece of career advice you would give them?
A few important things come to mind. First, follow your passion. Whether that be writing, being an educator, or working in public history, sink your teeth into learning all you can about that field.
Second, embrace your individuality. To gain a reputation as a historian, you must recognize what makes you unique and not be shy in promoting that.
Next, find your niche and become proficient in something. Saying you are a “historian” is such a broad term, so pick an era or subject(s) and become such an expert that you can impress anyone with your knowledge. When a member of the Roosevelt family told me that I knew more about their family than they did, I knew I did something right.
Finally, make connections and ask for help. The sooner you accept that you do not know everything and cannot achieve the career you are dreaming of alone, the easier the climb will be.
I think, as women, sometimes we feel ashamed to ask for help, worrying it makes us seem weak, but that is not true. To ask for assistance and advice from others shows a sign of strength, and a willingness to grow and learn as a person and professional. Then, when you arrive at the place where you, too, can help and encourage others, the reward feels even greater.
I love that! In today’s digital age, historical research is no doubt different than it used to be. Have you witnessed any changes?
The positives outweigh the negatives when we are talking about researching history and the advancements in technology. When I did research in the Nixon Library and had to find photographs from a certain event, I would spend hours studying contact sheets with a magnifying glass.
But now, as an independent researcher, I can send a message to the presidential library and ask for images from a certain date and they send me a digitized version of the contact sheets. It is much easier to closely study photographs on a computer instead of squinting through a small magnifying glass! And, I do not have to physically be in the research room to view them.
I love that so many archival materials are available to researchers, especially students. This was particularly useful during COVID when so many museums and archives were closed.
The one downside I can think of is that nothing can take the place of holding a real, historical item, whether it be a letter, a diary, a photograph, or something else. For example, I felt a sense of awe when I held a Bible that belonged to the Roosevelts that I would not feel by viewing a picture of the item online.
It was the same when I was in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee researching Loretta Lynn. Her assistant and the curator of her museum, Tim Cobb, took me into the archives and let me hold a couple of her beautiful gowns and even the scrap of paper she used to write one of her hit songs on. Those are experiences that historians remember and treasure.
I can only imagine holding that piece of paper. Wow. Can you share any projects you’re working on right now?
I recently had an article titled “Marilyn Monroe Gets Down to Business” published in the Spring 2023 edition of American Heritage Magazine, so I am currently promoting that. The article explores how Monroe took on her studio, 20th Century Fox, to gain more creative control over her career. The fact that she was a smart businesswoman is overlooked, and I hope readers will come away with a new appreciation for her after reading the article. I recently was a guest on the History, Books & Wine Podcast and discussed the article and how I came to write it. The episode will air in May.
Then, I will be focusing on research for a while before publishing two additional articles, including another one for American Heritage, on topics related to Hollywood history. I encourage readers to follow me on LinkedIn or Instagram and stay tuned!
Thanks for the sneak peek. One final question! Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
As a historian, I hope to continue to be writing informative content for readers and, of course, to grow my audience. Whether that be through articles or books, as long as I do the best I can in providing well-researched and written material, then I am satisfied.
I also would like to take part in a documentary, not as a filmmaker or anything technical, but as a historical consultant or writer. Writing a children’s book is something else I want to do. I am currently on the board of the Imagination Library of Middle Tennessee, so early literacy is important to me.
What else Holley Snaith wants you to know
I hope my passion for history and love for sharing important, inspiring stories are visible in my work. I have been blessed in my career. I have worked at incredible historic sites and met fascinating people from all over the world, and now I can choose what and who I research and have readers engage with me. It is a wonderful feeling.
I also hope that readers, or fellow history lovers, will reach out to me either through my website or social media. I am always happy to make new connections.
Thank you so much for this opportunity, Christy.
Connect with Holley Snaith online
You can view Holley’s whole portfolio and learn more about her work at www.holleysnaith.com.
You can also follow Holley Snaith on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Medium.
Thank you Holley for sharing your research experiences and keeping us engaged with your articles. You are highlighting amazing figures in history! From Marilyn Munroe to Loretta Lynn, you are bringing women’s accomplishments to the forefront – and it’s exciting to follow your career.
Top photo courtesy of Holley Snaith.