Don't Call Her 'Doll': How Mary McGrory Became 'The First Queen Of Journalism'

Don't Call Her 'Doll': How Mary McGrory Became 'The First Queen Of Journalism'

2:25pm Sep 23, 2015
Columnist Mary McGrory holds court among reporters and observers at the 1973 Watergate hearings.
Columnist Mary McGrory holds court among reporters and observers at the 1973 Watergate hearings.
Mary McGrory Papers/Library of Congress / Courtesy of Viking
  • Columnist Mary McGrory holds court among reporters and observers at the 1973 Watergate hearings.

    Columnist Mary McGrory holds court among reporters and observers at the 1973 Watergate hearings.

    Mary McGrory Papers/Library of Congress / Courtesy of Viking

  • John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

    John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

    Rebecca Hale / Courtesy of Viking

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson and Mary McGrory chat outside the Oval Office in 1965.

    President Lyndon B. Johnson and Mary McGrory chat outside the Oval Office in 1965.

    LBJ Presidential Library / Courtesy of Viking

Mary McGrory became a columnist in a time when women in journalism were still called "doll." She wrote a nationally syndicated column for more than 50 years, first for The Washington Star and then for The Washington Post, and in 1975 she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

A Democratic president once propositioned her, and A Republican president put her on his enemies list; she gave great parties, characterized by bad food and high spirits; and she was an unflinching Boston liberal who believed in the most conservative tenets of her church.

In Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism, John Norris tells the story of a columnist who was at once old school and a trailblazer. Norris joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about the sexism McGrory faced and her awkward encounter with a commander in chief.


Interview Highlights

On getting one of her first big breaks after telling an editor she wouldn't get married

Her editor at the old Washington Star, Newby Noyes, came to her and said, "We've been thinking about doing more with you, but we're worried that you're going to go off and get married and have children. If you're not planning on doing that, perhaps you'd go cover the Army-McCarthy hearings for us."

On how McGrory reinvented her craft in the 1950s with the rise of television

I think that Mary quickly understood that TV brought a certain immediacy, so you had to give people something else in print. You had to illuminate the characters on the grand, national stage. And her style was pretty revolutionary for the time. ... It was chatty and was informal ... but informed by a real dedication to going out there and doing legwork and following campaigns and following politicians and going up on the hill every day and knocking on doors and buttonholing people for tough answers.

On the institutional sexism she faced throughout her career

She knew she would have to work harder and write better than the men to be a syndicated columnist. But she was also fairly comfortable with the hand she was dealt. She was not a trailblazing feminist in a traditional sense of the word. She figured if she was going to get paid less and have to work harder, she would make the men on the campaign trail damned well carry her bags. ... I don't think a more illustrious group of porters has ever been assembled, that you could find people carrying her typewriter ... who invariably had won a Pulitzer. And as her cousin once joked ... if the reporters around weren't able to do it, she would make the candidates do so.

On getting propositioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson

During LBJ's administration, Mary was at home in her apartment one night and she got a call from someone saying that he was with the Secret Service and the president planned to stop by. Mary was immediately convinced that it was one of her colleagues or friends pulling her leg, but when she opened her door and saw two secret service men standing by the elevator, she furiously began to tidy up her apartment and prepare for an impromptu visit from the commander in chief.

Lyndon came in, they had a drink or two and Lyndon professed his great affection for her. "Mary, I'm crazy about you." And made clear that he wanted to sleep with her. And in a way that was prototypically Lyndon Johnson, also said, "I know you love the Kennedys, and now you should love me," which has to be about the worst pick-up line that I've ever heard in my life. And certainly the worst pick-up line for Mary.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mary McGrory became a columnist in a time when many women in journalism were still called doll. She could write like an angel but bite like an asp, and became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, writing for more than 50 years in national syndication for The Washington Star and then The Post. A Democratic president, which one may surprise you, propositioned her. A Republican president, no surprises here, put her on his enemies list. She gave great parties, characterized by bad food and high spirits. And she was an unflinching Boston liberal who believed in the most conservative tenets of her church. John Norris has written a biography of a columnist who was at once old-school and a trailblazer, "Mary McGrory: The First Queen Of Journalism." And John Norris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN NORRIS: Oh, it's a great pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Did she get one of her first big breaks in journalism because she told her editor she wouldn't get married?

NORRIS: Indeed, her editor at the old Washington Star, Newby Noyes, came to her and said, we've been thinking about doing more with you, but we're worried that you're going to go off and get married and have children. If you're not planning on doing that, perhaps you'd go cover the Army-McCarthy hearings for us.

SIMON: Covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 occurred at a time when journalism was once again undergoing a re-examination because by the time people read about what happened in the newspaper, millions had already seen it on television. How did Mary McGrory begin to reinvent her craft?

NORRIS: You know, I think that Mary quickly understood that TV brought a certain immediacy, so you had to give people something else in print. You had to illuminate the characters on the grand, national stage. And her style was pretty revolutionary for the time, that it was chatty and as informal as you might talk about politicians around the kitchen table with your friends and neighbors, but informed by a real dedication to going out there and doing legwork and following campaigns and following politicians and going on up on the hill every day and knocking on doors and buttonholing people for tough answers.

SIMON: Did a great journalist - maybe I should I say otherwise a great journalist - James Reston once suggest to her that if she came to The Times she might answer the phones?

NORRIS: Absolutely. Mary was beyond offended. This was after her columns had been a sensation, after the Army-McCarthy hearings. And Mary had to deal with that kind of institutional sexism throughout her career, that she knew she would have to work harder and write better than the men to be a syndicated columnist. But she was also fairly comfortable with the hand she was dealt. She was not a trailblazing feminist in a traditional sense of the word. She figured if she was going to get paid less and have to work harder, she would make the men on the campaign trail damn well carry her bags.

SIMON: Yeah, Mary's bearers, they were called, right?

NORRIS: Indeed. I don't think a more illustrious group of porters has ever been assembled, that you could find people carrying her typewriter and bag who invariably had won a Pulitzer. And as her cousin once joked, that if the reporters around weren't able to do it, she would make the candidates do so.

SIMON: I wish I could think of a better opening. Tell me the Lyndon Baines Johnson story, if you could, please.

NORRIS: So during LBJ's administration, Mary was at home in her apartment one night. And she got a call from someone saying that he was with the Secret Service and the president planned to stop by. Mary was immediately convinced that it was one of her colleagues or friends pulling her leg. But when she opened her door and saw two Secret Service men standing by the elevator, she furiously began to tidy up her apartment and prepare for an impromptu visit from the commander-in-chief. Lyndon came in, they had a drink or two and Lyndon professed his great affection for her, Mary, I'm crazy about you, and made clear that he wanted to sleep with her. And in a way that was prototypically Lyndon Johnson, also said, I know you love the Kennedys, and now you should love me, which has to be about the worst pick-up line...

SIMON: (Laughter).

NORRIS: ...That I've ever heard in my life. And certainly the worst pick-up line for Mary.

SIMON: Why is there - at least I can't come up with somebody who is quite like Mary McGrory, male or female, that's a columnist now. Or am I wrong?

NORRIS: You know, I think that the one thing that really stood out to me the most about Mary - and it literally got mentioned in every single interview I conducted for the book - was that she went out and did her legwork, that she went out there every day and talked to people and didn't just write a column from the comfy confines of her office.

SIMON: Yeah, she wasn't just a pundit.

NORRIS: She wasn't just a pundit. Into her 80s, she was out there covering presidential primaries, having friends and family hurtle her over snow banks in Manchester. And I think that really distinguished her writing and her as a personality.

SIMON: John Norris's new book - "Mary McGrory: The First Queen Of Journalism." Thanks so much for being with us.

NORRIS: Really a pleasure, Scott. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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