A wildly entertaining biography of the trailblazing Washington columnist and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary
Before there was Maureen Dowd or Gail Collins or Molly Ivins, there was Mary McGrory. She was a trailblazing columnist who achieved national syndication and reported from the front lines of American politics for five decades. From her first assignment reporting on the Army–McCarthy hearings to her Pulitzer-winning coverage of Watergate and controversial observations of President Bush after September 11, McGrory humanized the players on the great national stage while establishing herself as a uniquely influential voice. Behind the scenes she flirted, drank, cajoled, and jousted with the most important figures in American life, breaking all the rules in the journalism textbook. Her writing was admired and feared by such notables as Lyndon Johnson (who also tried to seduce her) and her friend Bobby Kennedy who observed, “Mary is so gentle—until she gets behind a typewriter.” Her soirees, filled with Supreme Court justices, senators, interns, and copy boys alike, were legendary. Writing about Donald Trump's first divorce in 19990, she said, "Watching the Trumps, Washington thinks of itself as wholesome.’”
As the red-hot center of the Beltway in a time when the newsrooms were dominated by men, McGrory makes for a powerfully engrossing subject. Laced with juicy gossip and McGrory’s own acerbic wit, John Norris’s colorful biography reads like an insider’s view of latter-day American history—and one of its most enduring characters.
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John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at American Progress. Previously, he served as the Washington chief of staff for the International Crisis Group and the director of communications for U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. He has written for Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Boston Girl from Out of the Blue
In April 1954, Newbold “Newby” Noyes, an editor at the Washington Evening Star, strode into the paper’s book review department. He approached Mary McGrory’s desk carrying two cold bottles of root beer. McGrory had been reviewing books at the Star for more than a decade and was known as a sparkling wit and one of the finest wordsmiths on the staff.
Noyes offered her a root beer as he pulled up a chair and opened with an unusually candid question in tones loud enough to be heard across the room. “Say, Mary, aren’t you ever going to get married?”
Mary knew that he wasn’t just making small talk. There were precious few women in the newspaper business, and editors often demanded that they quit if they wed. Some female reporters went so far as to hide their marriages to avoid being dismissed.
“Well, you know, I hope so,” Mary responded, “but I don’t know.”
“Well, because if you’re not going to get married,” Noyes continued, “we want you to do something different. We just always figured that you would get married and have a baby and leave us, so we haven’t tried to do a great deal. But we think you can do more.”
McGrory asked Noyes what “doing more” might entail.
He put it simply: “We think you should add humor and color and charm and flair to the news pages.”
Mary sipped her root beer and smiled coyly. “Oh, is that all?” Her response was glib, but she recognized the opportunity. Mary always embraced the advice she had once laughingly given an intimidated relative when he walked up to the buffet at a Washington gala: “Always approach the shrimp bowl like you own it.”
“Yes,” Noyes said. “We want you to start at the Army-McCarthy hearings.”
The Army-McCarthy hearings marked a pivotal point not only for Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, but for the nation. By early 1954, McCarthy had aggressively gone after alleged Communists in the State Department and the U.S. military on the basis of largely fabricated evidence, denigrated a number of senior officers appearing before his committee, and even taken on President Dwight Eisenhower, suggesting that the president wasn’t fully committed to fighting Communism.
An enraged Eisenhower eventually adopted a more confrontational approach, and the administration argued that McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, had sought special treatment for one of McCarthy’s former staffers who had been drafted into the army.
The high-stakes Army-McCarthy hearings, charged with getting to the bottom of the matter, commenced on April 22, 1954, and were televised live to a spellbound nation.
Noyes offered Mary McGrory some basic advice as she went to cover the hearings: “Now, you must go every day, and you must watch everything, and you must take lots of notes.”
McGrory entered the Senate hearings, she later said, “paralyzed with fear” and overwhelmed by the crush of reporters, staffers, Capitol Police officers, and spectators jammed into the room. Suddenly a friendly face materialized: Mike Dowd, the police inspector in charge of Senate security. He escorted McGrory to a front-row seat at a long press table. Dowd, an Irish immigrant whose daughter Maureen would go on to become McGrory’s colleague and close friend, later said he had just wanted to help a nice Irish girl on her first big assignment.
As the vituperative anti-Communist crusader entered the hearing room amid a cascade of flashbulbs and shouted questions, McGrory felt a twinge of recognition. “I had seen his likes all my life, at wakes, at weddings, at the junior prom,” McGrory observed of McCarthy. “He was an Irish bully boy.”
McCarthy kept Roy Cohn close at hand as his legal counsel. Joseph Welch, a dignified six-foot-three, sixty-three-year-old trial lawyer from Boston, served as counsel for the army. McCarthy’s objections during the proceedings were so frequent that his nasal “Point of order” refrain soon became a national catchphrase.
When Mary returned to the Star from her first day of hearings, she sat down to pull together her furiously scribbled notes. She struggled. Noyes’s verdict on her first draft was blunt: “No. No. No. No, Mary.” The column read like a wire service story. He wanted her to write like a drama critic covering a play. He wanted her to put readers in the room. “Write it like a letter to your favorite aunt.”
After six hours of flustered rewrites, McGrory’s first column appeared on April 23, 1954. She took Noyes’s instruction almost literally, and the column began: “It’s too early yet to tell about the plot, but they’ve certainly got a cast there. The star, Senator McCarthy, ploughs his high-shouldered way through the crowds amid small cheers.” McGrory described Cohn as looking like a boy who had been reprimanded at school and “come back with his elders to get the thing straightened out.” Secretary of the Army Robert Stevens looked “about as dangerous as an Eagle Scout.”
Her voice was distinctly her own, no mimic of the established reporters of the day. It might have been her only shot at working in the newsroom, but she avoided playing it safe. McCarthy had destroyed the careers of scores of journalists, politicians, and government employees who had dared to oppose him as the Red Scare consumed the nation, yet Mary was willing to portray him as obnoxious and overbearing. The Star had always been conservative in its editorial line, but suddenly a fresh, impertinent voice was leaping off the page, covering the biggest story in town with a decidedly liberal bent.
With the first column under her belt, Mary returned for the second day of hearings still feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Noyes suggested that she feature army counsel Joseph Welch in a column, but Mary was hesitant.
Noyes, who was pleased with the eventual results of Mary’s first column, prodded. “Well, what did you notice about Welch?”
Mary was struck by the contrast between Welch’s calm and Senator McCarthy’s lurid paranoia. Welch wore a vest and sported a pocket watch. He was polite and courtly. “He keeps telling you there is another world,” Mary shared with Noyes. “He’s always pulling out his watch and saying, ‘Well, I can get the 5:15 train to Boston if we are going to adjourn at such and such an hour,’ always bringing the normal, ordinary world into the room.”
“Well, I think you better write him,” coaxed Noyes. She did. “In the flood of the lighted jungle of the hearing room, Mr. Welch, who might have stepped out of the Pickwick Papers, does not appear entirely in his element,” Mary wrote. “A tall man, he has a long face and owlish eyes. He beams rather than smiles, and sometimes when he is listening to a witness he puts the tips of his fingers together and looks as rapt as one might who was listening to the fine strains from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”
Mary had found a good guy in a story that badly needed one, and she and Welch would develop a lasting friendship.
But being on deadline was a new and unnerving experience for the former book reviewer. The newsroom clocks induced despair. While Mary wrote beautifully, she was a bleeder, sweating over every sentence. She chewed her pencils, chain-smoked, and nervously balled up scraps of newspaper in her fingers, which Chick Yarbrough, a fellow reporter, took to calling “anguishes.” One morning, he playfully counted the wads of paper scattered across Mary’s desk and left her a note. “There were 36 anguishes last night; you must have had a very bad time.”
Mary’s coverage of the hearings for the afternoon newspaper was unflinching. She described Welch staring at McCarthy as “a scientist might observe a new and unpredictable monster.” Her columns quickly became the talk of the town. In just a few days of covering the McCarthy hearings, Mary received more mail than she had in thirteen years reviewing books, and she responded to all of it—as she would her entire career. As Mary recalled, “All of a sudden people wanted to adopt me, marry me, poison me, run me out of town.” “So you have joined the hate campaign against our good Senator McCarthy and Mr. Cohn,” one reader complained. “Your article in Friday’s Star is plainly the product of a person of low-class breeding and retarded mentality.”
But others were kind. Readers asked Mary the color of her eyes, her favorite food, and whether she was single. A nurse in a local hospital wrote to Mary, telling her that the patients in the recovery room eagerly awaited her stories every night. A caller to the Star’s switchboard thanked Mary for having “more courage than most of the men” writing about McCarthy. A couple from Maryland, fearing for Mary’s safety, wrote to ask if someone was protecting her. (Mary’s all-time favorite piece of fan mail came from a reader who insisted, “I hope to make the name Mary McGregory a household word.” The cartoonist Herbert Block henceforth insisted on calling Mary “McGregory” whenever they spoke.)
Not everyone at the Star was happy with Mary’s sudden prominence. The paper’s managing editor, Herbert Corn, disliked the informal tone of Mary’s work and thought her approach was risky, even dangerous. He also took considerable grief from other editors for letting a woman cover politics. Newby Noyes kept Corn at bay.
Mary never described her coverage of McCarthy as courageous or innovative, but it was both. The writing was fluid and intimate. Her willingness to direct sarcasm at McCarthy was radical. Longtime CBS news anchor Roger Mudd commented, “It was the Eisenhower era, the McCarthy era; it was a time of intense conformity, and she didn’t conform.” She wrote about the foibles and hypocrisies of senators and presidents as comfortably—and as pointedly—as though she were sitting at the kitchen table gossiping about the neighbors. Her writing just felt different. Her powers of observation were superb. Howard Shuman, a longtime Hill staffer who saw Mary in action many times over the years, marveled, “Mary could look at the back of the neck of someone and tell you what their real personality was.”
Slim, vivacious, and attractive, Mary was a fresh face among the almost exclusively male press corps. Radio newsman Walter Winchell and columnist Walter Lippmann both went out of their way to say how much they enjoyed her columns. Mary also became quite close to political columnist Doris Fleeson, who worked for the United Feature Syndicate. Mary not only emulated Fleeson’s strong belief in the merits of doing her own legwork but was also a fan of her sartorial style, marveling that when she visited Fleeson at her Georgetown townhouse, she “found the scourge of statesmen sewing fresh white collar and cuffs on her dark blue dress.” As the buzz around Mary’s Army-McCarthy columns grew to a roar, it was Fleeson who observed, “She’s been coiled up on her bookshelf all these years just waiting to strike.”
Throughout the hearings, McCarthy continually threatened his Senate colleagues, but in the hearing room and across the nation, the senator’s abrasive appeal was wearing thin.
It was obvious that Roy Cohn had sought special treatment for David Schine, the unpaid McCarthy investigative aide serving as a private at Fort Dix who had been granted extra leave and lighter duties because of his ties to McCarthy and Cohn. (It was a poorly kept secret that Roy Cohn was a closeted homosexual, and he seemed to have had unreciprocated romantic feelings toward Schine.) The hearings degenerated into a steady stream of mutual recriminations. As Mary wrote one day before the hearing’s most iconic moment, “No doctor is in attendance at the McCarthy-Army hearings, because the only thing likely to be slain is a man’s good name, and there’s no cure for that.”
On June 9, 1954, Senator McCarthy, annoyed with Welch’s line of questioning, accused one of the attorneys at the Bostonian’s firm of having Communist ties. Welch had kept the attorney in question, Fred Fisher, away from the hearings because he knew that he was vulnerable; Fisher had briefly belonged to a blacklisted group after law school. Welch and Cohn had made a gentleman’s agreement that Fisher’s name would not come up during the hearings. Mary set the scene: “During the six stormy weeks of the hearings, Mr. Welch has borne Senator McCarthy’s personal attacks on him with equanimity and grace, sometimes merely acknowledging them with an interested nod. But the senator’s attack on Mr. Welch’s friend brought an end to this silent toleration of McCarthyism. It also brought forth a display of eloquence and indignation that rocked the caucus room.”
Welch’s words were powerful as he made a plea to not assault the integrity of a man he knew well: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” McCarthy disregarded Welch’s protests until Welch finally reached his breaking point: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” After a bit more sparring, Welch made clear he was done with the matter: “If there is a God in heaven, it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further.” The room burst into applause. McCarthy was heard muttering, “What did I do? What did I do?” after the exchange. Welch, too, was shaken by the back-and-forth. Mary wrote that he was “looking for once, every minute of his sixty-three years.”
But Welch had broken McCarthy’s thrall. The senator’s popularity plummeted after the hearings. McCarthy was censured by his Senate colleagues before quickly descending deep into alcoholism. He was dead three short years later—a broken and disgraced figure, although still revered by his most die-hard partisans.
Mary produced a column from every single day of the hearings, thirty-six in total, and her career exploded onto the national stage. Her coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings reached the final round of consideration for the Pulitzer Prize that year. Tom Oliphant, who was the Boston Globe’s Washington correspondent for many years, argued that Mary’s work was “central to McCarthy’s demise—in the same way Edward R. Murrow’s work in the young medium of television at CBS was—because it was devastatingly accurate as opposed to self-indulgently accusatory.”
What was it about Mary that felt so different, so revolutionary? It wasn’t just being a woman in a man’s town, though that might have helped. It wasn’t just that she wrote beautifully, which she did. At the time, focusing on the personal side of politics and what made politicians tick seemed almost rebellious. What was new was television, and McGrory realized that with the advent of these instant images, print reporters needed to offer a more evocative take on the day’s events if they hoped to compete with the evening news.
• • •
While Mary McGrory not only changed the notion of whom we were willing to accept as a journalist and fundamentally altered how we talk about politics, her career arc was unexpected. Mary’s backstory was humble. She was born in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston on August 22, 1918—two years before women were given the...
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