Toting her Bags, Reviewing her Work: Remembering Mary McGrory

November 9, 2006
Category: Archive

Excerpts from “The Best of Mary McGrory: A Half-Century of Washington Commentary,” re-printed with permission of the publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Over the years I cheerfully carried Mary McGrory’s bags on the campaign trail, did sweat labor in her small flower garden, served as bartender at her parties, helped out with the abused kids at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, where she was a volunteer for four decades, and did just about anything else she asked of me. I was never any good at saying no to Mary, which may be why she asked me, in person and in her will, to put together this book.

More than one publishing house pleaded with Mary during her long newspaper career to collect some of her columns between hard covers. Her answer was always the same: She was too busy; a promotion tour would be out of the question — “I faint at the sight of a camera.” And besides, she didn’t think her columns were all that good, certainly not worth the price of a book.

In a 1978 letter to Edwin Barber of W. W. Norton & Co., Mary expressed her “gravest misgivings about being collected.” She explained: “My feeling is I would be exposed as not quite a fraud, but as someone slightly overappreciated. I have always thought that while my copy may look OK beside offerings from people dictating from gas stations during riots on deadline, it would look quite thin on its own�inside hard covers with a price on the jacket. I think it has a sameness, even monotony, and the formula — which I can’t quite define, but seems to involve throwing a lot of information around between smart remarks about what it might mean�would show through.”

Devoted readers can appreciate her modesty, if not her self-assessment. Toward the end of her life, Mary came around to the idea that maybe her work was worth collecting in a book after all. I kept urging her to get started on the project and even offered to help. “You do it when I’m gone,” she would say.

“Why me?” I kept asking. Mary said she trusted me and knew that I wouldn’t give short shrift to those columns, her personal favorites, that she feared were underappreciated by her colleagues�elegantly written essays on her struggles as a gardener; on dogs, squirrels, and other critters; on Jane Austen; on the post office; on her ineptitude when it came to operating a laptop computer (“a fiendish gadget”), a Cuisinart, or any just about any other device that represented a technological advance, however small; and on a variety of other subjects some would deem beneath a writer of her stature and talent.

Mary was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, in 1974 for her columns on Watergate, although she considered her highest honor to be seeing her name on Richard Nixon’s “enemies” list.Her reputation as a journalist was built on her exquisite commentaries on the Army-McCarthy hearings, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the intern sex scandal that almost brought down Bill Clinton’s presidency, and other big-bang Washington stories. She was proud of those pieces, but said she got her greatest response from readers when she wrote about the little struggles of everyday life.

Naturally, I included what some will consider a disproportionate number of those columns in this collection, and some of you may fault me for this. But Mary made it my call.

During a newspaper career that spanned almost fifty years, first at the Washington Star and then at The Washington Post, Mary wrote, by my rough estimate, seven to eight thousand columns. From those I had to choose one hundred or so for this book. Had I just picked columns at random, I would have had a book of great newspaper writing. Going through her columns was like sorting through treasure chests, having to choose among gold, emeralds, and diamonds.

Mary was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, in 1974 for her columns on Watergate, although she considered her highest honor to be seeing her name on Richard Nixon’s “enemies” list. In my opinion, she should have won two other Pulitzers earlier in her career�one for her sidebars on the Army-McCarthy hearings and another for her commentaries on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral. More than four decades later, her Kennedy columns still stand as an example of the finest writing ever to grace the pages of an American newspaper.

“Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s funeral it can be said he would have liked it,” she wrote. “It had that decorum and dash that were in his special style. It was both  splendid and spontaneous. It was full of children and princes, of gardeners and governors. Everyone measured up to New Frontier standards.”

Mary hated war as much as she loved springtime in Washington, and in[her] column, written just before President Bush launched a U.S.military invasion of Iraq, she juxtaposed the drumbeat for war with thebudding signs of spring.This collection, which I think reflects the wit, poetry, and passion she brought to her work, starts with one of Mary’s commentaries on the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which brought her to prominence at a time when women did not have an easy path in journalism, and ends with the last column she wrote, Blossoms and Bombs,” which ran in the Post on March 16, 2003. Mary hated war as much as she loved springtime in Washington, and in that column, written just before President Bush launched a U.S. military invasion of Iraq, she juxtaposed the drumbeat for war with the budding signs of spring.

She wrote:

The hounds of spring are on winter’s traces and so, of course, are the dogs of war. Who will win the race?

The signs of spring are everywhere. Snowdrops  bloom where snow was banked just yesterday. City workers have turned in their shovels for flats of pansies to plant around our trees.

The sounds of war grow louder.

Shortly after finishing the column, on the eve of the St. Patrick’s Day party she hosted each year at her Macomb Street apartment, Mary suffered a stroke that left her unable to read, write, or speak more than one or two coherent sentences at a time. “Worse than death,” she managed to say during one attempt at conversation. And for a woman whose life and love were words, I’m sure it was. It was an awkward and heartbreaking time for friends who wanted to stay in touch, by phone or with visits. Mary kept trying to speak and became frustrated when she realized people were unable to understand her. Thirteen months after her stroke, on April 21, 2004, Mary died of a ruptured appendix. She was eighty-five.

In its front-page obituary, The Washington Post called Mary “a major figure in twentieth-century American journalism, a writer of lasting influence, exquisite technique, liberal convictions, a contempt for phonies and a love of orphans and delphiniums.”

Unlike most Washington columnists, Mary practiced shoe-leather reporting. She was constantly on the move, from congressional hearings and White House briefings to the campaign trail, from courtrooms to news conferences. “I can’t do it any other way,” she said. “I have to see, I have to hear. I’m primitive, I guess. I don’t want anyone else doing my listening or watching for me.”
Mary was asked to write a piece for The Washington Post newsroom staff directory, on the best preparation for newspaper writing. Study Latin and read poetry, she advised.

She wrote:

Latin helped me to learn English. In our English class, we diagrammed sentences, another useful exercise. I also advocate poetry reading for clues in distillation. The only thing I know for sure about writing�other than it is difficult�is that in dealing with subjects of heavy emotion, the only way is to write short sentences. I learned that the hardest way, during the six hours I spent trying to write the story of John Kennedy’s funeral. Once I chopped my long, soggy sentences in half, it moved.

Mary never forgot her roots. She was Boston Irish, the daughter of Mary Catherine and Edward Patrick McGrory. Mary often spoke of the sacrifice her father made for his family. He was a high-school Latin scholar and had a scholarship to go to college. But his father died, and he had to go to work. He never complained. A postal clerk in south Boston for forty years, he was Mary’s hero. “He taught my brother and me to recite poetry and to treasure words�and to enjoy the small things of life, like walking and talking and nice dogs and fresh raspberries and blueberries and things like that,” she once said.

She graduated from Girls’ Latin School in Boston, which had rigorous academic standards that Mary compared to the Marine Corps. “It was basically impossible,” she said. “Nothing was good enough.” By the time she graduated from Boston’s Emmanuel College, Mary had an itch to work for a newspaper. But in those days, a woman’s place in newspapers was either writing book reviews or features for the women’s section. Mary’s first job was as an assistant to the book editor of the Boston Herald Traveler. Before long she was writing book reviews that caught the attention of editors in New York and Washington. In 1947, she landed a job as the second book reviewer at the Evening Star [which later became the Washington Star], at the time Washington’s dominant newspaper. She also wrote occasional dog stories that caused her editors to take notice.

Mary got her big break in 1954 when the Star‘s executive editor, Newbold Noyes Jr., who had a keen eye for talent, dispatched her to Capitol Hill to help cover the Army-McCarthy hearings, the sensation of the time. He gave her this advice: “Write it like a letter to your favorite aunt.”

Her reports sparkled with color and insight and little details that captured the scene or the moment. Army Secretary Robert Stevens, by contrast with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the red-baiting demagogue, looked “about as dangerous as an Eagle Scout leading his first patrol.” Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, “looks like a boy who has had a letter sent home from school about him, and has come back with his elders to get things straightened out.”

The Washington Post pursued Mary for more than twenty years, but she said no thanks. The Star, even as its future grew dimmer by the year, was her home and family, and leaving it, even for more money and a bigger platform, was unthinkable.Suddenly, Mary was the talk of Washington at a time when women could not even be a member of the National Press Club. By 1958, James “Scotty” Reston of The New York Times, who said Mary had a “poet’s gift of analogy,” tried to hire her away from the Star, although, the story goes, he suggested she might have to work the Washington bureau’s switchboard part-time. The Washington Post pursued Mary for more than twenty years, but she said no thanks. The Star, even as its future grew dimmer by the year, was her home and family, and leaving it, even for more money and a bigger platform, was unthinkable.

Mary’s devotion to the Star was one of the great love stories in American journalism. As a Star alumnus, I am often asked what was so special about the place, and I tell people the Star was to newspapers what television’s 4077 MASH unit was to army hospitals in the Korean War, although the Star was for real. It attracted the best reporters and editors. It was tolerant of booze, song, and eccentric characters like slot editor Earl “Tiger Ass” Heap. Hawkeye Pierce would have been at home there, and Klinger, too.

Mary described the Star as “a lovely place to work, a garden of eccentrics, wits, and strong wills, where copy boys read the ‘Iliad’ in the original Greek and others were not allowed to take themselves seriously.”

… She hosted some of the liveliest and most eclectic parties in Washington. … The regulars were mostly old friends, newspaper colleagues,congressional aides and a couple of Salvation Army colonels who sang like angels. She threw into the mix ambassadors, White House aides, and members of Congress.The spirit of the Star newsroom spilled over into Mary’s living room, where she hosted some of the liveliest and most eclectic parties in Washington. She called her group of party regulars the Lower Macomb Street Choral Society, and they kept the joint jumping with Irish ballads, clog dancing, and gospel music. As chairwoman, she ruled the society with an iron hand. The regulars were mostly old friends, newspaper colleagues, congressional aides and a couple of Salvation Army colonels who sang like angels. She threw into the mix ambassadors, White House aides, and members of Congress. All were expected to perform for their supper, usually Mary’s homemade lasagne. If you couldn’t sing, play an instrument, dance, read poetry, or tell a good story, you might wind up in the kitchen helping with the dishes or serving after-dinner brandy.

In early 1982, Mary hosted a christening party for our three-month-old son, Daniel O’Neal Gailey, and it was the most unforgettable evening I ever had in Washington. At one point, House Speaker Tip O’Neill cradled the guest of honor in his arms and sang “If You’re Irish, Come into the Parlor,” accompanied by Reagan aide Michael Deaver on the piano. Later in the evening, my father-in-law, a farmer and school lunchroom cook from Tiger, Georgia, sat in the center of Mary’s living room explaining to O’Neill, Deaver, and several U.S. senators how the school lunch program worked at his end of the chow line. It’s hard to imagine such a scene at a Washington dinner party, but not at Mary’s place, where egos, pretensions, and job titles had to be checked at the door.

Mary, who came to regret that she never married, had another special family — the abused and neglected children at St. Ann’s. They were starved for the kind of love and attention they received in Mary’s caring arms. The kids had trouble pronouncing her last name until one little girl started calling her “Mary Gloria.” Mary melted, of course, and the name stuck. She knew each child’s name and history. She read to them and took them to McDonald’s. She threw a big Christmas party for the kids, and, in the summer, hauled them to Hickory Hill, Ethel Kennedy’s place, for swimming parties. And on those rare occasions when she was on good terms with the president of the United States, she even arranged special White House tours for the children.

When the Star folded in 1981, Mary moved her column to the Post without missing a beat. But her heart was not part of the deal. It forever belonged to the Star. At her funeral, front-row seats at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament were reserved for old Star colleagues, and Mary had asked me to talk about why the Star was such a special place in my eulogy.

At the Post, Mary went through culture shock. She thought Post people took themselves too seriously and suggested they might benefit from celebrating Pulitzer Prizes with a little ale instead of the ceremonial cake. She contrasted the Post and the Star with two great cities: “The Star, disheveled, disorganized, welcoming, mellow and forgiving was Rome. The Post, structured, disdainful, elegant, and demanding, was Paris.”

Over the years, however, and especially after her stroke, Mary found that the Post was more like Rome than Paris. The Graham family was there for her until the end, as were her colleagues at the Post, and especially Tina Toll, her devoted assistant.

One of the most predictable things about Mary was her vacation plans. Every year, in late August or early September, she would spend a week or so in Antrim, NH, a small village in the Monadnock Mountains, and then she was off to Italy for two weeks, usually to the Plaza Hotel in Rome, where she was treated like royalty. A few years ago, my wife Joyce and I met Mary in Rome for the best vacation we have ever had. Of course, traveling with Mary meant accommodating what one Post colleague called her “queenly expectations of deference” in all things. You were expected to make sure she didn’t leave her jacket in the backseat of a cab or her purse under the table at a restaurant.

On our first day in Rome that year, Mary managed to lose her American Express card, her passport, and her prescription medicine for high blood pressure. We called American Express to cancel her credit card, and her doctor in Washington phoned a pharmacy in Rome to take care of a prescription refill. The U.S. Embassy worked overtime to replace Mary’s passport in less than forty-eight hours. No one minded. After all, you haven’t seen Rome unless you were fortunate enough to have seen it with Mary, who spoke the language and loved the people.

Although Washington was her home for more than five decades, Mary chose to be buried in Antrim, in a tree-shaded cemetery on the edge of town. On her modest grave stone is this simple inscription, which she wrote herself: Mary McGrory�Newspaper Woman and Volunteer.

That’s all she ever wanted to be, and she was the best at both.
Philip Gailey serves as editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by The Poynter Institute.