A sharp eye, a lyrical voice

SUN JOURNAL

Mary McGrory: Seeing the little things in the big stories, from McCarthy to Iraq, the columnist entertained readers for 50 years.

April 23, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It was the detail that told the story for Mary McGrory, and the tiny but exquisitely telling detail that turned the longtime newspaper columnist into one of the giants of 20th-century journalism.

McGrory, who died Wednesday night at age 85, chronicled Washington life for more than five decades, bringing meticulous reporting, a lyrical, poetic style and an unwavering liberal lens to events from the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 to Watergate 20 years later, to President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Writing a fresh, lively and influential column for The Washington Post into her 80s - decades after winning a Pulitzer Prize at The Washington Star and welcoming the likes of John F. Kennedy and Tip O'Neill at her Washington condo for legendary parties and lasagna dinners - McGrory was tireless in her reporting, graceful, whimsical and sharp as a rapier in her writing.

Until suffering a stroke a year ago, the delightfully witty and amiable journalist - a woman who loved her garden, music and the abused children she befriended at an orphanage in Hyattsville - still sought out the color, the mood, the essence of the events she covered.

Instead of watching a hearing on C-SPAN or reading the transcript of a news conference as many writers one-third her age did, she would go.

"She liked to be places and see things," said her cousin Brian McGrory, a Boston Globe columnist.

"She worked her ass off," said Washington Post political reporter David S. Broder, a colleague for 45 years. "And she wrote like a dream."

Broder and other friends point to her rigorous classical education at the Girls' Latin School in her native Boston as the genesis of her love of literature and her deftness with language.

"Talk about the perfect word, the perfect anecdote," said Benjamin C. Bradlee, the former Washington Post executive editor, who hired McGrory after the Star folded in 1981. "She had such an ear and eye for that."

Bradlee recalls a Securities and Exchange Commission hearing on Capitol Hill that he, as a Newsweek reporter, and McGrory, as a Washington Star columnist, both covered decades ago. In writing about the financial executive who was testifying, McGrory built her column around the brightly colored argyle socks he was wearing. "It was so clever it was unbelievable," Bradlee said.

Bradlee says he tried to hire McGrory away from the Star for 20 years. But the Star, which hired her in 1947 as a book reviewer, was her first love.

A woman who took annual visits to Italy, she often said, "For me, the Post is Paris, but the Star is Rome,'" Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor at the Post, recalled.

At the Star, she impressed editors with her creatively written book reviews. At a time when few women were hired into the newsroom, the national editor finally gave her a shot in 1954, asking her to cover the hearings of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, saying he wanted her to "add color and humor and flavor and charm to the news section," as she often recounted.

For the next 27 years, she would cover presidents and senators, the agencies and institutions, the characters and scandals of Washington, cherishing every minute of it.

"She said she felt sorry for people who didn't work for newspapers," said Star alumnus Philip Gailey, now editorial page editor of the St. Petersburg Times and a close friend.

To her columns, syndicated nationally in 1960, she brought an air of humble authority, at times outrage, at times reverence.

She despised Nixon. She adored JFK. Exhausted and emotionally drained after Kennedy's funeral, she sat down and wrote: "Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's funeral it can be said he would have liked it. It had that decorum and dash that were 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."

After landing on Nixon's famed "enemies list" - a feat she gloried in as it gave her a measure of "gravitas," her cousin said - she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for her coverage of Watergate.

She was helped early in her career by Doris Fleeson, the first female syndicated columnist. But McGrory herself never regarded her gender as a big deal or considered herself a feminist or trailblazer for women.

"She never wanted to be typecast as the woman journalist - except when trying to get someone to carry her bags," said Brian McGrory.

McGrory was notorious for relying on the kindness of her male colleagues to carry her bags and typewriter while on the road.

"If Mary asked you to be a bearer, it was like a rite of passage," said Bradlee. "You'd wake her up, meet her in the hotel lobby, schlep her suitcase on the bus, carry her typewriter. People were honored to do it. She was a combination of mother and older sister and someone you thought was a hero."

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