Book Review: Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism
by John Norris
Mary McGrory, the famed Washington political reporter who shot to fame covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and gained even greater national prominence writing for the Washington Star and helping to hound President Richard Nixon out of office, would have taken one look at the title of John Norris’s wonderful, gregarious new book about her, Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism, and issued one of her trademark snorts of gentle derision. “Aren’t you forgetting Ida B. Wells, honey?” she might have asked. “Or Nellie Bly? Or Dorothy Thompson? Or Martha Gellhorn, for Chrissakes?”
Norris would have won her over – and will win a great many readers over – by sheer dint of partisanship. Although it’s thoroughly researched, his book makes no pretense of being scrupulously objective. Such objectivity was impossible about McGrory while she was alive, and it largely remains that way today, even as the memory of her continues to fade. Norris can’t help but like his subject, and he doesn’t trouble to hide his admiration:
Mary never described her coverage of McCarthy as courageous or innovative, but it was both. The writing was fluid and intimate. He 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.”
The book does a very good job of providing the reader with the story of McGrory’s life. Her people came from Donegal in the 1860s, and in 1942 she got a job as assistant to Alice Dixon Bond, the literary editor of the Boston Herald Traveler when that substantial old rag was run by an alcoholic martinet named George Minot. In what Norris rightly describes as “a stroke of luck that would irretrievably change her life,” McGrory’s work was brought to the notice of John Hutchens, then the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and soon McGrory was writing for him on a regular basis – which in turn brought her to the attention of the Washington Star (the journalistic descendant of a paper President Taft was fond of calling “not just distracting, but distracted”), where she became a book critic in 1947, leaving Boston for the Capital City and thereby stepping onto the path she’d walk for the rest of her life. About the Star‘s newsroom, she would later recall, “It was heaven … just a wonderful, kind, welcoming, funny place, full of eccentrics and desperate people trying to meet five deadlines a day.” (The cover of Norris’s book is a 1960s promotional photo of McGrory used by the Star, although to my mind, a much more fitting cover would have been a shot of McGrory, one arm loaded with documents, running to make some Washington press briefing and grinning broadly)
“While Mary wrote beautifully,” Norris tells us, “she was a bleeder, sweating over every sentence. She chewed her pencils, chain-smoked, and nervously balled up scraps of newspaper in her fingers …” Like most newsroom hacks, she both hated and loved the crush of deadlines and the need to write good prose in a hurry, and Norris provides ample helpings of that good prose as it spilled onto her yellow legal pads over the decades. In her later years, she referred to President George W. Bush as “a dim-witted frat boy” and quipped that Al Gore was undercut by a tendency to “lecture audiences as if they were enrolled in an English-as-a-second-language class.” And at every chance she had, she wrote pricelessly about Richard Nixon, “a demented monarch, totally removed from reality, calling down vengeance upon his enemies, surrounded by imaginary foes, threatening to ‘get’ the press for publishing Watergate stories, complaining that the IRS was not sufficiently tormenting his tormentors.”
Norris also does a good, sensitive job of capturing the evolving world of Washington journalism over the decades in which McGrory was one of its most famous practitioners. When Ben Bradlee finally managed to hire her for the Washington Post, for example, McGrory couldn’t help but notice the change in workplace tone from the ramshackle old Star:
Mary quickly discovered that the Post was “strictly temperance.” No liquor was served at major celebrations. “Everything is celebrated with a cake: farewells, promotions, prizes. And they stick to it,” lamented Mary. “Great emotion is celebrated in thick frosting.” Mary was horrified that even when the paper won a trio of Pulitzers, no champagne was in sight.
As she put it, “The Star, disheveled, disorganized, welcoming, mellow, and forgiving, was Rome. The Post, structured, disdainful, elegant, and demanding, was Paris.”
The pitiless end of these grand times can be predicted from the first time McGrory sets foot in DC; journalism of the kind that she helped to define and adorn is essentially a profession for young hustlers, people willing – and able – to chase down sources and grind out deadlines on long nights of bad coffee. Even in her later years, when McGrory had a regular column at the Post and all the editorial freedom that came from being a living legend, onlookers were amazed at how often she “legged out” her stories, but as Norris carefully and respectfully describes, McGrory eventually started losing a step here and a step there. When the end comes, in 2004, readers will almost feel relieved.
They’ll certainly feel grateful, not only for the grand show of McGrory’s career but also for Norris’s book, which captures the stakes, the personalities, and most of all the fun of a bygone era of newspaper journalism. Through bad times (the tragedies of the Kennedy family, which she experienced up close and personal) and great times (the gift to journalists known as: horrifying Presidents), Mary McGrory was at the heart of that era, and Norris’s book brings it all alive again, for 300 chatty, glowing pages.