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 right to vote. Her father was a postal clerk, and her mother did part-time accounting work to help make ends meet.
Mary was fond of describing her first-generation upbringing as equal parts romantic and puritanical. Her father represented the romantic part of the equation, and indeed, Mary’s reminiscences of her father are so glowing that they need to be taken with a grain of salt. According to Mary, her father, Edward McGrory, was a true Christian gentleman who taught her to cherish literature, long walks, and fresh raspberries. By Mary’s own account, her father was the finest Latin scholar ever to attend South Weymouth High School and was awarded a coveted scholarship to Dartmouth that he was never able to take advantage of because his father died shortly before freshman year. He had to abandon his studies to support his seven younger siblings.
If Mary’s father brought the light Irish romanticism to her upbringing, her mother, Mary Catherine McGrory, brought a steely puritanism. Deeply religious and a disciplinarian, Mary’s mother had an exceedingly well concealed sense of humor. Everyone who knew Mary agreed that her own charm was intertwined with a rigid, even authoritarian, streak. “She was not a laughing Colleen,” observed Mary’s close friend and fellow Bostonian Mark Shields. “There was a sternness, an assertiveness, that one did not necessarily associate with Irish at that time.” Mary’s nieces and nephew talked about this side of Mary’s personality, fairly or unfairly, as coming from her mother.
Mary idolized her father throughout her life, writing about him in her columns and sharing warm anecdotes about him. By contrast, Mary never wrote a word about her mother in a single column, never mentioned her mother to friends later in life, never talked about her in a single interview, and never discussed her impact on any facet of her upbringing. “I only heard her speak of her father with the utmost love, affection, respect, and admiration,” recalled Elizabeth Shannon, who knew Mary for decades. “I literally never heard her say anything about her mother—good or bad.” Mary was not estranged from her mother, but the relationship was chilly.
Identity was paramount in the Boston of Mary’s youth. The city’s Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, and other communities mixed either uneasily or not at all. Bigotry ran hot. Protestants disparaged Catholics as unwashed pawns of the pope. Irish Catholic priests threatened their flocks with excommunication for even participating in Protestant weddings. It was an atmosphere where your last name and church set your course. The Boston Irish maintained a fierce us-against-them mentality, even as they evolved from oppressed minority to a dominant majority in the city. As the Boston Irish increasingly controlled the city, they propelled the Protestant elite, or “Brahmins,” out toward well-heeled suburbs.
Mary’s parents represented an intermarriage of sorts. The McGrory half of her lineage was indeed Irish, emigrating from County Donegal in the 1860s, but her mother’s maiden name was Jacobs, and her family had emigrated from Germany to Boston in the 1880s.
The German influence on Mary’s upbringing was considerable. Her household was bilingual. Mary’s favorite dish as a girl wasn’t corned beef and cabbage; it was sauerbraten and spaetzle. Yet as an adult, Mary virtually never mentioned the German side of her heritage. Her friends and colleagues later in life had no idea that she was of anything other than purely Irish descent. All of them saw Mary’s fundamental Irishness as central to her personality—which, although something of a contrivance, it was.
Perhaps this is not surprising. Mary grew up in a very Irish Catholic neighborhood in a very Irish Catholic town in a period bookended by two world wars fought against the Germans. She had a good Boston Irish name and a mother with little discernible accent, and nothing was to be gained in social settings, school, or the workplace by self-identifying as anything other than Boston Irish. Mary decided that her public face would be that of a McGrory rather than a Jacobs, and with the zeal of a convert she became more Irish than any Irishman. Like her mother, Mary’s German heritage was simply written out of the story.
With her family deeply committed to her education, McGrory was accepted to the Girls’ Latin School, in Boston, the finest public school for young women in the United States at the time. It was a stroke of good fortune, and it was at Girls’ Latin that Mary developed a manner that convinced most who met her later in life that she must have come from a wealthy East Coast family.
The school, located on Huntington Avenue in Boston, was famously demanding. As seventh graders, the girls waded through Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War in Latin, and Mary likened the course work to service in the Marine Corps: “It was basically impossible.”
Although only a ten-cent trolley-car ride away from her neighborhood, Girls’ Latin thrust Mary into a different—and far more urbane—world. The school was a short walk from the wonders of Copley Square: the Museum of Fine Arts and its magnificent John Singer Sargent murals, the Romanesque spires of Trinity Church, and the beautiful arched reading rooms of the Boston Public Library, where Mary worked summers shelving books.
The years at Girls’ Latin cemented Mary’s love of the written word. As a voracious reader she gravitated to the melodrama and heaving bosoms of period pieces like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Mary’s musings in her journal at the time were deeply bifurcated. One moment she would dream of a career as a reporter or a famous author, and the next she would resign herself to being a schoolteacher or being trapped in Roslindale in perpetuity. She toyed with the idea of becoming a nun. She always attended Sunday Mass and was never one to get in trouble or be disrespectful. Yet underneath the surface she yearned for the adventures of a fictional heroine. Mary’s buttoned-down manner concealed a streak of impetuousness, and her ambitions felt at odds with her prospects. It was as if the world of literature had allowed her to glimpse a new world of which she could not be part.
Mary went on to become the first in her family to graduate from university—Emmanuel College, in Boston. (Mary had her heart set on attending Radcliffe College, Harvard’s all-women sister school, but her scholarship application was rejected because of her mediocre math and science scores.)
Mary graduated from Emmanuel with a bachelor of arts degree in English in June 1939, and by her twenty-first birthday she was enrolled at the Hickox Secretarial School, learning typing and shorthand. The restless optimism of the Girls’ Latin years was gone. “With the passing of the years has come the realization that I shall not, as I have always fondly fancied, grow up to be a remarkable woman,” Mary wrote at the time. Neither employment nor romance were anywhere in sight.
On September 8, 1939, after a bout of pneumonia, Edward McGrory passed away. He was fifty-nine years old. News of Europe descending into the horrors of World War II dominated the headlines. It was a dark time, and by January 1940 Mary was feeling theatrically sorry for herself, bemoaning that her best hope was to “find some nice congenial job in a nut and bolt factory, and settle down to a nice, even melancholy for the rest of my lonely days.”
Her mood rebounded considerably in March 1940, when she landed a job cropping pictures for textbooks in the art department at the Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, earning $16.50 a week. After about a year, and against her mother’s advice, Mary left the relative security of her position for a brief, unhappy stint working on a local mayoral campaign in 1941.
Again out of work, Mary decided to pursue her dream of working at a newspaper. She had been attracted to journalism as a girl by reading about the comic strip adventures of Jane Arden, a prototypical spunky female reporter.
Thanks to a tip from one of her former Houghton Mifflin colleagues, Mary landed a position as an assistant to Alice Dixon Bond, the literary editor of the Boston Herald Traveler, in 1942. (The Herald and the Traveler were separate papers housed in the same building.) Mary and Bond had little in common. Bond was a Beacon Hill socialite inclined to floral prints and pearls who covered the literary scene in the fawning tones of a high-minded gossip columnist. The book review department was staid, but Mary loved the chaos of the nearby newsroom, with its pastepots, piles of newspapers cluttering the surfaces of cramped rows of wooden desks, and editors yelling to be heard over the din.
Mary started out in journalism with no connections and no credentials, at a time when the field was dominated by men, from publishers down to the lowliest copyboy—hardly a suitable profession for a nice Catholic girl from Roslindale. As author and media historian Eric Alterman joked, “Reporting was seen as a job for winos, perverts, and those without sufficient imagination to become gangsters.”
Mary longed to work in the newsroom, but Alice Dixon Bond viewed Mary’s ambitions as unlikely and improper. Frustrated, Mary appealed directly to George Minot, the Herald Traveler’s editor, for a chance to write color stories or features. Minot brushed her off, saying that she was too shy to make a good reporter.
In March 1946, Mary’s editors grudgingly agreed to let her write a column about her dog. Her story about Mac, her unruly pet with the demeanor of the “MGM lion with a hangover,” was a surprise hit with readers. In a stroke of luck that would irretrievably change her life, John Hutchens, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, read some of Mary’s work and liked it. Hutchens asked Mary if she would be interested in writing occasional reviews for the Times while keeping her position at the Herald Traveler.
Mary’s review of Richard Burke’s Reluctant Hussy appeared in the Times Book Review in June 1946, with Mary declaring it to be “an unabashed bonbon of a novel.” A review in the Times was a significant feat for any writer; it was almost unheard of for a twenty-eight-year-old woman in the 1940s. Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the Times, commented, “The Book Review was so sacrosanct, such an institution, it had such power, that getting your name in that Book Review became one of the great achievements.” In 1946, the Times had only four women working as reporters or editors, all of whom were junior staffers relegated to a single row of desks.
In the spring of 1947, Hutchens informed Mary that the Washington Star was looking for an assistant book critic, and she made the leap, moving to the nation’s capital in August to begin working at the Star for a salary of seventy dollars per week. Mary expected her mother to disapprove, but her aunt Kate came to the rescue, saying that she would look after Mary’s mother. For Mary, her aunt Kate’s willingness to assume these family responsibilities was a gift beyond measure. She finally had freedom to roam beyond Roslindale. Despite Mary’s eagerness to escape Boston, she loved it all the more for having left it.
Arriving in a capital that had become a boomtown as a result of the growth of government during World War II, Mary was struck by a feeling of openness and mobility. Washington’s avenues were broad and tree-lined, unlike Boston’s cramped streets. More important, “in Boston, your name or your face froze you into place,” she said. “In Washington, nobody knew exactly who anybody else was,” allowing her to invent herself as the person she wanted to be. While her identity had been a source of persistent unease in Roslindale, her slightly airbrushed image as classically Boston Irish became a source of enduring pride in Washington.
The Washington Star was one of the most important and successful newspapers in America at the time. Founded in 1852, the paper was owned and run by three families: the Kauffmanns, Noyeses, and Adamses. The Star was moderately conservative in outlook, a pillar of the Republican establishment. Tradition meant a great deal at the paper, and legend had it that President Abraham Lincoln had personally handed Crosby S. Noyes a copy of his second inaugural address so it could be printed in the Star.
Afternoon newspapers like the Star were a daily marvel at a time when most people still settled down to read the news after getting home from work. The Star actually produced five different versions of the paper throughout the course of the day, from its first edition, at nine in the morning, to the final edition of the day, the “red streak,” which had the closing numbers for Wall Street and was sold only at newsstands. All of its home deliveries were of afternoon editions, and deadlines for the Star’s reporters and columnists were all pinned to its identity as an afternoon paper.
It was a massively labor-intensive operation. Reporters called in stories to dictationists, who typed on mimeograph paper. The stories were physically cut and pasted together after being marked up by editors, manually set in type, and printed. The Star traditionally hired many of its press operators from the local school for the deaf, Gallaudet University, since they were unperturbed by the ceaseless noise from the huge presses. The relentless pressure to deliver created a great spirit at the Star, and the newsroom was loose, chaotic, boozy, and full of gifted, difficult souls. Getting the story meant everything. “It was heaven,” Mary said. “Just a wonderful, kind, welcoming, funny place, full of eccentrics and desperate people trying to meet five deadlines a day.”
Mary fit in easily at the Star. “Newsrooms are large places, full of messy desks and lippy people who hang around gossiping and making cheeky remarks about their betters,” she later recounted, “until deadlines, when they become distraught, turn pale, or red, groan, bark, curse, kick wastebaskets, and behave in the other socially unacceptable ways common to people who must write in a hurry.”
The freewheeling atmosphere of the newsroom was usually transported to the preferred neighborhood bar, the Chicken Hut, after hours. Mary sang, drank, and smoked along with the boys as reporters gabbed about stories, complained about editors, and lambasted one another’s mistakes. For Mary, the Star was like Girls’ Latin School leavened with sarcasm, alcohol, and nicotine. Thrilled with her new circumstances, Mary put romance on the back burner, leading one of her friends to complain that she was giving short shrift even to men with “all a gal could want.”
Although Mary fit in with reporters, her Catholicism set her slightly apart from the rest of the breed. She didn’t like it when reporters gambled, and she took the Church’s dim view of things like premarital sex seriously. She also had an abiding belief in the importance of doing good works. Not long after settling in Washington, Mary visited the St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, a short walk away from where she was living, by Dupont Circle. St. Ann’s was a refuge for unwed mothers and their children, and its clientele was mostly young Catholic girls who had gotten into trouble.
Mary introduced herself to the sisters who ran St. Ann’s. Chatting over tea, she opined that many of the single women she met in Washington were alarmingly self-absorbed, and she wanted to volunteer at the orphanage. The sisters, never having had a volunteer, weren’t sure what to make of this insistent young woman. As they tried to diplomatically say “No, thank you,” one of the orphans wandered in from the playground and clambered into Mary’s lap. With upturned eyes, he asked Mary if she was going to stay the night. St. Ann’s had its first volunteer.
Mary became a fixture at St. Ann’s. Since many of the children struggled with the rolling r’s of her last name, they took to calling her Mary Gloria. Mary loved the mispronunciation; it sounded exotic and Italian. For more than five decades, she spent hours each week reading with the children and trying to give them the small, unremarkable luxuries of a normal family life—someone to kiss a skinned elbow or teach them the alphabet song. “Mary could be wearing her nicest clothes, and be headed to a fancy embassy dinner party right after helping out at St. Ann’s,” Sister Mary Bader explained, “but she would never flinch as a muddy kid came right off the playground into her arms.”
Mary was brazen in pressing others at the Star into her cause. It was Mary’s insistence on enforced volunteerism that led columnist Maureen Dowd to describe her as “she who must be obeyed.” Few of her fellow reporters dared say no when it came to helping with the field trips and picnics for the kids from St. Ann’s. Every “volunteer” was given a clearly assigned role—from driving the van to making peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. Any volunteer who missed the “junior picnics” with the children was not allowed to attend the “senior picnics”—the alcohol-soaked dinners that followed.
Mary instituted an annual Christmas party for the orphans, usually held at the house of a coworker. She soon enlisted Tommy Noyes, the youngest of three Noyes brothers at the paper, to play Santa. The Christmas party evolved so that it was staged around the same careful ritual every year: Santa would pretend to be asleep on the couch when the orphans arrived, and the children would rouse him with a steadily rising chorus of “Jingle Bells.” Santa would then provide gentle encouragement and admonitions to the children before gifts were opened. As the columnist Anthony Lewis observed, “I can’t imagine any other journalist in Washington doing what she did with the children.”
Back at the Star, Mary complained that “no one seemed to pay the slightest attention” to her book reviews, but her time in the book department helped shape her personality in important ways. She learned to deliver a tough critique and look an author in the eye afterwards. She came to appreciate that the most successful authors made themselves into their most interesting characters. She began to develop an eye for fashion, and she could hold her own in conversation with even the most jaded of reporters. But hers remained a small job in a much bigger world.
While still reviewing books, Mary prodded editor Newby Noyes for a chance to cover politics, and finally, in 1953, Newby suggested that she do a series of profiles on some of the more interesting politicians in town. These were the first stories to showcase classic Mary style and craftsmanship. She described Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin as running on a platform of “preparedness, non-intervention, and cheese” in speeches that displayed “marvelous disregard for unity, coherence, and emphasis.”
Mary’s 1953 profile of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had just become Senate minority leader, drew the most attention. Mary spent a good deal of time with Johnson as she prepared her story, and the senator already had a reputation for intimidating even the most battle-hardened journalists. But Mary was not cowed by the voluble LBJ, and she delivered a solid character study of the Texan.
Mary, as she would do many times in the years to come, got a quote out of Johnson that was a little more quotable than he would have liked. Johnson told Mary that while many people in Washington thought he was too conservative, his constituents back home tended to think he was too liberal. “I’m a Communist in Texas,” drawled LBJ, “and a Dixiecrat in Washington.” Johnson liked the quote until it started appearing in Texas newspapers and he was forced to downplay it. After the piece ran, Johnson wrote to Mary in buttery tones, saying how glad he was that Mary had enjoyed her visit and how pleasurable it had been “to cooperate with such an acute and perceptive writer.”
It was Mary’s political profiles that gave Newby Noyes the confidence to send her to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. After languishing as a book reviewer for thirteen years, with her heart in politics the entire time, opportunities suddenly unfurled before McGrory.
Soon after the hearings, Mary was moved to the national desk, an almost unheard-of step at the Star for a reporter who had not first served a shift at the city desk. “Some old hands took a dim view of having a woman on the national staff, particularly one with such wispy credentials and provocative views,” Mary reflected. “But ancient cub as I was, I was launched at last.”
By August 1954, James “Scotty” Reston, the powerhouse Washington bureau chief and columnist for the New York Times, had begun aggressively courting Mary to jump to his paper. Reston had earned a reputation as the quintessential Washington insider, a reporter who was a leader of the very establishment he covered. Reston approached Mary suggesting that he didn’t really have a slot open but was interested in fitting her into his talented team.
But the negotiations with Reston took a dramatic turn for the worse, spawning a piece of journalistic lore in Washington in the process. He told Mary that he would love to have her working at the Times, but she would also need to “handle the switchboard in the morning.” A near Pulitzer winner, Mary was being asked to answer the phones in addition to her other duties. “It was such a gross insult there was nowhere to begin,” Mary said, “because it showed a mind-set that there was no getting around. I was so embarrassed for him that I didn’t really tell anyone at the time.”
Anthony Lewis, who worked under Reston in the Washington bureau around the same time, saw Mary as a cultural challenge for Reston and the Times. “The paper was very antsy about reporters having a point of view,” he said. Arthur Gelb concurred: “In those days, the Times was very restrictive in terms of giving writers license, and I don’t know if Mary would have been happy at a paper like the Times.”
The United Press also offered Mary a position as a columnist but made clear that she would first have to serve a stint as a wire service reporter. “What’s the point of that?” she said. “That’s like a dog walking on its hind legs. It’s quite remarkable that he can do it, but what does it prove?”
The Star’s increasingly successful crosstown rival, the Washington Post, also took a run at Mary around 1958. Phil and Katharine Graham invited Mary to dinner, which Mary described as one of “those fabled, dazzling affairs where I sat next to notables whom I had no other chance of meeting, especially if I had written rude things about them.” When Phil Graham put together a lucrative bid for Mary’s services, she wrote to Newby Noyes, who was vacationing at his family home in Sorrento, Maine. Newby’s reply was prompt: “Don’t you move a goddamn inch.” He gave her a raise and showered her with acclaim. Mary stayed put.
With her newfound success, Mary was able to also begin exploring the world, and she began what became an annual vacation pilgrimage to Italy. On her trips, she would sit on the Spanish Steps, try on dresses at Fontana’s, and eat lasagna verde on the Piazza del Popolo. She luxuriated. She sipped Campari and sodas at the bar of the Plaza Hotel, where she stayed and where she became something of an icon: Maria Gloria, la giornalista americana. The staff effusively encouraged her halting efforts to speak Italian. Mary sometimes traveled with friends to Italy but often went by herself. “It didn’t matter where in Italy, she was ready to accept any of it, and love all of it,” remembered her friend Gerry Kirby.
Mary’s friends back in Roslindale recognized that she was becoming cosmopolitan in ways that seemed difficult to fathom. Visiting her apartment in Washington felt like an introduction into a foreign land, a whirlwind of politics, cocktail parties, and world events. But there was also a lingering sense among her friends and family in Boston that maybe Mary should put aside the foolishness of the newspaper business, come home, get married, and have children. Indeed, when she had a chance to watch Mary work anxiously on deadline during a visit to Washington, her mother commented, “You should have taken the job with the phone company.”
In 1955, Mary visited the picturesque town of Positano, Italy, with its colorful houses rising sharply up from the coast like a disheveled wedding cake. A local festival was scheduled to begin the next day, and Mary watched frantic preparations on the beach as volunteers built and decorated a bandstand. There were sack races, and local boys tried to scale a greased flagpole. Around noon, some of the revelers climbed under the bandstand to sleep before an afternoon parade.
As Mary stood on the terrace watching the fireworks that completed the day, an Italian man, Vito Rispoli, caught her eye. “I didn’t like him,” recalled Mary, “or so I thought.” The next day, Mary traveled by boat to the island of Capri. While Capri was lovely, a discouraged Mary thought it was so romantic that it should be declared off-limits to all but honeymooners. After dinner back at the hotel, Mary again bumped into Vito, and she was charmed. They talked about Positano and the chaotic state of Italian politics. Vito made her laugh.
Vito appeared at the hotel the next evening as well. When an Englishwoman knocked a table over and onto Mary’s foot, Vito leapt up. He joked that the foot might have to be cut off as he ordered the waitstaff to bring ice and bandages. Mary turned scarlet as a crowd of cooks, bellboys, and fellow guests gathered around, but she was beguiled by Vito’s lavish attention.
After an evening out with a fellow traveler, Vito and Mary ended up in Positano’s deserted piazza. He put his head in her lap as they talked of travel and philosophy; he called her pet names.
The next day, Mary went off for some solo sightseeing, but her mind was on her Italian squire. That night she wore her best brown-and-blue dress. Mary and Vito walked through the steep streets and then sat on the pier, looking out at the Mediterranean. He asked her questions about relationships and sex. She blushed. The two went back to Vito’s room, and he tried every form of persuasion to get her to spend the night. She was torn but retreated to her hotel. Mary, despite having had a number of boyfriends, was in her thirties and still single, at a time when most young women were married in their twenties.
Mary extended her stay. After a day at the beach, she and Vito went up to the piazza in the afternoon to watch the Sunday crowds heading for the cinema. He offered running commentary on the passersby. Mary again went to Vito’s room. The sound of an accordion in the distance added to her longing.
Vito asked Mary to explain why she was so reluctant to make love. She was unable to provide an explanation that seemed rational by his standards. Mary walked back to her room, thinking she would never see Vito again.
But he appeared at the hotel for dinner again that night. Mary thought it gallant. It was not long before the two were again engrossed in conversation on the stone steps by the town’s lion statues. “He was so amusing and perceptive, in that setting especially, so much a man,” Mary wrote.
After several brandies, Vito tried one more time. He argued that cigarettes were to be smoked, food to be eaten, women to be loved. He said Mary was like the sea itself: slow to warm but likely to hold its warmth for a long time. He said she was a strange woman. “And considering how I felt about him, I had to agree,” Mary confided to her journal. “This has been an argument with him and others for many years.” Mary could not bring herself to sleep with him. In all likelihood, she was still a virgin. She confessed that she was not always sure why: “I trust God knows the answer, for I do not.” With considerable remorse, Mary passionately kissed Vito goodbye.
In August 1956, Newby Noyes dispatched his new political reporter to cover the presidential campaign pitting the enormously popular President Eisenhower against the Democratic standard-bearer, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson. Mary was initially assigned to cover Stevenson’s running mate, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.
“There’s just one question we want answered in our stories about campaigns,” Newby told Mary as he sent her out on the trail: “How is he doing?” Joining a small corps of largely young and untested reporters that included Tom Winship of the Boston Globe and Blair Clark of CBS News, Mary immersed herself in an odyssey of small towns, second-rate hotels, and county fairs. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and slightly ridiculous in the way that only campaigns can be. The reporters on the Kefauver campaign were tight-knit, spending their days banging out stories on planes and buses and their nights drinking and dissecting the day’s events.
Kefauver was the kind of politician that reporters loved: a loquacious, progressive southerner who drank too much and had an eye for the ladies. The senator was candid over drinks on the campaign plane, confident that his comments were off the record when he wanted them to be. He was also a relentless campaigner. “Unlike Mr. Stevenson, who persists in regarding the campaign speech as an art form,” Mary penned, “Senator Kefauver obviously still believes that the road to the White House is paved with pressed palms.”
For a former corporate lawyer and Yale Law School grad, Kefauver had an earthy style. He mangled the names of local candidates and told corny jokes, all of which Mary found more endearing than off-putting. At a rally in Worthington, Minnesota, a local party bigwig presented Kefauver with a prizewinning live turkey, which promptly defecated on the stage as the vice presidential candidate held it aloft.
The 1956 campaign marked the birth of Mary’s “bearers”—the affectionate term given to the legion of male reporters she politely dragooned into carrying her typewriter and luggage. There has never been any journalist before or since who had so many eventual Pulitzer Prize winners serve as their bellhop. Mary explained, “This was back in the Dark Ages when there were at the most two women on a trip, and we were treated like white goddesses on safari. Yes, dear sisters, we may have been oppressed, but we were spoiled too.” Mary was proud that she never carried anything heavier than her notebook on the road. Mary’s cousin Brian McGrory joked that when Mary’s colleagues weren’t carrying her bags on the campaign trail, the candidates were.
Mary once observed, “To be a woman reporter in the man’s world of Washington in the 1940s and 1950s was to be patronized or excluded or both,” but she also used her sex to her advantage when possible.
She was often given nicer hotel rooms than the men were or offered a ride in the candidate’s car rather than on the bus. Mary acknowledged that many feminists might have viewed her approach as treasonous, yet as a pioneer in her field, she was never uncomfortable making the most of what she called the “enjoyable side of inequality.” Instead of seeing herself as an oppressed minority, Mary viewed herself as an elite.
Former CBS anchor Dan Rather described the environment. “She was traveling, by and large, with proverbial whiskey-breathed, nicotine-stained, stubble-bearded, experienced reporters. Not a gentle world, and not genteel.” Rather noted that on the press bus there was an unspoken but clearly established hierarchy, with the old pros sitting on the outside right behind the driver. “The fact is that Mary pretty much sat where she damned well pleased, with the exception of a few old bulls.”
Reflecting her Girls’ Latin training, Mary spoke with the perfect diction of Katharine Hepburn and often addressed her bearers in almost regal tones: “Dear boy, would you be so kind to give me a hand with this?” “The best part of being a newspaperwoman is newspapermen,” she observed. “I cannot speak too well of them. They are always communicative and sometimes witty; approached non-competitively they are capable of chivalry.” The Washington Post’s David Broder noted that Mary “demanded—not asked, but demanded—all of the courtesies that the 19th century gentleman would have been expected to provide for a woman.”
Not everyone approved of Mary’s neo-Victorian style. Reporter Jack Germond took umbrage with her demands and noted with pride that he never carried Mary’s bags. “It seemed to me that she got more and more imperious,” he said, “but she was an awfully complicated person.”
One of Mary’s favorite bearers and drinking buddies, whom she first met on the Kefauver campaign, was Blair Clark of CBS News. Tall and handsome, Clark grew up in East Hampton, New York, as part of a well-to-do family that had made its fortune as founders of the Coats and Clark Thread Company. Clark had attended all the right schools, going to prep school at St. Mark’s before attending Harvard as a classmate of John Kennedy.
Clark had also served a stint at the CBS Paris bureau in the early 1950s, where he became friends and drinking buddies with Crosby Noyes, the middle of the three Noyes brothers at the Star and a foreign correspondent at the time.
Some of the Western Union cables from Mary and Clark back to Crosby Noyes in Washington illustrate how much Mary enjoyed life on the trail.
Mary and Clark first wired Noyes from the Hotel Fort Des Moines, in Iowa (which bragged that it had just undertaken “the largest mass installation of TV sets in Iowa”), with fake outrage that Noyes had failed to inform them that they shared the same birthday. “Sir, it has come to our attention,” they teased, “that you may have committed a breach of human kindness so gratuitous, gross, and graceless that if facts bear it out, neither of us wishes to have anything to do with you ever, ever again.” Noting that Noyes had helped celebrate Clark’s birthday in Brussels just two years earlier, and claiming that the demoralized Clark had been reduced to spending his birthday crying quietly in his hotel room, the two demanded that Noyes explain without delay.
Noyes responded as the Kefauver party was checking in to the Hotel Eugene, in Oregon: “Accepting the fact that in our profession we have little control over the people with whom we are forced to associate, a special word of cautionary advice is clearly called for under the present circumstances. Mr. Blair Clark of the Columbia Broadcasting System has an international reputation for conduct so spectacularly outrageous that few respectable members of society care to invite him to birthday parties. Much as we deplore the discussion of personalities, we feel it our solemn duty to advise you that his version of the events of August twenty-second last amounts to the purest fabrication, concocted no doubt for some sinister motive of his own.”
After visiting Sidney, Montana, the Kefauver entourage switched to a smaller DC-3 aircraft so that they could land in Kalispell, where Kefauver was scheduled to give a speech at the Flathead County High School. Midflight, the sleek silver prop plane encountered violent thunderstorms. As lightning flashed outside, the plane dipped and yawed wildly. A loose mimeograph machine tumbled down the aisle. Mary, who was not a fan of small planes, sat next to reporter Al Spivak, clutching his arm in terror. Kefauver, the would-be vice president, sprawled in a Scotch-induced slumber and wearing a silk eyeshade, seemed oblivious.
As the campaign moved on to Rock Springs, Wyoming, things veered further into the absurd. The DC-3 was able to land at the airport, but the airport didn’t have any stairs tall enough to reach its door. With no other alternative, Kefauver and the reporters deployed the plane’s emergency shoot and slid down. Mary might have had men carry her typewriter, but she was game for adventure. The reporters soon dubbed themselves the Kalispell Choral Society and the Wyoming Sliding Chute Federation and worked up a late-night drinking song: “Slide, Estes, Slide.”
It was with great sadness that Mary learned that she was being dispatched to cover Adlai Stevenson. It was a more important assignment, but Mary knew that it would not be nearly as fun as barnstorming across the West with Kefauver and his group of half-mad reporters. The group held a rollicking going-away party, and Mary cried when she left.
The next day, a hungover Mary arrived at the Denver airport for her connecting flight to take her on to the Stevenson campaign. She called the Western Union office to see if the Star’s editors had wired updated instructions. There were twelve collect telegrams waiting for her. As Mary had the telegrams read to her over the phone, she broke into an irrepressible grin. They were all mock missives from reporters on the Kefauver campaign. A telegram from “Vice President Nixon” congratulated Mary on leaving the low-flying Kefauver plane. A faux message from union chief George Meany took Mary to task for her labor policies, suggesting that she “either hire personal bearer or pay union scale.” The final wire, from Blair Clark, noted that the campaign plane had turned off its motor for three minutes over Kalispell in tribute.
As Mary got off the telephone, she turned and bumped into a friend, young Senator Jack Kennedy, who was passing through the airport on his way to make a campaign appearance on behalf of the Stevenson ticket.
Mary had first laid eyes on JFK, “thin as a match and still yellow from malaria,” when he returned to a hero’s welcome in Boston after World War II, at a 1946 celebration at the Parker House Hotel. Kennedy’s exploits as a highly decorated captain of a torpedo boat in the Pacific were widely known in the city, thanks to the substantial favorable publicity purchased in the local newspapers by his father, Joe Kennedy. JFK made a largely forgettable speech about Ireland, but Mary always remembered the radiance of his smile.
A few short months later, Kennedy declared a bid for Congress from the same spot. Many of the local political pros were initially disdainful, dismissing JFK as a spoiled dilettante and dubbing him “Harvard Irish.” Although Mary thought Kennedy was unpolished, she recognized his raw political skills and his rare ability to convince people that he was somehow a more perfect version of themselves.
Mary befriended a number of his staffers during the campaign, a mix of Boston Irish pols and young intellectuals who had connected with Kennedy at Harvard and in the military. Mary recalled that Kennedy’s aides were always trying to get him to wear a hat, hoping that it would make him look older. “At the last minute going out the door, he’d reach in the closet for any hat that was there,” Mary remembered. “He’d put it on, and sometimes it wouldn’t go down over his hair, sometimes it fell down over his ears.” There was a great deal of excitement around Kennedy. He was young, good-looking, and a war hero. Kennedy’s refined charm and intelligence were a striking change from the rough-hewn ways of most Boston Irish politicians. Kennedy won the congressional seat comfortably.
After they both moved to Washington, Kennedy, then single and a freshman member of Congress, asked McGrory out on a date—but he did so through an intermediary, as was sometimes his style. Mary was offended. She made clear that it was not how she expected to be approached. JFK then asked her out in person, and they had dinner together in February 1948.
Mary was always tight-lipped about the encounter, but she told a friend that Kennedy simply had to do something about his unkempt hair. Seeing how animated Mary became when she discussed current affairs, Kennedy told her that she should write about politics. She agreed, sharing her frustrations that the editors at the Star had not yet let her do so. Some of Mary’s relatives speculate that Mary had a love affair with JFK, but it was clear that if there was romance, it did not go very far. Mary was well enough attuned to Boston’s ingrained class distinctions to know that Kennedys were happy to consort with commoners but did not marry them, and she was not one for empty assignations.
Mary and Kennedy did become friends. Several years later, she bumped into him near his office. JFK said that he was contemplating a 1952 run for the Massachusetts seat in the U.S. Senate against incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge. Mary discouraged him, pointing out that Lodge was popular and came from the state’s most important Republican family, and that 1952 was shaping up as a good year for Republicans as President Truman’s poll numbers sagged. Kennedy made his position clearer: he was going to enter the race. Mary kept at Kennedy. “But why?” she asked. “What’s the choice between you and Henry Cabot Lodge?” As Mary later recounted with a smile, “I have no reason to think he enjoyed the conversation, and he certainly didn’t take the advice.”
During the campaign, Mary went to Boston to watch a debate between Kennedy and Lodge at Waltham High School. Mary was impressed by Kennedy. She noted with satisfaction that his chestnut-colored hair was carefully brushed. “Always a man for direct confrontation, he was delighted to have a debate with the incumbent,” Mary wrote. “He came on, composed as a prince of the blood.” During the debate, a local sitting next to Mary leaned over and whispered, “He’s a thoroughbred.” Although some graded the debate a draw, Mary knew a winning style when she saw one. “Here was this handsome, graceful, articulate creature, and I think everybody was inclined to give him exactly what he wanted, which was a seat in the senate.” Couple this with his rich father’s willingness to spend amply on his behalf and the Kennedy campaign machine was in full swing.
JFK was the kind of Boston Irish politician for which Mary’s late father had always yearned: serious, well-read, and eminently presentable. It is no wonder Massachusetts governor Paul Dever dubbed JFK “the first Irish Brahmin.” Although Dwight D. Eisenhower swept Massachusetts by more than 200,000 votes in winning the presidency in 1952, Kennedy snuck past Lodge in the Senate race as his political career continued its meteoric and carefully engineered rise. But Mary was still skeptical about JFK’s ultimate potential. Kennedy seemed too young and untested, and Mary wondered how the family’s enormous wealth and sometimes lawless sense of privilege would play on the national stage. Asked later if she thought she was dealing with the future president of the United States during their early encounters, Mary replied, “I certainly didn’t.”
As Mary chatted amiably with JFK at the Denver airport that day in 1956, Kennedy noticed that she was carrying a small stack of funny hats that she had collected on the campaign trail. JFK began trying the hats on one by one as they talked, goofing around and striking exaggerated poses. As the two parted, Mary could not help but marvel at how much things had changed since her days in the book review department.
Mary carried a lingering sadness with her as she left the Kefauver campaign. During the late nights and while bouncing across the countryside in the campaign bus, something most unexpected had happened. Mary had fallen in love. Her heart was drawn not to the dashing Kennedy but to her fellow reporter Blair Clark.
Mary never talked about her romantic life; she was concerned that any whiff of impropriety could derail her career. Love was still a firing offense for a woman in the newspaper business, and this romance had a great deal going against it. Blair was not only a fellow journalist, but a married man. Mary was overcome with intertwined feelings of attraction and despair. Debonair and witty, Blair was everything that Mary dreamed of in a man.
Although they often worked together in close quarters, Mary and Clark were remarkably discreet about their feelings. Even their closest friends had no inkling of their romance or the steady stream of correspondence between them. Both went out of their way to avoid being seen together after hours or in social settings, for fear of arousing suspicion.
About the only person Mary confided in was Sister Editha, the head of St. Ann’s orphanage at the time. Sitting on the floor at St. Ann’s one afternoon, Mary told Sister Editha of her love for Clark, with immense sadness etched on her face. Mary had written Blair telling him that she was afraid to see him because it felt like playing with fire.
Sister Editha tried to assure Mary that she was doing the right thing. Mary was not so sure. Clark had told Mary that his marriage was in considerable trouble, but Mary was uncomfortable with an affair. She craved Blair in a way that she had never craved anyone before. Unsettled, Mary reluctantly left Blair and joined the Stevenson campaign.
Adlai Stevenson’s press corps was much larger than Kefauver’s, with some ninety reporters in total, two of them women. Mary described the sharp contrast between the Kefauver and Stevenson operations: “One has the atmosphere of a schoolyard at recess time; the other, of a classroom just before midyears.” Where Kefauver delivered a standard stump speech at every stop, reporters covering Stevenson were bombarded with rewrites and new speeches almost by the hour.
Stevenson was a gifted speaker but an obtuse politician, the kind of man to be irritated by applause during his speeches. After reading a sympathetic Mary column about him, Stevenson signaled for her to approach the stage at a Democratic Party event. Several reporters gave Mary a boost so she could get within earshot. “My dear,” Stevenson said, “I read your stories and found them absolutely bewitching.” It was the first and last time that Mary would ever recall a politician describing her work as such, and she did seem to be falling under his spell.
Reporter Al Spivak, who also covered Stevenson around this time, noted of Mary, “It was fascinating to watch her. She was totally absorbed with Stevenson. For want of a better term, I would say that she was in love with Stevenson, but I do not mean that in a romantic way; idyllically.”
Mary was not shy in expressing her support. Herb Klein, Richard Nixon’s longtime press aide, recalled first seeing Mary on Vice President Nixon’s press bus in 1956. “We were in a motorcade where the crowds were enthusiastic, waving Eisenhower-Nixon signs at the press. Mary couldn’t hold herself in. She periodically shouted back at them cries of ‘Yea, Stevenson.’” She was not exactly a model of journalistic impartiality. Mary saw Nixon as a white-collar version of Joe McCarthy, his career largely propelled by impugning opponents as Communist sympathizers.
Stevenson lost the election badly, with Eisenhower sweeping forty-one of the forty-eight states. America liked Ike. It was a disheartening and lopsided loss, and Mary wept on Election Night.
• • •
While presidents and presidential campaigns were a lifelong mainstay of Mary’s work, covering Congress was an equally important beat, onto which she slipped naturally in the 1950s. Congress—what Mary often referred to as the federal entertainment center—was a far more florid institution then than it is today. Congressmen slurped down bourbon, conducted tawdry affairs, and exchanged cash for votes with startling brazenness.
Mary could pierce even the mundane nonsense of everyday life in Washington with her tart prose. A pair of members debated on the floor of Congress “like two elderly polar bears negotiating the pas de deux from ‘Swan Lake.’” Efforts by a politician to restrain a freelancing underling were akin to “a small man trying to take a large dog for a walk.” “Did you see Mary’s story this morning?” became a common refrain among the press corps.
Mary’s writing was unusually erudite. She often sprinkled classical references into her stories—even at the risk of losing a few readers along the way. One editor joked that only Mary could get Pericles on the front page of the Star. When editors complained about sophisticated word choices, Mary handed them a dictionary. Her writing on politics bore little resemblance to her earlier book reviews. There was a nimbleness and an easy, spiky humor, which breathed life into her political coverage that had been largely absent from her reviews. It was as if the rough-and-tumble of the newsroom had finally allowed Mary to be at ease.
Journalist and author Russell Baker recalled that when he started out as a reporter, in the mid-fifties, Mary was already a legend of sorts at the Capitol. A number of congressional graybeards pointed Mary out to Baker as “the very model of what I, as a congressional correspondent, should never be if I wanted to succeed covering the Hill.” Mary’s mortal sin: she had printed, verbatim, the harshly anti-immigrant views of a Pennsylvania congressman. “No reporter had ever before done him that discourtesy,” Baker recalled, explaining that most reporters in those days thought it unfair to accurately quote congressmen.
The great key to Mary’s success on the Hill was her dedication to spending long hours roaming the halls, talking to members and their staffs, and sitting through lengthy press conferences and hearings. “She was absolutely loyal to that proposition that if you didn’t see it yourself and ask questions about it yourself, you had no right to sit down and write about it,” Roger Mudd observed.
Mary would sit patiently on the leather benches below the old oil portraits of politicians in the Speaker’s Lobby, off the floor of the House of Representatives, lying in wait for members of Congress. That patience was usually rewarded. “Men naturally like to explain things to women,” Mary observed, “and I have given them exceptional opportunities in that regard.” Mary was flirtatious and persistent, and her soothing voice reeled politicians in. She beguiled.
Mary complained halfheartedly that she often played the role of therapist to politicians looking to unburden themselves about wayward children and unhappy wives. But Mary’s were crocodile tears; she enjoyed the socializing as much as the politics. Many Republicans in Congress, accustomed to reading Mary’s sharp words, were pleasantly surprised to find Mary gracious in person. “The fact that I don’t raise my voice,” Mary remarked dryly, “seems to impress them favorably.”
Increasingly, Mary carved out her own world in Washington, regularly hosting parties that became local legend as senators, Supreme Court justices, and journalistic heavyweights commingled with interns, copyboys, relatives, and church volunteers. At the parties she threw in her corner apartment on Macomb Street, perched above Rock Creek Park, everyone was expected to pitch in. According to Mary’s spirit of militant volunteerism, the most senior of senators had to tend bar, and the most important of journalists had to bring a dish to share. You could not only meet the great and the good at Mary’s soirees; you could also see them humbly pass hors d’oeuvres and take drink orders. (One accomplished professional woman in Washington remembered being reduced to tears when Mary told her she was “not a good helper” when she was taking a break from her duties.) Mary frowned upon guests arriving late or leaving early, and the lions of Washington’s establishment quailed at the thought of telling Mary that they would be unable to attend one of her parties.
The cocktails flowed freely, and almost every party eventually turned to slightly drunken song. Congressman Eugene McCarthy would recite verses of Yeats and sing Irish ballads. Mary would dance in stocking feet and deliver renditions of ditties from My Fair Lady. Bobby Kennedy insisted on singing his old camp song at one of Mary’s parties. He left soon after, only to burst into the room again fifteen minutes later because he had remembered the second verse of what Mary called “Camp Wianagoni” and felt the need to share it. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and his wife wrote to Mary after another party, apologizing that they were not better prepared with a song list. One congressman performed a Russian dance. Reporter Tom Winship remembered a colleague turning to him in wonderment during the middle of one of Mary’s raucous gatherings and asking in bewilderment, “What in heaven’s name is this all about? Is the Star really like this all the time?”
McGrory took to calling her regular guests the Lower Macomb Street Choral Society. It was no wonder that Adlai Stevenson cheerily told her, as he departed from one of her parties, “Let me know when the club meets again. I would like to be a member.”
Mary’s cooking was notable, but not for the right reasons. Mary often served canned asparagus spears wrapped in white buttered bread, convinced it was both delicious and elegant. “Her Jell-O Surprise was frightening,” said Maureen Dowd, “and her meatloaf worse.” Mark Shields appeared to be only half-joking when he spoke in passing of a lasagna that sent seven people to nearby Sibley Hospital.
As Don Graham, the Washington Post’s publisher after Kay Graham retired, observed, “Obviously the center of Mary entertaining was Mary. It was a performance of sorts. She loved music and she loved poetry and she loved people, with something of an emphasis on Irish people.” As she sat in her favorite chair, the parties were a chance for Mary to bask in good company, drink, talk politics, and laugh.
Hosting also allowed Mary to avoid the awkward scenes that often greeted her at stodgy Washington gatherings in the fifties, when her hosts didn’t know whether to treat her as a reporter or as a woman—those were definitely different categories. The men would retire to one room after dinner to talk politics, smoke cigars, and drink Scotch, while women went to another to discuss more refined topics. Where would Mary go? (Most often with the men, but uncomfortably so for her hosts.) At her own parties, no one wondered if she had one drink too many or whispered about the man who had given her a ride home.
But while Mary was able to hold parties the way she liked, other Washington institutions were more resistant to change, none more so than the National Press Club, an important local venue for politicians and other prominent public figures to deliver speeches and make news. The club had a strict no-women policy.
When journalist Sarah McClendon applied for membership to the National Press Club in 1955, she was never given the courtesy of a response. A year later, a deal was negotiated whereby women reporters were allowed to sit in the balcony during lunch speeches if they would be escorted up the fire exit before the lunch and whisked from the premises immediately after the speaker had concluded. They could not ask questions or be served a meal, and they were wedged into the eaves next to the bulky, blazing-hot television lights. It was a deliberate humiliation, what author Nan Robertson called “one of the ugliest symbols of discrimination against women to be found in the world of journalism.” Reporter Haynes Johnson concurred, saying that it was an outrage that “Mary McGrory and Doris Fleeson had to sit in the goddamn balcony” while “kids like me were down on the floor.”
Mary bitterly resented it, and years later she still brimmed with anger as she described looking down on “some fat lobbyist lighting his cigar and having his second cup of coffee.” It wasn’t until 1959 that the situation began to change, when President Eisenhower invited Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to visit Washington. The State Department wanted to hold Khrushchev’s speech at the press club, and Khrushchev insisted women be included. The leaders of the press club reluctantly and bizarrely agreed to allow 1.4 female reporters to cover the event for every 10 male reporters in attendance. It would still be more than a decade before women were allowed to become members of the press club.
When women were finally allowed on the main floor to eat lunch during special occasions, Mary was asked how she liked it. “The food was better in the balcony,” she harrumphed.