Monday, June 30, 2014

Washington Social Diary

Diana McLellan, swaddled in children, "my peeps."
by Carol Joynt

I heard about Diana McLellan’s death on Facebook. At first I was alarmed but then imagined her giggling at the logic of it. We had a relationship that was born and thrived on Facebook. But the truth is that while the legendary Washington gossip columnist and I were “friends,” we never met face to face. If Mark Zuckerberg ever creates it, Diana should be inducted into the Facebook Hall of Fame. She embraced the social network with an alacrity that made it her virtual village, where she was the neighbor who was always home, front door open.

Diana became famous for a newspaper gossip column, “The Ear,” which first appeared in The Washington Evening Star in the mid-1970s.  She had no equal then or since. At her peak Diana made it into the national conversation, because her items were fresh, funny and unapologetically brazen. Watergate and its newly-minted (and self-important) political, legal and media stars gave her a wild wave to ride. Elizabeth Taylor helped, too.
Of this old press pass, she wrote, " I wrote eight long Ear columns from Cannes that May of '78. A dear little old man in the wire office, who spoke no English, took my sloppy copy ... and transcribed it perfectly."
Diana McLellan was fearless because her editors at The Star let her be, even though they certainly had to deal with blowback. That kind of support is rare anywhere, and it has not been replicated here since. Gossip is tough to do in Washington because most of the news bosses think it is beneath them, even though they are themselves world-class gossips. The irony is much of the actual DC gossip masquerades as news under esteemed bylines. “Sources said,” and so forth.  It’s not traditional fanzine gossip, but the day’s news spin. Diana didn’t seem to be intimidated by that.

“Gossip columnist” may be a demeaned job title but the fact is the whole world consumes gossip. It sells websites, papers, magazines and TV shows. It makes and breaks careers. Even though she came at it reluctantly, Diana dominated the field and was equal to the White House and Capitol Hill beat reporters and often left them in her dust. She had solid sources and knew how to work them.  She was a gumshoe reporter with a glorious beat who spilled what she knew with her British appreciation of shock and irony.
Diana and White House chief of staff Don Regan judging a "celebrity" dog show in the 80s. "I forget why I wrote the outfit. But I can still taste that rum-and-coke."
When The Ear column burst onto the scene, even though I was living and working in New York, I was aware of her. My colleagues, at CBS News, then NBC News, read her each day. She broke news. Her face landed on the covers of national magazines. When The Star folded in the early 80s, Diana and her Rolodex bounced around, including a pit stop at The Washington Post, but the threat of lawsuits and an emerging gossip timidity tamped down the juiciness of her items. Organizations failed to appreciate the gem they had, according to a dear friend, who said, “They did not want to pay a star's salary to a star.”
Liz Smith and Diana holding the other's book.
Diana McLellan reading from her book of poetry, "Making Hay."
Diana and I didn’t first connect until later in her life and career. The Facebook correspondence began after I started writing a weekly column for New York Social Diary. Diana “friended” me and followed with the most heartwarming message. “Carol, dearest girl, I’m a huge fan of YOU. Lovely, clever girl. Many hugs in Uggs.” That was her typical loopy way of writing -- as in her column, as in life.

In 1989, Diana wrote about her facelift for Washingtonian magazine, where she was an editor.
Over the next several years there were consistent and much appreciated messages of support – “I’m so thrilled with your writing” -- and unbridled enthusiasm when I published my book, “Innocent Spouse.” Diana, also an author, wrote “I can’t wait to get my claws on it, will do anything I can to boost it, and wish you every possible good big-time success, tons of money, and all the wonderful things you deserve.”

Seriously, how encouraging was that? She doled out ego vitamins.

I occasionally checked in with her on characters from her past. When I pursued a story about Elizabeth Taylor she referred me to her book, “Ear on Washington,” and instructed, “If you’re writing a long and deep article, I’d then bustle my butt down to the Martin Luther King Library Washingtoniana Collection.” She directed me to “the Elizabeth Taylor clips, all browning in their little envelopes. Go through them and copy the goodies.”

I pushed her for some recollections of the 1976 Taylor marriage to John Warner, who later successfully ran for the Senate from Virginia. They lived on his farm and in Georgetown, providing Diana with zany and delicious morsels of column content that would go global. She replied, “During their Great Romance, John looked a bit as though he had combat fatigue.” Diana recalled that Liz “was so romantic a figure that even her X-rays were stolen from the local hospital.”

For a story that involved Joan Rivers, Diana reminisced: “I was on the Tonight show when she did it. She took us out for dinner. She asked me to ghost a book.” She was delighted when a book of her poetry, “Making Hay,” was published and sent me a copy. When a mutual friend, who I had briefly dated, died, she provided color commentary: “He died in the saddle with a model. Naturally!” She recalled her Washington hairdresser, who was also First Lady Nancy Reagan’s hairdresser. “He died of AIDS, as had his partner. He was terribly funny, and a terrific gossip. Nancy read The Ear first thing every day.” No surprise. Everyone in Washington read The Ear.

She wrote some delightfully wry messages about various publishers, including the Grahams. She gave high marks to Katharine Graham and also editor Ben Bradlee. She pointed out he was “in actuality” the protective hands-on editor of her column. “Nobody but Ben had the last word,” she wrote, “as I was renowned to be nibbled to death by ducks.” When she was at The Star, ironically, Diana nibbled on Ben down to the bone.
Diana in an undated photo with the "the great Australian-born political cartoonist Pat Oliphant." Her husband, Richard, is in the background.
Diana's caption: My Richard on the left, and on the right, the Post's grand old drama critic for decades, Richard Coe. Dick once had us for a little dinner at his place with just the Roger Stevenses and Carol Channing .... She brought a chic silver box stuffed with her own dinner, mostly raw zucchini.
In contrast to her vivacity, Diana was dealing with her health and taking care of her husband.  She was never a pity party and only occasionally sent a message about real world issues.  As casually as if she’d scraped her knee, she wrote, “Had huge melanoma in the eye. Zapped at Sibley last month. Going great now.” Then we’d be back to sharing this and that. Months would pass and then her health would rear up. “I’m not working at the moment. Eye trouble.”

We discussed getting together for a face-to-face meeting. “Wish we could lunch or something,” she wrote, “but I deeply understand that lunch for you is just one huge chore, and you probably can’t even get drunk!” It never happened, but for her I would have cast aside any rules regarding midday cocktails. It would not have been a chore.
In September 2013, Diana out for a birthday lunch with family and friends at Cafe Milano.
Diana in 2011 with friends at her favorite hang-out, Mr. Henry's on Capitol Hill.
Late last year she wished me a “happy 2014” and then the messages fell off. I followed her Facebook timeline, where the entries became sporadic, though she did faithfully and routinely change her profile photo. Her former Washington Post colleague, Pulitzer prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales, loved this about her. “I will miss teasing her about changing her profile photo so frequently, sometimes daily.” But on Facebook he also observed how she “brightened these pages…and always with infectious cheer. She knew just how to deal with and defuse the pomposities of this town. She was just the kind of blithe spirit we need to help keep us sane.”
Diana, in approximately 1964, on the beach at Hunstanton, England, with her daughter Fiona.
On June 19 Diana posted a “throwback” family photo from a distant Christmas Eve. She was swaddled in children, everyone smiling. She wrote, “I was born for pheasants, presents, and my peeps.” Ten days ago, on June 21, she posted a photo of beautiful pink roses, sent to her by former colleagues from The Star, and announced that her melanoma had spread to her liver. “Raced,” she wrote, “like animated root vegetables.” It was a good-bye. “I’ll be moving to hospice care at daughter Fiona’s house. What a wonderful life I have had, with The Star being the best years of all. Thank you so much.”
Diana with daughter Fiona Weeks, in November 2012. Diana with granddaughter Tara in August 2010. "Wearing goofy top so as not to terrify great-grandson with usual witchy all-black."
Diana McLellan with granddaughter Tara Gerrety Sullivan, daughter Fiona Weeks and great grandchild. Last October, with her great-granddaughter. "Do you like my new baggy sweatpants?" she wrote in a Facebook caption. "I imagine they were made for shoplifters."
Last Wednesday, June 25, she died at her daughter’s home. She was 76 years old. The next day, Fiona Weeks posted on her timeline: “Thank you everyone for your kind words and support. My mother ... is now at peace.” Diana would appreciate how Facebook, her village, exploded with tributes, so many messages of love and affection they piled on top of each other.

This weekend, as I retraced the thread of our communication over the last seven years, her cleverness made me laugh, her smarts made me smile and her caring made me regret that the back and forth is now over for us. I feel real sadness for the friend I never met face to face. One exchange in particular becomes poignant. It was when Nora Ephron died, and I reached out to Diana for comment. “She really did make lemonade out of life,” she wrote of Ephron. The same could be said of Diana, though the lemonade would likely be spiked.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt