Tuesday, October 13, 2015

LIZ SMITH: Journalism's First Queen ...

Mary McGrory at the Watergate Hearings.
by Liz Smith

Journalism's First Queen, Mary McGrory, Revealed ... Honoring Bernadette Peters ... Liz Taylor and Mickey Rooney?! I. Don't. Think. So.

"MARY McGrory is the best writer in Washington and she keeps getting better and better at my expense!" said President Lyndon Johnson.

Bobby Kennedy said: Mary is gentle — until she gets behind a typewriter." George W. Bush complained: "She has destroyed me over and over again!"
Mary McGrory and President Lyndon B. Johnson chat outside the Oval Office in 1965.
Click to order "Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism."
THESE quotes — and many more! — appear in the new book by John Norris for Viking titled "Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism."  It's dazzling, informative fun. And it's a treat to read fairly recent history; how Washington, Congress, politicians, presidents and would-be presidents used to be when Mary — a lowly reporter — became the focal point in what was a strictly male world and ended up besting them, one and all.

Mary became one of greatest political reporters in the world, syndicated, feared, courted and unique in that she covered the Joe McCarthy/Roy Cohn vs Joseph N. Welch red baiting hearings, the rise of Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Nixon, Kefauver, LBJ, Vietnam, Watergate, the Clintons, and  especially the ascension  of the Kennedys. We mustn't forget the Bush family and many other events and personages, until  her death in 2004.
I LIKED best the tales Mary and Jack and Bobby Kennedy.  She had a brief crush on the very young Jack who, after all, was Irish and from Boston. (As was she.) Mary described him variously as a person who was interested in what one knew and whether you could make him laugh.

Otherwise, he was indifferent. Her anecdote about covering him extensively during his run  for the Presidency and then the conundrum of his suddenly being "Mr. President" is heart warming.
McGrory with Robert Kennedy in a photo that Kennedy signed for her.
Mary was not a dyed in the wool feminist; she liked handling guys in her own way, but she became the first woman to get into the all male Washington Press Club and opened the floodgates for a host of women reporters. (One of her gifts was in inspiring and mentoring the columnist Maureen Dowd to the fearless fame she still enjoys!)

On the other hand she had men in the press corps carrying her baggage and typewriter and maybe (we'll never know) she consummated some of her understandable flirtations. She was supposedly enamored of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and several prominent men in the news business. 
McGrory with Sen. Gene McCarthy at the 1960 Democratic Convention.
Her reputation and access never suffered. They didn't do her reputation and her access any harm. She was known as a warm hearted party giver where the famous sang, did Irish jigs, and let their hair down. These gatherings became legendary.  

I especially loved the section of the book where Mary went to Las Vegas for the Sinatra Rat Pack reception for JFK just before the election.

McGrory running to make a Washington press briefing.
Invited to Sinatra's suite where JFK and Teddy were holding court with bimbos and showgirls, there is this description: "One of them was a striking dark-haired beauty, Judith Campbell, who ultimately became Kennedy's most notorious paramour because of her ties to mob boss Sam Giancana."  Mary excused herself and left the party.   

This story resonated with me. I eventually became friends with Judith C. Exner after a congressional committee forced her to  testify that she had called the White House many times with the President's encouragement and had aborted his child with the help of Giancana.  She feared for her life at this time, and was hounded by the FBI. She told me she slept with a gun under her pillow.

Judith was in love with JFK but refused to ruin him. I reported all this on ABC PRIMETIME years after Kennedy's death. But Mary had suspected something from the very start though she never dealt in gossip. She had to learn it for herself.
Anyway, she was a wonder and before she died had won the Pulitzer Prize and every other award that could be given a reporter.
YOU will love this book if you are a political  junkie ... if you are a feminist (even though Mary didn't embrace that word) ... if you love Irish American Catholics who lapse now and then ... if you didn't like Richard Nixon ... if you like  timing — Mary died during the Bush war years ... and if you like reading about talented insiders like Mary McGrory who paved the way for truth and justice. (Although truth and justice seems to be the last thing on the minds of most journalists and politicians, nowadays.)
McGrory (far right) with Sen. Robert Kennedy and wife Ethel, Jim Whitaker (left), and his wife (striped coat).
SAVE THE Date! ON Monday, November 2nd, the Drama League honors Broadway's most delicious grande dame, the eternally girlish Bernadette Peters, at its Centennial Gala.    

Among those who'll being tossing bouquets: Joel Grey ... Debra Monk ... Michael Douglas ... Gloria Estefan ... Tom Wopat ... Tammy Blanchard ... the original cast of "Dames at Sea" (the little musical that made Bernadette a great big star), and more. This happens at the Plaza in NYC. Call 212-244-9494 ext 101 for tix info. 
THE MIND reels at the recent tale — told in a forthcoming biography of Mickey Rooney — that Mickey had an "affair" with 14-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. (Taylor at age 12, had starred in "National Velvet" with Rooney.) For one thing, such an event could hardly have been an "affair." She was a child. It's called statutory rape.

Liz Taylor and Mickey Rooney in 1947 when she was 14 and he was in his 20s.
Liz and her ambitious and avaricious mother, Sara Taylor.
Whatever Mickey Rooney was — a great star and a great exaggerator — I highly doubt he was a child molester.  He didn't have to be.  Despite his diminutive height, Mickey was one of the big studs of his era. He didn't need to seduce children. (His appeal was such that even MGM's great "lady" Norma Shearer fell for him — when he was not yet twenty!)

For another thing, Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most closely guarded virgins in Hollywood.  Her mother, the ambitious and avaricious Sara Taylor, protected her daughter's maidenhead vigorously.  Liz was never alone, never un-chaperoned, never out of eye or earshot of Sara. Not to mention the PR men and women of MGM.  Sara Taylor wanted her lovely daughter to be "perfect" for her husband — whoever that wealthy man might be. 

Taylor, on the other hand, was a girl of strong passion, who desperately wanted to get away from her mother, her father (who occasionally beat her) and most of all, have sex!   When Nicky Hilton proposed, Elizabeth said yes, yes, a thousand times yes! (She had already ended two engagements to men whom her mother did not deem "appropriate" — i.e. rich enough.) The marriage was over in less than a year. Like Elizabeth's father, Nicky Hilton drank and was abusive.  However, the sex was most satisfactory.

The disastrous Hilton marriage left Taylor embittered (she broke with her parents for a while) and much less inclined to be the docile MGM princess she had been. But the full flowering of the opulent Liz of legend would not begin until her marriage to Mike Todd (second hubby Michael Wilding was more than happy to step aside for Todd.  He had wearied of his tempestuous wife and her need for constant attention — in and out of the boudoir.)  Todd gave her what she wanted, on every level. Sex would remain a significant driving force in Elizabeth's relationships.  After Todd's death, and the beginning of her affair with married Eddie Fisher, Taylor exclaimed to a shocked Hedda Hopper: "Well, do you expect me to sleep alone?!"  

But sex — or any sex-acts — were not a part of Taylor's life until she, at age 18, and Nicky Hilton, closed the door on their suite at the Bel-Air Hotel on May 6th 1950.   If she felt any regret for having waited, she more than made up for it as time went on.
What, what? Mickey Rooney? Give me a break. And a diamond bracelet for such impertinence.
P.S. Some people thought I was implying that Dan Rather and his former CBS producer Mary Mapes are no longer close, because they weren't sitting in each other's laps at the Cinema Society screening of "Truth" last week. In fact, they are still friends. The pair sat together, and chatted amiably at the after-party at Armani Ristorante.
Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, and Dan Rather.

Contact Liz Smith here.