It was 1970. I was a rogue teenager working a “cub” job in the Washington Bureau of United Press International. I preferred to work in a newsroom to being in school. Journalism was all I wanted to do or be. One evening, home from work, I dug into the new issue of Look Magazine. I bought it for the cover story on Walter Cronkite. He was my hero, had been since the Kennedy Assassination, burnished by his anchoring of the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. He was the man.
What really bowled me over was when Cronkite talked about his early days at UPI. He called the wire services, generally regarded as the grunts of the profession, “the finest vineyards in journalism.” Thank you, Mr. Cronkite. I slipped a piece of paper in my tiny, trusty portable Hermes typewriter and wrote Walter a fan letter. I thanked him, told him about myself, and mentioned I would be at Cape Canaveral to cover the Apollo 13 launch.
Two weeks later a letter arrived at UPI. It was the impressive ecru CBS stationery with the distinctive font and logo that were nursed to final form by William Paley, who micro-managed every detail of the style of his network. I carefully peeled it open and pulled out the sleek, typed letter inside. It began “Dear Carol,” and at the bottom was signed, “Walter Cronkite.” His very signature. He thanked me for my letter. He praised my devotion to journalism. And then he said it: “If we’re ever in the same place at the same time, let me know.”
A few weeks later I was at the Cape, finishing up a chat with one of the CBS News publicists for a story on network coverage of the launch. We were outside the CBS News broadcast hut. “Hey, Bernie,” I said. “Will you do me a favor? Will you go in and tell Walter Cronkite that I’m out here?” He looked at me dumbstruck. “Are you kidding? No. “Who are you, and besides, he’s about to go on the air with the Evening News.” “Bernie, please. He won’t mind. I swear.” His look softened. “Seriously, Bernie. If he brushes you off I’ll drop it.”
I paced in the parking lot. What were the chances of him remembering, anyway? Probably slim to none. Just then, the metal door flung wide and there was Walter Cronkite, marching toward me, with the stunned publicist keeping up behind. Walter put out his hand and said, “Well, my God, Carol Ross, there you are. I’m so glad to meet you.” He shook my hand, smiled. “Listen, I’m just about to do my show. How would you like to come in and watch, sit on the set, then we’ll talk after?” I smiled and nodded.
After the show he bought us two real Cokes from a real Coke machine and we sat outside on a curb, side by side, him in his pin striped suit and me in my pin stripped bell bottoms, and talked about life and journalism. He told me about his family, his children who were essentially my same age. He lamented that none was interested in journalism. I told him about my family, and that they thought I was crazy to forego school to pursue my dreams of chasing stories all over the world. We talked about truth and accuracy and fairness and the challenges of getting a story right. As we parted that evening, he said, “Keep in touch. You know how to reach me.”
We kept in touch. “I keep track of your byline on the A wire,” he wrote. “Good work.” When I was hired by Time magazine and moved to New York, he took me out to his favorite lunch spot, Copenhagen. Again, we talked about life and journalism. Months later, after I’d been with Time almost a year, I made a point of looking him up at CBS News at the Apollo 17 launch. It’s when I first met his wife, Betsy, who had a beautiful and solid Midwestern face and demeanor. She was the definition of unflappable, which is why they worked as a couple.
I told Walter I was thinking of resigning from Time. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “Ah, I think go cross country, try to find myself.” People said things like that in 1972. He was skeptical. “Well, before you go off to find yourself why don’t you call me back in New York. I may have something for you.” The next week I phoned him. “Listen,” he said, “can you come over here for an hour.”
I was in a cab lightning fast, and headed to lower West 57th Street, where the CBS building occupied almost a whole block in what used to be a dairy. Walter’s office was half glass windows that looked out on the set and half jammed book shelves. There was a sofa and his wooden desk and lots of sailing memorabilia. He got right down to it. “I have a writer position open here on the show. There’s a lot of pressure to hire a woman writer. You’re a woman, but more important you have more damned news sense under your shift than most men, and I want someone with wire experience because they can handle the pressure.” (He had a way of talking that was both utterly modern and cornball at the same time. Shift?) “Will you think about it, or are you committed to leaving town and finding yourself?”
I said, “yes,” on the spot.
Two weeks later I was officially one of the three permanent staff writers for Walter Cronkite. It broke down this way. Charlie West was the “political national” writer, which meant he handled Watergate; Rabun Matthews (and later Sandy Polster), was the “foreign political” writer, which meant he handled Vietnam; and I was the “all else” writer, which meant, literally, everything else – the economy, crime, science, entertainment, sports, medicine, fashion, business and, especially, the lead-ins to Eric Sevareid and Charles Kuralt. We all took turns writing, “And that’s the way it is” with the date for the end of each script. The writers sat with Walter at the anchor desk and appeared on-camera in the “bumper” shots going into commercials. John Merriman was the eccentric and brilliant editor, Paul Greenberg was the talented if testy executive producer, with considerable assists from producers John Lane, Ron Bonn, Linda Mason, Rick Kaplan, Stanhope Gould, James Clevenger, Sam Roberts, Sylvia Chase. The director was H. Richard Mutschler, plus A.D.’s Steve Besner and Stuart Schutzman.
I was just 22 and had arrived in news biz heaven.
There were few boring days working with Walter Cronkite. Every evening at 5:30 Walter came out of his office, got into the anchor chair, started reading our copy, timing it with a stopwatch, and sometimes re-writing. He treated his writers like reporters, grilling us on certain facts. We went live every evening at 6:30, with the ability to update or revise at 7 p.m. Our work day was done at 7:30. If he and Betsy were headed to the theater – a passion of theirs – we didn’t do a 7 p.m. update.
The evening President Johnson died Walter got the first call from Texas from Johnson’s aide, Tom Johnson, while we were “live” on the air. Smoothly, with the camera on him, he got the details over the phone and relayed them to the millions of viewers at the other end of the lens. Those of us on the staff were learning the news from Walter along with the audience. As soon as he hung up and we went to commercial, the full staff charged into action, pulling together a second show for the live update and then an evening special report.
These were the Watergate years. We’d arrive at work some mornings and be told to head to LaGuardia to fly to Washington, where some new bombshell was expected. As it happened, Cronkite, as well as many of the show’s top staff, were away on summer vacation in August 1974, when it was learned Nixon planned to resign. I was on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Walter’s secretary, Mamie Schroth, had my hotel find me on the beach. “Get to the airport in Norfolk. The airline will hold the plane for you to come to Washington.” It was true. They did. I boarded a commercial jet packed with frustrated passengers, wondering who the hell I was.
That was the power of Cronkite. We all trooped into the Washington bureau from some far flung place, including Walter. The moment Nixon officially resigned I ripped the “flash” off the AP teletype and handed it to him as he went on the air with the news.
The Patty Hearst kidnapping was a big “all else” story, but because it was in San Francisco, and breaking late by our clock, we often had to turn around the feed of the story for the top of the show as we actually went on the air. Walter watched as I wrote the copy, pulled it out of my typewriter, handed it to him, and he turned to the camera to read it. Tense as it was, we were a team of hard-core professionals – starting with Cronkite – and no one ever lost their cool, at least not on camera. During commercials, well, we’d sometimes all lose our minds for 55 seconds, but quietly.
Occasionally celebrities would stop by the set to meet Walter. The two stand-outs were the eccentric actor Sterling Hayden, who was a Cronkite buddy, and tennis ace Jimmy Connors, also a pal. Charles Collingwood would breeze through from London, his remarkable silky elegance making the rest of us seem like schlubs. “Cat woman” Julie Newmar came to watch the show. It turned out she was a news junkie. Walter twinkled when he met her. Hinda Glasser, who ran the “secretarial pool” (truthfully, though, she ran everyone), was not impressed.
We had a tight but reasonable policy of who could be in the studio as we went “live” on the air. Individual staff guests were permitted, sometimes a group. None of us was prepared the night a protester came out from behind the camera and jumped in front of the lens. The stage manager decked him. Walter was stunned but cool. I dove under my desk, not cool at all. Director Richard Mutschler went to black, then to commercial – lots of them – while the guy was hauled out of the studio, a measure of calm was restored, and Walter smoothly went back on the air and explained what happened.
The week that Saigon fell, Walter was at home recovering from a fall of his own on his sailboat. His back was a wreck and he was in agony, but there was no way that Walter Cronkite would miss this story. The day of the final retreat – remember those famous shots of American staff getting plucked by helicopters off the Embassy roof in Saigon? – we did an hour Evening News broadcast and then a two hour special. Walter arrived from home in a wheelchair.
A special swivel base was installed under the anchor desk, his chair was attached to it, and a nurse crawled under there, too, to pivot him from camera #1 to camera #2, as needed. He was in terrible pain, but he did the shows regardless. He was called “Old Iron Pants” because he could anchor live broadcasts for hours on end, whether they were conventions, space shots, presidential elections or a national crisis like the Kennedy assassination. But Old Iron Pants had determination as well as stamina.
We were a tight family on the Cronkite show and Walter was our patriarch. He and Betsy hosted an annual staff Christmas party at their comfortable Yorkville townhouse that would regularly include a piano jamboree led by Walter. He loved Dixieland jazz and to sing and dance. Beneath the gruff exterior of the “most trusted man in America” was the wannabe heart of a vaudevillian.
Periodically we would have lunch at the Copenhagen. “You know, there are people at the office who think I got this job by sleeping with you. Isn’t that horrible?” I said during a meal. He looked shocked and then laughed. “Do me a favor. Please don’t deny it.” We’d walk back to the office and school buses would stop in the street so the students could wave at him.
After Watergate and Vietnam, I told him I planned to move on. “Finally going to go find yourself?” he asked. As it happened I ended up crewing on a sailboat in the West Indies, which in his eyes was as honorable as working in journalism.
Walter and I remained good friends, and he and Betsy became friends with my husband when I married. I felt protective of him when he resigned the anchor desk, a transition CBS handled in a shabby manner. Threatened by his power, CBS let Van Gordon Sauter make him a non-person. I was disappointed when Dan Rather, the new anchor, went along with the snub. I expected it from Roger Mudd, the also-ran, but I hoped for more courage from Dan, who Walter liked. Of course, by then Paley was gone and the network’s Tiffany era was over. Through it all, Walter held his head high. He tried not to let the hurt, or anger, show.
After my husband died, and after Betsy died, there would be lunches and dinners in New York with Walter, my son, Spencer, and Walter’s new and loyal companion, Joanna Simon, a widow herself, who was kind and loving to him, especially tolerant as he lost his hearing and slowed down. The group of us went sailing off Martha’s Vineyard, and Walter taught Spencer how to handle the helm and read the wind. He was his happiest at sea, on a reach with a 16-knot breeze.
When I saw the pictures of Walter taken by Jill Krementz, that ran here last week, they moved me more than any of the obits. They captured the man I knew, particularly at the time I worked with him. So many words were written last week about his profound relevance as a journalist, and they are true. But his time is gone.
Here’s what I personally lose and will miss the most. Every Christmas since I became a widow, Walter called to check on Spencer and me. Every Christmas, no matter where we were or he was, his treasured chief of staff, Marlene Adler, would find us. The phone would ring, and there was Walter at the other end. “How ya doin, kid? Just want to make sure you two are okay.”
Have a lovely sail, Walter. I’m sure you’re tacking toward the moon.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. caroljoynt.com