Mary McGrory’s life (1918-2004) as a Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington columnist is so interesting that it’s hard to understand why there hasn’t been a book about her until now. Enter Norris (The Disaster Gypsies: Humanitarian Workers in the World's Deadliest Conflicts, 2007, etc.) with this balanced, page-turning biography.
Despite the subtitle, it seems McGrory might have been the last queen as well: in her regal bearing and imperious manner, her influence on politicians and journalists, and her manner of getting others to do her bidding. Early on, it seems a little off-putting that so much is made of her romantic life (or public lack thereof), her attractiveness, and her gender in general. Ultimately, however, being a woman who found her voice and came to power during the McCarthy era is crucial to her journalistic singularity. McGrory may well have been a feminist icon, but she wasn’t above playing the frail female when it worked to her advantage or employing her considerable charms in ways that might undermine journalistic objectivity. She dated the future President John F. Kennedy (once), was propositioned forthrightly by President Lyndon B. Johnson (once), and had a romantic relationship with candidate Eugene McCarthy, whose campaign manager was the true love of her life. She once said, “I would have loved to be a housewife, but it just never happened that way. I want to drop dead in the newsroom.” McGrory reported more aggressively than most columnists and injected more opinion into her pieces than most reporters, making her a curious fit on the news pages of the Washington Star, which she preferred to the op-ed section. When the Star folded, she moved to the Washington Post, where her influence increased but she was never as comfortable. She could be tough, even on her friends, but frequent target Ted Kennedy proclaimed her “poet laureate of American journalism,” and this nuanced portrait provides plenty of evidence.
Norris is plainly in love with his fascinating subject, which is not only McGrory, but newspaper journalism in general.