(b. 22 August 1918 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 21 April 2004 in Washington, D.C.), pioneering female journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the Washington Post and the Washington Star, known for her liberal politics and barbed but graceful syndicated newspaper articles.
McGrory was the only child of Edward Patrick McGrory, a postal clerk, and Mary Catherine (Jacobs) McGrory, a homemaker. She was raised in the working-class urban neighborhood of Roslindale, Massachusetts, at a time when Irish Catholic women like her struggled for acceptance in a world run by the “Boston Brahmin” male Protestant elite. In 1935 McGrory graduated from the demanding Girls’ Latin School, later known as Boston Latin Academy, which was located near the famous Boston Red Sox stadium Fenway Park. She went on to nearby Emmanuel College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1939. Inspired by the “girl reporter” in a local newspaper’s comic strip, McGrory attended Hickock Secretarial School in Boston and learned shorthand. But because journalism opportunities were then limited for women, she worked first as a publishing assistant, cropping photos for $16.50 a week for the Houghton Mifflin Company, before landing a job as a secretary in the book review section of the Boston Herald–Traveler. From there she wrote freelance book reviews for her newspaper and for the New York Herald Tribune.
In 1947 McGrory earned her big break from the Washington Star, which hired her full-time to review books. She worked her way up to a reporter and came to national attention in 1954, when she covered Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s demagogic hearings into alleged Communist subversion in the U.S. Army. In 1960 the Star syndicated her column nationwide. McGrory’s droll, sardonic writing style packed a polite punch in graceful prose that fiercely championed underdogs and outsiders. “Mary is so gentle,” Senator Edward Kennedy once said, “until she gets behind a typewriter.”
For more than half a century, McGrory was a fixture in Washington, where she regularly buttonholed senators at lunch and attended congressional debates and hearings, notepad in hand, well past the point when most other reporters were content to cover the proceedings by watching them live on television. Newsweek dubbed the diminutive McGrory a “leprechaun-turned-reporter.” She covered nearly every presidential campaign between the presidencies of Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush. During the 1940s and 1950s she was often the only female journalist on the campaign trail.
McGrory eschewed feminism although colleagues considered her writing distinctly feminist in tone. A role model for other women journalists, she did not take many under her wing but did offer one piece of salient advice about Washington parties: “Always approach the shrimp bowl like you own it.”
McGrory worshipped her fellow Irish Catholic Bostonian John F. Kennedy. “He walked like a panther,” she told a friend admiringly. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, McGrory told Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who then worked in the Kennedy administration, that she felt as if “we’ll never laugh again.” Moynihan famously replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”
McGrory detested Richard Nixon as much as she loved Kennedy. Her proudest distinction was not the Pulitzer Prize, which she earned in 1975 for her acerbic coverage of the disgraced president, nor a slew of other journalism awards; it was her placement on Nixon’s notorious “enemies list” of journalists disliked by the White House. Despite her distrust of President Nixon, however, she once served as an intermediary, setting up a clandestine meeting between Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, and anti–Vietnam War activists. McGrory later conceded that her attempt to end the war by dabbling in politics was a “mistake” after Kissinger leaked what had happened to the press to burnish his reputation for listening to dissent.
McGrory was no fan of President George W. Bush, either. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York City and Washington, McGrory bucked the patriotic tide of public opinion by writing “Bush said the attack was a ‘test’ for the country. It was also one for him. He flunked.”
A perfectionist who fretted over her elegant writing, McGrory often balled up drafts of her columns and threw them away in frustration when they failed to match her demanding standards. Her working-class mother was not impressed by her daughter’s profession: “You should have taken the job with the phone company,” McGrory was told.
In Washington newsrooms McGrory was famous for her imperious streak, although she used flattery to induce male colleagues of more advanced years to carry her suitcase and typewriter when she was traveling on assignment. When a younger Washington Post editor tried to get her to change a draft column because he did not recognize one of the words she used, she lectured him, saying, “That’s what dictionaries are for.”
At one point during McGrory’s rise to fame, the New York Times Washington bureau chief James “Scotty” Reston unsuccessfully tried to hire her to work for the nation’s newspaper of record—but only if she answered the Times switchboard as well. McGrory remained fiercely loyal to her beloved Star and joined the Washington Post only after the Star folded in 1981. Her syndicated column ran nationwide until a stroke paralyzed her in March 2003.
McGrory never married or had children, but she frequently entertained guests at her home on Macomb Street in northwest Washington, where she served Irish whiskey and Campari, enlivened by Gaelic ballads sung by politicos, including House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill of Boston. She also enjoyed gardening and choral singing in various Catholic churches of Washington and volunteered at nearby Saint Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, where she paid for tutors to instruct parentless children and took them on tours of the White House and the wooded Kennedy family estate of Hickory Hill in McLean, Virginia, outside the nation’s capital.
McGrory’s journalistic awards include the George Polk Memorial Award (1963) for national reporting; the Pulitzer Prize (1975) for her coverage of Nixon and Watergate, which made her the first woman ever awarded a Pulitzer for national commentary; the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award (1985) for journalism; the National Press Club Fourth Estate Award (1998); the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Lifetime Achievement Award (2001); the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2002); and the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism (2003).
Perhaps the most prominent woman journalist of her generation, McGrory pioneered a biting tone of punditry that paved the way both for other female journalists and for the more acerbic “style” commentaries that would become popular in the journalism of the late twentieth century and afterward. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in many ways the inheritor of McGrory’s sassy mantle as the next generation’s leading female columnist, said she “first realized that writing a column could be a good gig when I saw all the cute guys clustered around Mary McGrory’s desk” as she “acted helpless like a barracuda.”
McGrory died at George Washington University Hospital at the age of eighty-five, thirteen months after a stroke ended her column and five days after undergoing surgery for a ruptured appendix. She planned her funeral with precision, picking out her favorite hymns, imposing a seven-minute limit on eulogies, and giving preferential seating at her wake to journalists who worked at the Washington Star instead of the Washington Post. She is buried in Antrim, New Hampshire, where she enjoyed summertime vacations.
Obituaries are in the Washington Post (22 Apr. 2004) and the New York Times and Boston Globe (both 23 Apr. 2004). McGrory’s oral history interviews were videotaped with Kathleen Currie in 1991 and 1992 and are available at the Women’s Press Club Foundation in Washington, D.C.; a transcript was published in Washington by that foundation in 1993.