McGrory, Mary (1918—)

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McGrory, Mary (1918—)

Nationally syndicated American columnist who in 1975 became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for commentary . Name variations: sometimes signs work as "Mary McG"; also referred to as "Mother McGrory." Born on April 22, 1918, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Edward Patrick McGrory (a postal worker) and Mary (Jacobs) McGrory; attended Girls Latin High School in Boston; Emmanuel College, B.A., 1939; never married; no children.

Worked in publishing (1939–42); joined Boston Herald staff as a secretary (1942), and became book reviewer; served as regular book reviewer for Washington Star (1947–54); covered McCarthy hearings (1954), and assigned to national desk; started first regular column (1960); won Pulitzer Prize for commentary on Watergate scandal (1975); covered Three Mile Island story (1979); had column syndicated nationally (1985).

One of the most respected journalists in Washington, D.C., Mary McGrory earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for a series of columns that captured the mood of the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration. A columnist who is really a reporter and bases her stories on what she herself sees and hears, McGrory finds writing extremely difficult. Despite that fact, it is generally acknowledged that her articles covering the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident (1979), and the Nixon-Watergate political operatives scandal are among the best ever written on those subjects.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on April 22, 1918, McGrory was the daughter of Mary Jacobs McGrory and Edward Patrick McGrory. She learned about words by listening to the lilt of Irish voices as they recounted endless stories, and through her father, who died when she was 21. Edward supported his family as a postal clerk, but was an avid reader in his off-duty hours and often quoted Shakespeare to his children. Mary McGrory went to a strict Catholic girls school in Boston for her high school education and then to Emmanuel College, also in Boston, graduating in 1939 with a B.A. degree in English. Upon completion of her education, she worked for Houghton Mifflin publishers, cropping pictures for $16.50 a week. In 1942, she joined the Boston Herald as a secretary to the book review editor. She fought to become a book reviewer there, eventually succeeding, and in her spare time also critiqued books for The New York Times. In 1947, she became a book reviewer for the Washington [D.C.] Star and continued there for seven years, which once prompted Doris Fleeson , a Daily News columnist, to note that McGrory was "curled up on a bookshelf" all those years gathering strength to become a columnist.

McGrory spoke as well as she wrote, and in this way she impressed Newbold Noyes, the Star's national editor in the 1950s, enough that in 1954 he asked her to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings. The first major congressional event to be shown on live television, the hearings riveted America and dealt a mortal blow to the previously unstoppable Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt when defense lawyer Joseph Welch asked McCarthy, "Have you no decency, sir, at long last? Have you no decency?" McGrory, who saw McCarthy as an Irish bully, produced 32 stories on the hearings with what came to be her trademark incisive thumbnail descriptions, and "all of a sudden," she said, "people wanted to adopt me, marry me, poison me, run me out of town."

She moved to the national desk after the McCarthy hearings, an unheard-of promotion, and assumed a leadership position that gained her her "Mother McGrory" reputation. She was not always easy to work with, maintaining her gutsy and often controversial views, but these were counterbalanced with enormous grace and generosity, and she earned great respect from her co-workers. In 1960, she began her first regular column, heeding the advice of her colleague Walter Lippmann to "ignore" what she thought others wanted to read. "Write what you want, and don't fret if a paper doesn't run it." Later in her career, she would help younger, inexperienced journalists just as Lippmann had helped her. She won the George R. Polk Memorial Award in 1962 for her coverage of Nixon's "last press conference," after his defeat in the California gubernatorial race, at which he seemed to be having a nervous breakdown and told the assembled members of the press, "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more."

McGrory, who once described Nixon as "still stalk[ing] the light touch with all the grimness that the butterfly collectors bring to pursuit of a rare specimen," was delighted when, some 12 years after that press conference, her columns on the Watergate scandal garnered her a spot on White House counsel John Dean's list of enemies. They also won her the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, making her the first woman so honored. Her passionate columns against the Vietnam War also earned her both enemies and admirers, and ran defiantly contrary to the Star's pro-Vietnam editorial policy. In 1979, in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident, she searched far and wide for the mother she had seen in a photograph fleeing from the scene while attempting to shield her infant from radiation with a blanket. After extensive investigation, McGrory finally located the woman, who was staying with a relative 75 miles away, and interviewed her by telephone, putting an individual human face on the story that panicked the nation.

Unlike other columnists who depended upon researchers to track down their information and staff members to do their legwork, McGrory gathered all the research for her columns herself. She considered this a disadvantage only when people would not return her phone calls or in situations (which she said were rare) like the following.

While interviewing Mississippi senator John Stennis, she wrote, "[He] said to me, 'Well now, Little Lady, I don't think I'd want to comment on that, Miss Mary.' Then he went down the hall and said to [reporter] Roger Mudd, 'I'd like to tell you what we were talking about.'"

After the Star folded, she took a news position at the Washington Post. In 1985, her thrice-weekly column was syndicated through the Universal Press Syndicate, and had 160 subscribers, many of which were major American papers. Over the years, the number of subscribing papers grew, but, she pointed out, "It's hard to be a liberal columnist in a conservative world." Having volunteered for decades at the St. Ann's Infant Home, an orphanage in Washington, D.C., she was known for her annual Christmas party for the children there. With friends, she had an informal choral group that sang Irish songs, and she frequently traveled to Italy. She said she would like to die in the newsroom; in a 1980 interview, she called politics "the most entertaining thing possible. It involves high risk and excitement and suspense, human nature and comedy and tragedy. What more do you want?"


Belford, Barbara. Brilliant Bylines: A Biographical Anthology of Notable Newspaperwomen in America. NY: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Read, Phyllis J., and Witlieb, Bernard L. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Spencer, Duncan. "Mary McGrory: A Reporter at Her Primitive Best," in Washington Star. May 6, 1975.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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McGrory, Mary (1918—)

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