News & Politics

Mary McGrory: A Badass Journalist Ahead of Her Time

Photograph of McGrory by Bettmann/AP Images.

For the latter half the 20th century, Mary McGrory, a columnist for the vanished Washington Star and later the Post, was the city’s first read. Friendly with politicians as disparate as Bobby Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, the Boston transplant became an institution in ways no pundit could today. Which explains why a new biography, Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism, doubles as an elegy for an era. Washingtonian’s Paul O’Donnell talked with the author, former State Department hand John Norris.

How do you write a biography of someone whose place in history was won sitting at a desk?

It’s true she did her finest work in front of a Royal typewriter, but she was absolutely dedicated to her legwork. Even at the end of her life, covering Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, she was out there, being helped in and out of cabs. Russell Baker bemoaned reporting on Capitol Hill, which he described as “sitting on marble floors, waiting for somebody to come out and lie to me.” Mary sat through all the hearings. Her interactions were central to her job.

How did she keep her access while telling the truth about what she saw?

In the old days, there was more blurring of the lines—the journalists were maybe too involved behind the scenes. But the pendulum has now swung too far the other way. There is so much animosity, the candidates can’t ever let their guard down. Mary figured out the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable. She could take the paint off politicians and still remain friends.

She covered federal Washington, but your book shows she was fiercely loyal to DC.

She always defended DC against politicians who ran against it, but she could be really tough on the city itself. She took on child protective services and the Metro. It was that Boston Irish thing: No one outside the family can pick on any of us, but inside the family you gave each other hell.

Could someone like her survive today?

There’s always a place for someone like Mary, though it’s harder for a writer today, who has to do Twitter, Facebook, appear on TV, write blog posts and a book. What made Mary so good was her monomania.

This article appears in our November 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Paul O'Donnell

Freelance writer Paul O’Donnell is @paulwodonnell on Twitter.