[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Ritchie: I thought we'd begin with your childhood and your very early days in Mississippi, and maybe you could tell me a little bit about the Turner and the Molpus families, which I know is one of your great interests.
Kelso: Oh, yes. I'm really grateful that I grew up in a small town and in that era, or in an earlier era, where people were closer and more connected. I was born in Meridian, Mississippi. My parents lived in Sebastopohl, a tiny town near there. They didn't have any hospital, so I was born in Meridian. That's where my grandparents lived at the time.
We came back and lived in Philadelphia [Mississippi], very close to my grandparents' house on the depot hill in Philadelphia. My mother [Lois Molpus Turner] died when I was four. We then lived with my grandmother for a time and then had a house of our own.
Ritchie: You had a sister by this time?
Kelso: I had a sister named Charlene. She's three years younger than I.
Ritchie: She was really a baby.
Kelso: She was just a little tad in arms. I think at that time—I'm sure that at that time, my grandfather, who was Richard Hezekiah Molpus—I love that name, isn't that fine? My grandfather had a lumber mill and my father [Homer Brown Turner] worked with him at the lumber mill. Our life was oriented, I guess, three ways. One was toward the lumber mill. It was one of two mills in that area and employed a lot of people for that setting.
Ritchie: So they cut the trees down and processed the wood there?
Kelso: They cut trees over the area, then treated it and processed it. My grandmother's house was almost in sight of the smokestacks, and the terror we always lived in was would the lumber mill burn. There were these hellacious situations when the whole thing did go up. There was an awful one whistle that blew at the mill to say that the mill was burning, and that meant that everybody everywhere went to do what they could for the mill.
Ritchie: Ran to help.
Kelso: At my grandmother's house, which at the time I thought was a castle—really, until recently I thought was a castle. I went back and it was just an old country house sitting on a big hill along the depot hill. But it was quite an establishment. We had so much family coming and going.
Then I guess it was almost like the days of slavery in terms of wages. My grandmother had just all kind of things going on in the house, a lot of servants. We had animals, we had pigs and geese and chickens and guinea hens and cows and dogs. My grandfather had hunting dogs.
Ritchie: So they were pretty well off?
Kelso: Yes, for the time, they were really well off. The Molpus family had come—the couple, Minnie Neva Yarborough was her maiden name, and my grandfather, Richard Hezekiah Molpus. He had been a schoolteacher and they lived in Meridian, but they had a fair number of children by that time and he wanted more, and he couldn't support them on a schoolteacher's wages.
So they came to Philadelphia. It's so funny. Everything happened when the railroad came through. That was a big thing in southern history for the time, I suppose. It was about 1912, about the time the railroad came through, and he knew it was coming through, so a couple of years before that, I think, they came. He had a furnishings store. It was a store where they sold supplies for farming, and I think they made loans, too. I never understood this term "furnishing," but it was a credit operation, as well as a sales operation. They sold seed and fertilizer, whatever you use for growing cotton. They ran it on credit until the crop came in, and then the farmer paid it back. They had dry goods. It was sort of a general store on the town square.
He made a lot of money on lumber because it was a boom town. I never thought of my little town as a boom town. You think of the gold rush for boom towns, but it really was. An elderly cousin of mine later said, "Philadelphia was a makin' town." I never heard that expression. But everybody made a lot of money because people were just piling in there. It became a trade center.
Ritchie: Philadelphia is in the upper north?
Kelso: Central eastern, ninety miles from Jackson, forty miles from Meridian.
Ritchie: Toward the Alabama side?
Kelso: Yes. Meridian is really very close to the border. But my grandfather made a lot of money like that and at one time was a millionaire in all of that. I don't think that lasted through the depression, but, yes, [they were] well off.
In this house, as I grew up, my aunts and uncles were always coming and going. Some seemed to live there at one time. There was just activity all the time. Then there were all these servants. The kids in my family now—I say "kids." They're like college age, kids in my larger family, love to hear, "Tell about all the servants you had when you were kids." They ask their parents and they ask me. But that's what made it so interesting around the house, that we had all these adults. My grandmother had a driver and she had a gardener and she had a main cook and an assistant cook and a man who waited on the table. This was not all at one time. She had a woman named Lee Hardy, who only made cakes and who could cook an angel food cake in this gigantic—not gigantic—to my eyes it was a gigantic wood stove. She would put a little sliver of kindling in to increase the temperature just exactly how much she wanted.
Ritchie: Quite an art.
Kelso: She was a real artist and she had a beautiful, beautiful voice. When my grandmother would have her ladies' club, she had the Twentieth Century Club, she would have Lee Hardy and some of her friends, the church ladies, singing spirituals for the group, and Lee Hardy had a marvelous voice. We kids had a playhouse with a little stove in it and furniture and all, and we used to cook there. Lee Hardy would, as she called it, "steal" things from the kitchen for us to cook our little messes.
Who else was around? My grandmother always had somebody quilting, for some reason, and my aunts have told me recently that that was sort of a thing she did to give ladies, especially widows, a way to make some money in a genteel way. So it always seemed in one room there were these ladies quilting.
Ritchie: Actually in her house?
Kelso: In her house. I've always been fascinated with that thing about how women looked after each other.
Ritchie: Other women.
Kelso: And I've heard stories from a friend of mine about how Creole ladies would have tea parties for their friends, especially for the ladies who were widows or didn't have any source of income, and at some point everybody would disappear and they would leave money under or near their plates, and the ladies who needed it took the money and were not embarrassed by anybody seeing it. Maybe there would just be one that they were honoring at the time or helping.
In another room, my grandmother seemed often to have a lady doing fine embroidery. She had done that for a long time because she had six girls and one boy, so she was building a hope chest.
Ritchie: For each of the daughters?
Kelso: For each of the daughters. Earlier they had lived in a wonderful house on a hill close to this one, and it burned. They always say that four fur coats and five fraternity pins and two engagement rings, but all of the hope chests burned in that fire. She loved beautiful linens and china and stuff like that.
Ritchie: All of these women who were working there would have been black women?
Kelso: No. The cook and the maids and Lee Hardy, the cake maker, and the man who looked after the cows and those things, they were black. The women who did the quilting and embroidery, that sort of thing, were white. The rest were black.
Ritchie: So you actually lived in this house after your mother died?
Kelso: Yes, for two or three years.
Ritchie: Were you living there when your mother died, in Philadelphia?
Kelso: No, we were living in Sebastopohl, I think, but she died in Meridian in the hospital.
Ritchie: What did she die from?
Kelso: She died of appendicitis, died in 1930, just before, I think, sulfa or whatever would have prevented it. She had peritonitis.
Ritchie: Then you moved to Philadelphia to be with the extended family.
Kelso: My grandparents seemed to sort of move back and forth between Meridian and Philadelphia, and they may even have kept a home in Meridian, because my grandmother wanted her daughters to go to school in Meridian, because they were better than the schools [in Philadelphia]. So somehow or another, they sort of commuted. I grew up as a mascot of the teenagers in her group and especially after my mother died. All of my aunts sort of saw to me.
Ritchie: Because there would have been five aunts [Dorothy, Hazel, Mary, Marge, Mildred]?
Kelso: Yes, five. A couple of the older ones were gone, but the younger ones, each one did something special.
Ritchie: So you and your sister certainly had the women looking after you.
Kelso: We certainly did. It's funny. I always felt that my grandfather was like a king and he was an enormous, very vital, hearty sort of man. He loved children. He would do things like play mud pies with us and we would all jump on him when he came in. He always had candy for us. So we adored him. Everything sort of revolved around him. For instance, we all had to be clean, dressed, everything, when he came in. We had to be quiet for a while. Things were managed for him, but I always had the feeling that my grandmother was running this whole show and the women were the heart of what was going on, both my grandmother and the servants. They ran things, really, is what I felt.
One more thing I wanted to say was very important to me, was that I was just fascinated with all this stuff that was going on, both seen and unseen. I have a hall tree up here in my hall, the big one as we came in, it always had lots of coats on it. We had a big hall in the center of the house, and I could sit up on that hall tree and just observe the most fascinating things that were going on. I would know what couple of my aunts and uncles were fussing and which ones had just made up or just everything that was going on in the house.
Ritchie: There was always a lot of activity?
Kelso: Yes. I think that's where I got to be an eavesdropper. I've never recovered from that habit. [Laughter.] I mean, I can eavesdrop at fifty feet.
Ritchie: Which has probably come in handy in your career.
Kelso: I think so, that and reading everybody's mail. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: You attended local schools?
Kelso: Yes. I went to Philadelphia grammar school and high school, graduated from high school in '44.
Ritchie: How many would have been in this school? How many were in your senior graduating class in high school?
Kelso: Oh, gosh. I don't really know. Could have been twenty, could have been thirty.
Kelso: Small group, yes.
Ritchie: What were some of your favorite subjects when you were in junior high and high school?
Kelso: I liked Latin and I think I liked it because of the teacher. She was just the teacher of my life, I think. That's how I got interested in words. I don't remember. I'd always read a lot. I started reading when I was a little kid, but I never thought of the mechanics of what it was. This woman was just a very cultivated—I would suppose you'd call her an intellectual, very kind and gentle person. She just would zing my head open.
Ritchie: Do you remember some of your favorite books from that time if you began reading early?
Kelso: Oh, my gosh! We had wonderful books around the house because we had the collection of all the uncles' and aunts' books, and we had the Bobbsey Twins, Elsie Dinsmore, and the Rover Boys. It was Elsie Dinsmore that such terrible things happened to. It was just awful. But I could just go—it was like a treasure trove. We had a big built-in bookcase in that center hall, and I could just go there any day and pick out an interesting book. Later on, my Aunt Dottie [Molpus]—each aunt had a special job in relation to me, it seemed, to teach me a certain thing—but Aunt Dottie worked in a bookstore in Rome, Georgia, during the depression, and she sent me beautiful books, like the Water Babies. They were these classics and Greek myths, all these handsome books.
Ritchie: Very special books.
Ritchie: So you were encouraged to read from a very early age and had things readily available, accessible to you.
Ritchie: What about your writing? Did you start writing early? Were you involved with any activities in high school such as the newspaper, the yearbook that would have forecast your later career?
Kelso: No. That's funny. I met someone the other day, a novelist, who said she started being a writer at the age of six. I just sort of bumbled through. When I was in college, I think she was a teacher at Ward Belmont, this ladies' finishing school in Nashville, no longer exists. Marjorie somebody, she thought that I wrote well, and encouraged me. I said, "Oh, well, okay." I made good grades in English at Randolph-Macon, where I went for my last two years, Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and they got me a job with the Hattiesburg American.
Ritchie: Did your family expect you to go to college? Was that something that was understood that you would do?
Kelso: Oh, yes. That was just a part of it.
Ritchie: Did you look at any other schools or was Ward Belmont the place that you were expected to go?
Kelso: It seemed that my grandmother wanted me to go to Ward Belmont or Shorter or Stevens. I think she had in mind a finishing school, the kind that nice southern girls go to. I liked it because
it had horses. I loved horses. They even had a major in horseback riding, so I majored in horseback riding.
Ritchie: For your two years there. It was a two-year school?
Ritchie: A junior college. So your grandmother was very influential in your education.
Kelso: Oh, yes.
Ritchie: You mentioned earlier that she wanted her daughters to go to good schools, so she was interested in your education.
Kelso: My aunts told me she always felt inferior because she didn't have an education. I don't even know if she graduated from high school. Her husband graduated from college, and everybody was impressed with that. It was funny. She was a regal, dominating sort of woman, still very soft and sweet, but underneath she was this little girl, feeling very inferior.
Ritchie: Had your mother gone to college?
Kelso: Yes, she went to boarding school and then college, Blue Mountain Women's College, a Baptist college somewhere in north Mississippi, Blue Mountain, Mississippi.
Ritchie: Had your father gone to college?
Kelso: No. My father was from a poor farm family and he was the first one in the family to get to go to college, but they hazed him as a freshman and they got him and hung him by his heels from a dormitory window, and he left and went home. He always regretted that he—
Ritchie: Where was this? At a state school?
Kelso: At that time it was A&M, Agricultural & Mechanical. Now I don't know what they call it—State University. But it's the school in Starkville, Mississippi.
Ritchie: Mississippi State?
Kelso: It's Mississippi State University. That's it. But my Turner family was from McCool, Mississippi, at the time they came to Philadelphia. They had lived right in that area of Choctaw County, Attala—I love these words—and Winston County was the kind of area they were from. These are Indian words.
There were fourteen children in my father's family, and they came to Philadelphia. One wave came around 1903, right in that early period of the 1900s. Turner Catledge wrote about that in his book [My Life and the Times by Turner Catledge. New York: Harper & Row, 1971], and he came in that first wave. He was a baby in his mother's arms. They came in wagons. My father and his brother, Joe, rode on horses and they camped at night. Turner told me about this. They camped on the bed of a stream at night.
Then another wave of the family came right about the time when the railroad came through. All the Turner brothers started businesses on the court square. So my father worked at
whatever he did in the grocery store, and he looked out and saw my mother go around in a Chrysler coupe, as they called them, and that's where that romance started.
Ritchie: So they were both in Philadelphia at the time they met.
Kelso: Yes. Catledge left the town square and walked down the Depot Hill to get the train to State College—it was Mississippi A&M then, later State College—and one of the uncles paid his tuition to go to college. So they were very proud. I think he was the first college graduate in the family.
Ritchie: Was it a change for you to go away from your large family and move to Nashville to go to the small college?
Kelso: It was a change, but I didn't mind it. I was very excited, and I think in one way I was glad to get away from the restrictions, you know. You really get tired of all these people.
Ritchie: Watching you.
Kelso: Watching and correcting. So I felt a great freedom. Then I was just so thrilled with those horses. I had grown up on sort of range horses and ponies and things like that, and they had show horses, jumping horses, and we had national champion riders, it was like seeing a movie star.
Ritchie: Did you continue your interest in Latin there?
Ritchie: What were some of the other courses you took? Do you remember? You took horseback riding.
Kelso: [Laughter.] I don't remember the courses very well. I made okay grades. I kind of made As and Ds. If I was interested, I made a good grade, but I was really not very well disciplined. I did okay in music. I had taken music all my life, and I played the piano. But I don't know, I was not very well disciplined and didn't do consistently well. My sister always made all As and one B, that was her grade.
Ritchie: Did she go to the same school?
Kelso: She went to Ward Belmont for her finishing, and then she went to LSU [Louisiana State University]. She majored in music.
Ritchie: So music was a part of your life from your early days?
Kelso: Yes. My grandmother played the piano, this sort of old-fashioned jumpy music. She played hymns. Then I had an aunt who played things and all the children would sing, our Aunt Marge [Molpus]. So, yes, we always sang Christmas carols and children's things. My grandmother always liked to sit and watch the sunset, and she would always sing "Day is Dying in the West." [Laughter.] In this quivery little voice, or hum it or something. It wasn't a big thing.
Ritchie: What made you decide to go on to finish another two years at college, go to Randolph-Macon?
Kelso: It never occurred to me not to. I had to do that. I didn't mind. But the big thing was that when I graduated from Ward-Belmont and went to Randolph-Macon, I found Randolph-Macon very exacting, and that was really good for me. I made terrible grades the first semester and realized I had to shake it. I had to have some discipline and make some decent grades, so I did better there.
Interesting political activities going on there. I don't remember being a particularly political person, but perhaps I was, because I remember that Norman Thomas, who was the socialist candidate for president, came there, and I was in the group that met him. I liked him a lot and I considered myself a socialist. I went out at the time with a labor leader named Ben Segal. We would go to the textile workers' labor meetings, and we would sing "Solidarity" and all that sort of thing. Then there was a communist organizer who met people at the drugstore.
Ritchie: In Lynchburg, Virginia?
Kelso: In Lynchburg. There was a drugstore just off campus. Some people were involved in that. I was liking Ben Segal a lot, and he was a socialist. It was considered a very avant garde thing, or the thing to do in my group of friends, to be a socialist.
Ritchie: This is at the end of World War II.
Kelso: I graduated in '48.
Ritchie: So the two years after the war you were there.
Kelso: But it's the strangest thing to me, looking back, is that I was barely aware of the war except my boyfriends were going and coming. All I can really remember is shoe rationing, and that was my big problem. I didn't have any idea of what was happening in the world. I don't know how I could have been such a nudnik.
Ritchie: You were at Ward Belmont from '44 to '46, at the close of the war.
Kelso: There weren't that many boys around. There was an air base somewhere. I guess girls that age just are taken with their own lives.
Ritchie: Would politics be something that would have been discussed in your home as you were growing up?
Kelso: Oh, yes. My father and my grandfather were very interested in politics, and they were sort of like, in city terms, ward leaders, because they had a large number of employees and it was considered that they influenced their employees. One time my father changed his mind in an election the night before the election, and he had to get on the road and go tell everybody he had changed his mind. But they talked politics at the table all the time. My grandmother insisted that we speak of general things at the table and topics of general interest must be discussed at the table.
Ritchie: What would some of those be?
Kelso: It seemed to me it was always politics, but I don't remember any other topics of general interest.
Ritchie: Would religion be something that would have been discussed?
Kelso: No, we didn't discuss religion.
Ritchie: What church did your family attend?
Kelso: The Turners were Presbyterians going all the way back to the original Scotch-Irish family. The other family were Baptist, and that may be why they didn't discuss it. Religion was such a serious thing in those days, matters of doctrine and how you baptize people and things like that. Maybe it was just best not to discuss that. But I don't remember the other topics.
Back up a minute. My family were always supporting the reform candidate or probably the business candidate, too, so they were for governors of Mississippi like Hugh White. My father was a colonel on his staff. Oh, we were proud of that. Hugh White, then a man named Tom Bailey, and Mike Conner. Conner was an earlier governor. But in Louisiana, it's always the Longs and the anti-Longs. We were always the anti. Actually, I think we were always anti the populist candidate. That's my guess. Or the anti-"redneck" candidate. So we had politicians coming and going, particularly at the fair, where we always had the governor to lunch or the governor candidates to lunch at the fair.
Ritchie: To your home?
Kelso: To our family house at the fair. They were always interested in local politics, too. My grandfather went to national conventions. He went to the one that nominated Al Smith, and took the whole family.
Ritchie: So they all traveled to the convention. Where was that one held?
Kelso: I don't know. I have that in one of those little booklets I have written. I don't remember. I think my Aunt Dottie remembered it was New York, but they all went.
Ritchie: The whole family?
Kelso: Yes. I think my grandfather was a delegate.
Ritchie: So you would have been exposed to politics from your early days.
Ritchie: What did it mean when your father was a colonel on the governor's staff?
Kelso: It was just an honorary thing. I think it was considered sort of a group of advisors, but they had uniforms and they all went to a big ball at the beginning of the thing. I remember he went to several of those things with other governors.
Ritchie: Did you ever think your father should have remarried through the years?
Kelso: Oh, no, I never thought that.
Ritchie: You never wanted a mother?
Kelso: I lived in terror that he was going to get married—we did. And I think we chased off several of them. In this small town, there weren't very many eligible men, and he was on the school board and he always joked and said he picked all the pretty teachers. But, yes, there were lots of women after him. We hated it when ladies would say, "Oh, I hear you're going to get a new mother."
Ritchie: So you and your sister would take care of that.
Kelso: I'm sure my grandmother and all that phalanx of aunts and all, they never did think the women he went out with were very attractive. None of them were worthy. So that didn't help, either. Later I felt guilty about all that and I wished that he had married.
Ritchie: Did any members of your family go to World War II?
Kelso: Yes, my Uncle Richard [Molpus], who was about ten years older than I, or maybe less—I've forgotten. I sort of tagged in his footsteps as a child. He was my idol. He went. The thing I remember about when Richard went off to war—my grandmother's driver was a young black man who had come to the back door and asked for some work. He was about fourteen years old. She gave him some work, and he later served the table and then became her driver and was sort of the number one of the black people who were around the family. Everybody loved Earthy.
Ritchie: What was his name?
Kelso: Earthy Anderson. He always went with the family on vacations. He taught everybody in the family how to drive. He and Richard were about the same age and devoted to each other, and when Richard left, after he had gone and we looked around and we couldn't find Earthy, and he was crawled up under the hedges up in front of the house, weeping. It makes me cry right now to think about it because of the devotion between them.
Ritchie: You mentioned vacations. Would your father have taken you and your sister or a larger family would have gone on vacation?
Kelso: We went to North Carolina in the summertime. The family always traveled a lot. My grandfather loved to travel. He said it was very educational, so he took all his children and they would always go in two or three cars, with Earthy driving one.
Ritchie: A caravan.
Kelso: Yes. We went to North Carolina, I think to get away from polio. There was a polio epidemic, and they thought that being in a cool climate—so we started going to North Carolina and later went to camp there. My father loved to come to New Orleans, and that's when our love of New Orleans started. He and a group of young marrieds and singles would come down here and spend the weekend and raise hell. Then later he and my grandmother would bring my sister and me to shop for Christmas.
Ritchie: New Orleans would have been the big town that you looked to?
Kelso: It was kind of both. It seemed that we went to Memphis for doctors and we came to New Orleans for shopping and play time.
Ritchie: You would have taken the train to these places?
Kelso: No, we drove. I don't remember ever going on a train. Yes, we did go on a train. We had the first streamliner in the world, that Zephyr—no, the Rebel. It was called a Zephyr train. It came through Philadelphia at one o'clock and it got into New Orleans about ten o'clock the next morning. So that was the way we came to New Orleans. It was a big thing. My daddy loved trains and he loved to meet them. When he was a little boy, a young boy, the big thing in McCool, Mississippi, was meeting the train. It came through at three o'clock, he told me, in the afternoon. He used to get my sister and me up at one o'clock in the morning sometimes to go meet the Zephyr.
Ritchie: Just to see it?
Kelso: He loved anything that was new, modern, progressive, that sort of thing. So he thought it was important for us to see the train.
Ritchie: So your grandmother would have come along on these trips to New Orleans or to Memphis, also?
Kelso: Yes. She always said when we needed to go, like if you have pimples on your face, time to go to the dermatologist. Crooked teeth. She watched after those things for us.
We had an aunt, after my father and my sister and I left that house, my father's oldest sister, Willie Anna Catledge, who was the mother of Turner Catledge, came to live with us. She'd been living with Turner. He was then in the Washington bureau, maybe head of the bureau. But at any rate, in the Washington bureau. This would be in the thirties, '35, '36. He was covering Roosevelt, I remember that, because we had a picture of him standing by Roosevelt's desk. At any rate, his mother came to live with us and raised—
Ritchie: Run the house?
Kelso: Yes. Then she was gone in the summertime to visit her daughter or to visit him, and a black woman named Cora looked after us, and we loved it. It was such a free thing, you know. Aunt Willie was very strict and religious and proper and all that. We adored Cora, so summers were absolutely great.
Ritchie: Tell me about the [Neshoba] county fair. I've read several pieces that you wrote, and the family having a house. I don't think I've ever seen that anywhere.
Kelso: It's unique. They always write, anyway, that it's the only county fair in the country where people come and live. Everybody just moves out bag and baggage, refrigerators, stoves, mattresses.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Ritchie: We're talking about the fair and how it's a very unique institution in the county that you grew up in. You started going from your very early days?
Kelso: As babies, I suppose. My sister, who is now—I'm sixty-five, she's sixty-two, she has been to every fair but one in all of her years from a handful to her grandmother years now. It's unique in that people have houses and they move out there and live for a week. People from all over the country come back home, they have high school reunions, family reunions, and have a lot of political speeches. Every governor of the state—Ronald Reagan was there. I don't remember
what year, but he made a speech at the fair. They have horse racing and a carnival. It really is unique. Our family and all the other families, it's meant that we've stayed in touch with each other and we've gotten to know each other. You saw the day in and day out living kind of thing. We always have a family reunion on the weekend before the fair, and one year we had forty-seven people, one year fifty-eight. It's a big, big thing for the whole county.
Ritchie: You said that your grandfather built the family home for your mother as a wedding gift.
Kelso: That's the story I have. I may have made that up but somewhere along the line I heard it said that he built the house for her as a wedding gift.
Ritchie: Your cousins would have their own houses now?
Kelso: Some do. We have an extraordinary number of people sleeping in this one house that's on Founders Row, Founders Row because those are the families who were out there many, many years ago. The fair is over a hundred years old. So everybody still wants to be in and around that house. That's the center of everything. But other families have their own houses where they can sneak off and sleep. I guess we have two or three houses in the family now, and some from Texas come in a motor home sometimes. It's a big thing.
Ritchie: So it's an important place in your family, and growing up as a child, it was something you looked forward to each summer.
Kelso: Oh, yes. That was another great observation point. I mean, the things you would see that grown-ups were doing, like drinking whiskey and dancing and all sorts of bad things. They'd banished us at night sometimes to the balconies or the porches. Somebody wrote a wonderful piece on the fair, a book, and those houses with the porches are a vernacular architecture. It's the porches that make every house accessible. They used to banish us to the upstairs porches, and we did see some things going on there when they didn't know what we were doing.
Ritchie: So you were little spies?
Kelso: Yes. That's the thing about growing up in a small town. I think of the culture that I lived in, a triple ethnic culture—black, white, Indian, there was an Indian reservation, Choctaw Indian near Philadelphia.
Ritchie: In the outskirts?
Kelso: Not in the outskirts. There was a hospital in the outskirts, but the reservation was about twenty miles, maybe fifteen, twenty miles.
Ritchie: It was a federal reservation?
Kelso: Yes. These were the leftover Indians, left over from the days that Choctaws made a treaty, the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, with the federal government. I'm never quite sure of this date, and I think historians aren't, but it's like 1833 or thereabouts. It's always interesting to me that my Turner family from South Carolina migrated there to get those Indian lands when they drove the Indians out. The Indians went on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. But some refused to go and some hid out in the woods when they tried to make them go. Then they centered around that reservation. Also a Catholic Belgian mission near the town. So my father and some of his
brothers were considered sort of a friend of the Indians, counselors or advisors, things like that. We always had Indians coming around the house and we'd see them on the court square.
How did I get from the fair to the Indians?
Ritchie: You were saying about growing up in a small town.
Kelso: Marvelous to live in a small town and see all these different layers, the ethnic layer, the class layer. Like I grew up—my best friend was black. She was the daughter of Earthy, my grandmother's driver. One of the terrible traumas of my life was when she couldn't come to my birthday party. I couldn't believe it and I didn't understand why.
Ritchie: And you wouldn't have gone to school with her, would you?
Kelso: No. I guess I was four or five, the birthday that she couldn't come, and they told me that. Years later, after her family had gone to Detroit—and they moved to Detroit to get good schools for her and her little brother—she came back as a teenager to visit me. Oh, there was a terrible scene! How are the children going to eat? Would they bring Minnie (her name was, named after my grandmother) and me into the dining room to eat? Oh, no, that wouldn't do. They finally figured it out. They set up a card table under the pecan trees in the back and they served Minnie and me dinner out there.
Ritchie: Like a picnic.
Kelso: Yes. It was just a thing with the grown-ups, talking for several days, what were they going to do so they wouldn't hurt Minnie's feelings, but so all the things would be preserved.
Then the class thing. I grew up around the lumber mill, where I knew all the children of the lumber mill workers. They had wonderful names like Frog and Snotty. [Laughter.] Just some grand names.
Ritchie: Would they have been white or black children?
Kelso: White children.
Ritchie: The workers at the lumber mill were white, for the most part?
Kelso: They were whites, blacks, and Indians. The more skilled workers, lots of layers of class in the lumber mill, too. The more skilled workers were white. So I grew up with those kids and went to school with them. That sort of thing doesn't happen now, that you go to school with real town kids. They were the slum kids and looked down upon. Some of them were really smart. That was a great advantage to me, I thought, and I also know the different generations, both at the fair and in town and in my family. Now there's so much segregation of class, race, age, all those different separations, that I think I was very fortunate to live in that time and in that place.
Ritchie: Tell me about your first job. You graduated from Randolph-Macon.
Kelso: Randolph-Macon in '48. I spent the summer in New York. That was very exciting.
Ritchie: What were you doing there?
Kelso: I think I called it going to Columbia Journalism School, but I didn't go to class very long. I just had a wonderful time. I saw all kinds of Broadway plays, a couple of love affairs.
Ritchie: Did you go with friends and get a place to live together, or were you living at Columbia?
Kelso: I lived at International House and I went right by myself. My father often said he didn't know why he let me do that, but it was just a marvelous, marvelous, mind-blowing kind of summer.
Then to Hattiesburg. I just fell into a honey pot there, as far as working goes, because I had a boss who was no longer particularly interested in the newspaper. What he really liked was to train young people. So he gave me all kind of extra things to do and coached me, as he did others. I covered every beat that he could think of—police, courts, health department.
Ritchie: How did you get the job?
Kelso: The school got it for me.
Ritchie: So you had majored in English and wanted to do something with journalism at that point?
Kelso: I didn't care. I thought I was going to get married and live happily ever after. If I had to have a job in between, okay.
Ritchie: When you were at Randolph-Macon, had you worked on the newspaper or yearbook?
Kelso: No. Somewhere along the line I may have worked on some yearbook, maybe one, but I don't remember much about it. I just really never had any special interest. I had no ambition, no goals, nothing. That was typical of a girl of the late forties to fifties.
Ritchie: So it would have been typical for you to graduate and get married?
Kelso: Yes. As my grandmother would say, "Your Prince Charming will come along. The right man will come along for you." And that's what it was. Really, in college they expected me to make good grades. My father couldn't stand it when he saw a D. But it really was a training place for the graces more than [anything]. A mother should be educated to help her children. That sort of thing.
Ritchie: Had you ever worked while you were in college or during high school? Had summer jobs?
Kelso: No. I worked at the mill commissary, my father insisted on that. There was a commissary connected with the lumber mill, typical company operation, script. The workers were always in debt. Sometimes they'd barely get a paycheck because they had borrowed so much. They made very poor wages. My grandfather felt the end of the world had come when the minimum wage came in.
Ritchie: So the mill was really a large operation?
Kelso: Yes, it was a big deal.
Ritchie: Did the company provide housing, also?
Kelso: Yes. Standard company town. They paid for their groceries in this script that they bought. At the same time it was a paternalistic operation. Every Sunday people came to our house, and the blacks came to the back door and the whites and the Indians came to the front door, and this would all be before Sunday school time, and they needed different things. Some needed getting out of jail, and my father would just pick up the phone, call and tell the sheriff to, "Let this one out, don't let the other one out." The Indians, if they needed money, black people would ask for fifty cents or a dollar or maybe somebody would be sick, and my father would have to go look after them, or there was a fuss in a family and he would go settle the fuss, or something like that. Somebody was always cut. A lot of violence in both communities, Indian and [black].
Indians would send things that they made. They would send like a basket—they wove beautiful baskets—or a blanket or a little carved animal. They would tell my father the price, and he never asked the price, because that would have broken trust, or he never questioned the price. But it was a transaction, not a gift. I always admired that, the Indians' pride. But it still bothered me, I couldn't understand why everybody was going in different places.
Ritchie: How long did the mill stay in operation?
Kelso: My Uncle Richard eventually took it. My father, later, was president, then when he was ready to retire, Richard became president. I guess in the past ten years, he sold that mill and a couple more mills that he had bought by that time.
Ritchie: Of course, the mill would have changed a great deal through the years, I guess, in terms of providing the housing and the commissary. When would that have gone out?
Kelso: I don't really know, because I wasn't there at the time. The change that I noticed that really thrilled me, was Richard had a mill at Morton, Mississippi, that was state of the art, and they said it was just one of the small mills in the whole country, with just the latest. All the workers had on ear protection.
Ritchie: To protect them from the noise.
Kelso: And every other kind of protection you can think of—hard hats and gloves and everything. Richard was so proud of that. We remembered that when I was working at the mill commissary, all the older employees were deaf. They couldn't hear thunder because they'd been working in the plant. In the mill you always have these high screaming noises of the cutting the wood.
Ritchie: The saws?
Kelso: The saws. One of my cousins who went to work there as a water boy, it was always the thing in the family that you started as a water boy and worked up.
Ritchie: Would this have been a boy cousin?
Kelso: A boy cousin, Dick. He's now a doctor and a very big investor in Baton Rouge, and he's almost deaf because nobody ever put anything on his ears. It never occurred to anybody. Nobody ever heard of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration].
Ritchie: The safety features were very, very different.
Kelso: That was wonderful to me, and I really understood that thing then.
Ritchie: So you had never held a summer job other than the commissary?
Kelso: Seems to me I worked in the ten cent store, as we called it, at Christmas or something like that. But summer was always a time to go to camp or something like that, and I was never encouraged to work.
Ritchie: And you never had to financially, to save money for college or spending money.
Kelso: No. The mill made a hell of a lot of money in World War II. Boy, that's where they really did it.
Ritchie: So when Randolph-Macon placed you at the Hattiesburg American, you began as a general reporter?
Kelso: Yes. I wish I could remember what I made. It was something like $25 a week or $45 a week. Even then I couldn't live on it, I stayed on my father's payroll until he kicked me off.
But it was a wonderful job because I covered everything. Two main interviews, one with Dr. [Alton] Ochsner, who discovered the relationship between smoking and cancer here at Charity Hospital. I stayed there two years, late '48 to '51, so it was in that period. I was so nervous, I met him at the health department, so nervous, the first thing I did was grab for a cigarette, and he started on me. He gave me the whole roll-out. I had no idea that smoking was even dangerous, and I was so upset because he was such an eminent man and I didn't take any notes, didn't ask any questions. When I went back, I told the boss what happened, and he said, "Well, write what he said about smoking." So I blundered into one of the early stories, maybe, I don't know if that's for sure, but I'm still proud of the fact that I had an early story on the dangers of smoking. Can't quit now.
Ritchie: What was the other big interview?
Kelso: Yehudi Menuhin. They had the symphony subscription series, they called it, and I didn't have any earthly idea about how you go about interviewing a famous violinist. I just asked him everything in the world, all about his girlfriends, his wives. I just bored the living daylights out of him. He got so bored that he started putting all the studs in his shirt in the French cuff things, and finally he just told me, "Young lady, it's time for you to leave." [Laughter.] That was so humiliating to me, that ever after that I tried to have some decent questions. I did do my research on him, but that led me into all those dumb questions.
Ritchie: You had done too much. You knew too much.
Ritchie: So you would interview other people, also? These are two that you're mentioning, but you did feature articles on people?
Kelso: Yes, but I did all sorts of things. I did country correspondence from Petal, Mississippi, and they had items in there like "So-and-so was in town for the weekend and visited their family." Then I did some society stuff. It went down to the point of saying about a wedding reception or wedding shower, it would list all the people who poured and all that. Then at the end it would say "Sending gifts, were unable to attend, were," and you'd list all the people who sent gifts. The theory was that people would see their name in the newspaper. It's a fair theory, I guess, but it was so boring. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: A lot of social activities that you covered.
Kelso: I didn't have to do much of that, because, really, my boss was training me for something else. I covered courts and things like that. I was so manic about the thing. I couldn't stand for a siren to go off without my knowing where was the fire and how could I get there. It was like living on the edge at all times.
Ritchie: So they would let you cover virtually anything?
Kelso: Oh, yes.
Ritchie: There were no areas that were off limits for a woman?
Kelso: No, I don't remember that I did much police work there, but it was mostly governmental agencies.
Ritchie: How large was the newspaper?
Kelso: Gosh, I don't know.
Ritchie: Can you remember how many reporters there were?
Kelso: Not many. Maybe four or five.
Ritchie: Were you the only woman?
Kelso: I was the only woman on general assignment. There were others but I was so focused on the job and myself that I just mostly remember myself. [Laughter.] I've never been that self-absorbed. The editors I remember, but I don't remember much about other reporters.
Ritchie: You didn't become friends with any of the other reporters, any women?
Kelso: I became friends with the society lady and a person who worked down in the production office, but I don't remember that I became friends with any of the reporters.
Ritchie: Did you have a desk in the newsroom?
Ritchie: The other people in the newsroom would have been males?
Ritchie: Did you ever feel that they had more of an advantage over you or that they were favored in any way?
Kelso: No, and that continued with me throughout all my career until recently. I was so taken with what I was doing that I didn't notice, I guess I didn't have any context for it. It was just like play. I never took it seriously and I didn't want to be an editor. I felt sorry for them because they weren't reporters. My editor was so wonderful. Andy Harmon was his name. He really was a good newspaperman, but he did things like he would pull off bales of Associated Press copy and make me take it home to read, and the next day he'd want to know, "Is this a good lead? Is this not?"
Ritchie: So he was really training you.
Kelso: Yes, that was his whole thing. There came a time when he said, "You're ready to move on and I'm going to get you a job in New Orleans with my friend Frank Allen and Walter Cowan." He just sent me on. A mentor.
Ritchie: So he was one of your early mentors.
Ritchie: Certainly looked after you in terms of pushing you to go on to another job. He must have recognized your talent.
Kelso: Yes, he said, "You're ready to go. You don't need to be here anymore."
Ritchie: What did you enjoy doing most there? Was there any one area that appealed to you more than others?
Kelso: I liked the courts. I don't remember much.
Ritchie: Would you have reported any black news in the newspaper?
Kelso: No, I don't remember ever—I never thought about this. It's the first time. I don't ever remember writing a story about a black person. I started to say I must have in the course of crime reporting, but I didn't do much of that. But I really got intrigued by lawyers and court things.
Ritchie: So you would actually go to the court and listen to a case being heard, then go back to the office and write it up for the next day's paper?
Ritchie: Was this a morning or an afternoon paper?
Ritchie: So you would deal mostly with local news?
Ritchie: You would type it up on a typewriter and then hand it to your editor?
Ritchie: He would review it, edit it?
Kelso: Yes. I'm amazed at how little I remember from those days.
Ritchie: It was a time when you were in transition or just out of college. Were you looking at this seriously then as a career?
Kelso: I was looking for Prince Charming. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: And since you hadn't found him at Hattiesburg, you thought maybe he'd be in New Orleans?
Kelso: Well, I had a lot of—not a lot of, but a couple of serious fellows there. Charlie was a reporter there, that's the other reporter I remember. Another was a motorcycle type. [Laughter.] But it has always seemed to me that my real career, when I started taking the news business a little more seriously, started in New Orleans.
Ritchie: So you moved here to New Orleans in 1951 and had a job at the—
Kelso: New Orleans States, it was.
Ritchie: Which was another afternoon paper?
Kelso: Yes, I love afternoon papers. Oh, I am crazy about them. To me, morning newspapers are boring. I love to cover it as it happens and I love to run to a phone. I became a very good dictator. I could dictate a story like crazy. I couldn't do that for anything in the world now. I started off general assignment and later got to be a sob sister. If there was a court case or something where I could write a heart-rending tale about the person on trial or the person who was the victim—I covered suicides, I loved fires.
You mentioned how during the war women were taken seriously as reporters. I benefited from that. There were several women on the staff. A lot of people have thought that I was the first woman political reporter here, and a lot of people think of me as a pioneer journalist for women, and it's not true. Women had covered city hall here. When I started covering politics in '54, Ruth Sullivan had been covering city hall and had a column. The Item, which was our competition, had Lee Davis, who covered Mayor [Robert S.] Maestri, the mayor before 1946.
Ritchie: So both of these women had been in the field and were established here?
Kelso: Oh, yes. There were a couple of other women on the staff. I only remember one right now. Our editor, there were some stories—he never let us cover hurricanes.
Ritchie: I wonder why.
Kelso: Because they're dangerous.
Ritchie: As opposed to murders or suicides. I mean, suicides seem pretty—well, they're not dangerous.
Kelso: Oh, that's a great story for a woman, he would think, a sob sister. But it knocked me out when they had the earthquake in Mexico and the Picayune sent a woman to cover the earthquake. I thought, "Boy, is that a dream! That is a knock-out assignment." I was so proud of that. Later on in television, I covered hurricanes, but hurricanes here are such big news that you get everybody out. Then, too, you always went with a cameraman, so you had somebody to look after you as a TV reporter.
Ritchie: So in your first years here, you would not have been able to do that, covering hurricanes?
Kelso: No, that never would have been done. I can't imagine that. Although I was covering politics later on, basically women did features and church news and society news, and that's just the way it was, although there was this tradition of covering political stuff.
Ritchie: Were there any differences that you noticed right away coming from a small town newspaper to a larger city?
Kelso: Oh, my gosh, yes. This was it. The paper in Hattiesburg was more like play compared, but when I walked into that big city room—and thank God I didn't know my slip was showing, but the city editor, Walter Cowan, another one of my mentors and darling friends, always remembers that I wore a black and white checked skirt, and he remembered me as very pretty, a beautiful blonde, he said, but he said, "Your slip was showing."
Ritchie: That first day that you came in?
Kelso: To this day he will get up and tell that before an audience. My white slip remains—that was 1951—my slip's still showing.
But it was a big city room, because States-Item was on one side, the afternoon paper, and the Picayune was on the other side, so you had two staffs. It was just a scene to see all those.
Ritchie: So you had the morning staff and the afternoon staff in the same newsroom?
Ritchie: You've just said the States-Item .
Kelso: It later became the States-Item. It bought out the—I forget the sequence. I forget exactly what the relationship between the New Orleans States and the Times-Picayune was. I'm almost sure the Picayune owned both. It wasn't just a housing arrangement. Later the States combined with the Item and became the States-Item.
But it was very exciting, having competition. That was just terrific. When I was covering city hall, we had three reporters on city hall: the Picayune man; Bill Reed, the Item man; and myself. We would just go through city hall every morning and fight for stories. My managing editor, Frank Allen, would get the Item while it was still wet, also the States. We had a press room with a telephone in it at city hall, and if the Item had a story that we didn't have, the phone rang that minute. "Goddamn it, Susie! If you can't cover city hall, I'll get somebody who can!" [Laughter.] He would just ream me out.
Ritchie: So the competition really put the pressure on you.
Kelso: Oh, yes. It was great. We stole letters, we listened in at doorways, we would put glasses up to the mayor's office. It was the most intimate kind of thing. Again I think of those reporters sitting around, standing around Franklin Roosevelt's desk. But compared to now, compared to television. In the old city hall, which is called Gallier Hall now, on St. Charles Avenue, we had a press room that was across from the mayor's office, across from the steps he had to go down to go to his driveway, and also the steps had to be used by the councilmen. So we would, every morning, go to every single councilman's office and find out what he was doing. Every morning we saw the mayor, and if he was dodging us, we caught him when he went down the steps. We had a group of dead-heads, I guess, who sat in there and played poker all the time, so they watched all the comings and goings.
Then in the afternoon, particularly late in the afternoon, we'd drink at a bar across the way, with politicians and other newspaper people.
Ritchie: This would have been after you filed your story. What was your deadline?
Kelso: Two o'clock. Funny, I still remember that. Two was the last deadline. Then we were free to go drinking, and we were expected to. Friday afternoon, after the deadline, it was almost an assignment. But there was this real interplay every single day, we lived within this group.
Ritchie: Were you the only woman?
Kelso: Yes, I believe.
Ritchie: You were accepted by your male colleagues?
Kelso: Yes. There was never a problem about that, that I know of. I don't remember any problem dealing with sources. It seemed to me that I had some sources that preferred to deal with me either because they tried to make out with me or because they just liked women better. So I developed some sources that the men didn't. They had some sources that preferred to deal with men. It's been like that all my career. I don't notice it as much now with younger men. They don't make quite the distinctions.
Ritchie: How would you find sources and develop them? I'm trying to think of an example. Would these have been people who worked in city hall or local people who had connections?
Kelso: We were in the building with the mayor and the councilmen and all their employees and, for that matter, all departments except one were in that one building, which is incredible. But there were others, the political people. At that time we had ward leaders and precinct captains, really old-time. In New Orleans, one of our great political distinctions is that we had the second oldest political organization after Tammany Hall. It was named the Old Regulars, or Regular Democrats. Then the mayor had his organization.
Let me back up and say that I started covering politics in '54. At that time Chep Morrison was mayor. He had come in in '46, the first reform mayor, had ousted machine politics, as they called it. Then he formed his own machine, he had the Crescent City Democratic Association. That was the mayor's organization as versus the previous mayor's organization. So later on, my husband was to say that I knew more—well, if at any time I didn't feel adequate to do a job, he would say, "Just remember that you know 432 precinct captains. You know more precinct captains than anybody in town." So I made it my business to develop those sources. There were a lot of secret telephone calls at night and secret messages under the door, a lot of excitement.
The Picayune was just down the block from the Old Regulars' clubhouse, where they had their meetings. We were always pro-Morrison, pro-reform. We would go down there to cover their caucuses. We'd be standing outside and they would pour soapy water on us from the balcony across the top. I had a source who, after the caucus, would call me and tell me everything that happened. He had a photographic memory—quotes, everything. So that's when I really got to be noticed as a political reporter, when I could report on these heroic fights among the ward leaders.
Ritchie: On what happened, the actual goings-on, although you weren't in the meeting.
Ritchie: Could you have gotten into the meeting?
Kelso: Oh, no. Heavens! That's why they were pouring the water on us.
Ritchie: They didn't want you around.
Kelso: At the time I started covering politics, for some reason Ruth—no, they were going to put me on the beat.
Ritchie: What do you mean by on the beat?
Kelso: On the political beat, or city hall beat is what it was called. Chep Morrison had wanted to build some stands for citizens across from the Boston Club, which is where the queen goes to view carnival and all the swells, the king comes by and toasts the queen. I mean, a very big deal for carnival.
Ritchie: What street is that on?
Kelso: On Canal Street at the Boston Club. Morrison wanted to build some stands for regular citizens to sit across the way on the neutral ground of Canal Street.
Ritchie: Where the buses are now?
Kelso: Yes. This was the biggest story of the day. The temerity of the mayor or regular citizens thinking that they could sit up there and block the view of the Boston Club people! The cat can look at the king, but you can't sit across and look at the Boston Club. It was just a tremendous story. On the first day, I went over there. My assignment was to find out from Chep what he was going to do about this.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Kelso: He said that he had changed his mind, and Chep Morrison never changed his mind, he was so determined about everything he did. But his mother, who was a former queen of carnival, had written him a letter and insisted and demanded that he back down on having those stands for people to sit across [from the Boston Club]. So that was my first big political story.
Ritchie: That got you started. Clearly, you liked political stories though, more than the social reporter or the sob sister type of stories?
Kelso: Oh, yes. The intrigue of it just fascinated me.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 3, Side A]
Ritchie: We finished this morning when we were talking about your political reporting for the New Orleans States. You began that in about 1954. Backtracking just a little to the sob sister stories, can you remember the one that you enjoyed the most?
Kelso: It was the story of a woman named Virginia Bauman, who killed her husband. He had been a wife beater. They were both fairly prominent. We covered those trials like crazy in those days. They don't do that anymore. I'm not even sure they have sob sisters anymore. In fact, nobody even knows that term, "sob sister." But Dorothy—well, I can't remember her name, but some of those great women reporters from the thirties and forties were sob sisters. I even remember a lead: "Tiny blonde Virginia Bauman fingered her rosary today as she went on trial for the murder of her—" [Laughter.] I described everybody's clothes and tears trickling down her cheek. Really cornball stuff. But I loved it. It was really fun.
I hadn't thought of this, but I kind of got into a more novelistic way of reporting and writing that way, and it was really competitive. I always worked up against Thomas Sancton, who was a novelist and he was a reporter for the Item. He would just make up stories. I would get back to the office and my editor, Frank Allen, would start screaming, "Why don't we have this story?" And I'd tell him it wasn't true and he never would believe me because he really wished it had been true. Tommy would do things like steal the key witness or whatever, or the key person we wanted to talk with, and put them in a cab and drive them around and I'd be in a cab chasing them. Just lots of really old-time journalistic things. He would steal photographs, and I would not steal photographs.
Ritchie: From the people themselves?
Kelso: Yes. Just steal them. Really, he was a wonderful writer. So I enjoyed that part, but it was really important to me in the learning process.
Ritchie: What was your relationship with others at the paper? Did you get along well with the other reporters, with the photographers, with the editors?
Kelso: Oh, yes. We were like a family. It was like a family, and the two editors were Frank Allen, the managing editor, a tall, white-haired guy, who was straight out of front page. He lived for the newspaper, lived for the news, and had no office politics, no extra agenda or anything. Very demanding and loud. He'd come along beside you, had a ruler, and he would slap it down on the desk and say, "Put it on paper!" He'd come and read over your shoulder, read your lead and, "Goddamn it, you can improve that lead." Or he would snatch the paper out and run it, and you'd have to pick up where you left off. It was just exciting.
I used to go to the legislature with Emile Comar, who was the top political reporter, and I went as sort of backup. I started that in '59. We would work until two or three o'clock in the morning and write every last shred of information. We'd be in the Western Union office, typing out our stuff and sending it by wire.
Ritchie: From Baton Rouge to New Orleans?
Kelso: From Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Frank would come in at 5:30 in the morning and read up all of our copy, find out everything we'd known at three o'clock, and then call us on the
phone, six o'clock in the morning, "What's going on? What's going on?" He'd want a whole lot of new stuff. So it was just fun.
Walter Cowan was the sweetest man in the world, looked like—and looks today—like Cary Grant. The wilder things got, the more he geared down, the quieter he got. He was encouraging to you. Frank was demanding, and Walt made you feel like either you could do it or that you were going to do it for him. We'd have died for him or for Frank. As a group, we just went out together. A lot of us lived in the Quarter and we drank together, spent weekends together. Then every day after—well, not always after two o'clock deadline, but four or five o'clock, Frank Allen and some of the people from the Picayune and some politicians, we'd all go over to the Marble Hall Bar and drink. It was also a time when we had lots of characters—we don't have characters in the newspaper business anymore—a lot of drunks, just unique people. So it was just a marvelous time. I guess in my life I've had two near perfect work situations, and that was one.
Ritchie: All the years at the States.
Kelso: Yes. New Orleans States and later the New Orleans States-Item.
Ritchie: So the two editors really complemented one another.
Kelso: They were a perfect team.
Ritchie: When you wrote your stories, did you write them out in longhand first, from notes?
Kelso: No, goodness! Frank wouldn't have allowed that. He'd have fired you. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: You just sat down and composed and typed?
Kelso: Yes, or if you were out on a story, you would call it in and dictate it.
Ritchie: Who would you dictate it to? Another reporter?
Kelso: It makes me think of my husband, Bob Kelso, who was a marvelous rewrite man. You don't have rewrite men anymore, I don't know why. It may be because they emphasize writing so much more now. At that time writing was not high priority. Okay, if you wrote, fine, but the main thing was to get it out. But we would dictate to the rewrite man, and Bob Kelso didn't come until the sixties.
Ritchie: So they would take that material then and put it into format to be published?
Kelso: Yes. Sometimes you'd have five or six reporters out and they'd be calling in, and the rewrite man. My husband always said that was the really only important job on the paper. [Laughter.] He was brilliant at it.
Ritchie: Would the rewrite man look at your material in-house also, that you turned in, or did that just go to the editor? In other words, rewrite just meant when people called it in, he rewrote it?
Kelso: He'd put it all together and made a story out of it. As I say, sometimes you would dictate it if they were really in a press on a deadline or if you had a little personal feature on the side. Really you had to do that because of the deadlines in afternoon work. It's very nice now to have
those little laptop computers, Radio Shacks, we call them. You didn't get the sense of motion and movement.
Ritchie: Did you ever get so involved in a story that you felt you lost your objectivity?
Kelso: I think I probably got that way on, I suppose, the biggest story I ever worked on. That was when Governor Earl Long was—this was in 1959, my first session at the legislature, backup to Emile Comar. He [Earl Long] went bonkers just around the bend, was committed to the state mental hospital at Mandeville, Louisiana, and then came to a motel there. He was very sick, yet very funny, too. He was an outrageous man. I covered that, and I guess that was the first really big story. I don't know that it was reflected in what I wrote, I only know that I was not objective, because I was so touched by the sight of this old crazy man and the tragedy of what was happening to him. It was just a very emotional thing for me.
Another time—and this has happened to me several times in trials—when you get caught up in the courtroom drama and the families involved, and one was the Brilab trial [Brilab was a code word the prosecutors made up for the trial], where Carlos Marcello, the reputed mafia boss, as we called him in this area, was on trial, and Charles Roemer, the father of the present governor, who was a friend of mine. When you cover a trial like that, it's as if you were on a cruise boat. You're all out on the ocean together and nothing else exists. You spend a lot of time in the hallways talking to the families, and you get personally involved in those things. I wasn't covering it day by day, so it didn't matter as much, but I imagine that my feeling for those families and for all the characters involved probably influenced what I wrote, but I hope that it didn't matter too much, because I was writing personal columns or color stories. It didn't matter so much. But there was some criticism at the time that all the reporters got too caught up in it and lost their objectivity, so maybe somebody disagreed about my objectivity.
Ritchie: Were you ever asked to suppress or slant a story, or maybe not asked—told?
Kelso: No. The way it works, and always did work, on the States-Item or the Picayune, if they didn't like the way you wrote the story, if it didn't fit policy, they just didn't run it. You'd know then. That's the way of enforcement, of course, and as long as I've been at the paper, all of them, you just learn by osmosis how far you can go. I've always had to almost push myself to go further, but I've not done enough of it. I don't think I've ever been aggressive enough about that.
Ritchie: You mean in finding out what you could write and what you couldn't?
Kelso: No, in pushing past the limits and just keep pushing them. I've done some of that and I've lost some columns and lost some stories, but I find that reporters now are much more aggressive and less responsive to company policy, or it may be that up to certain limits there's not as much company policy. When I was with the States-Item, our publisher was Jack Timms, and he was very close to politicians. He was a would-be politician himself. So he'd get to be friends with the governor and he loved Mayor Morrison, the first mayor I ever covered. I remember Governor [John J.] McKeithen, who was his first governor, McKeithen was governor in the sixties [1964-1972]. McKeithen told Mr. Timms, he says, "Now, Mr. Timms, if you catch me doing something I shouldn't be doing, you just come tell me. Don't write a story about it. Just come tell me. I'll quit doing it." [Laughter.] That's not exactly a newspaper person's dream.
In covering Morrison, I always knew there were limits. He was the boss' boy. One time in a book, A.J. Leibling, in his book The Earl of Louisiana, the Picayune reporter and I came in to do a news conference with Chep Morrison when Leibling was there interviewing or observing
Chep. He later described us as 1 and 1A, the reporters who were almost house reporters for the Morrison administration. So I can see how that looked to him.
Ritchie: When you first went to cover the legislature in 1959, were you one of the few women doing this? The only woman doing this?
Kelso: The only woman who mattered at that time was Maggie Dixon, who was managing editor of the [Baton Rouge] Morning Advocate. She was such a presence as a reporter. She was the leader of the pack and the queen of the press room and all that, just an outstanding figure. So I can't remember anybody else but Maggie, but there may have been other women around, but it was predominantly a male press corps. It's beginning to look like a female press corps now. You look at the press table in the session, we all sit down there in the House of Representatives, and there are as many women as there are men.
Ritchie: So you would actually sit there on the floor and observe the goings-on?
Kelso: Yes. People say that's unusual, but the chamber was like this, here's the lectern and we sat at tables here and here. [Kelso demonstrates.] When Earl Long blew his stack—that's an inelegant way of putting what happened to him, some people say he had a small stroke. His wife told me he was on speed and he was eating them for breakfast. But he would walk down the aisle like this and come and sit at the press table with us, and when somebody was making a speech, he would harass them and pull their coats and accuse them on being thieves and all. Then he'd go around and harass legislators.
Ritchie: Who were actually sitting there in the chairs?
Kelso: Yes. One time Leander Perez, not a legislator, but the boss of an oil-rich parish down here, Plaquemines, was sitting right over here. Earl would go there and spit on the floor beside Perez to harass him. This was in '59. Leander Perez was the segregationist. He was the leader of the forces in Louisiana. Earl would say to him—I heard him say—he said, "Leander, the federal government's got the atom bomb. What you got?" [Laughter.] Just drive him crazy.
But anyway, that's where we sat. I got off on all that.
Ritchie: So you were a visible presence while you did this reporting.
Ritchie: Sitting there in front of the representatives.
Kelso: One day the governor was talking to us all down there, and it was mostly men, and he started using language that I never heard anything like. All the legislators started pointing. They could hear him and pointed to me. He turned around and looked at me. By this time I was standing up against the thing. I was trying to get away from it. He says, "'Scuse me, Sis." And then he turns around and starts—
Ritchie: Right back?
Kelso: Yes. He couldn't talk any other way.
Ritchie: The members must have been all male at that time.
Ritchie: All white men?
Kelso: Oh, yes. Funny, it didn't seem odd at the time, but now every day I walk into the House, we only have three women now, and the Senate is all male, it just makes me furious. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: It hasn't changed that much, then, in terms of female.
Kelso: In terms of women, [there are] more blacks.
Ritchie: In the early sixties you covered the integration of the New Orleans schools. So you were doing the political as well as the educational aspect of that?
Kelso: No, I was the school reporter from maybe like '52 to '54, but I think by '60—I don't know, I might have been writing a side story or something, I don't know what I was doing down there. I don't remember anything I wrote about it. I'm sure I did write stories, and by that time I was writing a column. I never have seen—somebody stole all that coverage out of our library.
Ritchie: All of the civil rights coverage?
Kelso: The school integration coverage. So I never have really seen the things I wrote at the time, and I don't remember them. The experience itself was so moving to me, seeing these little girls going into the school and seeing these horrible women around, screaming and spitting on the children. That's when I decided what side I was on. I never had a big question about what side I was on. I was always for integration, but I never really cared that much. That was a watershed for me, seeing that happen. I decided, "If this is what it is, I'm definitely on the other side."
Ritchie: So you were able to use your column and your reporting to put these views forward?
Kelso: I guess so, but I just—
Ritchie: How did you get to write a column?
Kelso: The city hall reporter always wrote a column.
Ritchie: A column as opposed to writing a story?
Kelso: The way it was formatted, it was not like columns are now. It was more like news and gossip, here and there. It was kind of like the country correspondence, to tell you the truth. [Laughter.] We weren't allowed much leeway as to opinion. You might suggest something or other, but we were pretty well controlled. So I don't recall that I did anything that meant anything on that.
Ritchie: How did the integration begin in New Orleans? There were two schools that were selected?
Kelso: I'll have to check this. I believe there were two downtown and two updown, but I went to the downtown one, either Frantz School or some other. There was more trouble at those schools, particularly Frantz, because Leander Perez, the segregationist that Earl Long harassed in the legislature, sent those people up from St. Bernard to make a scene.
My recollection of all that period is that we did not do aggressive coverage of the thing because we had lunch counter sit-ins, we had marches, and it was covered so lightly, the paper at the time kind of took the idea if they didn't really cover it, it would go away.
My husband wrote the first serious set of articles on school integration when a lot of things had already happened. I don't know if television by that time was really effective. I doubt that it was, really. But we never had the kinds of things in New Orleans and in Louisiana, the terrible, terrible things that they had in Mississippi and Selma and all that. But I don't really recall anything that I did that I thought meant anything. I find myself now, in talking with people who were involved at the time, finding out what really went on. I'm very surprised.
Ritchie: Was there a black newspaper in New Orleans at the time?
Kelso: Yes, but it's never been a very strong voice, the Louisiana Weekly. I don't think most people in New Orleans today know what really went on in those days. I did have friends who were involved in the Save Our School movement, and they were good sources at the time.
Ritchie: They were for the peaceful integration of the schools?
Ritchie: You mentioned your husband. Tell me how you met him.
Kelso: He had worked for the Times-Picayune. He was a race horse blacksmith when he came to New Orleans.
Ritchie: Where did he come from?
Kelso: He came from Kentucky.
Ritchie: What part of Kentucky?
Kelso: Louisville. He and his father were race horse blacksmiths at the track here, and he got to hanging around with this crowd in the French Quarter, an artsy kind of crowd that included some reporters. They talked him into getting a job at the newspaper. He then went to Mexico and lived five years and came back. I met him in '60 when he had come back to the paper. Although I was in love with somebody else at the time, I just said, "This man is mine." I just knew that was it. I liked him. So that was that.
Ritchie: So you decided to get married?
Kelso: Fairly soon. I don't even remember how long, but not too far down the line. That was '60 we married, and '72 he died. He got sick about two years before that. But we had just glorious, wonderful years. I was thirty-four when I married and I had really thought I never would marry. I'd been waiting for Prince Charming. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: Who hadn't appeared.
Kelso: No. I kept looking around the corner. I just thought it was marvelous to be married, and besides, to be married to someone I thought was terrific, although he was far from perfect, not everybody's idea of Prince Charming, but was mine.
Ritchie: Was it difficult being married to someone in the same business? Had you ever thought, "I'll never marry a newspaperman"?
Kelso: No, none of that ever mattered one way or another. We weren't in competition in any way. It just didn't seem to matter.
Ritchie: He was the rewrite man when you first met him?
Ritchie: And continued to do that?
Kelso: No, by the time he died, he had gone to market research. Then he went to Tulane and he was working at Tulane, or had been until he became disabled. He had a cyst in his brain and had to have it removed, and that just started the downslide.
Ritchie: Was he the same age you were?
Kelso: No, he was about ten years older.
Ritchie: By the time you married, you were pretty firmly entrenched in your career. Did you ever think of having children?
Kelso: No, I never thought about it, because really I had given up those ideas. I had a hysterectomy fairly soon after we were married. But it's funny, I never have been sorry. I guess if I didn't have my nieces and nephews—
Ritchie: Because you have a wonderful family in them.
Kelso: Yes. I would miss that more. But I think because of the delayed gratification of the marriage. And in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the first time, I was a success. At last I had done the right thing! [Laughter.]
Ritchie: Your career didn't matter.
Kelso: None of that mattered.
Ritchie: Did you get married in Philadelphia?
Kelso: No, got married here.
Ritchie: What was your wedding like?
Kelso: It was a small wedding, and lots of my family came down. This is my main memory of the wedding day, two main memories. Number one, I had a beehive hairdo. I doubt that you've ever seen one of those.
Ritchie: Oh, I know what you mean.
Kelso: I mean, it was as hard as a rock. You could have hit it with a stick and it would have bounced. Bob thought I looked terrible. He said, "For God's sake, can you do anything with that?" [Laughter.]
Ritchie: On your wedding day?
Kelso: Yes. And the other one was that we were living together by that time and had been for several months or something, and it never occurred to me to get his clothes out of my closets and my chest of drawers. My aunts were in there, fluttering around, my two darling aunts, helping me dress or something, and all of a sudden one of them pulls open a drawer, my Aunt Hazel [Molpus], she says, "My God, Dorothy, his underwear is here! Oh, my God!" [Laughter.]
Ritchie: That's a wonderful story.
Kelso: So it was a revelation to my aunts, maybe, that people lived together before they got married. One thing I loved about my husband, he'd been an old student activist and radical in the thirties, and I never realized that there had been such people, but he ran a socialist newspaper in New York and he was roommates with Joe Lash, who wrote those biographies on Eleanor Roosevelt, who is the saintliest person I ever saw in person, who was, to me, at the time. He handed out leaflets on newspapers and he testified before Un-American Activities committees in Congress and things like that. So that always attracted me to him, that history of radicalism.
Ritchie: Then he had such a—checkered may not be the word, but then he went and worked as a blacksmith at a race track?
Ritchie: And went to Mexico. What was he doing in Mexico?
Kelso: Just poking around. That was the beatnik era. He was sort of a part of that. I don't mean a big part, but he knew Alan Watts and [Ken] Kesey and all those on-the-road people. That bohemian aspect attracted me.
Ritchie: After you got married, you moved here to this house on Camp Street?
Kelso: Fairly soon. We were married in '60 and we bought this house in '63. So we moved here then.
Ritchie: Do you remember how much you got paid when you first moved to New Orleans, to the New Orleans States?
Kelso: I don't remember, but it must not have been much, because all of us were always broke. One of the most exciting things to us was for one of us in the group to get a job to review the shows at the Blue Room, a nightclub, one of those old-time Pump Room type things. [A Chicago hotel had a "Pump Room" and this became a generic term.] When you did that, you could invite another couple. It was all free except the tip. I remember we used to put in all our money to make up the tip. It would be like three or four dollars, whatever the bill was. We never tipped any more than about four dollars. We'd get a free meal. It was a big thing—a free meal and all you could drink. Needless to say, the shows were always perfect. They were always good.
We'd all go get drunk, and we did a lot of drinking. Our reporters now, they might smoke a little marijuana, but they'll not think about getting really drunk out there. And I don't know how we produced the paper! But it was a way of life. It was a lifestyle that you worked hard, played hard, abused your body, smoked. You did all that stuff and it was a horrible way to live, except we didn't know it. We loved it.
Ritchie: That was your way of life.
Ritchie: Did you get any other freebies? You say you got a free dinner and drinks if you got to cover this. But during your time of writing stories, did anyone ever—I'm not talking about money, but give you gifts or anything that now might be considered unethical?
Kelso: No. We got things like a bottle of whiskey at Christmas, and people would send me flowers and things. That's unethical by our code now. But I had already quit that whiskey business because somebody reminded me one time, when I was involved in a story, "You remember I gave you a bottle of whiskey at Christmas?" And bing! It didn't mean anything to me at the time.
One time somebody I knew who was involved in the lottery business took me out to a farm, a race horse farm somewhere, said he wanted me to meet some people. I never even found out who they were, they were sort of sinister. We just sat around and drank, and that's all there was to it. They never said anything to me. Later on he told me that they were looking for a reporter that they could turn, meaning to get their own reporter. I found out that one of our reporters was already turned. I mean he was wired into the slot machine business and that sort of thing. But he told me they were looking for a reporter to turn and that would do their business or handle stories to their satisfaction. They decided they just wouldn't bring it up with me, because I never caught on to what they were doing. I don't know what it was, but I guess they figured, "This one's too dumb."
Ritchie: You weren't savvy enough for them?
Kelso: I guess so.
Ritchie: If they had liked you and they had approached you, they probably would have paid you money?
Kelso: That's what I realize now or began to think, that that must be. But that would have been so foreign to me, I wouldn't have—I don't think I'd have even recognized it if they'd tried to. One time Leander Perez told me he wanted to hire somebody who would just keep him informed of everything that was going on here or there. I was so horrified by that, that I just—and another time, a senator, the inventor of Hadacol, Senator LeBlanc—
Ritchie: The inventor of—
Kelso: The inventor of Hadacol, which was an old patent medicine that was very famous at the time. They had the Hadacol show that went all over the country. It was the first session. I was at the legislature. Dudley LeBlanc, Coozan Dud. He called me over to his desk in the Senate and pulled open the drawer, and he had all sorts of boxes of jewelry in there. Everybody always gathered around whenever he said anything. He says, "Come here, sweetheart. I am going to give
you a present." I backed off, I felt like somebody had handed me a snake or something. As I did, all these senators laughed and laughed. He said, "That's all right, sweetheart. I'll give it to you tonight when we're alone in bed." [Laughter.] He never let up.
Ritchie: So he was going to get you one way or the other?
Ritchie: In covering the legislature, you mentioned earlier that you did that in Baton Rouge. You would stay up there for the whole term?
Ritchie: How long did the legislature meet?
Kelso: About two or three months, depending on big or little. But we stayed in a hotel and came home for weekends. We had rooms that we kept all the time.
Ritchie: With gubernatorial races, you would travel around the state?
Kelso: Yes. I still do that. That's a lot of fun. That's about the only time I get to see the state. This state is so fascinating, and in New Orleans we're kind of like New York. You remember the old New Yorker map. That's when you really see the state. A lot of it is you're in helicopters because you go from short stop to short stop and you see it very close, and it's so beautiful in the fall when the rice is green.
Ritchie: In the early days, you would have been driving.
Ritchie: Did you find it hard to learn Louisiana politics? New Orleans politics is one thing and then you have the state politics.
Kelso: No, it just sort of grows like an organism, each cell leads to another one. State politics is very different. By this time I had sort of become a city person, if you can imagine anybody from Philadelphia becoming a city person. I had to learn a different way of talking and not to be such a smart ass. Relating to New Orleans people is totally different from relating to rural people, as I had known from the beginning, being one myself. But I had to relearn those skills of being easier in my personal dealings.
Ritchie: With the people here in the city?
Kelso: Easier with the rural people, because they take their time about things. That's the only thing I've ever noticed, as far as the relationships with people.
Ritchie: When you were out covering the governors' races, what type of writing would you do? What the governor was talking about or what the people were saying or thinking in the local areas?
Kelso: It was mostly what the governor was talking about.
Ritchie: Or what the candidates were talking about?
Kelso: Or what the candidates were talking about. I think the things that reporters do now are so much better. It's not always just, "Governor Earl Long or Governor Edwin Edwards said today—" It's put more in context and deals more with issues. Same for legislative coverage—I find more breadth and depth in their coverage than there ever was in ours, and a more thematic approach. But you never do it well. After every campaign I've ever done, I feel, "Oh, my God, if I could just start this again." Same for a session.
Ritchie: Is it hard to remain objective during the campaign?
Kelso: No, it's not hard. I guess some campaigns I have somebody I really don't like, but I like most politicians and I'm so fascinated with what they do, particularly if they do it well. So I don't really care that much who wins. Conversely to what I said earlier about current ways of reporting, I find that a lot of young reporters now are very self-righteous and they're serving the cause of truth and justice, and they've assumed that they know what that is. So they've always got it hard-on for somebody or some thing, and sometimes I think they miss what's really going on in the cause of some kind of crusade that they're on. It's much easier to do that in the style of writing that goes now. If you're not allowed any leeway or opinion in your writing, it's one thing, but when you have this tremendous leeway, it's easy to slant and make it look objective. I know how to do that, too, and do it, I guess.
Ritchie: Did you get to know the candidates on a personal basis?
Kelso: Some I did. Some I didn't.
[End Tape 3, Side A; Begin Tape 3, Side B]
Kelso: I never have become personal friends, or I can't right now think of any politician that I've become a personal friend with, personal in the sense that—I don't know how to describe what a personal friend is, but I'll drop it at that. I've never wanted to be that, because you really do lose and then you get terribly disillusioned if somebody, as your friend, doesn't be the kind of person you want them to be.
Ritchie: So you've maintained professional relationships with these people.
Kelso: Yes, and sometimes you are friends. The first governor I was ever friends with was—let's see. The first governor I knew was Earl Long. He was a whole other world.
Ritchie: That was quite an introduction to covering state politics.
Kelso: Yes. The first governor I was ever friends with was John McKeithen, who was elected in about '64. My husband had spotted him. He covered a meeting where he was speaking. He came home and he said, "This guy McKeithen is something else." He said, "Watch him." The next time I saw him, I felt that same dynamism that the man had, and he won. The first time I ever interviewed him, we went up early and he had invited us for breakfast. I had never been treated like that by a politician. We sat there with his family and him and had breakfast. Ever after, I just felt something special for him, and I still do. I just think he's a fascinating, remarkable man, and probably the best governor I've ever covered.
After that, the only one I became friends with, I guess, was Edwin Edwards. He's just such a personable kind of fellow. I guess there is something seductive about him in a non-sexual sense, but for a reporter it's seductive, in that he's such good copy. Everything he does is just fascinating and you know it's going to make a good story. Also he's very accessible. He'll return your calls in about thirty minutes. I just feel like a long-time—I also went on that trip to Paris and Monaco with him and however many people there were.
Ritchie: On a chartered jet?
Kelso: Two chartered jets. So I've always felt he was a personal friend.
Ritchie: When you say that McKeithen was the best governor you covered, you mean in terms of what he did and what you could write about him?
Kelso: I thought he came closest to being a performing governor, that things ran well, and was, I think, honest. There's some disagreement on that, but I think he was honest. I think his intentions were good. But we have never had a perfect governor, you know, the kind you really idolize or something like that. I don't think state government has ever been run very well and, in some respects, [has been] run dishonestly and filled with corruption.
Ritchie: As the years went on, surely there were more reporters covering the legislature from small towns. Were there other women who came into the press corps?
Kelso: Oh, yes. Lots of them. A couple have been there a good long while, and then a new crowd. Television—my niece, Denise [Snelling], covered for [television]. I worked the legislature for television, too, which was a real experience, since I was much afraid of the camera. One of the wire service reporters for a good while was a woman, that was unusual to have a wire service woman reporter. But there are lots of women reporters and lots of women lobbyists, too. I'm glad to see that. They're making that good money. Women, I think, may be in the majority in the lobbyist corps, too.
I don't know if this is where you want to go right now, but one of the most satisfactory things that ever happened to me as a woman reporter was a story on the marital rape bill. I don't know if I sent you that column. But as a reporter, I've not been deluded, I hope, into thinking that what I wrote made any difference, and I've just found out that things happen when they get ready to happen. You can write all you want to until they're ready to happen, and then they will. But in this case, one night there was a bill making rape within a marriage illegal, and it was late and all the legislators just acted like yahoos. They were just unbelievable. They got to giggling and laughing. Nothing funnier than rape and sex and all. And they were rude to the women legislators, and the women legislators got mad. I'm not sure if I had been there that night that I would have picked up on it, because I'd seen so much of that, but this young woman reporter was indignant when she came in. So the next day I wrote a column on it, after talking to the lobbyist.
Ritchie: So you weren't actually present.
Kelso: No. I might not have gotten on to the situation as she did, anyway. It, her story, still didn't get very good play. Nobody thought this was important, the male crew back on the desk. As a result of my column and her story, the women lobbyists in the legislature got on the phone and called out the troops. I mean, they got everybody to call the legislators and raise some hell with them, and they passed the law. [Laughter.] So that's the one time I can think of lately where
I know something I wrote made a difference. It's the first time I realized about changing attitudes and also about the influence of women, both as reporters and as lobbyists.
Ritchie: And there, certainly, as you said, are so many lobbyists who are women now, that that could make a difference.
Kelso: Yes. I mean, they were just livid! And a lot of the same thing happened in the abortion law, too. I haven't even thought about how much effect they had, but the entire female press corps and lobbying corps were pro-choice. I really wonder if we didn't influence attitudes, because we were just out of control. Talk about emotional and non-objective, we were.
Ritchie: So although you may not have written opinions on that, you might have had to keep them within certain limits, you could certainly talk about your feelings.
Kelso: Oh, yes. By that time, by now, this was just this past year, we're free to have opinions. I didn't leave any question of where I was on that issue. It's really good to be able to have some opinions, although I don't think that my column is as opinionated as some.
Ritchie: When you were at the States and States-Item, did you ever receive fan mail or hate mail?
Kelso: I don't remember receiving it. I got the most hate mail I've ever gotten just recently about a column about David Duke. It made me start thinking. I've always gotten things like "nigger lover," things like that, but not in the volume that I got.
Ritchie: About the Duke column?
Ritchie: People thinking that you were being too hard on him?
Kelso: Yes. It was a column that dealt with his cosmetic surgery. For some reason that hit a nerve that other columns hadn't hit.
Ritchie: You've written several on him, haven't you?
Kelso: I've written a lot of stuff about him. One old man, I was at a flower nursery, this old man started screaming at me! I didn't say anything at first, but later I got in his face and let him have some of my tongue. I called him white trash. I mean we almost had a fight. I've never had that kind of thing happen before. [Laughter.] I did find out that it is wonderful to just shoot your mouth off. I had an adrenalin rush, just one of the most pleasant feelings I've ever had. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: So you were able to respond to him.
Kelso: Yes, and that was good, but I've never had that kind of—
Ritchie: When you were called "nigger lover," would that have been during the civil rights coverage?
Kelso: I don't remember. When I was in Philadelphia covering something about the killing of the three civil rights workers there, that was in '63 or '64, I can't remember, I wrote a story quoting a minister as saying that the Ku Klux Klan was running the town and the Ku Klux Klan had assumed power over the city. I got a telephone call from somebody who said if I didn't leave town, that they were going to bomb my father's mill. And I left town. I just wasn't going to get anybody else involved in that.
Ritchie: You were covering this for the Picayune? No, no.
Kelso: That was for the States-Item.
Ritchie: They wanted you to go and do it, knowing that you were a local person who would understand that area and maybe get a better story?
Ritchie: Did the paper cover much Klan activity? Did you know who Klan people were?
Kelso: No, I never did work that story. I knew who the Klan people were in Philadelphia, but as far as covering—I don't remember anybody really covering Klan activities when a murder came up or a big cross burning or something. I don't remember that.
Ritchie: You heard about it, but it wasn't in the newspaper?
Kelso: The main bones were there and the big stories were, but I don't remember serious running coverage of those activities.
Ritchie: Because that would have been a big issue during the civil rights activities.
Kelso: Well, it was,but we didn't have any Klan stuff around here as such. Leander Perez was the segregationist. The stories seemed to unfold more in legal terms and in marches on the street. Klan country is up in north Louisiana and Mississippi. Really I think it was not important in this area.
Ritchie: Would you have had people from the outside coming in to organize some of those activities, the marches and the sit-ins?
Kelso: We had local people who led it, but Dr. [Martin Luther] King, [Jr.] was in and out of here a lot, as he was in Philadelphia. The SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] was formed in New Orleans. That's always made me very proud, with some people that I know. But we really had local people leading the marches in the city and so on.
Ritchie: How did the situation in Philadelphia affect people who lived there?
Kelso: It was just horrible. I was there a good bit because I had a friend named Florence Mars, who wrote a book, Witness in Philadelphia, and who collaborated with the FBI and things like that, testified at the trial. She was ostracized, and ostracized by some people within my family. Really, the people like my family that I would have expected and would have hoped would take a
leadership role, sat back. "We're not involved in this, really." Yet I don't know what I would have done if I would have had to accept the kind of ostracism that my friend Florence took, and the danger.
She and I would go around together. I don't remember what we were doing this day, but a state police helicopter followed her. She had a little yellow Volkswagen. It followed us everywhere we went. We went over to the Freedom School in Meridian, and that was just a spellbinding experience for me. But a man from CCNY [City College of New York], he was one of the COFO [Council of Federated Organizations] workers, the white students and teachers and ministers who came in. Through Florence, I got to know some of the COFO workers—two, a marvelous young woman who was the daughter of a professor and another one, Alan Schifman. One day on the court square, the sheriff's department had a cage built on the back of a pick-up truck, and they put Alan Schifman in there. People were crowding around with him in the cage, and they got some bananas and they were saying, "Wan' a 'nanna, nigger? Wan' a 'nanna, nigger?" Oh, it was so awful, the reaction of people. I've just run my mouth off and haven't answered the question.
Ritchie: It must have been especially difficult seeing it where you grew up. To be reporting on, say, school integration in New Orleans was your job and you had things tied up in that, but to go back to your own home town and see people you knew taking sides or not taking sides, their reaction to the situation must have been very hard.
Kelso: It was just so painful. You could barely sit down at the dinner table within my family and not wind up with everybody mad. Just everybody's nerves were so raw.
Ritchie: So you spent a bit of time there?
Kelso: Not a lot, some. I seem to have spent a lot of time—I was on vacation at the time I was going around with Florence to the Freedom Schools.
But one thing about the Freedom School, as I started to say, a man who was teaching this class on the Bill of Rights, sitting in there in this dirty, dusty little schoolroom on top of a red clay hill in Meridian, Mississippi, this beautiful teacher gave those children such a beautiful lesson in what the Bill of Rights is about, and I had never known what the Bill of Rights [was] and these children knew. They knew what it was to have somebody knock on the door. It was just one of the most moving experiences.
That was in '64. Because shortly afterward, I went to my first national Democratic convention at Atlantic City, and that was the Freedom Summer. That was the time the Freedom Party went and tried to become delegates to the convention. I was standing out in front of a house somewhere in Atlantic City with Aaron Henry, NAACP leader in Mississippi, maybe president then, and up drove a big bus with "Freedom Party," I believe, on the banner outside. I'm standing out there, watching the black people come out, and they're from Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Ritchie: And you knew some of them?
Kelso: I knew some of them. I didn't know this man, but this man came down and he looked at me and he said, "Why, you're Mr. Homer's girl, aren't you?" And I thought, "Oh, my God!" He was Reverend Collier, who was the Martin Luther King, [Jr.] of Philadelphia and who was a good friend of my friend Florence Mars.
Ritchie: 1960 was the first national convention you covered?
Ritchie: So this was the first one you covered?
Ritchie: What was it like?
Kelso: Oh, that was the most thrilling time. That was the summer of the Freedom Party and the fight over the Mississippi delegation. I heard Fannie Lou Hamer speak, and I was just carried to the skies by that, the eloquence of this simple farm woman was marvelous. I saw Joe Rauh, who was a great liberal hero of mine, and Hubert Humphrey. I think that was the year I met Adlai Stevenson.
Ritchie: All this in the course of your reporting?
Kelso: I'm thinking when I'm saying Adlai Stevenson, I'm getting something mixed up. I went to committee meetings in Washington and then went to Atlantic City. There was so much emphasis on the south, I mean all the southern states were just boiling. I knew a lot of the national committeemen in the south and I also had a fabulous, fabulous source who was close friends with Lyndon Johnson. He would go to meetings with Lyndon Johnson and come back and tell me what was going on. I was scooping the national press because of that. [Laughter.] Maybe they didn't know anybody with Lyndon Johnson. I just had some fabulous stories. I had this personal involvement and the larger picture on Lyndon Johnson. It was just a terrific time. I just saw a letter over here that I wrote at the time, and I just wrote these lyrical letters home, page after page after page, that I'm sure nobody ever read. But that was a real peak time.
Ritchie: Would you file a story every day for that?
Kelso: Oh, my God. File a story? They said that I was driving them crazy. I would file five and six and seven stories. People still laugh at me about the amount of copy I filed from that. But I knew without thinking that this was one of the most important places and times I'd ever be.
Ritchie: How did you file a story then when you were in Atlantic City?
Kelso: I don't know, probably Western Union. The facilities for filing things then—later you'd have drop-off places or call it in. No, I wrote it, because they talked about the reams of copy I filed. I don't have any idea.
Ritchie: How did you get access to people? You mentioned a source. How did you get interviews with other people?
Kelso: My job mostly was to keep up with our local people and with events that affected them. Since we were from the south, everything that happened affected them. A lot of the people who were within our delegation were big-time Democratic contributors or labor people. So I already had my sources. Then I would go to events that we were all interested in, like the committee meeting where Fannie Lou Hamer spoke. At that time it was easy to get on the floor. Now you're lucky if you get a minute and a half on the floor. If you don't come back on time, they take your credentials. But then you could go down there and sit. Tom Brokaw was the NBC reporter
assigned to us. That was another event of the time. He wore the first pair of running shoes I had ever seen.
Ritchie: While he was at work?
Kelso: Yes. That was one of the memorable events of the convention. [Laughter.] But just everything about that convention was perfect.
Ritchie: When you say Brokaw was assigned to you, because of your TV coverage?
Kelso: No, not to me. He was assigned to the Louisiana delegation. It's showing the kind of identification that developed, I was thinking of myself as a member of the delegation.
Ritchie: I see.
Kelso: I would never do that today. No young reporter would ever say "us." But we all stayed in the same motel. I really thought of myself as a member of the delegation.
Ritchie: Because you were so knowledgeable in southern issues, would other reporters from other areas of the country ever ask you questions?
Kelso: That time, because it was such a hectic convention, we developed kind of a southern network of reporters. We would share information so that we could write a very knowledgeable story after telling each other what was going on, each of us did. We could write what was going on in the whole state. We never told the boss we were doing that; that was not quite kosher. But we would meet every day and fill each other in.
Ritchie: Share information and develop your story out of that.
Ritchie: Were there any surprises out of that convention for you?
Kelso: Everything was a surprise about that convention, because nothing like that had ever happened. When the Freedom people came back, the Freedom people wanted to be seated as the regular delegation. The regular delegation left, and then the Freedom people got credentials and found their way onto the floor and sat in their seats. It was such theater. As I say, everything was surprising. But it was really something to look up there and see those people who had been denied so much, just get in there and claim their places. Afterward, I don't know if it was on the floor, they sang "We Shall Overcome," and that was very moving. Somewhere or other, they stood in a circle and sang a little song about "I'm gonna let my light shine."
Ritchie: "Let them shine, let them shine."
Kelso: Yes. How does that go? "This little light of mine, I am gonna let it shine." I love black singing and spirituals and church music.
Ritchie: Did a photographer work with you on a regular basis?
Kelso: For television?
Ritchie: You were doing television then?
Kelso: '64? No. That's just before I left to go to Total Community Action [TCA] in '65, so I was working for the States-Item.
Ritchie: Would they have sent a photographer, too, or would they have used a wire service?
Kelso: I think we used AP [Associated Press].
Ritchie: What made you decide to leave the paper?
Kelso: I felt that I was just being an observer of things that I wanted to participate in something, just to do something that mattered. Also I was offered some money, $12,000, which was a tremendous salary at the time. So I went to Total Community Action, which was a poverty program.
Ritchie: Do you remember what you were making at the paper when you left?
Kelso: I don't remember. My guess would be $8,000 or $9,000. My husband at the time went from the newspaper to market research, and he was making $12,000. It was so good, we thought we had struck oil. I mean, we couldn't believe! The salary was so big that they used to print it in the paper. They would print all of our salaries in the paper all the time. That was their main news.
Ritchie: You mean of the newspaper people?
Kelso: No, of the Total Community Action salaries. They thought we were getting such outrageous salaries.
Ritchie: Did you ever feel that you were paid less than the men at the newspaper were paid?
Kelso: I'm sure I was, but, you know, it never occurred to me to check or to even think about it. I'm sure I was, but I didn't have any sense—I didn't even care what I was making. By this time my father had thrown me off his payroll a long time since, so I just never thought about it one way or another.
Ritchie: Did you have an expense account at the newspaper?
Ritchie: That would be to cover your travel expenses or take people to lunch or whatever needed to be done?
Kelso: Yes. The only time it was ever worth thinking about was when I would go on a convention. I think Emile Comar, maybe when we were at the legislature we had a significant one, but the paper never made anything over that. You just gave them the best kind of records you could. They didn't pay attention to it and go over everything. Why did you ask that?
Ritchie: The expense account?
Ritchie: I just wondered what the regulations were for travel expenses and things like that.
Kelso: I never think about that, that's an interesting question.
Ritchie: I have worked for government agencies and you have a certain amount per diem and other regulations.
Kelso: Oh, yes. God, when I was with TCA, we had $16 a day.
Ritchie: Yes, because that would have been government money and had to pass certain regulations. Whereas if you worked for a private company, I'm sure they have some guidelines, but it's nothing like a state government or the federal government guidelines that are somewhat unrealistic sometimes.
Kelso: Oh, boy.
Ritchie: When you left the States-Item, did you think you were leaving journalism for good?
Kelso: I didn't think about it one way or another. I'm sorry to present myself as such a daffy person, but it's the God's truth. I just sort of go along with whatever happens. The strange thing to me is that in my life I've never made a decision, "I'm going to go this way," or if I have to, if I say, "I'm going to get another job," I couldn't get a job. Later on somebody would come along and offer me a job that would be a wonderful job. It seems that good things have always just kind of come over the fence to me, and when I try to take charge and get things organized, it wouldn't work, which may be a lesson in life. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: So you've been fortunate.
Kelso: Yes. Very lucky. I guess a few bad things came over the fence, too.
© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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