[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Ritchie: Iris, yesterday you mentioned Eleanor Roosevelt. I wondered if you could tell me how you knew her.
Kelso: I interviewed her. She came here. I don't know when but, of course, it had to be after '51. She came to Dillard University, which is a predominantly black college here. She was friends with Dr. Albert Dent, who was president of Dillard. That must have been by the time the civil rights issue was hot, and probably shortly before her death [in 1962]. There were a lot of hostile reporters. A lot of people came from Mississippi, and a lot of really ugly, nasty questions. It just impressed me so much; she didn't show any resentment, she just had this saintly aura about her.
I had never known anything about her except that my grandfather hated [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt for the minimum wage, and my family thought that she was so ugly, whenever I would hang my mouth open (because I always had some kind of nose problem, cold or congestion or something), they would tell me, "If you don't shut your mouth, you're going to be as ugly as Eleanor Roosevelt." So this is what I knew about this great lady.
Just to be in her presence, I don't think I've ever met anybody else that had that aura. My husband said that he met a Zen master one time who had that same thing, but it's such a special quality. I never see it quite captured in things I read about her.
Ritchie: Were you writing a story on her?
Kelso: Yes, I wrote one. I never have seen it in all these years, but I wrote a story about her. The way she turned off those questions, which were hostile, in the most gentle and kindly way, was simply beautiful.
Ritchie: Were people hostile because she was at a black university and supporting their programs?
Kelso: I don't know, maybe they were. But I think it was basically because they knew of her interest in the affairs of black people.
Ritchie: So she was the first of several first ladies that you covered through the years?
Kelso: Yes. Let me see if I can think of them in order. I met Mamie Eisenhower. I interviewed her on a train for some reason. I never had been interested in her; I think it was because of her hairdo. I thought those little bangs were so tacky. I didn't think she looked interesting. But I found her to be a much more sophisticated kind of person than I knew or had known she was. I thought of her as a country club type, more like officers' club, maybe, but that was interesting to me. He [Dwight D. Eisenhower] was president at the time.
Ritchie: What were you doing on a train with her?
Kelso: I don't know. I interviewed Lady Bird Johnson aboard a train. I know what that was—that was a Democratic campaign train or something like that. Lindy Boggs, our former congresswoman, had organized it. I was crazy about Lady Bird. She was just fun. I just liked her, but to me she was a Washington professional, and she really was a pro at handling interviews, and I didn't get a strong, strong sense of what she was like.
Ritchie: Would this be a one-on-one interview that you would have with these people?
Kelso: No, it was a news conference. This was in the diner of a train, just four or five of us around.
Then Jackie Kennedy, that was hardly an interview, because this was when he [John F. Kennedy] was running for president, and she came in from somewhere else. I met her at the airport and caught a news conference there, then went with her, I believe, or followed, maybe, to the hotel. He was coming in from somewhere else. So some of the Louisiana Democrats were there, the national committeemen and those people, they were out in the living room, so I interviewed her in the bedroom. She was so hard to interview! It was obvious she didn't want to be bothered. She was really so disdainful and contemptuous of the boondocks press, that I just could hardly think of anything to ask. What I really wanted to know, that was the first bouffant hairdo I had ever seen, and I didn't know how you did that, I didn't know about the teasing process. That had just started, I believe Kenneth invented it. So I'm just there in a quandary. I'm just frozen because of her demeanor [and] I just couldn't do anything.
And all of a sudden in came Jack Kennedy, and he looked so gorgeous. I always thought his body was the most beautiful body, just the vigor of it, in spite of his health problems. He came over and they had a long kiss, and I'm sitting there just mesmerized! [Laughter.] The next thing I know, Camille Gravelle, our national committeeman, was in the bedroom and grabs me by the shoulder, says, "Iris, come on out." So that was my interview with Jackie Kennedy.
Ritchie: What kind of questions would you ask these women? Were you asking them political questions?
Kelso: No. Just personality stories. A lot of times I used to feel irritated that I had to interview the woman, that I never got to interview the president at that time. I don't feel like that anymore; it's funny, the evolution. We'd just write these little dumbbell features about them and try to describe them, what they were like.
Ritchie: So they wouldn't have asked a man to do this?
Kelso: Oh, heavens, no! Well, I felt demeaned. Here I am, a political reporter, and I'm having to do the wife?
I liked Rosalyn Carter. I went to Plains, Georgia, with [Governor Edwin] Edwards, a couple of reporters and I did. He was going to announce his endorsement of Carter there. I didn't interview her, but he and she were so gracious to us, showing us the house and showing us all different things. They were so nice to us so that later when I went to Washington for some kind of news conference with [Jimmy] Carter, it was one of those things where he brought in the boondock press because he liked them better than he did the Washington press. [Laughter.] I halfway expected him to recognize me, he had been so nice. But that was fun to see the house and see the little town.
I felt sorry for Amy [Carter]. We were sitting outside, waiting to go in. Another group was in the house. Amy came tearing out from around behind the house on her bicycle, and headed up the hill, just like this. [Kelso demonstrates.] And just a posse of security men started out after her. I felt so sorry for the little kid. I've always liked Amy and felt sorry for her. It seems everybody still picks on her.
Ritchie: Even though her father left the White House, the interest in her activities, especially when they were not mainline activities, such as when she was at Brown University. I can't remember what she did there that the press picked up on right away.
Kelso: Some kind of like demonstrating something.
Ritchie: I can't even remember.
Kelso: Whatever she did, I was always on her side. I always liked him [Jimmy Carter] and always wished that he could have had a better presidency.
Barbara Bush, I just love. I've met her a lot and been around them a lot. At one time they came into Louisiana all the time, they would come in to campaign for anybody, she would come in to do something for the Women's Republican Club.
One time was funny. They both came in—this was fairly recently, I think when he [George Bush] was running for president the last time, and they came in for an editorial conference where the publisher and the editor and the political reporters interview them. As he often does, he was just sitting up there, just yakking, yakking away. Nobody was listening, really. And she [Barbara Bush] was standing behind me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her give him a signal like this, moving her hands up, and he shut up in the middle of a sentence. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: He took the cue.
Kelso: Yes. Then I had a long interview with her sometime just before the campaign really got under way, and I just realized the quality of that lady. She is so real, you know, all the things that people have realized now, but I never fully realized what a genuine person she is. I admired her fitness. She showed a slide show to this women's group, and I couldn't get over one picture she showed. They were at Kennebunkport. It showed George Bush and her in a bed, in their nightclothes, and he's sitting up on the bed with his hair just like people's hair looks like when they wake up, and the bed is full of children. He looks furious! He's just like this. [Kelso demonstrates.]
Ritchie: Like a mad dog?
Kelso: He was just angry, and she said he was very ugly to the children, and she made him take them all sailing afterward to make up. But for a wife to show something like that in the middle of a campaign, I just thought showed the genuineness of the woman. To me she's a more sophisticated person than she comes across. I think some people think white hair is ugly and bad.
Ritchie: Do you think she has any influence on him? I know she has her own certain interests and certainly promotes certain programs such as the literacy program. I wonder about her influence on him or if he listens to her.
Kelso: My feeling of her is that she just does her thing and while she does the full bit as wife and mother, I don't have the feeling she would try to influence him. He's been a part of that Washington rig-up so long. God knows I don't think she would be anything like Nancy [Reagan], all the stuff that's coming out now.
Ritchie: Did you interview Nancy Reagan during their time?
Kelso: No, and never wanted to. I never wanted to. I've been around him [Ronald Reagan] a lot on campaigns, and he's another one who came in here a lot. I never have been interested in either one of them.
Ritchie: If a president came to the state to campaign for someone who was running for senator or whatever office, that would be something that you would be very likely to cover?
Kelso: Yes, I covered Carter and Gerald Ford, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson.
I saw Lyndon Johnson just stone drunk one time. He came down here. He was running for president, I guess, or maybe he was running for vice president at the time. But he got so drunk that they weren't sure they could get him to be in this parade at City Hall. For some reason I was just in and out of the group, and they were all trying to sober him up, drink coffee.
Ritchie: Would something like that ever appear in a newspaper?
Kelso: No, not in those days. Gee, another time. And I would write it now, but not then. Just as Jack Kennedy's—everybody knew he was—they called him "the golden zipper."
To complete about Lyndon Johnson, I later saw him in the parade, and he was sitting on the back of a convertible, and he could just barely lift his head. [Laughter.] Everybody was worried he was going to fall off the back of the convertible.
Ritchie: So he wasn't in the seat? He was on the back?
Kelso: Sitting on the back of the convertible.
Ritchie: That's interesting what you said, how certain things weren't put in the newspaper. So standards have changed through the years.
Kelso: Oh, absolutely.
Ritchie: On personal behavior, sexual attitudes.
Kelso: I'm not sure that the paper here would break a story like the Gary Hart story. Our newspaper is still pretty staid. I don't think they would. For instance, Dutch Morial, who was our first black mayor, just had an open affair with a white woman while he was in office, and boy, that was never mentioned. About the closest you could get to it was "confidante" and "friend," or something like that, but it was an open secret. But the paper never made a point of it, and I don't think they really would. I don't mind that; I like that.
Ritchie: Are there other things that you can think of that wouldn't be reported? What about things like gambling?
Kelso: Edwin Edwards, our former governor, was a compulsive gambler and it made him very popular when he admitted it, so gambling wouldn't bother anybody here, I don't think. It didn't bother anybody. He testified in court that he had a personal cash fund of $800,000 that he kept in a safe at the governor's mansion and later in his house for "recreational gambling." That didn't upset anybody.
Ritchie: So in Louisiana, gambling is more or less accepted?
Kelso: Yes, even big-time gambling.
Ritchie: You mentioned in the biography that you sent to me that one of your most memorable interviews when you were at the States-Item was with Frank Costello.
Kelso: That was early in the game, because when I came down here, Costello and some local people had gambling houses in an adjoining parish, and I mean they were lavish, like entertainment by Frank Sinatra. The Beverly Club was the name of that one. Costello was then the boss of bosses.* But this must have been early in the game for me, because I had never even heard of Frank Costello.
At that time I was writing obituaries, I think, and I was sitting in the office at noon one day. Frank Allen called me Susie. He came in, he looked, and I was the only one there, and he looked and looked everywhere else and he said, "Oh, my God, Susie!" [Laughter.] So he sent me to the Roosevelt Hotel, and somehow there from a bellhop, I think, I found that Costello was in the Fountain Lounge, and it was just like in the movies, I learned later. The whole group of men, about twelve men, sitting around, and they were all the obvious types like in the "Godfather" movie. I didn't know who Costello was or what he looked like, but there was a little egghead-type man, I'm sure he was the accountant, and there were all these bruisers with bulges on their backs for their guns.
I went over and I asked them, "Is Mr. Costello here?" They said, "No." I said, "Well, I'll just wait right over here." And I stayed at a table as close as I could get to them. And all of a sudden, this beautifully groomed man with light-colored hair, maybe it was gray, but he just came toward me and came up and shook my hand. He said, "I never kept a pretty girl waiting in my life."
Ritchie: That's a line.
Kelso: Yes, a great opener. So he sat down. I got an interview with him and it went on the front page. I think that might have been one of my first front page stories.
Ritchie: What kinds of questions did you ask him?
Kelso: Gee, I don't remember. All I can remember is that he claimed he was down here to help care for, or see about, the mother of one of his men who needed an eye operation. Really I think they were down here [because] they also handled the boxing, and he had a lot of people with him. I got all their names and I found out they were the people who handled the boxing rackets.
* A term used to describe the head of the mafia organization.
Ritchie: So this wasn't an assignment that you would have gotten had you not been the only person sitting in the newsroom?
Kelso: Oh, no, I never would have gotten it, because, as I say, I didn't even know who the man was. We had reporters who were intimately familiar with both the gambling—we used to do a lot of exposés about gambling. We'd get up two couples and they'd give us money, and we would go to the Beverly Club and we would order dinner, then we would gamble. We had a little camera. We had one camera that was a cigarette lighter, but the one I used was in this terrible, ugly, square purse. It had a mirror on the side, and actually that was the place where the camera could see out and take pictures. We'd do great exposés. One time when we were there, somebody in charge came over and said, "Hello, Miss Turner. Hello, Mr. Guirisco," and fanned out our pictures that came from the police department, they had police IDs. Somebody in the police department had given the gambling people our photographs.
Ritchie: So they knew who you were.
Kelso: Right away! But that was so silly.
Ritchie: What would you be exposing? Who was there that evening?
Kelso: No, we were exposing that illegal gambling was going on in the state. That's what makes it so ridiculous. Everybody knew it. By this time I knew who Costello was and the links between him and Huey Long, New York, all that stuff.
Ritchie: Do you think those pieces did any good?
Ritchie: To educate people or to bring an awareness? Though you said everyone knew what was going on, anyway.
Kelso: Maybe one or two would have been good, but we did them all the time. I guess the theory was that it interested people, and people here are interested in gambling. They love gambling of any kind.
Ritchie: I remember being here in school and the slot machines in bars would pay off, illegally.
Kelso: What year was that?
Ritchie: In '67, '68.
Kelso: Slot machines? I don't remember that.
Ritchie: Pinball machines, that's what I mean.
Kelso: Oh, yes, pinball machines.
Ritchie: Not slot machines.
Kelso: I know that slot machines had been like that up until just before I came down here. In the grocery stores, slot machines, just like [Las] Vegas.
Ritchie: Then the slot machines were outlawed, right?
Kelso: Yes. Then later on, pinball machines, payoff pinball, they broke that racket.
Ritchie: Did you do any other type of investigative reporting like that?
Kelso: I did a fair amount of investigative reporting of different kinds. This is a perennial story, too, but I discovered a way that they were fixing tickets, just hundreds of thousands of traffic tickets, and broke that up. I did things. They were holding juveniles in these horrible holding cells. They were only eighteen inches square, and it was almost like torture. That was when I first found out newspaper stories don't really accomplish anything. As a result of my hard-hitting stories, they expanded those cells to twenty-four inches so that they could turn around with no problem. We later got some decent facilities for juveniles, but all the stories didn't do it.
Later on I did a good bit of work really for TV, some stuff on the mafia. Then I did a piece I was proud of, about a cop that the cops called "the jawbreaker" because he was known for breaking the jaw of his victims. Really, that was his trademark. Other policemen would say if they found somebody with a busted jaw, they knew Pat Brannigan was around. That got kind of scary, because he was, I heard from my sources, making threats about me, and I had to move out of my house for a while.
Ritchie: Was this for TV coverage?
Ritchie: What was the outcome of the story?
Kelso: I've forgotten what they did with him. He went off the force for some reason, but I don't remember exactly how it happened, whether he retired, but they didn't dig him out and punish him for it. They got rid of him some way.
Ritchie: Were you able to get some of his victims to talk to you? You must have had an inside source to find out who they were.
Kelso: I had a fabulous source. I had a policeman. Same kind I mentioned to you, the political source. This one was even better because he had a playwright's sense of drama. Nobody at the first district could figure out how I knew what went on, everything that went on in the precinct the next day. But that was a lot of fun doing that story.
Ritchie: One of the things that I wanted to follow up on, relating a little to yesterday and what you said in your biography, was relating to the civil rights. One time you were caught in gunfire between the [Ku Klux] Klan and a group called the Deacons. I was going to ask you to talk about that, but also did you ever encounter other violent incidents? This Pat Brannigan would have been an example.
Kelso: That was just frightening because he was so psycho. I've done lots of stories about Carlos Marcello,* the mafia boss, and that sort of thing. Ordinarily there's not a threat of violence, but when you deal with a psycho, you really have to watch it.
* Reputed mafia boss in the New Orleans area.
We were in a church, covering some kind of voter registration meeting, and we heard gunshots outside. The Ku Kluxers were in a ditch out there, shooting at the church, and the Deacons were groups of black men who were armed and trained to defend people like the congregation, so they shot back and forth at each other, and we stood in the church. We should have gotten on the floor, but we didn't; we stood in the church, in a circle singing "We Shall Overcome," during all this. Our photographer was out there shooting the gunfire. That was scary.
I saw some Deacons again later, this was much later, it was probably '65, when I was with Total Community Action. My job was to help set up Head Start programs. Bogalusa was the toughest, meanest town in this area for the Klan. A man named A.Z. Young, who was the civil rights leader over there, he was their Martin Luther King, [Jr.], asked me to come over and talk with him about how to get a program started and organize it. He said that he would have the Deacons meet me at the parish line and go in with me. It was that dangerous because of the Kluxers. So a car full of Deacons did meet us as we drove in a car, somebody else with me, and they rode shotgun to A.Z. Young's house, and Ku Kluxers, or somebody, circled his house while we were there. That was '65, a long time afterward, but still very tense.
Yesterday you asked me had I had anything to do with the Ku Klux Klan. One thing that made an impression on me when I was a child, the Ku Klux people tied a man to the back of a train. I heard about this as a child, that they had gotten a black man and tied him to the train, and they took his body off in tatters at Union, a little town about twenty miles [from Philadelphia]. I'm just big ears, I'm just listening to what everybody's saying.
Then in the sixties, when I was at home one time, they had a meeting in their robes on the court square. Those are the nastiest looking people, and some of them I knew. Just to see a face that I knew in all that garb.
Ritchie: Being married to someone in the same business, did you ever collaborate on any stories or did you ask his advice?
Kelso: No. I know we never collaborated, and I doubt that we even talked about it much, because he didn't like the idea of being terribly involved in a career. He had a lot of old beatnik attitudes. That wouldn't have been an interesting conversation to him. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: Did he ever read what you wrote before it went out?
Kelso: No. Nor did I read anything he wrote. Within our marriage what it was, was we could have been carrying bricks or picking up garbage or something for a living. It was not a part of our marriage.
Ritchie: Did you socialize together with the newspaper people?
Ritchie: In 1965, you left the States-Item and moved to Total Community Action. You said yesterday you felt that that was a place where you felt you could make a difference and do something constructive.
Kelso: I just felt that as a reporter, I was just an observer. I wanted to see if I could really do something. It was a marvelous experience. I was one of the original five employees that we helped start the office.
Ritchie: This was a federally funded program?
Kelso: Federally funded [with] some local money. I worked harder than I have ever worked in my life, but it was also the most satisfactory thing. Head Start was my main thing. We had just a wonderful medical program. If we hadn't done anything else but get all those kids' ears, eyes, anemia, everything we could fix about them, fixed we did, and we got terrific help from the community, from certain doctors, certain nurses, not from the medical organization or community as a whole, because a lot of them were hostile to the program.
Then a lot of people say the poverty program didn't work, but they don't realize that the poverty program started another revolution, because that's where building on the principles of Saul Alinsky of community organization, grass roots stuff, civil rights issues, and building, in part, on that foundation, they got the idea that they could make a difference if they could have a voice. Today, three members of our city council were indigenous leaders that came up at that time, and one of them, who now is this powerful city councilwoman, boy, she is a kick! When I first knew her, she was just a fat little PTA [Parent-Teacher Association] mama who had a strong voice. She went on to the legislature, and now she's a city councilwoman.
It was just fascinating, watching people on our board, particularly the establishment people, watching them adjust to this thrust of leadership from the communities.
Ritchie: So this program was geared toward low income blacks and whites?
Kelso: It was geared toward both, but we could seldom get any whites in the program. We used to practically catch little white children to get in Head Start and integrate it, but we had a hard time getting them. Funny thing, a lot of them were immigrant workers' children who would come through here, and they were in worse shape in almost every way. A lot of the white kids that we would get, it seemed that they were really on the bottom of the barrel as to health and often retardation, anemia and everything.
Ritchie: So the program set up pre-school Head Start classes for the children and medical facilities to give them basic medical care or check-ups?
Kelso: The Orleans Parish School Board, the regular public board, ran most of our classes, and they did it very well. We had some smaller groups. But my job was liaison, to find out what OEO [Office of Economic Opportunity] wanted and try to get the school people to do it. I had a hard time myself, accepting things from community people. Like there was one woman, Oretha Castle Haley, we later became good friends, but she had been beaten and raped and everything else in jails all over Mississippi. She was really a very aggressive and abused civil rights worker, tough as they go. She used to come up and mau-mau me every day. Everything I did was wrong and she would just— [Laughter.] A white woman, Barbara, would come with her. But I had a lot of help in learning to deal with that, because we had an assistant director, particularly, who was black, and who would get me over my humps. I had some wonderful friends there. He was one of them.
Ritchie: Were you one of the only whites on the staff?
Kelso: No. The director was white, the assistant director [was] black, some other whites. Actually, we might have been even more white than black when we started, but it's changed now. It's almost totally black. They almost have to catch somebody white to work there, too.
Ritchie: I think I mentioned to you that when I was at Loyola, I worked part time after school for Total Community Action.
Kelso: You did?
Ritchie: In the Irish Channel at one of the after-school programs with children. There was a black woman, and I was her aide. I want to say [her name was] Mrs. Peters, but I don't know if that was right. But I would go every afternoon. It was like a daycare center for the children. I think they were school age. Then all day Saturday they had a program for them. It was an interesting experience. I think I only did it for a few months, because the funding was not available after a certain point for Mrs. Peters to have an aide. I can't remember.
Did you miss your writing?
Kelso: No, this thing was so involving. Of course, I didn't know what I was doing. I mean, I had to learn all this stuff about memos and things like that, but it was so concentrated and everything was a deadline. I never thought about that.
But one day a friend of mine, who was a television news director about two years later, he was news director of Channel 6 [WDSU], he called me and asked me to have lunch, and I did. We talked, and he offered me a job that sounded good. By this time I was pretty well burnt out. It was such hard work, such demanding work. So I went to TV.
Ritchie: That's interesting that you said everything had a deadline. But having worked on a newspaper, you should have been familiar with deadlines.
Kelso: Yes, but you write a story on deadline and you're done with it. But you never get through, you never see—or seldom see—results of your work. There is so much quick satisfaction in the news business. You know, your story's in the paper the next day, there it is, right or wrong. It's just a quick fix of satisfaction.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Ritchie: What made you decide to go to TV? Just the offer from the friend?
Kelso: Something new. I get tired of doing things quickly. Somebody told me my attention span is very short. But I just get ready to move on, and if I get an opportunity, I do.
Ritchie: You had been a newspaper reporter in the fifties, when TV came on the scene, and TV reporting. How did the newspaper business change as TV came? Did you see any changes in it?
Kelso: Not for a long time. When I was in Hattiesburg, I had seen TV. I went out with a CBS camera man in New York the summer I was there in '48, and I had seen TV and been in a TV studio. Then when I came to Hattiesburg, I saw my first local TV set, and they had a set in a hardware store window, and it was really nothing but snow, but there were crowds watching this wonderful snow on the set. My boss, Andy Harmon, was anti-TV, and he described TV as "a wireless medium." If you mentioned TV, you didn't call it "television"; you called it a wireless medium. [Laughter.]
Then I came on down here, and the Picayune still was referring to us as an electronic medium, which was odd. The Picayune was trying to get a channel. They were competing for it and they didn't get it.
So, no, I think for a long time the newspapers thought TV was going to go away, but now, of course, I see all kinds of adjustments. I think writing improved. I think my personal writing improved a lot from writing for TV.
Ritchie: How is it different when you write for TV?
Kelso: Well, you just have to be interesting right up there. You have to write like you talk, and you have to write briefly and engagingly. Actually, newspapering now, for that and other reasons, is more writing than reporting. I mean, it's more of a magazine type of operation.
Ritchie: So this was in 1967 that you went to WDSU?
Kelso: '67. Yes.
Ritchie: Was the pay better working for television?
Kelso: Oh, yes! I know I had the magnificent salary of $12,000 at Total Community Action, I thought, but the pay still seemed better to me. TV reporters just generally are better paid than news reporters. As I recall, it seemed better than what I was making at Total Community Action, or at least I didn't have to work so hard for it. But I can't say that I was a big success at it.
To finish about influence, now it's so fascinating to me how all the papers are getting like USA Today. For a long time they wouldn't even carry television programming, but now that's the most coveted advertising spot, the TV channels. Boy! That is wonderful. Now a good part of newspaper news is covering TV, following USA Today.
Ritchie: What was your title when you went to the television station?
Kelso: Political reporter. Fairly soon after I was there, I got the City Hall beat, and then at some point I started doing a—it was like a Saturday column, it was a little commentary program. That was a popular thing. People liked that. I'd just go down there and sound off, have a little film or—
Ritchie: Did you have guests on the program?
Kelso: No, I just had my—I believe it was four minutes I had or something, a long time. I would just have some film and just say whatever I pleased, and nobody was in the station, so there was nobody to keep me from saying anything, whatever I wanted to say. People liked that.
Ritchie: Did you get more feedback from television viewers than you might have from newspaper readers?
Kelso: Yes. I had a very hard time getting used to being recognized. I didn't know what to make of that. I was really big at the ten-cent store, Woolworth's, on Magazine Street. People always surprised me, people would come right up and look right in your face, just look at you. They would always say to me, "Gee, you look a lot better in person than you look on TV."
One man says, "You don't look so old in person." And I was too old for TV, really. I was over age. That was almost '70, so that was twenty years ago. I was in my forties.
Ritchie: So you weren't a young college graduate.
Kelso: No. No kid.
Ritchie: Were there other women at the station in similar roles?
Kelso: Yes. Well, no. There was a woman named Becky Bell, who later was head of the Paris bureau for NBC, and she had covered TV, I believe, but when I was there, at first I was the first full-time political reporter they had had.
Ritchie: When you talked about working at the newspaper earlier, you had two editors who were like mentors. Was there anyone at the television station that would have been like that?
Kelso: No. The man who hired me quit and went to New York about five days after. I did have a friend who was my boss. I was very fond of him, but it was not the mentor relationship. He discovered Jane Pauley and later became their vice president in London, so he had a beautiful career—Ed Planer. So I was very proud of him, but there was not as much mentoring. Really, TV didn't have time to teach you anything, the way they were working it, the way we were doing it.
I never felt really comfortable in TV. I never learned to deal with film and, later, tape, in what I thought was an adequate way. I liked it, but it was mechanical, and I was never happy on camera. I must have done all right, because people tell me I did. I did a lot of live stuff. On Fridays I was always on the mid-day show. That was a mid-day show, it was the predecessor, and recognized as such, of the "Today Show" that that kind of show, variety show. So every Friday we interviewed the mayor, and we had a lot of fun on that. One time Mayor Schiro got so angry at Terry Flettrich. She was the star of the show, and she and I would interview the mayor every Friday. He got so angry at some kind of questioning we were doing, that he just flounced off the set, just took his mike off and walked out.
Ritchie: And left you two sitting there?
Kelso: Yes, standing. We stood. Another time, [Maurice] "Moon" Landrieu was mayor then, was angry about me about a series of stories I was doing about a contract for airport limousines, and he attacked me. He really got tough, and I couldn't decide what to do. I didn't know whether I was going to cry or start cursing. Thank goodness I didn't do either, but I zinged him back, and we just had a knock-down argument right there on the air, and everybody loved it. I think that was when I really had some impact and became known on TV, the fuss I had with "Moon" Landrieu, because it must have been exciting.
Ritchie: How did you respond to him?
Kelso: Well, I started telling him things like, "You think that you can run the news media. Well, you can't. We're going to cover it either way we see it." I think I made a fairly logical case, but I was on the verge of crying, and that's what I didn't want to do.
Ritchie: Right in front of the camera, it would be hard to keep your cool when this unexpected attack came.
Kelso: I later found out—and this has always interested me about politicians—I think "Moon" Landrieu was the best mayor we've ever had, and he's a dear friend of mine today. I love and adore him. Yet he wanted to get the press corps, as we were known then, whatever media, under control. He couldn't get us under control. As a strategy, he and his advisors decided that since I was the lead duck of the City Hall press corps, I was the oldest person on the beat and, I guess, the leader of it as they saw it, if they could knock me out or damage me in some kind of way, that would intimidate the rest. So he deliberately did that to intimidate me. I find that so cynical and so abusive, and it really hurts me to this day that he did that. He has apologized to me, not specifically for that, but about different things he did to me during that time. We just really had a—I often get into running battles with mayors.
Ritchie: Did the attempt to suppress you or to splinter the group continue after that one incident on television?
Kelso: No, it never did, or I didn't see any evidence of it. Maybe they talked about it, but it didn't seem to have any effect. I think that that was because he came out worse in that engagement and he looked like the aggressor. I managed to handle myself pretty well, so I think maybe he just figured that was a failure.
Ritchie: I wonder if they thought you would be easier to go after because you were a woman.
Kelso: I think so.
Ritchie: If a man had been in that position, they may not have done that.
Kelso: Well, they would also have to take into account that because I was a woman I would more likely have sympathy too, but they just decided to whack me over the head.
Ritchie: How many reporters would have been covering City Hall at that time? This was the time that you were in TV.
Kelso: TV didn't work it like in the newspaper when you were on the beat, you used to live at City Hall practically. With TV, we stayed around a lot, but we were also mostly in and out. So there would be one for every station; that would be three. The newspapers at the time, there was just the Picayune and a couple of other people maybe representing alternative newspapers. I don't really remember it as a corps.
Ritchie: When you say "we" were there, you had a camera person with you?
Ritchie: Any others? A sound technician or anything?
Kelso: We were a two-man team. We didn't have producers, sound technician, or anything. It was just us.
Ritchie: Would it all be live? They would shoot you in front of City Hall saying something, then take the tape back to the station?
Kelso: Yes. And that was film; that wasn't tape. We had to take it to the processor and wait a couple of hours, then edit it. Oh, my God! It's just ridiculous now to think of how beautiful the
technology advances so much. Now if you're out of a TV station three years, you don't know what's going on. It was wonderful to go from film, which was so hard for me to deal with, to tape, which was a little easier.
Ritchie: This would have been for the evening news? Were you always doing things for the evening news?
Kelso: Yes. We had three shows, five [o'clock], six, and ten. But I usually just worked five and six.
Ritchie: So your hours were more or less the same as the newspaper?
Ritchie: Did you miss your cronies at the newspaper, the ones you used to go drinking with and socializing with?
Kelso: Well, that had all changed, anyway, by that time. By that time I think Frank Allen had died and the old crowd had kind of drifted away. So the TV people were my friends by then. Then I married in 1960, and it was about 1970 that my husband got sick, so I was there when he had his thing. Along this time I was just drifting along in this dream of happiness of being married. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: Did you ever give consideration to moving up in the television world, going to another station somewhere, as many reporters do?
Kelso: No. I stayed there eleven years, which was too long. But I knew that that was not my medium. I didn't know what was going to come next, but I knew I wasn't comfortable in it. I never felt that I performed really well.
Ritchie: Did young women ever come to you and ask you for career advice?
Ritchie: Because you had been a newspaper reporter and television celebrity, star, reporter.
Kelso: I was never a celebrity as anchors are, but it was just that my face was known. Yes, they came and I don't remember what I told them.
Ritchie: Did you ever want to anchor? Did you ever want to anchor the news?
Kelso: Oh, heavens, no! [Laughter.] That would be a nightmare! One of the worst things that ever happened to me was I used the teleprompter on my little Saturday show and for any long report on set report. When you use a teleprompter, your eyes go like this. [Kelso demonstrates.] [These were] the old ones, they don't seem to do that anymore. I don't notice anybody's eyes going like that. But some man started doing a live election campaign. He would come on the show and do his commercial or make his speech or whatever it was, live, and he criticized his opponent for using the teleprompter. He wasn't going to lie. He said, "You know what the teleprompter is? Iris Kelso uses the teleprompter. Look. Here's the way her eyes go." [Laughter.]
Ritchie: He mimicked you?
Kelso: Ever after that, I was always nervous about the teleprompter. But I had some great times. I guess one of the big ones on TV was I went to the 1976 convention. I went to several political conventions, and that was back-breaking work, because I had to help carry all that gear. Well, I did that anyway on my regular assignment.
Ritchie: You would take your camera man along with you?
Ritchie: Was it always a man, or were there ever any women?
Kelso: There weren't any women. There are now, some really good ones. But the '76 convention was such a great convention, and that was when New York decided to use the convention to launch its Big Apple campaign to repair the image of the city. Lindy Boggs was chairman of the Democratic convention that year, so we got a good hotel assignment, we stayed at the Plaza. Was that a dream? I'd never even been to the Plaza. That was fun. We were just royally entertained. Each delegation had a host and hostess, and they had lined up parties for us. We went to all these lavish parties like in these apartments overlooking Central Park.
Kelso: Apartments with sculpture, the kind of thing none of us had ever seen. Then my friend Terry Flettrich was there in New York, working, the one who had been the star of the mid-day show. She and I spent a day together one day. She was an old friend of Isaac Stern, and we started off in his Central Park apartment, [it was] like a Woody Allen movie. There was never another convention like the '64 convention, but this '76 convention was the most pleasurable convention. I don't even remember who was nominated. I don't think I even cared.
Ritchie: You would do reports, and then how would they get the tape or the film back to this local station?
Kelso: By this time I had a drop-off point where you could take your film. We were shooting tape by then, I think, in '76, surely. We would deliver it to this drop-off point. Of course, a good bit of my stuff went to California and different places and didn't get on the air. That was really frustrating, because by then you had to fight to get on the floor and to do your stand-ups, your wraps,*and all that sort of thing. So it was really hard to do. And to have it just wind up in California was a heartbreak. But that was a great convention. I think Teddy Kennedy made a marvelous speech at that convention.
Ritchie: You just said two words that are, I guess, TV talk: stand-ups and wraps. Was it hard for you to learn all this lingo?
* Stand-ups and wraps are terms TV reporters use to describe the part they tape of themselves to edit onto the other tape the cameraman shoots. "Stand-up" refers to the part of the report showing the reporter. This is the part when you see the reporter standing out in front of a building talking to the camera, for instance. Then word "wrap" refers to the close, when the reporter ends the report, saying, "This is Iris Kelso in Krotz Springs, Louisiana." Wrap as in "wrap it up."
Kelso: Oh, yes!
Ritchie: After you'd been in the newspaper business, where it's a different vocabulary.
Kelso: Well, you know, people don't realize how hard TV is. With a newspaper, you can get a story in ten minutes, with great luck, in thirty minutes or an hour max, and you can get a really good story of the political variety. With TV, you have to interview two people, you have to do an open and a close and a bridge, and you do your cover stuff. Then you go in and you edit it and you're working with people all day long. Now they don't have as many blowups, but when I started, the whole thing could go to pieces on the air or be screwed up some kind of way. It had to be timed exactly. Oh, it was just awful! So you worked all day for what? A minute, ten, and it was over.
Ritchie: And started all over the next day.
Kelso: Yes. So it's really hard work, but I think when it's well done, it's the highest form of the art, far more than writing. To have visuals, it's just incredible, and if you can do it well and get the impact that you want, it's just great.
Ritchie: Were you ever accused of giving favoritism to certain candidates or political parties?
Kelso: I get accused of that a good bit. [Laughter.] Legislators accuse me of being a "yellow dog Democrat,*and they're right. I have to try very hard to be objective, to be fair. I don't have to try as hard now that I write a column, because in a column you have a point of view. But yes, I get criticized everywhere from "nigger lover," to "yellow dog Democrat" "sixties-style liberal,"* all that sort of thing. But what can I say? You write and act out of your own skin, but, yes, I'm trying to be fair.
Ritchie: I thought of that when you said you would interview two people for a television news bit or something. So you would try to present both sides of a story?
Kelso: Oh, yes. I don't have any problem. There are such built-in safeguards in that way. Then you have peer pressure if you just presented one side, everybody would think you're a poor reporter. So I think there's a structure that you follow that insists on a certain level of fairness.
Ritchie: Who at the television station would have been comparable to the editor at the newspaper, who would have looked at your work and given you advice?
Kelso: When I was doing it, we had an assignments editor and a news director, but they never looked at it. You'd just get out there and do it. Now I think they have much more of a structure with producers and even writers and things, but it was really frightening to me that many times nobody would have even seen what I wrote. The anchor at that time always read the scripts, but what did he have? He had, "Mayor So-and-so said today—Iris Kelso reports," and up it comes on film, which is all film and has my opening line, a time, "Iris Kelso, City Hall." All he sees is that, so what does he know?
* An old-time term meaning ardent Democrat, one who will "vote for the Democrat if he is a yellow dog." It is used proudly by the few ardent Democrats who are left.
*People who have not become more conservative toward race and social reform.
Ritchie: Nothing until it comes on.
Kelso: I think there's a lot more control now with tape editing and with producers and more of an editing staff, also more emphasis on writing.
Ritchie: You mentioned an assignments editor, but since you were the political reporter, could you pretty well choose what you wanted to cover?
Kelso: Yes. I hated it when they told me what to do. I just liked to do things my own way, and I've always been rebellious and difficult. With TV, there is more control in initiation of a story, because they have to use so many resources to do a little minute, ten piece. With newspaper, if you want to spend the day working on a story and they don't like the story, they just throw it away. But TV can't afford to throw away the work of the camera crew. So they tried to exercise control, and I fought them all the way. Won some, lost some.
Ritchie: It was during this time that you received a Peabody Award for a series that you did.
Kelso: It was interesting to me the way that worked. I didn't understand it fully at the time. "Moon" Landrieu was mayor. When did he become mayor?
Ritchie: 1970 to '78.
Kelso: Vic [Victor H.] Schiro became mayor in '61, so "Moon" Landrieu was in the seventies. The owner of our station was Edgar B. Stern, Jr. He was of the Stern family, immensely wealthy. His mother was a Rosenthal and she was a Sears-Roebuck heiress. So they owned the TV station, and Mrs. Stern was quite active politically and she was supporting "Moon" Landrieu for mayor. His whole campaign was built around the need for more city funds and whether he would say, "No new taxes, read my lips," or whether he would say, "We have to have more revenue," was a decision.
So my boss, Ed Planer, my friend, had the idea of doing a double medium piece, where we would do TV pieces, a series, a little two-minute piece every day for however long it went on and we would do a booklet, City in Crisis. That's my only book. The booklet would be distributed through groups. It was a very imaginative, thorough way, I thought, to do a serious piece of work so we did it that way. I never knew that Mrs. Stern had suggested the piece and it was built into her campaign for "Moon" Landrieu. That wasn't told to me, "Look, Mrs. Stern wants you to do a piece."
Ritchie: You probably wouldn't have liked that.
Kelso: No, I'd have been furious. I don't guess I would be that prissy about things today, but I was then. So we did it, and it was a big success. "Moon" Landrieu always appreciated it, and to this day people mention to me "your book, City in Crisis," and people call me and ask me for copies of it. Thank God I don't have any, because there were some arithmetic errors in there that I would never want anybody to know. [Laughter.]
Ritchie: The booklet that came out was a compilation of the scripts that you did?
Kelso: No, I don't believe it was just a copy. I believe we had like a story or a chapter that matched each TV thing.
Ritchie: What types of topics did you cover?
Kelso: The city had had a survey done by a guy named Matheson, one of those consultants, that showed just what happened, that down the road we'd be running into terrific deficits and have to cut services or—so the whole point of the thing was to try and show in a nice visual way what the money goes for and what's projected. It was pretty hard to visualize it, because visualizing money and visualizing the future is hard. But it worked out okay, except that at some point in the midst of the series, maybe like two installments out, the top boss, the general manager, got very upset because his wife didn't think my hair and my clothes looked right.
So they assigned my friend Terry Flettrich to restyle me, so they restyled me. I got new makeup, new clothes, everything. So I was restyled midway in the thing. That really got me angry, because I was still so newspaper oriented. I was not camera oriented. I wasn't too good on camera, anyway, but it hurt my feelings. Poor Terry hated to have to do it.
Ritchie: I wonder if they would have done that with a man.
Kelso: No, of course not. They might have made him comb his hair.
Ritchie: But not buy new clothes?
Kelso: Well, it wouldn't have been as important to them, but they did have clothing allowances for the men. I remember they had a makeup guy from NBC come in and make us all up, and the men were so thrilled at their makeup, they could not stay out of the men's room. We kept seeing them go back in, they were going back there, looking at themselves. We had shadows and all this beautiful stuff. Then they really blew up when they realized they couldn't do it themselves.
Ritchie: Did you have a clothing allowance?
Kelso: No, because I wasn't an anchor. The reporters didn't have them but the anchors—I think they do now, I know my niece had a clothing allowance. But I was what they called a street reporter.
Ritchie: What brought about your departure from television?
Kelso: For one thing, I got jacked around some. I was too old for the medium and I really wasn't. So this news director started jacking me around, trying to make me quit. One day, on a Friday, he called me in there and really laid it down to me. Among other things, I remember his mother-in-law's gardener thought that I was working in Baton Rouge, I wasn't here, so that meant I didn't have much impact. But he gave me all my faults. Then when he finished, he said, "So what are you going to do?"
I said, "Well, I'm going to wait and find out what you do." I knew he was in trouble, and on Tuesday he was fired. I was so delighted! I also went up to the boss and raised some hell. I'm not too good at protecting myself in a situation like that until I'm up against the wall, and then I will really kick ass. So I hope that I contributed to his getting fired.
At any rate, I knew it was time for me to move for that and other reasons, although nobody else was trying to fire me. Some people said they liked my work. I mean the top boss said he did. But whatever.
Ritchie: What would the news director have wanted? Would he have wanted a younger person, you think, or someone he could control?
Kelso: No, I think, really, that he wanted somebody who was more of a TV type. That's what he said, that's what he repeatedly said. Now they don't even hire newspaper types for TV. They hire TV types and that's the right thing to do. So I think he had a legitimate gripe, but I was not going to be kicked out of there.
Ritchie: How long after that incident was it that you left?
Kelso: I don't remember, but it wasn't a matter of weeks. I took my time to find a decent—I think I then worked full time at Figaro, the alternative paper. I was already doing a column for them, so I worked full time, and that was a great work experience.
Ritchie: There was no conflict of you doing a column while you were working at the TV station?
Kelso: No, because they are not considered competing mediums. In the newspaper, they wouldn't let us do anything for TV, and certainly not for another newspaper. But TV didn't seem to care.
Ritchie: What type of newspaper was Figaro?
Kelso: An alternative paper. I guess that's an old term, nobody knows really what it is. It was a weekly and very sassy and cute and entertainment oriented. At that time it had a good many sort of hard-hitting stories on issues and some investigative reporting. It was very successful, and it was just a wonderful place to work. Jim Glassman, who runs Roll Call in Washington, was the publisher. He started it and he was marvelous. It was a small group, and my theory about small groups is that anything is [better in] small units. It was just a very creative, flowing kind of environment. I loved it.
Ritchie: Writing for a weekly would have been somewhat different than the day-to-day writing you had done before or the television reporting.
Kelso: It was. I mostly did big feature type stories and I did a column. The column was continuing what I was doing. But I felt different. I just felt looser and nobody looking over my shoulder. They wanted me to be different, try things, do things differently. So I developed a different, or a looser, style of writing and I was very glad to do that.
Ritchie: You mentioned that your writing improved with television. Did you feel, going back to the newspaper, that you were a better writer than you had been in the earlier years?
Kelso: Oh, far better. Far better. Then to have that experience of the alternative paper instead of going right back to a more rigid work space and requirements was good.
Ritchie: How many were on the staff of Figaro?
Kelso: Oh, gosh. I guess maybe ten of us in news, ten, twelve, something like that.
Ritchie: So it was sizable.
Kelso: Yes. It was a really good operation. Maybe not all of them were full time. There was so much coming and going.
Ritchie: How about the pay? Would you have taken a pay cut from television?
Kelso: I continued doing my little Saturday column for television, my little Saturday politics, and I made some money off of that. Between the two, it made an okay salary. I think I did a little bit of freelance writing, too, but it was basically the dual thing.
Ritchie: In an alternative paper, would you have more leeway to express your personal opinions?
Kelso: Oh, yes. More than that, to take odd approaches, odd tacks on things.
Ritchie: What were some of the types of things that you covered?
Kelso: The best story I ever did while I was there was the first story. Do you remember I mentioned Leander Perez, who was in the legislature?
Kelso: The arch segregationist and the leader of the whole thing. Well, he and his—he really had stolen a lot of oil land from the state.
Ritchie: How could he do that?
Kelso: The state handles oil leases and there's a lot of oil land in Plaquemines Parish, so I don't really know how he did it, because I never covered the outcome of the story, but they had this dictatorship down there in this rich little Kuwait of a land, and it was a police state, although if you were on the right side, everything was lovely and everything just went grand. He died and his two sons and their sisters were rich, rich, rich off this oil land.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Kelso: The two brothers, one was council president [Chalin Perez] and one was district attorney [Lea Perez], and they got involved in a feud, a real Cain and Abel feud.
Ritchie: Probably over the money?
Kelso: Actually, it was because of some problem with the council. Chalin Perez was the council president, and he married a second time. He got divorced and remarried and that seemed to have fouled the family relations, it really started with that. But somebody told me about that, and I called Lea. I knew Chalin better than Lea, but I knew Chalin wouldn't talk. I called Lea, the district attorney. He said, "Come on over to my house tonight on Palmer Avenue and I'll tell you about it," so he did. He just laid out the whole story. For several evenings I would go there. He and his wife and I would sit in this gloomy old hall of this big old house on Palmer Avenue up there by Tulane [University].
Ritchie: So they lived here in New Orleans?
Kelso: Yes. I taped the thing. We'd drink, we drank all evening. He was a big drinker. He and I would drink and she would fix the drinks. It was just incredible, the stuff that he told me. I don't even think I used it to the maximum. But that was the feud that brought down the dynasty. They wound up losing an awful lot of that oil, either land or money. I don't know how it worked out. The whole dynasty collapsed, the Perezes are out of government in that little place,
and a new regime is in, not as the result of my story; it's just that it got onto the main story. I think the headline was "Trouble in the Promised Land." Perez's Plantation was named Promised Land.
Ritchie: Would the dailies have picked this story up? Did you ever beat the dailies out of a story?
Kelso: I beat them out of that story, and it was fairly soon after that that I went to the Picayune. One of my editors wanted me to freshen up that story and do it again, and I didn't want to do it. I don't know that he ever forgave me for that. I just would hate to take a story I'd written for one paper and do it for another. But that broke the story open, and from then on it was down to the settlement in court, which I think was sometime last year. I just cut out a clipping on it, the final settlement on that oil land. It was very complicated.
Ritchie: Working on a weekly, you would have had the luxury of a bit more time to research and write. Did you enjoy that?
Kelso: Yes, I really liked it. Actually, the way it goes now on a paper, you can have all the time in the world to do a story. They value things that take time. But back then, they expected a story every day or something.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 3, Side A]
Ritchie: We finished our last session with you at the Figaro. You were there for about a year?
Kelso: Yes, it really was about a year, because in August of '79 I went to the Picayune.
Ritchie: What brought about that move?
Kelso: I just got ready to move on. [Laughter.] I had called my old boss, Walter Cowan, at the States-Item, and he didn't have an opening for me. I guess the editor of the Picayune, who was a friend of mine, Ed Tunstall, may have heard about it, or maybe I called him. I don't know what.
Ritchie: So he had an opening?
Kelso: Yes. Actually, he didn't have an opening. He wanted me to do editorials, and I didn't realize it until we were at the luncheon that was supposed to firm the deal, and he said, "Of course you'll be writing editorials."
"Whoa!" I said, "Let me leave!" Because I wasn't thinking about writing editorials.
Ritchie: Why didn't you want to write them?
Kelso: Of course, the Picayune's editorials don't have any position much, or at that time they didn't. It's just noodling around about things. That's a living death to me. I wouldn't have thought of doing that. I wouldn't be interested in doing editorials, anyway.
Ritchie: You much prefer to be a reporter?
Kelso: Yes. I like the contact and I like the original information. Writing editorials from somebody else's stories—
Ritchie: You're recycling information.
Ritchie: They didn't take much of a stand?
Kelso: No. They are getting much stronger now and I don't know what will happen. But their whole tradition of editorials is rather stuffy and a step forward is about as strong as they would go at one time, a good step forward or a bad step backwards.
Ritchie: What about endorsing political candidates? Would they do that?
Kelso: Oh, yes, they do that routinely, and they keep changing the procedure, so I don't know exactly how they're going about it now. Sometimes they don't endorse anybody if they don't like either candidate. There's a big disagreement in the office over whether that's a reasonable thing to do, that you should make a decision. If the voters have to make a decision, you should make a decision.
Ritchie: Do you agree with that?
Kelso: Yes, I do. In the recent congressional race to replace Lindy Boggs, they didn't like either of the runoff candidates enough to endorse them, and they didn't endorse anybody. I really felt bad about it.
Ritchie: So you were hired to be a political reporter once again?
Kelso: I believe I was promised a column right from the beginning, and I started out doing columns. I can't remember where they ran or what, but it seems to me now that my column is much better displayed than it was then. I think it may have just run wild in the paper or something, but I like it better a lot now.
Ritchie: The column would have been two times a week?
Kelso: I don't remember whether it was three or two or what, but it's two now and runs Op Ed Thursday and Sunday.
Ritchie: Did you have other responsibilities in addition to that?
Kelso: Yes, I did at that time. I remember the '79 governor's race. I wrote a lot of stuff about that and was out a lot on it. From then on I had some, but somewhere down the line I worked it out so that I just do columns, and I'm glad of that, because I really don't like to do spot news or feature stories. I just really like to do columns, and I've gotten it down to that's what I do now.
Ritchie: But you still do research for these columns?
Kelso: Yes, and reporting and try to develop new information whenever I can. My idea is to do fresh commentary—that I have some fresh information and I have a point of view and an opinion. The previous editor didn't like me ever to get into the editorial realm, where I'd be taking a firm opinion, and I really don't do that much, anyway. It might be with the new editor I could do more of that.
Ritchie: Are any of these editors you're speaking of women? Have you ever had a woman editor?
Kelso: No, I haven't. I hadn't thought of that 'til right now. I never have. At the paper recently, or in the last year, the women and a couple of black men—I think there were only a few black men in the office anyway, but they joined us, which was a good help, got together to complain about things. We had had a woman city editor. I did have a woman editor. They had lateraled her to another position to put a man there, so we complained about that and said we wanted to see some women in decision-making things, and complained about a lot of women's issues. Funny thing, they went up to the publisher and back and they gave us everything we wanted and more. I don't know if it just never occurred to them or if they talked with a lawyer or what, but it was a real victory.
Ritchie: What were some of the things you were asking for?
Kelso: Decision-making. The number three job in the office, the news line is the editor, the metro editor, and whatever they call the third job. I don't even know what it is now. But they brought in a woman to handle that. I think they added at least one woman editor, maybe more, and they tried to (and may have now) corrected the "jock, macho male" attitude of the news conferences, where they slapped down everybody who made a suggestion just as a matter of course. A couple of more female bureau chiefs.
Ritchie: Where does the Picayune have bureaus?
Kelso: Oh, my God, we have bureaus everywhere. Slidell, East Jefferson, West Jefferson, River Parishes, maybe five or six bureaus. Big effort to zone papers to them, and how they do it, I don't know, but they print special editions for all of these communities. They have their own advertising and they have the local news. It's kind of like giving them a little local newspaper.
Ritchie: So it's really focused for their area.
Kelso: Yes. It's an attempt to try to follow the affluent newspaper reader and buyer. It's been very successful. I don't know that the paper was ever in danger of going broke, I'm sure they were not. It's a Newhouse newspaper and it's very successful, really.
Ritchie: How large is the staff now?
Kelso: Gosh, I don't have any idea. People as far as you can see on the third floor.
Ritchie: What is the third floor?
Kelso: Third floor is the newsroom. That doesn't include the bureaus, so they've hired a lot more people, have just really reformed the staff.
Ritchie: Since you came to the Picayune in '79, have you seen many changes in it?
Kelso: Just vast, vast changes. Just as I—sort of as a replay of the WDSU experience, Tunstall was kicked upstairs and replaced as editor fairly soon after I came to the paper in '79. A new editor, Charlie Ferguson, took over. He started that zone system, which was just an incredible accomplishment to get that done. He started color in the paper. He brought in—I can't imagine
how many young reporters. He really reconstructed the paper, except for editorial. That continued about like it was.
Ritchie: Would there have been more women on the staff then, or an increasing number of women?
Kelso: There are a lot of women and always have been a lot of women. They've never had enough blacks until recently.
Ritchie: So now they would cover much more of the black communities than they did? I'm not saying that the blacks are specifically assigned to that, but now it would include black news, wouldn't it?
Kelso: I can't really tell. It's hard to say what's black news. We have a black city editor now. [Charlie] Ferguson got bumped out and we have a new editor named Jim Amoss. He brought in the new black city editor, so he has a lot more material aimed at blacks. I'm having a hard time, for some reason, separating what's black news and what's white news. But he's brought a new focus in and brought forward a lot of young black writers. So that's a good thing for the paper. But the big, big thing is the USA Today format, and the graphics, art, layout is very good. So in the time I've been there, it's become a contemporary paper, going from a really old-time, stodgy kind of paper.
Ritchie: Has there ever been any union activity in the newspapers in New Orleans?
Kelso: No. And goodness, you wouldn't want to even say the word "union" around there. They are just death on unions. I was union in TV, and I'm a union person. I'm still singing "Solidarity." But no, they wouldn't want to hear about that.
Ritchie: So the union was active in the TV industry, in the broadcasting industry?
Kelso: Yes, it was AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists]. It was pretty strong when I was there. It's not so strong anymore because of different things, but they had a lot to do with keeping salaries high and overtime and things. But now they're trying to put everybody on contracts so they can fire them when they want.
Ritchie: At the television station?
Ritchie: You mentioned earlier that when you went to the Picayune, that was your first learning of using computers.
Ritchie: So they were coming along with computers. You hadn't used them before in news writing?
Kelso: No. They had had them for some time, I think, at the paper. Well, not for some time; maybe a couple of years.
Ritchie: Did the writers at the Picayune socialize as you had back in the days of the States-Item?
Kelso: I don't know. I don't socialize the way I did, and I imagine the young group socializes about the same way, but I doubt there is the closeness. It's a big corporate world in the newspaper business now. It's not front page anymore.
Ritchie: Do you find it to be cutthroat at all?
Kelso: No. That's a really good thing. I would absolutely hate to work in a cutthroat [environment]. Somehow cutthroat television doesn't bother me too much, but cutthroat newspaper would bother me. There's not a whole lot of office politics that I know of. Reporters don't steal each other's stories. I just think that's hideous. I wouldn't want to work in an environment like that but it seems to be quite prevalent. Younger reporters are a lot more ambitious than I was or my colleagues were. We were really all just kind of having fun, and they are serious. Oh, they are going after it.
Ritchie: Did you ever have trouble writing a story in terms of putting the words down?
Ritchie: So writing comes very easily to you?
Ritchie: Were you ever asked to reveal your sources?
Kelso: I'm trying to think. One time the publisher asked me a source on a story and I told him just without thinking, and he went back to the person involved and told him I told him. [Laughter.] He just did it carelessly. But that was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. A really good source who trusted me.
Ritchie: It just came out without thinking?
Kelso: Yes. I haven't heard much about it lately, but there's the feeling that you should always be willing to reveal your source, at least to your editor. I've never been in a position to have to do that, but I would hate to be, because I feel that at that level, even, you violate confidence. But I see their reasoning, that there are times when they have to evaluate the source, too.
Ritchie: It brings to mind the young woman who fabricated a story in Washington and won a Pulitzer. What did she win? She won some award.
Kelso: I believe it was a Pulitzer. It was on a seven-year-old heroin addict. That's one of the nightmare stories of journalism.
Ritchie: You certainly, through the years, have undoubtedly built up quite a network of sources.
Kelso: I got a nice compliment the other day. A guy who has been the National Republican Committeeman for Louisiana, I've known him since he was a child, because his father was a ward leader for Chep Morrison. That's how far it goes back. Then he became city councilman and he's a big deal in the Republican party now. He said, "Well, Iris, it's a pleasure to deal with you. I've been dealing with you since I was seventeen years old and you never cut my throat." [Laughter.] And he said, "We've never had a problem." So that made me feel good, and I hope that I have a reputation for being reliable, not universally loved, but reliable and fair.
Ritchie: Do your columns still bring responses from readers?
Kelso: Yes. But you know what gets response? Except on writing about [David] Duke, I seldom get over one or two letters a week. I wrote about Duke and I get loads.
Ritchie: Do you answer those letters?
Kelso: No, not hate letters I don't. Sometimes I get a letter that is especially sincere, that touches me in some way, but the columns I get response to are the ones I write about my family. I don't really know why, but I think it's some kind of nostalgic thing.
Ritchie: When did you start writing the family column?
Kelso: I started writing them at Figaro, and that was from that environment that if you're encouraged to do anything that comes to you, do it. I got such good response there that I started writing them more. You can't do them a lot, but after every column of a type, like when I wrote about my sister, well, everybody I see in the grocery store, they want to tell me about their sister. It's very nice. Or their brother. I've heard more family tales and tales about sibling rivalry and things like that, and a lot of them from politicians that I wouldn't expect. One of them told me that after that thing about my sister, he said, "You're lucky. You don't seem to have had any sibling rivalry. I'm sixty-five and I have brothers from sixty to seventy, and to this day I know just exactly what button to punch to hurt them and they do to me." Made me feel so bad to think of somebody carrying all that baggage.
At any rate, people stop me in the grocery store or on the street and say, "I love your columns. I like it when you go back to Mississippi," that's the standard or "When you write about your family."
Ritchie: Have you ever thought of doing pieces for the papers back in Mississippi?
Kelso: They've reprinted some of my stuff, like stories about the fair and different relatives, but no, I don't know that there's any mileage. I wish I could develop some kind of book around that, but I can't think of a format for it. If I was as famous as Russell Baker, the New York Times columnist, I would love to write a book like that [Growing Up], but I think you have to have a well-known name to do that. That was really just a growing up book, autobiography. It's beautiful, the first one. I didn't like the second one.
Ritchie: So it wasn't really until your later years in journalism that you started the family columns.
Kelso: Yes. Also then I got more personal about my column. I don't mind saying "I" or "my" or "I did this," and that's also sort of a fashion. At one time, it was so funny, reporters, instead of saying "I," they would say, "this reporter," or, "this column went down to Canal Street." [Laughter.] It always tickled me to think about a column going to Canal Street. Now it's okay to be more personal.
Ritchie: It's appropriate also in a column to be personal.
Ritchie: Have you ever been involved with any of the professional organizations such as American Women in Radio and Television or any of the writing organizations?
Ritchie: Did you know other women in the field around the country, say, your counterparts in other places?
Kelso: No. I thought about that as you were telling me about going to those oral history conventions and you seem to have a network of friends in your field. I've been remiss in that, I think I would have enjoyed it, but I haven't.
Ritchie: Women in Communications. That's the group I was thinking of.
Kelso: I just don't join things and don't really get involved in a lot of organizational type things.
Ritchie: Back to your theory of the small groups?
Kelso: No, it's just being socially lazy, is what it is. [Laughter.] But I cover so damn many meetings, I hate to go to meetings on my own. It's just punishment to me.
Ritchie: Today in your writing, do they suggest at all what you should write?
Ritchie: Or what you should cover?
Ritchie: So if you want to go to a meeting about something, about chemical waste, you can do that and write about it?
Kelso: Yes. I don't even have to ask. If I make an out-of-town trip, I have to ask.
Ritchie: In writing your columns today, have they ever turned one back to you and said they won't put it in?
Kelso: Yes, several times. Not a lot, and it's for different reasons. One or two times when the city editor was a woman and was my editor, she killed columns. She just didn't like them. Boy, that really gave me a fit. I hated that. It really burned me up. Then there are times, as about a week ago, I'd written a column on a subject that the Baton Rouge bureau chief was preparing a piece on and covering the exact same ground, so my column went down. I always hate that, but most of the time I can understand it.
Ritchie: Do you remember what the columns were that the woman editor didn't like?
Kelso: One was about a plan to build a new city hall, a new complex of public office buildings to replace the present one. She just felt that it wasn't going to happen and didn't deserve a column. The other one, it was after the Atlanta convention, and one of the columnists wrote what a tacky town Atlanta was, and I wrote a response to his column. I'd already written a column saying that
Atlanta was, too, a good town, but I wrote sort of a bitchy little column and I thought it was fun. She didn't like that and she killed that.
Ritchie: Do you have columns in reserve? Do you get ahead of yourself sometimes?
Kelso: I almost always do, because you have to kind of work ahead. I have two lovely days, Monday and Tuesday, two solid-chunk work days, so I try to work some on the other columns so that I move it along some. There are some times when a column will get killed or a subject won't work or something, I can just pull something out of my back pocket and do, but not always.
Ritchie: I know from reading the sample columns that you sent me, you can cover topics such as abortion or teenage pregnancy, which probably at one time weren't written about in the newspaper.
Kelso: I hadn't thought about that. Gosh, you can write about condoms now. Sometimes I use words in my column, curse words that people use, and I can't believe I'm writing this to go on the Op Ed page, and I'm so glad, because it makes the language more real. I'm just really glad that those topics have come out of the closet. I'm sure abortion has been written about a long time, but not as frankly as now.
We had the best time, this women's group around the legislature. Representative Woody Jenkins was the author of this stringent, stringent bill, no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. Is that a stringent bill? "Too bad, lady." And he brought in these models of the womb and the baby in the womb and the baby from the little fish to the—all that. He was always holding up the models and showing them, and he always had them on his desk.
One day in the Senate they transferred all these models. It irritated us all, the way he was using them. I don't know so much what it was about. But he put them all on the desk of the senator who was going to introduce the bill in the Senate, and the women's groups over there, a combination of lobbyists and reporters, we got to talking about how we were plenty tired of that female equipment displayed all over the place, and what we wanted to see was some penises displayed. So we started thinking about we'd have a sea of penises, one on every—it's an all-male group in the Senate. We were just dying laughing, and we started telling it to the senators, and none of them thought that was funny a bit. They didn't even see the joke.
But that kind of thing happened all during the session, and this real wonderful camaraderie developed in the women's group, and I think will be there when the issue comes up again. It was a real network.
Ritchie: They passed that bill, didn't they?
Kelso: They passed it and the governor vetoed it.
Ritchie: But it will come up again?
Kelso: Yes. The representative who's pushing it and his group—you see, we have more Catholics and more Fundamentalists, strong Fundamentalists and strong Catholics, and that combination makes Louisiana ripe for this.
Ritchie: Would you categorize Louisiana as a more conservative state?
Kelso: The polls don't show that. It's a very funny thing. The people in the legislature just do not want to go up against the pro-lifers, as they call them. But now we're trying to make it so they're afraid of the pro-choicers. I say "we," I don't belong to any of those groups, but people I identify with are really targeting people to just get rid of them if they were leaders in the drive for this stringent bill.
Ritchie: Don't you think your columns on this could make a difference or could make people think about it?
Kelso: I don't know. I just don't think about it at that level. I just write to try to write the best column. Well, I'm not trying to influence anybody. If it does, okay but I just am interested in doing the best job I can do every day.
Ritchie: On topics such as teenage pregnancy—and I believe that one was written after you had attended a conference or a meeting of educators—how would you get more information on that? Mainly your contacts, your information, comes from people and from meeting with people?
Ritchie: Do you ever have to do research in books?
Kelso: I did a good bit on the abortion thing. I'm not sure that I used it in any formal way, but I did a fair amount of reading on that, you know, laws in other countries, different books, a good many of them things that legislators gave me that they were reading. I do very little book research. I really prefer to do people research, and I'll call twenty or thirty people before I'll read a book on the subject.
Ritchie: And get the information from them.
Ritchie: Have you ever had people who didn't want to give you information?
Kelso: A lot of times people in government are afraid to. Usually there's some way to work around that. Sometimes they'll give you information you never dreamed of or hoped for, it would be so good, anonymously or that sort of thing. But since I don't develop stories, it's really sort of inconvenient for me to get really hot stuff on the phone. When I get calls, I get calls like that, but I turn that information over to reporters because even if I could do it and had time, I wouldn't want to be walking on their beat.
Ritchie: That's not your job now.
Ritchie: Of all the various jobs that you've had, could you say which one you've liked the best in terms of what you were doing?
Kelso: Oh, the column. I love that. I really am crazy about that. It's just a format that you can do anything with. It's not a format; it's your own creation, however you do it, and can be as loose and easy or as creative as you want it to be. So I like that a lot. I like the personal expression, too.
Ritchie: You're very lucky to have one, aren't you?
Kelso: Yes. But I paid my dues. God knows I've been out here in the vineyard so long! [Laughter.] I like columnists like Ellen Goodman. I think she's my favorite columnist. I love [David] Broder. I've seen him a lot at conventions. I admire him. I like [William] Raspberry, and I kind of follow Raspberry and [Robert] Maynard in that they both use personal examples a lot and I like doing that, I think it makes the thing more understandable. I like the clarity, so I sort of see them as models.
Ritchie: How many different newspapers do you read?
Kelso: I should read more. I read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal when I can, but I must say I'm not faithful doing it. I used to do that, and I just don't anymore. Until the [Persian Gulf] war, I had lost interest in international news. I'm not that interested in national news anymore. I just read it because I sort of have to. Well, I've just gotten lazy. I don't know what, but I don't do the level of reading that I should and I used to do.
Ritchie: Have you let television take the place of it?
Kelso: I'm not that interested in television. I'll watch the national news, of course, and some programs like [David] Brinkley and the McLaughlin [Group] and those.
Ritchie: Do you have any regrets about your career? Any directions that you might have liked to have taken?
Kelso: I would have liked to have gone to Washington to work, and yet I don't think I would have ever have wanted to leave New Orleans. So I don't know. But I would just like to have tried my wings in another field to see if I could do it. But as I say, I like being here. I look forward to a time when I can write books or write articles or do things that just I want to do, that I don't depend on others, at least other newspaper people, at all. So that's what I have coming up next, I hope.
Ritchie: Do you plan to retire anytime soon from the Picayune?
Kelso: No, I would because I'm really ready to go on and do something else. I'm getting past my time limit for staying at a job. I've moved around so much. But I love what I'm doing, I enjoy it, and I can't really afford to retire. So I'll be doing that for at least a year or so. The Picayune will let you work 'til you're ninety. I certainly hope I don't do that. My goal is within a year or so to be able to retire and by that time have something lined up that I can do and work on a book or some books.
Ritchie: The family history that you're interested in doing?
Kelso: The family history is something that I want to do. Nobody wants to buy a family history. [Laughter.] But if I could do a novel based on a Revolutionary War era of that family, I would like to do that. God knows I've read enough of those romances, low-cut bodice and high-cut bodice romances, and my favorite form of novel is a historical novel. I read some of them and I say, "Gee, why couldn't I write better than this?" So I hope that I can do that. But I think minimally I can do a couple of books—on New Orleans, Louisiana politics, political stories. I collect political stories and I've collected an awful lot of information to do that chronology book that I mentioned to you. I think that would be easy and natural to do. There's been no book on
the mayors of New Orleans, so those are three projects that I really want to get started on and I've done a lot of research for.
Ritchie: Have you ever tried writing fiction?
Kelso: No, and it's ridiculous for somebody to say, if you've never even written a short story, and I have tried writing short stories, but I don't seem to be good at plots and imagining, because I'm so tied to what really happened. I think that's the reason. But I believe that if I can get a real-life context, that will be washed out. I've just finished reading a book about Israel where it's done as fiction, but it's real life and based on interviews with a specific person. That's not like the In Cold Blood [by Truman Capote] format, but that was the first of the reality novels.
This woman was a foreign correspondent for the Herald Tribune and started writing books, and I can see that as a form that I can deal with, because lots of times I do interviews with people and I say, "Whoa! This is a novel, I know! I feel it."
Ritchie: What was that woman's name?
Kelso: Ruth Gruber. She's written a lot of books. It just really got me steamed up to think that she went to Israel and asked people, "Give me the name of somebody that I could use to tell the story of Israel in this period." She found one person, a nurse, and did extensive interviews with that woman and with other people, based the novel on that, and it's wonderfully done. It's like eating candy in that you have a personal story running through these events, and it just makes reading the history very easy.
Ritchie: You mentioned that you've read a fair number of "trashy romances" or whatever. What else do you read in your spare time?
Kelso: First, as to trashy romances, I decided I was going to start writing real trashy romances and I read 125 books of the Harlequins and Victoria Holt.
[End Tape 3, Side A; Begin Tape 3, Side B]
Kelso: And I recognized the formula. I even know what page things are supposed to happen on. She should start out as an orphan, all that. Then I sat down and nothing came. I couldn't. I mean, it looks like any dummy can write one of those little books. I couldn't do it. But I read family novels and right now mysteries and a few books that I need to read, like I'm reading Megatrends. I just got Megatrends in paperback now, and a book, The Content of our Character, and I want to read the oil book. Books like that I'll read. But my constant turnover is family novels, four generations, at least.
Ritchie: You certainly, in your career, have seen things change in journalism. Can you think of some of the changes that have occurred to women?
Kelso: Gosh. Everything. I love it to see women bosses. That just knocks me out. I just am crazy about it. One thing that strikes me, we have so many women lawyers and so many women politicians. I see women coming to the forefront in our politics here and nationally. I'm really proud about Ann Richards in Texas. I think there is so much feeling of outrage and disgust about politicians right now, particularly since the budget hearings, that people are saying, "Let a woman do it."
In journalism, the main things are that routinely women get equal assignments and don't get immediately banished to society, and then going on trips like the earthquake in Mexico was great. Then I see women photographers and they go anywhere anybody else does. So, yes, I think women are going to have a really good effect. I don't think that I, we, any of us, have realized what a "macho jock" mentality there is in the newspaper business, and I think we'll see some of that ease over and ease out. It is the same for all kinds of corporations. But I just see a much more pleasant feeling developing in our corporation as women became more pervasive and in positions of responsibility.
Ritchie: So the "sob sisters" are a thing of the past?
Kelso: I guess we call them profiles now, but it's just not as openly maudlin or sentimental. [Laughter.] My God, there are some restraints.
Ritchie: Was there ever a woman that you knew who tried to change the society pages? I know in some cases there were women who tried to make them less society and more human interest or issues and concerns to families.
Kelso: There's been a move to do that in our paper, but what happened was that they mostly just split it into two sections. They have one section called "Vivante," that's weddings and society oriented, although they've made an advance—they routinely cover black weddings and black debutantes and all and that's been a great thing to see. But we have another section called "Vivante," and that's the issues for women. The big thing in the newspaper business now is to find out what will really turn women on, what will make women be as interested in the paper as men are in sports, because that's one thing that keeps the paper going. As a result of women working, women have stopped reading the paper. Before, they were regular readers, that time in the morning when they were home. Now they don't have time to read anymore. Some of the surveys have shown that what really draws readers (and we have one now) are automobile columns. They like to know how to look after their automobiles. Not how to fix it, but just how to take care of it.
Ritchie: Question and answer type of columns?
Kelso: Yes. Very popular with women. Every newspaper in the country is looking for some way to turn women on as readers.
Ritchie: A regular feature that they could have for the women readers so they would continue to read the paper.
Kelso: Yes. They're thinking about a whole section. What could you put in a section that would be mostly for women, or would that be insulting? Would you want to have a column that would just be like a family column? So papers all over the country are doing research, or so editors tell us, to find that formula.
Ritchie: Can you think of any other changes in the profession that you've seen over the years?
Kelso: I particularly notice the attitude toward public officials, and I think that's been a very healthy thing. I think that in days before my generation of reporters and continuing through my time, reporters tended to identify with politicians and to like them and to be flattered by their own access to power. Sometimes they were just public relations people for the public official and that relationship has been broken. Now that the power of the media has been increased and may
have shifted too far in the other direction, I think politicians are more eager to know Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw than they are to know some presidents. Maybe not that high, but certainly the power of the media has grown enormously. But I think that reporters have created some distance between them and public officials, and now sometimes I think some of the young reporters are just too out to get them, you know, fry their ass. They don't believe that any of them are any good. Sometimes I think it's sort of unreasonable, their expectations. But they may be right, I don't know. I love their stories when they do fry them, I love them.
But I was never really one to fry people about anything, and that's not so much part of the profession; that's just the way I am. I try not to be apologetic about that. That's just how I work out of my own skin.
Ritchie: I don't have any more questions right now. Is there anything you'd like to add?
Kelso: No, not anything.
Ritchie: When I come back and we do the video, we'll redo some of these questions, but we will have some additional ones.
Kelso: That'll be fine.
© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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