Washington Press Club Foundation
Iris Kelso:
Interview #3 (pp. 75-102)
September 14, 1991 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Anne Ritchie, Interviewer

Because this session was videotaped,
material from other sessions may be repeated here.

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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Ritchie: Iris, I thought we'd start today by talking about the various positions you've held during your forty-plus-year career. I have some general questions about each of the positions. Your first was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the Hattiesburg American in 1948?

Kelso: 1948 to '51, when I came to New Orleans. And I've worked for daily newspapers, for television, and for alternative papers over that period. I started out with the Hattiesburg American, then came to the New Orleans States, it was then. [It] later became the States-Item, now is combined with the Times-Picayune. I stayed there for a long time. In '65 went to work with Total Community Action, which was the poverty program agency. In '67 went to work for WDSU-TV, then in '79 began some work with an alternative paper, Figaro, later Gambit. Then to the Times-Picayune. A taxi cab driver asked me one time did I get fired from all those jobs. I was happy to tell him no, not from any of them.

Ritchie: How did he know you'd had so many? Were you chatting?

Kelso: I had known him a long time. I ride cabs all the time, so I know a lot of taxi cab drivers.

Ritchie: Your first position was in 1948 and that was a time right after the war when a lot of women were let go from positions they'd held during the war. Was your situation a little unique as being someone who was hired at that time?

Kelso: I didn't think of it as that. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know that women had been fired or let go afterward, but I came on right after college and my editor was especially interested in training young people, so he gave me a lot of training and helped me a lot. Then he sent me on to New Orleans to some friends of his who were the two editors of the New Orleans States.

Ritchie: It was a small newspaper?

Kelso: The Hattiesburg American? Yes, small, but a very good one, I thought, with some serious standards about news. I think my editor was a very unusual man, Andrew Harmon. It was a grand experience for me because I covered everything. I wrote some society, I wrote country correspondence—that was a wonderful thing—from Petal, Mississippi. I would write how someone had visited her friend for the weekend—big news. And sometimes I think that some of the news I write now sounds like country correspondence. But everybody got their name in the paper. I also did courts, did some police, did interviews. It was a very wide experience and I was glad for that.

Ritchie: Were you the only woman on the news staff?

Kelso: Yes, part of the time I was. Women did all the society news. All the members of the [news] staff [were men], except for myself and another woman for part of the time. We were the only ones [women] on the news staff.

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Ritchie: Did you ever feel you got assignments because you were a woman?

Kelso: Yes, when a major politician came to town, a man got the male candidate and I got the wife. And that continued to happen when I came to New Orleans and I never did like that. I've come to feel differently about that now, but at that time, I thought that was an insult.

Ritchie: And you were aware of it at that time?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: Did you ever not get assignments because you were a woman, other than these politicians?

Kelso: In Hattiesburg, I never covered the big politics, I just did auxiliary things. It may have been I wasn't ready at that time; even if I'd had the ability, I wasn't ready. But I had a regular run—the Health Department, the 4-H Clubs, courts. I was glad of that, because I love to cover courts.

Ritchie: Now that was something that might have been more typically male?

Kelso: I guess so, I don't know. I know that my editor then didn't have a strong feeling about women on certain jobs. And that was because of his experience in World War II. He often said that he found women could do it just as well as men and sometimes better. So that was the first time I heard that kind of talk.

Ritchie: And he's the one that sent you on to New Orleans. So he trained you and knew that you could do something and advance in the field.

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: How were you accepted by your male colleagues?

Kelso: I didn't find any problem. Actually, I was really not that aware of discrimination in the business. I was so thrilled to be a reporter. I thought every day was so marvelous, that I just didn't think about those things. And that continued for a long time until I got my consciousness raised a little later.

Ritchie: What were your hours like when your worked there?

Kelso: I suppose my hours were basically nine to five or six, but I felt myself on duty at all times. If I heard a siren, I thought I had to go find out where the fire was. It was just that big a thing for me, but normally the hours were normal working hours.

Ritchie: Did you socialize with your colleagues from the newspaper or did you have a separate social life?

Kelso: I had a separate social life. I went out with some of the guys on the paper, but it seemed to me that we were different ages. There was a young tier and an older tier and we really didn't socialize as a group very much.

Ritchie: So you would have had a separate home life. You were a single woman at that time?

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Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: What made you move on? Was there anything besides your editor? Did you feel that it was time to move on?

Kelso: No, I didn't feel that; he felt that. So I left and fell into a honey pot here with two more really good editors, I thought.

Ritchie: What was the best thing about that job in Hattiesburg?

Kelso: It was the business itself. I never really thought about being a reporter and I only went to that job because where I went to school, Randolph-Macon, they got it for me. I had very little interest in really doing any working. I was just waiting to meet Prince Charming and get married. But I found something I really liked to do and I felt that I could do it well. So that was a marvelous thing for me.

Ritchie: Did your style of writing change at all during that time?

Kelso: Not much, really. I look back and I see some things I wrote in Hattiesburg that are better than the things I write now. There was a freshness about them that you lose.

Ritchie: Did your editor change what you wrote very much there?

Kelso: Not a lot. Occasionally he would just throw it back and say, "Improve that lead." He made me read a lot. He made me read a lot of Associated Press copy. They did some editing, but not heavy editing. It was so difficult in those days to edit because you had to pencil in anything that was on the paper. Now with the computer you can just zip it out, so I think that editing is both better and heavier. Sometimes I think the editors just find it so easy, they like to do some editing and change my priceless words.

Ritchie: [Laughter.] So the technology maybe has worked to the disadvantage of the writer, in terms of editing?

Kelso: I think so, because it's so easy.

Ritchie: When you came to New Orleans, what was the town like then? I say town; it was really a city, compared to Hattiesburg.

Kelso: I knew New Orleans when I came because my father used to bring me and my sister here a lot, so I loved the city already. But, to me, it was a very big town and it was frightening and confusing for me. It was an interesting town. They still had lottery when I came in '51. They had open gambling in an adjacent parish, Jefferson Parish. It was a naughty town. Coming from Philadelphia, Mississippi, Bourbon Street was pretty naughty to me, although I'd seen it earlier. But I lived in the French Quarter when I first came and I was working an early shift. And I would go to work at six o'clock in the morning and I'd see all of the strip tease dancers and the bartenders and the waiters and the barkers going home. And that was always interesting. I'd walk up Bourbon Street to go to the office.

Ritchie: What did your family think about your moving here? Because it was very different from the atmosphere that you'd grown up in.

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Kelso: They were glad of it because my father loved New Orleans and he was very pleased that I came here. It was certainly was better, as he saw it, than my going to New York or somewhere like that.

Ritchie: That's right. It was closer to home.

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: And your job on the States was a general reporter?

Kelso: It started off that way. It was not until maybe '53 or so that I got the school beat, which was training for other beats. If you could make it on the school beat, then they would move you on. And in '54 I began covering politics and I've been doing that ever since.

Ritchie: What did you do as a general reporter?

Kelso: I did interviews, convention interviews, hotel interviews. I did sob—we called it sob sisters. It's funny to me that nobody knows what that expression is. But I would go to trials and write about the person on trial and I would make it very emotional and sentimental and, I thought, colorful. I did murders and suicides, I covered fires.

Ritchie: Would these be assignments that were typically given to a woman?

Kelso: They were given to all general assignment reporters. There were some assignments that I would never have gotten. I don't think I would ever have been put on the police beat. I don't think that in the beginning I would have been allowed to cover heavy politics, but that was a function of experience. But there were already two women City Hall reporters who were very good, so they prepared the way for entry into that field. I would never have been able to cover a dangerous assignment like a hurricane. And I have covered enough hurricanes that I never want to cover another one, wouldn't want to at all. There was not the severe distinction that many people seem to think there was. We had three women on the regular news staff, as I recall, and the assignments were fair.

Ritchie: Was there someone who did women's page?

Kelso: Yes, society women's page, all that. But there were three women on the [news] staff there.

Ritchie: So the assignments that you got were of a general nature that a man might have gotten also?

Kelso: Yes, although maybe not sob sister. I think women were supposed to be especially good at being sob sisters.

Ritchie: So, in those stories you tried to appeal to a woman's feelings or emotions to get them to read the newspaper and sell the newspaper for sensationalism?

Kelso: I think it was more the sensationalist approach than a gender approach. Now there's so much emphasis on trying to get women to read papers again, so there's a great deal of news aimed at women. But they didn't do the kind of marketing and focus groups and studies and research that they do about readers. Then they just followed their instincts.

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Ritchie: Would you remember any of the other sob sister stories, besides a court drama?

Kelso: I remember several murders, but it was the court dramas that I liked most because you could sit and watch the people involved and see the play of emotion. A lot of the sob sister type things I did I worked against a man, Tommy Sancton, who was a novelist, and very imaginative. He would not only write what happened, he'd write what should have happened or might have happened. And when I would get back to the office—he worked for the opposition paper—my boss, the editor, would be furious that I didn't have all these interesting details and it didn't help much when I told him they weren't true. He was still mad that we didn't have the more interesting story, although he certainly didn't advocate lying or manufacturing news, but he just felt frustrated.

Ritchie: You mentioned two women. Did one of them work at your newspaper, that covered City Hall?

Kelso: One was Ruth Sullivan. She preceded me as City Hall reporter and she had a column. On the other paper, there was Lee Davis, who covered politics. Both of them were very good.

Ritchie: So you knew them? They were working at the time that you were at the States?

Kelso: I'm not sure that Lee was. She may have left town by that time. No, she still was working because I remember following her around when I first started covering politics. I had no pride at all; I just followed Lee. Wherever she went, I went.

Ritchie: She was on the other newspaper?

Kelso: Yes, and she was furious. But I didn't know what else to do. I just followed her and I got a very good story.

Ritchie: So she was a mentor of sorts?

Kelso: Not so much as Ruth Sullivan, but she was a role model. She was quite a tough kind of reporter and I wanted to be like that.

Ritchie: Do you think you succeeded?

Kelso: No, I don't. A lot of people say I'm not tough enough, and certainly not by the standards of journalism today. But I just think you operate out of your own skin and you can't put yourself into a mold.

Ritchie: When you say tough, do you mean how you get a story or how you write it—your position?

Kelso: Both. What kind of questions you ask, how you insist on getting as much as you can of the truth. I think I've done some of that. But I find that now reporters really favor being in an attack mode, on politicians particularly, and I've never been able to do that or feel good about that.

Ritchie: But you've had great success as a political writer, don't you feel?

Kelso: I hope so, but my own criticism of myself would be that I like politicians too much and I forgive them some of their ways. Not all the bad things. But I admire politicians, I admire the

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process, and I think it's much better now than the public now certainly gives it credit for being. So I'm not so interested in tearing it down and I wouldn't want to falsely contribute to an attitude of total cynicism and rejection.

Ritchie: When you first started covering politics, was there the cynicism that there is today?

Kelso: No, not at all. There was cynicism certainly in the kind of politics we've had in this state, there was that. But I don't remember the feeling that everybody in politics was a crook and you couldn't trust anybody, just [a] total turnoff to the system.

Ritchie: You mentioned following Lee around. How did you learn the ropes of the newspaper? Who showed how you did things or where to go for a story, that type of thing?

Kelso: I don't know. I remember that I worked—I know how it was. I worked number two to other reporters. There were two male political reporters on the paper that covered state politics. They were Alec Vuillemot and Emile Comar and I worked follow-up with or for them. Went on stories with them, saw how they did it, met people with them. That's how I went to the legislature in '59 for the first time. I went with Emile Comar and we worked all day as hard as we could and then we drank and played at night with the legislators. Then we went across the street to the Western Union place and filed our stories, filed the typed stories that we had. That would go on till about three o'clock. We would then sleep and then the editor would call us at about six o'clock in the morning and say, "What's new?"

Ritchie: After you'd filed your story?

Kelso: It was a brutal thing, but I was so excited that I never calmed down, I think, for the whole session.

Ritchie: Did the two men mind having a woman in tow? Did you ever feel that?

Kelso: They didn't seem to. Particularly Vuillemot, who was an older reporter, I think he liked having a student or pupil and enjoyed teaching, and helped me a lot. Emile Comar and I worked more in tandem, worked together, and he helped me a lot. But he was closer to my age and it was more of an equal relationship.

Ritchie: So they would have been established in the field and had their contacts and knew who was who. They knew how to work the legislative beat?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: How did you get contacts? How did you get information?

Kelso: It's really just a matter of going around. If you're in a public building, you can go into offices and in and out and see them. And when I first started covering City Hall, everything was just laid out before us. The press room overlooked the stairs where the mayor went down to his limousine, so we could sit right there and catch him going down the stairs. All the councilmen had offices on that same floor. Every day we went around to every councilmen's office. I say we—myself and Bill Reed, who was the Item reporter, and Jim Gillis, who was the Picayune reporter. We didn't go together. Sometimes Bill and I did. He and I persuaded a councilman one time that everything that came across his desk was public record, so he let us read everything that came out.

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Ritchie: So that's a good way of getting information?

Kelso: Yes. The mayor always wondered how information got out. We never told and our councilman never told.

Ritchie: When you did something like this, set up a contact like that, did you ever have to compromise or give the person something? Did you ever feel that your writing had to reflect something that the person had told you, yet you couldn't check out for yourself? Do you know what I mean?

Kelso: No, I don't think I know what you mean.

Ritchie: How did you verify what a contact told you?

Kelso: I usually tried to do it with records and if it was word-of-mouth stuff and— [Tape interruption.]

Ritchie: What was the best thing about working at the States?

Kelso: I think it was the camaraderie and the sense of teamwork. It was a small staff and we adored our bosses. Every day was exciting because we worked together and we had a sense of completion at the end of the day. The paper had come out and we would all go over to a barroom called the Marble Hall right across from City Hall. And we would drink there in the afternoon until like six, seven o'clock and sometimes later. But it was like a family and it was a wonderful, wonderful feeling professionally and personally.

Ritchie: So you were well accepted by your colleagues and you socialized with them outside of the workplace?

Kelso: Yes, I think so.

Ritchie: Was that pretty much your life at the time?

Kelso: I lived in the French Quarter and a lot of young people lived there at the time. We just wore ourselves out, playing and partying, going places together. Sometimes we'd spend the whole weekend together, a group of us. We drank a lot, we smoked a lot, we stayed up late, and we just had a really good time, but I don't think I could stand that kind of life now.

Ritchie: The newspaper was an afternoon paper?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: And it came out five days a week?

Kelso: Six. I remember that because I did the school page on Saturday and later I had my column on a Saturday. So it was six days.

Ritchie: So you would have worked early morning until early afternoon? And then filed the story and you'd be done?

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Kelso: It depended. When I was general assignment, I started off early in the morning because I did rewrites. One of the best things I ever found out, and I learned this from Alec Vuillemot, the older reporter I mentioned, that if you took all of those rewrites but maybe two, and put them under your blotter, nobody would ever know. So that was a very valuable lesson. When I started covering politics, I kept politicians' hours, so I came to work at nine or ten.

Ritchie: When you say you did rewrites, what does that mean?

Kelso: They don't do that anymore. I don't know where rewrites went. But we had a lot of little things about garden club meetings and all different kind of handouts, publicity releases. And I would get a stack of rewrites from the Picayune in the morning, all of us would, and we would rewrite them. If they were four paragraphs, we would make them two paragraphs. Or if it turned out to be a good story the Picayune had overlooked, we would expand it into a better story. But I don't think newspapers carry that kind of community news to that extent. We use calendars and things like that [now].

Ritchie: Did you rewrite news wire stories, like AP stories?

Kelso: I didn't. I don't remember that I ever did much of that, but we had rewrite men, they were called. My husband, Bob Kelso, was a rewrite man and he would do rewrites. For instance, he might take AP and UPI and some local reports and make it into one story. Or if it were a real big story, we might have four or five reporters out on the story and he would take telephone reports from them and make it into one story. He was very good at that. And rewrite men were prized, but that job doesn't seem to exist anymore. Although they do have team reporting on something like an airplane crash. But it's not used as much now.

Ritchie: The rewrite person?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: In this position, did your writing change at all? Did you feel that you were growing as a reporter?

Kelso: Writing wasn't prized the way it is now, fine writing; it was reporting. So I think I learned an awful lot about reporting, just from having my editors say, "Get out there and get the story." If I needed some advice on where to go, I would outline my plan to them for getting a story. Frank Allen and Walter Cowan were our editors. So I learned a lot about reporting and Frank Allen and Walter were insistent about accuracy and digging and sources, that sort of thing. But I think, really, I learned more about writing working for television, because I think I got into writing the way people speak. I wrote for speech, so I liked that a lot.

Then I learned more about writing and I began to feel freer working for an alternative paper where there was a very good staff relationship and interesting stories and it made us want to be very lively. So I think now there's far more emphasis on writing and that's a good thing, I think, that the papers are so much better done.

Ritchie: When you were at the States, were there any women in a management position, as an editor?

Kelso: Oh, no, that would never even have been considered. There was a society editor, but that was as far as it went.

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Ritchie: And you were there for a good fifteen years?

Kelso: Yes, from '51 to '65, a long time.

Ritchie: This was a time when women were active in the field, though. There were a number of women on the staff, but not in any management positions?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: Were there women in management positions at the Item or the Picayune that you can remember?

Kelso: No. The one woman I knew in any management position, this was in the fifties and early sixties, Margaret Dixon. Margaret Dixon was the managing editor of the Morning Advocate and so she was the queen of journalism and of political reporting. She was very close to Earl Long, who was the governor then, and had sources that we could never have touched. She's still a legend in politics and in reporting.

Ritchie: And the Morning Advocate was published in Baton Rouge?

Kelso: Baton Rouge, yes. She reigned over the press room at the legislature and we still talk about her.

Ritchie: How often did the legislature meet when you were covering it in those years?

Kelso: They had a regular session. That would be a sixty-day session. Sometimes they had special sessions for taxes or whatever. But we would go there and live. Emile Comar and I both stayed there in a hotel and at that time it was the Hotel Heidelberg. It was the center of everything because the legislators all stayed there. They no longer do that. My first year was 1959, Earl Long was governor, and the governor would come down and sit in the lobby and legislators and lobbyists and all would talk with him. And they would have parties all over the hotel. There would be drinking and playing. So everything was spread out before us, so there was almost nothing you couldn't find out.

Ritchie: So you had access to all of your sources and what was going on or what would be happening the next day?

Kelso: They were right there. All you had to do was stay in your hotel. But now, of course, they're all spread out.

Ritchie: How many women would have been in the press corps then or in the press room? What was the press room like at the legislature?

Kelso: It was a great big room with desks around the center and, of course, a lot of AP machines. I don't remember over about three, four women maybe, counting Maggie, who were there. The main reporters were men and now the press corps in Baton Rouge is at least half female. And it's the same with the corps of lobbyists. I don't think I ever saw a woman lobbyist until the last ten years maybe. Well, no, there was one. But now at least half the lobbyists are women. It's a whole different scene.

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Ritchie: What was it like working for a newspaper in a town where there were other papers? There was competition with the people on the other staffs?

Kelso: It was really fun, the sense of urgency about everything. Of course, an afternoon paper has more of that deadline fever. But I used to go to City Hall, and the paper's first deadline, I believe, was one o'clock. Our editor, Frank Allen, got the States paper off the press when it was still wet and I think he had somebody doing that for the Item. At, say 1:30 or 1:28, whenever the Item came off the presses, I would get a call from Frank Allen. And if my opposition, Bill Reed, had a story I didn't have, Frank Allen would raise some hell. "What's going on over there, Susie? If you can't cover that beat, I'll get somebody who can!" I would just get chewed out. So there was a sense of a game and it was fun, and then getting the approval of your boss meant a lot, or a whipping when you didn't do well. So we could never let up. I miss that competition and I think it's gone everywhere. But there's no reason why one paper can't be a great paper just because it's one paper. And I think the two paper and the competition syndrome were more useful in the sensation days of newspapers than it is now.

Ritchie: Did you ever find you couldn't write something because of the ownership of the newspaper?

Kelso: Yes. Mostly I knew what I could write and what I couldn't. It was a self-censorship. But occasionally I would write a piece, a column maybe, and they would just kill it.

Ritchie: The editors?

Kelso: Yes. And I always had a feeling when our bosses favored a certain mayor or a certain governor, that there were limits to what we could write. And I tried to push that, but the osmosis principle is really the kind of censorship that came.

Ritchie: So you knew that there were certain areas or sensitive areas that you had to stay away from?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: Was that in terms of political stands or companies that might have had an interest in the newspaper, you had to steer clear of reporting on them, or a politician's actions?

Kelso: There wasn't so much of that. What I noticed was this feeling on my part that you couldn't go too far in criticizing the then Mayor Chep Morrison, because he was the boss' guy. But you could have some criticism, but there was just a certain limit that you couldn't go past. And there were attitudes, like the paper was very anti-labor, and I remember I wrote a piece. I had much admired Vic Bussie, who's still president of [Louisiana] AFL-CIO, and I wrote a profile on him that was very complimentary and that never saw the light of day, because of the paper's policy.

Ritchie: Did the paper support political candidates?

Kelso: Yes, they did and, oh, that was disgraceful. We laugh about it now. I remember we were against then Councilman Victor Schiro running for mayor. Every day we had a piece on the front page, the name of it was "Pertinent Questions." And we asked him ridiculous questions. They were all, "Have you quit beating your wife?" kind of questions. "Do you still spend too much money on this function (or that function)?" or "Why did you do this?" All aimed at embarrassing

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the mayor. And each day a different reporter had to write the pertinent questions. And I hated it. We all hated doing it, but it had to be done. No respectable paper would do that now. But it had a certain life and vigor to it that I liked, getting in the middle of things, rather than sitting back.

Ritchie: At some point the States and the Item became one newspaper?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: Were you still working for them at that time?

Kelso: Actually, I don't remember. I don't remember exactly when they folded. I was working for the States, I know. I don't know. I'd have to check the records on that.

[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]

Kelso: —and especially after I got into the political field, I seemed to have had a lot of freedom to develop stories and I was encouraged to do that. Walter Cowan especially encouraged me. I remember when he assigned me to cover City Hall, I didn't want to do it, I felt that I couldn't and he said, "Would I assign you to City Hall if you couldn't do it?" Well, yes. So he encouraged me and I've never, since then, been in a position of where I felt so much of a team and felt so much support. Frank Allen would always say if you got any trouble from a source or from a politician you were trying to expose, he'd say, "Just tell them to go to hell." And I always felt that I could tell anybody, big businessmen, anybody, "Go to hell." Still there were these limits, but within those limits, a lot of freedom.

Ritchie: What was the worst thing about the job? What didn't you like about it?

Kelso: Oh, goodness. I can't think of anything I didn't like about it. I loved that job. I finally got to the point, though, that I felt, I'm on the outside looking in on everything, I would like to try to do something myself. And I also just got a little tired and, I guess by then, I didn't like the money I was getting. I mean we were really poor.

Ritchie: How much did you make?

Kelso: I can't remember, but I do remember that one of our great treats was to get an assignment to review the show at the Blue Room. You could take a guest and we all ate and drank free. And it was very hard for us if we went on a Thursday—we got paid on Friday—for us to raise four dollars among the four of us for the tip. We were expected to pay the tip. So we were poor and we would charge beer over the weekend, things like that. We were just always on the edge.

Ritchie: Living from paycheck to paycheck?

Kelso: Oh, yes.

Ritchie: Did you feel that you got less pay than the men?

Kelso: I'm sure I did, but I never knew it. It just never was a factor at all. I must have been really blind. But I was having so much fun, I guess I didn't really care.

Ritchie: It was during your time there that civil rights became an issue and came to the forefront of the news in the South. Can you tell me about your writing about civil rights?

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Kelso: In New Orleans we had a protest movement, we had marches, sit-ins, all that. I never did cover any of that. I'm not sure that the paper covered those to any great extent. First of it that I remember was when I was sent—I'm from Philadelphia, Mississippi—and I was sent there to cover the activities when the Emmett Till murder happened [1955], which sort of triggered the civil rights activities. And, while there, I met some of the COFO workers, that was the Council of Federated Organizations. Martin Luther King, [Jr.], had marched there in the voter registration drive. I didn't see that, but I saw a Ku Klux Klan meeting. And I had a friend, Florence Mars, who was, as they called it then in Philadelphia, "collaborating with the FBI," in that she was working to bring out the truth of the murders of the three civil rights workers. So I was in and out of Philadelphia around that time.

Ritchie: This was for the States-Item?

Kelso: Yes. That was in '63, I believe. Before then I covered the integration of schools here in '60, but that was marshmallow reporting compared to what was happening in Mississippi. But I don't recall that I ever felt my life was threatened. I was one time at a meeting somewhere in Mississippi where it was a voter registration meeting and I was in a black church, and they had the deacons, who were a black group, who were armed outside guarding the meeting, and the Ku Kluxers, who were in the ditch with their rifles. And they started shooting and we should have hit the floor, but instead of that, we stood in a circle and sang "We Shall Overcome." And that was the closest I ever was to any kind of danger.

Once when I was in Philadelphia, this was after the killing of the three civil rights workers, I got some phone calls saying that my father's lumber mill was going to be bombed if I didn't go back to New Orleans, where I belonged. And sometimes when I was with my friend, Florence Mars, going to different sites over the county, the state police had a helicopter follow us. And then, too, I went to Meridian, Mississippi, and wrote some stories about the Freedom Schools. I think one experience I had there where a teacher from CCNY discussed the Bill of Rights with a group of children, and when I realized that I knew nothing about what the Bill of Rights was, but these kids did because they had heard the knock at the door. And I have never forgotten that experience.

Ritchie: So the States-Item sent you to Mississippi to cover the activities that summer?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: And would you write a column or were you actually reporting day to day?

Kelso: I was reporting stories. I don't know what I did about my political column, but, no, I didn't write columns about that.

Ritchie: And you say that a little earlier you had covered the integration of schools in New Orleans?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: What type of stories would you write about that?

Kelso: I think I wrote color stories about that. I've never been able to find them because that coverage disappeared from our library. But I covered Frantz School, where, I think it was three little black girls were ushered in by marshals and this horrible phalanx of fishwives, these women,

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these awful women, were standing out there spitting on the children and yelling at them and screaming and making a fuss. And it was so nasty. I should say that there was also a wonderful group of women, Save Our Schools, who worked to help take the children.

Ritchie: Would the newspaper have had other coverage of civil rights activities in the early sixties?

Kelso: Oh, yes. They had it, but my impression looking back is that it wasn't fully covered. I don't think that it was recognized for the significant earth change, really, that it was in our society. And it was a very controversial thing here, especially the integration of schools was. So I didn't find that it was covered in the way that you would hope that great social movements today would be covered.

Ritchie: Did you see it happening in your political reporting?

Kelso: I saw that happening. I remember sitting in Chep Morrison's office. He was the mayor from '46 to '61 and this was 1960. And he was running for governor, so he didn't want to do too much. He didn't want to offend the segregationists in the state, but he also had a sense of obligation. And he sat there at his desk in front of us and tried to round up business leaders simply to sign a statement calling for law and order, police enforcement at the schools. He couldn't get some of the biggest people in town to sign that statement. And that was the first time I realized how the leadership of the town, the power structure, was afraid or segregation-minded. But all that led to all those poor, little children being spit on as they went to school.

And it was a group of women, some of them still friends of mine, who took action. It was not the main business leaders and it was not the top business leaders who were on the school board and who kept the schools open. These were second-line business leaders and they took all the abuse, just incredible abuse. So they were terrible times, but they were inspiring in that we saw a lot of heroes and heroines, mostly heroines, get out there and do what they could to ameliorate the situation. So those fishwives screaming and spitting on the children was on national television and that was embarrassing to the town. So the next year we had a different mayor. Chep Morrison had become ambassador to the Organization of American States, and Victor Schiro had the now-city councilman Joseph Giarrusso, then the police chief, he said, "Do what you have to do to control the crowds and protect the children." He did it and it went off like a top, so that was a wonderful thing to see. But it took the first disgrace and harmful, hurtful situation to bring this community around to providing it.

Ritchie: What was it like when the national press would come in, descend upon you, for something like that? Did you feel it as a local writer?

Kelso: In that situation, no, because we all had plenty of room. But when they descended on us later, say for the Jim Garrison investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy, we were in a building and there was a lot of pushing and shoving and foot stamping for space and interviews. It was exciting, but we always felt overrun by national press, especially the TV people, who thought they were more important than anything else in the world. So we did what we could, including stopping their source of electricity, pulling out the plug on their cameras. We did everything we could to hurt them, but we finally got to be friends.

Ritchie: Was it difficult for you to cover civil rights, having grown up in the South?

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Kelso: No. I felt that situation at the school let me know that I no longer had to choose sides. I knew what side I was on and that was a help. I'd always had concerns about the treatment of black people because I grew up with black people and Indians and I saw things that I didn't understand. Like why black people came to the back door to see my father and I couldn't ask them to sit in the house. I never could understand those things. But it was not until 1960 when I saw that ugliness that I knew where I was from then on, so it was not a problem.

Ritchie: Did you ever have difficulty publishing your stand? Would the newspaper have ever toned it down?

Kelso: No, I don't remember that.

Ritchie: Was it hard for you to go back to Philadelphia and write about that, your own hometown?

Kelso: Well, it was hard for me when I got the telephone calls about the bombing of my father's mill. I had to make the decision to stay here and do your job or maybe cause this to happen. And I came back to New Orleans and my bosses didn't object. So you could say I copped out there, but I was not going to stay there and be responsible for that.

Ritchie: Who else was covering this in the South? Were you aware of other happenings in other places? How did you keep up with what was going on?

Kelso: Bill Minor was the mentor in Mississippi for everybody who was doing civil rights coverage. And I have heard Harrison Salisbury say in a talk at [Mississippi] State College [Starkville, Mississippi] that Turner Catledge, who was my cousin, anticipated this event and stationed, before it all came up, Times reporters all around the South in key positions so that they would have sources. And those reporters became the sources for the new crowd that came in when things started popping. But Bill Minor in Mississippi was always the one that filled us in when we were coming in new to a situation in Mississippi.

Ritchie: And what newspaper was he on?

Kelso: He worked for the Times-Picayune and later had his own newspaper.

Ritchie: So he was on assignment in Mississippi?

Kelso: Yes, but he really kept in touch with all the national press. I think that was a time of great growth for all of us. We became, I hope, less provincial, we met reporters from all over, met some of the best. I remember standing out in the street in '61, outside the school being integrated, with Roger Mudd and Dan Rather, all the reporters who later became the big names. Roger Mudd and Tom Wicker, people like that, that was their generation of young reporting.

Ritchie: So it was an opportunity for you to see colleagues from other places.

Kelso: Very exciting. Same for national political conventions. I always loved it for that reason.

Ritchie: Were you aware of the work that Betty and Hodding Carter were doing in Greenville, Mississippi?

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Kelso: I always knew of them, but by the time they were busy, I was more involved in Louisiana, in covering some civil rights stories in Mississippi and later political stories that had those overtones. I never knew them until Betty came here to live and then I knew her. Of course, I knew her sons, Hodding, Jr., and Philip.

Ritchie: Were there other people like the Carters throughout the South? They took an activist role in civil rights in their own town.

Kelso: Yes, there were. I remember women had a big part in that, too. A woman named Pat Darien, who was later in Jimmy Carter's Cabinet, was one of the main people that I knew and she worked with my friend, Florence Mars, to develop a network of women who would do what they could to make things better. I don't remember exactly what they did, but it was a network of women and some outstanding men. But I don't remember so much about the men because I knew more about Pat.

Ritchie: Would this have been considered a dangerous assignment? Were there other women reporters covering civil rights? I'm thinking particularly after the killings in Mississippi.

Kelso: I don't remember any other women and I want to stress that I did not do a whole lot. I was there for some stories, but I was not on the beat in a continual way, as many reporters were. I don't remember any women and it was very dangerous. It's just amazing. I don't remember any reporters getting killed. Maybe they were, but it is amazing that they didn't.

Ritchie: When you came back to New Orleans, did you cover any local civil rights activities other than the school integration?

Kelso: I covered things like the march on City Hall to integrate the cafeteria and that affected me very profoundly because a minister, Reverend [Avery] Alexander, who is now a member of the legislature, was the pivot in the demonstration. And they dragged him—he went limp when the police went to arrest him—a great big man—and they had to carry him to the steps in City Hall. And they put him down and dragged him down and bumped his head. Those shots, film or tape, are still shown on documentaries and it affects me every time I see it. To think that this man of such great dignity and courage should have been dragged down with his head bump, bump, bump down the steps. It was horrible. I covered things like that.

Ritchie: This was a time when you would have gotten very emotionally involved?

Kelso: I felt emotionally involved. I don't remember what I wrote. By that time, I think that after '61, so Victor Schiro was mayor. But the good times, I think, were when we began to see some real movement rather than the conflict. The conflict was interesting, but it was very exciting when "Moon" Landrieu came in to office [1970] and brought blacks into government at a decision level, above the mop and broom, as we always said. And I began to know black politicians and they became my sources and it was a whole new thing of politics, just really as women coming into politics now is new and different. And you got a lot of different attitudes and made a lot of new friends, so that was really exciting, to see everything opening up.

Ritchie: And you would have covered that state legislature when issues about civil rights would have been up before them?

Kelso: Yes. For some reason, I didn't cover the pivotal civil rights battle at the legislature in the sixties. I don't remember why. That's when they were trying to close schools.

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Ritchie: Rather than integrate?

Kelso: Yes. I don't remember what happened there. But a lot of issues came up later and I was there when Dutch Morial, who later became mayor of New Orleans, went there as the first black legislator. And all the country legislators were looking for him. They were saying, "Where's the nigger? Where's the nigger?" And Dutch Morial was as white as I am almost and they couldn't find him. And it was really good watching him operate because he was such a bright man and, I think, became accepted in the legislature. Just interesting to watch that transition of feeling.

Ritchie: How many blacks are in the legislature now?

Kelso: Oh, gosh, I haven't even counted anymore. Maybe twenty, twenty-five, but I haven't counted that up in so long. We're always counting the women. I've just forgotten.

Ritchie: When did the focus start to change? How did the women's movement come into your writing?

Kelso: It seems just now, but actually it started a long time ago. Dorothy Mae Taylor, I believe, was the first black woman to go to the legislature. There were earlier women, Blanche Bruns, back in the forties, had been a member. But women weren't really a force until the sixties, seventies, and then Mary Landrieu was there, Kathleen Blanco. We once had as many as six, I believe, or seven, and now only have four. We have one of the smallest numbers. But it's going to be different after this election.

Ritchie: When you covered the legislature, did you ever experience difficulty from the men legislators in terms of getting information from them or being treated as second-class?

Kelso: Some wouldn't take me seriously. I was "little lady" and "honey" and some made passes. One time Dudley LeBlanc, I think he was a senator at that time, called me over to his desk and said, "Come here, honey, I want to give you something." And he opened his desk. He had all kinds of jewelry boxes in there and every time he was around, other senators would gather. So he started to give me this box and he opened it and it was a necklace of some kind, and I jumped as if I'd been handed a rattlesnake. And he said, "That's all right, honey, I'll give it to you tonight when we're alone in bed." So, yuck, yuck, yuck, I was the joke of the day. I resented that kind of thing. But perhaps because of Maggie Dixon, I felt that I could be respected as a journalist. I think she was and so that encouraged me.

Ritchie: So happenings like this didn't impede your work?

Kelso: I forgot about him and, again, I'm so tunnel vision. But really some of the legislators themselves have had trouble. Mary Landrieu, who was a very pretty blonde, they used to whistle when she would go to the microphone to speak. And there was a terrible thing in the '90 session of the legislature when the legislators made a joke out of a marital rape bill. Oh, yuck, yuck, yuck, how funny. They thought that was a scream. And I've been just really repelled by some of the views that would be expressed from the microphone during the abortion issue. One legislator got up and said incest might be a good thing, that it might breed better babies. "We use interbreeding with horses, don't we?" And I just think it brought a lot of stuff out of the woodwork. It was a very unpleasant session, but useful, because I think that galvanized women. And you see the women's movement that we have in Louisiana today. Very strong and Governor [Buddy] Roemer has targeted it. It's going to be a major focus of his campaign. Could be that's the way he'll win, if he does.

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Ritchie: While you were at the States, were you thinking ahead in terms of career? Did you think, "I'd like to go on and do this"?

Kelso: No, I never thought about that. I still thought that I would marry and wouldn't work the rest of my life. Although I knew I was having a lot of fun, but I never had any career goals. I wasn't trying to go to New York or Washington. And I did marry. I was thirty-three when I met my husband, thirty-four when I married him. And we were both working on the paper, so I wasn't just that concerned consciously with career. I knew it was a big thing in my life, but I didn't set goals for myself.

Ritchie: When you got married, did you think of not working anymore?

Kelso: No, that never occurred to me, either, or to my husband.

Ritchie: Did you all talk about it?

Kelso: No.

Ritchie: You just kept working?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: What brought you to leave the States?

Kelso: This feeling that I wanted to do something different. I have a short attention span, some people say, so I've changed jobs a lot. And I get bored with one kind of job and I had the feeling then that I wanted to do something, rather than to be an observer.

Ritchie: Didn't you think your writing was doing something?

Kelso: No, I thought that was there for my amusement. And I never thought, and don't to this day, think of the media—I really think I underestimate the media's effect and importance. But I've just never thought that we had that much effect on what happens, they happen in their own time and are a part of another system that's not involved with us.

Ritchie: But you're informing people.

Kelso: I think so, but I think a lot of news people really overestimate their influence.

Ritchie: So you felt you could do something positive, make a contribution in another line of work?

Kelso: I was interested in the poverty program and especially interested in education and happy that I was called education specialist, although I certainly had no degrees that would qualify me for that. But I worked in the Head Start Program and it was the hardest job I've ever had. I worked harder than I ever have, but [it was] the most satisfying.

Ritchie: In terms of working with people and accomplishing things?

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Kelso: Accomplishing things. I think working in Head Start, just getting those kids examined and treated for physical weaknesses or handicaps was the best thing I ever did. I've never felt as satisfied with a job before or since.

[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]

Ritchie: How did your career at the States prepare you for your next job? What was the best thing you did there that you could take on to Total Community Action?

Kelso: I knew how to find out things. I could get on the phone and find out almost anything. It helped me to be able to write reports and things like that. But I had a basic knowledge of community resources. And then I met some simply marvelous people who pitched in and helped. They were people like the city health director and a marvelous woman, head of a nursing service who arranged examinations for the kids and a doctor who helped bring doctors into the program, a city welfare director who helped us get kids into the program. It was just terrific to see how there were people in the community, as controversial as the program was, who were willing to help and stretched themselves and stretched their agencies and their budgets to help. And we had, as a result, particularly of this woman who was a nurse and connected with nursing services, one of the best programs in the United States.

Ritchie: Why was the program controversial?

Kelso: Because the poverty program itself was controversial. Just anything you did for blacks then was controversial in the sense of a help program. And it was not limited to blacks, but we had just a terrible time trying to get white kids, for instance, into Head Start. And Washington was after us to get more white kids in and yet we had black kids waiting in line to get in. But, yes, the program was controversial. I remember one time I went to Bogalusa to try to help a man there, A.Z. Young, who was a civil rights leader, help him start a Head Start program in Bogalusa. And he sent "Deacons," black men who were armed, to come to meet us at the county line, and they rode shotgun to his house to protect me. It's just hard to realize how tense things were then and that was after '65, so that was not even at the height of things.

Ritchie: Did you ever miss your newspaper days?

Kelso: Yes, I did, but things were moving so fast and I was working so hard at the program. It was a real stretch-out, but, yes, I missed it and I missed that daily satisfaction. You write a story for the paper or do a story for TV, you see it, it's there and you can go home and not worry anymore. But with a job like I had at Total Community Action, you could work twenty-four hours a day and never get it done. So I never felt this completion.

Ritchie: Did your social life change?

Kelso: Not so much, because my husband and I didn't socialize a lot. We stayed together a lot and we had close friends, but we didn't have an active life of parties and things like that.

Ritchie: So you had more or less moved away from the socializing with your colleagues at the newspaper?

Kelso: I guess, yes. We had friends at the paper that we socialized with, but we mostly moved with close friends rather than large-group stuff.

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Ritchie: What drew you back into the field of journalism?

Kelso: John Corporon, who was news director at WDSU, called me. He was a friend of mine, invited me to lunch. And I said, "Fine, I'll get to talk with him about Head Start." So I went to lunch with him at the Press Club, he offered me the job and I said, "Yeah, okay." I hadn't done any thinking about it, it just hit me; well, it's time to do something else. In my whole life, I have never been able to make a decision about a change in my life, find the situation and get it in order. Things have always either not come when I wanted them or they have just come over the transom. Somebody calls and offers me a job, I say, "Yeah." I like that way of doing things, but it took me a long time to get over the rejection when I was really trying to find a job, I couldn't find one, and then they would come over the transom. My conclusion is that there's perhaps some kind of plan and you follow your plan or accept opportunities when they come. But you really can't force things to happen.

Ritchie: It all works out.

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: When would you have been looking for a job? When you were at the newspaper?

Kelso: With TV. I was in my forties and I realized I was really over-age for TV and I was getting jacked around some at the office, too. It was uncomfortable and I started looking for a job. I thought at first, "I'll have no trouble." Well, nobody had a spot. And so I looked and looked and looked. How did that happen?

I think that the editor of the Picayune called me. No, I got an offer from Figaro, that's when I went to Figaro. And at that time I continued to do a commentary on WDSU on Saturdays. I liked that a lot because I would just write my script and go out there and sound off. It was great fun and a lot of people tell me they still miss that program.

Ritchie: So could you write what you wanted?

Kelso: Within the limits. I really knew what I could get by with and not. But it was really fun doing that. At the same time, I was writing a column for Figaro and that atmosphere was so electric and congenial and encouraging. I really think that was the best and freest way I have ever worked.

Ritchie: In terms of your writing?

Kelso: Yes, I think I did some of the best writing. It was sort of a culmination, I guess. I was writing better because of my TV experience. And then that loosening-up attitude that was at Figaro, they pushed us to do the outrageous, do the different. And so that was really fun.

Ritchie: Why would TV make you write better?

Kelso: Because you write for the spoken word and you have to compress it, so you can't string things all out. You have to tell it right away, tell in a way that people can understand it. And while my boss at the New Orleans States, Frank Allen, always said, "Write it the way you talk," it was never as much of demand or command as it was in TV, because you had to talk it yourself. Often you'd be writing it for yourself. So you couldn't go into a lot of big words and pompous phrases.

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Ritchie: When you say that you were forty and felt you were too old for TV, did people there make you feel that? What made you feel that?

Kelso: Well, I knew that logically I was, because young and beautiful was as much the rage as it is now. But beyond that, television is too hard for anybody but a young person who doesn't know any better. You just have to be ready to get in there and work your brains out and enjoy the excitement of it and then get out. It really is a very tough, demanding, hard, hard job.

Ritchie: Do you think it's harder than what you did at the States?

Kelso: Oh, yes, of course! I could get a good story at the States in ten minutes on the telephone. My day's work would be done, essentially. But if I started doing that same story for television, I have to call all the people, line up interviews, shoot cover tape, film an open and a close and a bridge, then go back and edit it or work with an editor, put it all together, and time it. It's the most demanding work I have ever done in my life.

Ritchie: So when you were doing this, you were doing the political coverage for the station?

Kelso: Basically, yes. I did other things, but that mostly.

Ritchie: So you would go out and get an interview with someone or find out what was happening that day at City Hall or of interest for local politics and take a camera person with you and do all of that?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: Were you the only woman reporter?

Kelso: No, there were two, at different times. There was another woman, Becky Bell, who's now head of the Paris bureau for NBC, was there as a beginning reporter. But I was the only TV political reporter then. And now, gee, lots of them.

Ritchie: How did this learning experience prepare you for your next job? I am thinking of your columns that you write for the Times-Picayune.

Kelso: I think in a story you want to develop a voice that draws people into it. But it's more important in a column and I think that I got accustomed to using my own thoughts and my feelings and letting this come through in what's called the voice of your writing. And I think that helped with the column. I think my column's better for that.

Ritchie: Talking about feeling old for television, did they ever tell you how you had to look or what you had to wear?

Kelso: [Laughter.] One time I was doing a series, "City in Crisis," and I won a Peabody Award for that. I was very proud of that. I was on every night, every night, and I thought I was wearing really good-looking clothes, perfect clothes for TV. And the wife of the station manager decided that my hair and my clothes were not right. So he wouldn't talk to me, he'd talk to Terry Flettrich, who was the star of the mid-day show and a friend of mine. And she took me in hand and organized some clothes for me that were right for TV and had me change my hairdo, so that through the rest of the series, I was much more acceptable to the station manager's wife.

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Ritchie: Would they have done this with a man?

Kelso: I don't think so, because I don't think they would have thought it was as important. Men at that time were expected to wear dark suits and blue shirts and regimental stripes, but women were the peacocks on the station, I expect. Except that they never wanted you to wear really flashy clothes, but I even remember the dress I wore the night that I was told his wife didn't like that dress. And that was humiliating. But it's a good lesson, you know. As one guy on TV told me one time, "On television, remember this: nothing is as important as the way you look." And it is true. And I always say that in talking with this Institute of Politics class [at Loyola University, New Orleans]. I think of him every time and I think of my not looking acceptable for the station manager's wife. It's true, nothing is as important.

Ritchie: So you learned that during your time at the television station?

Kelso: Drummed in.

Ritchie: Were you paid well there?

Kelso: Yes, I thought I was rich, rich, rich when I went to the poverty program. And my husband got a job, we both were making $12,000 a year. This was just fabulous. We thought we had struck oil. And my pay at the TV—it was a union station—and reporters didn't have contracts, we got paid union scale, plus overtime. I don't remember exactly what it was, but it was good pay.

Ritchie: You say reporters didn't have contracts?

Kelso: The anchors or the talent, as they called it, on-the-air people, had contracts and I don't believe they were members of the union.

Ritchie: But you were a union member?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: How did the management like that?

Kelso: They were very accepting. I remember a story, especially at the time, when Edgar Stern of the Stern family, married to Edith Rosenthal Stern, very, very rich people. This was before I went to the station. The station manager called Mr. Stern, he was in Aspen, and said, "Edgar, we're having a strike here. What shall I do?" And Edgar said, "Well, what do they want?" And he told him. He said, "Well, give it to them, of course!" And so that was his attitude. He believed in unions and he was also a very generous employer.

Ritchie: How did you begin to cover issues of interest to women? I know that in your columns you've covered abortion and spouse abuse. When did you start to write about things like that?

Kelso: I guess when they started coming before the legislature in the '70s. I've always been interested in women's rights, but I think that the first issues I covered were property rights. I can't remember what year this was, but at that time a man could sell community property without his wife's approval. In some cases, could even sell the house. And he was described in the law as the lord and master. And I was so amazed, I didn't even know that was true. So I think that was

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the first type of issue I covered. But women's issues didn't really become exciting until the abortion issue. That's what really has galvanized everybody, I think.

Ritchie: And you've covered that in your columns?

Kelso: Oh, yes, I've been really interested in that. And now we have more women running for office than we've ever had before. And we did have a major candidate for governor, Kathleen Blanco. She's pulled out, but we have a woman running for lieutenant governor, for insurance commissioner. We have one woman running unopposed for state treasurer. Somebody told me fifty-seven, I thought it was a smaller number, but maybe fifty-seven running for the legislature. Never happened before and some of those people are going to be elected. It's really exciting.

Ritchie: In covering women's issues, did you ever have to cover a controversial event? Like picketing an abortion clinic?

Kelso: No, I've never covered one of those and I'm glad, because I get so angry at that. I've seen a lot of demonstrations at the capitol and it's all so emotional that it's disturbing to me. I really find that truly uncomfortable because of my own emotions and because of other people's emotions. And sometimes because of the nastiness, like people dressed up in skulls. It's really such a high level. But it's a fascinating issue to cover and I, really, for the first time, think I now understand what the law is about abortions. I think a lot of people really got educated in the process and gave it more thought.

Ritchie: The Louisiana law? Which has been one of the strictest in the nation.

Kelso: Yes, but I don't think I really understood what Roe v. Wade did. Since then, of course, I've done a lot of reading about it and have learned more about exceptions, that sort of thing. But it has made a profound difference, I think, in our political climate.

Ritchie: Is covering something like this difficult for you, as a woman?

Kelso: It's difficult, but it's fun, too. We had a gang of women and we'd get together and make fun and laugh and encourage each other and swap news. It was fun and it created a real bond among the group of women who cover the legislature.

Ritchie: What else do you write about in your columns?

Kelso: The best thing I write, I suppose, based on people's response to it, is family columns. I really don't understand why this happens, but people really like it when I go to a family reunion at home and I tell what we talked about and what we ate, how many cousins we had there, how we felt about each other, how we love each other, laugh at each other. Same, I go to the Neshoba County Fair in August, which is like a big house party, and I describe that. Sometimes I write about my sister, sometimes about my father. That's the only kind of column that people ever mention to me. They'll say, "I like it when you go back to Mississippi and write about your family." So I enjoy doing that, but I can't overdo it. I have to keep my hold in politics.

Ritchie: Would you say that you are the leading woman, certainly, in the political press corps now that covers the state legislature?

Kelso: I don't think so. Columnists are sort of put in a separate category and it's the people who cover the capital daily and write the daily news, I think, who are rated leading and not leading.

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I hope I'm known as a political reporter and a political columnist. I enjoy that and I enjoy the fact that people will return my phone calls. That's a big help. A lot of people will.

Ritchie: How did you come to write a column?

Kelso: Ruth Sullivan was writing a column when I went to the States in '51. It was called "City Hall Notes." That precedent was set. It was mostly sort of a gossip column—a lot of names. There was not a lot of political opinion expressed. It was more like country correspondence.

Ritchie: Who was doing what or who was there?

Kelso: Yes. And I enjoyed it, I really liked it. People liked that column because of the names and the gossip. But now my column is more of an opinion column and yet there's a line between opinion column and editorial. It's a very thin line, but at the Picayune they don't expect us to express opinions as forcefully as they do in editorials. That law is violated, too.

Ritchie: Can you write virtually about anything that you like? Or are you supposed to do one political column and one general topic?

Kelso: I think they would complain if I did all soft columns or all family columns. They seem to like that occasionally, but my basic job is politics.

Ritchie: Were you glad to get a column or would you rather be doing general reporting?

Kelso: I wouldn't want to go back. I love writing a column.

[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]

Ritchie: Iris, looking back over your years as a journalist, what are some of the changes you've seen in the field?

Kelso: The most dramatic change, to me, is the art, the use of graphs and color. I think that is the most exciting development in newspaper work. I love to see beautiful photos in color. I remember at the Times-Picayune the day that the Cabildo, you've seen of the Cabildo down in the French Quarter, the new state museum, the day that that beautiful historic building burned, they had just handed out color film. It could print either black and white or color. Every photographer was loaded with color film and they got the most gorgeous front page I've ever seen, the Cabildo fire. So that's been truly exciting to me, that and the art work, have been very good.

And I think reporters now are so much smarter than we were. If you had a BA degree, you could get a job anywhere in a newspaper. But they have better educations than we had and they are more aggressive. And I think that's come about because of younger leadership. Their bosses are in their thirties and they're twenty-five, or some ratio like that, but I think the news media is much more aggressive than in the days I was working and I like that. I think it sometimes goes too far, rather than to be aggressive, they become an attack crew. And I don't really like that, don't like to see that. They are a hotshot crew and I'm really excited about the changes and improvements that I see in the paper we have it and in other papers.

Ritchie: Do you see any negative changes that you don't like?

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Kelso: Well, as I say, I don't like the idea that your job is to jam a public official against the wall and ask him nasty questions. And I think that came from television more than newspapers. I think that's a television technique—it's to embarrass the man as much as you can. I just don't like that kind of journalism and it's more show biz, really, than it is journalism. I see that as a negative and it concerns me, the lack of readership of newspapers, and I don't know that they'll be around always, but I hope that we can find ways to keep a basic core audience, a readership.

Ritchie: Do you think ethics have changed in the field since you began in the forties?

Kelso: I think so. I never knew but one reporter in all my life that took money. Oh, there was another one, two reporters who took money for stories, who were on the take. But I was always told that in earlier days it was just considered a payoff for a story, was just part of the game, or like a tip. And that reporters got benefits and it was nothing considered, but that had washed out by the time I came along and I think that even reporters no longer identify with the people they cover. I don't find reporters identifying with the politicians they cover as much I did, as much as previous generations of reporters did. It's like they always said, the police reporter always began to think of himself as a policeman; he blended into the network. And that doesn't happen, either with political or police reporters.

Ritchie: Were you ever offered anything for a story or to compromise your views, besides the necklace at the state legislature?

Kelso: No, nobody ever offered me anything. Once a friend of mine invited me to meet some people he knew and I was invited out and they turned out to be lottery people. I was, at that time, a city hall reporter. And we went out to this ranch out in Jefferson Parish, this big, pretty, white house, and we sat around and talked and that's all that happened. Nothing ever happened. I was never offered anything, but I always figured that they needed to co-opt a reporter at the paper for their purposes and that that's what it was about. And I failed the test. I was so dumb.

Another time a man was going to give me a story and he hinted that if I would go to bed with him, he would give me this knockout story. It was so weird, it was like "Tango in Paris." I was in an old, rickety, abandoned office building and this very unattractive, old man who was going to be a marvelous source, but it turned out the price of that story was going to bed with him.

Ritchie: So you didn't compromise. You didn't get the story?

Kelso: No, there was no temptation, I can assure you. [Laughter.]

Ritchie: Did you ever feel you had to compromise your ethics? How far would you go to get a story?

Kelso: I have a lot of restraints. There might be one or two situations where I would lie to get a story, but I wouldn't go anywhere under false pretenses if I could help it. It would really have to big story and an important story. The concern always is how to carry out your own ethical framework in your work and I try to be aware of that, but I don't have a lot of struggle about it. You either tell the truth or you don't, or you have the truth or you don't.

Ritchie: Do you think men and women have different ethics in covering stories in journalism? Or did they when you were a reporter?

Kelso: No, I don't think so. And really ethics in reporting, I think, is talked about more in the journalism magazines more than ethical questions arise. Most stories don't have ethical questions

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involved in them. I can't think of many. It bothers me to know that a story I'm doing may really hurt somebody. But my answer, from years of training, well, tough, too bad. And they always say it hurts their wives and children. "Think of my family." Well, who put their wife and family there?

Ritchie: In a position to be hurt.

Kelso: Yes. But I get involved in stories emotionally and sometimes feel bad for them. I remember one time another TV reporter, a man, and I both cried when a man that we knew very well and liked was convicted. And I'm standing there, trying to blink back the tears and I looked over there and Charlie Zewe was doing the same thing, so it made me feel better.

Ritchie: You could go ahead and cry?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: That would not have been the thing to do on TV?

Kelso: Oh, oh, no, that would be awful. I guess Geraldo could cry, letting it all hang out, to use an old expression, is show biz, but it's not professional journalism.

Ritchie: Did you feel that you treated your politicians differently than you may have treated citizens in the private world?

Kelso: Well, I intend to do that, I still do that. I figure that a person who's in politics knows the rule of the game. I don't have to allow any slack for him or her. If it's a private citizen, a person who has no experience, I tend to protect them, because I don't want to trample all over their lives or abuse them in any way. I just feel protective of them and I don't apologize for that.

Ritchie: Speaking of protecting people, how did you protect your sources? Didn't you want your source just to be your source?

Kelso: Oh, yes. I don't believe I ever had to go to court on a source question. I know now and for some time, reporters have been going to jail on it. When I was working, we always thought it was grand to get a court suit that threatened you with jail. And if you went to jail, fine, that was great for your career, very exciting and you knew you weren't going to have to stay there very long, but it has gotten less tempting and less attractive as some reporters have spent some time in jail. No fun.

Ritchie: You say that you were never threatened with a suit or never called in court to reveal your source?

Kelso: No, I've been sued lots of times, but I've never had that question at issue, that I remember. But I wouldn't reveal the source even if I did have to go to jail, as little as I would want to do that.

Ritchie: Would your editor ever ask you about your source?

Kelso: There's a thing now and this comes because of some scandals in journalism. Since that story—it was a Chicago paper, can't think of the name. This woman had a story about a seven-year-old heroin addict. Do you remember that?

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Ritchie: Washington Post. Janet Cooke.

Kelso: Washington, yes. Oh, you remember that very well. Since that came about, there's been more of a tendency for editors to insist on knowing about sources themselves. That bothers me because the more people you turn that over to—the trend bothers me. I remember one time I, just by mistake, told my publisher my source for a really good story. It was a legislator, and he forgot all about the restraints on it and he saw the legislator and said, "Thank you for that really good story." And my legislator friend had done it under true confidentiality. So once you tell somebody else, the horse is out of the barn, to use my country expression.

Ritchie: You lose your credibility with your source?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: What have you been sued for? For your writing?

Kelso: This was on TV that I got the heaviest suit. A man named Louis Roussel, who was a banker, sued the station and me for $16.5 million—I thought that was a great honor—about a story involving some bank loans that were questionable. And I think there were some connections to the mob in it or something like that. I did a lot of stories connected with that. We went to court and we won it in court in Gulfport.

Ritchie: Why Gulfport?

Kelso: I think the one man that filed it—I can't remember why. That was the jurisdiction. The allowances for reporters at that time were very broad. This was after '65. I remember our lawyer told me, "If you made a mistake, you didn't mean to do it." That was a key question, whether there was malicious intent or not. But I was so infuriated. I started arguing with him, "I didn't make any mistakes! It was true, what I said." But that was the turning point, that if I made a mistake, I didn't mean to do it. I felt humiliated by that, that my integrity would have been—

Ritchie: That he was asking if you made an error and that would have gotten you off?

Kelso: Oh, no.

Ritchie: Were your other suits libel suits or slander? Do you remember?

Kelso: No, I don't remember very many. Politicians always threatened to sue us. Mayor Morial was always threatening to sue me and the paper. He even put out a dossier, as he called it, a report of my many sins, and some other reporters, too. But there's always that kind of conflict and I always enjoyed it. That's a lot of fun.

Ritchie: So if you had done your job and done it well, you wouldn't have to worry about the outcome, those threats of suit?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: Speaking of lawsuits, have you been aware or have there locally been suits by women against management for lack of advancement in the field in journalism here?

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Kelso: I don't even know of one in this area. There may have been one or I have forgotten them. But I don't remember any suits like that.

Ritchie: Most of them tended to be on the East Coast, I believe. Would you or your women colleagues here have benefitted from the outcome of those suits? Are there more women in management at newspapers here now?

Kelso: There are now. We have gotten some advances at the Picayune by going to the boss and saying, "Look, we need a woman in the decision loop. And why don't we have more black reporters? We don't have even a respectable contingent." That sort of thing. I think that the threat of a suit may have been one of the incentives toward bringing it about. But, yes, we have several bureau chiefs who are women. Our city editor is black. We have a woman in the number-three position at the paper. But it bothers me that it was the threat of suit, I think, that got blacks and women so many advances and that there's no longer the kind of enforcement that there was. There's no longer the successes in those kinds of suits. I don't know what's going to happen as to whether the clock is going to be turned back. I imagine it is, because I think people mostly have to be forced to do the things that are inconvenient for them.

Ritchie: And you can't let up or else it will slide back.

Kelso: Yes, maybe it will slide almost back, step forward or step back. But that is a big concern of mine now.

Ritchie: Has the Picayune been unusual in having more women on its staff, do you think? Or do you think it's about average for the type of newspaper it is?

Kelso: I don't really have any papers to compare it with, but I meet so many female reporters from other papers and I see female bylines, so surely everywhere there are some leading female reporters.

Ritchie: Would you like to be starting out as a journalist now?

Kelso: Yes, I think I would. As I say, I didn't suffer from discrimination, or if I did, I didn't have sense enough to know it. But I just think that the life of a young woman now is fabulous, with so much available to her. And yet it's so hard to decide how you are going to live your life. I see so many young women who are in my family and young women I'm very fond of, trying to do it all. But I'm so thrilled to see the adventuresome lives that they can lead. I'm happy for them.

Ritchie: Don't you think your life was pretty adventuresome, Iris?

Kelso: No, it doesn't seem to me. [Laughter.] I had a lot of fun, but I didn't go down any rapids, except in a raft, and I haven't been on any safaris. I've not had those adventures.

Ritchie: If you had to pick one time in your life that was the most satisfying or the happiest, could you pick a period in both your career and personal life that was living to the fullest?

Kelso: In my personal life and career, I think it was when I was working for Total Community Action and was recently married. My husband only lived ten years, so those were wonderfully happy years, except when he was sick later. The combination of professional challenge and a fulfilling personal life was really fabulous.

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Ritchie: It's curious that that's the one time that you weren't in the journalism field.

Kelso: Yes. Saying what's "most best" is very hard for me.

Ritchie: With such a variety of jobs in both print and broadcast journalism, you've had a diverse career, certainly a very interesting one.

Kelso: I'm glad of that. The old thing about the seven-year itch is true. That's when I really get antsy. And I think that you never should keep any job longer than seven years, because you do get stale and you want to move out and on.

Ritchie: Are you planning what you're going to do next?

Kelso: I am. I think a lot about it, but from my past, I know that I can't make things happen. So I'm just waiting to see what door opens next.

Ritchie: You know it will happen for you?

Kelso: Yes.

Ritchie: I hope it's as rewarding and successful as your past has been. I think it will be.

Kelso: Thank you.

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