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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: But I did want at this point to ask you something I forgot yesterday, which was: When did you meet Kay [Beebe] Harris? And where? Do you remember?
Leary: In San Francisco someplace, maybe even at a press conference or something.
Biagi: Is that right?
Leary: Yes, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. And then people began asking me if I knew her, wire service people, particularly. And I said yes, that I'd met her. Then it kind of later dawned on me how significant it was that there's a woman who's doing this, too, because there weren't that many of us.
Biagi: It would have been the forties, you think?
Leary: Yes. Yes, I'm sure that it was. I met her before I was writing politics so it must have been during the wartime.
Biagi: So you think it was in San Francisco that you met Kay and then you maintained —
Leary: We encountered each other frequently but we never really became friends there. But then I began to see her after her retirement in Palo Alto, I saw her several times since and have increasingly enjoyed seeing her. I feel as though it's an example of many things that happened in my life, being so kind of job-oriented at the moment, always focused upon the immediate thing right at the moment. I know that I missed a great deal in the way of friendships and associations with people. I seem to have had a much more limited life than a lot of people I know, for the very reason — people talk to me about what a rich life I've had, and I have. But a lot of the peripheral friendships which enrich other people's lives I just kind of never had time for. And it fills me with considerable regret that I didn't have the common sense to stop a little bit along the way, you know.
Kay is a very good example of this very thing that I mean, people that I would have liked knowing much better and learning from and so forth.
Biagi: Do you think that's characteristic of journalists in general or just you in particular? Your observations?
Leary: I think I much more give myself wholly to the moment and the job at hand and most people are a little more relaxed about this. I think maybe that's it. It's a failing of my own.
Biagi: Were you really consumed by what you did at that point?
Leary: No. I'm kind of a workaholic. And I was always trying to figure out how's the right way to do this job at the time I'm doing it. I mean, first of all, writing politics without having much experience about it, figuring out how to do that, and then when I quit politics and became associate editor and was working the editorial policy and so forth, I was not as easy a writer and couldn't as easily be pontifical about this or that every day and was trying to learn a new style, a new facet of journalism.
And then when I came — retired, well, then I had the assignment of being with Scripps-Howard for three years as West Coast correspondent and the challenge of trying to write for their papers,
which are very parochial and very interested in their own communities and not very interested in what's going on in the world. Trying to get stories that would capture them and serve them I found difficult, though I had some successes and was having some fun with it, like the trip to Alaska and various things like that. And then afterwards when I left Scripps Howard to try to write for the Economist at home with no resources but my own — that was another new challenge.
So that how to do these various jobs always became quite absorbing, much more than people normally realized. I mean, they'd say, what are you working on, and you'd tell them the subject. But the business of how to go about it was something else. Not how to report but how to organize your life around this particular kind of task. That is what largely impeded my friendships. I had time for family and one or two close friends but just not for a lot of other social activities — you know, going to the theater. Occasionally but not a lot. I feel that especially with friends that there were a lot of people I should have known better and didn't, and that's too bad.
Biagi: Let's go back now. Yesterday we were talking — we got you through the war and you had gone to the Nieman —
Leary: Oh, the last day of the war. I had a hair appointment. And we all heard in the office but mustn't say anything to anybody yet; peace was going to be announced at such and such a time. I had to call my hairdresser and cancel and it was only about an hour before I was due there. And he was just furious and he said, "Well, what's the reason?" I said, "I'm sorry, I can't tell you." And he said, "Well, I have to charge you for it anyway." And I said, "All right."
And when — the minute that the war ended, the telephone systems just went out because everybody was telephoning. So what you had to do, covering how San Francisco reacted, was to go out and walk and then come back to the office and type it. There was no way of communicating any other way. So I walked out up and down Market Street a couple of times and saw some very funny things.
One of them that comes to mind, there was a cab driver right at Grant Avenue where Grant comes down to Market Street and in those days there was a kind of elegance in San Francisco that you don't often see now. Two women in lovely fur coats were coming down and this cabbie stopped and flung his door open on their side across from him and he had a bottle of whiskey. And he held it up to them and said, "Come on, the war's over, have a drink!" And these two women came and drank right out of the bottle. It was a funny kind of symbol of how everybody was involved in the coming-togetherness of peacetime.
Biagi: Wonderful! So you remembered that.
Leary: Anyway, I'm sorry but I sidetracked with that. After that, along in there, having done all the war agencies and then getting assigned to covering the legislature and elections. It was kind of a funny switch because a fellow named Benny Horne had been the correspondent for the News — had been political writer for the News for a long time. And Benny had retired or by that time died, I can't remember, and he had been replaced by Brooke Clyde who had gone off to war. When I went up everybody was remembering Benny, who is a big, husky, hulking kind of tough guy. And they were all teasing me about the contrast.
Biagi: What did you look like then? What was your appearance? Kay said she always went to work with a hat and gloves in San Francisco. Did you, too?
Leary: I usually wore a hat in San Francisco but not, of course, at the legislature. I suppose a conventional skirt and blouse which I still seem to wear. I lived at the Senator which was just across the street from the Capitol so I didn't have, except in the rain and cold weather I didn't have much to worry about concerning clothes and dressing up. I don't know, I don't remember what I wore.
There was a congeniality that I was able to enjoy as a woman among the younger guys writing politics. I'm going to have trouble with names, but the head of the UP bureau was really very nice, and Don Thomas of the Tribune, and a couple of others. And they would gather in the evening and of course we were always talking about what somebody was up to and what the bill really meant and this and that. Our conversation was almost all about work or trying to get insight into what was going on.
I think to some extent these were guys who were not the old-timers going to the parties with the lobbyists. I would often have dinner with them, they had one place where they had dinner. In the evening after committees broke up, they would meet for a drink in somebody's hotel room or something, sometimes mine and sometimes Don Thomas's or one of theirs. And we would harangue away about what was going on in the legislature. So there was a certain amount of camaraderie which I was admitted to — I say it that way — though a woman, and I didn't have any feeling of being particularly different.
When I started out one or two of the legislators were very helpful. One of them, Tommy Maloney, he was out of labor and had been a state senator and then he was a legislator, an assemblyman. He was a real old-timer and he knew all the works and he would often drive me up to Sacramento and give me stories on the way about — not so much about what was going on right now as old history. But he did steer me, to some extent, to what was going on.
And Al Wollenberg who was later a judge and has died since was a good friend of Bill Sweigert who was Gov. Warren's — well, I guess legislative aide, secretary at that time. Bill Sweigert also became a judge. They were appointed by the governor, of course. Both were men of the highest integrity. But Al was very helpful to me, not that they went out of their way starting to tell me where stories were or anything like that but to sort of tell me who people were and steer me and they were people I could go to and ask a question of. I think I mentioned that I started doing just "what I could see."
Biagi: Did the News have an agenda, in that sense? Were there issues that the News particularly latched onto and wanted you to cover?
Leary: Well, it was clear that things to protect organized labor from attacks often led by agricultural senators, that they — to explain and expose the pro-labor side became a major part of the agenda. And there were lots of hearings on things like, oh, Workmen's Compensation and the taxes that would pay for them and so forth, where there would be pretty hot arguments, things which might not have normally seemed hot news but did relate to the interests of working people. I learned to follow those and to try to write them interestingly so people could tell what it was all about.
And the Call-Bulletin — I mentioned that there were four papers and there was lots of competition. And the Call-Bulletin guy would often cover the same stories. And I thought it probably very good for the people of San Francisco that you would hardly have known it was the same committee hearing because they were writing — their reporter was writing it from a kind of business and anti-tax point of view while I was writing it from labor and a working man's benefit point of view. That happened a lot, I noticed, in our coverage.
But I had a little more fun with some things that many of the reporters didn't pay any attention to. One time the place got flooded, the Capital was just filled with people who were unlike any normal visitors on politics. It turned out there was a bill to regulate dance instructors. And these were dance teachers from all over the state. I had just a lot of fun with that story and the paper banner-lined it across the front page, mostly because I was just kind of teasing about what an odd group — and then the fellow who carried the legislation was not at all a swinger. I found that people read my stories if I wrote kind of in that style. And I consciously began writing political stories that people could comprehend; I was trying to.
When I first started, I read other people's political stories avidly to try to find out how do you do this. And Behrens' style was so dry and it was full of "the Republican leadership today agreed on" such and such a
stand in relation to A, B, so and so, and you didn't want to read the story, it wasn't very exciting or interesting. And I set out to make myself read, to have people say, "Oh, this is interesting." Because I found it interesting and exciting, and I wanted to convey that.
I see an awful lot of personalized reporting today. I wasn't exactly trying to do that, I wasn't trying to harp on the fights between people which seem to dominate so much of the political news today. I was trying to find out what this bill was about or what that issue was about and get into the dynamics of what it was that was socially changing or that threatened some existing privilege. And of course then I began to come into contact with — I'd always been a little interested in utilities and their regulation and I found out much more about them and much more to write about.
But I got into a fascination with some water stories. That was an interesting time because the state water system was just being proposed by Warren as a supplement to the federal government's Shasta Dam in the Central Valley. And I guess I didn't fully realize — at least I didn't at the start — that what this was going to do was to let people have a rather large amount of water which they would have to pay more for but without any of the limitations that the federal law laid down, limitations which had been rather successfully avoided. But I got very interested in both sets of the way the water situation developed, what was going on in the Central Valley and then the development of the California Water Plan, with its enormous channels down to Los Angeles and so forth.
The interesting thing, as they were developing this, the senate had some really strong, bitter fights over it with the agricultural interests in the Central Valley particularly wanting more access and more water, the liberals wanting to be sure that water was well-paid for and that the north, particularly the rights of the north, were protected. I often thought those were some of the most fascinating debates that I've ever heard.
And other issues involved education, of course. But in the meanwhile you had Senator Jack Tenney fretting about Communism on the campuses and communists hiding under every bed. At one point he passed out in the senate, put on every desk, allegations that some of the senators themselves were aligned with Communist interests, picking out some of the more liberal of the Democrats.
Biagi: He did?
Leary: Yes. Oh, and that outraged the members of the senate, of course.
Biagi: What is your recollection of Jack Tenney, the kind of person he was?
Leary: He was awfully sure of himself. You know that one time — I think I told you before that I would go through the bills when they would be issued — I didn't try to read them but I tried to see what they were about. There was this one that popped up by Tenney — and if they were Tenney bills I looked at them to make sure what he was trying to do. And there was a bill insisting that sex should not be taught in the first, second or third grade — in the elementary schools because it was a Communist plot to insert interest in sex at the early stages to pollute and distort our children. When I saw it, I thought it was terribly funny and all the dangers that he foresaw were spelled out in the bills. I wrote a story saying "Tenney says sex is un-American." And of course the office thought that was funny and played it on page one. I made his book that year, his summary —
Biagi: His report?
Leary: Yes, his report of all of the tainted kinds of things that he discovered. But we talked to him — I talked to him about it and he was outraged and told me that I didn't understand, I was innocent, I didn't realize what was going on. But he was agreeable to being talked to and quoted and so forth, there wasn't any distance established but he just thought that — well, first of all, all the press was so liberal, anyway, that they couldn't see any harm.
There was another senator from Sacramento, Earl Desmond. I remember, this was still during — the war was still going on. And he was arguing — I was very interested in the efforts then to get child care started. It was the very first time that there were public policy discussions of the concept of taking care of children apart from school hours. It was so obvious to me that women who were working — and they were being pulled into all these factories and building airplanes in munitions plants and so forth — I did a story on a munitions plant here in the East Bay and there were women working the assembly line. And they had children and they couldn't all get grandmothers to take care of them.
And Senator Earl Desmond sat and talked with me for a long time about the Communist effort to destroy the American family and that this was a part of it. Finally, I think they were able to vote through some kind of child care support under the school system — that is, managed by and funded through school money — on the basis that it was temporary and a war expedient only but that it must be ended the minute the war was over. Well, of course, it wasn't. But that was the way in which California got the first child care program in, on the idea that it would be a war expedient.
Biagi: It seems from a distance of time — it's difficult today to understand the commitment of the anti-Communist movement. What was your perception at the time of it? You were there, did it work, did it frighten people?
Leary: It frightened people and it hurt people, definitely hurt people. I think it hurt people not only in the movie industry who were blackballed but I think in the universities, too, definitely people in the colleges and maybe even in secondary schools, people who were publicly alleged to be Communists and it was pretty hard to prove you weren't. I have never in my own mind been sure how much of the anti-Communist movement was really initiated by the concept, the theory that, yes, we are going to be undermined and how much of it was a political ploy that they knew could get their names in the media, and draw votes.
Biagi: From your perspective did the press contribute in any way or did the press handle the issue well, do you think?
Leary: Probably not although Tenney's hearings — one of the legislative devices at that time that was more conspicuously effective than it is today were hearings by legislators on single issues. Tenney would move around the state and set up committee hearings into the fear and alarms of communism in this or that field, communism in our schools and in our textbooks and things like that. And he got a lot of press. Rather belatedly the Democrats recognized that technique and began counterfire with countercommittees. But I never felt that the press played them as well and they weren't as dramatic.
However, Bob Kenny was attorney general — and I was a good friend of his — and he became a strong voice against the Tenney move. He was a leader of the liberals, somehow not as effective, I guess, as he might have been. He apparently wasn't a very well organized person in his office. His own office people told me that things didn't go the way they should because he would get — a little like Jerry Brown, he would get very distracted and interested in an idea and let the office kind of roll by itself. He was, however, a leader of forces trying to counter the fear that was being spread by the Tenney crowd.
And it is hard today to comprehend. This sinister suggestion that you really couldn't trust anybody, how did you know that so-and-so was not maybe on the payroll of — really deliberately trying to undercut our government. There was another force — and more obviously, one that people were more aware of — in the political world and that was the lobby force which was dominated by Samish.
Biagi: Artie Samish.
Leary: Artie Samish was an extremely interesting and probably brilliant guy who began, at the same time Earl Warren began, as a clerk in the legislature and found out what it was all about and learned how to use it. He became a lobbyist first for some of the transportation motor vehicle people, I think buses and transportation forces,
and then realized that the place where there was a lot of money and a lot of influence was liquor — it was right after Prohibition ended. And he through his influence with the legislature was able to completely not only dominate our liquor laws which kept taxes on liquor very, very low — and I think they still are among the lowest in the nation — but reached into very many areas. He had people actually on a payroll who were either other lobbyists or functionaries in some department who would tell him things. All he wanted was information, he wanted to know who was going out with who, probably who was sleeping with who, so that he had a fund of information that gave him power over people. And it was used — that was a sinister kind of web all through the political life around the legislature. And it was full of rumor and that kind of thing.
Biagi: Let me take you to an other issue. What role did you play or observe about the issue of the Japanese in California? Did you cover any of those stories?
Leary: Yes. And of course I was shocked and bewildered at the time that the order was posted in my neighborhood, that the Japanese should all report to Tanforan.
Biagi: Tanforan was the race track.
Leary: The race track down on the peninsula. As I look back at it, the press was strongly fed from the military — this was so soon after Pearl Harbor — was strongly fed the line that this was an essential thing that had to be done. I'm appalled when I look back at it that there wasn't more resistance. But the shock of the war and the first black-out nights that you went through and the sort of horror, having read so much about England and what it was going through in the war and to suddenly feel that we were about to be subjected to the same kinds of bombing and so forth, which was the line that the military fed us whether they believed it or not. I think they probably believed it for a while.
I think there was no challenge or very little challenge for the first orders. And all of us in the paper were being told this is absolutely essential. I did go to Tule Lake, which was one of the big camps, went up with a camera for a weekend or two or three days — two days, I guess. Went up by train, I remember, to report about what life was like. And it was appalling to go into these long barracks areas and see sheets hanging to divide each family's sector, one from the other, and to discover that food — I remember, we had macaroni two meals in a row — food was not at all what they wanted. And the misery of it and the efforts people were making to try to cope, to have some schools for the children and that kind of thing, were interesting.
And I wrote about it. I tried to write it with sympathy and understanding. I also talked to the administrators of the camp who were sort of miserable at the job they were obliged to do. It was, I've heard since, one of the most sympathetically run camps. Then there were others that were down in the Arizona desert and so forth which were just awful. Then some of the Japanese, like some of the Italians, moved from the Bay Area a little bit ahead of the orders, seeing things coming, and got into Salt Lake City. And I know the whole organization of the Japanese unit — Japanese-Americans or Japanese who were not naturalized — who formed one of the very heroic military units of World War II — that all grew out of the families that moved into Salt Lake City and then some began going around the country and talking to other young Japanese-Americans and kind of uniting the young men and coming to the decision that what they could do to prove their loyalty, which was what they wanted to do, was to go to war and fight.
Biagi: What was the atmosphere or the attitude among the press, in your experience, at that time about the whole issue?
Leary: My general recollection is that there was very little challenge. That may be that I wasn't talking with the most liberal among the press. I was just talking with the reporters in the city room and so forth.
Biagi: But considering that there was a good reason for the News' reputation.
Leary: Yes, it had a reputation, it was liberal. But we were at war. And it just changed everybody's attitude almost instantly. So that you accepted things which you normally would not have accepted. I look back at it with regret that I didn't question it. The concept of ever challenging the country when it was at war was not something that was acceptable at that time.
But I remember a couple of things. One of them, I knew a woman who met a black guy who was in the military and I think was an officer, actually. They wanted to get married and I discovered they couldn't get married in California but they could in Washington state. And it was the first time that I had realized that there were laws of that kind. And later, much later, I remember when that law was abolished in the legislature. I guess I was an innocent, not realizing that. I make this reference to indicate how little I knew through my own experience, my education or background.
And I was thinking that as a child and as a — even in college — there was an assumption at the dinner table or in a group that the men could talk about public politics and public policy and so forth and what was going on and orate. But the women, and especially young people, had no knowledge about it and you just sat mute and listened to what the men said about this. And I've been thinking about it and remembering how never was there any encouragement for young people's comment on what they thought about this kind of policy area. It was just assumed you didn't know enough.
Biagi: Was that your experience, sitting at the dinner table?
Leary: Yes, it was. Exactly.
Biagi: Let's move on a little bit. There's another issue you wanted to discuss.
Leary: One of the marvels that I'm grateful for was that I was covering politics at the time Earl Warren was governor. I think another time I may have mentioned to you that my first year up there, I discovered one morning that there had been a party the night before for the press given by the governor at the governor's mansion and I had never known about it. And I went in to the office just furious and talked to the press secretary and said I couldn't understand that. And he said, "Well, we didn't think you'd want to come. The guys drink a lot and kind of horse around." And so I said, "Of course, I did and it was an insult to my paper and I was just furious." I said, "If I didn't want to come, I could say no after you'd invited me, but at least you should have invited me." And I was invited subsequently.
But I'm grateful to have seen how Earl Warren functioned because I think on the whole he was very open and very thoughtful and very concerned about — well, the human being as well as the laws. He had a daughter who got polio and out of the experience of that he proposed a state public health insurance system which brought the medical industry and the insurance industry and everybody else down on his back. Unfortunately, some of the doctors, very liberal doctors who encouraged him in this in the beginning did not stay with him and become strong spokesmen before the legislative committee. And it didn't get anywhere. In fact, it kind of got laughed off. But it was the first official attempt to establish a government health insurance program.
Of course, also up there at that time were pension movements for the elderly, the effort to strengthen the pensions for the elderly or various health benefits for them. George McLain was the lobbyist for the elderly who made a great thing out of it for himself. He had a weekly program on the air in which he talked to them and begged them to send contributions. He was ahead of some of these evangelistic preachers in his attractiveness to listeners. He had a real gold mine going. But he did actually work for the elderly and did actually increase the benefits.
And I guess I'm wandering around talking about some of the things that I was covering in the legislature. Elections, of course, also got to be quite interesting. During local elections for the board of supervisors in San Francisco I discovered the League of Women Voters and how effective they were at having hearings and this kind of thing.
The British government at that time sent a woman as their press representative in San Francisco — Kate Graham. And Kate Graham was just a delightful person who had great parties for the press and knew how to get along with the press. I undertook showing her how our political system worked. And I had a lot of fun taking her around to some of the dullest meetings at night when people were running for office. And I took her to Sacramento and showed her the capital and took her to press conferences up there and so forth.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Leary: As I discovered a lot about the state's politics I discovered that the Democrats had a lot of very well-meaning people and almost no organization and no cohesion.
Biagi: Has that been your observation from that time on?
Leary: It sort of remains, yes. The only time they really got organized was when Senator Knowland was running on a right-to-work basis which organized labor just really clobbered him on. And those were some of the few really dynamic meetings that I saw when labor was actually very, very organized and united and strong about right-to-work and knocked him out.
I mentioned to you yesterday that when I was up there I became friendly with Cecile Mossbacher who was in the district attorney's office in Alameda County. Some of the legislation that was hottest in '48 was — well, organized crime in the East was — well, organized gambling interests in the East, at least — were trying to get their own telephone lines through and trying to set up more gambling in California. We had a gambling ship anchored off of Long Beach just outside the three-mile limit and the attorney general Bob Kenny was trying to prevent them from taking people back and forth by boat but of course they did. And people went out to gamble. But they were trying to get the ship brought closer to shore and he was fighting that off.
But the question of gambling interests and their influence was a current story and I would talk to Cecile about it. We made a great point of not being known generally as good friends. It was part of the Samish thing, part of the sense that you always had of people watching to see who knows who and who's close and I didn't want anybody to know that I was getting tips from her or would be talking that much with her.
So when we passed in the hall, I would usually say, "Hello, Miss Mossbacher," she would say, "Hello, Miss Leary." And that was it. But we met for breakfast every Friday morning during a session and she would give me — neither of us gave away everything but we would give hints of what we knew and what was going on and we kind of kept track and I could tell what bills to watch that they were most worried about, law enforcement people, and so forth. So I got some good stories or at least I was alerted to them.
Cecile's mother became ill and she had to stay home. The war had ended and the office sent out in her stead Arthur Sherry who was an assistant district attorney who had just come back from the war — had come back, not just, he had come back about three years before. And he came up in the '49 session. Frank Coakley, the district attorney of Alameda, was somebody I knew and had seen a lot when he was up testifying a couple of years before on criminal-law bills. Gambling and organized crime always make good copy. So I was well-acquainted with him.
He called me to meet Cecile Mossbacher's successor and he says that it was instantly obvious to him that we fell in love at that very moment but I wasn't quite that aware of it.
Biagi: Where did you actually meet?
Leary: We met in Cecile's room in the Senator Hotel. She was up there showing Arthur Sherry the ropes and introducing him to people and she walked with me to the elevator after I'd met him and said, "You're going to get along all right with him, Mary Ellen, you're going to get along all right with him."
Well, we did not breakfast every Friday but he did begin taking me out to dinner and would drive me back to San Francisco occasionally. He had an assistant with him. In the climate of not letting people see that you were too close to anybody, he would often bring his assistant along when we had dinner so there would be three of us and it wouldn't be too obvious. And then I began seeing him in the Bay Area. So I guess actually along by March we were engaged but —
Biagi: March of 1950?
Leary: No, '49. We were very clear that we must not let anybody know of our relationship because he was carrying bills to bar gambling interests from getting special wires into the state, which is what they wanted. That was really one of the hottest stories and all the press was writing about it. He thought it would be hurtful to his interests and I thought it would be hurtful to mine, if people identified a conflict of interest in my stories. So we tried very hard not to let anybody know. And the only person in the political world that we told was Earl Warren.
And Arthur had been — I may have told you — on Earl Warren's staff. When he got out of law school in 1928, the Depression was starting and he could not get a job in a law office. After almost a year of looking, somebody — he was Berkeley-born and his family lived in Berkeley and he was at home, and somebody recommended that he go and try the district attorney's office. And Warren said, "I will take you onto my staff if you want to come and work for nothing but I can't give you a salary, there is no slot available." And Arthur did that. He worked two years, living at home, with his folks giving him carfare and lunch money. And finally somebody moved out of the office and started private practice and Arthur got $200 a month right away.
He married, he had two children, he went to war and served with the Military Air Transport Command and was in Africa most of the war. Came back, after about three years, and found his wife very ill and she died within a few months of his return home. None of that did I know initially and hearing about his children, I was disturbed because I felt, here I am falling for somebody who's a married man. I then found out his status — and we planned our wedding for Salt Lake after the legislative session ended and the two children were in it with us.
Biagi: How old were his children at that time?
Leary: One was nine, the youngest was nine, that's Judy, and Suzanne was fourteen. She was more hurt by her mother's death and a little more shocked at somebody moving in. Judy, who was very outgoing and athletic and younger, wasn't quite so startled by the change. I think Sue had been with her mother all through the war and knew her mother's loneliness and was old enough to worry about the ill health of her mother and so I think she probably had much more of an adjustment to make. The nice thing is that we're all very close, which is fine.
Biagi: So in '49, now, you got married what date?
Leary: July the twenty-fifth.
Biagi: And that is '49.
Leary: Yes. And we had a month in southern Utah and New Mexico.
Biagi: The session was out then.
Leary: Oh, yes, it was over. Actually, in those days it usually ended before the first of July. Nearly always by the end of June, unlike today.
So I came home with a very clear awareness on both of our parts that I was going to continue working, and did.
Biagi: You moved into the Berkeley house?
Leary: By that time, before the war, he bought a home, in Piedmont, actually a very few blocks from this one. It was on Wildwood Avenue. And I moved into that house. He had a full-time live-in housekeeper. His parents had lived with him for about a year after his wife died and then he got a housekeeper. And they had this operation going and the children were going to the Piedmont schools. And I moved in and began finding out what was in the house and how to do things and then got a live-in person of my own, that is a housekeeper. We both recognized this wasn't going to work if the previous housekeeper continued. She was accustomed to running the house alone. Ultimately, I found a very nice black woman who stayed with me for three years until I had a baby, Virginia — Gini. And at that point, she quit because she didn't want to have to deal with a baby and I got somebody new.
The Newspaper Guild contract at that time provided for six months' maternity leave. Considering how few women there were, it was very generous and more generous than many get today. I wasn't sure how I was going to work it out. And I did a little traveling — I covered a national convention, I didn't mention, in '48, my first national convention.
Biagi: You covered the convention in '48 and then —
Leary: And I went in '56.
Biagi: In '49 you got married —
Biagi: — and then you continued to report for the News.
Leary: Yes, and I continued to be political editor.
Biagi: And you continued to go to Sacramento, did you?
Biagi: And stay for the six months. Were you coming home on weekends?
Leary: I would come home on weekends, sometimes I'd come home in the middle of the week. Arthur was not up there then, he was back in the district attorney's office doing trial work. I managed, we managed it, with the household running with a housekeeper and I would be in and out. And I'm sure it was not ideal and many in the family thought it was shocking.
Biagi: And then it was '52?
Leary: In '52 I did not cover the convention. Arthur by that time had been — Pat Brown brought him into the attorney general's office, Pat became attorney general, and Arthur became chief deputy attorney general in charge of the criminal end of things. So he was working on a state-wide level. And he traveled a good deal because he had to go to Los Angeles and elsewhere. And oh, there were various hot trials that he had to be a special counsel in and that sort of thing. Those were terribly busy years, just terribly busy years, both of us working like mad and trying to keep track of the children. I remember trying to organize summertimes and hiring a sewing teacher who would come here to the house and a couple of other youngsters in the neighborhood
who would come in for sewing lessons with Sue and Judy and then planning the swimming classes. And the girls would go to camp, for a couple of weeks. So I was juggling all of these things.
And our social life as well. I was getting acquainted largely with his friends, he with some of mine. He, having grown up here and lived all of his life in the East Bay had much more enduring ties, people he'd been to school with and so forth. And all of this was new to me. Oh, I don't know, I remember we went down to the Rose Bowl game one year and various other trips, we really had an awfully good time. And meanwhile I was trying to write — I mean cover, whatever. Finally, after — well, we bought this house just before Gini was born. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: Tell me now about your relationship to your husband. You've got a child — Virginia was born in —
Biagi: '52 on what date?
Leary: She was born so that I — June 29. And I missed the Republican convention in '52, that's right. And I told Earl Warren's wife Nina that I just was so unhappy about it. She said, "You should be very glad. I've been to conventions a few times when I was pregnant and you had to — the elevators don't work and you have to walk up the stairs," and she said, "You're lucky." [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: And so Gini was born —
Leary: Gini was born and we moved into this house with four bedrooms so that we would be able to work things better. And I remember the moving men bringing the furniture in from the other house and the legislature was still on. And I had not told the office that I was moving that day and I was trying hard to cover the legislature and not let the city desk know that I wasn't up there. So I would call United Press and find out what's happened and what's gone on and so forth. And then I would call the city desk and say this is what's happening. And it really was the only time that I was that full of skulduggery with my work.
Biagi: What was your husband's attitude towards your working, towards your being a professional person?
Leary: The fact was important that he had first known me in a working environment and seen what I was doing — and I would like to think that he found people respected my work — and he respected it. Probably this is a little bit intimate but I said I didn't think I could marry him because I did not think that I could combine both career and domestic life and that he wouldn't be happy if I continued to work. And at this point he said, "You can be a flagpole sitter if you want to, I don't care, I'm in love with you and I want to marry you."
Biagi: Just come down from your flagpole sometimes.
Leary: That was when automobile people were advertising through flagpole sitters who would sit up there for weeks.
He understood the drive that I have. I'm not sure I understood why it was so important to me but it was a part of life that I was creating myself and that I felt committed to and he understood and supported me in it. And many of his friends wrote me after he died and said, "He was proud of you," which consoled me a little, although there are times that I wish that I had spent more time with him and less at the typewriter. But that's inevitable at this stage in life.
I rarely asked him to read my copy ahead of time, but only if I had a problem about expressing something or other. And he would sometimes say, "Oh, it's all right." And then once in a while he'd say, "Oh, well, this one's good. All right. That's fine." And once in a while he would tend to be like a professor and start making little grammatical changes and so forth and I would say, "No, that's not what I want you to do. Do I get the point across." So he would say, "Well, then, don't ask me."
He did some writing at that stage and rarely talked about it with me. He did an article, particularly I remember, about — he did a number but one of them particularly — because he was critical of the idea that vagrancy was a status that you had and it was criminal, that it was a crime to be a vagrant. And he traced the history of that concept back in common law and wrote an article about it which, I've been told, has been quoted a number of times in opinions and so forth. And he did a big study of the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh and had fun with that.
Anyway, we both had quite demanding interests so we didn't always discuss with each other what we were working on but we had a lot of mutual interests in what was going on in the world and our friends and so forth. He also had a good ongoing relationship with the family of his first wife and we would go over and visit with them and maintain a close relationship with her mother. And she was very supportive of me and very kind. And interestingly enough, his first wife Barbara had been a twin sister and her identical twin sister Dorothy White lived in Sacramento and I came to know her and have seen her over the years. And the girls have kept in touch with her which gives them a sense of a continuing relationship with their mother's family.
Biagi: What about your children's attitude toward your work?
Leary: I think they probably — since I never did have the experience of living at home full-time and then going off to work, that I came in as a new presence and was there every night — and morning and every weekend, they probably didn't resent it as much as they might have under the other circumstance. I think there were times when they didn't so much like it. When Gini was little, she was about three or four, I would come into the office late and I didn't mind that because I was working late at night, often. I had a neighbor next door who saw us every time I would bring Gini out in front so we could color or play a game or something like that on the steps at the front. And my neighbor next-door, the minute she saw me out there would throw up the window of her kitchen and start talking with me which was the last thing I wanted, those were precious times for me. I can remember being so annoyed. But Betsy, the next-door neighbor, had boys whom Gini played with. She used to run out and say, "Hey, gang!" and they would all go out and play on the street. There were a number of children on that block and it was a lively and pleasant time.
We had a Fourth of July neighborhood festival, closed the streets off, and had the kids all decorate their bikes or dress in some sort of a theme that we would have planned and had music and loudspeakers and flags out and lemonade and cookie booths and so forth. And played games. And then at the end Arthur would assemble all the kids around and everybody would be given a little tiny American flag and he would read the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. And we did that for, oh, about six years, I think. And I can remember one time the theme was for the children to "dress as your favorite sport." And Gini came with a big cardboard box made to look like a television set over her head.
But we always invited city officials to come down and visit and people from other blocks would come and ask if their kids could join. And today Piedmont has a city Fourth of July parade. I think it really began from our El Cerrito Avenue event.
Biagi: Something to do.
Leary: Now you asked about his attitude and the children's attitude. I think they came to tolerate it.
Biagi: Is that right? Honestly?
Leary: I think they did. Ultimately it was very beneficial to them. Sue, in '56, when the Republican convention was here — Sue got a job with the Republican party people doing secretarial work but got to be a part of it. And she was very interested and found it appealing. When Kefauver was campaigning here one time, I brought Judy along to watch, she came with me for the day when we were spending a whole day with Kefauver, campaigning around the Bay Area. And he invited her to ride in the car with him and tried to get her to make suggestions about what young people were interested in.
They both felt that they got something, in other words, out of my political experience and it was a part of life that they became interested in and — oh, Gini was one of the "Girls for Cranston" and so forth.
Biagi: Did you feel unusual in your neighborhood where other women were working, generally and —
Leary: Other women were not working in this neighborhood. And most of the wives of Arthur's friends were not working — judges' wives, attorneys' wives. And they felt I was different. And I think they must have been talking to themselves about "Why does she do it when she has those charming children that she could be spending time with?" I felt that I could not possibly cut off the life that I knew and move into this domestic life which I never particularly wanted anyway. And I think Arthur understood that but we managed then to create a home and have a happy family life in spite of my distractions.
Yes, I felt — and especially when Gini began going to school and all the other mothers were into things which I wasn't into. I felt conspicuously elderly among them. Because I was forty when Gini was born. But I also felt that I was not in tune with what they were doing, the PTA people and so forth. It didn't bother me but I felt that I was probably depriving her of some relationship that the other kids had with their mothers. I didn't do as many things at the school. I was not as close to the women as most of the women were with each other, nor as comfortable with them. It's just not a world in which I felt that I quite belonged, a world in which you're totally interested in the home and whose sole conversational focus is on the family and your garden and what restaurants you've been to.
Biagi: What did you want to talk about?
Leary: The homeless or the Arabs or oil or something like that, or what's going to happen to our economy or has Bush gotten in over his head. And I don't know how odd that was but that's just — I guess I grew up in an awfully male-oriented world.
Biagi: By male-oriented, what do you mean?
Leary: I mean that the people whose — my mother wasn't living, my father dominated my early childhood. When I was with my grandparents, I was most often with my grandfather. And my grandmother would've liked to have taught me cooking and so forth but I wasn't much interested, I would rather go with my grandfather. That wasn't so much true in my college years when I was in Omaha because my uncle was a lawyer and was very busy and rather didactic at the dinner table. But my aunt was a very good companion and very much fun and we had a good life together. And she was very active in civic things so it wasn't — she had a live-in housekeeper, a German girl. And so my life with her wasn't really being limited to: it's time to dust or make the beds or grocery shop, as many women just grow up with. That's what I mean, anyway.
Biagi: Well, we've got you into the 1950s. Which three issues that you covered in that period of time were important to you?
Leary: After Gini came along, I continued doing politics for some time but it became clear to me that I couldn't continue in that field because there were so many weekend meetings and so many night meetings and it wasn't fair. So I changed. At my paper I asked if I might change and have somebody else do political coverage and I would do something else. It was a time of major redevelopment in cities and great post-war concern about urban growth and so forth. And I got very interested in urban issues and I wrote about
redevelopment in San Francisco where they took a produce market area and re-did it into high-rise offices and apartment townhouses.
Then along came interest in a rapid transit system for the Bay Area. That was a subject which I was very interested in. I've always thought it began because Cyril Magnin who ran Joseph Magnin's store and an attorney named Marvin Lewis used to walk together downtown from wherever they lived up on Nob Hill. And they began talking about how troublesome the traffic was and the city was going to be overcome by automobiles and why didn't we bring people into the city by some other means.
So you had top industry people and people with some prestige in the community first proposing the idea that we really ought to have some alternate commuter system. San Francisco, being a peninsula, was short of space, amd could look at the problem of the automobile's impact with a little bit more concern than any other place. I was still at the legislature when the first measures came through but I had talked to people a good deal about this idea of rapid transit and I followed it from the very beginning and wrote a lot about it.
One of the interesting phases was when they did some regional planning, they had a plan where the lines would run, where were the main places people came from and wanted to go to and all of the business about standing at the freeways and handing out cards to people saying please mail these in, where did you come from, and where are you going? It was the first time across county lines that there'd ever been any effort to plan and people kept being astonished at finding out what the neighboring county was planning on doing right adjacent to it.
But I liked the people involved in developing the transit system. I'd already done quite a bit with my housing stories to know planners. And so I was interested in the people who were working for Bay Area rapid transit. It seemed to me quite forward-looking. They looked at all kinds of possibilities, even helicopter runs across the Bay. And I covered all of the commission meetings when the commission got set up.
No other paper in the Bay Area was favorable for a long time. The Chronicle was opposed because the deYoungs had had a concept of a subway under Market Street and they felt this was going to run counter to it. Of course, they've got their subway now, too. And I guess there are some things that maybe I didn't see. I think San Francisco didn't get as many stops as it might have and I should have been a little more vigilant for the city on that basis.
But I found myself — I don't know whether I mentioned when I was doing the housing stories, the time came when I felt I was so close to the people that I might not see new things and I felt I was too close to public housing specialists and seeing things too much their way instead of challenging them. And I asked to be taken off that beat and have somebody else do it. And I have sometimes wondered whether I wasn't too close to the people who were developing BART because I became certainly an advocate, was writing all about it from the "pro" point of view which was the paper's point of view. Whether the paper had it or I sold it to the editors, I'm not sure.
There were a lot of business people, some very outstanding women who were civic leaders in San Francisco, who were also very supportive of rail transit. People who had been interested in urban renewal and in housing could see that BART was going to be helpful.
Biagi: What about that relationship between the reporter and the source?
Leary: Well, it has sometimes troubled me, when you cover a story so thoroughly that it becomes part of you. If you work overtime — by that I mean seeing people socially who are your sources, having dinner with people that you've been interviewing during the day or doing something on the weekend with them, something like that. And in two or three instances I did kind of worry whether it was improper for a reporter but I don't know how you can avoid it, actually, and it happens inevitably in covering politics. You find somebody who's a good source and you begin to write a lot of stories that he can help you with and he gets his name in the paper
and you've got a mutually beneficial thing going. And at some stage, I think you have to stand back and say, "I'm overdoing this. Somebody else ought to be on this beat." And I have done that a couple of times. I didn't do it on BART, I guess if I did it on BART it was near the end, anyway. Near final voter approval of BART.
One of the newsworthy developments at the time on transportation — San Francisco had that great freeway revolt where they didn't want the freeways to go through the middle of the city. I was writing a lot about that. And the state was planning the Embarcadero Freeway. I've always taken great pride in the fact that we delayed it for two years because we were so critical of it.
But we had an idea which really originated with an architect Vernon De Mars of a great park down around the Ferry Building, with lawns and with access to the water, and what a wonderful thing it would be for the city, a little bit like Copenhagen, to have the park there, right in the middle of the city. And we wrote about that — in fact, I got so involved, this became another case of getting involved in a crusade. I had been writing that the freeway shouldn't go along the Embarcadero because it would be a barrier between the city and its waterfront.
Two things developed that I think might be questioned journalistically. The architect, Vernon De Mars, had sketches and a lot to say about the waterfront park idea. And I talked him into having a press conference and told him who to call for the press conference. And they set it up and they had some business leadership by this time in favor of the idea. And I can remember nervously waiting to find out how the press conference went — I didn't go to the press conference, somebody else from the paper went.
But in another development in our effort to prevent the building of the Embarcadero Freeway, I took De Mars with me one day, one evening, to go to the Chronicle. It's the only time I've ever done anything like this. I was wishing one other paper would join us in opposing the Embarcadero Freeway. And we went down to the Chronicle. I had called up earlier and said — and I can't remember who I talked with — but I called and said De Mars wanted to talk to them and I was going to come along, which must have surprised them.
Biagi: Because you were a reporter at this time.
Leary: I was a reporter. But known by them, for my by-line at least. And so I went over and I said he had a great idea about this park and he knew that we were editorially for this and I wanted Chronicle editors at least to hear about it. Well, not only did he not succumb to this idea but he brought out pictures of Seattle with their elevated freeway at their waterfront and said, "Look, it's very successful, it works fine. We need that."
Biagi: It didn't work to your advantage in that case.
Leary: Not at all. And I'm not sure that going to another, a rival paper and trying to sell them is a good idea, anyway.
Biagi: Now at what point —
Leary: I don't think I ever told my boss I did that.
Biagi: At what point at the News then did you consider or were you asked to move into the editorial side, to the editorial page?
Leary: Now, Paul Edwards resigned, I mean retired.
Biagi: This would have been when?
Leary: Well, in '52, just while I was pregnant, we got a new editor. Frank Clarvoe had been editor during the war and after. But the paper had a financial disaster after the war. And Scripps-Howard moved Frank Ford from the Evansville paper to be editor in San Francisco. And he was good. Well, he arrived and I thought it was going to be difficult enough for him to discover that there was a woman writing politics, without knowing that there was a pregnant woman writing politics. So I didn't tell him for a while but waited as long as I could so that he could see my work first.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: So about when was this that you —
Leary: Well, I'm not too good on dates, to be honest about it. But it was about 1955. Actually, there wasn't a great — I did write some editorials but there wasn't a great deal of change from what was going on because, as I've already mentioned, I was always butting in with what the paper ought to be for or against. And of course, if I hadn't written the editorials in favor of BART, I at least talked them out with Paul Edwards.
Another fellow, Jack Castel, had been doing some editorial writing and he continued doing it after Paul retired and I had the title of associate editor but I'm not sure what I did really to earn it. Except to try to alert the paper and to continue to be in touch with what was going on politically and that sort of thing. I know I was often calling the legislative correspondent — or whoever was writing for us covering politics, to touch base and find out what was going on on bills and so forth to see what we should be for or against.
Biagi: So how long then were you associate editor?
Leary: Through some pretty anxious years in which Frank Ford had tried to persuade Scripps-Howard to expand the area in which the News was circulating by buying a Peninsula paper that seemed to be available. And unfortunately, having not given us adequate support in the way of a business editor, business manager, during the war and immediately after the war, they now didn't give us enough go-ahead on this kind of thing where we might have expanded in a different way.
There was a good deal of internal concern about what was happening and there was a kind of a truce deal between Hearst and Scripps-Howard around 1960 by which they joined the News and the Call-Bulletin and had only one afternoon newspaper, solely, instead of the competition that we had. Jointly in a new operation, we had the field together. There was an uncomfortable effort to merge the two staffs. And there was a wonderful reporter, Jane Conant, from the Call, who figured prominently on the News-Call. There were some people who didn't merge and some who worked fine.
Biagi: Did you stay on on the editorial staff?
Leary: Yes. We moved into the building that — I can't remember when it was built — well, the building the Call-Bulletin had been in, and moved out of our building. It wasn't a particularly happy time but everybody was making do. And meanwhile we had, people felt, a pretty vigorous paper. The sports section was stronger and the Call-Bulletin got our strong finance section and so forth; the woman's section, I think, was probably stronger. We had some awfully good reporters, George Dusheck and people who were outstanding reporters and writers on the paper. And I think the era of the News-Call was a fairly strong period, journalistically, without the ordinary reader being aware of the difficulties of working together.
Biagi: What was your role? You were now management, in that sense, were you?
Leary: Well, this occurred — I'm trying to remember — it must have been about '59. Yes, I was doing this editorial policy stuff. I don't know that I felt management.
Biagi: Were you writing?
Leary: Yes, I was doing writing and was writing sometimes some series on large subjects, like water. And also working with Jack Castel a good deal on the editorials and working with Frank Ford on editorial policy. I'm trying to remember then what next developed. The paper was aswarm with worries about what was going to happen next and I remember an enormous amount of time was spent with everybody talking about what management ought to do. And they brought in one editor, different editor for a while, who had lots of wild ideas but they didn't last and he didn't last. And he didn't know the city at all.
Ultimately, we learned that the paper was being merged with the Examiner and that an agreement had been worked out. We heard it in the office and then we all got individual telegrams.
Biagi: And when was this?
Leary: I guess it was early '64.
Biagi: And Hearst also owned the Examiner, so that made it easier in that sense.
Leary: Yes, for them. For those who were on the Call-Bulletin who were all previous Hearst people. The Scripps-Howard people said to me that ideally they would like me to come back to Washington. But since that probably wasn't in my domestic plan that they would keep me on as West Coast correspondent which I did for three years. The interesting thing is that when I was writing politics for the News they also had another woman writing politics from Washington — and I think I haven't mentioned Ruth Finney before.
Ruth was on their Washington bureau which was a kind of a national news service for all the Scripps-Howard papers. She particularly served the Western Scripps-Howard papers, Denver, Albuquerque and San Francisco. So she was writing a great deal on Western issues like farm problems and water and power, all of the time when PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric] was trying very hard to thwart public energy through the Shasta area and fighting the municipal power structures that we have still remaining in some San Francisco cities.
Ruth had been a Californian and had been covering for the Sacramento Union about the time of World War I. And she got her chance to do reporting, to go to Washington, at the time of that war because men were leaving newsrooms. And we both used to talk about the fact that war had advantaged our careers. She was very much respected in Washington and had a great deal of insight. She was married to Bob Allen who — was it Pearson and Allen, I think, had a column? Anyway, Bob Allen wrote — I think his base was the Philadelphia paper but he had a column that was syndicated. And he was a great cynic. They used to come here and visit us at the house and my children would listen in awe as he talked about how dreadful the government was, they had never heard anybody lambast it.
Bob Allen had been in World War II and lost an arm and wore a hook with a clamp. But he was a very lively person.
Biagi: So Ruth had really essentially paved the way. Scripps-Howard was used to that.
Leary: Yes. Doris Fleeson was back there at the time — and I'm trying to think of what other women. But Ruth was one of the early ones who had paved the way in Scripps-Howard. Yes, I dare say that they tolerated me because they knew her.
Biagi: Now, when you worked for Scripps-Howard from '64 to '67, that would have been, where did you work?
Leary: I worked here, from my home.
Biagi: From your home.
Leary: Yes. The office was taken apart and I bought a desk and a chair and a few things from them and bought my typewriter and set up files and began — I started out thinking maybe the Tribune would let me use their morgue.
Biagi: The Oakland Tribune?
Leary: The Oakland Tribune. And I talked to Bill Knowland about it and I had a number of friends there and talked to them. But it turned out to be just too awkward; it was too difficult. And one of the facets of my working habits which plagues me and I think dates back to the fact that when I very first started on the News part of my job was, in spare time, to help the woman who was then running the morgue, mark and cut out the papers and so forth and find out about filing. And then I found out how much the reporters needed the clips. It was a very humble little morgue and grew and other people came finally and took it over and I didn't have anything to do with it. But my first year or so on the paper, I was helping with it.
Well, when I began working by myself, with a lot of encouragement from Ruth, who used to tell me, "Write about earthquakes, they'll always carry a story about earthquakes. Write about dramatic shipping problems." But I did find it difficult to get stories that would catch the eye of editors in towns in the Middle West, which wasn't particularly interested in the West Coast. But I did politics. I mean, I could write on political stuff every now and then, that would be fine.
But I began having to keep my own files and there was just no way out of it, I had to — especially around an election time. And then I found I could manage if I hired a high school kid to clip marked papers. And so I began — I would mark the papers and I found a neighborhood kid who would come in and cut for me, for very modest hourly pay. And the fact of the matter is I still do that. I was lucky for a while in having somebody who could also keep my files up, I mean, who understood what I was filing and would keep them going.
And for a couple of years, I had a graduate journalism student from Cal working for me who was very able and very good and needed money. And he was helpful at a time when I was trying to get rid of some of my files because I had kept — I had all of the press releases from the governors. And I am kind of ashamed to say it, but we have what the family calls the ping-pong room downstairs, with a ping-pong table, with files on top and files underneath and files all around. And when I had Neil Hamilton working for me, I was able to begin to get rid of some of them and I had all of the [Ronald] Reagan governor's term, the press releases and so forth. And [I] asked the Hoover Institute if they wouldn't like those, which they did. In fact, they were absolutely delighted, they have five boxes of (my) stuff about Reagan. It was not welcomed at the Reagan presidential library. That's separate. The Hoover Institute wants to keep the governor's papers here in California.
And I found I could get rid of Jerry Brown's papers because the state librarian is interested in developing a political collection — much more a collection of journalistic accounts, not what the Bancroft Library keeps which is quite as academically oriented. So he was very happy to have all my Jerry Brown files.
For a long time after I began writing for Scripps-Howard and ultimately for the Economist, backdated files were no problem to me because I was able to talk the Bancroft Library into taking them. And they have a large collection of my files, part of which begin with what I collected initially of other people's stories on politics because I was trying to study what they did and I wasn't keeping my own so much. But then later on, some of my own things.
A lot of them, the background things, I mean the clipping files that I would keep on something. And I took all of my files on transportation and BART and so forth to the university library which is part of the transportation engineering department. And some of the water things have gone to them. So, kind of scattered them around.
Biagi: How did you organize to work at home when you had not really worked at home before, had you?
Biagi: During this period of time. What was different?
Leary: The ping-pong ended.
Biagi: That was one thing. Nobody could play ping-pong any more.
Leary: The children were very unhappy about that. I kept saying, "Well, I'll get rid of it in a little while." The ping-pong room is a great family joke. But I had this little office here —
Biagi: Did you file the stories by phone or by mail or by wire?
Leary: Mostly by mail. And I was always tearing down to get them off, sometimes at Western Union, quite a bit by Western Union at first. And then I would try to send them by mail, having been taught by Scripps-Howard to try to do things as cheaply as possible. And then after — I had some fun with the Scripps-Howard coverage. Oh, I went on some political trips to Tucson and some various places, writing about Republicans. And then I went up to Alaska to do a story one year after statehood. If I knew when statehood was, I'd know when that was.
That was a lot of fun. I went up in the summertime and was there for the longest day and I found out how much energy it gives you if the sun only is down for a little bit, you're out in the sunshine all the time. And I went out with the army and saw the ski-troopers, I rode in the cab of the railroad to see how in the remote areas they dropped off packages to people in their little cabins off in the wilderness.
I found, though, that it wasn't easy to get the desk in Washington to be interested in the West Coast. I had to file through the desk. And they were — like lots of wire services, they were so oriented to Washington news. I heard the same complaint from people on the Economist, that having the office in Washington means you've got to have a Washington angle before the story seems important to them.
I had lunch one day with a woman whom I knew who was one of the trustees or whatever at the university and whose husband had been in the oil business. She said to me, "I've been doing some writing for the Economist here and I want to get out of it, I'm not that interested in it, and I wonder if you would like to." And I didn't know much about the Economist at that stage. But Scripps-Howard had a very rigid rule, that you could not write for anybody else if you were writing for them. I'm not sure how I got away with doing Saturday Evening Post articles but I did, early. Maybe the rule came later.
And I explored, I guess, a little and was told flatly no, you could not do both, write for us and write for the Economist. But the editor from the Scripps-Howard desk back there came to San Francisco. There was an editor's conference here and a number of the editors were here. And I said, "Look, I'm not happy with what I'm doing and I would like to retire from Scripps-Howard." I was lucky because I could do that. And Arthur had agreed with me that if that was just the end of my career, all right, then you can pick up whatever other writing you might do.
But I had this invitation to think about the Economist and I knew I couldn't do both. It was not going to be a full-time thing but it was at least something that would keep me abreast of news. So I took my retirement from Scripps-Howard for all of the years that I had accumulated which were many and took it over a three-year time — I mean, took a payment over the three-year time. And I think they were relieved, I think they didn't quite know how to handle West Coast news. They knew it as well as I did.
Biagi: Could we stop for one minute. It has been important all along and I really have been neglecting my duty, to kind of chronicle pay scales. And so now that you mention money, if we could go back. If you remember, you had your great $17.50 starting wage which got boosted to $20.00 to keep you an honest woman. But you haven't gotten any raises since then. So if it isn't too untoward, if you have some benchmark dates and what the wages were, it's very interesting, I think, to people to understand that.
Leary: I wish I could remember. You know, dates are not good, as far as I'm concerned. I just don't remember. But when I went back to Harvard, I was definitely one of the lowest paid among the Nieman Fellows. I mean, we had the feature editor for the Louisville Courier-Journal there and a science editor from Time and so forth, and they were paid way far more. The Nieman fellowship paid your transportation and paid you the same salary, the same amount of money that your salary was. I can't remember how much it was but I think $40 or $60 a week in 1945. But when I came back, at some stage, at about the time Arthur and I were married, probably while he was still in the district attorney's office, before he went with Pat Brown as a deputy attorney general, I was getting $10,000 and it was marginally larger than his and we had a certain amount of joking about this.
Biagi: What period? In the fifties that would have been?
Leary: Yes, mid-fifties. Yes, because we must have gone with Pat about time. Then I remember we had a visitor, one of Arthur's cousins was here, talking about — Arthur by that time was paid way much more. And then he went to the university in '53 and to the law faculty and began teaching there and his salary was far superior to anything that I was making.
But I remember vividly saying to this visitor, or Arthur saying, "There are not very many women in the Bay Area making $10,000 a year now." Wow, there sure are now! What a paltry sum. And my guess is that maybe about $12,000 or something like that was about what I was making at the time at Scripps-Howard. I got a small increase when I went with Scripps-Howard as the West Coast correspondent. And of course, I got lots of expenses covered and my car and everything like that.
I can't remember anything about ever talking to the Economist about how much I was going to get paid. But at that time Ruth Finney tried to talk me out of retiring because, she said, Scripps-Howard had a marvelous ultimate retirement program. "If you waited until 65, Mary Ellen, you just have really got a cushy coverage." But I couldn't see going all those years into that. And she thought it was very unwise of me and I think, myself, that I got an inadequate sum at retirement. But we did take it in three increments each year.
And when I began writing — well, I remember a friend of mine at Cal did a piece for the L.A. Times op-ed page, oh, three or four years ago. And he said, "Do you know they only paid me a hundred dollars?" I said, "Well, join the rest of the world. That's about the sort of level of pay I was getting."
I think I started out at the Economist at about $150 an article or something like that. And, to tell you the truth, last year I came across, going through some desk drawers of Arthur's, a check, a cancelled — not a check but a statement of payment from the Economist.
Biagi: The stub you mean?
Leary: Yes. No, it was a receipt. And it showed that I was getting, I think, $250 for an article and the date on it was five years before. And I thought, "That's silly, I'm still getting $250 an article." So I copied the darn thing and wrote them a letter and said, "I don't think that's fair." They always had given me, however, a fairly good retainer, monthly retainers, I get a monthly check of $350, in addition to the pieces. And they immediately said yes, this was embarrassing. They increased it, not greatly but somewhat. And I'm getting now sometimes $400 and basically generally $350 for an article.
Biagi: So what has that allowed you to do now, it was a benefit that you've been writing for them?
Biagi: What's been the benefit to you, do you think? Certainly the benefit has been for them having you on the staff.
Leary: Well, being able to continue the thing that I find fun. And certainly having an occupation now with Arthur dead four years and I have an activity which gives my life some sense of fulfillment instead of sitting around with my friends talking about what we might have for lunch. And a continued sense of participating in the world's work, I guess. I have always liked feeling I was part of what was going on in the world.
Biagi: The ping-pong table is fuller.
Leary: Yes, it is.
Biagi: You continue the clipping, don't you?
Leary: Yes. I do continue the clipping and I go through it and try to throw away stuff that I know that I'm not going to do a story on. There are lots of subjects in which I am very particularly interested, one of them the death penalty. And I think we may or may not have in this session talked about my interest in the death penalty.
Biagi: Well, and Caryl Chessman, I don't think we have, actually.
Leary: Well, when was the — I looked it up once when we talked before. At the time of the great interest in the Chessman case with not only national but international concern about his execution, when he had not killed but had raped and traumatized people. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: If you wanted to continue —
Leary: I just want to talk a little bit about the death penalty because it's something I did get quite interested in.
Biagi: And the reading you got interested in is fascinating.
Leary: Well, there was so much interest in the Chessman case and then I discovered that over in San Quentin they were continuing executions for people. They would have little, tiny stories, not even on page one, little stories that so-and-so today was executed at 9:15 a.m., or something like that, a clemency plea had been denied by the governor. Period. That was all.
And I began thinking how odd it was that all this attention was on one man and other guys were continuing to die and nobody paying any attention to them. And I went over — I guess I interviewed a few people. I remember one man who had an execution date set and I wrote a story about him, I suppose a sob sister story, and he had never had any kind of — he had a perfectly normal kind of life without any criminal background but he had shot his wife. He was an alcoholic, that no doubt a contributing factor. And I wrote about him.
And then there was another case that I discovered in which two people, two black guys had been involved in a burglary and were interrupted at it and shot the shopkeeper. And one of them got life and the other one got death. And I wrote and contrasted and there was some dispute as to which one of them had fired. And a number of cases came along in which there seemed to be an accidental reason why this guy got it and not another guy.
And writing some of these stories — and I do remember the guy who shot his wife because he tracked her down when she was in a church basement helping put together some kind of a party for the church and shot through the basement window at her. And then very shortly after, in the same California city, another husband shot and killed his wife. And I was struck — I learned, attorneys of course would begin to tell me stuff, that the other guy didn't get the death penalty, he got life which meant maybe in ten or eighteen years or something, he'd be out. And there was a feeling that the community had exacted a penalty for a crime like this from one person but they didn't have to go on doing it, they had one person who expiated.
The Supreme Court held up that fellow's execution for, oh, three months or something like that and mulled it over and finally ordered them to go ahead and they had to have a date set and so forth. I remember when he was executed, I was here, I was all keyed up about it. But the phone rang and it was his daughter who said, "I want to thank you because there never has been anything that gave my father any dignity in his life, he went through life as an alcoholic and feeling horrible about himself, until you wrote about it. And I just want to thank you for giving him that much." And I remember coming in here and crying on Arthur's shoulder, it was the most emotional thing.
But I did not get so emotional on most of these cases. I tried to make some kind of a survey. I didn't know quite what I was doing but I took some yellow pads over and they let me sit in the office at San Quentin and look through all the books and I wrote what was the state of origin of the people, all the people on Death Row. And there were thirty-six at the time I did this. Imagine, now there are 277 or something. Of the thirty-six, most of them were white but the majority came from Texas or Oklahoma, one of the southern states, southwestern states. The majority of them had not gone beyond one or two years of high school and some of them not into high school at all. I tried to trace whether their families were broken or whether there'd been divorce in the family in which they were brought up. I made these little comparisons and tried to draw some analysis and I wrote a series about them, who were on Death Row. And I remember I got all of the mug shots.
The paper by that time was kind of supportive of my interest and had come out opposing the death penalty and we were the only paper in the state to oppose executions. And we ran on page one as a banner all of the faces of these guys on Death Row, all thirty-six. And I remember so vividly the circulation boss coming up from where the trucks were going to take them out, just furious, absolutely furious. "We can never sell these papers! What is the idea of giving me a headline like that?" The faces on Death Row. He said, "This is the most awful front page I've ever tried to sell." Well, that night he apologized to me and he said the papers just went like everything. Of course, I wasn't interested in doing it for sales but it was an amusing sideline of what developed.
I became more and more convinced, I remember many of the people in the office did not agree with this policy and thought this was silly to challenge it and why was I all excited, I was just being a woman. I came to realize that what bothered me most was that there was a kind of chanciness about it, there was no sense of standards, you didn't know who was going to get it, some counties never sent anybody to the death chamber and some district attorneys always did and were successful 90% of the cases, and so forth. And it seemed to have no relationship to the guy who committed it. Just about the time we were doing this, there was a horrible series of murders of little kids up and down the coast by a guy who got caught and I kept thinking, "Well, I hope they execute him before I — so I don't have to make any apology for him."
But I have always felt that it demeans our society, that it does not belong, it probably belonged in the past, it probably doesn't belong any more than torture which we used to accept ages and ages ago as part of the system of justice. And the state supreme court at one time ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment. But then they got an initiative, the people favored it and so we have the death penalty. It was an initiative saying it was not cruel and unusual punishment. And the degree of support for capital punishment has grown and grown.
Biagi: And it continues to be an issue really for you after all this time?
Biagi: What did the Economist want? If you had to characterize, what is it they're interested in about the West? What seems to be attractive to them?
Leary: They were far more interested in the kinds of stories I wanted to do than Scripps-Howard required then. They're interested in the economic basis for the area such as water, jobs, and Silicon Valley and pollution problems, immigration — far more attuned to the importance of California's economy in relation to the rest of the United States and in relation to the Pacific and the world. They're interested in personality and in politics, very interested in the initiative, the way we govern or don't govern in California. And I guess what I've gotten out of working for them is that I can continue to bring the perspective that I've gained for years to write something which some people in the universities say they like to read and feel that they're balanced or that they're acceptable stories.
And then I have done other stories for Pacific News Service. Some friends of mine told me about this — the editor, a woman, Sandy Close. It's a somewhat offbeat syndicate in that it's — first it's poor and doesn't worry about it and is largely supported by foundation money. But it's consciously trying — Pacific News Service is consciously trying to find what is going on in society that is not being reported by the rest of the papers. For instance, it had some — I didn't have anything to do with this but the earliest stories about the buildup of manufacturing across the Mexican border and the exploitation of Mexican labor in that process.
I began writing for them and they invited me then to do more and often have said, "If you're doing something for the Economist, re-do it for us, that's just fine, reshape it and let us have some of the subject of what you've been working on."
Biagi: I saw your article one day about the Feinstein campaign fairly recently.
Leary: In the Bee.
Biagi: In the Bee. Did that come from Pacific News Service?
Leary: Yes. And I continue to do things for them. A number of California papers have used my stories pretty extensively. And then they have Eastern papers, too. They also have a lot of papers on university campuses and those use Pacific News Service a lot.
That's given me one outlet and the only outlet where I can have a by-line. Oh, I've done a little bit for the Nation, I used to write occasionally for the Nation, I have.
Biagi: You don't have a by-line in the Economist.
Leary: No, no by-line.
Biagi: Would you talk about the by-line which has always been the same, essentially?
Leary: Yes. The check from the Economist comes to M. E. Leary and I use a stamp to go into our account and I sign under it. Arthur said, "Oh, I've been signing your name all the time." But he never had any jealousy about my work or resentment of my work. I was lucky in that he was very supportive. That, I would say, is the most essential thing for anybody who continues to work while married. You've got to have a husband who is supportive. Some of them are supportive, of course, because you're bringing in an extra income but there's another degree about it that you have to have, too, of understanding.
Biagi: Let's talk about how your stories originate.
Leary: Well, for one thing, in working with the Economist, I found it very comfortable. I found the Economist editors, most of them young enough to be my sons, wonderful to work with because they have somehow the same idea of the story that I have and they respond to stories as I do. I've never been as happy in my relationship with editors as I am with them. And I'm not sure I know what it is that accounts for that.
But I will suggest stories, sometimes I write a letter outlining things that are coming along. And sometimes, more likely phone and say there's this and this. If it's complicated, I try to write it, in a letter. But they will say, "Yes, do that," or "We're going to do a national story on this same thing, and so I think you better not try it," or "You can write us a memo which we'll work into the national story." You know, if it were something like fighting pollution in the air or something like that, although they carried a lot of stuff about L.A. pollution.
And then once in a while they will say, "We'd like you to do a story" on this or that. One of the uncomfortable realities is that when it comes to a very hot presidential election or even a very controversial governor's election — probably will be happening this year — the editor from London gets a chance to come to California and will write the story entirely.
Biagi: Do you do kind of the footwork —
Leary: Yes, often line up appointments for them, sit and talk with background or have already written enough about it so that he's got some background on it. And I'm not particularly bothered by that. Even though they have sent an editor out from London to do a special supplement on California, it seems a little odd, but — probably if he hadn't come when I was down with bronchial infection and in bed for a couple of weeks, I might have resented it. I was very grateful not to have to do it.
But for this — to help him, and it seems to me it's part of — I've always figured it's part of what I get a retainer for — I lined up appointments for him, insisted that he should talk to the superintendent of education and this person and that person. And he went about some of the things — some of the appointments he made himself. But a lot of the appointments were appointments I set up for him. But I'm accustomed to doing that when the fellows would come out to cover a big election.
I have found them responsive to my suggestions on stories and that's good. I find the Pacific News Service likely to be a little more critical and want things to fit a little more narrowly into exactly the perspective that they want to give a story so that I will have sometimes to rewrite for them where I rarely do for — I get edited sharply in the Economist and cut down but it's not so much rewrites.
People ask me how do you know what to write? Well, I can tell what stories are developing. I suggested a story on the homeless, particularly after Mayor Agnos kicked them out of the San Francisco Civic Center. And [I] discovered in talking to people who were running various programs for the benefit of the homeless, that although there's a strong vein of public reaction against them, there is a growing sense of responsibility among many social agencies. This is a much bigger problem than society recognizes and it has got to be dealt with. I don't know how it's going to be dealt with in terms of budget deficits.
I wrote that and it's been pushed aside all the time for problems of space, other things coming along — Arabs and so forth, and effect of the oil and what it was doing to the United States. And now there's talk about let's do a national story on the homeless. And I only mention that — now I wrote a very short thing on the California fires in Yosemite. They were thinking about whether they wanted it or not and without waiting to find what they thought, I filed it, because I thought it's here and they can dismiss it if they want to and they didn't order it so they wouldn't have to pay me for it, okay. But I thought they should know. Yosemite was closed, I thought that was significant.
Biagi: About how many stories would you say you're doing a week?
Leary: I'm doing about three a month.
Biagi: Three a month.
Leary: About like that. And then PNS stuff on top of that. Now there are other things that I have written for National Catholic Reporter. And there are other stories that I would like to do for other outlets, too, if I can get around to it. Life seems to have so many other demands.
Okay, I did think that, you know, how the stories were developed and nowadays with fax machines so important, I used to try to file by overnight express mail for the Economist, writing of course to the Washington office and then if I have a chart or picture or something I think they should have, I try to get that by mail to them, anyway by Tuesday because they have a pack that goes to London that it can go in. But no, I've discovered — well, they used to have somebody who lined up for them in San Francisco, a fax machine outlet, in the days when you had to have compatible machines and they weren't all compatible. And I would go over to the Pandick Press in San Francisco and file from there and I did that for years. And it was just a little bit — two blocks off the end of the bridge and I didn't mind whipping over there. The last trip I made with copy for the Pandick Press was on October the 17th, 1989 —
Biagi: I wonder why!
Leary: — early in the morning, fortunately, early in the morning. And then when I discovered that I couldn't use the bridge, I looked around and found, of course, another fax outlet.
Biagi: The Bay Bridge not being available for some weeks.
Leary: No, that took care of that. But I found that right down here where I go to copy clippings or reports they had a fax machine and I could use it. And so just a few blocks from here in the nearby shopping center I now use their fax machine and tell people their fax number and they call me when something comes in for me.
Biagi: Technology has touched you —
Biagi: You're still not typing on a computer.
Leary: No, I'm not. I got my typewriter fixed yesterday by a man who still can fix those old standard Royals. And I keep thinking if I could get my files kind of orderly, maybe I would get a computer. I'm not against learning a computer but I just haven't got room for it right now.
Biagi: Okay. Well, let's go to some of the more general questions. Let's see. If you had to think about it, in a general way, the whole span of what you've done, what would you characterize as the happiest time in your life, or the most fulfilling? Are they the same thing or are they different?
Leary: Covering the legislature where you know the players and can follow it closely, that was really quite wonderful. It was challenging, because you always wondered what these guys were up to, and at the same time you felt very worthwhile, you felt that it was important to tell the public what was going on at the legislature. And always the business of trying to judge what is an important story. Some of them were good stories just because they were good stories but trying very hard to find out what was significant that was happening and to be able to write that for a group of readers that would respond.
And I'll tell you my reader. I used to think of "him" as a fellow who was running one of the streetcars in San Francisco, who knew the city well and felt — so he's on a municipal payroll and feels involved with government to some extent and sees people. And he comes home tired at night and I have to catch his interest but I have confidence of a little bit of a level of interest. He's an ordinary guy who's going to go to the television,
turn it on, he might want to know what's going on in Sacramento. And I tried very hard to write to him, somebody who wasn't awfully informed but vaguely interested.
But writing from the legislature to a group of people who can be affected by what the legislature's doing and to try to keep them informed was, I think, the most satisfying thing. I still feel committed to trying to write something about the death penalty in the hope of changing a few minds but I don't think I'll live to see an end to it. But I think eventually we'll do away with the death penalty, I'm sure of that.
Biagi: And your least happy, most unhappy time?
Leary: Living in a paper which knows that it's going under and everybody talking all the time about what could we do to save it. All our little groups of reporters say, "If we'd only had more stories about the suburbs, if we'd only write about the immigrants coming in," which wouldn't have brought us any more money, of course, or ads. "If we'd only get back to having a big social page where society would read us." Agonizing, agonizing, week after week over how can we save this thing, the ship that we see sinking. That was the most unhappy time. Knowing and with all of us feeling a love for a paper we'd been with for a long, long time. So that was too bad.
Biagi: Was it a feeling, too, of — did you know at that point that you would have another career, that you'd still work for Scripps-Howard?
Leary: No. No.
Biagi: So how did that come about that you got another assignment?
Leary: Well, I learned that Hearst didn't want me.
Biagi: I see. Did they tell you, one day, or what did they do?
Leary: The Scripps-Howard people told me.
Biagi: Oh, they did.
Leary: Yes, the people on the papers said the Hearst people have listed those they want — and you're not one of them. And I wasn't surprised because the tone of the things that I'd written about a lot and identified with were not things that fell into their editorial policies. They might today. The Examiner today is a far more alive paper, interested in the local community, and far broader in some of their editorial approaches than they used to be. They were at that time very, very narrow.
I was just told that the Hearst didn't want me and that Scripps-Howard would prefer having me come back to Washington but since that wasn't in the cards, that they would have something for me and wait and we'll see what develops. And I thought at the time the something for me might have been just a retirement check but I didn't know what was going to happen and in the agony of the paper dying, I wasn't really thinking about my own future yet. That was lucky because Arthur was teaching and I could continue as a faculty wife.
Biagi: That would have satisfied you a lot, I'm sure, making cookies. What about your reflections or your thoughts on the changing role of women in journalism over the span of years that you saw changes take place?
Leary: Well, it was kind of overwhelming to see how many there are and it's quite exhilarating. But I had this astonished sense when I went to the dinner that the Society of Professional Journalism gave and stood up to look out over the crowd and it was about two-thirds women. And I was really dumbfounded; I thought that was very, very exciting.
I have to confess that I never thought of myself as a feminist. I never consciously thought, "I'm doing this for other women." I strongly felt, "I can do as well as any man. And I can use my head as well and I can work as hard as any man, and I'll show 'em." But looking at some stages, I thought, well, at least by doing it as well as any man, I showed that women can. And people talk about you as a trailblazer but I didn't think of myself in that role.
An awful lot of time I was not interested in women, isn't that dreadful? The women of my generation whose interests were so limited — now there were wonderful women who were in volunteer work, just marvelous women, and I came to know them largely as a reporter and wrote about them and was in awe of them. And then after I was married, Arthur encouraged me to do volunteer work. I was on the board of EBAC, East Bay Activity Center, which is a small operation for emotionally disturbed children, taking them very, very young, up until the age of twelve. And I continue to be very interested in that and did a lot of publicity for them, I did a monthly bulletin for them and so forth.
And then I got active in Catholic charities and found that I was working with people who also had busy careers but were doing volunteer work of this kind. And I've been grateful for the chance to see that facet of life which, when I was so absorbed just working, and then busy with family and figured that was a full life, to find there's another element yet.
What's the question again?
Biagi: Well, essentially it was the changes in roles of women in journalism and I can see the answer to that —
Leary: I'm just delighted. And I now feel from the time when I was one token woman on a paper and she would mostly have to go and talk to the widow of somebody who had just been murdered or something like that, that now they're writing finance and sports and all of the heavy economic stuff, it's quite exciting to see this.
Biagi: Over the years, whose reporting work did you most admire?
Leary: I don't know that I can answer that right now. I really don't. Ruth Finney was in many ways a kind of mentor. George Dusheck's reporting I really liked and admired a great, great deal. These are people that I knew. I see work — what's her name, Flora Lewis of the New York Times, I'm in awe of her. I used to read Dorothy Thompson just hungrily and full of respect. I think in many ways — Tony Lewis is most admired.
Biagi: If you had to name your heroine, who is it?
Leary: I just did.
Biagi: Ruth Finney? Dorothy Thompson?
Leary: Dorothy Thompson, yes. There's a woman who wrote on the Herald, on the New York Herald-Tribune whose name I can't say now and with whom I was very impressed. Once when I was back East, went to meet her. Katharine Graham, of course, interests me a lot. It was kind of funny, she came and she spent one summer on the News working. And I admire a good deal about her but I wouldn't say in a heroine kind of way. There were a couple of women who were reporting during the war who were impressive and I'm just not at the stage where I recall names that easily.
Biagi: How have you observed your newspapers changing? What are the major changes you see?
Leary: Well, they've gotten more readable, a lot more readable, and more interesting. The extreme objectivity which used to be the ideal, I think it wasn't just balance that you got out of the story, it was a very dry story, and the injection of personal style and personal observation has livened it a great deal.
One of the things that I feel is happening, though, is that the understandable interest in international news, a small one-village world, crowds out a lot of local news. And I find there's not as much concern about what's shaping life right here for us and how can we affect it and what can we do about it. Not as much of that conveyed to readers as there used to be. I think there was much more lively interest in local policies. You know, we have a drought and what's happening with the water supply is reported. But I feel that in the old days there would be far more — stories far more in depth about water policy, towards looking ahead, and what's going to be here for the next three or four years, and looking at the kinds of people who are running the — making the decisions about water. I'm just using that as an example. Something which is of great importance locally but is not developed much.
Now, there are a few papers that carry their own focus. The Tribune will focus a great deal about black issues, quite properly. The Chronicle has discovered sex, of all kinds, and of course, AIDS, and they've done an outstanding job on the reporting on AIDS, which grew out of their understanding about reporting on the homosexual scene. And that I applaud but I think the paper gets dominated by it too much. I don't know what's happened on the Bee lately.
But I feel that there used to be more of a sense of linking the newspaper reader with the local community than there is today. Now I mentioned the Hearst Examiner is, I think, consciously trying to move into that area, at least this is the impression I get. Not on their Sunday paper, which is a blah but from the papers that I pick up during the week.
Biagi: This is a question that comes out totally by itself, I want you to understand, but it's the next question here. Was there ever a time when you found it difficult to remain a lady and still be a reporter? I think it's an interesting question.
Leary: Now, let me see. I'm amused because I think of the language which I hear some women use which are words that are not in my vocabulary.
Biagi: Such as?
Leary: S-h-i-t, which I don't like, at any rate, and yet I find perfectly attractive, nice women using a lot. We used to have carrier pigeons at the San Francisco News and we would use them particularly for sports stories because the photographers could put their pictures from a football game on the leg of this darn pigeon. And it would come to our roof on the News and we would be able to have a paper showing pictures and telling a story — the story could be phoned in but we could show the pictures of the game to the people who just left the game. And that was a big stunt that we carried on at Cal and Stanford and so forth.
And one time right about the time the war began, we took the carrier pigeons and a cameraman and I went to board a ship out in the middle of the Bay and go out the swinging ladder on the side. I thought, "I don't know whether I can do this." But I did it.
Biagi: But did you keep your hat on?
Leary: No, I don't think I had a hat on.
Biagi: You said the hat was important to you because —
Leary: I liked wearing a hat because buzzing around town my hair didn't blow all over the place. And I was always hating to go into a meeting or to interview somebody without a mirror to look at whether I could get my hair back down. If I had a hat on, I didn't have to worry about it. I liked my hats.
One of the times this makes me think of was the time — I mentioned that the governor had a press party I was not invited to. And at first, there were places where I was barred. And one was the Press Club. I was not allowed to be a member of the Press Club, no women.
Biagi: San Francisco Press Club?
Leary: San Francisco Press Club. And that annoyed me while I was a reporter. It annoyed me more when I became a political editor. And it annoyed me particularly when I was associate editor of my paper and I still was not eligible for the Press Club. It was sort of amusing. There were — Carolyn Anspacher called me one time in Sacramento and said there was a group of people willing to start a woman's press club. And they assumed that like the men's it would have slot machines in it, and I said no, besides I don't want a woman's press club, I think we should belong to the Press Club.
And everybody knew, all the fellows knew that I thought this was an outrage. And I could go to the Press Club with somebody and have a drink with them, and did, and I could pay my own way at the bar, but I couldn't belong to the club. Well, ultimately, after I was married, they invited my husband to belong to the Press Club because he was a man. And they had lots of advertising people and some judges and lots of people who were peripheral to the journalism world who belonged. And of course I said, "Don't you dare!" He said, "I wouldn't."
Ultimately, they dropped the barrier and admitted women and invited me, too, and I became a member and for two or three years was active on committees because I felt this was something that I should do. And I remember George Christopher came back from Russia and we had a dinner there, and I think I presided over it, welcoming him back.
Biagi: I wanted to ask you, too, about your involvement then in the Sutter Club in Sacramento. Did you ever get —
Leary: No. No. I went to a couple of things there but they had to make all kinds of special arrangements for me to attend. They would have the press but then there would always be a big deal about "Could Mary Ellen come?"
Biagi: Right. Yes.
Leary: I never was there after the time when women were admitted in. But the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco had rather a significant political role because they have study groups that would look at upcoming taxes and make recommendations. And they, through the fifties and forties and so forth, had significant publications. And this club was at the time Gov. [Earl] Warren was recommending health insurance, one of the first places that a legislator spoke about this plan. The first group to hear details was a Commonwealth Club section. And I went to it along with all the other political reporters because this was the first time we were going to hear from the author of the bill, the bill not yet being written, what was likely to be in it. And the Commonwealth Club secretary came and motioned me with his finger outside. And I left my purse and my raincoat and everything and walked out with him. And he said, "Mary Ellen, I'm afraid we're not allowed — we cannot have you in here. We don't allow women at any of our meetings and you can't be here." And I said, "I'm not here as a woman, I'm here as a reporter." Well, I lost on that, I couldn't stay. Of course, I called the guy afterwards who gave the report and asked him and he told me on the phone more or less what he'd said, I think. And I made the secretary go and bring my raincoat and purse and notebook out to me.
But it was a question in my mind on whether I should have written about it in that fashion, about what happened to me, and I didn't. I never felt that it was proper for me to make an issue of my personal status or to write a news story about my rejection as a woman. And there were times, a few other times, when there were meetings in which they said, "No women allowed," political meetings, endorsement groups, maybe a labor group or something like that. We've never had women before and no, we don't want a woman here.
Biagi: Would it be because of where the meeting was held or would it be just the group themselves?
Leary: No. It was just an all-male rule: no women allowed. Once in the Senate they were having a meeting on some crucial bill and they said that "We've got to have a committee vote on this and the committee will meet in the men's room." And I went into the men's room with the other male reporters and thought, "Golly, I want to hear that — I have as much right to hear what the committee's going to do as any other reporter."
Biagi: You stayed there.
Leary: And I stayed there.
Biagi: They let you stay?
Leary: Yes. They didn't throw me out then.
Biagi: Were you all alone as a woman there?
Leary: Yes. Of course.
Biagi: Also you talked a little bit about your emotional involvement and emotional feeling with the death penalty cases. Were there other times when you got emotionally involved in stories?
Leary: Well, I was — yes, I cared, I came to care an awful lot about urban renewal, trying to make cities be places not just for offices but for people to live in. And I still care a lot about it. I'm not sure it was emotional but it's a matter of very deep conviction that it's harmful for cities to be — just become wastelands at night and that it's much healthier to have a community where there are people mixed up, living in quarters close to work quarters. And I suspect in the suburban kind of developments, we're going to have a little bit more of that kind of life. Because I'm interested in what city life is.
I've also been very interested in child care programs and their meeting the needs of working women and so forth.
Biagi: Was there another time that made you cry? I'm really thinking of that deep kind of feeling.
Leary: I guess I've cried a couple of times at elections. The person that I thought ought to win didn't win. I've gotten interested in individual people whose lives — that I knew as a reporter whose lives kind of came apart. I have cried when fine men in government whom I knew died. I have cried when scoundrels got away with their schemes.
Biagi: Did you see this picture of the very disinterested reporter just following a parade and writing the story?
Leary: No, not at all.
Biagi: It doesn't touch you at all, then, does it? You just walked on by.
Leary: I actually often worried about how much of my political reporting was affected by likes and dislikes. And I'm not going to say I burst into tears but I came to like people that I felt were very trustworthy. Al Wollenberg was one of those, for instance, he's an example. George Christopher is another. I quarreled with George Christopher a lot about some of his policies and he didn't have very much sense about urban renewal. And Ruth Finney used to lecture me that George was a terribly limited man. Granted. But in the context of this city, he was a very honest man. I felt that he was really quite honest himself and quite honest in his judgments, political judgments, and I came to like him very, very much.
And then I would worry about am I writing about so-and-so because I like him. And is my antipathy with somebody else the reason that I don't like his measures, the bills that he's putting in, I just personally don't like him. This is not exactly what you're asking me about but it was a problem that maybe men don't have as much as women. I don't know whether that's a difference or not. But likes and dislikes troubled me in my professional life, as to whether this was a handicap or something. Whether I shouldn't have been that cruel, objective person looking at the scene without any sense of my own responsiveness. And I'm afraid I am a responsive person to what's going on.
Biagi: If you had to write a story about yourself, characterize yourself.
Leary: She's committed to a few principles of justice and tries to see stories in those terms. And I'm afraid I judge stories kind of in terms of justice, with a preference for the underdog or the poor or the overlooked. I guess I would put that in. And maybe so full of busywork, not doing enough long-range thinking, I think maybe that's also —
Biagi: Why do you say this?
Leary: The newspaper clippings, I get absorbed in detail and in reading the mail and so forth. Except that I know perfectly well that I'm looking for trends, I'm watching to see what's developing. I read the press releases from Stanford and Cal because I can read week after week after week and never get a story but suddenly I discover that there's a pattern of something here that suggests a story to me. So although it's busywork, it's worth it, I think. It contributes to my perception of news. I like to think that I can recognize news, that's kind of what I'm trying to do as I read all this stuff.
Biagi: Has journalism been good to you?
Leary: Oh, yes. I'm getting one sector of fulfillment in my life, yes. But also giving me a sense of belonging to society, to the rest of people and a place where I can connect with people. And just do the work, I would rather feel that I was good craftsman, able to do a good job day after day, reliably, even though I can't win a Pulitzer.
Biagi: Thank you.
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