Washington Press Club Foundation


For more than fifty years, Mary Ellen Leary has been at the center of California political reporting. Since 1937 she has covered most of California's major political stories and major political figures, including governors Earl Warren, Edmund G. Brown, Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian, and Pete Wilson. She continues today as a journalist, working as the California correspondent for the Economist of London.

Leary lives in a spacious Piedmont home in the rolling hills near Oakland, above the San Francisco Bay. Her home, which she and her husband, Arthur Sherry, bought after their marriage, is where she raised her children. This is also where she writes, in an office that measures about 10' x 15', a step down behind the volume-filled library off the living room. Piled on her desk are reports and clippings, with an overflowing filing cabinet and full shelves surrounding the desk.

Leary was born in Utah, but when her mother and then her stepmother died, Leary went to live with her maternal grandparents in Sioux City, where she lived until her senior year in high school. Then her grandmother died, too, and Leary went to live with her aunt in Omaha. After graduating in 1934 from Duschene College, an affiliate of Creighton University, Leary received a scholarship in English literature from California's Stanford University. She graduated with her M.A. in 1937.

Leary's interest in journalism began when she met a woman reporter at the local paper in Omaha, whose name Leary can't recall today. This reporter covered the courts and county government and Leary remembers that her grandfather kept talking about how this woman reported "better than any man." Leary followed this woman on assignment to the county fair one day and Leary still remembers her excitement at the experience.

Leary's first job in journalism was at the San Francisco News, a Scripps-Howard paper which is no longer published. She covered the raucous San Francisco political scene and worked in a newsroom reminiscent of the movie "Front Page." To write a story about illicit abortionists, she posed as a woman seeking an abortion. To cover public housing issues, she spent one day wandering from shelter to shelter dressed as a homeless woman.

After covering general assignment and local political stories in the 1940s, Leary was assigned to the state capitol in 1944. She is often cited as California's first woman capitol reporter, which she says isn't true because when she arrived there was a woman reporting on the capitol for the Socialist newspaper.

She covered California politics at a pivotal time. Special interests, represented by lobbyist kingpin Artie Samish, wielded wide-ranging control over the legislature. Earl Warren was governor. The San Francisco News, a pro-labor newspaper, paid particular attention to labor issues, which Leary followed carefully.

Another central issue for the News was the death penalty. The News became the first California paper to publicly oppose the death penalty, responding to the celebrated Caryl Chessman case, which Leary covered. This led to Leary's lifelong interest in, and opposition to, capital punishment.

In 1946, Leary was one of the first two women Nieman Fellows (the other was Charlotte FitzHenry). Leary reported on politics in the 1950s, and eventually she was named Associate Editor at the News. Then the newspaper was sold to the Hearst organization and, after three years as west coast correspondent for the News, Leary quit.

Leary began reporting for the Economist in 1967. She has worked for the London publication ever since, writing stories on a typewriter (not a computer) in her cozy office near the library.

The present oral history interviews supplement earlier ones conducted in 1979 with Mary Ellen Leary by Harriet Nathan for the Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California. These earlier interviews, which are part of the Governmental History Documentation Project (Goodwin Knight/Edmund Brown, Sr., Era) bring out her views as a political observer. The present interviews focus on her life and work as a woman journalist.

Shirley Biagi
April 24, 1991

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