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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Margaret, I want to start our project just talking about the very beginning of your life, and then we'll move on to the other events we want to talk about. Let's start with where you started, with the exact date and where you were born.
Richards: Are you really going to require me to tell the exact date?
Biagi: The exact date. It's important.
Richards: Well, I was born on October 27, 1909, painful as that is to say, in a little town in central Kansas, specifically Newton, Kansas. I imagine that an awful lot of my fellow townspeople thought of me as a spoiled brat.
Richards: Because I was not only an only child, but my parents had had a son and he drowned at the age of thirteen. After that, they had me. So you can imagine what an important thing I was to them, and I was probably spoiled rotten.
Biagi: Tell me about your parents.
Richards: There's not a whole lot to tell. They lived there in this little town. My father was a railway mail division official. My mother, of course, stayed home, figuratively. By that I mean she was not employed anywhere. But she hated domestic work. I was just like her. And she never inspired me to do fancy work or any gourmet cooking. You had to be out of your head to like such things as this! Instead of that, she ran around all over Kansas giving book reviews and organizing women's clubs and doing church work.
Biagi: What was her education?
Richards: She did not get to go to college, and she never forgave her father for this. He had two sons, both of whom he sent to college. Mother thought she was much the best scholar of the three, but he refused to send her because she was a girl.
Biagi: What was her name?
Richards: Hattie Lee Marshall.
Biagi: Had she been born in Kansas?
Richards: Oh, no. She was born in Illinois.
Biagi: How did she meet your father?
Richards: Both families had moved. He was a western Tennessean, and he never failed to say "west Tennessee," because he was so afraid somebody would think he was a hillbilly if he didn't specify that he came from the rich agricultural plains above Memphis. However, in about 1890, he and his family moved to Vernon, Texas. So did my mother's people, and that's where they met and married.
Biagi: Then they moved to Kansas?
Richards: They moved to Kansas about—I don't know the exact year. They married in 1894. That kerosene lamp there was a wedding present to them. Mother had it wired for me many years later, of course. But they moved. It must have been about 1904, maybe 1905.
Biagi: When was your brother born?
Richards: I'd have to do some mathematics. He died in 1908, and he was thirteen at the time. You add the figures, or subtract it.
Biagi: His name was?
Biagi: And your father's name was?
Richards: William Collins Plummer.
Biagi: So describe them to me. Your mother, you said, was very active. What about your father?
Richards: Dad was very indulgent, honest, I think, to a point, ridiculously so. But he went around with candy in his pockets and gave it to the neighborhood children. He loved to fish, this sort of thing. But I never felt really all that close to Dad through the years, although he did wonderful things for me, like I remember a Halloween party that he organized, in which he took a big, heavy poker of some sort and went down and beat on the furnace pipes in the basement.
I might say this, though, about that little town in which I grew up. It was a railroad town, and in a way I think I was cheated. I never saw a kerosene lamp, and our house had electricity from my earliest memory. We had inside plumbing. We had all the things that we used to think of as being sort of modern. But this was because the Santa Fe Railroad had to install an electric power plant in order to run the machinery in their shops. And since they built the electricity for their own operations, the town benefited from it.
Richards: Very early, yes.
Biagi: Describe your house. What was it like?
Richards: Three of us rattled around in a nine-room house, only one bath, but there was a huge attic, a full attic, and, of course, a full basement. The furnace that was there when I was growing up, there in the basement, was still serving that house when I sold that after my mother's death in 1957.
Biagi: Gas-burning? Kerosene?
Richards: It had been coal and then had been changed to gas as the years went on.
Biagi: Where did you go to school?
Richards: I just plain went through high school in Newton.
Biagi: Did you stay at the same school, or did you go to several?
Richards: Oh, no. In fact, I stayed in the same house from my earliest memory. But I went through high school there, and then I went to the University of Kansas.
Biagi: What schools did you go to? Did you have a particular grammar school and then junior high, then high school?
Richards: No. I went to McKinley Grade School and then to Cooper Grade School, then to Newton High School, and that's the end of that tale at home.
Oh, I'm about to forget something. When I first graduated from high school, my mother and dad thought that I was awfully young to send to that great big evil school at Lawrence, the University of Kansas, so they sent me off to Kansas State College. They were going to require me to take certain Home Ec courses, if I wanted a degree in Industrial Journalism. I said, "Home Ec? Goodbye!" And I got on the train and moved to Lawrence without telling my folks a thing about it.
Biagi: Now, let's go back to high school. Did you work in journalism at all?
Richards: We didn't have a school paper. However, I was very much interested in—let's call it creative writing, I think would be sort of a catch-all phrase. I always loved to write, and I did a lot of that kind of thing when I was in high school.
Biagi: Were you a good student?
Biagi: Did you do well in English?
Richards: Yes, yes, very well in English. In college, in about my sophomore year, I got this notion that I'd show how smart I was by buying no textbooks, doing no studying, skipping classes. One semester I know I had sixty unexcused absences. But I proved my point by getting a B average. And if you want to know how you do this, you sit on the front row for the first week of school and study hard and wave your hands at all questions. By that time, you've impressed the professor sufficiently that you can slide by.
Biagi: After that, right?
Biagi: Let's go back to Kansas State now, and first you leaving high school and going to Kansas State. Why did your parents choose Kansas State? Why did they think it was best?
Richards: Well, if they weren't going to send me to the University of Kansas, that was about their only other option. They didn't want to send me out to Emporia State Teachers College or any of those places, you know. So that was the choice they thought they had. They couldn't have afforded to send me away to a private school.
Biagi: So at Kansas State, tell me a little bit about this decision you made to leave. How long were you at Kansas State?
Richards: Three semesters.
Biagi: What year did you go there?
Richards: The fall of 1927. I graduated from high school in 1927.
Biagi: So then you headed to Kansas State at your parents' behest.
Richards: Yes, at my parents' insistence. Well, I didn't object to it at the time. I really didn't, because I didn't know all these things I was going to encounter, like this, "You can take clothing design." There were several options in the home economics courses.
Biagi: They decided you should be a home economics major at the college?
Richards: No, they offered a degree in what they called Industrial Journalism. If you wanted to major in journalism, you darn well took these home economics courses. And I said, "This is too much. Goodbye, please!" [Laughter.] But to my surprise, my parents not only weren't displeased by my making this decision on my own, but they seemed really sort of approving of it.
Biagi: So how long did you stay at Kansas State?
Richards: Three semesters.
Biagi: But you never took any clothing design or industrial journalism?
Richards: No! Not a word!
Biagi: What did you take?
Richards: See, they didn't require this until you began your junior year. That was when they set upon you with this Home Ec bit.
Biagi: So you applied at the University of Kansas then on your own?
Biagi: That would have been the spring of 1928?
Richards: No. Wait a minute. You know what I did? I completely left out a semester. I know now what it was. I was sick during the summer after I graduated from high school, and my mother and father decided that they couldn't turn me loose, to worry about me, and I took a few hours out at a little Mennonite college in my home town called Bethel College. I think I took maybe six hours, though I don't really know. Then it was at the end of that first semester that I went to Kansas State.
Biagi: So that would have been the spring of 1928, then, that you went to Kansas State, probably.
Richards: Yes. The spring semester of 1928.
Biagi: Then you stayed there the spring of 1928, the fall of 1928, and spring 1929. Is that right?
Richards: That's right.
Biagi: Then in the fall of 1929, you went to University of Kansas.
Richards: That's right.
Biagi: So you applied to the University of Kansas. Did they have a journalism program?
Richards: Oh, yes. They had a much larger journalism program, including a daily student newspaper five days a week. No, wait a minute. We also published on Sunday. That, incidentally, is how I wound up at United Press, really, purely because I was a fast typist, though nobody could read what I typed afterwards except me. I took what was called a pony report from United Press in Kansas City. That is, a man named Tom Hurst read to me half an hour every day, and I typed this very fast. We used that as the wire basis for wire copy for the University Daily Kansan. Then the way I happened to go to—no, I'd better not get into that. There's no end to this stuff!
Biagi: Well, let's get you back first to University of Kansas. Tell me what happened there. Did you live in dorms?
Richards: No. I did not live in the Kappa house, but we had an annex with a four-bedroom apartment on the third floor. They sent people who could read and write with a fair degree of ease over there to live with freshmen who were not making their grades. That's where I lived. The apartment was at 1234 Oread.
Biagi: You remember that.
Biagi: You were helping out the freshmen who needed tutoring, essentially, while you were there. They were Kappas?
Biagi: You were Kappa Theta?
Richards: No, Kappa Kappa Gamma.
Biagi: But were you in the sorority?
Richards: Yes and no. I never affiliated. But I participated in their chapter meetings and everything. But I never changed my membership from Kansas State University.
Biagi: I see. Had you been in a sorority at Kansas State?
Richards: I was a Kappa Kappa Gamma at Kansas State.
Biagi: I see. But you never transferred your membership to K.U.
Richards: I never was what they called affiliated, although I always ate at the chapter house and I went to their parties and all that kind of thing. I have this one friend, to say she is my best friend is such an understatement that I hate to use the term. But Susan Hudson Swartz was a Kappa at the University of Kansas, and although we have never lived in the same city after about the first five years after we were out of school, she now lives in Fredonia, Kansas,
and we have been the closest of friends by long distance phone and letters and all that through—how many years is that? From 1929 to 1989, that's sixty years.
Biagi: Was she your roommate there?
Richards: Yes, part of the time. Then after we got out of school, I was one year ahead of Susan, and we shared an apartment in Kansas City before either of us was married.
Biagi: Describe to me what you studied at Kansas.
Richards: You know, really, I told you I didn't go to classes. [Laughter.] You know what I think was the most valuable course I took professionally? It was a course in the law of libel. This community, incidentally, amazes me. People get on the television here and say—well, it's not only local, but people say things—somebody was on some program we heard just two or three days ago, she's never been charged with anything, and they were saying she was suspected of murder. They called her the Black Widow. I just don't understand that.
Biagi: Who were your teachers there that you remember? Do you remember any?
Richards: Oh, yes. Jay Stuart Hamilton was probably my favorite teacher. I was trying to think of the man who taught the class in what he called versification. I can't think of his name now. And there was Helen O. Mahan, with whom I was constantly in a running fight. She taught editorial writing, which was a required course, and we got in a brouhaha about the first day, and I walked out of class and did not go back. So then I was getting down to my senior year, and, as I say, it was a required course, so I went to the department chairman, L.N. Flint, and told him that she would not pass me. I just couldn't take it from her. What am I going to do? And he said, "Well, in your case, we'll waive the requirement," which they did.
But then just to prove my daring—I had spare credits, anyway—I enrolled in a class in short-story writing under Helen O. Mahan, and she gave me the only A+ I ever got in any course. But I'm sure she was motivated by the same thing that led me to stay away from her.
Biagi: Was journalism then under the English department?
Richards: No, it was a separate department, but not a school. Now we have a separate William Allan White School of Journalism there. I can't remember whether I was still working—both, I think, both while I was still working and maybe—no, not after I retired. But there were quite a few years when I used to go over there about once a year as a resource person and talk to those kids in journalism school.
Biagi: What influenced you to choose journalism, do you think, as a career?
Richards: There weren't really that many options in those days, and I expect obstinacy was a part of it, but I don't know. I took enough education to get a teacher's certificate, figuring that I very probably could not get a journalism job unless I wanted to write recipes and clothing design, which I was ill-equipped to do. So I sort of took journalism just to be—I don't know why, but I took it anyway. Fortunately for the young of the land, I never taught anybody anything. Never taught an hour in the entire time, and was grateful for that fact.
But L.N. Flint had all the few women—there were six of us, I think—in my graduating class that were not headed for some specialty in the field, and he called us all together one day and said, "Girls, you're going into a man's field, or you think you are. There are some things you ought to know. I thought about giving you all sorts of advice, and then I couldn't really come up with anything except one thing." He said, "You're going to hear a lot of profanity, a lot of obscenity, but don't object to anything, no matter what, that anybody says in spite of your presence. Object violently to anything they say because of your presence."
I thought that really kind of summed it up.
Biagi: Good advice. How many people were in that graduating class, would you guess?
Richards: I was guessing at the women. I would say maybe six. I'm just talking about journalism; I'm not talking about the whole university. I'd say maybe twenty-five or thirty.
Biagi: Were there ten women in the class, would you guess?
Richards: I was guessing six.
Biagi: So that was all six women that were in the class that he gathered together?
Richards: Yes. He gathered everybody together that was in that class.
Biagi: Did you ever feel, going through school, that there was anything unusual about you being there as a woman in that class?
Biagi: It didn't occur to you that there might be any difficulties getting a job?
Richards: Oh, yes, I thought I might have trouble getting a job. Of course, how true that turned—well, no, I didn't have difficulty. I was the world's luckiest human being. Really! All through my whole working life and beyond, I've just been a very lucky person.
Biagi: Do you think it was difficult for other women, though? Or was it difficult, in general, for women?
Richards: Oh, I think so, yes.
Biagi: What made you think that?
Richards: I can't tell you exactly, except that none of them that I know of entered the field of journalism except for one woman whose father operated a tiny—and I do mean tiny—little weekly paper in a tiny—and I do mean tiny—little town way out in the god-forsaken flint hills of far western Kansas. She went to work for her father, but otherwise, I don't know anybody that did.
Biagi: How did you get your first job in journalism?
Richards: Well, you know, I mentioned Tom Hurst that used to read the pony report to me. I was looking for a job. In the first place—this could go on till a week from Tuesday—I was looking for a job and I had an appointment with a man named Tom Collins—literally, like the drink—on the old Kansas City Journal Post. I can't remember what I was going to see Tom about; only that I had to get an appointment.
Biagi: What year was this that you graduated?
Richards: This was 1931. I know that.
Biagi: You graduated in '31, then?
Richards: That's right. This was in September of '31. At any rate, I went up to see Tom and was told that he wouldn't be back. He'd been delayed somewhat and he wouldn't be available for about half an hour.
Well, the United Press Bureau was in the Journal Post building at the time, and I thought, "Well, I've had all these telephone conversations through the years with Tom Hurst. I'm going to go into the United Press Bureau and meet him in person." I'd never seen the man.
So I went in there and went up to a man that I later learned was Gerry Overton, the bureau manager, and asked for Tom Hurst. He said, "Well, I'm awfully sorry, but Tom got mad and quit this morning in a huff. He walked out on us." So I fell into conversation with Gerry, and he said they had a stack of hard copy off the teletype piled up like a foot high on a desk over there, and after we'd talked a while, he said, "How would you like to make up a pony report?"
I said, "Well, I'd like it fine." So I went over there.
He said, "Well, you'll only have about five to ten minutes to do it." So I went over and laid out the pony report for him, and he said, "Well, thank you," and so forth.
I was going home to Newton for the weekend—this was a Friday—which I did. Saturday morning I got a telegram asking me to come in on Monday; they wanted to talk to me about taking Tom Hurst's job. I told you I was lucky. Don't you think that was lucky?
Biagi: I think that was very lucky.
Richards: But Gerry told me at the time that he didn't really expect it to last that long, because they were reducing. They were always reducing staff—always! And he thought maybe two weeks would do it, maybe three weeks. But at any rate, that's how I happened to go to work for United Press.
Biagi: Were there any other women there?
Richards: Oh, no! Oh, no!
Biagi: Had there ever been?
Richards: No. In fact, I can't vouch for this, but I think that I was the first woman hired west of Washington [D.C.] Now, I don't know whether that's true or not, but that's the way I remember it.
There was something else I was going to interject right here. I can't think what it was. I'm sure it was very important. Humanity will be the losers for that. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So, generally, what were your duties? How did you work day to day there at the beginning?
Richards: In the beginning, I made up the pony report, I wrote traffic fatalities, I wrote little short one-hundred-word obits that weren't going anywhere outside of Missouri and Kansas, and, most importantly, I called the U.S.D.A. [United States Department of Agriculture] every day and got the Omaha livestock report, which we transmitted on various circuits according to regional interests. That sort of thing.
Biagi: That was a big responsibility, the livestock report. [Laughter.]
Richards: It was!
Biagi: What did they tell you in the livestock report?
Richards: "Hogs were down five cents a hundred weight in Omaha today." [Laughter.] Or, alternatively, they were up five cents, three-hundred to three-fifty-pounders sold at $10.50 a hundred weight.
Biagi: You still remember, don't you?
Richards: Oh, yes. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So how long was this big responsibility yours, the livestock report and the pony report?
Richards: I can tell you the exact day in which my entire status changed. It changed on the seventeenth of June 1933.
Biagi: What happened on that day? I feel duty-bound to ask.
Richards: You just won't let me alone! [Laughter.] You'll have everything that's in here this way if you don't watch it. [Referring to outline she had written]
Biagi: I want it! [Laughter.]
Richards: Did you, as a reporter, ever fantasize about just happening to be at the scene of a big national story when it broke?
Biagi: I'm sure every reporter does.
Richards: It came true for me on that date that I just gave you. I literally walked in. I was about a block away and I heard the shooting of what became known as the Union Station massacre. This just changed my whole career.
Biagi: This is in Kansas City?
Richards: Oh, yes.
Biagi: Describe what was occurring.
Richards: I've got a whole section on this! [Referring to outline]
Biagi: Tell me about it. Because it's new to me.
Richards: I hardly know where to start. To summarize very briefly, five men had been killed in an aborted attempt to free a ganglord named Frank Nash, who was being taken from Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he had been arrested the previous day. They brought him as far as Kansas City by train. They were en route, taking him to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth when then they got to Kansas City. The train didn't go to Leavenworth. So they came up through the station and out to the station plaza, and started to get in the cars to drive to Leavenworth. These three desperadoes in a parked car opened fire suddenly, and they killed Nash and four of the people who had him in custody. The killers escaped for the moment.
Biagi: How did that change your life?
Richards: When I left home that morning, I was probably the greenest cub ever known to draw a second weekly paycheck, and I thought of myself that way, and I'm sure the view was generally shared by my fellow workers. They were very open about their opinion of my status.
I maybe shouldn't describe a gory scene, but it was a mess. The bodies had fallen. There were three bodies around—well, the cars were parked in such a tight line that when you wanted to get to a phone, unless you wanted to walk a block and a half, you had to step over two bodies and walk through literally pools of blood. Of course, I had no idea what had happened or what was happening, and I was appalled at this. I thought news materialized like ectoplasm, out of the air somewhere, you know. I thought that five minutes after the event, if you could get to a policeman, of course you were going to have all the answers. None of the men with Nash was in uniform. Of course, the minute this happened, people began to close in. I finally stepped up on the running board of this car in which Nash and another dead man were, and from the running board I could see that he had on handcuffs.
So I called the office, of course, and they knew that Nash was being transferred in Kansas City. So we went with a qualified identification of this one man as Nash. But fortunately for me, they didn't have any older, wiser, better staffer than I to send out. It was a Saturday morning, and "Pretty Boy" Floyd, a name which is probably not familiar to you, had that very morning released the sheriff from Bolivar, Missouri, whom he had kidnapped the night before. They had sent Bill Gammon out on that story. We operated on a skeleton staff on Saturday, anyway, and the only man they had who was loose at all, they had sent out to interview this sheriff from Bolivar, Missouri, which left exactly nobody unless they were going to unman the bureau to help.
So I walked through all this blood and everything. I had on a brand-new pair of white shoes. I never wore them again.
Biagi: Did they send you to the story?
Richards: No, I heard it! I was there. See, I just stumbled onto it. Our bureau was only a couple of blocks from the station. To tell the truth, I was en route to the Harvey House in the station to get a cup of coffee before I went to work.
Biagi: So you literally stumbled on the story. [Laughter.]
Richards: Literally! It had just happened there in my lap.
Biagi: What did you do?
Richards: I kept running back and forth. The police, dummies that they tend to be, all stood on the south side of this line of cars. The Union Station phones, with their bank of phones along that wall, was on the north side of this drive. So in order to get from the police to the phones, I had to step over and around these bodies, which I did for several hours.
This is difficult to tell, because it's "I," "I," "I." It was all purely a matter of luck, of course. But by the time I got back to the office, I had a great reputation known as far away as our New York office. Executives in New York were calling me on the phone and sending me little wire messages about the great job. Well, the whole truth of it was that it was hard for them to believe that a woman could quickly perceive that two and two make four. I didn't do anything. I mean, it was just a very ordinary sort of job that I did that morning, and I have never deluded myself that it was otherwise. I didn't at the time.
Biagi: Were you filing on the phone or were you running back and forth to the bureau?
Richards: Oh, no! I was calling on the phone. The telephone charge at that time was a dime. I ran quickly out of dimes, and I went up to some man whom I had never seen before and said, "Could you please loan me some dimes?" And he gave me a few. I told Gerry, the bureau manager, the next time I called that I was almost out of dimes. He said, "I'll go grab an office boy from the Journal Post and send you dimes." So this is what he did.
Biagi: How many stories would you say you filed that day with updates and everything?
Richards: Oh, I don't know. Do you know anything about Press Association writing?
Biagi: Tell me how it was working at that time. It probably hasn't changed much.
Richards: You re-topped all the time or you re-led, or whatever you want to call it. You tried to preserve as much of the previously sent copy as you could, and you'd say, "First lead [key word pertaining to story]," or, "Pick up the second paragraph early," and give the first few words of that paragraph. Of course, I wasn't doing any writing of that kind until I got back into the office, which was around noon, as well as I recall. I remember that Gerry came out with a water tumbler with about that much [1"] whiskey in the bottom, and he said, "Give me five-hundred on a lead as fast as you can."
Biagi: Did you drink the whiskey?
Richards: You don't want me on record.
Biagi: You bet!
Richards: This was against the law! [Laughter.]
Biagi: Well, of course. Yes. They're not going to arrest you now, Margaret. [Laughter.]
Richards: I don't know. Well, yes, I drank it. I made him go after another glass that contained water because I couldn't have drunk it straight.
Biagi: He said to write a five-hundred.
Richards: "As fast as you can." If I had any strengths, I was never a fast feature writer. If I was doing features, I had to do it at a much more leisurely pace. But I was awfully fast as a spot news writer.
I'm just going on and on!
Biagi: No, no.
Richards: I remember one time when there was a very bad riot in Missouri. This was long after the Union Station [incident]. They had this terrible riot in the Missouri State prison at Jefferson City. They were under siege. They had hostages, the whole bit, and they burned the prison up and everything. I went out to lunch one day, and while I was gone, the State Highway Patrol decided to storm the place. The first thing I knew, I was about a block and a half from the bureau. By now we had a little girl working there. Her name was Violet somebody. In rushes Violet to this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I was eating, and she said, "Ward (the bureau manager) says to get back! Come back quick!"
I said, "I'm not through with my lunch."
She said, "It doesn't make a damn! Get back to the office!"
So I ran back to the office, and here sat the bureau manager, who had not transmitted one word because he was waiting for me to get back. That's a terrible thing for me to say. But I couldn't do it for but about five-hundred words at a time.
Biagi: You liked the deadline writing of the news?
Richards: It was very exhausting and didn't happen every day, of course, but time was when I could keep a sixty-two-word-a-minute wire going indefinitely. No, not indefinitely. For about five-hundred words without stopping, which is pretty fast composition, I thought at the time. But then after five-hundred, I could have kept going, except I couldn't remember what I'd already said. By that I mean I couldn't remember whether I had identified Joe Blow as the sheriff; this sort of thing, the mechanics of it. So I'd have to take a break. I'd have to move off the copy and reread what I'd written and then start over.
Biagi: So essentially you were real good at a five-hundred word pace at that point.
Biagi: So what happened after the murder? You got this reputation in New York. At least they think you're this wonderful reporter out there in Kansas City. [Laughter.]
Richards: Well, are we going to skip this? I'm serious now.
Biagi: You're serious. Okay. What do you want to go to now?
Richards: This is all right. I'm having fun.
Biagi: You bet! [Laughter.]
Richards: Well, I think maybe it was kind of like the first use of women's sports reporters. There was a novelty about this. But I became sort of a professional crime reporter. I covered most of the really sensational crime in that general area of the country. This was something that I really enjoyed.
I did all the Kansas City mob activity, of which there was quite a lot. I covered what was called—well, I and others. I act like I'm the only one, which is not the case. But there was the Greenlease kidnapping case. I don't suppose you ever heard of that, though. It was very widely publicized at the time. A little six-year-old boy was slain even before his father paid $600,000 ransom for him. We camped out in front of the Greenlease house on that. Of course, that's a very vivid memory. But at any rate, there was that.
Wait a minute. I'm forgetting some. I said the Union Station massacre. Oh, yes. Do you remember the Clutter killings?
Biagi: Tell me about it.
Richards: Four members of the Herbert Clutter family were killed in their showplace farm home near Garden City, Kansas. A sizable press corps collected out there. I'm trying to reach for a bridge here. In my memory, one thing stands out that I don't know whether I ought to tell or not.
The Clutter killings ultimately became very widely known because they were recounted in such minute detail by Truman Capote in his book In Cold Blood. Everybody else had been there a couple of days when Capote showed up, arriving by train.
Biagi: Let's set a time frame now. About what year are we talking about?
Richards: This was much later. I believe this was 1957. Don't hold me to this; it could have been '58, but I believe it was '57. No, I believe it was '58.
Biagi: I'm going to stop the tape and we'll turn it over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: You were just talking about the Clutter murders.
Richards: I was going to talk about Truman Capote.
Biagi: Describe that, if you like.
Richards: He was less than warmly greeted by the press corps that had already assembled. Did I say he came in by train about two or three days after the crime?
Richards: And the rest of us, of course, had been there. Well, we thought him a very strange little man.
Biagi: Why? What made you think that?
Richards: His clothing was one thing. It might have looked perfectly ordinary in the streets of New York City, but believe me, especially that navy-blue felt beret that he wore all the time and the rest of his clothing, so out of place on the streets of Garden City, Kansas, which is a windy little prairie town way out in the western part of the state. At any rate, he rather quickly revealed that he wasn't working for anybody in particular, and he said that, no, he didn't know where he was going to sell his copy. He had even paid his own expenses from New York. Of course, we were all feeling pretty smug with our every-Friday paychecks and our fast-mounting overtime and our expense accounts. We regarded him with considerable disdain, thinking he was either a freelancer or maybe even a stringer. We didn't know. At any rate, everybody tried to avoid that man.
Biagi: Was there a large press corps?
Richards: We all stayed at the same hotel. There was only one hotel in town. It varied some from day to day, but probably ten at the maximum were there.
Biagi: Was he there, too, at that hotel?
Richards: Oh, yes. He was darn well going to be at that hotel or camp out. [Laughter.] But at any rate, I get quite a kick—of course, none of us realized. Here we were being very smug, as I said, about our salaries and our expense account and the rest of it, and we had no idea that this funny little man with the very nervous hands that kept dabbing at his eyes all the time, that he was in the process of making millions with that book that he was writing. Of course, I don't think we learned this for a year or so afterwards. I certainly learned a lot about false pride on that one trip, because I definitely was looking down my nose at Truman Capote. Of course, he wasn't so famous at that time. He had had a piece or two in the New Yorker, which is pretty good, I would say.
Biagi: [Laughter.] I would say it's all right.
Richards: We didn't know that much about him.
Biagi: What about covering the Clutter murders was particularly your assignment or your beat? And what were you doing there while you were there? How long were you there?
Richards: What does any reporter do while they're there? You haunt the sheriff's office and you talk to the friends and you go out to the house and you moan over the pair of boots that have been left on the back stoop where such a terrible thing had occurred.
Herbert Clutter was a very wealthy book farmer. He never carried cash; he paid everything by check. Killed with him were his wife, Bonnie, and their teenage son and daughter, Kenyon and Nancy. They were killed as a result of a plot which had been hatched in the Kansas state penitentiary at Lansing. If you're familiar at all with—I don't want to repeat the whole book here.
Biagi: But tell me the story to give perspective.
Richards: They were killed by Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickok. Though I'm not very charitable toward criminals, as a rule, I really felt that Hickok was not solely to blame. After the fact, I interviewed his father many times, and he said to me, for instance, "The Johnson County sheriff is to blame for this whole thing."
I said, "How can you say that?"
He said, "He sent my boy to prison and it made a murderer of him. That's what I mean." The townspeople, I found out that they had seen this parental attitude all through this young man's life. In fact, he had staged several armed robberies in the little town of Olathe, and nobody would ever prosecute him because they felt sorry for his parents, who were law-abiding, honest people. Finally, he held up the same drugstore a second time, and that man said, "Enough!" And that's what sent him to prison.
Well, while he was in prison, he and a man by the name of Wells—and I can't remember Wells' first name now without going to the box; I can't find it out, either—but he and this man named Wells shared a cell. Wells had worked briefly as an itinerant harvest hand on the Clutter farm, and he told Richard that he had heard there was a safe there with a lot of money in it. He proposed that they go into the Clutters' to rob the safe, which was their purpose in going there. Of course, there was no safe. Actually, the Clutters never had any cash to speak of, because just as a matter of principle Clutter had been an advisor to the Eisenhower Administration, and he was widely known. They had a beautiful ranch home, a lovely place it was. These men came in through an unlocked door, I guess. But at any rate, they killed them all with shotgun blasts to their heads. All they got was a portable radio and seems like there was some other item, but I can't remember for sure. I don't remember what it was, at any rate, which was recovered in Mexico.
But what led to their capture, their apprehension, was that a man still in prison, Wells—did I get that mixed up? I don't have it mixed up in my head, but I'm wondering if my words mixed it up. Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickok were the killers. One or both of them had shared a cell with Wells. It was Wells who talked about this safe at the Clutter house.
So after the killings, doubtless in hopes of getting his own sentence reduced, Wells went to the authorities and told them about what had happened. So, of course, officers went to the Hickok home outside of Olathe and found the evidence that they were seeking—bootprints and all this sort of thing. So it was all over.
But then a sad part of this story is that Wells, who whistled against these other two, wound up back in jail almost right away, and he died in prison. So he couldn't maintain a law-abiding life at all.
Biagi: Let's go back to the Union Station murders, because that's where we were when this discussion of murder started. Please tell about the events around the murder.
Richards: I'll first identify the people who were killed. First of all, there was Nash, whom the killers were attempting to free. No one ever found out specifically what touched off this wild burst of shooting that aborted their attempt to free him and, of course, killed him. But killed were Nash and an FBI agent named Raymond Caffrey and the chief of police from McAlister, Oklahoma, a man named Otto Reed, and two Kansas City, Missouri, police department detectives, a man named Hermanson and one named Grooms. I think it was W.J. Grooms. Of course, they were all in plainclothes.
The crime was quickly solved. The killers escaped from the scene, but the crime was solved so quickly because of a chronology of long-distance calls between Hot Springs, where Nash had been arrested, and Kansas City. So they knew almost immediately who it was that they were after. They were "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti and Vern Miller. Vern Miller, with a woman and a little girl, had been living in a beautiful neighborhood in the south part of Kansas City, about as law-abiding a community as you can imagine, a house on Edgevale Road, which is neither here nor there.
At any rate, they escaped from the scene of this crime when it happened, but in the end, all of them died as violently as the people who were killed that day. "Pretty Boy" Floyd was killed in a shoot-out with police in an Ohio cornfield, and Adam Richetti died in the gas chamber at the Missouri state prison for his part in the Union Station massacre. Vern Miller's badly beaten and nude body was found beside a Michigan highway, where some gangster had dumped it. So all of them ended up in violent deaths.
Biagi: What did you learn was the motivation for the murders?
Richards: They were trying to free Nash. They didn't intend to kill Nash. I don't think the police ever found hard evidence that this was the case, except in these telephone calls. In fact, there was a reasonably law-abiding man named Mulloy in Kansas City, who served time as an unindicted conspirator. No, I guess he was indicted. But he served time as a conspirator.
Biagi: So the purpose was to get Nash out of there.
Biagi: In fact, they failed. [Laughter.]
Biagi: So you go back to the bureau now, and you've got this terrific reputation.
Richards: Oh, yes! Where do we go from there? I got assigned to this crime reporting. I've already pretty well been all over that.
Biagi: So you were essentially assigned that? That became almost like a beat for you after that?
Richards: I didn't have anything to do with every two-bit bank robbery that came along, but whenever there was one that was really sensational, why, somehow I always wound up with that.
I think it was sort of a two-headed calf situation, a side-show thing. Here is a woman who is unusual, and this was a part of it, really.
Biagi: What was unusual?
Richards: That a woman was assigned to any kind of general assignment reporting, but especially to crime reporting. This is so many, many years ago now, when women were so much more restricted in what they did. All this time I was watching male chauvinism at work, although I think mostly I profited by it. In the first place, it bred a lot of false overconfidence in my male competitors, and in the second place, it magnified very ordinary accomplishments by a very ordinary woman. I don't know why I think I profited by it other than that, except that if you did enter a man's field and you made it, you seemed to sort of stand apart.
I think in justice, I should say, as far as my employers are concerned, that I don't think they ever downgraded me for reasons of gender. Now, they might have if I had aspired to higher goals, but I was on the mommy track and I kept saying "I went that a-way" every time they suggested a transfer or anything like that. But I didn't encounter it at all. I just plain didn't. I think some male chauvinists then related gender and size, although it might be more accurate to say that they were size chauvinists, as well as male chauvinists. Not too long after the Union Station massacre, C.J. Randau, who was a very high executive in the New York office of United Press, visited Kansas City, and I can still remember the look on his face when he met me. He blurted out, "Why, I thought you'd be big enough to chase a bear with a switch!" [Laughter.]
Biagi: And you're all of how tall?
Richards: I've shrunk some more now, but at that time, if I stood real tall, I would have been five feet, and I weighed about ninety pounds, which is nearly ten pounds less than I weigh now.
Biagi: That's okay, isn't it?
Richards: Oh, yeah. I don't care.
Biagi: Were there people around you that thought what you were doing was unusual?
Richards: I think so. Nobody made a big thing of it.
Do you think, Jake [turning to ask her husband], that anybody ever thought what I was doing was all that unusual?
Jake Richards: No.
Richards: He was very tolerant of it.
Biagi: We've got to bring Jake in now. You haven't gotten married yet, see.
Richards: Oh, I haven't gotten married yet.
Biagi: When did that happen?
Richards: That was August 3, 1935. We had met at the University of Kansas, and it was the Depression, if you remember. He had a job in Lawrence and I had one in Kansas City. In that era, people did not get married and one of them live in one town and the other in another town.
Biagi: So what did you do?
Richards: You mean after we got married?
Richards: By then he had a job in Kansas City. So that wasn't any real big problem.
Biagi: You got married after you had been working a while?
Richards: Yes. I went to work in '31, and we got married in '35.
Biagi: So you had met each other in college, but you didn't get married till four years later.
Richards: That's right.
Biagi: So then you're both living in Kansas City. You mentioned you were on the mommy track. When was your son born?
Richards: We'd been married ten years when he was born. Jake had a lot of health problems for a while, and there again, in those days, women didn't think about rearing a child on their own. So we just deliberately didn't have a child until the doctor said that if he survived eight years without further trouble, forget it. So ten years after he was ill, we had Clint. He was our only child.
Biagi: When was he born?
Richards: November 21, 1945.
Biagi: Was it unusual at that point to be a working woman?
Richards: Oh, yes, yes. I think there were a lot of people who looked down their noses at me about that.
Richards: Well, you just didn't do that. Look at the criticism that we still have today. But we didn't have the problems of child care that some people had, because we had converted the upstairs of our house to an apartment to house Jake's parents. They were there for a year after the baby was born. Then housing was so short that we continued to have people up there. To shorten it a little bit, through one device and another, we had live-in babysitters until Clint was—how old, Jake? Thirteen or fourteen years old, I think.
Biagi: When you were first married and didn't have Clint, were there any other women you knew who were working at similar jobs?
Richards: Certainly not at similar jobs. Well, now, wait a minute. There was a girl named Curry who was a reporter off the city desk at the Kansas City Star, and she quit, and I heard about that. I was mad at the United Press at the time, which I was every other day. But I heard she had quit or was going to quit, and I went over to the Star and applied for that job. I talked to Pete Wellington, I remember, and he did not exactly offer it to me, but he asked me to come back. I interviewed [with] three or four other people there, and finally, they got around to telling me what the job paid, and I said, "Goodbye." They offered me $15 a week less than I was making with United Press.
Biagi: What was your salary at UP at the time?
Richards: At this time I got clear up to $40 a week.
Are we going to do anything about the Depression here?
Biagi: Sure we are. You had $40 a week. When was that, roughly?
Richards: I don't know when that was. I'm guessing, but I'd have to say 1938, 1939.
Biagi: But you had started there in '31.
Richards: Yes. I started at $17.50 a week.
Biagi: Do you think that was the same everybody else was making in the bureau?
Richards: No. They don't pay the same amount when you walk in and start to work that they do later. I don't think gender had anything to do with it. No, I really don't. I don't think they ever paid me less than the men, except that the men, to tell the truth, were a lot more knowledgeable and a lot more proficient than I was.
Biagi: So when you went to interview at the Kansas City Star, they were offering you $25 a week. Was she [Curry] a general assignment reporter, to your knowledge?
Biagi: So that was a general assignment job; it wasn't women's—
Richards: Oh, the Kansas City Star, their people were miserably paid. We acquired a sportswriter whose name was Bill Rosentreatter, came to work for us. He was a sportswriter and he'd been with the Star for quite a while. He came back to the office one day and laughed about having run into the Star's sports editor on the street, and the sports editor asked Bill to come back and work for him. Bill said, "No. You wouldn't pay me what I would have to have." The sports editor said, "Oh, I don't know. What are you making?" And Bill said, "I'm making more than you are."
Biagi: That was true, though?
Richards: Oh, yes. But see, the Star paid off their people with stock, in part.
Biagi: So there were stock options and other things available to you.
Richards: Yes. I don't know that it was options; I don't think they offered you a choice. That was the way it was.
Biagi: What was United Press like at the time? What was it like working for United Press?
Richards: That's one thing I sort of wanted to talk about. At the time we're talking about, the mid-continent relays, so called, were located at Kansas City. There were a pair of trunk wires, which originated in New York, ran west as far as Kansas City and came to a dead halt. Then there was another pair of trunk wires that ran from Kansas City to San Francisco, and a third pair ran from Kansas City to Houston. Other wires, other circuits, fed off of those trunks. So that the relay operation in Kansas City was a very arduous thing. All of this copy had to be routed across country. A lot of it had to be rewritten. Quite a bit of it—all of it—had to be edited, in fact. So this was really a difficult job.
Like every other workplace, I'm sure, in the United States, when World War II broke out, the men began leaving for one thing or another, and the staff was reduced from twenty to fifteen, to ten, to whatever. Finally, this exodus left the remaining crew, which was comprised mostly of inexperienced people, who were overworked and sometimes just overwhelmed.
But there was a strange thing about United Press back in that era. Ron Cohen would confirm this, I'm sure. A lot of Unipressers, as we chose to call ourselves and other people called us that, too, a lot of Unipressers, maybe most of us, had an enduring sort of love-hate relationship with our employer, and our employer wasn't any one person nor any individual at all, but it was a spirit of some sort. I don't know how to define it. But practically everybody felt that. Unipressers felt a binding kinship with each other, and this was a thing that lasted sometimes for many years.
Early in the war, one of the men who left was an especially energetic and an especially friendly, fantastically friendly young man. He went first to the cable desk in New York on a temporary stint, and then he went on to the London bureau. His name, as you may suspect, was Walter Cronkite. When he got to London, day after day his byline was on the night lead "Air War," and this was a great thing for all his friends in Kansas City, because we knew not only where he was every day in the week, but we even knew what shift he was working. We liked to think that when the invasion started, we'd know it because we also had been told that Walter had been accredited to the invasion school for correspondents. So we figured that when his byline dropped off the night lead "Air War," we'd know that the invasion was going to come in about a week. Well, his byline was still on the night lead "Air War" when word came that American forces had landed on the beaches of Normandy, but so had Walter.
Biagi: They kept the byline on, did they?
Richards: Yes, they kept the byline on. I don't know whether this was to fool any possible spy that was bothering to keep track of bylines. We never unraveled what that was.
Biagi: Had Walter worked in Kansas City with you?
Richards: Oh, yes. He had been there. He left to go to a temporary job on the New York cable desk.
The Kansas City bureau then did not see Cronkite again until the night of the 1948 presidential election. All at once, he showed up, unannounced and, I think, unassigned. At any rate, President Truman had hidden out that night, I suppose to escape the pressures of the election count, though I don't really know. But he wasn't at his home in Independence, which was typical. I mean, he practically didn't use the house during his Washington years. But neither was he in his regular suite at Kansas City's Muehlebach Hotel. We spent a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to figure where in the world Truman could be, and it was Walter who found him. He was hidden out at the old—the ancient, almost—Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs.
But sometimes I wonder if Walter, even today, has entirely stopped thinking of himself as a Unipresser. For one thing, years and years after he became famous, he told the New York Times in a very lengthy interview that the hardest job he ever held was working the overnight for United Press in Kansas City. He maintained for decades—and maybe still does—an ongoing contact sort of thing, casual, but ongoing contact with his friends from United Press days. He may still be doing this; I don't know. But I personally haven't seen him in nearly ten years, and it's been closer to fifteen since he spent an entire evening with Jake and me.
Biagi: When he showed up in Kansas City in 1948, was he assigned there by United Press?
Richards: No. I think he was unassigned. I don't know whether he was at that time on the United Press payroll or not. All I know is that he just came in and everybody said, "Hi, Walter," and went on with what we had to do, because when you're counting a presidential election, you don't sit around and just chat with old friends.
Biagi: When Walter did find Truman, did he then report it?
Richards: He came back and told us, "Truman is in the Elms Hotel at Excelsior Springs."
Biagi: So you had help. [Laughter.]
Richards: One thing about Walter, he and everybody else who ever worked for United Press belongs to what's called the Downhold Club. Did you ever hear of the Downhold Club?
Biagi: Tell me about it.
Richards: This takes its name from the down hold messages that used to emanate from New York with terrible frequency. They simply meant, "Cut back expenses." Downhold expenses to the bone. So they were just a part of life. They were issued by the hundreds, maybe by the dozens, but no down hold message was ever lifted, not in the history of the company. The one I remember best was issued in the fall of 1931, and it's still in effect, technically. It cut my salary and everybody else's salary by ten percent. But at any rate, Walter belongs to this Downhold Club, a very loosely knit organization. That's in common with all other United Press alumni. They meet at irregular intervals, but fairly often, just for an evening of drinking and story telling and reminiscing and this sort of thing. Walter, I wouldn't say usually, but frequently at least, is there.
Biagi: Let's talk about this reputation for frugality that seems to plague UP from the beginning.
Richards: Oh, yes.
Biagi: What was its effect on you?
Richards: Well, Ward Colwell, a dear friend of mine—he's gone now—put it this way about me one time. New York came out with some complimentary letter about something I had done, and he replied, "Maggie's best days are the day before pay day and the day the checks arrive. The rest of the days, she goes around muttering, 'I'm going to get out of this squirrel cage.'" [Laughter.]
Of course, newspapers in my part of the country paid so little that it would not have made sense for me to leave. I enjoyed the work tremendously. I liked the people I met. The United Press was a very paternalistic organization. And you talk about the penuriousness, they would do such things as this. I mentioned my husband's ill health. He had a very critical operation, totally unexpected, one Wednesday night. They told me flat out that they didn't think he would survive. I went down to the office the next morning to say that I wouldn't be back for a while, and explained what had happened. By the time I got there, there was a message there from New York, "MPR/KP, if you need money, the company will be glad to advance it."*
The same way with sick leave. When the American Newspaper Guild came in, they wanted to write a clause formalizing sick leave policies, and they couldn't figure any way to write one that would be as good as the one that United Press had always practiced.
* MPR/KP = Margaret Plummer Richards/Kansas City.
I know one man, Gerry Overton—and I know this positively to be true—he was in a tubercular sanitarium in Colorado for two years and they paid every penny of his pay. So there were a lot of things like that which I think matter.
Jake, with this same illness, it was before the days of the kind of blood banks we have now. You had to get an individual donor there to get direct transfusions. He had sort of an emergency, and I called the office to report this. Bert Masterson answered the phone, and I told him that we had to find blood donors immediately. He said, "I'll call you back." He canvassed not only United Press, but the Journal Post city room, and he called me back within ten minutes, and I think he said thirteen men were on the way to the hospital and more would go when they got back. I mean, you had that sort of support all the time.
I came very close to quitting just once. WDAF TV, which is the NBC affiliate in Kansas City, offered me a job. The hours sounded so great and the reduced stress and all that kind of thing. I was forty-some years old at the time. I can remember telling Walt Bodine that it was a terrible thing to say, but I was so tired, I had a notion to take the job. I thought I'd take it. But at any rate, I sat down at the typewriter to write my resignation to New York, and, indeed, I began the letter and I got most of the way through it and said, "Oh, hell!" and ripped it out and threw it away. And that's the only time I came anywhere near leaving.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: To your recollection, what we're discussing now is covering the Greenlease case in the mid-1950s.
Richards: That's right.
Biagi: What was the circumstance surrounding that case?
Richards: From my personal standpoint, the circumstance was that I had worked the early trick that day and got home about one o'clock in the afternoon, and about 1:15, before I had my girdle off, the phone rang and it was Ward Colwell, and he said, "Get out to Verona Road. There's been a kidnapping of some kid named Greenlease." He said, "While you're there, check it out. They're saying his father is seventy-one years old, and you know that can't be right. Check that out while you're there. But go out and see what you can find out."
So, of course, I went. I spent nine days, I believe it was, camped along with the other reporters in front of the Greenlease house on a very, very upscale street in the suburb of Mission Hills, the habitat of millionaires only, even to this day, so far as I know. A beautiful home, of course, with a huge circular drive and leaded casement windows. It was really a beautiful place. At any rate, I never got inside the house; no other reporter ever did that I know of.
But we made do with what we had, sitting in cars, through the rain. It was beginning to turn cold. There were two phones in actual possession. One was the car radio phone in the car driven by the Kansas City Star's man, and the other was my phone, which was in a metal box hung on a tree in the Taylor yard, two doors down the street from the Greenleases'. Some crook gave out the telephone number to my phone, and we had numerous knock-down, drag-out fights over, "Get off of my wire!" "Well, I can't get in." "You'll have to talk to me." "I have to talk to So and So." Well, at any rate, this sort of enlivened the procedure.
The first day after the boy was kidnapped, his father, who, indeed, was seventy-one years old—
Biagi: What was his position in the community?
Richards: He owned a Cadillac agency. Didn't he also own the old Oldsmobile agency?
Jake Richards: Yes. Oldsmobile and Cadillac.
Richards: And Cadillac, yes.
Biagi: Is this in Kansas City?
Richards: This was in Mission Hills, Kansas, which is a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. I'd have to describe the geography to make you understand, but all the Kansas-side suburbs are way, way from Kansas City, Kansas. It's farther north. The suburbs are a tail off of Kansas City, Missouri. But that's where it was.
At any rate, where do I start now? With the way the boy was seized? Of course, I didn't know anything about that. Maybe I better start out with just the kidnapping as I ultimately came to know it. Bobby Greenlease, who was six years old and who was the youngest of the couple's two children, he had an older sister, Virginia, who was twelve, and she originally was the target of the kidnapping, but that didn't gel. So they changed it to Bobby.
At any rate, Bobby attended the Notre Dame de Sion Day School in Kansas City, Missouri, a very fine Catholic school. On this particular morning, a very quiet-spoken woman wearing a brown skirt and a white blouse appeared at the door of this school and asked a sister if there was anyplace she could pray for a moment, that her sister, Bobby's mother, had been stricken critically ill, and she had come to get Bobby and take him home to his mother. So the sister led her down the hall to a chapel, where the woman prayed, presumably, while this poor sister went to get Bobby, and she turned the child over to this woman who represented herself as his aunt. Now, how they convinced the six-year-old boy, I have no idea. This is what happened.
They got into a taxi, a Toedman cab, and disappeared in the direction of Thirty-ninth and Main, which was only a short distance away. Nobody ever saw the boy alive again. As a matter of fact, they learned later that they drove him immediately to a cornfield on the Kansas side of the state line, tried to choke him with a rope, and when that proved difficult, they shot him. They put him on the floor of the station wagon which they were driving at the time, and drove immediately to Bonnie Brown Heady's neat little cottage in St. Joseph, Missouri. When they got there, they put the boy in the basement, poured lime on him, and began negotiating with the parents for his release. They demanded $600,000 ransom. After many, many phone calls and a lot of phone negotiating, they sent the parents some little pins that were off of the boy's shirt and some other things to convince them that they had him actually, the kidnappers.
But after nine days of this—I think it was nine days; I hope I'm right—they got their money. The Greenleases and a man by the name of Ledterman took the ransom in two suitcases to a designated point just east of Kansas City, Missouri, and they dropped it off in some bushes. It disappeared promptly from there, but the boy was not returned. He was supposed to have been returned the following morning; of course he was not.
Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady, meantime, put these two suitcases—they were both alcoholics—put them into their car and drove straight to St. Louis without spending any of it except for liquor. Hall took Bonnie Brown Heady to a nondescript third-rate hotel somewhere, and he moved on to a very posh hotel, after beating her up. She had a badly bruised face and everything when they finally found her.
Fortunately, perhaps, the cabdriver whom he employed to take him to this motel—did he? Well, I'm not sure about that. At any rate, he came into contact with the cabdriver, whose name was Costello. This fellow did various errands for Hall. But in the course of being in the Hall suite, at one time Hall opened a suitcase and this man caught a glimpse of all this currency packed in this suitcase.
So his suspicions were aroused. He was an ex-convict out on parole, and he did not want any part of being mixed up in a kidnap case. He recognized it immediately as very probably the ransom from the Greenlease kidnapping.
So he went to the authorities with it, who promptly sent out a team of policemen, Lieutenant Louis Shoulders and Corporal Somebody Dolan—the first name escapes me. They went and got Hall. He led them to Bonnie Brown Heady, of course, and she was arrested. They took the ransom in the two suitcases, about $300,000 in each suitcase, to the Neustadt police station in St. Louis. There, one of those suitcases disappeared; $300,000 in ransom just vanished and has never been found to this day. It is presumed that they spent maybe $3,000 or $4,000, not more than that. They'd had this money less than twenty-four hours when they were apprehended. But at any rate, they never did find this. They never accused either of these police officers with complicity in the kidnapping, but both Shoulders and Dolan were accused or perjury and, I think, went to jail on perjury charges because they had denied knowing anything about this ransom.
So now we have Bonnie Brown Heady still in a drunken stupor and Hall in custody.
Biagi: What was your role at this time?
Richards: Nothing. I had been covering it at the Kansas City end. I had been sitting in front of the house for twelve hours a day, all these nine days. The two culprits told the police immediately what had happened. They went to St. Joseph and found the little boy's body and all this sort of thing.
But the first the press corps in front of the Greenlease house knew of it was a man in a blue Ford came by along Verona Road and stuck his head out and yelled at us, "They have found the boy's body!" Well, of course, everybody made a break for the front door of the Greenlease house, and Mr. Ledterman, who was the family spokesman with the press, came to the door immediately and he just said, "It's true. They found him and he's dead." He disappeared inside again. But they had plotted this whole thing. I don't think Bonnie Brown Heady probably was ever sober enough in the entire interval to really realize what she was doing, because it was her habit, she said, never to let herself get sober. The minute she awoke, she took another drink. She always kept a bottle by her bed. So I doubt that she really knew what was going on.
Biagi: What about the competition to get the story among all the reporters?
Richards: Unfortunately, I hate to say this, but the Kansas City Star got the conclusion of it. They were the ones. They had an exclusive, really. We were getting it out of St. Louis and doing all right, but as far as the Kansas City end of it was concerned—for instance, along about a couple of days before the ransom was paid, we all saw Arthur Eisenhower, who was head of the Commerce Bank in Kansas City, enter the Greenlease house and come back out again. We thought, from this, that there had been a request for ransom. This family was telling absolutely nothing. But it was true, he had been there and he had, indeed, arranged the ransom, and they were busy counting it out and all that sort of thing. You don't count $600,000. I believe it was all in twenties, wasn't it, Jake?
Jake Richards: I'm not sure.
Richards: I think it was all in twenties, though I'm not sure, either. But a few of these bills turned up, none of them from questionable sources at all; they were able to trace all of them back. But they never found anything more than just a token amount of money, and approximately $300,000 of that ransom is still missing.
Biagi: You were talking to me earlier at lunch about a competition to get part of that story somewhere.
Richards: This was after Bonnie Brown Heady was executed. They took her body home to the tiny little town of Claremont, Missouri. This is where that—I'm not going to tell you that now.
Biagi: Why aren't you going to tell me that story? [Laughter.]
Jake Richards: You said you would.
Richards: I did not!
Jake Richards: Yes, you did.
Richards: I don't tell that, because I don't like to throw things in the teeth of male chauvinism. [Laughter.] I'm a little hard to reach now, but I don't know, really. That wasn't much, anyway. It was just that that's the oldest trick in the world!
Biagi: I love it. [Laughter.]
Richards: All right. Here I go.
Richards: I better explain how come so much attention was paid to the burial of Bonnie Brown Heady. This was because of a politically ambitious county attorney up there at Maryville, which is the nearest town to Claremont, who let it be known that he feared rioting. The populace was up in arms about such a terrible woman as Bonnie Brown Heady being buried in the sacred ground of their cemetery—to hear him tell it. He asked for police reinforcements from Maryville and the Missouri Highway Patrol and other places. It was a big deal. On that basis, the United Press sent me up there. Apparently there were a lot of other news organizations who fell for the same story, because there were quite a flock of us up there at Maryville.
The night of the execution we were all in the one and only hotel in Maryville, sitting around chatting and going on. As usual, I was the only woman. One of the men said, "Well, there's one good thing about it. We don't need to worry about phones. I went over to Claremont to the telephone company office and there are plenty of phones there, so all the people with afternoon papers can phone immediately, and by the time they get through, there's still plenty of time for morning-paper people. So we don't need to worry about phones." So I, of course, just sat there.
The next morning, though, instead of going with all the other reporters in cars provided by said county attorney, I hired me a taxi. When the very brief graveside service was over, my taxi turned left in leaving the cemetery, instead of turning right to return to Claremont. So it stopped at the first farm house we came to, where I—strangely—had paid the farmer $5 the night before for the use of his phone. So I got through quickly to the Kansas City bureau. Carl Christensen answered the phone, and I gave him a day lead and a night lead. Then I talked to him about some grocery items that I wanted him to phone my husband and have him buy on my behalf before I got there, told him what time I'd be arriving home. And there'd been quite a fire in Kansas City that morning, and he told me all about that. So we had quite a lengthy conversation.
When we were through, I headed back to the telephone company in Claremont, and there, lined up, were all the reporters from the Maryville Hotel. One of them said to me,
"Uh-huh, thought you were smart, didn't you? Tried to take a shortcut and you got lost." And another man said, "Well, get to the end of the line. There's only one long-distance line out of this damn town, and some stupid farmer had it tied up all this time." That ends that story.
Biagi: But what was the implication in the comments that you received when you got back, do you think, from those fellows?
Richards: That I got lost. I stupidly tried to fox them all, and instead of that, I got lost and had to go to the end of the line.
Biagi: You said sometimes, talking to me, that you felt that it was an advantage being a woman in some ways.
Richards: Yes, I think that was an instance of it. If I had been male, when I failed to show up at that telephone company office after a reasonable interval, those men would have headed for Maryville. It was only ten miles away. And they wouldn't have frittered away their time waiting in that situation; they just wouldn't have. "Some dumb woman. What difference does it make? We'll take it easy." They were all having a good time. No hurry to get home.
Biagi: They would have figured that another reporter would have outfoxed them, but they didn't figure you had?
Richards: No, they didn't figure I had. Oh, no.
Biagi: Were there other times that that happened, do you think?
Richards: I know there were quite a few times when some variation of that happened. That was the most concrete of anything that I ever lucked into, but there were other times when I felt very strongly that I had an advantage.
You know, that male chauvinism, though, sometimes I was grateful for it and sometimes maybe it wasn't chauvinism. We had some real bad race riots in Kansas City along about the time that everybody else was having race riots.
Biagi: This would have been what time?
Richards: Jake, do you have any idea?
Jake Richards: No.
Richards: I don't have the slightest idea.
Biagi: Thirties? Forties?
Richards: Oh, no. It would have been probably the fifties or sixties. At any rate, they were burning down the section of town that was largely occupied by black people—colored people, they were called then, of course. All sorts of violence was occurring. The police were unable to cope, and they were throwing bombs and all sorts of horrible things.
The phone rang at United Press about mid-morning, and it was Jack Fallon. I happened to answer. It was Jack Fallon in our Dallas bureau. He said, "Oh, I'm glad to hear your voice."
I said, "Why?"
He said, "I was afraid maybe you were out on that race riot." Well, now, I would not have gone on that race riot! He should have had better sense than that. I'm not a complete idiot, although I do some things that aren't exactly, shall we say, ladylike.
Biagi: Do you think you were being protected in that sense, that on that assignment they didn't want—
Richards: Oh, no, he just plain didn't—all at once it occurred to him that maybe I had gone out on that story.
Biagi: Were there ever any stories you avoided because either of your size or gender?
Richards: Yes. I have flat refused several assignments, all for the same thing, and they never held it against me and they never required me to go. I could not possibly cover an execution, even though Sanford—what was Sanford's first name? Head of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. I believe this was with the Clutter killings. He asked me if I didn't want to cover the execution of Smith and Hickok. I said, "No, thank you. I can't do it."
Biagi: That wasn't because you were a woman or small; it was just because—
Richards: No, that was my personal choice. Do you know any men that really like to cover an execution? And anyway, politically unpopular as it may be, particularly in this case of the feeling about capital punishment here, to me there is something about organized society taking a life, deliberately and aforethought, that is particularly repugnant. This bothers me more, really, than just a common criminal going out and shooting somebody.
Biagi: That's an odd thing to say for somebody who's covered crime and has seen the victims. The argument would be that because you've seen all those victims, that you would—
Richards: Well, I'll tell you part of that is that one of my regular assignments after a crime story had run its course, I was almost always sent to try to do some sort of psychological study. That dignifies it too much. It was so superficial, that sounds terrible. But I was always assigned to do a background piece on the offenders. In that entire time, there are other crimes that I covered—the Lowell Andrews case, for one, Jake—there was only one instance in all of that that I did, when I felt that the killer was solely responsible for his acts. Like this Richard Eugene Hickok. I think I told you about him. His parents' attitude toward him and everything that he did that was wrong, "My poor boy, they're persecuting you." That's a heck of a way to raise a kid. I could see how that happened.
Now, Bonnie Brown Heady, I could not find anything in her background to explain that. She was described as a very popular girl, a highly respected girl, a tenderly reared girl whose aunt stood by her to the day of her burial, and who was a lovely, lovely lady. I met that aunt, but her name I can no longer recall. She was the sort that would take Bonnie to a high school basketball game and wait around in Maryville till all hours of the night to take her home. She was a much protected young woman. All of her classmates seemed to hold her in great respect. But in her case, alcohol was her downfall. She completely changed when she became addicted to alcohol. That's no excuse, but it's a reason.
The one that I really felt I could not find any excuse for was a nineteen-year-old boy named Lowell Lee Andrews, who was the son of a more than middle-class family. They had a very nice farm out near the tiny town of Wolcott, Kansas. He shot and killed his mother, his father, and his sister, and then waited on the front porch for the police to arrive, and told them they'd been killed by an intruder. That boy's parents were highly educated, highly motivated, I'm sure loving parents. He was a freshman at the University of Kansas at the time of the killings.
I did not discover anything in his background that would give him reason to take such a tragic turn. But with that exception, I thought all of them, I could see the reason.
Carl Austin Hall, who was one of the Greenlease kidnappers, was the son of a lawyer, a prosperous lawyer. He was an only child. His father was prominent in a material sort of way, but he constantly walked a rather broad ethical line. He was not quite upright and yet not bad enough that he was charged with anything before the bar association. But his ethics were extremely questionable. They left Carl Austin Hall a considerable fortune. One time I think I knew how much that was, roughly, but I no longer remember. At any rate, he spent it one, two, three, and took to robbing taxi cabs.
Now, how he happened to choose the Greenlease boy for a kidnap victim was that he had attended military school with a Greenlease adopted son. Mr. and Mrs. Greenlease had only the two children, but Greenlease himself had had a much older child that he adopted. Paul, that man's name was. He was adopted during Greenlease's first marriage.
Biagi: The next group that you talked about covering were the so-called Kansas City mobs. What was your relationship and exposure to them? Did you cover them over a long period of time, or was it a short period of time?
Richards: I wasn't exclusively, certainly, not responsible for this. Some murders individually I was concerned with the coverage. One was of two men, Charlie Binnagio and Charles Gargotta, for one. But where I really got into the Kansas City mob was that I had a good friend who was for many, many years head of the homicide division of the Kansas City police department. His name was Harry Nesbitt. He put together all the material out of the dusty files that was submitted to the Kefauver Commission in 1951. Then also, even much later than that, in fact, he went back, actually at my request. I kept saying, "Harry, we ought to wrap up this mob story." He went back and dug out all those files, went over them with me, and reexamined and re-pieced together this and that and the other, and came up with quite a lengthy report, which I don't think he ever gave to anybody but me. But at any rate, I had a tear sheet on that, which is why I have a lot of dates and that sort of thing on that particular thing.
Biagi: Were you covering the trials of those people?
Richards: There weren't trials, my dear. These were mob killings! You don't try mobsters; you wait for somebody to shoot them. [Laughter.]
Biagi: My mistake. [Laughter.]
Richards: It's hard to say when the Kansas City mob wars started, but Harry Nesbitt, who headed the homicide division of the Kansas City police department for so many years, did sort of a retrospective study on this thing. Harry concluded that the mob war began on January 22, 1946 with the killing of Joseph Ansch, who was known along Twelfth Street as "Buggy." Ansch was shot several times in the back, apparently in retaliation for the activities of a gang that was going around holding up gambling places, which was definitely not considered the thing to do in that era.
The second gang killing came only six days after Ansch was killed, and the third came only three months after that. This U.S. Senate committee investigating organized crime heard testimony about twenty-eight unsolved murders committed in Kansas City in an eleven-year period. Probably the most powerful of the victims politically was Charles Binnagio. Binnagio was a political boss in the notorious North End. Binnagio and his chief lieutenant, Charles Gargotta, who was also his bodyguard, were shot by a gunman that they apparently knew and admitted to a Democratic political club headquarters. A passing policeman saw water from the restroom running beneath the door and out onto the sidewalk, which attracted his attention.
He went in and found the two bodies sprawled beneath a photo of Harry S. Truman. Police believed that Binnagio was involved in nationwide gambling activities. They also believed—but they could never prove—that he had recently accepted $200,000 in cash, which he was supposed to use in an effort to persuade the governor of Missouri to open Kansas City and Jackson County to gambling. This attempt failed, and Nesbitt believes—but he couldn't prove—that Binnagio was preparing to leave town at the time he was killed.
At the low end of the totem pole on this list of gang victims was Mary Bono. She was known in the underworld as a stoolie. One day she came into police headquarters and said she was prepared to talk to the grand jury that was investigating the theft of some ballots from a safe in the Jackson County Courthouse. The very next day, somebody assassinated her. They silenced her with a twelve-gauge shotgun. That was May 26, 1947. In other words, about a year afterwards.
Biagi: Were you covering these stories as they happened?
Richards: Depending on when they occurred, time of day, whether it was my day off. To a certain extent, yes. I was on duty when Binnagio and Gargotta's bodies were found. However, Bill Rosentreatter got a positive identification on them for me, but I was in the office at that time. Mary Bono, no, I don't remember having anything personally to do with that coverage at all.
Possibly the most lucrative gambling spot in the entire area was strategically located astride the Missouri-Kansas line. When Missouri officers would show up, all the gamblers would scurry across into Kansas. And when the Kansas officers came, they'd reverse the procedure. So this thing was a real gold mine. It was operated by Fred W. Renegar. Renegar had the bad judgment to refuse to share the rich profits from this spot with the North End element, and somebody eliminated him right promptly.
What Nesbitt and other officers usually referred to as the Mafia was not ethnically exclusive. Beside those names that I've already given you and a lot of others ending in vowels, there were also "Johnny the Mutt," christened John Mutulo, and Louie Cuccia. But there were also such names as Thomas Kelly, Leroy Crist, and Gus Nichols. That's that.
Biagi: Was anybody saying to you at this time, "This is no place for a woman, covering crime"? Was anybody saying to you, "Margaret Richards, you don't belong out there with all these difficult people"?
Richards: I mentioned not wanting our son to be a bantam rooster. It occurs to me that maybe I was a bantam rooster.
Richards: A pastor of our home church once described me as a "spicy character" because I had said something. I have never been one to bow deeply three times.
Biagi: So what does that translate into in the news business?
Richards: Oh, I don't know what it translates to. I don't know whether it has any significance. I don't know how much of it is real. [Tape interruption.]
If I opened up in the morning at 4:00 a.m., normally we split. Do you know what splitting a wire is?
Biagi: Tell me.
Richards: No reason why you would. But you cut a limited segment of a wire away from the rest of it, so you move to a limited area. One morning I was opening up, and there was a 4:30 split coming up on the radio wire. I split the wire and called Chicago. No, I didn't split it. I left it through and called Chicago and told them why I was doing this. This was because the police department had told me that three people had just been found shot to death about six blocks away from the bureau. I said, "I'm closing the bureau. There's nobody else here at the moment, so I'm going to go down there. I can't get it in any kind of time unless I go after it." Well, of course, it's darker than pitch at this time. The man in Chicago gave me some argument. He said, "What are you doing going out on that kind of a story at this hour of the day?" But I, at the time, didn't know whether he thought this was an inappropriate thing for a woman to do, or whether he simply didn't think I should leave the bureau unmanned, however briefly, for that particular thing.
But I did run into Bill Griffith on my way out of the building. He did not work for United Press; he worked for KMBC in whose building we had our office. Bill sort of remonstrated with me a little bit, but nobody ever made a big thing of it at all.
Another time, we had a jail break in the Jackson County jail, and twelve or thirteen men got out, I think. The jail is on the tenth or eleventh floor of the Jackson County Courthouse. I took a cab and went over there, and when I got there, there was a guard at the back door where I tried to go in at the garage part, because I knew the courthouse doors in front would be locked at that hour, of course. He didn't want me to go upstairs. I had to argue strongly to get up there. He said, "As far as we know, they're still in the building. We don't know where they are. We just know they're out of their cells." Well, dummy that I am, do you know, it never occurred to me that he was wondering if they might like to have a hostage.
Biagi: It never occurred to you.
Richards: I just didn't think of it. But he said, "Well, you wait a minute and I'll get somebody to go with you." He did, then, let me go up.
Biagi: Were you ever afraid in any of the stories that you covered?
Richards: Yes. Twice. Once at a warehouse fire where all the people that I thought were knowledgeable were standing immediately beneath a brick wall that looked to me as if it would topple at any moment.
The other time was on the Clutter killings. I was afraid for practically the entire time I was there. I had a pleasant enough hotel room, but there were heavy draperies all across one wall. I just assumed that this concealed windows. It was at the back of the hotel. The first night there, though, I pulled back these draperies to look out, and it was the fire escape right outside the window. At this time, everybody, including the police, I think, thought that a madman, probably a member of the community, was on the loose. Fear was a tangible thing throughout Garden City at that time. People wouldn't go out and leave their wives alone and all that sort of thing. So I was afraid. I was afraid the whole time I was in Garden City.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Biagi: Let's shift a little bit and talk about your working conditions at the time and what you're calling low-tech communications. What was it like at the beginning of the thirties, working in that building? What kind of equipment did you have?
Richards: I've got a whole section on that, in a way. Shall we begin with the vanishing Morse wires?
Richards: The 1932 presidential election that I was talking about, we had no computers, of course. The only mechanical equipment we had at all was a battery of adding machines and the operators that were hired for that specific occasion. But we posted the vote totals and the number of reporting precincts in lead pencil on these poster board charts which had been inked in. Then every time we got a new total, why, we'd erase the old total and write in new ones. This was the way we tabulated, and other bureaus everywhere, I suppose, were tabulating the vote in the same way.
With that minimum equipment, we reported trends. We had detailed records—I mean detailed records—precinct by precinct and ward by ward, of results in past elections. With those things, for instance, you dare not report any Republican winning anywhere in Sedgwick County or anywhere in Wyandotte County until you had at least sixty percent of the precincts in, because they're so strongly Democratic. But that early vote didn't amount to tiddlyboot. I suppose it's the same system that they use now. But at any rate, with those meager resources, we reported trends and we projected victories and finally we declared winners.
There were some errors, I'm sure, probably more than I remember. Of course, the Chicago Tribune made the most famous one. A Kansas City Unipresser I won't name once elected the wrong man to Congress from southeast Kansas, but that's the only instance that I recall where we ever declared anybody a winner that wasn't a winner.
The last precinct, you consider the Kansas election wrapped up when you get a final count from Gove County, which has only six precincts and is clear out west. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Describe this low-tech communications that you had to work with.
Richards: That's all we had. That's the point.
Biagi: Pencil and eraser.
Richards: We had no computers. We did all this on poster board with erasers, and by Wednesday morning, all the figures were fuzzy, but they were still legible. Of course, it was very slow.
By this time, the Morse wire, that workhorse of communications for a lot of years—I don't have any idea how many—several decades, I'm sure.
Biagi: Describe the Morse wire and how it worked.
Richards: Oh, you don't know how a Morse wire worked?
Biagi: Now everybody will know.
Richards: I can't believe there's anybody that doesn't know anything about the Morse wire. It worked with successions of sounds—dit, dash, dash, dit, dit, dash—this sort of thing that were transmitted over, I suppose, ordinary telegraph wire, with what was called a key, or a bug. It was a little flat thing for the operator's thumb. To amplify the sounds so it would carry a little farther if he had to get up or something; they all attached a red tin tobacco can to the back of that instrument some way. It made sort of a sounding board. Of course, you had to have both a sending Morse operator and everybody along that circuit that was to receive that also had to have a Morse operator. So this was a terribly expensive proposition, because United Press was not only paying its Morse operator, but every client had to pay a Morse wire operator, too.
Biagi: What would be the procedure, then, working with a Morse wire if you were in the bureau and you wrote a story?
Richards: I wouldn't attempt to do it.
Biagi: Right. But did you just hand your stories over to somebody who then tapped them?
Richards: They were all but gone when I got there. That's part of this low-tech thing, in a way. Morse wires had all but vanished by September of 1931. That's when I went to work there. There was only one Morse wire left in the Kansas City bureau, and it operated only eight hours a week. When the teletype circuits first came in, they had retrained all the United Press Morse wire operators to operate the teletype circuits.
But at any rate, this one Morse wire remained in operation. It was the B-leg of the Saturday night trunk, and it was manned by Ed Doherty, who kept manning that one wire. He balked at the retraining. He said, no, he wasn't going to waste his time learning that stuff. The teletype wasn't going to be here any time at all; the Morse wire would be back. He was not going to go for that foolishness. So he worked along with this one Saturday night wire, getting along on eight hours' pay per week. And then one night in October—I had gone to work there in September, the preceding month—that last Saturday night Morse wire went down for good. Ed told us goodbye. I can see him now with his Irish face and his cap in his hand, and he waved goodbye to us all. He had told us—could tell us and did tell us—all the time, over and over again, a dozen reasons why the teletypes would not be there very long. They were too inflexible, they broke down too readily, and I don't know what all, all these reasons. So he left us. As he left, he still denied that that era was ending. He waved at us and said, "I'll be back in less than a year." We never saw him again, of course. That was the last of Ed.
The teletype, the first ones, were slow speeders, we came to call them ultimately. They transmitted about forty words a minute. Ed was right in some ways. The teletypes were less flexible than the Morse, and there were other disadvantages. They wouldn't edit copy for you like the Morse operators sometimes did, and they wouldn't answer the telephone. A Morse wire operator can't leave his key for a minute or he loses out, see. So they were stuck there. The Morse never did come back.
Those first teletype circuits transmitted about forty words a minute. Then not too long after that came the high-speed circuits. Now, these were really modern devices. They sent sixty-two words a minute. Then they got even faster. I think there was an interval when TTY [teletype] sent about eighty words a minute. But behind that came the teletypesetter circuits, or TTS for short. Of course, the teletypes sent copy only in caps, no lower case at all. It was all in caps. Here comes the TTS, and it sends copy in caps and lower case, it sends subheads yet, if you please, and these subheads appear in red ink! More than that, they deliver not only the copy to the clients along the circuit, but they also deliver perforated tape that they can take back to the composing room and use to operate their teletype machines. So that was really a marvel of the fifties. I just wonder what Ed Doherty would think about TTS if he would know anything about it.
Biagi: Did you learn to type yourself? You were writing, I assume, on a manual typewriter when you first went to the bureau.
Biagi: Where did you learn to type?
Richards: I can't remember when I didn't know how. I think in high school. Incidentally, all newsmen in small bureaus could punch, as it was called. If you were operating a teletype circuit, the mechanics of it was called punching. All newsmen can punch. I can lay tape on the floor a lot faster than the machine can send.
But the operators, I thought, were pretty unreasonable in a way. They were in a constant battle with the company over what they called a word count. In any eight-hour span, newspeople together could only punch so many words in a trick. If the operator thought the news staff was punching too much, they'd take a word count on you. If they could prove you were two words over the maximum, why, they'd demand that you cut back or that they hire another operator or something. But what used to get me so about that was that I could understand their position, but the same men that made the loudest howl if you moved over to speed a little copy movement in a bind in some way, then they would just howl their heads off and maybe complain to New York and to the chief operator and the whole bit, and then the next day, they'd say, "Maggie, I'd sure like to go out for a beer. Would you mind watching this circuit for me if I leave?" I didn't get along too well with some of the operators. Some were great.
Biagi: What was the relationship at that time in the bureau and what was the equipment the photographers were using? How did that work?
Richards: The picture bureaus were in slightly separate quarters. In the first place, the news bureau moved several times during my tenure, as you might imagine. For the last maybe fifteen years, you had to go through the newsroom to get to the photographer's shop. He had a darkroom back there and, of course, all of his equipment.
Biagi: But the relationship of the reporters to the photographers?
Richards: It was good. It was very good.
Biagi: Do you remember any photographer you really liked a lot?
Richards: I liked Sammy Feeback, in a way, the one I told you threw up so after the—
Biagi: You have to explain that, because nobody reading this transcript is going to know why he threw up. [Laughter.] We didn't talk about that on tape. Tell me about Sammy. What did he do?
Richards: Oh, Sammy made this great picture of Bobby Greenlease's classmates, all of them first graders, maybe first and second graders.
Biagi: During that kidnapping.
Richards: During that kidnapping. They were looking up, and in their faces, you could see the colored reflections of the stained-glass window in their chapel, and tears were running down their faces. It was a really great picture. After he had finished that stint and met me, he said something to the effect that he had to get off and rest a little while. He said he had "thrown up all over," were his words. I'm sure it was just with the stress and the distress of it.
Biagi: He was big and burly.
Richards: Yes. He had at one time been a prize fighter.
Biagi: So that was pretty surprising.
Richards: But you know, a funny thing about that, going back to the Greenlease kidnapping itself, if I may. I told you that a man in a blue Ford brought the word to the reporters assembled out in the street, and, of course, Ledterman came to the door and confirmed it. But as soon as everybody left Ledterman and as soon as they did what was required of them, they disappeared. That street had been full of great, big, heavy television cameras and cables as big around as my arm, the kind of stuff that I don't imagine you see anymore. But there was so much of this everywhere, and all of these people around, too. After that happened, there wasn't a soul to be seen. I'm sure that what had happened was that all the reporters, including me and all the others, all of whom were men, had gone off to their secret quiet places and faced what had happened, because the men reappeared red-eyed. I think all of us had come to feel a very strong identity with this little boy, whom we had never seen.
But life on that street for nine days was kind of—maybe it was interesting to me in a way. We sat in the parked cars or on the lawn. One of our number went into the little town of Prairie Village every day about noon and brought back sandwiches and malts and things like that for us to eat. The neighbors in this extremely affluent neighborhood opened their bathrooms for us. They left their front doors unlocked. People hate the press so badly now, I don't think they would do that now. But they left their doors open for us.
And one family, particularly, a family named Taylor, on whose tree I hung my phone—well, I didn't personally, but my phone was hung on that tree—they kept their refrigerator stocked with ham and cheese and bread, lettuce, all sorts of things like that. Every night about nine o'clock, the head of that household, a man, would come along to all those parked cars and he'd have a white porcelain pitcher full of coffee in one hand, and in one pocket of his sports coat, he had a stack of disposable cups. In the other pocket he had a bottle of booze. He went up and down all these cars, offering his liquor to anybody who wanted it. They were very good to us.
There was a lady who was so helpful to me. Her name was Miller. She lived directly across the street from the Greenleases. They had a game room, a recreation room, I believe they called it in that era, in their basement that was very little used. She went down and had that cleaned up for me, and almost every day she'd come out and ask me if I wouldn't come in and eat a salad. The first time she did that, she said, "I just can't see you any longer going along on those soggy sandwiches and those horrible malts." So she fed me something practically every day. Of course, I used her bathroom. That's where I went to write copy if I wrote any, though usually I did not. I dictated an awful lot by voice.
Biagi: That brings up an interesting issue that we can conclude on, which is the relationship between the general public and the press at that time. What was the relationship, in general?
Richards: I think it was excellent between the press and the people who lived in that neighborhood. But an odd thing to me was that so many people at the time, people of our economic status or maybe a little below our economic status, when I'd talk about this way we lived, they'd say, "Oh, how terrible, to be stuck out among those rich people. If you had just been in a little different neighborhood." They were absolutely wrong. Jake and I could not have done that. We couldn't have afforded it. We tracked in muddy leaves, we walked all over the living room carpets, we left wet towels in the bathroom, all sorts of things. We couldn't have afforded that sort of thing. I think we were much better off where we were. They were very, very good to us.
Biagi: What was the relationship, in general, do you think, in a philosophical sense, of the general public and the press at that time?
Richards: I think it was pretty good, certainly. But you know, Shirley, in that era there was no class of workers that were in trouble. Now everybody hates everybody else.
The educational system is in deep trouble. Lawyers are in trouble. God knows the medical profession is on the hot seat. Nobody likes the press anymore. The clergy is in ill repute. The bankers are in a sad fix, indeed. The politicians? Who likes the politicians? Name me a class of society that isn't under attack.
Biagi: [Laughter.] But at that time, what was the attitude, generally, about the press?
Richards: I think it was good. I was trying to think when people began to say, "Oh, you can't believe what you see in the papers." I don't know when that was, but I don't think there was any animosity toward the press in that era. What do you think? You haven't been around that long, of course.
Biagi: I'm just wondering about the attitude about being a journalist, how people perceived journalists to be and what a journalist's job was, and how did they perceive you as a journalist? Did anybody ever say to you, "That's a questionable profession"?
Richards: Oh, no. No, no, no. No!
Biagi: Did they admire your job?
Richards: I think so.
Biagi: Was it an admirable profession, do you think?
Richards: I think it was an attractive profession. I think a lot of people saw it as a glamorous kind of life, which the good Lord knows it isn't. My son might be a fair sample of that. He didn't know what he wanted to do, but when I came home from the Clutter assignment, after he had seen all that in the papers, he announced he was going to be a reporter.
Biagi: He did?
Richards: Yes, but that didn't last very long. [Laughter.] In fact, when he first entered K.U., he sort of thought he might go into journalism.
© 1991, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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