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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Let's start today, Margaret, and catch up on some things that we missed last time that you said you wanted to talk about. I'll go through our list now of the key words you gave, and then we'll just talk about those key words. Then after we finish with that list, we'll go on and begin to go into the fifties and sixties and your contemporary work.
The first item on my list is World War II emotional involvement.
Richards: I think everybody participated in one way or another in World War II, and the emotional impact on people who stayed at home and had no loved ones involved in the conflict was tremendous. It was an overwhelming sort of thing.
I remember when the British Eighth Army was trapped on the beaches at Dunkerque, at that time they transmitted a flash—the London Bureau originated it, of course—that excited everybody so much that we ran into the Journal Post city room to spread the good news, which was, "Flash: There's Fog on the Channel," which, of course, provided the cover that let all those little boats go in and out. That's the only actual flash about the weather that I can recall ever having seen. That British Eighth Army held—I hope I'm accurate in this now. I could be wrong, I suppose. But the British Eighth Army also showed up in North Africa at very critical times, and it seemed like every time the Americans were trapped somewhere or were hard pressed somewhere. I remember one spot was Faid Pass, which I believe is in Libya, but I'm not sure, and there was quite a period in there where every day the people writing that copy speculated on how many days it was going to take the British Eighth to get there, because the British Eighth Army was rushing to the rescue of these trapped Americans, or so we believed.
But I remember the day the invasion started; that is, the invasion of Europe, not North Africa. The office called me and told me that it was under way, and we got this word about two o'clock in the morning, I think it was, Kansas City time. Jake took me down to the office in the middle of the night, and as we crossed Armour Boulevard we saw a young man in a navy uniform walking along there, and it required just the greatest restraint in the world to keep from yelling at that man, "We've landed in Normandy!" The atmosphere, the whole thing was so foreign to everything that we have felt since, that I've never forgotten it at all.
Biagi: As a journalist, did you feel like you were a partisan? Did you feel like you were an American journalist, or did you feel like a journalist?
Richards: Oh, I felt very partisan, although I was naive about the whole thing, Shirley. I firmly believed that these people in high places, high enough places, did not lie. Now, the President of the United States might be ambiguous in what he told you, he might refuse to answer, but if you could get him to make a flat statement, that statement, within its limits, was going to be true. Well, we all know now that that was a ridiculous assumption. But I really believed it all during the wartime years. We used to laugh about the German propaganda machine because the Germans sunk the battleship Hood, I believe it was, the big British battleship,
every Tuesday and Friday. We used to say, "Well, it's about time for the bulletin that says, 'Sunk the Hood.'" And it never seemed to bother the Germans at all to explain how come they didn't sink it last Tuesday as advertised.
Biagi: You mean they would put that information out?
Richards: Yes, yes. The Germans would make a very sober-faced announcement that they had sunk the battleship Hood, and, of course, they'd just made that same announcement ten days before.
Biagi: Were Americans doing similar things, do you think, upon reflection?
Richards: Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure there was some distortion. There's bound to have been. In the first place, there's got to be a margin of error. There's too many things to watch. I don't know. I don't know.
Biagi: What was the government's role in reporting? I know there was an Office of War Information. Did you ever get involved with that?
Richards: Oh, yes, all the time. But the most interesting thing to me on that, did you ever hear of a column called "The Washington Merry-go-round"?
Richards: It was syndicated by United Feature Syndicate. How I happened to know about it, I think I know the names of the men who wrote it at that time, but I'm not going to use them because I could be in error. I could be confused about who was running it then. But within three or four days after Pearl Harbor, they somehow acquired a detailed accounting of all the American losses. They came out with chapter and verse on what battleships had been sunk, how many men were on each one, just a devastating account of that disaster. United Feature Syndicate refused to distribute it because they felt it was not appropriate with what was going on in the war effort. They didn't carry it, but those two men distributed it on their own. They sent it via Western Union to every client on their list, and those clients on their list included the Kansas City Journal Post, where our offices were at the time. But the remarkable thing about this to me is no client published it. They all got it, but nobody published that list, which would have been a horrible thing to do.
Biagi: Was the information accurate?
Richards: Oh, yes, absolutely accurate. We kept a copy. I don't have a copy of it, but a copy of it was available around the Journal Post for a considerable time after that. There might have been some small inaccuracies, but basically it was the truth. But this, to me, demonstrated a very responsible press.
The Office of War Information had such silly rules which were interpreted in such silly ways by the public information officers with the armed forces, at least those at home. I think all of the information officers for the army were former used car salesmen. None of them had even a passing acquaintance with the news business, of that I'm sure. But they banned the identification of only one kind of plane that might crash at home. I believe these were the B-19s or the B-29. At any rate, the best plane we had in that era. A large number of these planes were based at Schilling Air Force Base at Salina, Kansas, and it seemed like they dropped a couple every week. But the point is, you could identify any plane that crashed. The sheriff's offices were all told to release this information if it was not a B-19. Well, does it take a genius to figure out that if you don't say what the plane is, that that's a B-19? The whole operation was that way. Of course, I felt like the Navy's information officers were considerably more competent.
Maybe that was because they tried to talk me into going to officers' school and becoming an information officer for the Navy, which I declined without a whole lot of consideration.
Biagi: There were bases around Kansas City?
Richards: Oh, yes. Many. Sadalia, Missouri; there was one at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Fort Riley, Kansas; Selina; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. We were surrounded by military bases. Biagi: What were your jobs, then, during the war so far as war reporting?
Richards: Only a very casual kind of thing. My chief function, really, as far as the war itself was concerned, was the operation of relays, which was a very complicated thing. I think I talked about that before.
Biagi: Was there ever a time at which anybody attempted to tell anybody at UP about what to carry on the wire or what not to carry, besides what you just described?
Richards: Oh, no.
Biagi: Or did anybody try to influence UP management?
Richards: I don't think so. The only incident that I know of is—was it Hugh Baillie or Frank Bartholomew? Some president of the United Press—went off to Wichita, Kansas, one time and made a speech to a meeting of the Kansas Publishers Association, I think, in which he flatly predicted the election of some Republican president. I don't remember which UP president that was. Paul Brink—a fine man, such a nice man, he's a Quaker—was on night duty in the Kansas City Bureau at the time and he took the copy on this speech from a Wichita stringer, whose name I recall yet—Hal Conrad. Paul made the mistake of including this prediction by—it was Baillie, I'm sure—by Baillie in the copy on that speech.
My word! The uproar that went up! They were going to fire Paul. Somebody, it was either H.L. Stevenson or Earl Johnson, pointed out that it was Baillie who made the mistake. He should not have said it in the first place, and if he did say it, he should have warned. It was no fault of Paul Brink. But they were still going to fire Paul, except that on one of the many, many occasions when Kansas City was short-staffed and I was running the bureau on a temporary basis, I could not have kept the doors open without Paul. Every other staffer we had had a family he had to go to or he got the flu. Paul was the only one. Really, on my plea, they kept Paul on the payroll.
Biagi: Let's go on further to the end of the war, first to the succession of Truman to the presidency and what your role was, being where you were at that time. What happened at that time?
Richards: I knew that I had to finally regain some degree of balance, because we knew that the end of war in Japan was going to be announced at about five o'clock Kansas City time. Bill Dickinson, who later became the managing editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin, and who was a dear and many-year friend of mine and of Jake, both, happened to be visiting in Kansas City at the time. [Douglas] MacArthur directed that a military plane be sent to pick Bill up and take him to the signing of the treaty on the battleship Missouri. We knew exactly what time this was coming. It was in August. I was six, seven months' pregnant at the time, and nobody—I can't believe it to this day. I got off work at one o'clock and I picked up my purse and went home with that announcement coming. I knew then that I had lost the zest for that sort of thing, at least temporarily. But I had no special work or special assignment in regard to these things.
Biagi: What was Kansas City's responsibility once Truman became president?
Richards: Every time he came home, of course, it was a big responsibility. It used to drive me crazy! There was this terrible, terrible, really stupid interest in what was called the Tuesday Bridge Club, to which Bess Truman belonged. They met, obviously, to play bridge on Tuesday. But it seemed to me that every twenty minutes somebody somewhere in the country thought up a new question to ask about the Tuesday Bridge Club. Well, now, this is not an easy thing to find out unless you happen to know the complete membership of the Tuesday Bridge Club. But I remember that as one of the prime irritations.
I remember being extremely sorry for Margaret [Truman] because there was no way for her to keep the approval of her girlhood friends. If she came home and fraternized, there were those who said she was playing politics. If she didn't fraternize, then she had become a snob. So it was a case of you lose either way. I felt very sorry for her in those years.
Is this the time to talk about my coverage of Truman after he came home, which was '52?
Biagi: Let's do that. Sure.
Richards: I was only going to say that I spent literally years and years and years building Truman sources. I didn't really feel there was anything unethical about this. I may have cultivated friendships, sort of, at the outset because I regarded them as future sources, but they were very likable people. Ultimately I never tried to get them to violate either Mr. Truman's desires or Mrs. Truman's, for that matter, although Mrs. Truman was something else when it came to getting any information out of her, you know. She just wouldn't talk to anybody. All the press corps in Kansas City knew that you'd just as well save your breath as try to talk to Bess Truman, except I guess perhaps it was at the time of Margaret Truman's wedding, there was a woman reporter from the St. Louis Post Dispatch in town, who saw Mrs. Truman out looking at the rose bushes one day, went across the street, and to everybody else's horror, started talking to her. She got quite a lengthy interview with Mrs. Truman. Of course, I'm sure that she didn't reveal that she was a reporter.
Biagi: How did you cultivate these sources?
Richards: This isn't difficult to do in a town like Independence [Missouri]. Mae Wallace was Mrs. Truman's sister-in-law and lived right next—well, sort of back of the Trumans. She was the nearest neighbor. Mrs. Wallace loved Mrs. Truman and Mr. Truman, but she was just by nature kind of a—she never told you anything scandalous. There never was anything scandalous about those people. But Mrs. Wallace loved to talk, and she was a great source.
My favorite source was Mike Westwood, who was, in his very last years, Mr. Truman's—I think the word they used was "companion." He drove Mr. Truman and he walked with him and all these things. He was a really great source.
Let me see. Who else was there? A Truman servant, a woman named Garr, if she happened to answer the phone. There was Rose Conway, who was Mr. Truman's secretary for years and years and years. All those people, Truman's barber, all sorts of people like that. Best of all, Mr. Truman himself.
Biagi: When you talk about cultivating them, what do you mean? How are you using that word? Did you call these people up on a regular basis? Would you visit them? What would you do?
Richards: I just made it a point to be very pleasant. Of course, the United Press cooperated in this venture. If somebody had to ask anything unpleasant, I did not go. I was the official Truman watcher, but not if I had to be unpleasant.
Biagi: Is that right? Was that a conscious decision on UPI's part, do you think?
Richards: Oh, I think so, or mine, one. I'd say, "Look. Somebody else go on this. I don't want to alienate him." But I came to feel that I knew Mr. Truman very, very well. He was extremely gracious to me, but he was gracious to everybody. Mr. Truman was one politician that really, I think, loved the common people.
Biagi: Do you remember any particular information, the kinds of things that, for instance, Mae told you or that you used in your reporting?
Richards: Even now I'm not going to tell you what the source was.
Richards: But the morning that the hospital called Mrs. Truman and told her she had better get over there—
Biagi: When Mr. Truman was so sick?
Richards: Was so ill. We knew it immediately.
Biagi: Those are the kinds of pieces of information you can count on?
Richards: Of course, in that last illness of Mr. Truman's, United Press play was unanimous: nobody else got printed at all. If that sounds braggy, forgive it. But nobody got in. I got tear sheets from all over the country and from friends that I hadn't heard from in many years. It was just simply that this long cultivation of sources paid off.
Biagi: When you talk to somebody's barber, what do you ask him? There's a lot more to talk about than haircuts, I see.
Richards: "I hear Mr. Truman got his hair cut today. How did he seem?"
"Well, he was in good spirits today. He told lots of stories. He had a good audience." Of course, it was Mr. Truman's habit to walk to the barbershop, and then he would sit there. Mr. Truman was a great storyteller. He loved to tell about his grandfather Solomon Young. You know the "S" in Harry S. Truman is not an initial. One of his grandfathers' name was Solomon, and the other was named Shipp. The "S" simply stood for either one of those names that you chose. But he loved to tell that story. In fact, he used to insist—for a time there, United Press never put—we would write "Harry S (no period) Truman" because he said he did not want a period after his name. But when his memoirs were published, the period appeared. When I reproached him about this, he said, "I lost the fight with the publishers. I just gave up. I fought as long as I could."
Biagi: If you had to tell two or three favorite Harry Truman stories, what would they be? Or Bess Truman stories or Margaret Truman stories.
Richards: I think perhaps I've already told you about the time that Mr. Truman gave two people interviews on his eightieth birthday. Did I tell you that before?
Biagi: You told me that story, yes.
Richards: And why he was seeing me. I've told you that. That's possibly my favorite story.
Bess Truman could say "no" graciously more ways than anybody else in this world. I suppose I've talked to her a hundred times, but I never talked to her when she was anything but gracious, and yet she never told you anything. I remember one occasion when I called her up and I said, "Mrs. Truman, would you think me impertinent if I asked so and so?"
And she said, "No, I wouldn't think you're impertinent, but I'm not going to tell you." [Laughter.]
Of course, the prime sources were Mr. Truman and Mrs. Truman. But I think when you have the same person dealing with those same people over a period of so many years, that it builds a sort of bridge of some sort that helps.
Mr. Truman, in the days before he became so terribly crippled by arthritis in his knees, used to take people around on personally conducted tours of the Truman Library. He was taking me on such a tour one time when we stopped in front of some case. A man in the heavy clothes of a laborer, laborer's boots and everything, came up behind us and plucked Mr. Truman's coat sleeve. Mr. Truman turned around and said, "Well, hello! How are you? I haven't seen you in so long, and I haven't seen your brother. How's your brother?"
And the man said, "Oh, he's fine, thank you," and moved on.
When he had gone, Mr. Truman said, "You know, there's only one thing I can remember about that man. I can't remember his name to save my life. All I can remember is that he has a brother." [Laughter.] Which I thought was typically Trumanesque.
Another thing that Mr. Truman did that was quite characteristic. You read about more recent presidents who have received very valuable gifts from all over the world. In these tours of the museum at the Truman Library, Mr. Truman never, never used the first-person pronoun. This was always, "This was a gift from King So-and-so to the people of the United States." "This is from So-and-so to the United States." Never did he ever say anything was given to him. Indeed, I don't think he ever kept anything—ever—he or his family.
I might also say that I am sometimes distressed by the portrayal of a man who used extremely earthy language. I'm sure he did on occasion, but I have talked with him at times when he was so angry that you could tell that he was having difficulty in controlling his anger, but I never heard him say anything stronger than "doggone," which was a phrase he liked. He was fond of saying that he never used profanity in the presence of a lady, and so far as he was concerned, all women were ladies until they proved themselves otherwise, which I thought was such a pleasant thing to say.
Who did that one-man show in which he portrayed Truman and did such a beautiful job? I can't think of the man's name now.
Biagi: James Whitmore?
Richards: Yes. At any rate, he even portrayed Mr. Truman as swearing in the presence of Rose Conway, and I would be willing to bet every dime on the Las Vegas strip that no such thing ever happened, because Miss Rose Conway was a lovely, cultivated, refined lady. Of course, that's no big deal. Every politician knows those things happen.
Biagi: This is the middle of the forties and early fifties that you're covering Truman, and later. If you had to describe a typical work day for you, what was it like? What kinds of hours would you put in? What arrangements did you have for child care and everything as you worked?
Richards: The arrangements for child care. At the time Clint was born, we converted the second floor of our house into an apartment. There was a terrible housing shortage at the time, and we built this apartment for Jake's parents.
Biagi: That would have been 1945?
Richards: That would have been '45. I remember we even had a lot of difficulty with only a half-bath up there. We had to go through all sorts of paperwork and all to obtain a bathtub to put into this half-bath upstairs. But his parents stayed a year, and then when they moved out, we got a live-in babysitter who lived up in this apartment. So we never had the problems of child care that people have these days. I don't know how they cope with that; I really don't.
As far as the work day is concerned, partly because I'm a morning person and always was, but several days a week, and sometimes five, I had to be at work at four o'clock in the morning.
Biagi: That's a real morning person! [Laughter.]
Richards: Yes, which, of course, meant that I got off at one [o'clock]. People would say, "Oh, it would be so nice to have the whole afternoon off. You could do all your shopping." What are you talking about? By one o'clock, I was ready to fall in a heap most days.
I think all of us had a complete misconception of the urgency of what we did, or at least of the time element. I have seen the time when people would be rebuked for being—I think we were about a minute and a half late on the death of President Truman's mother. That was post-mortem'd. "Why were you a minute and a half late?" And we had this exaggerated notion of the importance of time in small amounts, which added to the stress of things.
But I can't tell you what a typical day was like, because no day is wholly typical in the life of a wire service worker. I don't know what it's like now, of course, but what it was like on Tuesday was probably nothing like what it was like on Wednesday. It all depends on what happened.
Biagi: Did you often work overtime?
Richards: Oh, yes. I retired a few months early simply because I became afraid that I was going to feel a moral responsibility to do something I was physically unable to do. I felt like if TWA drops one in the Missouri River, I've got to be able to stay on my feet at it for twenty-four hours, no matter what. That was one reason why I retired. But I have worked as many as seventeen days in a row without a day off, and often up to twelve hours a day.
Biagi: What was the occasion?
Richards: The Greenlease kidnapping case was one. Let me see if I can think of another. Oh, the flood.
Biagi: So it wasn't uncommon then.
Biagi: Long weeks and long days. But you had the live-in care at that time.
Richards: Oh, yes. The care of the baby was no problem.
Biagi: What about your neighbors at that time? Did they look on your job as kind of unusual?
Richards: Before television came in—I think now the ordinary layman is more aware of what news is and how it's obtained and all that sort of thing. But back then most people, I think, sort of thought news was like kind of an ectoplasm that materialized out of the nowhere into the here, all untouched by human hands. When that really sank home to me one time was the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died. I called my mother-in-law to tell her that Roosevelt had died, and she said, "Oh, is that so?" And about twenty minutes later, she called me back and said, "You know, you're right!" [Laughter.]
Biagi: But did your friends and family think this was unusual, the kind of work that you had, the kind of a schedule you had?
Richards: Oh, I had been doing it so long that I don't suppose it seemed remarkable, although to this day I run into people who don't understand at all. Our neighbor over here right now, this very morning, was amazed that you were coming here. Nobody believes anymore that you ever did things like that.
Biagi: Why? Why don't they believe it?
Richards: I suppose because I'm old and feeble. [Laughter.] I don't know why else.
Biagi: You mean they don't believe that you once did that? Is that what you're saying?
Richards: Yes. It's entirely outside their concept of the person that I am today.
Biagi: Are you any different today than you were then?
Richards: Are you kidding? [Laughter.] Of course! I'm not the same person at all.
Biagi: If you had to describe yourself then, what would you say? What kind of adjectives would you use to describe yourself? You're still short. [Laughter.]
Richards: I'm still short, yes.
Biagi: In those pictures, you're the shortest person in the pictures. I relate to that. [Laughter.]
Richards: You're not short. Oh, I don't know. I think I've always been a rather happy person, and up to now I've always dealt pretty well with adversity in whatever form it comes. I've put up well with most things, although I think maybe physically I'm a coward. I think I always have been. I may have told you before about the absolute terror I had one time when I was covering a warehouse fire, and all the people that were knowledgeable were standing immediately beneath a brick wall that, to my unskilled eyes, looked like it could fall at any minute. I had to just force myself to stand there. So I'm kind of fearful. I was fearful also at the Clutter killings. I was very much afraid all during that.
Biagi: Let's go back to 1945 now. I know that several of the women we've talked to have commented on the return home of the people who had been reporters before the war, as they came back and took up their jobs. How did that affect you?
Richards: I remember so vividly the return of Roger Wilson, who was a Unipresser who had been stationed in—I'm not sure now where he was stationed, but on Pearl Harbor Day he was en route from Manila to Hong Kong, or the other way around. At the time the airfield, when his plane landed, the airfield was being strafed by Japanese machine-gun fire, and nothing was ever heard of Roger again. His wife lived in Oklahoma—Muskogee, I believe—and his parents were in Olathe, Kansas. But at any rate, the months went on and nobody heard of Roger.
Finally, the company paid off his insurance and he was presumed dead. I don't know whether his wife married again; I don't remember anything like that.
But several years went on, and one day there was this terrible clangor of bells. Five bells signal an urgent message, and ten for a flash. The machine out of the west coast just kept it up and kept it up and kept it up, somebody hitting that upper-case S over and over and over again. We all rushed over to that machine to see what was going on. It was 95KO, (Urgent message, Oklahoma City) "Tell Mrs. Wilson that Roger's name is on the Gripsholm passenger list." Now, the Gripsholm was a Swedish ship that brought internees back to this country. I never will forget the excitement of that moment. I wish I could say that they lived happily thereafter, but I don't think that was the case. I don't really know.
But I remember when he came back, he was in the Kansas City Bureau one day for quite a long time, and he was telling us about the [Air Force General James H.] Doolittle raid and how very worthwhile he thought it was. He said that he and the other prisoners in this particular compound had agreed not to play their radio because they were so depressed that it was carrying so much dreadful "news." They weren't using the radio at all. They were standing at a window one day, looking out, and here came a plane with the American insignia on the wings, and somebody said, "Look! Those bastards have painted the American insignia on their wings. They're trying to make people think that that's an American plane." And about then the bombs started dropping. He said the shouts that went up and the change in the people's attitude was just heart-stirring, everybody was so surprised. He said some cried, some clapped, some danced around and jumped up and down. A near-hysteria prevailed.
Biagi: After the war, when the reporters who had left, either going to war service or to do other things, came back, did they all come back? Did some of them not come back?
Richards: Of course, the most noted one who never came back was Ernie Pyle.
Biagi: Yes. There was a lot of feeling for him, certainly.
Richards: United Features syndicated his material.
Biagi: But in your bureau?
Richards: I don't think we lost anybody in the bureau.
Biagi: Was there ever any talk, when the war was over, about replacing people on the staff?
Biagi: Why do you think they kept you on? In a lot of places, the wartime workers lost their jobs. Did you think you might lose yours?
Richards: Well, no. I got by with murder. For instance, back in another era it used to be, if you worked for a wire service, you darn well worked where they told you to work, and no static about it. You simply went there and took it. They ordered me to Dallas [Texas], and Jake went down to see what kind of jobs were available in Dallas, and he found one, but nothing that he wanted. Ultimately I came back to Kansas City and said, "I'm sorry, but I can't go to Dallas."
The division manager said, "Well, Maggie, I'm sorry. You've been a good employee. I'm sorry you won't go, but if you won't, you won't."
So the weeks went on, quite a little time went on, and nothing.
Biagi: What year was this?
Richards: I'm more or less guessing now. 1946, '47, maybe. At any rate, ultimately I said, "Look. I'm in no hurry to leave, goodness knows, but I want to find another job. When do you think this job will be out?"
They said, "Well, if you won't work anywhere else, you might as well work and stay in Kansas City."
Biagi: So they kept you on.
Richards: So they kept me, and they never pressured me again. They offered me transfers, but they never pressured me. The most pressures that I experienced at all were to take what I suppose could loosely be termed promotions. Who wants 'em? I surely didn't. I didn't want to go anywhere.
Biagi: Were you ever asked to be a manager?
Richards: Oh, yes. Ten a.m. every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Yes, many, many times.
Biagi: And you just decided that's not something you wanted?
Richards: I didn't want any part of that. There's an old saying in the United Press—or used to be—that anybody who's smart enough to be a bureau manager is too smart to take the job. [Laughter.] No, I didn't want any part of that at all. There also used to be a saying that I was the longest running second man in any bureau in the country. I was second man for, I suppose, forty years, maybe, which meant—and sometimes to my great annoyance—a bureau manager would quit or be transferred, and it would take them forever and three hours longer to find a replacement, in which case I stood. I came across a letter just the other day from somebody commending me on a stand in which a presidential election was coming up, and the then bureau manager departed unexpectedly with plans for the election not yet finalized. I had done all that, and whoever it was writing me said that they realized this had been a big strain and so forth.
Biagi: You acted, in a sense, as bureau manager several times.
Richards: Oh, yes! Many times. And to tell the truth, a lot of times when there was a bureau manager who didn't function. "Maggie, you do it." Like Jack Fallon wrote me when I retired, and said, "The first thing I thought of when I heard you were retiring was, 'What is the Kansas City bureau manager going to do now?'"
Biagi: Let me turn this tape over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Biagi: There has been some discussion about what happened to women journalists after the war. What I'd be interested to know is at what point there were more women added to the bureau in Kansas City. How long were you there alone?
Richards: This is hard to answer, because what was true one month might not be true the next. I'm afraid you're not going to like what I'm about to say, anyway. The women, as a group, I won't say were less competent, but they were less patient with the hardships of the job, a lot of them. This is not true of all of them. I can think of some that were simply great, among them Til Hagerty, and I could name some others. But there were too many others. They got the same pay as the men, of course, and this they loved, but they would say, "Oh, I can't work at night. I'd have to go home alone and I live thirty miles over there. I couldn't do that."
We had one little girl, Joan Holscher, I remember. She was quite lately out of college. She didn't want to give up her weekends; she wanted to go back to campus. She quit and went to work for a trade publication, a magazine called Box Office. I ran into her years later, and she said she figured she was making about a third what she would have been making if she had stayed with the wire service. But there were too many of those women, entirely. Of course, there were some pretty loafy men, too.
Biagi: Pretty loafy? [Laughter.]
Biagi: Through the war and until when were you the only woman in the bureau?
Richards: Actually, I believe we got one or more women. There was a time in 1952, I think—no, the war was over in '46. Could have been earlier than that. Maybe the late forties. Virginia Teiman and Jo Hoffman-Hewitt were in the bureau along with me at the same time.
Biagi: A bureau of how many people?
Richards: Including operators, probably—by then we had shrunk considerably, relays had gone out or part of the relay staff, and I expect we had maybe a total staff of ten or twelve.
Biagi: But until that time, you were the only woman? Were you the only woman who had ever been in the bureau?
Richards: Oh, yes. Yes, I was. I think that I could be wrong about this, so maybe I shouldn't say it, but I have the impression that I was the first woman staffer for a wire service west of Chicago, or maybe Washington. I'm not sure.
Biagi: The name that you've given yourself, or the title you've talked about, the official Truman watcher, when you say that, did somebody say, "You're the official Truman watcher," or did that just come over time that you'd been there so long that people called you that?
Richards: I don't know, but it's alluded to in some letters that I still have, letters of commendation about this and that and the other about Truman and Truman coverage. New York used to get it pretty much distorted. They print every year a little booklet called Best Stories of 1915 or whatever. I forget what the title of the booklet is now. The year that Truman died, they printed this story on his funeral in this little book. The editor's note said that I was a close friend of the Truman family, or some such. Well, this is a bald-faced lie! [Laughter.] I was never a close friend of the Truman family.
Biagi: But you felt like you were the official Truman watcher then?
Richards: When the last illness finally came, it was so well established that there was some jockeying in New York as to whether I should sign the day story or the night story, and Jeff Grigsby won out. They put me on the night side, a signer on the night story.
Biagi: What does that mean? What was the significance of that then?
Richards: Each man was responsible for his own cycle. Jeff Grigsby was the night editor, I think. I've forgotten who the day editor was, but Jeff Grigsby, who knew me fairly well, said, "No, you don't. You're not putting her on the day beat. She's going to work the night side."
Biagi: You talked to me about something else that happened, which was the competition between AP and UPI. You said that there was at one point a time when UPI knew exactly what AP was doing on a particular story.
Richards: Yes. That was when we were Scripps-Howard-owned, of course. A lot of Scripps-Howard papers were members of the Associated Press and subscribed to a full AP report. This being the case, they told us all the time, so we knew. Have I told you the story about the serialization of the Whitehead book?
Richards: An AP man named Whitehead wrote a book entitled simply, I think, The FBI or The Federal Bureau of Investigation or some such.
Biagi: About what year was this?
Richards: This I really have to guess. No, I don't have to guess so much, either. I believe that was 1957. At any rate, the AP decided to serialize this thing by chapters, and this good Scripps-Howard friend of ours was privy to all this. They were told in advance what chapters would be releasable on what dates. Even allowing for my biases, which remain strong, the Associated Press was accustomed to very pedestrian, even plodding, writing. So the word went out to us that we would do our own backlookers on these particular crimes that were discussed in the Whitehead book, but we would purple the writing up just to the last degree, which we did.
Biagi: By "purple the writing up," what do you mean?
Richards: The one I had in there alludes to the "warm blood trickling along the pavement at Union Station." It was gory, real gory, but it was fun, too. But at any rate, we did a segment on every one of these chapters, releasing one cycle ahead of the AP's release date. I don't think Whitehead's book, in serial form, ever saw the light of day anywhere. I don't know, because the tear sheets just poured in like rain on this stuff that we were circulating. [Laughter.] It was a lot of fun.
Biagi: So you were earlier than AP was on it?
Richards: Earlier, but the writing was—it was not the same sort. They come with all this restrained, pedestrian stuff, you know, and we're out with this flamboyant—not that that's the right thing to do. I don't mean that. You've heard that old story, haven't you, that in the case of a cathedral wedding, the way the three news services wrote it, the Associated Press would give you the dimensions of the sanctuary; United Press would set the tone of the ceremony; INS would interview the barmaid on the street corner.
Biagi: Do you think that's true?
Richards: No, but I mean I think this is an apt description. I remember an old INS friend of mine was much offended by that and thought it was a dirty thing to say.
Biagi: Talk to me about the competition between, and among, the services. Was there a time when you can remember yourself running down the hall?
Richards: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
Biagi: Were you in the same building?
Richards: No. But these races took place, generally speaking, away from any office of that kind. Every wire service reporter—and I'm sure this is true of the Associated Press—your first duty is to set up communications, foolproof communications. I've got a story to tell about that, too, if you want to hear it.
Richards: Quite a press corps, about twenty people, had gathered at the tiny little town of Clearmont, Missouri, up near St. Joseph, for the funeral of Bonnie Brown Heady, who was executed for the kidnap murder of little Bobby Greenlease. We all gathered around in the only hotel in Maryville the night before the funeral and talked the situation over, as newspaper people do if they're on an out-of-town assignment. Maybe that's only in the hinterlands that people do that. But at any rate, we were all sitting around this hotel in Maryville, and one of the men said, "Well, there's one thing about it. We don't have to worry about phones. I went over to the telephone office at Clearmont today and they've got plenty of phones over there to take care of all the afternoon-paper people. Then the rest of us, the morning people"—I think the funeral was about ten o'clock in the morning, which is pretty close for an afternoon paper. "But there are plenty of phones for all of us."
Maybe here I'd better interject the reason for all this excitement. This tiny town was much upset that they were bringing this terrible, terrible woman back to their cemetery to bury her. The county attorney, who was just looking for publicity, predicted that there might be demonstrations and rioting, and that's why there were so many of us there.
Well, at any rate, the next morning, instead of going out to the cemetery in one of the cars that the county attorney provided for us, I hired my own taxi. When the graveside service was over and we pulled out of the cemetery, instead of turning to the right to go back to town, we turned to the left and pulled into the driveway of the nearest farmhouse, where I had given the man $5 the day before for the use of his telephone. So I remember yet Carl Christensen answered the phone that day, and I dictated a night lead and then an overnight lead for dayside papers the next day. I gave him a grocery list for him to relay to my husband, and he told me all about a fire that morning in which a neighbor of ours had been killed. What with all this, I think we talked about forty-five minutes.
Then we headed back to Clearmont. We got to the telephone-building office, and here one man—I remember him yet, he was the man from the St. Louis Post Dispatch—was standing, talking on the phone, and everybody else lined up behind him. Somebody turned around to me and said, "Aha, you thought you were smart, taking a short cut. Instead of that, you got lost, didn't you?" And some other fellow said, "Well, get to the back of the line. It turns out there's only one long-distance line out of this GD town, and some stupid farmer's had it tied up all this time."
Well, if I had been male, they would have realized within five minutes that they'd been had, and they would have driven back to Maryville or pressured the operator or something, but because I was female, nobody thought a thing about it.
Biagi: Were there other times when your being a woman was an advantage, rather than a disadvantage, as a reporter?
Richards: I think most of the time that was true, except that if I was on a purely local story, you can't pull stunts like that on the same people all the time. But as long as I was among strangers, it was a great advantage.
Biagi: Were there other times it helped you?
Richards: Yes, I felt like there was. Oh, yes. At the time of the Clutter killing, that was a case in which I committed murder, too. [Laughter.]
Biagi: You committed murder. [Laughter.]
Richards: No, I mean—
Biagi: Figuratively speaking.
Richards: Figuratively speaking, yes. That was so bad that the Topeka State Journal, which did not subscribe to United Press—the Topeka Capital did—and the Journal sent a man up there. He demanded that the sheriff call a press conference, which this sheriff did, and he attacked me by name. I don't mean physically. But he said I was using all sorts of unfair tactics, and it was just dreadful, all the things I had done to him. The Journal made the mistake of picking up my copy, whole paragraphs of it, from the Topeka Capital, which had the legitimate right to use it. But at any rate, the Kansas City Star man, George Parr, stood up at that press conference and said, "Shut up! You speak with the voice of a paper that has been beat." I'm sure that was an advantage then.
Biagi: In what way? What kinds of stories or information did you get that they were angry about?
Richards: For instance, a very simple thing. These people, we all knew that the bodies were tied up with nylon cord of a certain thickness and sort. I went to every hardware store, every supply store, everybody like that in the community of Holcomb and in Garden City, and there was no more of this cord available. So it seemed at that time that the murderers had either acquired the cord earlier—the sorghum harvest was under way—and there was a lot of speculation that grew out of that. And nobody else thought to check the stores. That's certainly nothing spectacular.
Biagi: No. But they just thought that you were using unusual tactics?
Richards: I guess. I never did make out exactly what their complaint was, except that we were getting printed too much. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Did you take great pride in that? Did you like to beat AP? Did it feel good?
Richards: Oh, sure!
Biagi: Do you remember a time when you really felt—
Richards: Of course, on that particular story, the AP was under a very unfair disadvantage because they had no staffer there. They did not staff it. They relied on the Garden City Telegram, which was a small-town paper that wanted to publish nothing that the Christian Science Monitor wouldn't have used. That was part of the AP's trouble.
Biagi: Talk to me about, today, feeling sad in finding out the problems of UPI, the fact that it may be liquidated. You told me earlier that you're in mourning today.
Richards: Yes, but don't you think that every news organization takes on kind of a persona? It's more like a person or a friend or something; it's not just a business organization. At least I don't think most news organizations are. But as you've heard me say before, I think also that the United Press held a particular kind of love-hate relationship with its employees. I'm not talking about the Johnny-come-latelys who went to work a year ago or two or even ten years ago; I'm talking about the old-timers. I think I told you before that it was such a paternalistic organization.
To me it's just like losing a dear friend. I wish now that Scripps-Howard, when they felt they no longer could continue taking these terrible losses, I wish now that they had just let it die right then and there, because this has been through—I can't remember exactly when Scripps-Howard abandoned United Press—maybe I should say "sold it." But it's like watching somebody die of cancer. It just has gotten weaker and weaker and weaker, and there's no vestige left of the company that I worked for forty years.
Biagi: Today you're in mourning. What are you mourning the loss of?
Richards: I'm mourning the loss of the United Press as an entity that played such a big part in my life for so many years and for whom I felt a very genuine affection, and still do.* Of course, I don't have much grief for the present people; I don't even know them. I don't suppose there's a soul on the UP payroll anymore that ever heard of me. Everybody's gone. Did you ever live through the folding of a newspaper?
Biagi: I've had friends who did.
Richards: The same thing happens when a newspaper dies, except most of the people on a newspaper haven't been with that newspaper as long as I was with United Press, and probably don't have the same feeling for it.
Biagi: What are your feelings and reflections on what UPI meant to the nation, maybe, or to journalism?
Richards: Of course, I probably have a grossly distorted opinion of that, but for one thing, it's not as bad as it would have been before television networks began setting up their own bureaus. Before then, if you wiped out United Press, there was only one source of news in the country. This, on the face of it, is a debacle, really, to have only one source of news now. But when I worked for United Press, Shirley, I don't think networks even had very many bureaus. They had maybe a few, but mostly they all subscribed to both wire services, but I think they used those wire services as a guide to where to go. A lot of times they simply did a paste-up job and a mark-up job on wire service copy.
Way, way back I remember one time when—you remember the radio days of Kaltenborn?
Biagi: Sure. H.V. Kaltenborn. I just saw a film about him.
Richards: He came out to Kansas City one time. He came to talk to a convention. He did a broadcast out of there. He was hanging out at the Kansas City Star, and they sent me over there to help him in any way I could. I took just these armloads of copy over there, and he asked me to segregate them and lay out what I thought were possibly the most important stories and things like that, the kinds of things that you'd expect him to ask. I did this, but I thought at least he had a typewriter there and copy books. I remember I took over a whole bunch of books. I thought he'd write it. He didn't. Shirley, all in the world he did was take a pencil and mark up that wire service copy. That's absolutely all the man did.
Biagi: Is that right? That's amazing, given his reputation.
Richards: I know! I was just shocked. I was appalled. My admiration was shattered. But then I kind of got to listening to him and watching others, and there was an awful lot of copy broadcast that I recognized verbatim from having written the copy or having handled it earlier that day.
* On the day of this interview, the morning paper reported that UPI had filed for protection against its creditors.
Biagi: So you realized the importance of UPI as a source.
Richards: UPI, no more, probably, than AP. Yes, it was an important source. And goodness sakes, politically!
Biagi: Politically important, you mean?
Richards: Yes, politically important.
Biagi: Let's go on, briefly, to the early fifties now as you're in the bureau. The Second World War is over and now the Korean War comes. Was there any special time in the bureau there during the Korean War?
Richards: No. About all I can remember about the Korean War is Porkchop Hill. [Laughter.] I really don't remember a great deal about the Korean War. I never felt any great involvement with it. Really, it was sort of something happening over in another part of the world.
Biagi: What was your responsibility for the stories in the fifties that were particularly memorable?
Richards: I don't know that there were any that were particularly memorable as far as the fate of mankind is concerned, but I know that my own interests kind of changed in a way. I developed an interest in—I don't know whether to say legend or fable or what, but in local history. I developed quite an interest. One of the most fun things I did was go up to the tiny little town of Liberty, Missouri, and interview a ninety-some-year-old cousin of Jesse James. That was a fun thing that I did. There was a lot of controversy in the town at the time as to whether to elevate him to sainthood. [Laughter.] And since that particular section is sometimes called Little Dixie, there's a lot of admiration for him out there, the outlaw that he was. I got a tremendous lot of fun out of that.
Then I did other things I remember with a lot of pleasure, like going to Dallas one time. Now, this touches on ethics from two different directions. There is a spa down there called the Greenhouse. I went down there for a weekend at the expense of Neiman-Marcus, which there, you see, is an ethical question right there. But I went down there and I was appalled. I thought the whole thing was the next thing to obscene! These women were fat, fat dowagers, which is all right, I've got nothing against avoir du pois, I don't mean that. But there was some international crisis at the time, and all the discussions I heard were focused on either diets or the height of the hemline, which struck me as being stupid, stupid, stupid. These women were paying $600 a week to stay at this beautiful, beautiful place. It was beautiful, no doubt about it, it was.
Biagi: Did they feel that perhaps you didn't belong there, given the fact that I don't think you had any extra fat on you at any point?
Richards: No, no, they didn't.
Biagi: They knew you were a reporter?
Richards: But worse than that, Shirley, I stayed there and I enjoyed this and I was invited to the home of either Neiman or Marcus. [Laughter.] I've forgotten which. But a very impressive residence. It was beautiful artwork and all this stuff. I went and enjoyed it thoroughly, and I came back and wrote a piece that got printed from here to there. It was ninety-nine percent sarcasm!
Biagi: Is that right?
Richards: Sure! But now, see, I transgressed twice. In the first place, I took their gift of this junket. That's questionable.
Biagi: How many days?
Richards: I was only gone three days, I think. I stayed over in Dallas and had a ball with all the Dallas staffers. But I did that, and then I turned around and wrote this sarcastic copy about the meals that they served and how you were supposed to lose so much weight. I gained two pounds. But anyway, I wrote a real sarcastic piece and enjoyed every word of it. But that wasn't right.
Biagi: Well, would it have been right to write just a puff piece? That would have been a transgression.
Richards: Yes. I was between the devil and a hard place.
Biagi: Once you'd taken the junket.
Biagi: Were there other junkets?
Richards: Oh, yes. I met Sigrid Arne, whom I mentioned to you earlier. She was a Washington staffer for the Associated Press. I met Sigrid in 1939 on a Stephens College junket in Mexico City. We shared a hotel room and shared a state room on the train, and became fast friends. I was tremendously fond of Sigrid, and I think she was fond of me. She was employed in the features division of the Associated Press, and the things that we found out about each other's employers were amazing. For instance, I wrote a flip letter to my two bosses, Joe Hearst and Gene Gillette, and sent it off, and I showed it to Sigrid. She, at the same time, was writing a letter to her boss. She had addressed, "Dear Mr. So-and-so," and with this long and straight face, wrote about what was going on. I was just as flip as I could be. I didn't realize especially that I was until I read her letter. Then she said, "Margaret, you're not going to send this letter!"
I said, "Sure, I'm going to send it. What are you talking about? Of course I'm going to send it."
She said, "I don't think you should. You'll get in trouble."
Well, by the time our friendship ended—not that there was any breach; it just was one of those things that died some ten or twelve years later—I realized that her whole work environment—there was so much difference in the United Press. Now, I never had the nerve to do it, but everybody from the newest office boy to the president of the company is called by his first name. This "Mr." and "Mrs." just won't cut it in United Press, which made for a very relaxed attitude, of course.
Biagi: She was much more formal?
Richards: Oh, yes! We went around together a great deal in Mexico City. She was a real tall woman. As you know, I'm not very tall. But at any rate, she could, I think, probably hold her arms straight out over my head. And she was older than I by maybe eight, maybe ten years. But at any rate, she was being pursued by some New England publisher who was a little more attentive than she liked. So she'd never go anyplace without me. She kept telling him that, yes, she'd go, but she had to take me along because I wouldn't have anything to do. A lot of bunk. But at any rate, he dragged me along, they did.
I remember one night when we went to a particularly flossy nightclub in Mexico City, the three of us, and he was quite a wine connoisseur. He had the wine stewards coming back and forth with dusty-looking wine bottles, and he'd examine the label and say, "Now, I don't think that was a very good vintage that year. No. Don't you have anything from 1925?" or something like that. This went on and on and on. Such a show-off you never saw. Finally, Sigrid said, "Oh, for god's sake, bring me a beer." [Laughter.]
Biagi: What was the junket you were on at the time?
Richards: With Stephens College. They took five hundred girls aboard a train down to Mexico City and took one woman from the Associated Press and one from United Press. But this trip was the basis of an enduring friendship. She came back to Kansas City to see me many times. I'm guessing, but I'd say five or six times. At one of those times, I was pregnant, I think within six weeks of delivery, and was very much concerned about whether I was going to have to have a Cesarean or not. The obstetrician talked as if a Cesarean was something that, oh, you just didn't do this. He kept saying, "You can't gain any more weight. You might have to have a C-section." Well, Sigrid thought this was not the obstetrician for me, so she went out personally in a town that was strange to her and found what she determined in her mind was the best obstetrician in Kansas City, and I changed, with six weeks to go. I changed to this man that Sigrid had found for me, and, indeed, I did have a C-section. But she was such a dear.
The year after the Mexican trip, the same group went by train again across the southern part of the country and up from Los Angeles to the island of Vancouver in British Columbia. That was in the fall of 1940. Maybe 1941, because all that sort of thing was stopped by Pearl Harbor. It would have been the spring of 1941.
Biagi: That was another junket?
Biagi: Sponsored by—
Richards: Stephens College again. Stephens College's PR man was a man by the name of Barry Holloway. He was a friend of both Sigrid's and mine, and he engineered this delightful thing. Very unethical.
Biagi: Very unethical. You spent how much time on the train on that trip?
Richards: I think each trip was about two weeks.
Biagi: You just traveled with the girls as they went around on the college trip?
Richards: Yes. You know, I learned something. There was a woman on this trip, a photographer, named Martin. She had her own photographic business in Washington, a news business, and she made me so sick, I wanted to throw up.
Richards: She would sit with these little girls around her and tell stories straight out of the book Timberline, if you remember what that was.
Biagi: What was it?
Richards: These classic newspaper tales, only she'd tell them in the first person. They all happened to her. I could just hardly stand it! Sigrid defended her in this. She said, "Well, that's just showmanship. She's putting that on because she has something to sell, and this is her way of selling it." But that woman would never—in the first place, if the occasion was a formal one in which everybody else was wearing an evening dress, she'd show up in that day's equivalent of jeans. On the other hand, if the occasion was a cookout someplace, a chuck wagon cookout, here she'd come in a white satin evening dress. I have yet to see that woman take a picture from ground level. She always got up on a boxcar or some odd—
Biagi: She was a reporter?
Richards: No. She had her own photography business. Who she sold all these pictures to, I don't know, except Stephens College.
Biagi: So other reflections on your relationship with Miss Arne? Were there other trips? Did you mainly see her on trips?
Richards: There were those two trips I made with her, but she came to Kansas City to see me several times.
Biagi: Did it change things or did it help to have another woman reporter along with you? Was that the relationship, or was it just that you got along so well?
Richards: I don't think either one of us wrote a word about this trip.
Biagi: Is that right? You just took this trip? [Laughter.]
Richards: We just took a trip! [Laughter.]
Biagi: This is a serious ethical breach here.
Richards: No, it could have been worse. If we had written anything about it, in the first place, the only thing we could have written about it would have been adverse. There were several episodes that I'm sure Stephens College would have not wanted publicized.
Biagi: We're in the fifties now, and there are several things happening in the country—the relationship between Eisenhower and Truman.
Richards: Oh, yes.
Biagi: What were your observations about it?
Richards: That wasn't hard to observe at all. Truman couldn't stand the man! And he didn't mind telling anybody that displayed any interest. Not that he was quite that gross in his comments, but I remember one incident in which—did you ever hear of an organization called—not Meet the People.
Biagi: Meet the Press?
Richards: No, no. Oh, I'm sorry I brought that up. The Hallmark Cards' Joyce Hall, who was the founder of Hallmark Cards, conceived this people's organization which was supposed to spread good will among all the peoples of the world. That was the idea. He got this ill will between Eisenhower and Truman, which was pretty well publicized, but this—what is the name of that?
Biagi: Is it People to People?
Richards: People to People. You got it. People to People persuaded Eisenhower to come out to Kansas City, and he and Truman appeared on the same platform and were coolly courteous to each other, is really the best I can say. But Truman, when their little joint appearance was over, did something that amused me no end. I was sitting at the back of the room, which wasn't all that big, and both Truman and Eisenhower were at the front. I wanted to find out when Eisenhower was leaving and where he was going. So when it was over, I waited, looking intently at Eisenhower, but right beside the one aisle in the room—and I had, I remember, a ballpoint pen in my right hand and had it like so back of my hip—when Mr. Truman passed by. I'm sure he saw me looking at Eisenhower, and he just couldn't take it. He grasped this hand, ballpoint pen and all, and said, "Maggie, how are you?" Which was totally uncalled for, you know. But I know that he said this out of resentment. He felt that Eisenhower snubbed him on inauguration day.
Biagi: What do you think he was doing by grasping your hand?
Richards: Trying to divert my attention from Eisenhower.
Biagi: From writing about him?
Richards: Anything! Truman was a very basic kind of man. Mr. Truman was tremendously fond of people, anybody. I expect there was a little bit of jealousy, maybe. That's too strong a term. I don't mean that at all. But a little bit of feeling, "What's she doing watching Eisenhower? I'm here. Why isn't she paying attention to me like she usually does?"
Biagi: Did you cover Eisenhower at all?
Richards: No, only his funeral. I went to Abilene [Kansas] under surprise circumstances. I wasn't supposed to go, really. I remember I had a wig in my desk drawer. New York decided all at once that they'd better send me out there, so they dispatched a man from Topeka to take me home and pick up what I had to have and drive me to Abilene. For years United Press had had a room or two rooms reserved in the only hotel in Abilene, reserved for the day of Eisenhower's death. At any rate, we had one or two rooms. Then we had this big influx. Merriman Smith came out, Doc Quigg came out. I think Helen Thomas came, but I'm not really all that sure about Helen. If she came, she stayed on the train with Mrs. Eisenhower.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: So if you'll continue with your discussion of covering the Eisenhower funeral in Abilene. You were just getting there.
Richards: Yes, and we had that room. Well, where are you going to put one woman with umpteen men? And there wasn't another room in that town. The local Chamber of Commerce had a whole list of houses, private homes, where they were going to take people in and all that sort of thing. Nobody had anything. There just wasn't any room for me there. So the men got me a pillow and a blanket out of one of their rooms, and we went over to the railroad station, and I was going to sleep on a bench with this pillow and blanket.
But when we got to the railroad station, across the track was a neon sign that said "Hotel." So we walked across the street and into this place, and the lobby was full of people that were obviously impoverished pensioners. It was full of musty-looking—it was an impossible-looking place. I don't need to go into that. Yes, they had a room. So I asked to see it, and it had—I'm going to call it a cafe door, because I don't know the correct term for it. But you know, the door didn't go clear to the bottom. The bathroom, the john, was down the hall several blocks—several rooms down the hall.
This place was just—you just can't imagine staying in it. The price was $2.50 per night.
Biagi: What would you say was the price of a regular hotel in town at this time?
Richards: Oh, probably $30, $40. The hotel was a reasonably nice hotel, a palace compared to this place. At any rate, I turned down the bedding, the spread, and the bed was perfectly clean and everything, so I said, "Okay, I'll stay here." So, unfortunately, however, the door did not go to the floor, some man in the next room snored terribly all night long, and some other man—maybe the same one—was running up and down the hall to the bathroom. So I didn't really get a lot of sleep. But talk about getting publicity out of unhappy things! More people wrote me about having stayed in this two-dollar-and-a-half hotel, that was above and beyond the call [of duty].
Biagi: Did you write about it?
Richards: No, I didn't, but they heard about it. Indeed, when I retired all those many years later, I got a note from Doc Quigg, who said, "Remember Abilene and the palacious hotel room." So I've enjoyed that all these years. That was a lot more fun than if I'd had had a comfortable room.
Biagi: Sure. So covering the funeral, what are your recollections about it?
Richards: A stark-looking little chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower—I don't know what they call it. It's the old Eisenhower home place. I have a picture over there someplace. Mrs. Eisenhower arrived by special train, and her son was with her. She leaned rather heavily on his arm as they went into the chapel. The chapel is very small, and I wasn't in the chapel at all. I watched the procession as they came out. Of course, he was buried in the chapel. His wife later was buried there, too.
Biagi: Were there a lot of reporters?
Richards: Oh, yes. Yes. A great many. As I said, Merriman Smith was there and Doc Quigg. I remember the ride back to Kansas City from Abilene as well as anything. [Laughter.] I don't remember who was driving—Bill Osthoff, I guess. But it was a very simple, quiet service, of that I'm sure. I'm sure Merriman Smith wrote that story. I certainly didn't.
Biagi: You were contributing to it?
Richards: Well, in a sense, yes.
Biagi: Was that kind of standard, when there was a big event, that your lead writer would come and write it?
Richards: No. Really there was remarkably little of that. When one bureau would be saddled with an event that was too big for the permanent staff to handle adequately, they'd send people in from various bureaus. But those people did not necessarily write the copy. I think I may have mentioned to you once before that Helen Thomas came out there once on some occasion, but I don't remember what it was. She refused to have anything to do with writing the story; she left that to me, which I thought was really sensitive of her.
Biagi: Were there other times when people from United Press, from a larger staff, came into town to help you out?
Richards: Oh, yes, yes. The time of the race riots was one time when they sent in several people. [Laughter.] They must have thought I was a Grade A idiot, really. Jack Fallon called up from Dallas the morning these riots were at their worst, and I answered the phone. He said, "Oh, I'm so glad to hear your voice!"
I said, "Why?"
He said, "I was afraid you were out on the street on this story." Well, I wouldn't have gone if they had asked me to, but, of course, they didn't.
I guess I told you that the only assignment I ever turned down was to cover an execution.
Biagi: Yes. So they did ask you to go out on the street at that time.
Richards: No. They wouldn't have sent me out into a race riot, no. They're not that crazy, and I don't know whether I would have gone. I don't think I would have gone.
Biagi: Let's take a break now.
Richards: Yes, let's get that chili. [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: I just want to talk to you now, as we move into the late fifties and early sixties in Kansas City, about what became the next story. You mentioned the race riots in Kansas City. Do you want to talk to me about the town itself, the atmosphere in the town at the time? Were you aware, or were the people in the town aware, to your knowledge, of the vast migration of blacks from the south that was going on at that time toward the north?
Richards: I don't think so. They were acutely aware of the migration of blacks within Kansas City. What happened on that, they condemned a whole lot of property.
Biagi: The city did?
Richards: Yes. It was in the black section of town. That's a bad way to phrase it. The section occupied mostly by blacks. They condemned all these houses to build a freeway of sorts.
Biagi: This would have been what year?
Richards: This displaced all these blacks. I'm sorry, I don't know what year. It would be purely a guess, but I'd say late fifties. But as they condemned this property, they bought it and they bought from these people. I'm glad they got the money. This is a hard thing to articulate without sounding like a racist, but I know they were paid a great deal more than the houses would have brought on the market, which is perfectly all right. Plus which they were given several thousand dollars—let's say five [thousand]—to rehabilitate the places to which they were going to move.
As a result of this, there was this vast exodus to the south and east of what had been the area of blacks. For example, when our son started high school, there were no blacks in his class at all except three or four who were bused into the district. By 1968, let's say, there were no whites left in that particular high school district. So there was quite a good deal of tension about this, partly because it was the fault of the whites, of course, not the blacks, but property values dropped so precipitously, which occurs, I guess, everywhere when this happens. The flight of the whites to the suburbs began immediately, and property values just sank to the bottom in neighborhoods that became black. This is how, see, in the last perhaps thirty years
the better suburbs of Kansas City have all been on the Kansas side of the line. That was the impetus that produced this, that first migration. Crime rates, of course, rose in these new areas which were inhabited by impoverished people.
An odd thing about it, or it seems so to me, is that the first wave of blacks who moved into a neighborhood were well accepted, for the most part. They were schoolteachers, lawyers, doctors, very well-educated people in the middle-income level, well-behaved people, very acceptable and accepted. But sadly, they hadn't been there too long until they moved out. They moved on farther south, and behind them came underprivileged people who created a problem, created a problem crime-wise and schools were affected, of course.
One trouble that they had in the schools in that era was the state line. There was no way they could integrate the Kansas City schools, because there were not enough white people left. The Kansas City, Missouri, school district ended on the south side at—what do you suppose, Jake? [calling to her husband, who was sitting nearby] 70th Street? Somewhere like that. Then came another school, still in Missouri, became central school district, for reasons I don't know. Then on the other side, to the west, of course, was Kansas, which was a terribly complicated situation. This made the whole thing very difficult.
Biagi: So was there one incident that caused the riots?
Richards: If so, I don't remember it. It was summertime, of course, as I guess these things always occur in the summer. The rioters burned—and I guess this is typical, too—they burned their own districts. There were no fires in white areas of the city, so far as I can remember. In fact, I'm sure that there weren't any. But down in the black areas, particularly the more impoverished black areas, they just burned everything to the ground.
Biagi: What was your role then as a reporter?
Richards: Oh, I stayed in the office. I did not go out on the streets for pretty good reasons, I think. I wrote.
Biagi: How did the reporting get done?
Richards: Different men went out at different times. Of course, we also had stringers, as we called them, on the street.
Biagi: Did UPI at that time have any black reporters in the bureau?
Richards: No. Oh, no. In fact, there never was but one black reporter in that bureau, and he was the son of an army colonel stationed in Olathe. The company was pushing to employ black reporters and having a hard time finding them. This young man was a graduate of Syracuse University and they thought that his father's profession indicated that he would have had an adequate upbringing, you know, and we hired him. We couldn't keep him very long for one reason: he was pretty competent, but we never could get through to him that he had to show up. He would just fail to appear on schedule. When we tried to explain that this was an offense that could not be tolerated, he'd say, "Well, I don't expect you to pay me. I don't understand. I'm not asking you to pay me." We never did make him understand that that didn't eliminate the need for his presence. So they let him go.
Biagi: During the riots, you didn't have any black reporters?
Richards: Oh, no. This came along many years after the riots. Then along about the same time that we hired this young man in Kansas City, word came down from New York that they wanted me to interview an applicant who lived there in Kansas City, and they were going to send him to Chicago.
After he came in for the interview, we had a conference call. I talked with Jess Bogue in Chicago and somebody in New York at the same time, and I said, "Really, I cannot recommend him, except on a race basis." His grammar was terrible, his appearance was bad, he was haggletoothed, and I just never would have considered hiring him at all, except that he was black. That was the way the conversation ended. The next thing I knew, he was on the payroll in Chicago, but he didn't last very long. I don't think there were many blacks even up to the time that I left the company.
Biagi: So the riots lasted how long?
Richards: I shouldn't have brought all that up, because it was unrelated to the riots. Not long. By that I mean from several days to a week. But there were wide areas that were burned completely down. Of course, lots of people were arrested. I don't remember that there were a lot of injuries, and no deaths that I recall.
Biagi: This would have been the late sixties? What year are we talking about now?
Richards: It was more like late fifties. Not late sixties.
Biagi: What is your recollection as we go through the chronology of what happened in the era when [President] John Kennedy was assassinated?
Richards: That's one of those events that I'm sure everybody in the country knows right exactly where they were. I was standing by 7546.
Biagi: Which is?
Richards: The trunk that ran from Kansas City to Los Angeles.
Biagi: In the office, 7546 is the line there?
Richards: Yes. All circuits were numbered. Of course, the first bulletin was that shots had been fired in the area of the presidential cavalcade. Then, of course, that Kennedy had been shot. It seemed quite a long time before they said flatly that he was dead, although it became apparent before the flash that he was.
Biagi: That was an event that was wholly covered by television.
Richards: Oh, yes. Of course, I'll tell you what the misconception is. I don't mean that at all. But you're thinking about all the television tapes that materialized later.
Biagi: Yes. I'm talking about seeing Walter Cronkite doing the news on the air and saying that John Kennedy was dead. He says that on the air, and that is actually a tape of a program that went on the air. In other words, CBS went on the air live as soon as that was found out.
Richards: Yes, live footage, but I don't think that all the tapes that we recall in connection with this, I don't think that was televised until much later.
Biagi: I guess what I'm getting at is that it's the time now in the fifties and early sixties when television news is growing and becoming more a presence. What was the wire's response to that?
But in relation to the Kennedy assassination, you know that story that Merriman [Smith] was in the front seat of the car and he grabbed the phone and would not relinquish it to the Associated Press man. He got the Pulitzer out of that achievement.
When you send a flash, nothing more can be sent. You don't go back to what you were sending before or anything else. You stop right there until somebody composes a bulletin. The next thing behind that flash has to be the bulletin. In that instance, as I remember it, the wire didn't stand open, but it just stood idle for what seemed a long time.
Merriman [Smith], of course, did a phenomenal job. He pretty well just kept talking, and the piece on which he was awarded the Pulitzer was the original. It was not a wrap-up or the first lead or any other thing; it was simply the original piece that he dictated. Merriman was such a pleasant man, but he, too was a victim of alcohol. You know he committed suicide not too long after the assassination.
Biagi: As the wire moved into the broadcast era, responding to broadcast as well as to print, what were the changes that you saw taking place, if any?
Richards: Over the long term, you may be amused by this—and I am amused at it now, looking back on it—I think print journalists have always tended to look down their nose at the electronic people.
Biagi: So what were your comments about the relationship of print and broadcast in the bureau?
Richards: I didn't like the set-up of the broadcast wires, myself. You have to sub-out all the time and you repeat the same stuff over and over again. You try to give it a new twist. To me, the print version was always vastly preferable. I think the use of the present tense, which broadcast wires used to strive for, that was a bunch of foolishness. You can't very well write about what's in the past and still make it sound like it's happening at that moment.
Biagi: When you say "sub-out," what do you mean?
Richards: "Sub" means to substitute for. How about some terminology? Are you interested in that at all?
Biagi: You gave me some before, but go over some more.
Richards: All right. I've got a paste-up of a story in there that I did that stretches, I would say, literally from this chair to that wall.
Biagi: About fifteen feet?
Richards: I expect. But you have a first add congress, second add congress, third lead congress, and so on. Then you have a night lead congress. Then you have a wrap-up congress.
Biagi: Because you're updating the story?
Richards: Yes, that's right. But there is a set procedure for that on print wires, proceedings that have survived the test of an awful lot of time, whereas when I left the business, the broadcast wires were sort of scrambling around without quite knowing what to do with it. For instance, they would have a sub for fifth item, fifth world news in brief. That sort of thing. It was sort of sloppy. Then you'd back up and run the whole thing over again with very little change and no justification for it, except this idea that the electronics have, that the same people that listen at twelve o'clock are not necessarily going to be listening at one, and the other way around. So they try to—it's for the birds.
Biagi: To recap what's happened before.
Richards: Yes, and essentially to repeat the same thing in a very obvious striving for a little different wording, a little different twist, a little different something. Basically, it's all the same. I do not like broadcast.
Biagi: But you did it.
Richards: Sure. You did it or you didn't get paid. [Laughter.] You've just used another term that you'll want to define, which is "peel off."
Biagi: It sounds like dinner to me. [Laughter.]
Richards: No. Two or more reporters cover the same event, and one goes out to the phone and dictates while the other stays and listens to whatever is going on, and then that second reporter peels off and they go to the phone. This long paste-up that I have was a peel-off between me and Bill Rosentreatter on the Greenlease boy's funeral. We were worrying about time on that because the funeral mass started, I think, at ten o'clock in the morning, and by the time it was over, there was that urgency for the evening papers. That was the reason for that.
Biagi: So he stayed and you peeled off, or vice versa?
Richards: One and then the other. We took turns in listening and going to the phone.
Biagi: Let's move on now into the late sixties. Other events? Lyndon Johnson taking over as president.
Biagi: Other events in Kansas City that you were covering at this point? Big stories?
Richards: I get back to another crime story. This was the story of Lowell Lee Andrews, who was the brilliant son of a middle-class family, who shot and killed his parents and his sister for their estate.
Biagi: What year did this happen?
Richards: I don't know. Incidentally, all this time I was doing quite a lot of very shallow studies into the background and the psychological aspects of these killings, which I found an interesting pursuit. I did one on Lowell Lee Andrews. I know I pulled a tear sheet on him. [Richards looking through papers.] [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: Was it in the late sixties, would you say?
Richards: In the sixties, probably. Sometime in the sixties.
Biagi: What fascinated you about the story, or how did you come to cover it?
Richards: This was another one of those wrap-up kind of things. I think I wrote this when he was executed. I really liked to do what they call backlookers, because it's the first opportunity that you have to do a complete piece on the breaking story. If you write a story Tuesday on elections, obviously you're out of luck by Wednesday morning, but nothing is ever complete until quite some time later.
Biagi: In that case it gave you a little more time, too.
Biagi: Was there ever a time when you actually had to take a lot of time to write a story, or was everything done in a hurry?
Richards: Oh, no. If I was trying to write myself a piece, I used to think I was pretty good at writing straight hard news, just straight off the typewriter. I was very fast at that and tended to organize well, I think. But you don't write any immortal literature under those circumstances. You sit down to write a piece. I certainly can't write feature copy with all that speed.
Biagi: When you wrote a feature, did you have to do it in addition to your regular daily work, or did they ever give you time off to do it?
Richards: They didn't formally give you time off, as a rule, but you found the time some way, which wasn't too hard to do on a lot of days. Sometimes it was impossible.
Biagi: Kind of quiet, some days?
Biagi: I guess the impression of a wire service is it's quiet or busy all the time.
Richards: Well, that's only partly true. I can remember very well an era when the Kansas City staff gathered every afternoon at three o'clock in the inner office to play pitch.
Biagi: Which is?
Richards: A card game.
Biagi: You, of course, didn't do any of that.
Richards: What do you mean? Of course I did that! Of course.
Biagi: Did you win very often?
Richards: Oh, I suppose, as much as the average.
Biagi: There are some women in bureaus who were left out of card games because they didn't think women could play cards very well.
Richards: I was very lucky. I don't think anybody felt that there was anything I couldn't do. That may be terrible, but not anybody in the United Press. You run into funny things in that regard. The only person I ever saw that I felt resented me if I gave instructions or if I was running a trick at a particular time was Joe Galloway. Joe and I had at it about numerous things. I think, in the first place, I was old to him, and in the second place, I was a woman. It's hard to tell which was harder to put up with. But at any rate, the climax came when the army or some military outfit dropped a big plane at the airport in Topeka, where Joe was stationed. It happened like twelve o'clock midnight. I called Joe up at home and told him to get out to Forbes Air Force Base. He said, "I'm not going. I'm asleep. You get it by phone."
I said, "Joe, I've tried and I can't get this story by phone. You're going to have to go out there."
"No, I'm not going. I'm too tired. I'm not going."
Well, it ended up, I had to call New York and say, "Somebody get on the phone and tell this jerk Joe Galloway to get the hell out to Forbes Air Force Base." So they did, and Joe did, and that ended that story. Except he resented me. I knew it. I kept having these run-ins with Joe all the time.
About fifteen or twenty years ago, meantime, he had worked most of his life with United Press in the South Pacific. He was at Jakarta, and Hong Kong was his favorite city. But at any rate, I started getting these letters from Joe, and the first one I got said that he realized what a pain in the neck he had been and that he had learned a lot from me and he appreciated it, and all this sort of stuff. Joe is now with the U.S. News and World Report out of Washington, and I still get several letters a year from Joe. I'm fond of Joe and he's forgiven me for all these sins. But that's the only time I ever encountered any real feeling that I was aware of, of resentment.
Biagi: Are there other people in the business still today who would consider you a mentor, who would consider you somebody who helped them learn a lot?
Richards: Yes. You want an honest answer?
Biagi: Yes. Who would those people be? Who comes to mind?
Richards: I hate to call names. I don't want to claim to have been a mentor to anybody who maybe doesn't feel that way about it at all.
Biagi: But people you worked with, who subsequently told you that you helped them.
Richards: Let me think about that. There's been such a parade of people. Oh, one of the things I got in my letter file is from some New York executive—I've forgotten which one—writing me about my retirement, and he alluded to the school for Unipressers that I had run for so many years in Kansas City. So I did do that a lot.
Rael Amos is one. Bert Masterson is another. I came across a letter from Bert, in which he said, "It's been twenty-four years since you broke me in on this business." I'm trying to think of some latter-day people. Joe, whom I mentioned a while ago.
Biagi: At that time, how old was Joe and how old were you? You said he considered you older.
Richards: I was older. This is a pure guess, but I'd say I'm probably fifteen or twenty years older than Joe, which means—oh, for goodness sakes, Joe's now sixty!
Biagi: Yes. He's still in the business?
Richards: Yes. Lives on a farm in Virginia, somewhere near Washington.
© 1991, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.