[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Clark: Tell me where you got the name "Shanny"?
Shanahan: Shanny? Oh, it's just very common, I think, that people get nicknames and it's short for Shanahan, obviously.
Clark: Were you always called that?
Shanahan: No, not till college. And there was no particular reason why. Then when I got out of college and went to work for United Press, there was another Eileen, so I said, "Call me Shanny." Now not very many people still do. So I answer to either, I like them both and I don't much care. It's not a big deal.
Clark: Let's talk a little bit about your early life. You grew up in Washington, D.C.
Shanahan: Right. I don't know whether you've read The Managerial Woman which was one of the first women-in-management books. If you have, I fit right into the pattern that they described, though the women they focused on were about ten years older than I am—about the father who said, "Dare anything, do it," and the mother who was more cautious. But I always got the message, usually from my father in particular, that: "You can do anything; do it!" That had its downside. I was expected to get all A's except in art and music and things that weren't valued by my father particularly. There was that held out. My sister [Kathleen "Kay" Shanahan Cohen] and I have long since agreed that our father would have destroyed a kid who couldn't get all A's.
But I had that. I like to say that my father taught me that I could do anything I wanted to and my mother taught me to do what was right no matter what anybody else said. Now, nobody lives up to that, of course. But that's the man, that's the household in which I was raised, in terms of the standards that were set before me.
Clark: What were your father's—tell me a little more about him, what was his name, what were his politics?
Shanahan: My father, Tom—Thomas Francis Xavier Shanahan—was raised as a Roman Catholic and became a militant atheist. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where there was apparently quite a substantial Irish town—not a potato famine refugee, a later refugee. His father had been a professor at the University of Dublin and was a political refugee. So it's an old American saying, I think it's died out in recent years, shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in three generations, and my father's family was college-educated to college-educated in three generations because I don't think anybody in my father's generation went to college, though he got a law degree at night without having ever gone to college, when I was about ten years old.
The greatest gift I have from my father is a love of learning, a love of the joy of just knowing, just understanding.
Clark: How does that communicate itself?
Shanahan: Well, there are things like we used to—the only vacations we ever had when I was a kid because there was never any money, were to go up to the cottage on a lake that a sister of my mother's had and spend a week or two up there at the lake. An early memory—I don't know, maybe six years old or so—is of driving on
some road that had been cut through the side of a mountain where the geological strata were at about a forty-five degree angle to the earth and then it was all striped with red and sand-colored veins and I don't know what all now and we were all saying how beautiful it was. And I remember my father saying the red was iron, and whatever the purple was and so on. He knew some geology. Where he picked it up, I don't know. I never knew him to be wrong on fact. I remember—I think this is a verbatim quote—"And now isn't it even more beautiful that you understand what made it?"
Shanahan: And I've just never forgotten that. And he's right, it is. And just the joy of learning. We didn't have much money and my mother only had a business high school education. We had a set—I don't think they still exist—of Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias which were about maybe one-quarter the size, they were little short books about the size of the Reader's Digest, maybe, and not like the Britannica or the America. But we had a set of them which must have been a hell of an investment for my parents.
And we would get into a conversation at the dinner table which I'm sure my father kind of directed, though I don't remember feeling oppressed by that in any way. And something would come up about—I don't know, something I learned in history, Alexander the Great or something. And he would ask some question and I wouldn't know the answer and he would say, "Get the book!" And that meant—
Clark: So you got up from the dinner table and got the book.
Shanahan: And got the appropriate volume of the encyclopedia and we'd read it aloud and talk about it. And they would raise a question that you had to go to another volume to get the answer to. It was a very common thing in my childhood.
And we were also asked at the dinner table—almost routinely, not every night—"Well, what did you learn in school today?" And when he asked that question, he expected an answer. I mentioned he was a militant atheist. Mummy sent us off to Sunday school so we shouldn't be heathen, as she put it.
Clark: Which kind of Sunday school?
Shanahan: The nearest church, which happened to be a very oppressive Presbyterian church. And we would come home from Sunday school and Father would say, "What did they try to teach you in Sunday school today?" And at a very early age, he was reading to us—I think it was too heavy, too difficult for us to read to ourselves—but explained to us stuff from [Sir James George] Frazer's The Golden Bough, which he had. And you know, it was the beginning of Lent, let's say, "Well, why do you suppose they have Lent? Does anyplace else, when they're not Christians, do they have Lent?" Well, the answer was yes. And in all temperate climates, every known religion has a period toward the end of winter when the food is running out when you make a virtue of necessity and make it a religious sacrifice. The same with Easter, the earth being reborn.
Clark: The pagan roots.
Shanahan: Well, not just pagan roots. It was just based on history of religion which was they do a lot of making a religious thing out of something that's inevitable. Thanksgiving or the festival of the harvest. And of course, at Christmas—Christmas, why? The sun was coming back. Winter wasn't over yet but it was on its way out. Cheers! Great festival. We weren't going to starve any more. And I learned all that by the time I was in fourth or fifth grade.
So to be an iconoclast, to be someone who challenges the established view, is something in that sense that I came to very early in life. But also certainly the Funk and Wagnall encyclopedia was accepted as the authority. I don't know that he ever suggested there was any bias or error in that. So full authority was not challenged. I'll get later to when I really had to think on my own hook. This has to do with the sorority.
Clark: What was your mother's religious background?
Shanahan: My mother [Malvena Karpeles Shanahan] is Jewish—not very, as German Jews so often have not been in this country. Most American Jews, of course, come from Eastern Europe, but the earlier German immigrants—her family was here before the Civil War.
Clark: She was German, then?
Shanahan: She was German—well, German Jew. I don't think she'd appreciate having it said she was German.
Clark: What part of the region did she come from?
Shanahan: I don't even know. Unfortunately, she died when I was seventeen. And you certainly aren't interested in your parents' origins when you're seventeen. All four of my grandparents were born in Europe but both my parents and their siblings were born in this country. She obviously went to Temple as a kid and so on. Her family, like a lot of German Jews, both in Germany and in this country, were really ashamed of being Jewish and didn't want to be Jewish. And half of my mother's siblings—she was one of seven kids—pretended they weren't Jewish. My mother didn't quite pretend that but she certainly never went to Temple except when one of my uncles who was Jewish would come to town and drag her off to Temple once in a while. But she did have a sense that you ought to grow up to believe something. I suspect that she was pretty horrified at my father's atheism.
Clark: Did you ever hear them discuss that?
Shanahan: Never did. But she put it, you know, you shouldn't grow up to be heathen and that's why she dragged us off to this dreadful Presbyterian Sunday school.
Clark: Did you talk back then when you disagreed with her?
Shanahan: No, what I did do was refuse to go to church, however. At twelve, the confirmation process—which is pretty similar in most religions—you were supposed to undergo instruction and then join church. I did something that for a long time I felt was my first truly rebellious act in my life but then I realized, no, I'm giving myself too much credit because obviously it would have pleased my father. But it was sincere, it wasn't motivated, I don't believe, by trying to please him. I went through the instruction and my sister, who is three years older, had joined church. And I guess my father had implanted enough doubts in me that I just didn't know what I believed.
And I went around to the minister's house one day and told him that I wasn't sure whether I wanted to join church and I had a lot of questions. I don't remember exactly what I said to him or whether I told him what some of my questions were—I don't remember that part. But what I remember was that basically he told me to behave myself and join church. And I didn't. And I never went back to Sunday school and my mother didn't try to make me.
I don't think I suffered anything because of that. I had some friends in my Sunday school class but I don't remember feeling particularly bereft or that it was any great sacrifice. But I was truly and genuinely torn and really incensed that he didn't take me seriously.
This is the same minister who never came to call when my mother was dying. That is when I was seventeen and she died of cancer. She'd actually been quite sick off and on for three years and then completely bedridden the last three months of her life. She would sometimes say, "Well, I wonder why Mr. Custiss hasn't come," because she used to make a cake for every bake sale and a casserole for the potlucks or anything. My sister stayed in the church and so for a long period she did things for the church.
Then the day my mother died, my sister and my father went down to the funeral home together to make arrangements and left me to just kind of guard the house—be at the house in case anybody came. It was summertime, it was August, and the door was open and the screen door just was up, and I looked out the door and saw the Reverend Mr. W. Keith Custiss—why should I protect the guilty, that's his name?
Clark: I was going to ask for it.
Shanahan: He's dead now, he died some years ago. Comes walking up the front porch steps. And I literally stood there and barred the door and said, "Where were you when my mother was dying? She kept wondering why you didn't come." And he said, "Well, I understood your mother was not a member of our faith." And I said something to the effect of she was a good enough neighbor of your faith to bake a cake for every bake sale and provide a casserole for every potluck and give us money to put in the collection plate when we didn't have any money, "and you, sir, can go to hell, which I am confident you will."
I'm telling this out of sequence, because that happened just a few months after I was thrown out of the sorority in college for being half Jewish and I had had some time to think about all of that, or I'm sure I would not have said what I said. I was furious because it added a little touch of sadness to my mother's last days that he hadn't cared to come. She puzzled about it. She mentioned it a number of times. I was terrified after I did it. I thought, "Oh, what is my father going to say that I did this. I cussed out the minister," though I knew he had no love for ministers, or priests for that matter. Somehow I've always grasped nettles firmly and gotten stuff like that behind me. Remind me to tell you about the stolen pencil sharpener.
Clark: Oh, good.
Shanahan: So, anyway, when my father and sister got back, terrified, I told them what I had done, not knowing what sort of punishment he might inflict. And he just after a long pause said to me, "Well, honey, I can't tell you you did the right thing. But I can't tell you you did the wrong thing, either." So it was over. It was over.
It's funny, when I mentioned that—quite consistently, whenever I had something tough to face, especially where I'd done something wrong and you have to apologize or admit it or whatever, I have almost always gotten it behind me rather fast. I think the reason is, when I was in second grade—you know those little hand pencil sharpeners? My mother would never let me have one because she said I'd get my clothes all dirty. And I wanted one. I longed for one. They cost a nickel in those days, so it wasn't a matter of money. And I was not allowed to have one.
And one day I just took one off the desk of the boy who sat behind me in second grade. In due course he missed it. Did somebody borrow it? The teacher wanted to know did somebody borrow his pencil sharpener. Nobody admitted to it. She finally had us empty our desks and I was caught. And the story went all over school. And my sister heard it.
Clark: Your sister was older.
Shanahan: Three years. And she blackmailed me.
Shanahan: I don't know how long it went on. My recollection is several months and that may or may not be correct. But whenever she could get away with it, like every morning, I made her bed because we had to make our beds in the morning. "You make my bed or I'll tell Mother you stole that pencil sharpener." And finally I got tired of it, as blackmailed people do, and faced the music, told my mother, who probably decided I had been punished enough. She didn't say that. She said that it was so long ago, she would let it go, and she was
sure it had been quite terrible for everybody in the school to know about it. But I really think that's why I have generally just gone ahead and gotten stuff like that behind me. Not a bad trait.
Clark: Terrific story. How did your mother's death impact you? And illness, because she was sick for so long.
Shanahan: Well, the illness—I was given tremendous responsibilities. It has surprised me, in reflecting about it, to realize that I didn't think it was extraordinary at the time, or burdensome or unusual or something that a fourteen to seventeen-year-old shouldn't be required to do. The fact is I really ran the household. My sister was off at college, part of the time, and part of the time she was back at the University of Maryland. But my parents, not having gone to college, thought college must be very much harder than high school and she wouldn't have the time to do these things, and I was just in high school, so I would. I really ran the household. My father did some of the cooking. And they did have someone—that was the only time we ever had any kind of household help, to do the laundry, so I didn't have to do that.
Then after she died, my sister was then out of college and working away from town and my father really kind of fled town and took a job elsewhere. And I was left to sell the house, close the house, get it packed and stuff stored and shipped it to where it should be shipped. And my sister came home, I think, for one weekend to sort through her own stuff. I did it all by myself, at the age of seventeen. And I remember being aware it was a lot of work but it wasn't until I was thinking about my childhood for you, just the other day, that it occurred to me, "What a hell of a thing to impose on a seventeen-year-old." Obviously, it didn't do me any harm.
Clark: But still a terrific amount of responsibility.
Shanahan: Yes, and it—I don't remember consciously feeling any sense of pride that I had pulled it off. I wouldn't say that it was something that gave me confidence, particularly, it was just something that happened.
As for the impact of her death on me, I regret the fact that she died when I was still young enough to think she was the dumbest woman that ever lived, which I think you do from about thirteen to seventeen, somewhere in that general vicinity. So that coming to an understanding of who she was and what she was has been difficult. And I never knew her as an adult. I never was able to have an adult relationship with her and see who she really was.
Clark: If you had to say who she might have thought she really was, what would her self-image have been?
Shanahan: Just a housewife, even though most people were "just a housewife" in those days. Whether she took any real pride or happiness in doing what she thought was right, which meant scrubbing the goddam kitchen floor every day of her life, and cooking nutritious meals and keeping a spotless house, I don't know. I have a sense that she was not very happy. I can almost remember the times I ever heard her laugh. There was one girlhood friend of hers who used to come out and spend the night once in a while and I would hear them laughing. I don't think she had much fun.
Clark: Was she a participant in the family discussions that went on?
Shanahan: Not much. Not much. The house was her domain. She was a good shopper. With the amount of money we had, we didn't have a lot of clothes but we had nicer clothes than you might have thought, given how much money we had because she was a terrific shopper. I don't know.
Clark: What would her expectations of you be?
Shanahan: I don't know that I know the answer to that. My father's expectations were clear. I think she had expectations that my sister and I should be "good people." And how she would have defined that, probably having a lot to do with integrity and responsibility and things of that sort.
But she said over and over again, particularly after she found out about a very long-term affair my father had and probably was in fact still continuing, "Don't ever get yourself in a position where you have to depend on a man." And I'm sure that I ingested that message. Whether she would actually have left him in that time—we're talking the late thirties, early forties, she died in forty-one—divorce was really still sort of a disgrace. I don't know, maybe she wouldn't have. But I think she felt utterly blocked. She didn't know how she'd support herself, with just a business high school education and she had worked as a secretary for a few years after she'd got out of school. And that was all.
But the lesson of "Don't ever get yourself in a position where you have to rely on a man," those were the words, over and over again. And my sister and I have compared notes and remember that sentence identically. One of my daughters recently said she felt sorry for anybody who was an only child, that one of the greatest things about having siblings was that you have somebody to whom you can say, "I'm not crazy, am I? That really did happen?"
Clark: Tell me a little bit about what life in Washington was like when you were growing up. You said the times were tough for you economically. What was your father's work?
Shanahan: My father had a law degree by the times I remember. I think I was about nine or ten when he graduated from law school and was—no, earlier than that because when he lost his job he'd been practicing as a lawyer. That was 1931 when I would have been—1924, 1931—seven.
I forgot your question.
Clark: What was his work?
Shanahan: His work, okay.
Clark: Was he a civil servant?
Shanahan: Most of his life. He and my mother met when they were both working at a World War I agency. And then he continued to work in the government after World War I until he got his law degree and then he went into a law firm—small family firm—and then the Great Depression came along and they let him go. And he was out of work for two and a half years, a period I remember very well. I have this incredible snapshot in my head, the way people remember exactly where they were, what the room looked like when they heard Jack Kennedy had been killed—or my generation, Pearl Harbor. Coming home from school, must have been the second grade, and I had spilled ink on my dress. I don't know why they had us writing with ink in second grade but they did. And my mother standing in the back hall of the house and she saw me and very gently said, "Dear, you must be more careful with your clothes. Your father has lost his job." And I can still feel the fear. I can still—right this minute.
Clark: You knew the implications.
Shanahan: Well, yes. Thirty-one—by then, that was the real bottom of the recession, the Depression, the Great Depression, and I knew people whose fathers were out of work.
Clark: What was your feeling?
Shanahan: I was afraid. I was afraid. I guess I didn't quite know what it meant except that it was something to be afraid of. My father actually—we kids never went hungry. There was always something to eat.
There were things I couldn't look in the face for years. Oatmeal. It's actually pretty good, fresh cooked oatmeal, but I didn't eat any until maybe fifteen years ago. Prunes for dessert, not for digestive purposes but because they were cheap. Never any candy in the house, never any cookies, never any frills. Pig's knuckles, which I hate. My mother used to buy a bagful of chicken's feet and make soup out of it. Potatoes, which of course are very nutritious. We had potatoes at every meal but that's partly because my father was Irish.
The first time I had him over to dinner after I was married I made a fancy beef bourguignonne and served it with noodles. I saw him looking around the table. He was looking and looking. He would never ask. You always had to anticipate his demands. And I said, "Daddy, what are you looking for?" finally. And he said, "Where are the potatoes?" And I said, "There's noodles. You don't need potatoes." And he said, "You weren't raised like that." Potatoes every day. I still love potatoes. Any way, hot, cold, any way.
But he was out of work for two and a half years, he did some odd jobs as a bookkeeper to keep us alive even though—he had passed the CPA exam as well as the bar exam. There was a family legend—and I have no idea whether it's true or not—that he was the only person ever to pass the CPA exam or the first person ever to pass the CPA exam without any formal training. But I don't know if that's true.
Anyway, he had passed it so he was both a lawyer and an accountant and he did odd bookkeeping jobs for small businesses that had laid off their regular bookkeeper during the Depression to make some money. And then six weeks after [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt was inaugurated, he got a job in the first emergency agency that Roosevelt created, it was an agricultural relief agency, and stayed in the government the rest of his days. Once or twice he thought of leaving and I remember hearing my mother say—she called him "Shan"—"Shan, stay in the government. They can't fire you."
Clark: Was that his reason for staying?
Shanahan: That's right. He was a man truly destroyed by the Great Depression. Well, my mother, too—whether if she hadn't been so—"Don't leave your government job. Stay in the government. They can't fire you"—I don't know whether he might have. But the combination was too much. He had seen his children cold and hungry. Those of us who've never lived through that kind of a hard time really can't imagine it. And I've been aware in my years as a reporter that he never reached a level in the government of someone I would have called on a story. He was prudent. I think he was smarter than I am. [Tape interruption.]
Like a lot of people like himself who didn't have a formal education, his self-education was lumpy. He didn't read any literature.
Clark: What did he read?
Shanahan: He read science; he read some history. He read quite a lot in science. In fact, he had some college. As a young man, before he knew my mother, he spent some time in Chicago where they had something called the Workers University. It was a socialist institution and he studied under two world-famous physicists—I think they were Nobel prize winners, Moulton and Maxwell, who taught at that university. He had a lifetime interest in science, gave me such an interest—astronomy, physics. I never took astronomy; I did take physics in high school and do have a lifelong interest in astronomy. I read all the science stories in the New York Times and other places. Well, part of that joy in knowing—I don't know where he picked up his geology but he knew a lot of geology. And he was also a great gardener and knew something about botany.
Clark: How did he manage to get there, to study?
Shanahan: It was free. It was a free Workers University and I don't know how it was supported. He was working. He had a job then—this was pre-World War I, working for a strange outfit I've never heard of but for him.
It was called the Parmelee in Chicago where there used to be ten or twelve different railroad stations—or freight terminals—in Chicago, and no connections so that you had to ship stuff by truck from one station to another because the train lines didn't come into the same place. And he worked there.
He knew everything there was to know about U.S. geography and partly from that job—and taught us! I can still recite the names of all fifty states in less than one minute. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee—shall I go on? I'll stop.
Clark: Fifty-five seconds!
Shanahan: That was not fifty-five seconds; and it was only half of them! [Laughter]
Clark: You didn't recite the capitals.
Shanahan: I can do that, too. In fact, I once won a free trip on an airline. United Airlines at some point was having a contest and the question was—you know, you hit the buzzer and whoever hit the buzzer first, name the five state capitals that began with A. And I just hit the buzzer because I knew I knew it. I got a free trip.
There were a lot of things that he insisted we know and geography was one of them. I've always been very grateful for that, though they taught geography at school better than they do now.
Clark: What was his way of interpreting what happened in the Depression and after the Depression? Did he talk a lot about the economics and the—
Shanahan: He was a socialist. He was a socialist. And so the system had failed, as it inevitably must. He went to his grave a socialist. He wound up—I remember he voted for Norman Thomas in 1932 but voted for Roosevelt thereafter. But just because Roosevelt was doing a lot of good stuff. But he believed you still should have public ownership of the basic means of production and distribution. I came not to share that view though I'm certainly a critic of an awful lot about American business.
Clark: Did you discuss these things at home?
Shanahan: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I remember—I don't think he overtly said this, I think I just felt it—that I had no sense of shame about his being out of work and I don't think it was just because I did know other people who were. There was nothing in the society at that time that said you were no good if you didn't have a job because millions didn't have jobs.
But in addition it became clear to me—and I don't think our father taught us this defensively, I think he just taught us this—that he hadn't failed, the system had failed. He was a socialist to his last breath, no question about that, and an atheist. I don't tell this to a lot of people because it's offensive. And while I don't have any conventional belief in God myself, I'm not aggressive about it. I have friends of every religion and it doesn't matter to me.
I am rather proud—this is something I don't say to just everybody, now it will be on the record—that almost the last thing my father ever said in a clear voice was "no" when he knew he was dying. He'd gone back to the hospital to die, of cancer, and when they asked if he wanted to see a priest, he did not flinch in the face of death. Now, that will offend some people who believe in a conventional God. But it's true and I admire the old man for it.
Clark: What was life like in Washington in terms of your education in school? What was that like?
Shanahan: Oh, it was a good school system.
Clark: Tell me about it.
Shanahan: Part of the time we lived in the Maryland suburbs, a wretched little town called Riverdale, which is where this Presbyterian church was. We moved around a fair amount but I always stayed in Central High School in high school days. It was a very good school system. I don't know what to say beyond that.
Clark: What was the makeup of your classes, in terms of ethnicity?
Shanahan: The D.C. school system, or that high school—I suspect it was the whole school system—really had a track system. They didn't call it that but it's really what it was. It was not just that there was something called the general course which was for the real low achievers, and the business course for the people for whom high school would be their last education, and a pre-college academic course. But there were really two levels in the academic course. There was the high one and the not-so-high one. So you wound up having English and Latin and history and math and whatever you were taking, if you were in that upper academic track, which I was, with the rest of those smart kids. So that we did extra things. They didn't have advanced placement, SAT's, in those days, I don't believe, but we did more than the curriculum called for, in almost all of my courses.
Clark: What was your favorite course?
Shanahan: Well, that's interesting. What was my favorite? I had an extraordinary Latin teacher in tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades and I'm very glad I took four years of Latin, to this day. I would say that the Aeneid is one of the greatest books I ever read. So that was certainly a favorite.
I liked math. I remember discovering the beauty of trigonometry. I couldn't do the most elementary trig problem today. I expect it would come back to me if I looked at a book—and I haven't. But it fits together. I understand—I never took any calculus, that people think calculus is even more so.
Actually, I had the same math teacher in tenth and eleventh grades who didn't like women. She didn't like girls. And it is said—there again, I'm not sure this is right—that my sister was the first person that ever got an 'A' out of Mrs. Albert and I was the second. Being preceded by three years by my sister, I often encountered teachers who would say, "Oh, you're Kathleen Shanahan's sister. Well, I'm expecting big things of you," which is a terrible thing to say to any kid. Mrs. Albert said, "Well, I gave your sister an 'A' but I don't suppose you'll earn one." But I did. Everything but solid geometry. My spatial concepts are terrible and I could never figure out—I still can't—what's on the other side of that polyhedron
Clark: At least you remember how to spell—
Shanahan: The name? That's right. And I got a 'B' in solid.
Clark: Did your father monitor your grades?
Shanahan: The family tradition—I don't approve of this—the family tradition was that you came home with your report card and showed it to Mother and then you put it by Father's place at the dinner table. 'Twas promptly at six. And he would look at it. And when I got the 'B' in solid, which was first-semester senior in high school, I remember—pardon the cliche—as if it were yesterday. He picked up the report card and looked at it and the way you might deal a card across the table, sort of threw it with the flick of a wrist and said, "Not so hot in geometry, I see." It was so unfair. I had tried. It wasn't that I was slacking off or anything. That's one of the reasons why I say I think my father would have destroyed a child who wasn't able to get mostly A's.
Then when I got A's and B's in college, they thought that was all right. He seemed to think that was okay. I think he thought college was harder, compared to high school, and it really was.
Clark: Did you have any difficulties in high school because you were a girl? Were you treated differently at times?
Shanahan: I don't have any sense that that is the case. Well, all teenagers think they're unhappy, I think, and looking back on it, I suspect I wasn't any less happy than the average, and I may have been happier than the average—I had friends. But teachers, I think at that level—I only had one man teacher before I got out of high school, through high school, and I think the women teachers liked the smart girls. My sense was my teachers always liked me because I was smart.
The man teacher was a wonderful guy, physics. I was one of two girls in my physics class. Girls didn't take physics, by and large. Homely man, spectacularly homely man, which may have made him—Mr. Kilgore—sensitive. In any event, somehow, I'm not even quite sure why, I took to hanging around the physics lab in free periods and doing things like keeping his homeroom records for him. He was kind of an absent-minded scientist. In fact, that was the last year he taught high school; he went on to get his Ph.D. and I don't know whatever became of him.
But he befriended me, very much so. I hardly had a date before I got out of high school and I remember—I guess I must have told him that or he knew it—but I remember his telling me, "Don't worry. When you get to college, you're going to have a wonderful time. The boys are more grownup but there'll be more of them who are just as smart as you are. And believe me, just believe me, you're going to have plenty of dates when you go to college." Well, he was right. And I remember coming back to see him Christmas my freshman year of college, to tell him he had been right.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Clark: Did you ever have a hunch about what you wanted to do when you grew up?
Shanahan: Not really. I apparently was good at languages and my father had the idea that I would go into the diplomatic corps. I did not have any sense of my own—my sister wanted to be a doctor—and is—from the time she was ten.
Clark: What kind of doctor?
Shanahan: Well, now a psychiatrist because she's got MS [multiple sclerosis] and is not up to the rigors of a physical practice. So she decided, "I can be a shrink in a wheelchair," and that is what she is today.
So I just kind of adopted my father's dream. And I was going to be the first woman ambassador in history. Then when I got to college—I had not worked on the high school paper, I had worked on the yearbook. One of the things they did in that high school was to put some of the higher achieving kids into English classes—junior or sophomore year, maybe, sophomore year, I guess—taught by the teachers who were the advisors for the literary magazine, the newspaper and the yearbook.
I drew the yearbook which was the least desirable, both in terms of the teacher and I think maybe that's more of a unique and less transferable, less valuable, experience than either of the other two. My sister, who was a better natural writer than I am, was on the literary magazine.
In any event, when I went to college, I still thought that I was going to go into the diplomatic corps. Nobody had told me that they practically didn't let women pass the foreign service exam at that time.
Clark: Was that part of the reason for going to George Washington [University]?
Shanahan: No. I won a four-year, full-tuition scholarship. I used to say I'd have never gotten to college otherwise. One of my sons-in-law said to me not too long ago, "You'd have found some way to go to college." Right. We moved back to Maryland so my sister could go to the University of Maryland.
Anyway, I won a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to GW. I won some partial tuitions—I really had wanted to go to Swarthmore but I only won a half-tuition scholarship and we just couldn't swing it. So I went to GW and lived at home until my mother died, which was the summer after my freshman year.
The girl who became my instant best friend the first week of college, who was another high school scholar, as we were called, and whom I had met when the freshman dean had had a little tea for the incoming scholarship students and the upperclassmen who were on the high school scholarships from which pool I drew almost all of my dates my freshman year—they weren't the least bit scared of me.
Anyway, Sarah Jane Williams had been the editor of her high school paper and wanted to try out for the college paper and was shy about going by herself and asked me to go with her, which I did. And that's how that all began. Oh, the element of luck in life is very large.
I guess I hung around and got assignments. Somebody recognized me, at that point, even though I hadn't been a high school editor. I don't know what they saw in me but I guess the guy that was the editor—there was a particular history professor who was a leak on what was going on inside the university administration and faculty. And there was always a reporter assigned to go around and see Dr. Ragatz every week, Lowell Ragatz. He's dead now so I don't have to keep it off the record. And I was assigned to pay the weekly visit on Dr. Ragatz. I don't know why. It was one of the plum—one of the important assignments and I'm not quite sure why, somebody saw something in me. It had to be more than just being bright because Sarah Jane was a high school scholar, too. Maybe an aggressiveness or something, I don't know.
Anyway, that got me right into some very fun stuff. And I became hooked on journalism for two reasons. World War II broke out in December—the U.S. got into World War II in December of my sophomore year. I was still assigned to cover Dr. Ragatz. I went to see him in due course sometime that spring. And he told me that he didn't know much about it but I should talk to Prof. so-and-so and Prof. so-and-so, that he had heard that the president of the university had decided that this should be a science and technology institution and was going to drop all the humanities and all the arts courses. The same sort of thing happened in this country at the time of Sputnik when the Russians put up their satellites. Some people asked, what good is English literature?
Anyway, I did go around to the other professors, one of whom was very well informed, and we carried the story in—God help me, the name of the paper at George Washington University was the Hatchet. The yearbook was the Cherry Tree. We ran the story and stopped it in its tracks. It did not come about. The downtown papers picked it up and so all the trustees saw it. At the time I thought, "Well, we did it." We all thought we did it. In retrospect, I think it's entirely possible that the trustees would have voted it down anyway. But maybe not. It's possible that it would have been so far advanced secretly that it might have gone through and in my maturity I can't say positively that we stopped it. But at the time I thought, "My God, you can change terrible things by being a journalist." And I've been hooked on journalism ever since.
Then that summer, which was the summer after my second year, 1942, and the guys were being called into the service in wholesale numbers, one of the guys that worked on the college paper—GW was a school then more than it is now, it was a night school where people worked full-time and went to school part-time—and one of the guys that was working on the college paper was the chief copy boy at the Washington Post. I had a couple of dates with him [Jack Kearney], we weren't really sweethearts, but he asked me if I would like a summer job as a copy boy on the Washington Post.
Clark: That was unusual, wasn't it?
Shanahan: I was the second girl-boy.
Clark: What were you called, literally?
Shanahan: Boy. That's when they wanted you. In those days, long before computers, of course, everything was typed on pieces of paper and you would run—somebody'd call, "Boy!" and you'd jump and run and get the sheet as it came out of the typewriter and take it to whatever editor you should take it to, among other things. Just any time they wanted anything, they'd yell, "Boy!" and you'd jump up and run and see who needed what. It was basically an inside-the-building messenger's job.
Clark: How did you manage to get the job?
Shanahan: Because of this guy. He was the chief copy boy.
Clark: So he was able to hire you.
Shanahan: He was able basically—I don't remember whether anybody interviewed me or not, or whether he just told somebody there was this girl on the college paper that impressed him or whatever. I really don't know. And I went back and did the same job again the following summer, of '43, the summer after my junior year, by which time there was only boy left. They were all copy girls. They still called us "Boy."
Clark: Did your duties improve as you—
Shanahan: Well, yes, you got to do some things that were more intelligent. I happened to eyewitness a horrendous traffic accident where a guy had an apparent epileptic attack or something, and plowed over the curb into a bunch of people that were just standing there waiting for the light to turn, and killed eight. That was not then, though. That was later when I was with United Press. I did a couple of little stories at the Post, not much, but you could do some.
Clark: Under your name?
Shanahan: They were none of them big enough to take a byline. And the first byline I ever had was my job out of college, as a dictation girl at UPI—UP, as it was then. But you learn a lot. And I must say if I hadn't gotten hooked on the story about turning GW into a technical school and seeing that you could change things through journalism, I'd have been hooked then because just everything about a professional newsroom, the kinds of people it attracts—I can look at it now and see the defects, plenty of them. At the time I think I saw only the good side—that these were bright people, fun people to be with. It was a hell of a place in some respects. Everybody was sleeping with somebody other than whoever they were married to.
Clark: You're talking about the Post.
Shanahan: The Post. Oh, boy.
Clark: What was the newsroom like there?
Shanahan: Well, this is the old, old building, long gone. Well, there were various things. There were people in the military who got stationed in Washington who were journalists by trade who would come in and ask for a night's work or week's work or something and got hired. I dated several guys like that who would come in and pick up some extra money working at the Post.
Clark: Were you tempted to leave George Washington?
Shanahan: Oh, yes. In fact, at the end of the summer of my junior year, I really didn't want to go back. I was bored—you know, college was pointless. This was the world, the real world. But the assistant managing editor at that time, Frank Dennis, told me that he would never promote me to reporter if I didn't go back and get my degree. So I went back and got my degree. I'm still grateful to him.
My scholarship required me to keep a 'B' average from year to year which I had done with relative ease but that last year, boy, I didn't give a damn. I got a 'D' in one subject and 'C' in another, cut classes left and right—not just because I was bored with college but I was the editor of the paper with a very skimpy staff because almost everybody had been drafted, and a number of girls. Some of them were very talented and some of them were not. But most of them were quite green and didn't have a lot of experience. There were always some girls on the paper, off course—women, we'd say now.
I was also majoring at being in love. I met my husband that summer after my junior year in college, who was also working at the Post. He had also had a high school scholarship but his parents had so little money that he dropped out—dropped the scholarship to take a full-time job and go to school nights. He actually never did graduate.
Clark: And his name, for the record?
Shanahan: His name is John Waits, or John V. Waits, Jr., to be thorough about it. Anyway, I met him that summer when he was working as a clerk in the advertising production department. Subsequently he worked his way up the ladder to some very responsible jobs, on newspapers—the Post and then the Washington Daily News, and after the Daily News died in 1972, back to the Post rather briefly—well, eleven years.
We started dating. I met him, I guess, fairly early in that summer and we started dating. And then he was in school. He has a severely crippled right arm, so he was not in the military, and I guess I talked him into coming to work at the Hatchet and he immediately—I don't remember whether I said I needed a business manager or advertising manager or what—I really don't remember that part of it.
But anyway, that's what he decided to do, sort of everything but editorial. And he did production which, of course, he knew something about from his paying job. And I remember the guys from the print shop loved him because he knew more about how to get that job done and get it done fast than any student they'd ever seen. He didn't horse around and made the decisions quickly and so on. So we worked together on that. I guess we knew we were going to get married before my senior year was over. I don't remember when we formally decided exactly. [Tape interruption.]
I might add that I am still rather proud of the fact that the Hatchet under my editorship won the top award as the best paper in its class, a weekly of a university of more than 5,000 students from what was then—I don't even know whether they're still in existence—the Associated Collegiate Press, it was called, the All-American Pacemaker and I've still got the scoring book.
Now, you could say it was a cheese championship because—it's like somebody I told that to once and said, "Oh, like the 1944 Yankees?" Nobody can name a single person who was on the 1944 Yankees—and that is true. I mean, a lot of guys were gone but it was an even game. Everybody else was up against the same lack of some of the best guys that I was. So I shall continue to be proud of that, thank you.
Clark: I agree.
Shanahan: I hope I don't come off as repulsively arrogant or something.
Shanahan: But I have to backtrack and talk about something that I believe to this day and hour, now age sixty-eight, is the most important thing that ever happened to me in terms of shaping who I am, what I am, other than what kind of people my parents were and what they instilled in me. And that was getting kicked out of the sorority I had pledged as a freshman because my mother was Jewish, Kappa Delta. They weren't unique at that time. Many sororities and fraternities had such rules—most I think—and there were some Jewish sororities and fraternities, that only admitted Jews, as far as I know.
I still feel that that world of Greek letter societies when I was in college is the most bigoted world I have ever lived in. I don't know what they're like now; they don't have those rules on paper, at least, because the colleges wouldn't put up with it. And the group that came back, from my peers—the men when they came back from World War II were the ones who destroyed that in the fraternity system. They wouldn't put up with it and took their fraternities out of the nationals, if they had to, to admit Jews, blacks—today, I suppose Hispanics and Asians might be initiated.
At any rate, I pledged Kappa Delta and I was so happy. I went through rush. Here I am, this kid—I was sixteen when I started college. My poor dear mother had no sense of style or anything like that. She didn't teach us anything about how to dress or fix her hair or wear makeup because she didn't know. She did the best she knew how. As I think I mentioned, I had hardly had a date—four, exactly—exactly by the time I got out of high school. And when I went through sorority rush and realized that as a scholarship kid who was going to help bring up the grade-point average of the sorority, I would be in at least some demand. I guess I probably learned that from my sister—I don't know where I learned it, but I learned it.
Clark: Was she in a sorority?
Shanahan: No. But she was a senior in college when I was a freshman so she knew about that world.
So I went through rush and I was bid by basically—there were ten sororities at GW at that time and I was bid by all three of the bottom three—in prestige, good looks, sophistication, wealth, by all the rotten standards that were in use—not all rotten. So I tried the third from the bottom, Kappa Delta. There would be some dispute about this ranking, obviously, but that's how I saw it at the time.
I was in heaven. I thought if I could just get into a sorority, they'd show me how to dress and use makeup and fix my hair and I'd be beautiful. Well, I'd be better-looking, anyway. I'd be more attractive and I'd have dates. And in fact, that part of it, I had some dates, I think, for other reasons. But I was indeed taught about wearing clothes and makeup and hair and so on. And I made some friends in the sorority. Even then, my best friends very quickly became the people on the college paper but I had some good friends in the sorority.
My sister was out at the University of Maryland where there was also a Kappa Delta chapter. There was a cousin, a first cousin, also at Maryland, who was a cousin on the Jewish side. And it was known that they were cousins. So somehow the Kappa Deltas at Maryland called up the Kappa Deltas at GW and said, "We think you've pledged somebody who's Jewish."
Well, I have to backtrack. The night we were pledged, there was a nice ceremony, white roses which is KD's flower and so forth. The pledges were all lined up to go in and take our pledge oaths. And I heard the president of the chapter sort of come down the line. I heard her ask the first girl in line, "Is there any Jewish, Negro or Oriental blood in your family?" And she just about shrieked, "Oh! Of course not!"
Well, there were about—I don't know, maybe ten people ahead of me. And I had a little time to think about what I was going to do. And to this day and hour I haven't quite forgiven myself. I decided to lie because I so desperately wanted to be in a sorority and be beautiful and popular. And I'm still ashamed of it. When my daughters were sixteen and I saw what sixteen was like, I thought, "Well, you know, I'm really being too hard on myself." But I can't talk myself out of it; I'm still ashamed of it.
I neglected to mention, my father was a terrible bigot and I picked that up from him. A terrible bigot who talked about kikes and yids and probably some other things, and also wops and dagos and spicks—we didn't have any spicks in those days—and got furious when my sister made a friend who was Japanese when she was in high school, of Japanese ancestry. A terrible bigot, as many of the American Irish are. So I had internalized all that. I mean, a Jew was really something pretty lousy to be.
In any event, I said no, I wasn't, and so I was pledged. But then sometime towards the spring, the KDs at Maryland called the KDs at GW and said, "We think Eileen Shanahan is Jewish and you better look into that." And I was asked and I said no, I wasn't.
And on a date that has never passed in all the years since, April the 30th, I have always remembered that day when it came, a national officer of KD had come to inspect the chapter. I don't think I was the sole reason, I think they did periodic inspections. And I had an appointment with her at a certain hour, as all the pledges did, so I figured I'd get bawled out for missing a couple of pledge meetings, which I had to do because we lived so far away and I had to take the streetcar and my parents didn't like my being out so late. But I wasn't really worried, because I'd gotten three A's and two B's my first semester, so I knew they needed my grades. They were right on the edge.
Clark: But moving up.
Shanahan: I walked into this meeting with the national officer—whose first name was Helene and I can't remember her last name—who first chewed me out about missing the meetings. Afterwards I was very angry she had done that but now I realize but she was probably a little uncomfortable about what she was going to have to do.
Before I went into the meeting, the woman who was my sorority mother—I'm not telling this very well— the woman who was my sorority mother, Helen Carstarphen, who was the editor of the editorial page of the paper and had asked for me to be her sorority daughter, and who'd become a good friend, had said to me, "Now after you see Helene, come and meet me under the sycamore tree. I want to hear about it." Well, they had been told the night before and she knew, but I didn't know she knew. So I said yes. And she said, "Promise me, whatever Helene does to you, you'll meet me under the sycamore tree"—it was a meeting place—"after you've finished."
Okay. So I go in. And after, as I say, chewing me out about missing a couple of meetings, she said, "We understand that your mother is Jewish." And somehow I knew, I knew that they knew, and I didn't try to lie. And I said yes. And I remember she held her hand out and said, "I must ask you for your pin." I had not been initiated, but you could be after the first semester, because I didn't have the money. So I was still a pledge. The chapter's charter could have been canceled if they had initiated me, would have been. So I gave her the pin and managed to get out of the room without crying.
I thought about not meeting Helen, my sorority mother, but some just kind of ingrained courtesy that had been drilled into me that she'd been sitting there waiting, I did. I remember walking across 21st Street and almost getting hit by a truck because I was crying by then. And for probably the only time in my life contemplated suicide, for about five seconds at least—maybe it would all have been better if I had just been killed.
Anyway, I met Helen. And she said, "Let's go over to the Hatchet office." So we went over into her little nook. And I said, "Helen, I'm half Jewish." And she said, "I know." And I was astounded that she knew and she wanted to see me, anyway. And we talked about it. She asked me if I would like for her to tell the other people or would I rather do it. And I said, "No, go ahead and tell them." Because I knew it had to be faced. The whole thing would be the talk of the campus tomorrow, which it was, or certain elements of the campus, at least. But despite the fact that Helen had said something to me about she thought so-and-so and
so-and-so would remain my friends, and so-and-so maybe not—she was right in her guesses, though she hadn't told any of them.
I really thought my life was over, in a way. But I realized I had to stay there. I couldn't transfer because I had the scholarship. I couldn't run away from it. Well, yes, if I was going to have any kind of a life, I had to go back, I had to graduate from college.
I went home and told my parents. I had told my sister about the inquiry, so it wasn't a total surprise to her. My father never said a word. My mother just kind of dithered and said, "But you're not Jewish. You've never been to temple in your life." Not understanding. And made my flight upstairs to my sister as fast as possible, who did understand.
And the next morning, I got on the streetcar and studied my Spanish on the streetcar, as I always did, and decided I was going to have to walk into the Student Club sooner or later, might as well do it then—pencil sharpener lesson.
Clark: Thank God for the pencil sharpener lesson.
Shanahan: Yes. And so I walked in, got my cup of coffee, saw a couple of boys I'd gone to high school with, and went over and sat down with them because, of course, I couldn't go sit at the sorority table. And went on to class. Came back at lunchtime, found another—somebody I knew from a club who wasn't in any sorority and was sitting at the table with her at lunch.
There was a guy named Bill Umstead who was the sports editor of the paper, and he was subsequently the managing editor of the New York Daily News, whom I'd had a couple of dates with, nothing serious but we were friends and I was a great baseball fan and so was he. He was going to college part-time and working for International News Service. The Student Club, as it was called, was the basement of a building that was about a third of a block long. And I was sitting almost at one end of it and Bill came in from the other side. And across the length of the Student Club, he yelled, "Shanny. The Yankees are in town Saturday, you want to go?" Do I love that man forever?
Clark: Do you love that man forever? Yes.
Shanahan: Others kind of went out of their way to make a show of friendship, as the days went past, including some of the members of KD, some of whom were trying to be nice and say things like, "Well, if I were half-Jewish, I'd lie about it, too." But she meant well.
Anyway, I survived, in rather good order. I had friends. I didn't miss the sorority a lot. And life went on, not badly. The guy I was dating at that time continued to date me.
But the consequence was very important. I had to go through quite a lot, inside myself, to get past my father's bigotry, which I didn't right away. First I decided I would prove to them I wasn't this terrible thing, a Jew. I would be real careful about ever saying anything about what anything cost, I wouldn't wear bright colors—which in fact were the only colors I looked good in—I wouldn't be loud, and I would prove I wasn't a Jew, because a Jew was something pretty awful. That took a while.
Then I got holier than the Pope. I out-Jewed everybody. I acquired a boy friend who was Jewish and knew a lot about Jewish history, music, various things—Joe Epstein—I still see him once in a blue moon. We were not—I was never in love with him or he with me but I really dated him for a whole year after that. He took me to temple. Nobody had ever told me there was anything to be proud of in being Jewish. And he told me about the great history of the Jews and how many of the most famous artists in all fields had been Jewish and scientists and so on.
I finally—the process took two years—figured out what I believe to this day, which is that everybody's an individual and deserves to be judged as such.
I met my husband just as I was nearing the end of that but he helped me to get into the final phase. The second date we had—oh, I was still in a period there where I was practically upon meeting somebody, saying, "How do you do, I'm half Jewish," because I didn't want to think I'd made a friend and then be rejected. And the second date I had with John, I told him. And he said, "And?" I said, "What do you mean, 'and'?" And he said, "Well, I thought you had some point you were going to make." Was that a glorious moment? And he did, he really did help me through that phase. I think he already understood that everybody is an individual and deserves to be judged as an individual.
So I got through it. But in the process, of course, I had to reject both of my parents' views and rethink an awful lot of what I had been taught.
Clark: About everything.
Shanahan: Everything, yes. It fanned out. I guess because they were, whatever their defects, good parents, I was able to reject their ideas without rejecting them. And I think that's vitally important if you're going to be whole. I do believe that anybody who has to—often with good reason, sometimes not—has to utterly reject a parent, never quite feels whole. And I didn't have to do that. But I had to think for myself in a way I had never done. I really had to decide who I was, what I was, what I believed, and in the process learn, in a way that I did not fully learn from my father's atheism and socialism, to challenge everything, to say, "Wait a minute, okay, that's what authority says. Is that what I believe or not? That's what somebody powerful said. Do I agree?" And that's why I say it's the most important thing that ever happened to me.
Clark: Incredible story.
Shanahan: Yes. I don't know where we go from here—
Clark: It's a very powerful story.
Shanahan: I don't know what I would have been if that hadn't happened to me. I might have been a very—I don't think that the seeds of my being who I am were necessarily there to achieve without that experience.
Clark: What had you thought about the world before that experience, in terms of your own ability to achieve?
Shanahan: Oh, I think I had confidence that I was smart and my father, in particular, saying there's no ceiling. He hadn't thought about sex discrimination.
Clark: Well, that's what I mean.
Shanahan: Yes. Well, now, my sister's a doctor, and right from day one he encouraged her to be. And I wasn't sophisticated enough, I don't think, to know that the foreign service, for all practical purposes, didn't accept women at that time—one or two exceptions, maybe. I'm not even sure of that.
Clark: But what I'm saying is you hit a ceiling you hadn't anticipated.
Shanahan: Well, that's right. At some point, I did, although I really wasn't—I made enough progress at what I did so that I wasn't aware of the ceiling, really, until I couldn't get a job as editor, even an entry-level editor's job at the New York Times.
Clark: How did this experience affect you in terms of understanding how others, also outside of the system, might fare? Did it change you any?
Shanahan: Oh, absolutely. I very quickly—that's one of the principal things I had to reject was my father's—bigoted doesn't make it—attitude toward blacks. And my father went to his grave believing that blacks are born and up until the age of twelve, about, their brains develop as much as white kids' brains do, and then the development stops. That's what I was taught by him, as a scientific fact. And so I mean, I just rejected all that.
But of course, it started me thinking and in fact the very first thing I ever did by way of political activism—which I had no business doing because I was working for United Press—had to do with keeping open the World War II day care centers, which were closed right after the war was over. There was a lot of demonstrating and so forth. And there were a number of black women involved in that, though I think the leadership was probably all white. That was just a couple of demonstrations. I shouldn't suggest that I was deeply involved because I wasn't. But I went down and voted with my body a couple of times. I don't know how fast—it must have been sometime around the time I decided what I decided about people being entitled to be judged as individuals that I realized, hey, this includes blacks, Chinese, Japanese, whomever.
My senior year in college I was a Mortar Board. It's a national honorary—there's a certain grade-point average required but it is for leadership. And my Mortar Board year, my senior year, Ohio State [University] pledged a black woman, the Mortar Board chapter there. And the national officers of Mortar Board decided that they should poll the membership of Mortar Board. There were seven Mortar Boards in my Mortar Board class at GW and we voted six to one to let her in. And nationally, too, it wasn't even close. I don't remember what the vote was but overwhelmingly nationally the Mortar Boards said, "Hey, if they think she's outstanding, she's outstanding. She should be a Mortar Board."
But in my chapter of seven, I was one of the two extremists. The other one was a girl from Virginia who was a separate but equal—let them form their own honorary. And the other five were—let her in. And I stated and wrote that if Mortar Board did not let Ohio State initiate this black girl, I would feel I had to resign from Mortar Board. By then—I mean, as I say, nationally the vote wasn't even close. I expect the six-to-one ratio in my chapter was probably reasonably typical. But by then I felt—I had obviously lost my father's bigotry.
And as for discovering gender discrimination, I really didn't discover that until much later. I felt my professors liked me. I had all male teachers except one, through college, and never had any sense, really, of being treated differently. I knew that if the war hadn't come along, I wouldn't have been the editor of the Hatchet. I'd have probably been the editorial page editor, which was a kind of girl's job. But I don't—if the war hadn't come along and permitted me to be editor, I don't believe I would have felt any outrage at being editorial page editor. I don't think I would have. That was just the way it was.
Clark: And when the war ended and the demobilization happened, you were working for UP at that time?
Clark: Was there any difficulty in holding onto your job?
Shanahan: Oh, well, yes. Not for me personally, for a reason that doesn't cast any particular credit on me. Oh, yes. First of all, there was a law which nobody objected to that I know of, that the returning servicemen had to be given their old jobs back or an equivalent job. And I had just made reporter.
I started out as a dictation girl, taking stuff down on the typewriter when other people called in their stories from around town, and being allowed to do some little stories and so on, as a dictationist. And then got a job on the radio wire, which was a scut job, God knows, rewriting stories from the papers in radio style, which takes shorter sentences and a lot more introduction before you get to the news, and so on, because the ear is so much less tolerant than the eye. The eye can go back, the ear can't. It's quite a different writing style.
And UP Radio was just taking stories out of the paper and rewriting them without even checking them. I didn't even know I should be ashamed of it at that point, I don't think.
The last day of the year in '45, the war having ended in August of '45—the guys were almost all back. There was a shortage of ships to move them in; they may not have all been back but mostly back. The schedule for the following week, the first week of the new year, was posted on the bulletin board and all the women's names were gone, except Helen Thomas's and mine, and a third woman named Charlotte Moulton. Helen was also on the radio wire. Charlotte covered the Supreme Court. And Charlotte mortified several generations of AP reporters by getting it right when they didn't. She was a phenomenon and they kept her on. I think they were afraid to fire her, she was that good.
Helen and I, you might think—since we both had very good subsequent careers, you might think we were kept on because we were perceived to be quite good. But it wasn't that. It was just that nobody else wanted those lousy jobs on the radio wire, rewriting local news from the newspapers without even checking it.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Clark: Did that job teach you anything?
Shanahan: You gain some skills about news choice. At that time, there were four newspapers in Washington, two morning and two afternoon, and you didn't have room for all of their news in a five-minute newscast, which is really three and a half minutes, and of course, speaking is much slower than reading so that you had to pick and choose which stories you were going to cover at all. And you had to compress because you wanted to cover—unless it was some monumental story, you wanted to cover several. So you'd read them all the way through and you wouldn't necessarily just rewrite the first three paragraphs, you would dip down lower in the story and see if there was something you thought should be brought up and you might kind of change it around a bit and so on.
I certainly learned something about news judgment and I learned something about writing. Learning something about short sentences was highly valuable because then as now, an awful lot of Washington reporters, in particular, it's so complex. You get these eight- and nine-line sentences that people can't understand.
Clark: What kind of stories were you writing in particular?
Shanahan: Just local, local news, completely local news. We also had to—there was a funny little wire that is still in existence that serves Washington news bureaus and government agencies and lobbyists and embassies, and so on, that was a condensed version of the whole national and international UPI wires. And for a few hours at night, when the person who had the main job filing it all day long—Helen Thomas came in early, I came in late—you got some sense of what the news was, from Latin America, to file the Latin American embassies. You didn't file everything that had a South American dateline on it, you picked and chose. So you learned something about news judgment.
And of course, you always learn from your peers, especially at that age, just to be able to sit around and shoot the breeze with the guys who were working the main night news desk. The print wires was an education in itself. So I learned a lot of basics about what is news, how to judge news, how to write news—didn't learn anything about reporting, basically. Once in a while you'd put in a call when something looked odd, to check something.
And then, curiously enough—one day every three weeks, I was a reporter. If you stop and think about it, this was a seven-day operation. If you're working two shifts seven days a week, that's fourteen shifts a week, with three people, each of whom worked a five-day week. That's fifteen people days. So once every three weeks, you got a day off to go report and write whatever kind of a story you can dig up.
I think I had most of my own ideas. I'm not sure of that. I may be giving myself more credit because one of the things I have had as a mature journalist is more ideas than I could ever get to reporting. I'm an idea factory. One of the reasons I wanted to be an editor was so that I could have a staff to do my ideas. Then after I became an editor, I had more ideas than I had staff to do them. But anyway, I wouldn't say that I learned a lot about being a reporter, doing it one day every three weeks, but something.
Clark: What was your first story?
Shanahan: My very first story was actually one while I was still a dictation girl. It came from my sister who was working. She had had to work the three years between the time she got out of college and I got out of college before we could send her to med school. She was working as a lab technician out at the Army Medical Center in Washington and told this hilariously funny story about some guy that was flying across country with a dog that had a tropical disease that was transmitted by dogs and which a lot of our servicemen in the South Pacific were getting.
It was right at the same time that there'd been a big scandal about one of President Roosevelt's children taking his dog on an airplane. And you've got to remember that airplanes were just overloaded at that time and the dog, in effect, was using space a person could have had. It was some gigantic dog that I don't remember which one of the Roosevelt boys had. So here's my sister's colleague from the lab coming back with this dog with people making snide remarks about royal animals and so on. It was being hurried back to this country because it was—the disease diminishes rapidly, apparently, in temperate climates.
Anyway, she told me this story. So I went in and told my boss, the night news editor, and he said, "Oh, great! Write it." So I wrote it. He rewrote it, from top to bottom. And I could see how he made it different and better. But I got a byline and the Washington Post printed it. In fact, the night news editor, Harry Sharpe, even said to me, "You know those people at the Post. Why don't you call some of them up and say your first story's coming in on the UPI wire, why don't they use it?" So I did. And they did.
Clark: That's marvelous.
Shanahan: And my husband, who was then still at the Post, got the actual lead slug of type that set that byline and I carried it in my coin purse for years and years and years and years—my lucky piece—and somehow I lost it, I don't know how.
Clark: What was your byline?
Shanahan: Eileen Shanahan, always. When I got married—that's an interesting point. I told myself, as well as everybody else but I wasn't consciously lying to myself or anybody else, that Eileen Shanahan is a very rememberable name because it's so flamboyantly Irish and that it would be an asset for a reporter to have a rememberable name. And so I wasn't going to take my husband's name, which is Waits which is very unrememberable, unspellable and whatever.
I now believe that my real unconscious reason was the sense of identity. And I've believed that for a great many years. But it was unconscious at the time. I also said I did it to please my father, which is also true, but I still think the real reason was that—Eileen Shanahan, you grow up knowing yourself by the name you were born with. It was a not-unheard of thing. Actresses and deplorable types like that kept their maiden name, of course.
Clark: It was a little unusual at the time.
Shanahan: A little bit at the time. Yes, it was.
Clark: A little unusual. So you were still at the UP. Did you ever try to get a job at the Post?
Shanahan: Yes. But not till later on the Post. I did try to get a job at a couple of radio networks at that time. Or was that later? No, I did try at that time and also later, and was told varying things like "What on earth makes you think I would hire a woman?" or "I've already got one woman and that's all you can"—that was later—"that's all I can have because you can't ask them to work nights." I said, well, I've been working 3:00 p.m. till midnight for United Press for two years, three years, whatever it was. It didn't seem to cut any ice.
Yes, there were many rejections then and later. I didn't make an all-out effort, just a slight one. But I do remember I saw people at both CBS and NBC.
Clark: Was this after the time you'd taken a break to have your child?
Shanahan: No, this was before because—I was getting pretty bored at the UP and that's why I've always quit jobs when I've mastered them.
Clark: Yes, I want to hear the first quitting story.
Shanahan: But I guess I wasn't sufficiently unhappy—I was, you know, part of that time I was newly married and all that and a nice personal life which in general I've almost always had. But I did make a slight effort. And then I became deliberately pregnant. And in those days you didn't work much past the point where you showed.
Clark: I'd forgotten that.
Shanahan: Really. Really! I quit at five months. And I remember one guy at UP who said to me, "Aren't you ashamed, going around looking like that?" My own father said that to me, also. Guess what? She's had sex. Shame.
Clark: Good Catholic girl.
Shanahan: That kind of a girl, right. So I quit without any thought that I would come back to work except—I don't know, when the kids were all in high school or something like that. And then I had four months at home with feeling perfectly okay, twenty-three years old and healthy, maybe a bit heavy and tired and all that but, you know, if you're healthy, pregnancy isn't that bad, even in the Washington summer.
Then Mary Beth was born in November and I stayed home for another fifteen months, making it eighteen in all. And I went through a deterioration that takes most women years—which is good because it was clear this was something that something had to be done about. I think a psychiatrist might say I was clinically depressed at the time. I don't know whether they would exactly but I got so I just didn't do anything. I took care of Mary Beth, I never neglected her, but I'd go for weeks—maybe months, I don't know—without washing any dishes, the apartment was a mess—I guess I did John's laundry because he had to go to work. But just I would sit and read and play records and listen to the radio and play with Mary Beth and take care of her and then just sort of couldn't stir myself to do anything else.
I had one little job that somebody who knew somebody, who knew me, was looking for somebody to write some radio continuity for Marine Corps recruiting records with Marine band music and the continuity. I enjoyed doing that and made a long-term friend in the process, the guy who was the producer of the series.
But I remember the money in particular. It was I think like two hundred dollars for the whole thing, which was a fortune in those days. And I managed to do that at least satisfactorily. They bought it, they paid for it.
But it just lasted a few weeks and I didn't have a sense of maybe I really need to go get a job. John was the one. John was the one, twenty-four years old, who finally said to me one day, "You've got to go back to work. You don't hate that kid but you will. You've got to get out of this house. I have called my mother. She is going to come over here and be with Mary Beth tomorrow. You go get yourself a job." How did he get so wise? I'll never know. Every time I've asked him since, which is several times, he said, "Oh, it was obvious." Well, it wasn't obvious to most men.
It took me a while. Well, I had one job. It was the only job I ever got fired from. The first job I got was with a guy who did medical PR and not worth wasting your time with. He made a mistake and blamed it on me and said he'd fire the person who'd done it. And I was devastated, even though it was utterly unfair. But it was lucky. I'd have clung to that job. I had trouble finding that job which was why I took the PR job and I got that through somebody John worked with. And I think if I hadn't been fired, I'd have clung to it and it would have been terrible.
As it turned out, when I then had to go look for a job again, most of the news bureaus—which were many fewer in those days, than now—most of them were in the National Press Building, with the exception of the New York Times and a few others. And I started at the thirteenth floor and worked my way down, just knocking on every news bureau door in the building. And on the eighth floor, I saw a door that said "Walter L. Cronkite, Jr." I knew the name because he had been with UP at the Nuremberg trials and then in Moscow. I wouldn't say he was famous but it was certainly a byline any Unipresser would recognize.
So I left my name. Actually he had half an office—I mean, what, how much?—one third the size of this living room, he was sharing an office with somebody who wrote a medical newsletter. I left my name, I didn't have a card, with this other guy. And Cronkite called me. And I went in and had an interview. He had only been in Washington a short time, a couple of months, maybe.
He'd come back—he'd been, as I have mentioned, a war correspondent, then in Nuremberg, then Moscow, [Joseph] Stalin's closed Moscow, where aside from the embassy there were about six or eight Americans, and was due to come back home for something else, and UP wanted to send him to Hollywood because they knew he had a wonderful light touch. And he said, "No, I want to go to Washington." And they said, "No, you're going to Hollywood." So he quit. And went around the country lecturing about Russia, night and day for several months, until—he thought it would take him a long time to find a job and until he had something saved, I forget what it was. Then when he thought he had enough saved, he finished his lecturing and then managed to put together this little group of radio stations, otherwise unaffiliated though most of them were CBS, nine of them, to send him to Washington to be their Washington correspondent. There were nine stations in five states—Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma.
Within a very few weeks, I think, he had decided that he couldn't do it alone and he had decided he'd have to hire some kid for no pay, practically, when I walked in. And he realized that I had three years experience by then. Maybe I could do it part-time and that would work. Well, like most part-time jobs, it turned into three-quarters time, or more.
Clark: Were you seeking a part-time job?
Shanahan: No, I wasn't at that time. But that's all he could pay for. Meanwhile he had checked around with some of the people at UP. He knew one guy in particular who'd been in Kansas City with him and he said, "Oh, yeah, she's a real smart kid," or something. What he told me was that this guy had made me sound like a cross between—oh, boy, I'm trying to think who the glamour girl at the time was—Hedy Lamarr—and God knows I never was a beauty—Hedy Lamarr and Madame Curie.
Anyway, he hired me. And that was really one of the golden periods of my life. I've had a number, but in terms of just incredible growth. He's only seven years older than I am. But what he'd done with those seven years! He was thirty-two. I went to work for him on my twenty-fifth birthday. One of the mistakes in Nan's [Robertson] book [The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and the New York Times], one of the few, she said February 29, 1949. There ain't no twenty-ninth in 1949, that is my birthday. It wasn't a leap year, it was the twenty-eighth, but my twenty-fifth birthday.
He was a willing teacher. Any time I wanted to know why he'd done what he did, he would happily explain it. I don't know that he was that much of a conscious mentor but he certainly responded to any question. And then I learned so much just watching him and listening to him on the phone and so on.
Clark: What exactly were you doing?
Shanahan: Oh, we were doing what in Washington is known as regional correspondence. That is, we were doing stuff that was specific to the region, maybe what your senators were up to, or taking national news and localizing or regionalizing it. At that time—this is [Harry S] Truman administration, this is 1949—Truman had proposed a very radical change in the agriculture plan that had existed since the early days of the Roosevelt administration. And they would have gotten rid of the economics of scarcity—you know, the theory that being allowed to plant but so many acres and that holds the price up—and move to an economics of plenty but with price supports so the farmers got a living wage. And it was known by the name of the secretary of agriculture, his name was Charles Brannan, as the Brannan Plan. And all of those states were agricultural states, of course.
So I covered the Brannan Plan, all over Congress. And it's the only job where I've ever known anything about agriculture but obviously I knew the Brannan Plan inside out—and its predecessor, of course. You had to know what they were changing. And that was my first taste of real good issue reporting.
Cronkite in addition—what we did—he had a five-minute newscast to all nine stations over high-quality telephone wires that went out in time for the six o'clock news. It was live. And then he might do a special piece just for Iowa, or even just for Cedar Rapids, depending. I was a reporter and he did about half the reporting and more than half the writing. I did a lot of the writing. He was a good editor. He taught me a lot about writing as well as reporting. And I was out there in the world, talking to people from other news organizations who were covering what I was covering.
That's where I met Bess Furman, the great woman who worked for the New York Times. I encountered her. She was so nice to me. Some people can help you and guess at what you don't know and where you need help, without ever making you feel bad about yourself. She could do that. She did it. Generous woman. I wish I'd known her better. That's the only time I really had any dealings with her. For some reason—I don't know why—she was covering parts of the agriculture bill. She usually covered the first lady and social policy issues. I ran into her occasionally after that but there was a period when I was covering the same things she was.
Cronkite also did two fifteen-minute commentaries a week on a subject. And I had the first really great idea I ever had as a journalist. I reported and fully wrote it, he probably edited it some. At that time, there was the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe. There was a lot of opposition to it. You know, "Why give it to them 'furriners' when we have poor people right here at home?" Heard that one recently, haven't we?
Clark: Yes, I believe so.
Shanahan: And Cronkite was a dedicated internationalist from his background, what he'd been doing. And somehow it occurred to me that what was being, with American money, bought and shipped to various parts of Europe as part of the Marshall Plan was a sale and a profit for somebody, some American producer.
And that you ought to tell those folks in Nebraska and Kansas and Iowa that hey, this isn't just a giveaway, it's jobs in your neck of the woods.
Well, I went over to the foreign aid, the Marshall Plan agency, and dug through all these—I don't know what they were called, invoices or something—anyway, records of these sales, and wrote separate pieces for each of the five states. Funny thing, the one thing I remember was I had certain techniques I used to tell the story, the smallest and the largest. And the smallest sale, actually anywhere in all five of the states, was three dollars worth of some kind of radio tubes from Collins Radio, which was tiny then, but became an empire. It was then two guys and a garage.
Shanahan: And they were in—I think it was Cedar Rapids, not Sioux City or Des Moines, I think it was Cedar Rapids. Anyway, Collins Radio sold three dollars worth of something through Marshall Plan channels.
Well, the mail piled up outside the door with people writing things like, "Senator [Kenneth S.] Wherry"—the very isolationist senator from Nebraska who was the Republican leader in the Senate—"Senator Wherry never put it just the way you did." Well, the Marshall Plan in its second year went through by one vote in the United States Senate and it is possible that we influenced some of them.
Shanahan: I can't positively make that claim but I don't think it's silly to think we might have.
Clark: Again proving your principle that news can make a difference?
Shanahan: Yes, that's right. That's right. There aren't too many things in my whole life that I would make that claim for, even suggest that the claim might be made. But that's one of them. That is one of them.
We did a lot of great stuff. We did a lot of great stuff. And then the Korean War came along and Cronkite felt the most terrible yen to get back overseas and cover a war. And the station sent him over for I believe two weeks. And having had a taste of it, he came back just wanting more. So he set about finding himself another job, unbeknownst to me initially, and got hired by—CBS, I guess it was CBS, not WTOP here.
Clark: No, it was CBS.
Shanahan: And they were going to send him over to Korea. Of course, the Korean War started in June of '50, so this would have been early February of '51. And for some reason, I don't know, they just needed somebody to do the TV news they throw on the air for the eleven o'clock news on WTOP, the Washington CBS outlet. This is in the days before teleprompters and other people, including some that were quite successful at the time, like John Cameron Swayzy, were sitting there reading their notes and looking up at the camera every once in a while.
Well, Cronkite having written his own stuff could just recite it, looking into the camera. And he was an instant smash and with, I think, all of the kind of low-key charm he always had and very quickly they sent him up to New York and he never did get back to Korea.
Meanwhile, I was pregnant, in a carefully planned pregnancy to have the child born during the congressional recess. They used to quit, pretty reliably, about Labor Day until the following January. And I remember trying to get pregnant so I'd have the baby in September. As it turned out, it was the first week in November—I missed the first month. At that age you don't have trouble getting pregnant. I was twenty-six by then. This was my second child. So, as I am fond of saying, he went off and abandoned me pregnant.
I tried to hold the stations together but only two of them wanted me and I couldn't even come close to break even with two. I really had to have three and I never could find a third one. So after trying that for a few months, I gave it up. And that's when I fell into the job of my first job covering economics, the Korean War being on.
Clark: Was this—you say fell into, was it—
Shanahan: Oh, I went looking and—
Clark: Yes, I wanted to unpack that statement a little bit.
Shanahan: Yes. Yes. No.
Clark: To ask you a couple of questions. One is if you knew by that time that you really wanted to report on economics.
Shanahan: No, no, no. This is where I learned it.
Clark: Oh, okay. Okay.
Shanahan: No, because I had been doing this pretty straight regional coverage, which included some economics. You recall the Brannan Plan and there were other things. There was a big antitrust issue before Congress at that time which our very great news editor in Cedar Rapids became aware of when the Chamber of Commerce in Cedar Rapids was split apart on this issue. I won't even tell you what the issue was called—Basing Point, for anybody who cares. It has to do with price fixing that incorporated the costs of transportation from a mythical point instead of the real point. So I did cover some of that but I didn't realize that I especially loved it.
Well, the job I got was a very odd little organization called the Research Institute of America, a misnomer basically. What they put out were all kinds of business aids, everything from managing personnel to labor relations to tax, comprehensive tax service for business. And they also had a Washington newsletter, sort of an imitation Kiplinger Letter.
In those days there weren't—I mean, newsletters have been one of the most explosive growth fields in Washington journalism for twenty-odd years now. But at that time there weren't very many. There were Kiplinger and something called Whaley-Eaton and a couple others, which were broad. They weren't, you know, oil and medical supplies and all the energy and all the little tiny vertical cuts that newsletters are now, and very profitable, too. They hire kids for $14,000 a year and the boss pockets several hundred thousand a year when they succeed. Look in your Sunday Washington Post classified and you'll see job after job for fourteen to seventeen thousand dollars a year to report for newsletters. But that all didn't exist then. This one was a kind of a broadly across-the-board newsletter for business. And I knew somebody who was working on it. I was looking for a job but that's how I found it because I knew somebody.
The Korean War most people do not realize was a very large war in terms of the percentage of the economy that went to war materiel—much shorter than the Vietnam War; as a consequence, many fewer casualties. It only lasted how long, several years? But we had full-scale price and wage control and some industrial materials rationing in the Korean War, as we had had in World War II. We didn't have consumer rationing, which had existed in World War II.
So I was covering mostly price control, a little bit of wage control, and filled in a little on the industrial materials rationing side. Price controls are a great way to try to understand an economy. The whole economy from the raw material to the retailer and all the way through—markups and the different traditions about markups and so on the different industries have and how they interrelate and so on. I can hardly think of a
better way to learn how an economy functions than to cover price control and see how they had to write the regulations, hopefully to comport with traditional ways of doing things to the greatest extent possible and so on. Of course, it was all very controversial.
So I did that for the Washington Newsletter and for an expensive little daily, mimeographed sheet we sent out, called the Washington Overnight Report. I discovered I really liked this stuff; it was fascinating. And I'm not sure that I understood then—I don't think I did, I came to understand later—that covering economics and business and regulation and things like that was a very good fit with my abilities and my shortcomings. I'm not a great writer. I'm not a talented writer. I just never turned a phrase that took anybody's breath away in my whole life. But I can work hard and think hard until I understand something so well I can explain it to almost anybody. And I care enough to do that. An awful lot of that is caring.
I discovered that covering business—when the Korean War was over, I then stayed with the same organization and shifted into broader economic coverage including the Federal Reserve and the federal budget and a lot of those things that are now considered part of the economics beat. Housing, which is a field I hate, it's just—oh, all that wretched detail. So is taxation, come to think of it, and I love taxation, maybe because the politics are so naked.
Clark: That's a great turn of the phrase.
Shanahan: Yes. You know who's doing what to whom in tax legislation.
Clark: Were you surprised by some of the things you found out about how the economy works?
Shanahan: No, I don't think so. I think that was the first I realized that a very typical retail markup is one-third. Was that excessive? I don't know. You have to maintain an establishment and pay a lot of people for some work that isn't subject to becoming a whole lot more efficient. So, you know, that may be okay. I don't know enough about the profits of retailers to tell you or whether there have been a lot of efficiencies in recent years with computerized control of inventory and so forth.
Anyway, I broadened out to include the whole economy, including the Supreme Court, going down and looking for business-related decisions and so on. What I said a minute ago, my pluses and my minuses, that's it; that this was a field in which my ability and willingness to work hard enough so that I could really make it clear was an important ability and my lack of real talent as a writer was not a terribly large minus. Somewhat. I wish I wrote better than I do. Still do.
In due course, I got fed up with the sort of breathless—here's-the-inside-scoop, you-never-heard-this-before—a lot of which is phony, in the newsletter business. A lot of it's right-out-there. You pretend it was a deep, hidden secret. And a lot of things—that was a very psychologically sick organization that I worked for.
Clark: What was the organization?
Shanahan: Well, I was just about to tell you. I hadn't thought about this when I was thinking about what I wanted to tell you. This was one of my severe brushes with true sexual harassment. RIA [Research Institute of America], like the old Washington Post when I was there, was just full of people in the office having affairs that weren't—probably many of them were hidden from spouses but they were not that greatly hidden inside the office. Now, there may have been some I didn't know about that were hidden but plenty of them were widely known including the guy at the top who had a wife but a mistress who worked there, and also anything that came along. I mean, he was a guy who just really needed to sleep with any woman he felt like sleeping with. They had an annual—I guess it was annual—retreat where as someone infelicitously said, "We can all put our feet up on the desk and cross-fertilize."
You have a wonderful laugh.
Clark: I try to control it for moments like this but I can't.
Shanahan: And it was held, I think, regularly, at least the only time I went. It must not have been every year because I think I only went to one. Bear Mountain Lodge. It's up the Hudson from New York. And it lasted, if I remember right, like from Friday noon to Sunday noon or something like that. And we had good friends who lived in Scarsdale which was just right across the Hudson River from there, or approximately. And so John and the kids went up to visit our friends in Scarsdale. And then when my meeting was over, they would come get me and I'd have some time with them, too, and then we'd head back.
The very first night of the meeting, the top guy, the boss, was making moves in my direction. And at first I was kind of flattered at the attention and then I realized what the intention was, and finally sort of just decided: well, the cagey play is just to say I'm tired and go to bed. And so I said I was tired and was going to head to bed. "Well, I'll walk you back to your room." And he walked me back to my room and forced his way into my room. The upshot of that was that the guy sort of grabbed me and kissed me, against my will, and I remember saying to him, you know, "You just get out of here. If you don't get out of here, it's attempted rape and I'll report it."
Clark: Good for you.
Shanahan: I didn't tell that story to a lot of people at the time of the Anita Hill hearings* because a lot of idiots were saying, "Well, of course, it couldn't possibly have happened. She would have reported it." Well, I had a husband. If I got fired, my kids weren't going to starve. And I counted on my husband to be supportive, which indeed he was. And so he left. But I just wanted no more parts of this meeting where I could already see people pairing off to go to bed and all that. So I called my husband. And I said, "Come get me." And I left a note for my roommate saying that I had left of my own volition and if anyone was worried about me, they could call me at the following number and ascertain that I was okay. Nobody called.
The following Monday I went into work. My immediate boss in Washington was a lovely guy who had no parts in any of this and who in fact was a very moral man and who was really quite shocked at all the goings on—which were nothing new to him. He'd been in the company for some years. Anyway, I came in that Monday morning, basically to clear out my desk. I figured I was going to get fired. And my boss here said, "Leo"—Leo Cherne is this man's name.
Shanahan: C-h-e-r-n-e. He's still around. Very talented guy.
Clark: Leo Cherne is the man who—
Shanahan: Yes. And who was the head of the Institute. A man of great talent and some political courage, as he subsequently proved in debating Joe McCarthy and several other things when others wouldn't do it. But a strange man where women were concerned.
Anyway, I came in to work in Washington, basically just to clear out my desk. And my boss here in Washington said, "Leo is on his way down and told me to keep you here, make sure you didn't get away. He wants to talk to you." So I guess I must have agreed to stay. I don't know why.
* Thomas, Clarence/Hill, Anita. In October 1991, Senate hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court focus on the charges by law professor and former Thomas employee Anita Hill that Thomas had sexually harassed her in the past.
Anyway, Leo comes in about ten o'clock, with a great, grandiloquent gesture takes his personal checkbook out of his pocket and says, "Eileen, name your price. Here's my checkbook. Write your own ticket." And I said, "Leo, it's not about money." And he said, "I promise you that nothing of the sort will ever happen again. Please stay." And it never did.
And I started looking for another job. But I took my time and I stayed another six months or so. But I wanted to get out of there. The whole place was like that. And that's part of the kind of person I am. Not everybody's like that. And I believe Anita Hill. I'm glad my husband was supportive. I don't think I ever feared that he would say, "You must have brought it on yourself" or any of those things that some women do face.
Clark: Was he shocked when you turned down the money?
Shanahan: I don't think so. I don't know. It was symbolic. He wasn't going to write me the check literally, but he was going to give me a big raise, obviously. It was clear to me that's what he meant. But I must say I learned a lot in that job. I wanted to get back into the daily newspaper business, anyway. I didn't like the newsletter racket, I didn't like the phoniness of it and so on, and got a job finally on the Journal of Commerce which—what did Nan call it? I think she said stodgy but reliable, which wasn't my term, it was hers. But that's a good description.
Clark: Was that the first job you looked for after—what were some of the other jobs?
Shanahan: Oh, no. Oh, Lord, no. Oh, Lord, no.
Clark: I'm interested in these transitions.
Shanahan: The turndowns. The turndowns. Oh, the dear turndowns.
Clark: It's part of the history of women in journalism.
Shanahan: It sure as hell is. Well, I really had decided that economics was for me. And there was a guy who had covered economics, the Korean War mobilization stuff that I had also covered, who was by then assistant managing editor of the Washington Post. And I had learned a trick which I used ever after till I got to the Times, when you didn't have to do it, to send your work out to people so they could see that you're serious and you get it right, and so on, when you work for a no-prestige outfit.
Clark: So you did this on a regular basis.
Shanahan: I did this on a regular basis. And this guy, who was by then assistant managing editor of the Post— I had passed out copies to my peers so they saw what I was doing. And lots of times, they would pick up stories from me and exclusives I had. That's fine, you know, I had already printed them. Hooray!
So I went around to see Al Friendly of the Washington Post who said he knew my work and it was good. But he couldn't hire me because nobody would have any confidence in an economics story under a woman's byline.
Clark: What did you say to him when he said that?
Shanahan: I don't remember. I don't remember. I guess I knew he meant it and there was no point in prolonging the conversation. The answer was no.
I went to some other places and that's the second time, I guess, I went back to ABC. Or maybe that was after Cronkite abandoned me, I forget. And was told that he already had one woman and that's all he could have because you couldn't ask them to work nights.
Clark: The job you were applying for at ABC would have been
Shanahan: I was going to try to talk them into creating a job covering economics which only a very few organizations had at that time. In fact, as late as 1963 those of us who regularly covered national economic policy formed a little background briefing group where you ask an undersecretary or a secretary of the treasury or someone to come and talk to you, just your group, not a generalized press conference—which we called the Gross National Press Club.
I could tell you the badge of office for the president was a full-employment surplice but it would take me five minutes to explain why that was funny. Not really! It's a matter that at that time we believed the economy was going to grow forever and would create a budget surplus.
[End of Tape 2, Side A; begin Tape 2, Side B]
Shanahan: At that time, there were just about twelve of us.
Clark: Who were some of the other people?
Shanahan: Bart Rowan may be the only one who is still around. He was then with Newsweek, now with the Washington Post. This goes back, actually, to the time—in '63. Now my mind was going back to when I went to work for the Journal of Commerce or even before that the Research Institute, Bart was around; a great man named Sterling Green of the AP, one of the finest reporters and nicest people I have ever known. He is still alive; he's retired. He taught me a lot. He helped me, again someone who could help you without making you feel incompetent or putdown. So much so that I consciously patterned myself on him later on. He gave me so much help when I was so green, when I first went with Research Institute, that I said to myself, "When I get to be good at this, I'm going to treat young people the way he treated me."
Clark: How often did you have contact with him?
Shanahan: Oh, often every day for weeks on end. He didn't help me every day but there were times—I don't know, he would kind of smoothly come over to my desk in the press room at the National Production Authority which did the industrial rationing and sort of say, "Oh, man, this molybdenum regulation's a bitch, isn't it? Did you notice that thing in Section 10 that they tried to bury?" I don't know what he did. I just know he helped and in a way that didn't undermine my confidence and literally helped me learn. It was the old business about if you give a hungry person a fish, you feed them for one day; if you teach them to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. Well, he taught me to fish.
Clark: Did you pass ideas by him? I mean, did you initiate some of your contacts with him?
Shanahan: I don't remember doing that. I think it was more on the breaking the spot stuff. When it was hard, he would offer a little help sometimes when he knew that I had in my short time not encountered this kind of problem before. There were others. Joe Laitin who subsequently was deputy White House press secretary who had had a long and—was a Washington Post ombudsman and a whole variety of things. He was the UPI guy—UP it still was. As a matter of fact, he's the guy that hired me at Research Institute.
And I was trying to think who some of the others were. A guy named Charley Eaton with the New York Times who is long dead. Part of the time there was one other woman doing this, named Maureen Gothlin, who was with UP. Other than the time she was there—well, that's not quite true. There were some women for trade publications. But after the Korean War was over and particularly after I got to the Journal of Commerce
and was doing daily and was a daily person, I was the only woman in daily newspapers in Washington doing national economic policy for a long, long time. And Sylvia Porter was in New York and that was about it. I never knew her very well because we only met a few times because she hardly ever came to Washington or I to New York, but she was always cordial. Didn't help me really but she was cordial and friendly and supportive and go-get-'em, and so forth.
Clark: Were you conscious of any particular kinds of ways that you presented yourself as a woman doing economics, to be taken more seriously by men?
Shanahan: Oh, yes. I developed a lot of ways. That was a real problem. And that was the real problem for a long time. It mostly wasn't a problem after I got to the New York Times because people kind of assumed if you'd made it to the New York Times you must have a brain. But even then, when you were not on the beat and the people didn't know you, at a press conference trying to get recognition, for example, it was how to get attention.
I remember an experience I had deep into the New York Times years. It would have somewhere in the '73-'75 oil embargo period. And for some reason—I didn't cover the energy but somebody was off or on vacation or something, and I got sent over to a press conference about something in the energy field. I think Frank Zarb was the energy guy.
It was the press conference—it was sort of a White House imprimatur press conference, not departmental, which they had in the Old Executive Office Building Auditorium which seats about four hundred people. And they had a lot of the big—not for the president—well, yes, there were times when presidents used it, [Dwight D.] Eisenhower did and some others. But in any event, that's where it was.
Every seat wasn't filled but there were several hundred reporters there, obviously, and it was hard to get recognition. And I'm popping up and popping up and popping up and I can't get recognized. And some people were finally getting a second question and even a third question and I hadn't gotten a first question. Ron Zeigler was the White House press secretary at that time and he knew me by sight. I saw him go over and whisper something in Zarb's ear and I thought he kind of nodded his head toward me. And I think he said to Zarb, "That woman is the New York Times, you should recognize her," because the minute Zeigler walked away, he did recognize me. So even then when they didn't know you—
There were a lot of interesting things that happened. I remember there was an incredible reactionary businessman named George Humphrey who was Eisenhower's first secretary of the treasury. I was the only woman who ever went to any of his press conferences. And one year at the annual budget press conference, I asked some question he didn't welcome. He knew me, too. This was not a matter of his not knowing me. And he just put me down, contemptuously. I was with the Journal of Commerce then. And he said the question had no merit and was based on an erroneous premise—I don't remember what he had to say, I just remember that he put me down in a way that was just awful. It made me feel bad even though I knew he was in the wrong.
My boss was also there, Oscar Naumann, the bureau chief of the Journal of Commerce and he stood up and said, "Mr. Secretary, will you please answer Miss Shanahan's entirely legitimate question?" And Humphrey did.
There were other people who thought they could get away with intimidating, I guess, the woman reporter. I remember another occasion that was really funny. There's an organization that exists to this day called the Business Council.
Clark: Yes. Yes, I know.
Shanahan: Okay. Most people don't. Then, I guess, it might have still been called the Business Advisory Council, which is neither here nor there. And basically, it's a fraternity of sixty-five captains of industry, most of them CEO's of Fortune 100 companies, who met twice a year at some posh resort, usually the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, and meet in secret with high government officials and tell them whatever and then have some kind of—they didn't used to have any press conferences at all. We just had to scrounge. And a gigantic erroneous story ended that. I wasn't there. That was before I started covering it. That was a great journalism story.
But then they started having press conferences at which they would tell you what they felt like telling you. And there was a guy named Fred Kappel who was head of AT&T. He was the chairman of the Business Council that year and the person who was giving the press conference. And that was a Thursday night through Sunday noon meeting and so there was a press conference after the sessions on Friday, so there was stuff in the Saturday paper. And so I had a story in the Saturday paper.
So we come into the Saturday press conference and Kappel had read my story which quoted him as saying something—I can't remember what it was but something that he'd thought better of. And I think I led the story with it, I forget. Anyway, I quoted him with something he wanted to deny. And he came into that press conference and denounced, not by name, this irresponsible reporter who had quoted him as saying something he had never said. I sit there and I'm seething and I don't know what to do, when—I can't remember whether it was Bart Rowan or Sterling Green who spoke up first, one of them, and said, "Mr. Kappel, I didn't use it, simply a difference in news judgment, but you said it. I have it in my notes." And then the other one, Rowan or Green, whoever was not the first speaker, said, "Yes, and so do I."
Meanwhile, there was this young woman from a radio station in Roanoke—which is the nearest town of any size—who used to come up for the meetings. Her name was Ann Compton, who is standing there and pointing like this to her tape recorder, a great big thing in those days—in effect, "I've got it on tape." And so I said to Kappel, "I believe"—I knew the call letters of the Roanoke station at that time—"WXXX has it on tape," and he subsided.
She and I had a—that's the only time she'd ever come to that meeting. She came to Washington shortly thereafter but she remembers better than I do, that we had a long conversation at that time because she was worried about getting married and having children. She's got at least three and worked straight through her pregnancies and what-have-you. But anyway, that's when I first met her.
So there was a lot of that, you know.
Clark: Did you experience that then more from the people you were covering rather than within the world of journalism itself?
Shanahan: I don't really remember significant problems within the world of journalism. The guys always treated me nicely. I think they saw that I—despite the fact that Sterling helped me a lot at the beginning—did my own work and I wasn't asking for any favors, that I was professional, that I was married and I wasn't flirting with anybody. Inevitably, there's some you like better than others and some who like you better than others, less well than others, and there were some who were not your close friends but I really—there's probably a case if I could dredge it up but I don't really remember any problems with colleagues.
One's relationship as a reporter with one's competitors is a very interesting relationship. You share a life. You have more in common with them in a lot of ways than you do with people in your own organization who were covering a different beat. You faced the same life day after day. You compete but for the most part you compete honorably. There are always—every now and then, on every beat you encounter some jackass who doesn't, who tries to steal documents off your desk or something. But that's rare, at least in Washington it's rare.
And also, some people—my colleagues on the economics beat didn't compete on what I would call the chicken shit, by which I mean this: If I, for example, had to be writing because I had an earlier deadline than the Wall Street Journal and the Senate voted while I was writing, the Journal guy would come out and say, "Hey, they passed it 78-16." And I would do the same for him. Or, there were more afternoon papers in those days. If the Washington Star guy or the Chicago Daily News guy had to go out to meet his 11:00 a.m. deadline and something happened while he was gone, I'd say, "Oh, wait a minute. The chairman chewed out so-and-so," whatever. But you competed on exclusives, of course, but not on stuff that was just right out there.
Clark: Right. I suppose it must be very different today, of course.
Shanahan: Well, I'll be finding out. I don't know. I haven't been out on the street as a reporter for a long time until this job. My guess is no. My guess is no. In fact, for example, when the tax bill that wasn't going anywhere was going on, I one night came up—I don't have to cover daily if I don't feel like it because we take all the wire services and we're a bureau of five. I think it's a better use of my time not to cover stuff that the wires are going to be covering.
One night when the Senate was going late, I went up mostly to sightsee and kind of watch today's Senate doing a tax bill, when I've covered so many tax bills in the past. There were the regulars, the ones who cover every minute of a tax bill: the AP guy who's been around forever and the Wall Street Journal guy and the New York Times guy and the L.A. Times guy and the Washington Post guy. They were all guys in that case. Yes, I was sitting on a couch while some bore was droning on on the Senate floor. Now, with C-Span you don't have to go into the gallery, which is too bad, you miss a little if you don't.
But you know, they were sitting there chatting and I suspect the relationship in Washington is not that different. The New York people were never like that. I remember a New York Times woman reporter coming to Washington on a story one time and chewing me out because I filled in a Wall Street Journal reporter who had had to go out and dictate for the Dow-Jones wire. We competed plenty. But why on that when it's right out there in the open?
Clark: So the competition was more friendly and collegial?
Shanahan: Yes. Yes. Right. And I don't really remember—I'm trying to remember. Well, maybe it will come to me. I don't really remember any bad treatment at the hands of colleagues.
Clark: Take this as a chance to stop for the day.
Shanahan: All right.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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