May 23

Jeanne McManus is a former Post editor.

My first boss at The Washington Post could be an impossible woman. Mercurial and secretive, Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor, was a terrible manager of people. She knew how to hire them, but she didn’t know how to nurture them, guide them or fire them. Or maybe she just didn’t want to learn.

If you made a mistake, or overlooked something, or didn’t follow through, or just wore too much perfume, her response was to give you the silent treatment. It was a deep, deep freeze that could last months. I think one editorial writer went more than a year entombed in a glacier.

Meg hired me as an assistant editor in 1979 based on a 20-minute job interview, during which we discussed the TV show “Dallas,” how many years of Latin I had studied and when I would be free to start. The top news editor had recommended me, and she needed somebody right away.

Meg’s reputation preceded her, so I did not go into the job unaware of the challenges. A cartoon over her desk joked that she did not have nervous breakdowns, she gavethem. With two other editors, my job was to edit the op-ed page, the letters to the editor and editorials themselves, although little work was required on the editorials once Meg was through with them.

We three editors sat in a long bullpen kind of a room. Using an intercom, Meg would buzz one of us to come into her office, to pick up a page proof and occasionally to ask us what we thought about a particular article. This was a way she played favorites. Which of us had more buzzes on any given day?

In my first year with Meg, I lost 15 pounds. (Every cloud has a silver lining.) I was frozen out once for two weeks because I didn’t catch a mistake that someone else had made, and a huge welt developed across my forehead from the stress of it all.

Meg was a brilliant, funny, charming woman, an editor with razor-sharp instincts and an enormous grasp of politics, foreign policy and local news. Sell AWACs to the Saudis? Meg could draw you a picture of the plane. Decrypt the congressional budget? Meg could spend 20 minutes with it and tell you what Congress was trying to hide. Her radar for spin control was flawless. She never went away for Labor Day weekend because she believed that the administration, any administration, would release a controversial report when the top editors were gone and “the interns were running the paper.” Meg stayed on guard.

In those days, editorials were written on a primitive computer system, and the writers would drop blurry dot-matrix printouts on Meg’s desk. With a black felt-tip pen she would begin her work. We in the bullpen would decipher the marks when she was done.

To see how her mind worked, to watch the magnificence of her choice of words and to witness her artful methods of achieving balance and fairness was an education in thinking, writing and journalism itself. Besides transferring her marks from paper to the computer system, I checked and triple-checked everything: If I failed to incorporate one of her changes, I knew I would be icebound for weeks.

When I was ready to leave the editorial page after 2½years, Meg helped me find another job at the paper. I became her friend; no matter where I worked in the newsroom, I would get the occasional call from Meg’s secretary: “Miss Greenfield would like to see you.” And we would sit in her office and talk about Tonya and Nancy or some cheesy TV show.

My Catholic education may predispose me to believe that suffering is character-building, a necessary way to reach higher goals. But the longer I thrived in The Post newsroom, the higher I went up the career ladder, the more I appreciated Meg, understood her and, in some ways, became like her.

Other newsrooms, other women, other female executives? Of them I honestly know nothing. I am only here to say that an impossible woman shaped my life in a way that I will never forget.

Jeanne McManus is a former Post editor.