washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

A Woman Who Knew Her Due

By Marjorie Williams
Sunday, April 25, 2004; Page B07

I have a memory of Mary McGrory sweeping into The Post's newsroom in a wide-brimmed black wool hat that brought to mind a bullfighter's gear. Her clothes were always a magical combination of the suitable and the attention-getting -- the finest soft wools and silks; capes, scarves, dramatic contrasts of red and white and black. It's possible, I must grudgingly admit, that my fancy added the dramatic hat. If so, it is only because it was so easy to see through Mary's great gentility to the heart of a buccaneer.

Mary, who died this week at 85, was a lady; she was a dame; she was the Katharine Hepburn of journalism, extending her art to the fullest on her very own terms. Her face had an openness, almost an innocence, that seemed improbable, even suspect, in a pro who had watched the sport of Washington for such a long time. But when you came to know her you saw it was both entirely real and a part of her method. She also had a beautiful voice, with faultless diction and perfect round vowels, and that was part of the charge of any encounter with her: that lulling, low alto always purred the unexpected into your ear.

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What a boring observation it is, then, that she was a trailblazer for all us younger women who take for granted our places in the newsroom. That gray cliche never began to encompass her greatest and subtlest contribution, which was the distinctively feline way she went about her job. When Ellen Goodman and Anna Quindlen were still in diapers, Mary wrote intimately, long before anyone else did: rarely about herself, but in a human voice, both quirky and blunt, that valued the sidelong glance, the intuitive connection and above all her own ear and eye. While other columnists still hurled their thunderbolts from Mount Olympus, Mary's self-confidence propelled a wholly new political prose: a souffle of surpassing grace packed with raisins of brutal insight.

And watching her work the newsroom was a lesson of its own, a thing of beauty. While harried reporters bustled past her, Mary drifted from desk to desk in what seemed to be aimless, sociable circles. "Did you see that?" she would ask, about some important hearing she had just covered (for which most of us had, of course, stayed in our chairs and watched on C-SPAN). Or, "Oh, that awful man," about a witness (or for that matter, a president) she couldn't abide.

She always made you feel as if you were the one person she had been pining to discuss the topic with. But in the midst of this breeze-shooting you found yourself telling her about a lunch you'd had with a member of the relevant committee staff two weeks ago, or something you'd heard secondhand from someone you trusted in the White House, or the best idea you'd had in three weeks.

She was completely competitive and extraordinarily kind. When I came to work at The Post in 1986, she wrote me a warm message of welcome, saying, in effect (and without rancor): Never mind all those noisy men in the newsroom -- they're all bark and no bite. When I wrote something she liked, I would find in my mailbox a beautifully wrought note signed Your Fan, MM. I can't emphasize enough what a rarity this made her among the newsroom's tenured stars.

But it is also true, as noted in her obituaries, that she had a queenly expectation of deference. At a small luncheon a dozen years ago, Mary made some pronouncement -- the way journalists do, in the presence of both food and other journalists -- about the news of the day. (Gennifer Flowers had just thrown her grenade into Bill Clinton's primary campaign, and it pained Mary beyond endurance that The Woman In Question spelled her first name with a "G." I don't think her opinion of Clinton ever really recovered.) When I began to contribute a follow-up thought, Mary intoned -- quite sternly -- "I wasn't finished speaking."

But one took not the least offense, because there was something so gorgeous, in this irretrievably masculine town, about a woman who knew her due. Washington is a place, and public policy a profession, that attract huge numbers of people who are seeking a mask in place of a self. Here, where rank and title still matter so much, and where power and worth are borrowed by association, you can't throw a stone without striking someone who has gravitated here out of some fear (or lack) of singularity.

In the past, the hidden self has been even more crucial -- more second nature -- to women than to men. To be a woman in a man's town you had to be more careful, make yet a paler impression, than the Brooks Brothers suits all around you. For years we wore, as Randall Jarrell wrote in his classic poem "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," "this print of mine, that has kept its color/Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null/Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so/To my bed, so to my grave, with no/Complaints, no comments: neither from my chief,/The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief -- Only I complain. . . ."

Mary showed that you could be not only forgiven but rewarded for shedding that dreary disguise. Talent, Mary taught us, was the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card; but there was no divining the difference between Mary's talent and her ease at being indelibly herself. To our beds, to our graves, there is really no divining that difference for any of us, and what a gift it was to watch a woman who lived that truth.

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