Mary Lou Beatty; Editor at NEH, Post

Mary Lou Beatty works on election night in 1972 at The Washington Post.
Mary Lou Beatty works on election night in 1972 at The Washington Post. (The Washington Post)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

Mary Lou Beatty, 73, publications director of the National Endowment for the Humanities and one of the first high-ranking female editors of The Washington Post, died Feb. 7 of complications from colon cancer at her Washington home.

Ms. Beatty was a calm, careful editor whose deep knowledge of current events, history and politics gave her both context and authority, useful when dealing with either rookie reporters or world-famous writers. Unlike some, she didn't wield her intellect or position like a cudgel, those who worked with her recalled.

"She was just correct all the time," said Susanna McBee, a former Post reporter who worked for her on the national desk. "She'd say, 'You know, I just have a little problem with one thing here,' and you'd just want to help her."

As editor of Humanities, the bimonthly magazine of the NEH, since 1990, she commissioned and edited work by such well-known public figures as playwright Arthur Miller, professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian David McCullough, U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She also revamped the award-winning magazine and managed the NEH's myriad publications and Web sites, overseeing an 11-member staff.

During her 20 years at The Post, she rose from reporter to assistant managing editor, becoming the second woman to ascend to one of the most powerful jobs in the newsroom. The AMEs at The Post rank just behind the deputy managing editor, managing editor and executive editor.

From that position and from previous jobs as political editor and assistant national editor, Ms. Beatty directed stories on civil rights, the Apollo space program, political conventions, the Chappaquiddick incident, the Pentagon Papers and the politics of the Watergate scandal.

"Mary Lou had a sharp mind, a quick wit and great instincts that enabled her to steer The Post's political coverage during the contentious years of the Nixon presidency. She kept us focused, and she kept us shooting straight," said Post political columnist David Broder.

Ms. Beatty also edited Outlook, Book World, the Sunday magazine and the TV book. She launched the Weekend section in 1977, which proved so successful that the paper created four more tabloid sections.

Ms. Beatty "specialized in rehabilitating wounded writers and turning secretaries into reporters," Hank Burchard wrote for the 20th anniversary edition of Weekend. Burchard also noted that she insisted on Weekend being a tabloid, for the convenience of readers. "At first advertisers hated Weekend," he wrote, "until they discovered that our readers loved it and kept it around long after the serious sections had been used to train puppies. . . . This is because Beatty insisted Weekend must be useful, not just attractive and interesting."

In 1983, she left The Post to co-found the Washington Woman, a monthly magazine with a circulation of 40,000 readers. She was publisher and editor until it folded four years later. "It was a grand adventure while it lasted, and it was well worth the effort," she said in 1988.

Ms. Beatty was born in Chicago and received her undergraduate degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee. She worked for a year as a speechwriter in Adlai Stevenson's 1956 Democratic presidential campaign. After Stevenson lost, she traveled and then joined the Chicago Tribune.

She moved to The Post as a reporter in 1963 and became an editor four years later. In 1974, she was named assistant managing editor for supplements, just two years after Elsie M. Carper broke into the previously all-male ranks. Today, five of the 16 AMEs at The Post are female.

Ms. Beatty also taught public affairs reporting and media ethics at American University and consulted for NEH before joining the agency full time in 1990.

She participated in ongoing protests against the all-male Gridiron Club in the 1970s. She was elected president of the 600-member Washington Press Club in 1972 and suggested that she be sworn in on a copy of the Pentagon Papers. (The club, formerly the Women's National Press Club, was started in response to the prohibition against women in the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club.)

After the Washington Press Club was absorbed into the National Press Club, Ms. Beatty became a director and vice president of the Washington Press Club Foundation, which raises money for oral histories by early female journalists and for training for female and minority journalists.

"Mary Lou was more than an editor -- she was a leader of people who wanted to make a change in the way women were treated in the profession. And she succeeded," said Ron Sarro, a retired Washington Star senior reporter and past president of the Washington Press Club. "Not only did she work on behalf of others, but she set an example for others by her own accomplishments."

She was a member of the Journalism and Women Symposium, a national organization of female journalists. In 1975, she received Marquette University's Byline Award, the College of Journalism's highest honor. She also was a judge for the Alice Awards for radio and television journalism, sponsored by the National Commission on Working Women.

Survivors include three brothers.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company