Toni House, Supreme Spokeswoman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page D1
"Supreme Court spokeswoman Toni House."
So flat and dry a title for such an exuberant personality. Indeed, in an institution whose voice might best be likened to a stentorian rumble, the essential House sound has always been a loud, throaty chortle.
Now the rapturous laugh has been silenced.
Toni House the first female to speak for the highest court in the land, who insisted on being called "spokeswoman" lest anyone mistake her for a man died yesterday of lung cancer at age 55.
And with her died a bridge between "old" and "new" Washington. She was an almost-debutante whose coming out was canceled by her scandalized godmother when she quit college her freshman year to marry and have a baby; a newsie who after years of reporting in the old Washington Star's pink ghetto of the women's section found her true calling cops; a profane, irreverent reporter fronting for nine of the nation's least voluble, most circumspect public officials.
"No one had expected then-Chief Justice Warren Burger, of all people, to hire a youngish blond female as his mouthpiece, especially one who had spent the last 15 years as a journalist," House once said.
Though not nearly as recognizable as White House press secretary Mike McCurry, in part because she rarely appeared on camera, House, a chain-smoking gamin, nonetheless was revered and respected by the reporters, filmmakers and documentarians who were her constituency.
She knew court history and ran an efficient shop. She made sure the hundreds of journalists who would rush the court on opinion days could get the rulings quickly. Good humor often compensated for the fact that at such a secretive place, she revealed little substantive information about the justices. House herself acknowledged that the court's internal workings "are cloaked in a security . . . possibly rivaled only by the National Security Agency or the CIA."
She finessed the line between loyalty to the justices and assistance to reporters, but was characteristically blunt with hapless novices: "You don't understand," she'd say. "The justices don't answer questions."
If that kiss-off didn't work, there was always "What you see is what you get. No further interpretation, explanation or illumination is forthcoming from the denizens of the Marble Temple."
And whether one was making a serious documentary or raunchy feature like "The People vs. Larry Flynt," she was always helpful.
House came to the court in 1982, a year after the death of what she always called the "late lamented" Star, where she had worked since 1966. Dazzling her scruffy colleagues with a wardrobe that was part Carnaby Street, part Junior League, she spent years covering embassy parties and White House receptions before finally escaping to join the few women already on the news side.
By day prowling the city and suburbs she'd hit police stations, courthouses and lockups, chronicling life's losers and enforcers. Among the first women to cover the Metropolitan Police, she nearly drove rival Al Lewis of The Washington Post to distraction. He once asked Police Chief Jerry Wilson how he could compete with House. "Get a blond wig and falsies," Wilson replied.
After days spent with cops, she'd return at night to her gracious girlhood home off Foxhall Road where she lived with her parents. Hugh Osgood House was a prominent allergist on call to the District's police and fire departments (which provided a number of his daughter's really good sources). Mary Aiello House was a homemaker famed among Toni's friends for maintaining a museum-like attic filled with fine dresses, matching shoes, handbags and hats spanning decades. It was clear Toni's clotheshorse tendencies were genetically encoded.
But the light of the House house was Toni's daughter, Valerie Reuther, now 37, who works in Seattle as a consultant to feminist groups.
Thrice wed, House met her first husband, Eric Reuther, at Wilson High School and married him at 18. In 1973, she wed Fairfax County Executive Bob Wilson, who said she first caught his eye by wearing leather hot pants to work. Eight years after coming to the court, she fell in love with William Weller, a Burger aide whom she wed in 1990.
In the early 1970s, while at the Star, House became an activist intent on ending nearly two centuries of male control of Washington's media establishment.
Like a guerrilla Brownie leader with her after-school rebel troop in Mom's basement, she helped plan picket lines and celebrity-packed galas to embarrass the all-white, all-male Gridiron Club, and ultimately force it to integrate. In 1979, she became president of the Washington Press Club, formed to counter the National Press Club's men-only membership policy. Those battles unified three generations of female journalists.
In 1982, House took the high court job, calling it "a license to learn."
Her early days were bumpy. There was the time she failed to recognize one of her bosses, William Rehnquist. Things gradually improved. Comparing breakneck morning drives to court from their Northern Virginia homes, House once observed that Justice Antonin Scalia, "who wasn't known on the D.C. Circuit as El Nino for nothing," could occasionally be seen "careening across three lanes of traffic. I count it a point of pride that I aced the justice out of a lane one morning as I, too, raced for the [10 a.m. starting] buzzer."
Later that day House told Scalia she'd seen him on the bridge."
"Did I cut you off?" he asked sweetly.
"No sir," she said, "I cut you off."
She often worked as she drove. "I think of her as an absolutely explosive person," said office mate Kathy Arberg. "I got e-mails entitled 'Grrrrrrr.' But then, she also called everyone 'Sweetie.'"
In an age of obstructionist and obfuscatory government spokespeople, House charmed court regulars: "She was more honest and more candid about what she could tell you than any other press officer I have known," said the Baltimore Sun's Lyle Denniston, dean of the court's press corps and a onetime Star crony. "And she had the nicest way of telling you to get lost."
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