"I know all those people," explained E. Fannie Granton simply.
Granton, looking stern and uncomfortable, was trying to explain how she won her place as the information pulse center of black Washington. For her, it was too obvious for analysis.
"The knowledge comes from living here for years, having started with the old segregated social agencies, working with Southeast House. I knew Flaxie Pinkett's dad. Having gone to Howard . . . knowing the Mordecai Johnsons."
In short, Granton, 65, who has lived in Washington since her elementary school years, is well-connected. For 27 years, ever since her switch from social worker and part-time columnist for a black weekly, to girl Friday, then reporter, then columnist for the Johnson Publications bureau here, she has been the final word on a social world that was once a secret city. In addition, she is one of a few black journalists to wield her own social clout. And as a hostess and cook, she can draw equally from Embassy Row and the Executive Office Building for her own annual party.
Last night, the tables turned, Granton put away her pen and pencil as a group of Washingtonians gave a tribute to her. It was an event she approved of only as a mechanism for charity fund-raising. "I have just never been vain, that's not a part of me. My life has simply been one of a plugger," said Granton, as unassuming as her green wool pant suit and beige bucks.
Granton laughed appreciatively at all the tributes, a laugh that indicated she wasn't going to let remarks like "an unsung saint of journalism" swell her head. After she received a proclamation from Effi Barry, the wife of the mayor, and tributes from her journalistic colleagues, Simeon Booker and Calvin Rolark, she spoke of her own future. "Being 65 is just a step along the way. Someone asked if I was planning on retiring, I said 'no way.' So let's bring on the records now and rock."
Granton's emergence as informal pipeline got started with a party during Dwight Eisenhower's second inaugural. "We had just opened the bureau in the old Standard Oil Building on Capitol Hill and had an open house on Inauguration Day. Members of the Supreme Court, the Congress, and everyone else came. It was the talk of the town." recalled Granton. And in between the generous supply of chicken and whiskey, Simeon Booker, the Johnson bureau chief, and Granton were established as people to cultivate.
Besides watching for hirings and promotions in the government, the activities of social groups and personal notes on weddings and graduations, Granton kept a close eye on the personal lives of the black politicians. "In Congress at the time we had Charles Dawson and Adam Clayton Powell. Dawson was a facts person, a cool personality, and his wife was a Christian Science practitioner, so she didn't even come to Washington," said Granton. "But Powell was colorful, had a colorful family and we reported on all the comings and goings."
Over the years Granton did her share of reporting on White House relations with the American black community and African countries. She went on several trips with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, traveled on two overseas trips with Pat Nixon and dutifully reported every black name ever invited to a White House tate dinner.
Her roles in Washington included that of a healer of social breaches, even up to White House level. Once, during the Ford administration, Walter Washington was left off the guest list of a social function. John Calhoun, then an aide at the White House, picked up the phone and asked Granton how to make amends for the error. "She knew the community so well, she knew exactly the right person to call to help smooth over that dreadful mistake," recalled Calhoun. "And she was the first person I would call when we needed to know people, especially press people for briefings."
Only once, Granton recalled, did anyone ever come close to suing or clobbering her. "I reported that someone had built a custom-made house to the tune of $60-70,000. And their money came from numbers and they were having trouble with income tax people. They were pretty angry," said Granton, smiling a little wickedly. And shrugging.
In time, Granton willfully let her job of reporting eclipse and shape her own personal life. The invitations became the social life for the never-married woman. "The job does keep you busy and I admit it's my social life. On weekends I can go to three or four places a day, but again, most of the people giving things are my friends," said Granton. Concurrent with her career, Granton took care of a brother, sister and invalid father. She never missed her deadline.
Though she seems unobtructive at social events, arriving like a dignified doyenne in her uniform of pantsuits, Granton has never bitten her tongue. Once when a young reporter at the bureau was assigned to do the pool report at the White House, she exploded at his sloppiness. "I did the pool report just like the others did, with a few typos, a quick treatment of the material," said Roy Betts. "She blasted me for doing it in that fashion. I mean she came through me like a hurricane. And she said "You're educated, do it in an educated fashion.'"
Granton's own angle, picking up the black aspect of a library meeting or political convention, hasn't changed. "I do try to pick up something different. Last week at one gatering, someone reminded me of their daughter's wedding, another of a daughter finishing law school, another wanted to know how to get Jean Young (Ambassador Andrew Young's wife) to participate in a convention," said Granton. "I consider that all a reporter's duty."
She doesn't consider her column gossip. And her eyebrows lower to her glass frames when she talks about the prevalance of cheap talk. "I don't consider it gossip because it is not intended to deride, more to inform. It's who's going something, and what's happening in a certain circle." CAPTION: Picture, Fannie Granton, by James A. Parcell