She was a trailblazing woman who professed little feeling for the women's movement--she once posted a sign on her door that said: "If liberated I will not serve."
She was a diminutive, soft-spoken lady who enjoyed puttering in her flower garden but liked to say: "I don't have stress, I give stress."
She ran the editorial pages of The Washington Post, which have never been noted for their hilarity, and she ran them for 20 years with great sobriety and dignity. But here's what one of her columnists, David S. Broder, remembers: "She could make me laugh faster than anyone else at the paper."
Meg Greenfield, who died yesterday at the age of 68, was the most important woman newspaper editor in American history. And so it might seem appropriate, on the occasion of her death, to speak of the legacy she leaves for those like her who will come after.
Just one problem: There will never be another one like her.
Meg Greenfield was fearless, tireless, mysterious, funny, tough--tough, tough, tough--supremely confident but engagingly self-deprecating, gifted, and, above all else, possessed of what former executive editor Ben Bradlee simply and aptly calls "her goddamn brain power."
This is a hard death for The Post. It's not just the lost thrill of life in Greenfield's reflected glory (how many journalists collect honorary degrees from the likes of Princeton, Smith, Williams, Wesleyan and Georgetown?). She was one of the handful of people who could be said to embody The Post. From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to the bitter pressmen's strike to the paper's ruined love affair with former Mayor Marion S. Barry, Greenfield was intimately and forcefully involved.
She represented, in fact, all the things the paper strives, however imperfectly, to be. Though she had been ill for several years, she did her job virtually to the end, editing "every page, every word, every day," as one colleague put it, whether in person, by fax or by phone. It is hard, and sad, to imagine this place without her.
And so a series of highly sentimental paragraphs would be entirely merited--except that Greenfield loathed sentimentality. As she battled lung cancer, she allowed people to call her at home only if they promised not to start crying on her.
So let's talk about how funny she was.
It was a droll and cutting wit, hard-bitten--just the way we like it in the journalism racket. One day the editorial board was discussing the fate of the snail darter, a tiny and endangered fish that was threatened by a plan to build a new dam. "I'll solve that one," Greenfield said, then paused a half-beat. (Her comic timing was always impeccable and called to mind the rhythms of the great Jack Benny.)
"Just give me a bottle of tartar sauce and a small fork."
In the dark,quiet and woody room where the paper's editorial board meets each Monday morning around a long table, there are photos of various editors of The Post's opinion pages. Here is a stuffy man with a pipe between his teeth. Next comes a bear of a fellow with a smoldering cigar.
Greenfield is posed peering over her glasses--and puckishly brandishing a pipe of her own.
No one ever derived more joy from the foibles, ironies, incongruities and bunk of Washington. There is a fiercely defended separation between The Post's newsroom and its editorial board, and on a typical day Greenfield kept to the cloistered side of the wall. But let there be a juicy bit of scandal or gossip in the air and instantly she appeared among the reporters, a sly grin on her face, hunting for tidbits and trying out punch lines.
Indeed, her last months--though full of suffering that she endured with great courage--were not without joy, thanks to the ridiculous contretemps between White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and columnist Christopher Hitchens.
"She was never a sweet old lady and I like to think she died happy knowing that," says David Ignatius, a Post op-ed columnist.
No, not sweet. Here's Greenfield on Greenfield: "I would make a great prisoner of war. No one would ever get anything out of me."
Greenfield was so discreet that her friendship was valued by some very flashy people. She introduced Microsoft mogul Bill Gates to investor Warren Buffett (the two became best buddies), and she was the third at lunch whenever her closest friend Katharine Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co.'s executive committee, got together with first lady Nancy Reagan.
And she was even more guarded about herself. Of personal biography, we know little. Meg Greenfield grew up in Seattle, the brainy daughter of an antiques dealer. Her mother died when she was 12. She graduated summa cum laude from Smith College, worked for that sainted figure of intellectual liberals, Adlai E. Stevenson, and spent some years in Greenwich Village, where smart young men pursued her, though she never entirely let herself be caught.
Was she ever deeply in love? One of her oldest friends was asked that question once and said: "Oh, I would never ask Meg that."
She preferred to be known for her work. Greenfield established herself as a force in Washington by writing and editing analytical pieces in the last days of a magazine called the Reporter. She went boldly into subjects typically reserved to a priesthood of men: arms control, science, civil rights.
"Everything was always possible for her. All subjects could be learned and learned on deadline," says her longtime deputy editor, Stephen Rosenfeld. "She was someone who thought things out early in her career and those became the building blocks of her philosophy. That gave her a lot of confidence."
The Reporter died in 1968. Greenfield landed at The Post and in a head-spinning few years was promoted to deputy editorial page editor, launched an elegant and influential column in Newsweek, and became an increasingly key figure in the life of Katharine Graham.
This paper has seen some amazing women--more and earlier, it could be argued, than anywhere else. It was clear when Meg Greenfield toasted Mrs. Graham on the occasion of a Pulitzer prize for her memoirs. It was clear one cold, rainy day in 1997, when Greenfield eulogized Ann Devroy, one of journalism's most admired political reporters.
No one who heard it will forget that eulogy, which began funny and immediately turned smart and was gracefully crafted in every detail. It was a tribute of one tough woman to another, a reflection of one cancer battler on another, a testament to grit and dignity that, despite its restraint, was perhaps the most personal thing Greenfield ever wrote. She was speaking of Ann, but also, we knew, of herself.
"The job was not her vehicle to anywhere. It was her joy and her obligation. She was a worker known for her tirelessness, for her sense of craft . . . she was impossible to fool or divert. . . .
"She was guarded about the extent to which she would permit herself to be approached as a victim, a patient, someone who should generate sympathy. . . . For someone of Ann's proud independence"--of Meg's proud independence--"this kind of mournful attention would have been particularly hard to bear."
"So just as Ann's work product had no frills and no personal airs to it, her emotional life, as we were allowed to witness it, had no public sentimentality, and no goo, no little squiggly things made out of sclerotic vanilla frosting. It was intense and honest and unembellished, yet another evidence of her particular virtues.
"I would sum up those values as: excellence, unstinting effort, craft, loyalty and love."
CAPTION: Meg Greenfield, center, joined Katharine Graham, left, Allan G. Spoon, Leonard Downie Jr., Benjamin C. Bradlee and Robert G. Kaiser in celebrating Graham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize for her autobiography.
CAPTION: Katharine Graham, right, and Meg Greenfield talk with then-Vice President Bush in a gathering at The Post.