In a city overfilled with reporters, all it takes is one great story to make a name for yourself, a retired scribe observed last week.
One great story and a million interviews, thousands of nights pounding the keyboard, and countless attempts to be in the right place at the right time. That's harder than it sounds, especially if you were a young newswoman in the 1940s, trying to hold on to a job as experienced male reporters were flooding back from World War II.
Ruth Gmeiner first made her name covering the U.S. Supreme Court. She was the first woman to cover the court and had already gone on to other assignments when she was back at the court May 17, 1954, to fill in for a colleague. In the courtroom, she spotted an unusual number of notable spectators, including the wife of Chief Justice Earl Warren, and sent a note through the pneumatic tube to a reporter in the pressroom below: "Do you suppose this could be the day?"
When Warren simply began reading what turned out to be the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and the court clerks failed to hand out a copy of the decision as was normal procedure, Gmeiner had the presence of mind to start scribbling notes. Scraps shot through the pneumatic tube to fellow United Press reporter Charlotte Moulton, who was waiting to write the story.
When the outcome of the decision was certain, Gmeiner wrote in large, clear script: "Flash -- Supreme Court declares segregation unconstitutional. Repeat -- segregation out." Moulton relayed the news to the wire service. Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas, then a UP copy aide, said, "I was there when they read that flash, and I must say, I had goose bumps."
Ruth Gmeiner Frandsen, who died of pneumonia June 10 at age 85, worked her way into a reporter's slot from the entry-level job of typing the stories telephoned in by reporters. She held the Supreme Court beat for about six years, until 1949, through the return of the displaced male reporter-veterans. It was a rarefied breed of newswoman who survived the postwar purge, including Thomas, who became UPI's White House correspondent; Eileen Shanahan, who became the New York Times' economics correspondent and founding editor of Governing magazine; and Moulton, who succeeded Gmeiner on the Supreme Court beat and held it for three decades.
"Coming to work every day in Washington -- at the court or the Capitol or wherever -- was always such a thrill that I had to pinch myself. Even after several years, it seemed too good to be true. But we suddenly began to dread it," she once said. "You came to work never knowing if it was going to be your last day."
Thomas described Gmeiner as "one of the real pathfinders, one of the real pioneers. . . .
"She was a great reporter. It was very unusual to have a women in those positions in those days. UP had eight or 10 women [reporters], and they fired most of them when the men came back from World War II. . . . The assumption was they would want those $24-a-week jobs back," Thomas said.
Friends called Gmeiner smart, curious, adventurous and fierce. She went out on a Nova Scotia fishing boat full of men during a storm; she made her son late for school because she took a detour to take him to the racetrack for the first time. "We hit a trifecta and spent our winnings at a French restaurant," he recalled.
Gmeiner's days as a reporter lasted through 1954, when she married UP's Washington news editor, Julius Frandsen, and was required to resign. The Washington Star carried a brief item on the wedding, calling the bride and groom "a well-known couple in newspaper circles."
She had been an officer in the Newspaper Guild and in the Women's Press Club. After her resignation, she kept up with the news, habitually clipping newspaper stories for her files, said another former colleague, Ann Free. Thomas agreed, noting that "she was always au courant with news, she always took notes when listening to a speech, and she always asked the family question: Why?"
After United Press, her focus turned to family -- her son, Jon Frandsen, became chief congressional correspondent for Gannett News Service -- and animal rights. She, Free and other animal rights activists raided a Prince William County barn to expose the treatment of dogs that were to become scientific research subjects. The caretaker refused to give them the only live dog on the property, so the group took up a collection and, for $50, the Frandsens became the owners of a coonhound they named Becky.
Now known as Ruth Frandsen, she served on the Montgomery County Humane Society board, lobbied for anti-cruelty laws and took in wounded birds, blind squirrels and lame dogs and cats.
Her son said she never revealed how she felt about quitting the UP (it became United Press International in 1959). But having covered Richard M. Nixon's rise on the House Un-American Activities Committee, she always made a point of voting against him.
Her abbreviated journalistic career had more than one highlight. Before the Supreme Court, she covered first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and a variety of federal agencies; after the court beat, she was assigned to cover first lady Bess Truman at the White House, the 1948 and 1952 political conventions, the Alger Hiss investigation and the Puerto Rican nationalists who fired a volley of shots during a session of the House of Representatives.
The night of the Gridiron Club dinner in 1949, news editor Frandsen was alerted to get out to Bethesda Naval Hospital. He left an after-dinner party and picked up Gmeiner, his reporter, on the way. While he and other journalists hollered for information outside the hospital, Gmeiner sweet-talked her way into the 16th-floor room of former secretary of defense James V. Forrestal and found, next to his bed, a book of poetry open to Sophocles' "Ajax," which includes the lines:
When reason's day
Sets rayless -- joyless -- quenched in cold decay
Better to die, and sleep
The never-waking sleep, than linger on
And dare to live when the soul's life is gone.
Her soon-to-be husband made that the first paragraph in Gmeiner's story on Forrestal's suicide.