Shana Alexander, a groundbreaking journalist who found fame as a commentator on "60 Minutes" and as the author of true-crime books, died of cancer June 23 at an assisted living facility in Hermosa Beach, Calif. She was 79.
The first female reporter and columnist for Life magazine, Ms. Alexander also was the first woman to write a column in Newsweek. Yet she achieved her greatest celebrity -- about which she was decidedly ambivalent -- as the liberal voice opposing James J. Kilpatrick's conservative views on the "Point-Counterpoint" segment of "60 Minutes" in the 1970s.
"I don't give a rap about '60 Minutes,' " Ms. Alexander said at the end of her four-year run on the show in 1979. "I care about my writing. I'm not a quack-quack TV journalist."
Ms. Alexander emerged from a privileged childhood -- her glamorous parents entertained the leading lights of New York's stage and journalism sets -- to became a resourceful and precocious reporter. She landed a newspaper job while still in her teens, and her first interview was with stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who was pregnant.
While working for Life in 1965, she found it difficult as a woman to get credentials to cover the emerging war in Vietnam. Outwitting the military authorities and her editors, she went to Vietnam as a dancer in a production of "Hello, Dolly."
After leaving "60 Minutes," she wrote several best-selling books, particularly about women caught up in criminal intrigue. "Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower'' (1983) presented a sympathetic yet nuanced portrait of Harris, the headmistress of the Madeira School in McLean, who was convicted in 1980 of murdering her longtime lover, Tarnower, the developer of the Scarsdale Diet.
"She reminds me of me," Ms. Alexander wrote. "Same hairdo, same shoes, even the same college class."
Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley credited Ms. Alexander for being "absolutely honest. . . . It is precisely because she gives us Harris, warts and all, that Harris appears, for the first time, as someone genuinely worth caring about."
Ms. Alexander later championed Harris's cause, publishing a collection of her letters in 1991 and urging -- along with Kilpatrick, her old "60 Minutes" sparring partner -- that Harris be granted clemency. In 1993, Harris was freed after serving 12 years in prison.
Born Oct. 6, 1925, Ms. Alexander was the daughter of songwriter Milton Ager and journalist Cecelia Ager, whose apartment on West 57th Street in New York, across from Carnegie Hall, was a sparkling salon of music and talk. Her father wrote the music for "Ain't She Sweet," "Hard-Hearted Hannah" and "Happy Days Are Here Again," and her mother was a film critic and magazine writer. Irving Berlin, Dorothy Parker and the Marx Brothers were family friends, and one of Ms. Alexander's earliest memories was of sitting under the family's piano, watching George Gershwin's feet work the pedals.
Before she graduated from Vassar College in 1945, Ms. Alexander worked for PM, the New York newspaper her mother worked for. After stints at Harper's Bazaar and Flair magazines, she joined Life in 1951 and wrote the column "The Feminine Eye" from 1964 to 1969.
She was named editor of McCall's magazine in 1969, only to resign in disgust two years later.
"Here was this magazine selling all these products to women, and it had no women in any level of photography or editing," she later said. "I was a figurehead."
After writing for Newsweek from 1972 to 1975, she became the liberal foil to Kilpatrick on "60 Minutes." Their combative arguments became such a well-known part of 1970s culture that they were often parodied on "Saturday Night Live," with Dan Aykroyd mocking Jane Curtin as "you ignorant slut."
In reality, Kilpatrick and Ms. Alexander exchanged scripts before the show and were friends off the set. But Ms. Alexander grew tired of the program's limited format and quit the show to concentrate on her books, beginning in 1979 with "Anyone's Daughter: The Times and Trials of Patty Hearst."
"I understood her because in some way she was the girl I had been," she wrote, "and in some way I was also her mother."
The New York Times lauded the book as the "kind of charged and resonating journalism that only Norman Mailer, at his best, has managed so well."
Ms. Alexander also wrote about the Mafia, a family murder in Utah and of Bess Myerson, the television star who became entangled in a love triangle and a complicated case of political favoritism.
Ms. Alexander's 1995 memoir, "Happy Days: My Mother, My Father, My Sister, and Me," explored her glittering but emotionally remote childhood. She also wrote of her long affair with British playwright Harry Craig and about the suicide in 1987 of her adopted daughter, Katherine, who leapt to her death from Ms. Alexander's Park Avenue apartment.
Twice married and divorced, Ms. Alexander once wrote, "When two people marry they become in the eyes of the law one person, and that one person is the husband."
Survivors include her sister.