Bonnie Angelo, a Time magazine reporter who covered the White House, chronicled the rise of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and wrote a well-received book about the impact of presidential mothers on their sons, died Sept. 17 at a nursing home in Bethesda, Md. She was 93.
The cause was complications from dementia, said her son, Christopher Levy.
Ms. Angelo cannonballed to the forefront of political journalism with a ferocious work ethic, a spitfire personality and a knack for winning the trust of the powerful. Journalist Nan Robertson of the New York Times once called the diminutive Ms. Angelo, with her Southern drawl, “ninety-eight pounds of pepper out of North Carolina.”
She hopscotched among papers including Long Island’s Newsday, where she covered the Kennedy White House and the U.S.-Soviet space race, before landing at Time in 1966. She once accompanied Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) to South America, where she watched him swim in the Amazon. She later joked about a journalist’s mind, ever keen for a scoop: “Hey,” she recalled thinking, “we have never had a U.S. senator eaten by piranhas.”
Ms. Angelo was a visible member of the Washington press corps, appearing on the Metromedia talk show “Panorama” for more than a decade. She also served as president of the Women’s National Press Club, a counterpart to the National Press Club. (The National Press Club began to admit women in 1971.)
The male-only club drew high-profile speakers, and Ms. Angelo related with rage decades later the indignities that female journalists faced to cover those visiting newsmakers. Women, she said, were shoehorned into the sweltering, standing-room ballroom balcony, while male journalists dined at tables and were permitted to ask questions.
“I remember being in that damned balcony crowded up against Pulitzer Prize-winners like Miriam Ottenberg . . . and Marguerite Higgins,” she told Robertson for her book “The Girls in the Balcony.” She recalled watching the men and their guests “sitting there on the ballroom floor and luxuriating over their crummy National Press Club apple pie.”
“In professional terms, it couldn’t have been meaner, it couldn’t have been pettier,” she continued. “You entered and left through a back door, and you’d be glowered at as you went through the club quarters. It was discrimination at its rawest.”
In 1978 Ms. Angelo was tapped to be Time’s bureau chief in London. The election the next year of Thatcher as prime minister — the first woman to lead a major Western power — “kept me in cover stories,” Ms. Angelo later said. She also wrote about the 1981 royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer as well as the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. She returned to the United States in 1985, first as New York bureau chief and later as a correspondent with a wide-ranging portfolio but an emphasis on politics.
In 2000 she wrote the book “First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents,” a corrective to a widely held notion that first ladies were the dominant female influence on the nation’s commanders in chief.
Ms. Angelo focused on the modern presidency, from Franklin D. Roosevelt and his domineering mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, to Bill Clinton and his flamboyant mother, Virginia “I was not one for the rules” Kelley. The matriarchs, she showed, often transferred their ambitions from their feckless husbands to their promising sons. Many also suffered harrowing setbacks early in life and emerged from tragedy with a fierce drive and resilience they passed on to their boys.
In her Washington Post review, journalist and Reagan White House chief of protocol Selwa Roosevelt (who married a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt) called “First Mothers” “a fascinating book, gracefully written and thoroughly researched, which gives the reader fresh insights into how the characters and values of our recent presidents were shaped.”
Ms. Angelo said the book was inspired by a conversation with Robert Kennedy as they traveled across California during the 1968 presidential primary.
“The family was deployed all over the state campaigning for him,” she later told C-Span, “and I said, ‘With all the tragedy that your family has suffered at the hands of politics, how do you account for the fact that they’re out there again?’ And he kind of looked at me under the eyebrows and said, ‘Have you met my mother?’ ”
Veronica Estelle Angelo was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Jan. 29, 1924, the youngest of four children. Her father ran a grocery store, and her mother was a teacher.
Bonnie, as she became known, graduated in 1944 from what was then the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro).
After working in the women’s pages at the old Winston-Salem Sentinel and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she arrived at the Washington bureau of Newsday in the mid-1950s. “The best thing that ever happened to me professionally was working for Alicia Patterson, a woman who believed that a woman reporter could do anything,” Ms. Angelo said in a history of the paper that Patterson founded.
In 1960, she landed a scoop with national political ramifications. The Catholic faith of Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Democratic candidate for president that year, had become an undercurrent of the campaign. But what was called “the religion issue” burst into the open that September at a meeting of 150 prominent Protestant ministers — led by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale — at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
They barred journalists from attending. Secrecy, Ms. Angelo later said, “whetted my appetite.” She sneaked in through a back entrance and sat in a small room near the meeting, where she could overhear the goings-on. Her story revealed what she called “very ugly and bigoted” remarks behind the ministers’ politely worded public resolution raising concerns about Vatican influence in the White House.
When the story came out, Peale distanced himself from the resolution. Kennedy went on to address a group of ministers in Houston about religious prejudice and freedom in what is regarded as one of his most eloquent speeches.
In the early 1960s Ms. Angelo also distinguished herself writing about school desegregation conflicts in Prince Edward County, Va., and the space race at the time of astronaut and future U.S. senator John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth. “I was there when John Glenn was a young Marine, and I’m here when he’s the ancient mariner,” she recalled in 1998 when she received the International Women’s Media Foundation lifetime achievement award and Glenn returned to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Her husband, Harold Levy, died in 1998. Their son, Christopher Levy of Bethesda, is her only immediate survivor.
Ms. Angelo wrote a second book, “First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives” (2005), which received mixed reviews. Post book critic Jonathan Yardley called it a “relentlessly upbeat” and “sanitized” take on the challenges of living in the national fishbowl.
In a career spent with politicians and their retinue, Ms. Angelo often enjoyed a privileged front-line position. But, sometimes, she did not.
Covering presidential daughter Lynda Johnson’s marriage in 1967 to future Virginia governor and senator Charles Robb, she was forced to view the nuptials from behind a drapery peephole. “They cut a little hole so I could see every magical moment,” she later told The Post, adding that she spent the ceremony kneeling on the floor. “And for that I bought a new velvet dress.”