Marianne Means, a journalist who switched from copy editing to reporting because she was told that editing was no job for a woman, and who broke up another old boys’ club as one of the earliest female White House correspondents, covering the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died Dec. 2 at her home in Washington. She was 83.
The cause was complications from colon cancer, said a son-in-law, Peter Dunning.
Ms. Means’s career was marked by an astounding rise from newspapers in Nebraska, where she made a crucial connection with then-Sen. Kennedy as a student, to the halls of the White House and Congress, where for five decades she covered politics and policymaking in a twice-weekly, widely syndicated Hearst Newspapers column.
“She was a common-sense, middle-of-the-road liberal,” said journalist Charles Lewis, a former Washington bureau chief for Hearst who edited Ms. Means’s columns and recalled her sprawling — and stolen, out of sight since 1998 — collection of more than 250 historical political campaign buttons.
Her political views, as well as a sense of glamour that led some publications to comment on her “chic Parisian styles” and brief foray into modeling, helped her establish a close rapport with Democrats such as Kennedy. The president reportedly sought to help Ms. Means, then a reporter for Hearst, one-up her male colleagues in the press corps.
“Give her some stories,” the president told one aide, according to journalist Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s book “The Kennedy White House.” “Give her all the help you can.”
Ms. Means was in the lead press bus in Dallas, reporting on Kennedy’s reelection campaign, when the president was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. “Every detail of the day will be imprinted on my mind forever,” she later said, recalling the bloodstained cushions of Kennedy’s Lincoln Continental convertible.
She then covered the Johnson administration for two years, joining the president on diplomatic trips abroad and to his ranch in the Texas Hill Country, where she filed stories as a fast-driving Johnson raced around in an old fire engine and proclaimed, “This is why Barry Goldwater wanted to be president.”
She also wrote a book about first ladies, “The Woman in the White House” (1963), which featured interviews with Kennedy and former presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who discussed their wives’ largely unheralded roles in shaping public policy.
Ms. Means acquired a national profile as she began writing her column in 1965, appearing on news programs as well as the “Tonight” show with Johnny Carson and the CBS game show “What’s My Line?”
Her column did not typically break news, Lewis said, but summarized the goings-on of Washington for readers at scores of newspapers across the country — and did so with a distinctively female perspective, keen to observe differences in the way she and colleagues such as reporter Helen Thomas were treated in comparison to men covering national politics.
“President Harry Truman once warned me he would ‘spank’ me if I didn’t write nice things about the ‘madam,’ ” first lady Bess Truman, Ms. Means wrote in her farewell column in 2008. “At my first presidential press conference, in December 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to recognize my wildly flaying arm and call on me, although I was the only woman in the press contingent (or maybe because I was). If I had worn a red dress, it probably wouldn’t have helped.”
Separately, she offered this advice to women trying to break into journalism: “Act like a lady; work like a dog.”
Marianne Hansen was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on June 13, 1934. Her father was a farmer, according to Dunning. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1956, and that year married a classmate, Cecil Paul Means. She graduated from George Washington University’s law school in 1977.
Ms. Means was managing editor of the Nebraska student paper, and said she had always wanted to be a journalist but initially planned to work as a copy editor. Her ambitions changed in part because of a move to Washington — after working at papers in Nebraska, she joined the Northern Virginia Sun in Arlington in 1957, where she said she was pressed to become a reporter — and because of a chance meeting with Kennedy.
While studying at Nebraska, she and a sorority sister, a sibling of Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen, were tasked with driving the Massachusetts senator from the airport to a speaking engagement on campus. The two struck up such a connection that Ms. Means was assigned to cover his presidential campaign for Hearst, which she joined in 1959. Kennedy reportedly asked Hearst if she could stay on as a White House correspondent.
Marriages to Means, Emmet Riordan and Edward DeHart ended in divorce. Her husband of 21 years, the New York Times political reporter Warren Weaver Jr., died in 1997. She married the conservative columnist and “60 Minutes” commentator James J. Kilpatrick, a longtime friend who had also recently lost his spouse, in 1998. He died in 2010.
Survivors include four stepdaughters from her fourth marriage, Carolyn Fenn near Topeka, Kan., Sally Weaver of Narberth, Pa., Melissa Weaver Dunning of Berryville, Va., and Annie Buck of Underhill, Vt.; two stepsons from her fifth marriage, Michael Sean Kilpatrick of Decatur, Ga., and Kevin Kilpatrick of Fairfax County, Va.; nine grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. A stepson from her fifth marriage, Chris Kilpatrick, died in 2015.
Three decades into her political column, Ms. Means was asked by a University of Nebraska journalism student if she ever struggled to generate ideas and material. “The Lord always provides,” she quipped. “Some politician always screws up.”
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly described Marianne Means's location during the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. She was in the lead press bus in Dallas that day but she was not in the lead press car, which included a smaller group of national reporters that was closer to the president. The story has been updated.
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