“I have a penchant for being irreverent,” Maryon Allen said in the interview that may have ended her political career. “I learned one thing in politics. The hardest thing to do is to keep your mouth shut. I never have before.”
In 1978, Mrs. Allen was named by Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace to succeed her husband, Alabama Sen. James B. Allen (D), after he died in office. During her five-month tenure, she was known as a tart-tongued gadfly, a storyteller of epic proportions and an disengaged legislator with the worst absentee record in Senate history.
Still, she seemed safely on her way to winning a special election until she gave an interview to Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn, in which she offered views on politics, abortion and southern femininity that stirred up the folks back home and led to her electoral downfall.
Mrs. Allen was 92 when she died July 23 at her home in Birmingham, Ala. A nephew, Alabama State Sen. Trip Pittman (R) confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.
Mrs. Allen, whose first name was pronounced “Mary on,” as if it were two words, met her husband in 1964, when she was a journalist for the Birmingham News, and he was Alabama’s lieutenant governor under Wallace. They married that year, and in 1968 James Allen was elected to the U.S. Senate.
After they moved to Washington, Mrs. Allen began to write a column — “The Reflections of a News Hen” — that appeared in Alabama newspapers.
Her husband was known as a conservative Democrat with an expert knowledge of senatorial rules, which he used to delay legislation with which he disagreed, most notably, treaties to turn over U.S. control of the Panama Canal to the country of Panama.
He had a heart attack on June 1, 1978, and died at 65, with his wife cradling him in her arms.
“I knew when I saw his eyes he wasn’t going to live,” she later told The Post. “The very last words he said to me were ‘I love you and don’t ever forget that.’ Not many people have that.”
Wallace then appointed Mrs. Allen to her husband’s seat, with a special election scheduled later in the year.
“George took a big breath,” Mrs. Allen later wrote in The Post, “and said, ‘Course you know and understand, Maryon, that I’m going to be running, don’t you?’ Long silence, for Maryon didn’t say anything. ‘Maryon, you do understand that, don’t you?’ Once again Maryon was mum. ‘Maryon, you’re there, aren’t you?’ This time I answered, ‘Yes, George, I’m here.’
“ ‘Well, what you got to say?’ ”
“ ‘Nothing, George.’ ”
By her silence, Mrs. Allen made it clear that she would not be pushed aside, effectively keeping Wallace the Senate seat for himself. (The only other female senator at the time was Muriel Humphrey (D-Minn.), who succeeded her husband, former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey.)
Before the September primary leading up to the special election, Mrs. Allen was the subject of a 5,300-word profile by Quinn, who quoted the newly minted senator on a variety of subjects.
On her political models: “My heroes in life were Winston Churchill, Adlai Stevenson, Jack Kennedy and Jim Allen. Now that Jim Allen is dead I don’t have any heroes any more.”
On Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative opponent of women’s rights: “She’s supposed to be so feminine and all. Well, she’s about as feminine as a sidewalk drill.”
On abortion: “I feel it is such a personal issue for women . . . I wouldn’t want anyone to dictate to me their religious beliefs or the right of my own body. I feel very strongly about that. I hope that’s an honest answer.”
Alabamians were perhaps more aghast when Mrs. Allen mentioned that she had been in a hotel room, wearing her nightgown, when two workers appeared to wash the windows.
“Always looking for votes, I just said, ‘Y’all come on in and have some coffee,’ ” she said.
“We had a good ole time but if Jim Allen had ever found out I was having coffee with two window washers in my nightgown he would have killed me. But I got two solid votes for Allen. Can you just see the head of the Alabama Baptist church if he heard that story?”
The interview became a leading issue in the campaign — along with Mrs. Allen’s stated enjoyment of white wine, or “giggle juice,” and her refusal to debate her opponents, which she attributed to bad campaign advice.
“I was made out to be the most irreverent, sarcastic, profane, constituent-hating, voter-contemptuous, late-husband-despising, naughty-merry-widow whore lady who ever drove up the road to Washington, D.C.,” she later wrote in The Post.
She failed to reach the 50 percent threshold needed to win the primary outright, then lost in a runoff to Donald Stewart, who went on to win the special election.
As a senator, Mrs. Allen was perhaps best known for supporting a bill that would have allowed states to rescind their previous ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The measure failed, as did the ERA itself.
During her five months in office, Mrs. Allen missed 155 of 356 roll-call votes in part because she was campaigning. Her absentee rate of 43.5 percent has never been equaled, before or since.
Maryon Pittman was born Nov. 30, 1925, in Meridian, Miss., and moved with her family to Birmingham a year later. Her father ran a Caterpillar tractor dealership, and her mother was a homemaker.
She studied journalism at the University of Alabama, dropping out after her 1946 marriage to Joshua Mullins. After the marriage ended in divorce, she sold insurance and later became a reporter for weekly newspapers and the Birmingham News.
Survivors include three children from her first marriage; two stepchildren; and several grandchildren.
In 1979, Mrs. Allen wrote a long, freewheeling article for The Post of her brief political career. She described entering her late husband’s Capitol Hill office, only to find his chief of staff talking on the phone and smoking a cigar, with his feet on the desk.
“He kept talking, and I kept standing and looking,” she wrote. “Finally, the message began to drill through to him that I did not consider myself a guest in my own office, and I certainly as hell did not consider him the new owner of the desk and chair.”
She also didn’t disguise her contempt for Wallace, Alabama’s four-term segregationist governor and a onetime presidential aspirant: “George Wallace relishes power as few people on this earth ever have . . . I have wondered in fear and awe what this little swaggering, power hungry gamecock would do if he ever really had power. Real power.”
Mrs. Allen wrote a column on politics and parties for The Post’s Style section from 1979 to 1981, then returned to Birmingham. She worked in public relations and became an interior designer, a dress designer and a restorer of antique clothing and dolls.
Her grandmother taught her to sew when she was 2, Mrs. Allen said, but no one had to teach her how to talk.
“In our family self-expression was never a problem,” she said. “We never listened to each other. We just waited for the other to take a deep breath so we could get a word in.”