PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

'Doris Fleeson' Blazed a Trail for Women Journalists

Brian Burnes
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Fleeson with Eleanor Roosevelt

"I belonged to the 'who the hell reads the second paragraph' school of journalism," Fleeson sometimes said.


Doris Fleeson

Publisher: Sunstone
Length: 302 pages
Author: Carolyn Sayler
Price: $32.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-05
Amazon

Starched-collar Kansas didn't know what to make of Doris Fleeson.

There was never any argument regarding her achievement. She was clearly the only member of the Sterling, Kansas, High School Class of 1918 whose syndicated political column by the 1950s was distributed to 120 newspapers, who maintained homes in Georgetown and Palm Springs, and whose closest friends included Eleanor Roosevelt and H.L. Mencken.

In 1927, at age 26, she had joined the staff of the New York Daily News, considered the country's first successful tabloid.

After World War II, she became the first nationally syndicated woman political columnist, writes author Carolyn Sayler, producing perhaps 5,500 columns over the next 22 years. That made her the colleague and competitor of editorial page heavyweights such as Walter Lippmann and Marquis Childs, whom she, given her tabloid background, sometimes scooped.

"I belonged to the 'who the hell reads the second paragraph' school of journalism," Fleeson sometimes said.

In this admirable and clear-eyed biography, Sayler restores to Fleeson, who died in 1970, the relevance she deserves. While the book details the journalist's encounters with several presidents as well as the influence she once wielded in Washington, the principal story told here is how Fleeson finessed and ultimately redefined the role of women in daily newspapers.

Her path into the male-dominated newsrooms of the '20s was by way of the roles then routinely reserved for women, such as designated "sob sister" or "stunt girl".

Fleeson, Sayler writes, participated in her own stunt two months after her arrival on the Daily News. After watching a male reporter gain little traction in the investigation of a vanished female student at Smith College, editors instructed the petite Fleeson to rent a raccoon coat and head for the Massachusetts campus, on the theory that she could go native and cultivate sources her older male colleague could not.

Fleeson rented the coat. And if Fleeson didn't crack the story — the missing girl's body turned up months later in a river — the lesson wasn't lost on her. The chauvinism that pigeonholed women into limited roles at the nation's newspapers could be turned to her advantage if she could, in turn, go places men could not.

More than 30 years later, during the 1960 presidential campaign, some political writers speculated that Jacqueline Kennedy's pregnancy had been carefully timed in part to render her less worldly and cosmopolitan to voters. Fleeson disagreed, angered that such wisdom could be considered conventional because of the attractive appearance of a candidate's wife.

"Comparisons are odious," she wrote, "but it might be pointed out that Mrs. Nixon is not precisely dowdy, as her couturiere, Mrs. Elizabeth Arden, would be the first to say."

It's hard to imagine Walter Lippmann or Marquis Childs going there. Also revealing is just how much "Kansas" Fleeson would or would not wear on her sleeve.

She had no problem coming back to Sterling in 1949 to allow two sisters-in-law to honor her 17-year-old daughter with a dance at the town's Masonic hall. "My daughter is coming out at the Masonic Temple in Sterling where her family really belongs!" Fleeson wrote Eleanor Roosevelt.

Yet, on such trips, the author writes, Fleeson also would scan the Sterling Bulletin for funeral home advertisements and other examples of Sunflower State provincialism for the amusement of Mencken, a collector of such material. It had been Mencken's American Mercury magazine, Sayler adds, with its droll regard for all things Kansas, that seemed to have greatly influenced Fleeson while a student at the University of Kansas.

"When Doris renounced Kansas," Sayler writes, "it seemed more than a response to a fashionable idea, and the judgment showed no sign of abating through the years."

For all of her admirers among big-city daily newspaper editors, Sayler adds, Fleeson's syndicated column had few paying customers among outstate Kansas editors, some of whom apparently sensed a smirk in her copy, suggestive of someone who had gotten a little above her raising. Or maybe it was just her politics.

The columnist, Sayler writes, often railed against those Republicans who declined to condemn Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Her description of the June 9, 1954, confrontation between McCarthy and Boston lawyer Joseph Welch ("Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?") filled Fleeson with indignation. McCarthyism, she wrote, represented a "flower of evil," and Welch had proved the "angry man" who "cut it down and plunged it deep into the clear, cool waters of the New England conscience."

What's not to like? Fleeson is depicted here as having enjoyed an apparently seamless transition in first lady access after Franklin Roosevelt's 1945 death made Harry Truman president.

It's difficult to imagine it being that smooth. Bess Truman famously canceled the press conferences that Eleanor Roosevelt had been known for. Yet Bess Truman, as Sayler documents, soon was exchanging fond notes with Fleeson.

Just how Truman and Fleeson, two political veterans, had circled one another before finding common ground would have been interesting to read.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.