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.