In Memoriam: Frances Lewine, 1921-2008

In memory of JAWS Member Fran Lewine
JAWS pals Edie Lederer, left, and Linda Deutsch, right, turned out in October 2007 to see Frances Lewine receive the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo.

Click here to see the presentations by Linda Deutsch and Edie Lederer in honor of Fran at the JAWS 25th anniversary CAMP.

Click here for a CNN video tribute.

The Washington Post obituary.

By Kay Mills, JAWS member

Frances Lewine, pioneering journalist and longtime Journalism and Women Symposium member, died on January 19, the day before she would have celebrated her 87th birthday by going to the races.

“So many festivities were planned” for Fran’s birthday, said her longtime friend and former Associated Press colleague Linda Deutsch. A friend from CNN, where Fran had worked since 1981, had arranged to have that day’s fifth race at Charles Town Races named for her. “Fran’s lucky number was five.”

She had a long and groundbreaking career, which included covering the administrations of six presidents from Eisenhower to Carter. She was a leader among women journalists from the 1950s onward, protesting discrimination against women in jobs and assignments; her efforts helped lead such groups as the National Press Club to open their membership to women.

“Fran Lewine was a pioneer for women in journalism and she stood up to the Washington ‘media’ establishment and helped open doors that had been open only to men,” Edie Lederer, chief AP correspondent at the United Nations and another longtime friend and member of JAWS, told the AP. “She was passionate about freedom of the press, concerned about maintaining the highest journalistic standards in this era of new media — and a wonderful friend.”

In a brief biography Fran wrote for inclusion in annual JAWS camp program in September 2007, she described her life during that globetrotting period:

“During the White House years, she covered presidents and first ladies, traveling round the world: To Moscow for the famous kitchen debate between Khrushchev and Nixon, in South America with Pat Nixon on an earthquake mercy mission, chasing the Onassis yacht when Jackie Kennedy toured the Greek Islands and following her on a visit to India and Pakistan. And, she was in the thick of things when women demanded to be treated as equals with their male journalist colleagues.”

The Associated Press, CNN and Washington Post obituaries (the latter written by JAWS member Pat Sullivan) contain the details of Fran’s distinguished career. (See links on this page to those stories.) Just to hit the high spots:

  • A graduate of Hunter College where she edited the college newspaper, she worked as a reporter for the Plainfield, N.J., Courier-News and the Newark bureau of the AP before moving to the wire service’s Washington bureau (when another woman had reached 55 and had to retire).
  • She was a White House correspondent for the AP from 1956 to 1977, served as deputy director of public affairs for the Transportation Department in the Carter Administration, and became an assignment editor and field producer for CNN in 1981. She had recently had surgery for a blocked carotid artery, but her friend Edie Lederer said “she was feeling good and had gone to the movies on Friday night and was talking about going back to work this week or next” to her full-time CNN job. Appropriately, the movie was the Washington tale of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” in which one of Edie’s stories is mentioned near the beginning.
  • Fran was one of the plaintiffs, along with JAWS member Peg Simpson, in the sex discrimination lawsuit against AP filed in 1978 and settled in 1983 for back pay and an affirmative action plan. Fran had been passed over earlier in career for moves to the New York bureau and then felt she wasn’t taken seriously in Washington. In her early years in that bureau, she covered the social side of the White House but was also ready to do whatever else was required. “Say it’s a Saturday, and President Nixon has an Oval Office press conference, and you’re there,” Fran once said. “You’d get kudos for what you did, but they’d never consider that you could do it again.”

The AP lawsuit, coupled with one against The New York Times brought by JAWS members Betsy Wade, Joan Cook, Eileen Shanahan and others, put the news business on notice that it had to hire, promote and pay women fairly. The AP suit also had impact because so many AP stories appear in newspapers across the country, thus more women’s bylines started appearing in those papers from the wire service’s many bureaus.

Fran Lewine led by relentless perseverance. She helped fight successfully to open membership in the National Press Club and later the Gridiron Club to women. It may be hard for younger women to fathom what female journalists were up against in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Then, as now, many dignitaries give key speeches at the press club in Washington, but women had to cover these events from the balcony, sometimes getting beaten on a breaking story because the men downstairs could get to the phone first. Fran and Elsie Carper of the Washington Post, co-chairs then of the Women’s National Press Club Professional Committee, fired off telegrams to foreign leaders asking them not to speak at the club. Finally, in January 1971, the press club voted to admit women as members.

Even as they were winning this fight, the women in Washington turned their sights on another institution, the Gridiron Club, once described by Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times as “an assembly of troglodytes.” Nonetheless, it held a dinner each year, then as now, spoofing national leaders and attended by many of those leaders. But women were shut out. After several years of picketing, the women decided to hold a Counter-Gridiron Party. In 1974, they rented the gym at nearby Mount Vernon College and got big-name people like former Attorney General Elliott Richardson to participate. The highlight was Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John Mitchell and notorious for her late night phone calls. For $5 and the cost of the phone call at the Counter Gridiron event, Mitchell would make one of her calls to whomever you asked. Most recipients didn’t believe it was really Mitchell calling. In 1975 the Gridiron Club voted to admit women. Fran and UPI’s Helen Thomas were first female members.

Of course there was more to Fran than her professionalism and persistence. Said Linda Deutsch: Fran “inspired me long before I joined the AP. When I was in college, she gave a speech at a New Jersey journalism gathering…She was the glamorous White House reporter talking to the kids with aspirations. I never forgot her and when I had the chance to work with her, I was dazzled. “

Fran often traveled to California to visit her cousin, Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, and Linda, Fran and the late Theo Wilson, yet another JAWS stalwart, would go to dinner. “Then she began luring us to her favorite vacation spot, Las Vegas. Fran loved to gamble” and was looking forward to another trip to Vegas.

“I believe Fran’s greatest legacy is her infinite positive outlook on life, her endless curiosity, and her uncanny skill at finding a casino near every JAWS camp,” said another friend, Judy Miller. “The `munchkin’ leaves a huge hole in all of us.”

Fran “loved coming to JAWS to see old friends and to be energized by our new members,” Edie Lederer said. “In our usual group—with Linda Deutsch, Kathy Bonk, and Judy Miller—Fran and I were the swimmers and the walkers (along with Kathy). But for Fran the gambler, the best JAWS’ gatherings were the ones near casinos! Forget the scenery, it was the craps table that counted most.”

Many early JAWS members will remember the shopping trips with prizes for the person who spent the most money, Edie said. “Well, Fran would be the first to say she was not a shopper. Linda Deutsch and I chose all her clothes – but she did spend a lot of money! In fact, over Thanksgiving weekend Linda and I did a shopping `blitz’ at Draper and Damon in Los Angeles with Fran and chose about $400 worth of clothes for her in half an hour!”

Last fall Fran received the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, the highest honor the Missouri School of Journalism bestows. The citation recognized “her path-blazing career in Washington journalism and her unflinching efforts to eliminate barriers to equality in journalism.”

In her acceptance speech, Fran said: “In times like these, when the credibility of our nation and our president often comes into question, it is the reporter on the scene that can raise issues and put the spotlight on problems so the national can address them. Reporters should understand that they have an obligation to search for the truth and to stand in the front line in holding government and officials accountable for their actions.”

Fran was always on the front line. For example, she angered the White House press office — and even some of her editors — when she asked President Gerald Ford at a televised news conference whether he agreed with the administration’s guidelines urging federal officials not to patronize segregated facilities. Ford said he did. Then Fran asked him why he played golf every week at Burning Tree Country Club, which still refused to admit women at that time.

CNN is establishing an intership in her name. According to the memo: “To honor Fran’s legacy and her distinguished contributions, CNN will sponsor an annual paid internship in her name.  The internship will be based in our D.C. bureau and will be rewarded annually to a female journalism student.  While some details remain to be worked out, we hope to offer the first internship soon and help groom the next generation’s Fran Lewine.”

A public memorial is being planned for Fran at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.; the date has not been set.

Newspaper obituaries list survivors, and Fran had no immediate family remaining. But we were all Fran’s survivors, her family, and we are all the better for her life.

Kay Mills is a Santa Monica-based journalist and author of five books, including “A Place in the News: From the Women’s Pages to the Front Pages” (Columbia University Press, 1988)