Celebrating a JAWS Founder, Fran Lewine, Who Would Have Been 100 Years Old This Month

Fran Lewine, one of the founding members of the Journalism & Women’s Symposium, would have been 100 years old this month. JAWS has honored her over the years with the Fran Lewine Interview Project to record the stories of women who made a mark in journalism.

Fran was a leader among women journalists in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, protesting discrimination against women in jobs and assignments. She was president of The Women’s National Press Club at a time when some major journalistic organizations excluded women or limited their participation. The efforts of Lewine and other reporters eventually led to such groups as the National Press Club and the Gridiron Club opening their membership to women. She was a White House correspondent for The Associated Press during the administrations of six presidents, from Eisenhower to Carter. After leaving the AP, she worked for Jimmy Carter’s administration as the deputy director of public affairs for the Transportation Department. In 1981, she joined CNN as a field producer and assignment editor.

Lewine Colleagues and JAWS members Edie Lederer and  Linda Deutsch joined Shirley Christian and Doug Mills in remembering Fran in a newsletter on Inauguration Day. Read it below. With permission.

Good Wednesday morning on this the 20th day of January 2021,
Today is Inauguration Day as Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States and Kamala Harris becomes the first woman to serve as vice president. We wish our colleagues covering inauguration activities today a safe day as events unfold in Washington.
One hundred years ago today, Frances Lewine was born in New York City and grew up to become what our colleague Edie Lederer terms “one of the most important trailblazers for the advancement of women in the media.”
Another of our colleagues, Pulitzer Prize winner Shirley Christian, said, “Fran made a deep and lasting imprint as the world of journalism opened wider to women.”
Linda Deutsch noted that like Kamala Harris, “Fran was a trailblazer for women. She made it possible for me and other women journalists to build important careers in a profession that underestimated them for many years.”
In our lead story today, we celebrate Fran’s contributions to The Associated Press and to our world of journalism.
Our colleague Doug Mills, a photographer in The New York Times’ Washington bureau, has followed President Trump for the past four years and was interviewed in the Times about his experiences covering “by far the most iconic president I’ve photographed.”
Doug worked in the AP’s Washington bureau before joining the Times in 2002. We bring you the story.
Have a great day – be safe, stay healthy.
Recalling Fran Lewine on 100th anniversary of her birth
President Ford answers questions from Fran Lewine (at coffee table with tape recorder at hand) during an informal news conference in 1976. (AP Photo/Corporate Archives)
Francesca Pitaro (Email) – Today marks the centenary of the birth of Frances Lewine (1921-2008), the first woman full-time White House reporter for the AP. Lewine began her AP career in 1944 as a reporter in Newark, then transferred to the Washington bureau in 1956 where she covered six administrations from Eisenhower to Carter.
Often relegated to covering social events and the first family, while male colleagues garnered front page headlines, Lewine became a leader among women journalists and a mentor to many aspiring reporters. advocating for equal access to assignments and equal pay.
Lewine served as president of The Women’s National Press Club, and in 1976 was the second woman to be elected to the Gridiron Club. Her friend (and UPI competitor) Helen Thomas had been elected the year before. Lewine was also a member of Executive Women in Government and the Society of Professional Journalists. She was elected to the Washington Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame and to the Hunter College Hall of Fame and was awarded the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.
Lewine left the AP in 1977 to join the Carter administration and became deputy director of public affairs for the Transportation Department. When President Carter left office in 1981, she moved to the fledgling Cable News Network as an assignment editor and field producer. She died on Jan. 19, 2008.
Frances Lewine (left) of The Associated Press talks with Mrs. Jaqueline Kennedy on the lawn of the Governor’s residence at Karachi, Pakistan. Miss Lewine was a member of the press contingent that covered Mrs. Kennedy’s world tour in March, 1962. (AP Photo/Corporate Archives)
Two of her former colleagues remember her:
Edie Lederer (Email) – AP’s chief United Nations correspondent – Fran Lewine was an often-unsung pioneer in putting women into the top echelons of political reporting. She broke a barrier at the White House where previous female reporters for AP only got to cover the First Lady. Fran’s talent and determination led to her assignment covering President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. But she wrote that it was a “source of disappointment and anger” that the AP never considered her an equal to male White House colleagues.
That spurred Fran to become a protest leader in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s against discrimination of women in the media, not only in assignments and pay, but as editors and publishers. Fran was a plaintiff in the AP sex discrimination suit and she was instrumental in opening the male-only National Press Club and the Gridiron club to women.
Fran never lost her love for reporting and for the news and worked for CNN until her death, just before her 87th birthday in 2008. She remains one of the most important trailblazers for the advancement of women in the media.
Shirley Christian (Email) – A few weeks after I first joined The AP in Kansas City at the end of 1966, I recall an article in The AP Log reporting that the roughly 1.200 “newsmen” of The AP were now a whopping five per cent female! That worked out to about 60 women nationally, maybe globally.
But the proof that they weren’t all hidden on the overnight in, say, Albany, Salt Lake, or Kansas City (as I was at the time) was that the byline Fran Lewine kept popping up on the A-wire. I didn’t aspire to cover the White House or Washington, but the fact that Fran was there, doing just that, meant that lots of things were possible. She wasn’t the first AP woman to take a prominent role in covering Washington — Lorena Hickock had already established herself covering the Roosevelt White House in the 1930s — but Fran made a deep and lasting imprint as the world of journalism opened wider to women.
The fact is that Fran was more or less consigned to covering First Ladies. I don’t know whether that was her choice or not, though I doubt it. My recollection is that she backstopped with the president when the male correspondents took a weekend off.
Fran went to lots of parties at the White House, which is how I met her, not at a party but while slaving away on the World Services desk. She was an old friend of Angelo Natale, who came back from Rome in the early 1970’s and took over as day supervisor in World Services. Angelo also moved into an apartment on Second Avenue, a few doors from me, and we became good friends. I don’t know how Fran and Angelo became friends, but Angelo had an unofficial role as Fran’s arm date whenever she needed an escort for a big White House event. As a good New York Italian with a taste for opera and fine food, Angelo had the charm and wardrobe for the unpaid job. When Fran summoned, Angelo put on his tux and bow-tie shoes and got on the train to Washington.
Whenever Fran came to New York she always hung out with Angelo, and he would proudly show her around our corner of the fourth floor at 50 Rock. I confess that the main thing I recall from occasional chats with her was that she wore very classy clothes, as probably expected at the Nixon/Ford White House. That was before Edie Lederer laid claim to being the clothes-hound of The AP.
Years later, it was an honor to have Fran join our 10-year-long discrimination complaint and suit against The AP. The settlement of the suit opened many more doors for women and minorities, but Fran proved that determination can accomplish a lot even when the odds are against you.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Christian joined the AP in 1968 on the Foreign Desk in New York and went on to work as the AP’s UN correspondent and as an editor at its Foreign and World Desk. She then became the AP bureau chief for Chile and Bolivia. In 1980, Christian joined the Latin America Bureau for the Miami Herald and began reporting on the Central American crisis, the political turmoil that was sweeping across Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. She won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting “for her dispatches from Central America.” She lived in Latin America for 20 years, rising to become the New York Times Bureau Chief for Argentina.
Linda Deutsch (Email) – Fran Lewine was always proud that her birthday fell on Inauguration Day. I’m sure this year she would have been thrilled to share the day not only with Joe Biden, whom she knew, but with Kamala Harris, the first woman to hold the office of Vice President.
Like Harris, Fran was a trailblazer for women. She made it possible for me and other women journalists to build important careers in a profession that underestimated them for many years. She was my role model before I got to know her and I was the rare person who had the honor to have my hero become a best friend.
Our history was unusual. When I was in college in New Jersey, dreaming of a career as a reporter, I attended an event sponsored by Theta Sigma Phi, a woman’s journalism sorority that would later become part of the Society for Professional Journalists. The speaker was Fran Lewine, then the AP’s White House correspondent. Once, when she worked in New Jersey, she had been a stringer for the AP Newark bureau, a role that I would play when I worked for the Asbury Park Press. When I heard her speak, I was mesmerized. Her career showed that women did not have to be relegated to the social pages but could climb to the highest realms of journalism. She was an inspiration.
A few years later I graduated and moved to California where I became the only woman reporter in the AP Los Angeles bureau. I was a newbie when I got the plum assignment of backing up the AP team at the Nixon Western White House in San Clemente. That was where I got to meet the AP greats: Frank Cormier, Doug Cornell, and best of all, Fran Lewine. They welcomed me as an equal and I learned by watching them work. Fran quickly took me under her wing. When the day was done, she invited me to go out to dinner with her and her best friend, the legendary Helen Thomas of UPI. I was in heaven. On subsequent nights, the AP crew made sure I was always included in their dinner plans. I was amused to see that Fran and Helen, who battled each other for scoops every day, always shared a dish at dinner — a journalistic example of bipartisanship.
In subsequent years, whenever Nixon visited California, I saw Fran and got to know her better. It turned out that she was a longtime friend of my best friend, the great Theo Wilson. They had spent a memorable time covering Jackie Kennedy on a trip to India that bonded them forever. I also found out that her beloved cousin was the legendary Nobel Prize winning scientist, Richard Feynman, who lived in Pasadena. Fran would often visit him during her vacations and soon she began to visit Theo and me as well.
That’s when I found out about Fran’s secret life as a gambler. She was dedicated to casinos and managed to find one in every country she visited on a presidential trip. But Las Vegas was her favorite. She convinced Theo and me that we had to go with her to the gambling mecca and we did. What a revelation! Fran was a champion craps and blackjack player and always seemed to win. We were not so lucky, but we enjoyed watching Fran’s excitement at the games.
The key to Fran’s personality was joy. She was a glass-is-always-half-full person. She raved about the food at restaurants she frequented and savored our adventures traveling abroad. She was a great raconteur and her stories were always punctuated with her favorite adjective: “marvelous.” Her life with AP was not all roses (see Edie Lederer’s account of her career). But when she was pushed out, she found her way to the fledgling CNN and became a valued and beloved member of their news team. Politicians knew her from her days at AP and would give her scoops because she was Fran.
Edie Lederer and I became her regular house guests in Washington and she introduced us to the Gridiron dinners. It was the hottest ticket in town and Fran invited us as her guests. We dressed up in fancy gowns, heard Presidents speak and met the historic figures who attended. Often, Fran also hosted Secretary of State Madeline Albright who would sit with us. Like she had done when I was the Newbie at San Clemente, Fran made sure to introduce us to everyone. (Photo at right from Gridiron gala: from left, Edie Lederer, Linda Deutsch and Fran Lewine.)
And we introduced her to the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) where she became popular among young women who sought her out as a mentor and beloved by her contemporaries who honored her. She became the heart and soul of the organization. Since her passing, Edie and I have presented a Fran Lewine Trailblazer interview each year with a journalist who walked in her footsteps.
My proudest moment with Fran came a year before she passed. I had nominated her for the University of Missouri Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Journalism and she was surprised and thrilled when it was announced she was going to be the honoree. She suggested that Edie and I join her at Columbia for the weekend of activities and she invited her nephew, journalist Chuck Hirshberg, to escort her, insisting he wear a tuxedo for the grand awards dinner. At our table was AP Kansas City bureau chief Paul Stevens and a young reporter named Kia Breaux who would later follow in his footsteps as bureau chief. Fran was resplendent in a lavender gown. She humbly accepted the accolades and gave a fine speech.
The amazing thing was that this trailblazer and epitome of journalistic excellence, a woman of humility who didn’t promote her own accomplishments, had never before received an award. It was a highlight of her life and I was proud to have been part of it. Mostly, I was proud and grateful to have been part of her extraordinary life.