Reflections on the great commentator, Mary McGrory

Mary McGrory was a giant of modern journalism. Across five decades, her incisive commentary illuminated the American political scene, first on the pages of The Washington Star and later The Washington Post. Her syndicated columns ran in more than 150 papers across the country. The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, she was also featured prominently on President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”

Although Ms. McGrory’s faith was largely absent from her columns (she objected to proselytizing), it shaped her far more than most of her readers, and even many of her friends, appreciated. Her faith was her moral center. “Mary was so wonderfully caustic and funny about life that it probably didn’t occur to most of us that she was deeply religious,” observed her fellow columnist Anthony Lewis. “It was an anomaly among that group of people.”

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The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, almost always graced Ms. McGrory’s nightstand. And she certainly took one of its central teachings, “fawn not upon the great,” to heart as she mercilessly lambasted the foibles and foolishness of presidents, senators and Supreme Court justices. (Bobby Kennedy once remarked with some rue, “Mary is so gentle, until she gets behind a typewriter.”)

“She was a devout Catholic,” said her friend Elizabeth Shannon, “Every night before she went to bed she was on her knees beside her bed saying her prayers. She was at Mass every Sunday. She really practiced her religion, and it was a huge part of her life.... She would never even mention it in public, but I would realize when we traveled together how private it was and how important it was to her.”

Ms. McGrory grew up in Depression-era Boston, at a time when the city’s Irish, Italian, Jewish, German and other communities mixed either uneasily or not at all. Bigotry ran hot. Protestants disparaged Catholics as unwashed pawns of the pope. Irish-Catholic priests threatened their flocks with excommunication for even participating in a Protestant wedding. The noted Boston historian Thomas O’Connor observed that when you lived in a Boston neighborhood, “you lived in a very, very closeted area...for good or for bad that was the way we were inculcated.” Your parish was often your identity, and Ms. McGrory herself observed that only the more tolerant in her neighborhood “thought we would meet our Protestant neighbors in heaven.”

‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’

Ms. McGrory’s view of religion was far more welcoming than that of many of her peers. She felt that the entire point of religion was to assist the oppressed and less fortunate—one area in which she thought the church often fell criminally short. Ms. McGrory saw social justice as the cornerstone of responsible Catholicism and believed in a God of love and compassion. She blended very traditional Catholicism with distinct strains of what came to be known as liberation theology.

Ms. McGrory contributed regularly as a columnist for this magazine from the late 1950s to the early 1970s and penned a number of thoughtful pieces for Commonweal during the 1950s. It was clear that she took matters of theology very seriously. She frowned upon the increasingly harsh anti-Communist excesses of the early 1950s during the Red Scare, and she thought the church too willing to turn a blind eye to the excesses of McCarthyism. (It was her coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 that thrust her into the national spotlight.) Ms. McGrory was an ardent supporter of St. John XXIII’s reforms during the 1960s, and she always spoke of him in the highest terms: “John was charisma itself. He made it clear that it is not a sin to be charming even if you are pope. He made his church a place of welcome and compassion for all God’s children.”

Later, Ms. McGrory thought Blessed Paul VI’s unwillingness to support the use of birth control needlessly pushed millions away from the church and quoted an Italian woman to make her case: “To be a Catholic doesn’t mean to be an imbecile.” But Ms. McGrory was in strong agreement with the church on abortion, and it was her own belief that abortion extinguished a life: “You can phrase it a lot of different ways, but that’s what I think it comes down to.” Ms. McGrory was a member of the increasingly endangered minority of adamantly pro-life Democrats, and she objected to the view within Democratic ranks “that every single intelligent person is pro-abortion.”

Ms. McGrory took her commitment to good works most seriously. For more than 50 years she volunteered at St. Ann’s, a local orphanage in Washington. Almost every single week when she was not on the campaign trail, she went in to read with the children and help them with homework. Since many of the children struggled with the rolling r’s of her last name, they took to calling her “Mary Gloria.” She loved the mispronunciation; it sounded exotic and Italian. Ms. McGrory was a fixture at St. Ann’s. She helped pay for books and Christmas presents out of her own pocket and was always a soft touch when the orphanage was up against a budget shortfall.

It was Ms. McGrory’s insistence on enforced volunteerism at St. Ann’s that led the columnist Maureen Dowd to describe her as “she who must be obeyed.” Few of her fellow reporters dared say no when it came to helping with the field trips and picnics for the children from St. Ann’s. Every “volunteer” was given a clear role—from playing Santa at the Christmas party, as did Mark Shields and Tim Russert at different points, or making peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. Volunteers who missed the “junior picnics” with the children were not allowed to attend the “senior picnics”—the more boisterous dinners that followed. Ms. McGrory often donated more than a quarter of her annual salary to a range of charitable causes.

Later in life (she died in 2004 at the age of 85), Ms. McGrory’s giving helped establish the Mary Gloria Room at St. Ann’s to assist the children with additional help and tutoring in reading. It officially opened on Valentine’s Day 2000, and it was as well-equipped as any private school. During brief remarks at the ribbon cutting, Ms. McGrory confessed that she routinely lied when filling out her taxes, since the I.R.S. requirements were that she must have received “nothing of value” in return for her donations for them to be deductible. “That’s not true. I have received great treasures,” Mary shared. “Some of them have told me about the violence they have witnessed, and even endured: knifings, shootings, and other things that shouldn’t have happened. They bear their burdens with great valor. They are responsive and funny. If they just can weather the first grade, and understand that we believe in them and their potential, they’ll do just fine.”

Ms. McGrory wrote every other day about great events, politics and the grand national stage, but she never lost sight of those whose names would never be in print and simply needed a helping hand.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Eileen Kelley
1 year 11 months ago
I got my print edition of America today and this article was like a Christmas present. Mary McGrory was my mother's best friend in high school. They were both from Roslindale and went to Girls' Latin. My mother, Marie McCabe (known as Betsy in high school) died in 1953 at age 35, leaving four children of whom I was the oldest at age 8. She and Miss McGrory went to different colleges (Marie to Regis, Mary to Emmanuel) but they stayed in touch until Marie's death. In later years we kept in touch with her sporadically. I can remember my Dad proudly having us all sign a congratulations card when she made Nixon's "Enemies List", and somewhere I have some letters that I received from her after getting in touch over some issue in the 90's. I always faithfully read her column, not just because of the family connection, but because they were so GOOD! Thank you for this piece, and I'll be looking for the book. Eileen Gaquin Kelley

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