NEW YORK - Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory has won most of the major awards in journalism, including the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, during her half century in the newspaper business.
But her latest - the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism - was special. Mary is recovering from a stroke she suffered last March, and the doctors cannot say when, if ever, she will be able to write again.
On Wednesday night, at a black-tie dinner at the Pierre Hotel, her colleagues and admirers celebrated not only the newspaper career of Mary McGrory but the humanity of Mary Gloria, as the children call her. Her work, like her life, is true to the best liberal values. If the evening had any excess, it was at the bar and not at the speaker's lectern, where New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, CNN commentator and columnist Mark Shields and best-selling authors David Halberstam and Anna Quindlen were among those who paid tribute to the 85-year-old guest of honor. My part of the program was to talk about Mary's work with poor children and her love affair with the late Washington Star, where we were once colleagues.
For more than four decades Mary has been giving her time and money to St. Ann's, a Catholic home for abused and neglected children in the District of Columbia. The kids used to have trouble pronouncing Mary's last name. Then one day a little girl gave Mary a big hug and said, "I love you, Mary Gloria."
Mary melted, of course, and the name stuck. The children at St. Ann's, some as young as 4 years old and wearing scars of abuse, are starved for the kind of love they receive in Mary Gloria's caring arms. She knows each one's name and sad story. She reads to them and takes them to McDonald's. She throws a big Christmas party for the children, and in the summer, there are the Thursday afternoon swimming parties at Hickory Hill, Ethel Kennedy's place. And on those rare days when she is on good terms with the president of the United States, she even manages to arrange for the kids to visit the White House.
St. Ann's is only one of the special families in Mary's life. Another family she holds dear are her old colleagues at the Washington Star. When the Star croaked in 1981, the late Kay Graham wasted no time in asking Mary to bring her column to the Washington Post, which she gratefully did. But after more than 20 years at the Post, as Mary will be the first to tell you, she still hasn't bridged the cultural divide.
Mary once explained the difference between the Star and the Post by contrasting them with two of the world's great cities: "The Star, disheveled, disorganized, welcoming, mellow and forgiving, was Rome. The Post, structured, disdainful, elegant and demanding, is Paris."
Rome, by the way, has been Mary's favorite vacation destination for decades.
Mary has given the Post everything she has except her heart, which will forever belong to the Star.
I once asked Mary what made the Star so special. She thought for a moment and said, "It was the atmosphere of caring." She gave an example: The long day Mary put in covering the funeral of President John F. Kennedy left her emotionally and physically drained. When she came into the newsroom to write late in the evening, the Star's gentle national editor, the late John Cassady, came over and said to her, "Are you sure you're not too tired?"
Too tired? This is how Mary, who writes with grace and perfect pitch, began her column: "Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's funeral it can be said he would have liked it. It had that decorum and dash that were his special style. It was both splendid and spontaneous. It was full of children and princes, of gardeners and governors. Everyone measured up to New Frontier standards."
The spirit of the Star newsroom has been kept alive in Mary's living room, where she has hosted some of the liveliest and most eclectic parties in Washington. She calls her group of party regulars the Lower Macomb Street Choral Society. As chairwoman of the society, she rules with an iron fist. The regulars over the years have been mostly old friends, newspaper colleagues and a couple of Salvation Army colonels whose job it was to keep the joint jumping with hymn singing, clog dancing and Irish whisky. All, including the ambassadors, members of Congress and White House aides she throws into the mix, are expected to perform for their supper. If you can't play an instrument, you are invited - no, commanded - to sing, dance, read poetry or tell a good story. Those too shy to step forward usually wind up in the kitchen helping with the dishes.
One of my favorite memories was the night Michael Deaver, a top Reagan aide who played the piano, accompanied House Speaker Tip O'Neill as he belted out If You're Irish, Come into the Parlor. Later that same evening, a Georgia chicken farmer who also ran a school lunchroom sat in the middle of Mary's living room circled by Deaver, O'Neill and several U.S. senators. He was instructing the powers of Washington on the needs of the school lunch program. It's hard to imagine such a scene at a Washington dinner party, but not at Mary's place, where egos, pretensions and job titles must be checked at the door.
Meanwhile, of the award dinner at the Pierre it can be said Mary McGrory liked it, even if the affair was a bit too formal and scripted to measure up to the standards of the Lower Macomb Street Choral Society.