Doris Fleeson: “A Tiger in White Gloves”

Doris Fleeson (1901-1970) was the first woman to become a nationally syndicated political columnist, the predecessor of the likes of Molly Ivins and Peggy Noonan.

Fleeson began her career as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Sun. After several moves, in 1927, at the age of 26, she landed a job at the New York Daily News, where she covered state politics in Albany and became acquainted with then Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Later she was the only woman reporter who was a permanent member of the press entourage that accompanied Roosevelt on his campaign tours.) In 1930, she moved to the Daily News’ Washington bureau, where she co-authored a column called “Capital Stuff” with her husband, fellow Daily News reporter John O’Donnell. (The column survived; the marriage did not. They were divorced in 1942, reportedly over political differences.)

Doris Fleeson in her uniform as a war correspondent, surrounded by members of the US 100th Bomb Group

In 1943, she left the Daily News (also reportedly over political differences) to work as a roaming war correspondent in France and Italy for Women’s Home Companion.* (You can read some of her war reporting here. )

When she returned to the United States after the war, she entered a new stage of her career as a syndicated columnist based in Washington DC.  Her column was soon carried in over 100 papers, reaching about 8 million households. Over the next twenty-two years, she wrote some 5,500 columns. According to a longtime friend, columnist, Mary McGrory “She roamed the Capitol, a tiger in white gloves and a Sally Victor hat,*** stalking explanations for the stupidity, cruelty, fraud, or cant that was her chosen prey.” Her personal politics leaned left,**** but her columns were known not only for their intelligence and  barbed wit,but for their lack of bias: as Newsweek put it in 1957, “There is, in fact, almost no Washington figure, Republican or Democrat, who has not felt the sharp edge of her typewriter.”

Fleeson married a second time, in 1958, to Dan Kimball, a former secretary of the Navy. She went into semi-retirement in 1967 due to failing health. She and Kimball died within 36 hours of each other in 1970.

* Yes, you read that correctly. When the United States entered the war in 1941, American women’s magazines looked for ways to make their content relevant for their readers in a time of national emergency. They went beyond their core subjects of fashion, homemaking and romantic fiction to produce stories about topics such as the importance of women taking war jobs outside the home and dealing with wartime scarcity and rationing.  Some of them also sent war correspondents to Europe. War correspondents for women’s magazines, including Sigrid Schultz, who was a correspondent for McCalls for a short time, were instructed to report on the “woman’s angle”** Schultz and her contemporaries expanded the “women’s angle” beyond articles on rations, food shortages, and women’s war jobs to include topics such as rape, civilian experiences of the war, sanitation, and field hospitals.

**Sound familiar?

***Sally Victor was a successful/important American milliner whose career spanned 40 years from the 1930s through the early 1950s, when well-dressed women wore hats.  Her hats were distinctive and occasionally quirky, inspired by unusual sources such as Japanese armor and Matisse paintings.  Victor described her mission as “designing pretty hats that make women look prettier.”

****She described herself as a nonpartisan liberal.

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