John Norris’ biography “Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism” portrays a woman who was a trail blazer in the hard and fast world of Washington, D.C., journalism.

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‘Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism’

by John Norris

Viking, 342 pp., $28.95

Journalist Mary McGrory, a feisty liberal who covered the American political scene for five decades, was known for many things: her dogged reporting and her longevity; for being female in a male bastion; for her egalitarian dinner parties and tireless advocacy for orphaned children.

Most of all, she was remarkable for an intelligent writing style that worked just as well for political junkies as for those folks who viewed Washington, D.C., the same way they might ponder the planet Jupiter — as a strange, faraway place with an atmosphere hostile to mere mortals.

Biographer John Norris captures this rich life in his cogent prose: “Mary’s work was transparent, he writes. “Her quotes were on the record, and she thought what the man in the street had to say mattered.”

McGrory, who died in 2004 at age 85, had a very long run. She started as a book critic in the late 1940s and got her big break at the Washington Evening Star, when she was sent off to cover the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. She was irreverent, more often clever than snarky; a “fluid and intimate” writer. “Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s funeral it can be said he would have liked it,” she wrote in her reflections on the president’s funeral, when “a million people lined up every inch of his last journey.”

McGrory was sometimes imperious and not the easiest person to manage. But her influence and popularity were invaluable, so she usually got her way. Norris traces nearly every step of her career, including her adamant opposition to the Vietnam War, her move to The Washington Post in 1981, and right up to one of her last big splashes: a column that criticized President George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. She was deluged with hate mail in the uber-patriotic atmosphere following the disasters, but she stuck by her opinion. “I thought [Bush] was pretty feeble in his darting around to air bases on the 11th — and said so,” she wrote to a friend. Although “inundated in the worst, most corrosive criticism in my long life” she wouldn’t have changed a word.

Norris is a plain-spoken chronicler. His deep research, wide-ranging interviewing and close reading of McGrory’s thousands of columns are strengthened by his enviable ability to continually provide useful context. He is unusually adroit at weaving in period details. He smoothly guides readers through the tremendous changes in how news is covered. He does this without veering off the fascinating Mary-narrative. It is a fine example of someone taking that classic editorial advice to “show, not tell” the reader about an influential life.

Any reader mourning the days when all the best news columns arrived at one’s door on newsprint and smelling of ink will surely experience a dull ache in the vicinity of her heart while reading this book. Yet the chronicling of McGrory’s spirit and craft is inspiring. The methods and the tools have changed, but a writer who can paint a true picture with such vivid color, transport the reader, and stand by her convictions will always be invaluable.