Maxine Cheshire applied for her first reporting job in her hometown of Harlan, Ky.
“I know everything that goes on in this town,” Cheshire told the editor during her interview, “and if you give me a job so will you.”
Her father was a lawyer in the tough coal-mining town in eastern Kentucky and represented the mineworkers union. Because of repeated assassination attempts, he wore a bulletproof vest to work every day. Her mother kept a gun in the house and had to use it on more than one occasion.
Cheshire knew a lot about Harlan, but she didn’t get the job. Of course, she was only 5 at the time.
Sixteen years later, she did become a reporter at the Harlan Daily Enterprise, one of the first steps in a journalism career that ultimately led her to The Washington Post, where she was a tenacious reporter and society columnist for more than 25 years.
Cheshire, who took a hard-news approach to what was often seen as a superficial beat, embarrassed occupants of the White House, uncovered the “Koreagate” influence-peddling scandal of the 1970s and faced the fury of at least one peeved Hollywood star, died Dec. 31 at her home in McAllen, Texas. She was 90.
The cause was cardiovascular disease, said a son, Marc Cheshire.
Cheshire came to The Post in 1954 as a reporter for the section then known as the “women’s pages.” She covered social gatherings, embassy parties and the lives of women in Washington, but she approached the beat as if she were reporting from a murder scene.
“Some women are interested in needlepoint,” she told Time magazine in 1977. “I’m interested in organized crime.”
Cheshire, who had four children, insisted on a flexible work schedule, and often worked late hours from her cluttered office or from her car, a repainted Checker cab. She ran up annual telephone bills of $25,000.
“I once told an editor at The Post,” she wrote in a memoir, “that all I need to get a story is a roll of dimes and a telephone booth – I can find out anything with a telephone.”
In the early 1960s, Cheshire wrote about a White House remodeling effort overseen by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Cheshire looked behind the curtains to find some questionable arrangements with donors and dealers.
In an eight-part series in The Post, Cheshire showed that some items purporting to be antiques were fakes and that the White House had spent far more on the furnishings than it had admitted. President John F. Kennedy called Post publisher Philip Graham to complain.
“Maxine Cheshire has reduced my wife to tears,” Kennedy said. “Listen to her,” as the first lady sobbed in the background.
“I probably spent more time dousing fires ignited by Maxine than any other journalist except those that [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein would ignite in 1972,” former Post editor Ben Bradlee wrote in his autobiography, “A Good Life.” “But she was fun to work with and awesome to watch once she sank her teeth in someone’s flank.”
A former Post managing editor, Eugene Patterson, once said Cheshire had “the guts of a cat burglar.”
In the 1970s, Cheshire revealed that government officials, including President Richard M. Nixon’s family, had kept millions of dollars in gifts from foreign governments in violation of federal law. In 1976 and 1977, she began to question the growing Washington presence of Tongsun Park, who purported to be a Korean businessman. In a series of front-page stories, she and other reporters depicted a far-reaching scandal that implicated Korean intelligence services and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“The question in this town is, ‘Where does the money come from?’ ” Cheshire said in 1977. “When somebody starts throwing money around, you start wondering who’s paying for it all.”
One of her most celebrated confrontations occurred on the night of Jan. 20, 1973, Nixon’s second inauguration. Among the celebrities in Washington for the event was Frank Sinatra, who had become friendly with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
A year earlier, Cheshire had asked Sinatra, “Do you think your Mafia ties might prove embarrassing to the vice president?” When she ran into him again at a midnight breakfast at the Fairfax Hotel, it was clear that Sinatra had not forgotten.
“Get away from me, you scum,” he said, according to a Post story. “Go home and take a bath. Print that, Miss Cheshire. I don’t want to talk to you.”
With about 30 bystanders watching, Sinatra continued his tirade: “You’re nothing but a $2 broad, you know that,” he said, using an obscene epithet.
He pulled two $1 bills from his pocket and put them in Cheshire’s empty glass, saying, “Here’s $2, baby. That’s what you’re used to,” before getting in his limousine and disappearing into the night.
Cheshire took the glass home and put it on her mantelpiece. She threatened a defamation lawsuit, saying, “If Sinatra had attacked me as a reporter I would have taken it, but he attacked me as a woman.”
Agnew’s usually loquacious spokesman Vic Gold was momentarily at a loss for words, when asked to describe his dealings with Cheshire.
Finally, he said, “Maxine Cheshire has a carapace of an armadillo.”
Cheshire’s plan to preserve the Sinatra glass as a battlefield trophy was foiled, her son said, when another of her children took the $2.
Maxine Hall was born April 5, 1930, in Harlan. Her mother worked as a legal assistant with Cheshire’s father.
Cheshire aspired to be a lawyer, but when her father died in 1951 she was forced to drop out of Union College in Barbourville, Ky. She worked at newspapers in Barbourville, Harlan and Knoxville, Tenn., before joining The Post.
Her memoir, “Maxine Cheshire, Reporter,” appeared in 1977. She retired from The Post in 1981.
Her marriage to journalist Herbert Cheshire ended in divorce. In 1982, she married Jasper “Jack” Warren, the owner of a Texas oil-drilling company, and settled in Houston. He died in 2013.
Survivors include four children from her first marriage, Marc Cheshire, Hall Cheshire, Gideon Cheshire and Leigh Wooldridge; and four grandchildren.
One of Cheshire’s most dramatic reporting escapades came in 1968, when she learned that Jacqueline Kennedy was planning to marry Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. Her editor sent her off to Greece, with a notebook and $2,000.
The remote island where the wedding was to take place was closed to air travel and was protected by the Greek navy. Cheshire found a group of journalists renting a boat, she told Ladies’ Home Journal in 1970, and “I jumped into a man’s lap, twisted my fingers into his hair, wrapped my legs around his and said I was going. We went.”
Still, she could not get close enough to witness the ceremony itself, sustaining a sprained ankle in the process. Back in Athens, she went to a doctor for treatment and admired some antiques in his office. He told her that the antiques shop was nearby, and Cheshire went to visit the dealer. It turned out that he was part of the Kennedy-Onassis wedding party and had pictures to prove it.
“He told me every detail,” Cheshire wrote in her memoir. “He was the most poetic, the most eloquent source I ever had. I’m sure he remembered more than Jackie did.”