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Wendy Blevin's obituary in the Telegram ran only 578 words--a notably miserly length. As much as anyone, she was a natural for a long feature in the "She had everything to live for" vein. I say this despite the Solomon scandals.
She was thirty-three, slender, and WASP-pretty, with pale blond hair that matched the coat of her Afghan hound. She earned $75,000 a year, as one of Washington's best gossips in print and in person. She'd been president of her class at Sidwell Friends School while leading an un-Quaker-like social life. She won a short-story contest sponsored by one of the snobbier women's magazines. She edited the yearbook at Vassar and was the first columnist on the student newspaper to use the word "fuck" with impunity.
Wendy marched against the Vietnam War. She lobbied for the environment, a cause made all the more attractive when a ticky-tacky development encroached on her family's mansion in Potomac, Maryland. She was as highly pedigreed as her dog; she was eccentric rather than crazy. She jumped to her death off a balcony at the Watergate.
The day before her suicide, she was the subject of an exposé in her own paper--one, I am pleased to say, I had no part in writing.
And having said that much, I'll stop. The Blevin obituary was a cover-up, all right, but no more than the Telegram's treatment of the scandals that preceded it. I'll never forget how George McWilliams wavered on his way to journalistic immortality, how McWilliams the editor warred with McWilliams the friend.
Inside the glass booth in the middle of the newsroom, I saw a wrinkle-faced man in a dowdy plaid jacket.
Mac was small andhad a sloping forehead and receding chin. But when he started speaking to you, quizzing you, trying to outmaneuver you, you felt as if he were a shark, preparing to steal dinner off the flesh of a larger fish.
I'll always remember the glass shark tank that one of Mac's foes suggested for the Sans Souci restaurant on Seventeenth Street, a VIP-gawker's Eden. An embittered politician, he wanted the tank's occupant to be named "Little Mac." The Sans Souci originally threatened to banish the man to Little Tavern hamburger shops, but McWilliams caught wind of the customer's malice and was captivated. Mac said he would only lunch at the Sans Souci if it brought in the baby shark.
Frowning, McWilliams lit up a Corona and leaned back in a plushly padded swivel chair.
My immediate boss and I sat on hard seats. E. J. Rawson--"E.J." around the office, not just in his byline--was a national editor. He wore bifocals and had fled to Washington eons ago from a gothic-grim railroad town in West Virginia.
"Stone," Mac said, after the third puff, "I hear you want to go after Seymour Solomon."
"Not go after him. Investigate him." Officially, the Telegram was objective--Mac kept his shit list only inside his head. "Jeez, he's got fifty percent of the leases locked up in the D.C. area. A little payback for political donations?"
Vulture's Point, Solomon's rickety complex, housing no small number of IRS and CIA employees, never really came up in the beginning. I had yet to learn of the cracks in the slabs, the sexual blackmail from the Oval Office, the Papudoian connection, Wendy's role in the scandals, or the other heads of the Hydra. The white-sheeted corpses existed just within the realm of the unthinkable.
Mac glanced at his gold Rolex, with which he personally timed reporters writing stories or pumping news sources on the phone. After six months on the job, you were safe from the more lethal aspects of the Rolex Treatment, although the watch served the entire newsroom as a reminder of the Telegram's role as a high-speed word mill.
"I know Seymour Solomon--he's a good friend." McWilliams puffed an "O" and, with his fierce, dark eyes, stared at me as if hoping he could elicit a good flinch. "What I'm driving at, pal, is he's not the sort to steal from anyone."
So Mac had Solomon hooked up to a polygraph twenty-four hours a day?
"Including the government," McWilliams blustered. "Especially the government."
I was touched. "Government" included President Eddy Bullard, Mac's fellow OSS alum who, like him, had majored in French literature. At Burning Tree Country Club, they gleefully forsook regulation shoes for ragged sneakers. I could just imagine them in private, jabbering away in obscenity-laced French about Rousseau and putt shots.
"Do you know how much Solomon gave Washington Stage last year so they could build that new children's theater in Reston?" McWilliams asked me. "Two million. Now that's Sy. How many millionaires do you know who drive 1970 Mavericks?"
Mac himself drove a nondescript gray BMW. His job, Rolex, and the antiques in his mini-Versailles provided enough dazzle in his life to suit him; well, those and the Power People he'd befriended outside his word mill.
"Take it from me, pal," Mac said, as if auditioning for a Humphrey Bogart movie, "Sy is a regular guy. Look, isn't Judge Philips one of his investors?"
"That's reassuring," I said. "I'll remember that next time he rules in a zoning case."
Not once did E. J. Rawson--Ezekiel Jerome Rawson back in Thurmond, West Virginia--speak up for me. He was in his fifties, with crew-cut white hair, a weakened heart, and prudent decency toward his reporters despite fits of boss-man rhetoric. We had met through one of my parents' neighbors in northern Virginia, when I'd returned for Passover from my newspaper job in Ohio and accepted an invitation to E.J.'s home.
The first thing that struck me was his excessive formality before he knew you. "I would like," he said, "to discuss your career in the newspaper business." No contractions, no "I'd." Even in the ivy-covered brick Colonial he shared with his wife--a short, buxom Mississippian who had turned the basement into a seven-thousand-book library with thirteen dictionaries--he wore a white shirt and tie. It was as if he were distancing himself from the dust and grit of Thurmond.
I don't remember drinking Scotch as E.J. went on about Dostoevsky, Melville, Faulkner, and the editor of the Saturday Review, and some odd but logical parallels among the four. Still, I could not imagine any other beverage in his off-hours life.
By the time E.J. was through, a dozen writers later, having discussed George McWilliams in the same reverent tones, I hadn't the least doubt of my future as Mac's successor.
My own father, a "public affairs" man for a PR and lobbying firm on K Street, toiled in a bazaar, not an editorial cathedral.
"Well?" I asked the priestly shark in the plaid jacket.
"I'm not a regular guy, I'm a bastard, and I'm just enough of one to turn Stone loose on my friend Sy"--McWilliams glared at E.J.--"at your direction, pal."
I wished that just once Mac would gulp down a tranquilizer or reach for some ulcer medicine or do anything else that would confirm his mortality.
As if dismissing a pair of menials, McWilliams waved us out of the booth, the Shark's Cage, as everyone called it, and I decided I was confusing mortality with humanity.