As I absorb the sad news about the death of my good friend, the legendary reporter Helen Thomas, I tell friends who email and call their sympathies, What a dame and I dont mean the British version, of to-the-manor-born. In this age of political correctness, do you call a female, lady, woman, Ms.? I always kidded Helen that she was a dame.
I first met Helen in the mid-1980s, when I was the public relations director of the historic Willard Inter-Continental Hotel in Washington. Over many years, I was with Helen hundreds of times, in restaurants, parties or other such social scene events that are still the lubricant of the city. There was never a time that a stranger didnt come up to her. They wanted photographs and autographs, but mostly they wanted to tell her, keep giving those presidents hell, and ask them what we would.
The last time I saw Helen, in July 2011, she asked that I take her to lunch at the Hay-Addams Hotel, and though she needed help walking, she strode through the hotel like a queen. And she was greeted by her subjects, from the bellman who helped her out the car to the chef who came out of the kitchen. I noticed a large group of distinguished, gray hairs pointing from a nearby table. I thought, Here they come and they did. Turns out it was the chairman and organizing group to fund and build a memorial to former President Eisenhower. They fawned over Helen like a bunch of smitten boys and wanted to know her memories of Ike. She shyly said, You know I missed him. I started with Kennedy. Some fifty-plus years later, she could still draw a crowd.
That said, I think many would be surprised at how modest Helen was. When John F. Kennedy, Jr. began George Magazine, a group of friends were having dinner and suggested that he do an article on her. Helen couldnt understand why, and then with hesitation said, I could tell him about the day he was born. Helen was the only reporter outside the hospital when John-John was born, and the president-elect went over and joyfully told her he had a son who would be named for him.
A funnier version of her modesty was when she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and a number of us insisted that she wear her bright red, get-me-noticed in presidential press conferences dress, that now hangs in the Newseum in Washington. Mutual friends later came to my home for dinner and watch Helens appearance. That was in the old days of VCR, and I only had one, in my bedroom. We all piled on my bed to watch, except Helen who covered her eyes with a pillow the whole time.
Helen was also an incurable romantic, having married later in life to a retiring White House reporter, and was scooped with the announcement in the White House Press Room by former First Lady Pat Nixon. She told many of us unmarried womenthat it was never too late for love and how happy her marriage was.
Helen was an equal opportunity offender when it came to being critical of presidents and increasingly Congress. She wanted all to succeed but said they were all corrupted by power and forgot where they came from. That said, she giggled like a school girl when President Obama surprised Helen in the White House Press Room with cupcakes on their shared birthday, the upcoming Aug. 4, and I will miss my friend greatly that day. She was proud to share her birthday with our first African-American president.
When I took Helen back to her condo that hot summer day in 2011, wed had such a wonderful time, yet I knew it might be the last time I saw her as her health was failing.
Commitments in North Carolina kept me from returning to Washington over the last two years, and Helens voice continued to get weaker in phone calls, but her memory was always alert. When I hugged her goodbye, she said, Im gonna come to North Carolina, sit in that rocking chair on your front porch and were gonna drink some scotch. Helen, I know youre doing just that right now with the angels, and a few devils, you encountered on your remarkable life in Washington. Rest in peace, my good friend.
Ann McCracken, a native
of Henderson, has lived
in Durham for 11 years.