Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Scandal

The final edition had hit the streets, and the newsroom at the News-Sentinel was down to night staff: The news editor, the wire service men in their own cubicles, a copy boy, me on the copy desk, editing teletype stories and wondering if the baby-sitter would get my note about dinner.
            Across the room, a phone rang. In a few minutes, Ralph Millett, the news editor, came toward me, looking all around, waving a piece of newsprint. “You need to go interview this girl in Lenoir City,” he said. “She’s Bobby Baker’s secretary, visiting her parents for Christmas.”
            “Me?” I asked. I wasn’t a reporter any more. “I don’t have anybody else to send,” he said. “Jack will drive you. Jack!” he called.
            “What’s this about?” I asked.
            “Scandal at a high level. Nobody has said a word so far.” Then looking at me under his bushy eyebrows, he said in the best Hollywood newspaper-movie fashion, “Get that story.”

            Early in 1963, Bobby Baker, a protégé of  Lyndon Johnson and a major power on Capitol Hill, had come under investigation by the Senate Rules Committee for allegations of bribery and arranging sexual favors in exchange for congressional votes and government contracts. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were involved peripherally in the investigation, as was Johnson himself, though the vice president’s name was dropped from the inquiry after John F. Kennedy’s assassination November 22, 1963.
            Carole Tyler, Tennessean and former Miss Loudon County, was Bobby Baker’s personal secretary and lived in a house owned by Baker in Washington.

            I had Jack stop at a drugstore on the 30-minute drive to Carole’s parents’ home. I bought holiday boxes, giftwrap and ribbon, made up several cheerful-looking packages, only hesitated a moment once we arrived at a modest-looking house in Lenoir City.
            Since I looked for all the world like a friend bearing gifts, when I asked for Carole at the door, a relative let me in. A pretty but tired-looking woman in a satin dressing gown came out  of a back room, accompanied by a little dog that immediately jumped on me.
            “Kukla!” the woman scolded.
            “Ah,” I said. “A Greek name. It means ‘doll,’ you know.”
            “Who are you, anyway?” the woman asked.
            “Carole?” I asked. She nodded.
            “I’m from the Knoxville paper.”
            “Oh, no. No, no.”
            “You don’t really have to say anything,” I said quickly. I put the fake presents down and showed her that I wasn’t carrying a note pad or pen. “We just wanted to see how you’re doing with all this.” She sank on to a sofa nearby and picked up the little dog.

            After a half hour or so, I went out with my empty Christmas boxes and got into the staff car. “No way to get a picture?” Jack asked. “No, I don’t think so,” I said. Jack drove fast while I wrote down everything I could remember that Carole had said.
            One thing she told me, wistfully, was how she had posed for repair work on the model for the 19-foot-tall statue of Freedom that stands atop the Capitol building. “So it will have my arms,” she said.

            Even though it wasn’t hard news, the story got lots of attention because of the seedy nature of the investigation and the way the principals had been so closed-mouthed about the whole thing. It was on the front page of the News-Sentinel with a picture of Carole in front of the Capitol (you could barely see that there was a statue atop the building.) The Associated Press picked it up and Newsweek mentioned it, along with my name. There was a bonus in my paycheck that week.
            The Journal, our rival newspaper, complained on its own front page that a spokesman denied Carole had given an interview. (We had gone through elaborate steps to hide the story until it was in print, since the two newspapers used the same technical crew.)
            “You were really there, right?” the news editor asked me. “Of course I was,” I said. And Jack, who had waited outside in the car, verified that he saw me go in the house and stay a half hour or so.

On the strength of the mention in Newsweek, I took the Greyhound to New York City and applied for a job on the Herald-Tribune. Managing Editor Murray Weiss had seen the story. He said I would be the Tribune’s first woman copy editor.
But the job never materialized. I moved to New York, but there was a newspaper strike, a hiring freeze, the Tribune was in trouble…and I took a much tamer writing job at one of the United Nations delegations, researching puff stories at the New York public library.
            In February of 1964, Carole Tyler was questioned at the Senate hearing. She took the Fifth on every question. Never said a word. In May, 1965, she was killed when a single-engine biplane in which she was a passenger crashed into five feet of water only 200 yards off the Maryland coast.

            I still feel guilty about manipulating my way into the woman’s house with my fake Christmas presents. It’s the sort of thing a paparazzo might do without a second thought, but I was (and am) mild-mannered and anxious not to offend. I can’t even imagine where the idea of the wrapped boxes came from. I think it was probably a matter of my being more afraid of the news editor than I was of tricking an unknown woman. A woman who died at 26 years of age. A woman whose arms are replicated on the statue of Freedom.

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