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Helen Thomas, pioneer journalist, dies at 92
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She became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974. She was also the first female officer at the National Press Club, where women had once been barred as members and she had to fight for admission into the 1959 luncheon speech where Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warned: “We will bury you.”
The belligerent Khrushchev was an unlikely ally in one sense. He had refused to speak at any Washington venue that excluded women, she said.
Thomas fought, too, for a more open presidency, resisting all moves by a succession of administrations to restrict press access.
“People will never know how hard it is to get information,” Thomas told an interviewer, “especially if it’s locked up behind official doors where, if politicians had their way, they’d stamp TOP SECRET on the color of the walls.”
Born in Winchester, Ky., to Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was the seventh of nine children. It was in high school, after working on the student newspaper, that she decided she wanted to become a reporter.
After graduating from Detroit’s Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Thomas headed straight for the nation’s capital. She landed a $17.50-a-week position as a copy girl, with duties that included fetching coffee and doughnuts for editors at the Washington Daily News.
United Press — later United Press International — soon hired her to write local news stories for the radio wire. Her assignments were relegated at first to women’s news, society items and celebrity profiles.
Her big break came after the 1960 election that sent Kennedy to the White House, and landed Thomas her first assignment related to the presidency. She was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., to cover the vacation of the president-elect and his family.
JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, complained that he learned of his daughter Luci’s engagement from Thomas’s story.
Bigger and better assignments would follow for Thomas, among them President Richard M. Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China in 1972.
When the Watergate scandal began consuming Nixon’s presidency, Martha Mitchell, the notoriously unguarded wife of the attorney general, would call Thomas late at night to unload her frustrations at what she saw as the betrayal of her husband John by the president’s men.
It was also during the Nixon administration that the woman who scooped so many others was herself scooped — by the first lady. Pat Nixon was the one who announced to the Washington press corps that Thomas was engaged to Douglas Cornell, chief White House correspondent for UPI’s archrival, AP.
They were married in 1971. Cornell died 11 years later.
At age 79, Thomas was soon hired as a Washington-based columnist for newspaper publisher Hearst Corp.
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