Scenes from an Interview: Mary Manilla
Gus Mollasis interviews award-winning journalist Mary Manilla
She is a woman who knows a thing or two about space, and has always been willing to fight for it. As a journalist, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her series on the suitability of women for space flights, a series that opened the door for women to participate in NASA missions. To prove that her concerns weren’t entirely out of this world, she harnessed her reporting skills on important things happening on planet Earth and earned another Pulitzer Prize nomination for her series on civil rights. She’s always been comfortable and effective with the big interviews, whether it’s discussing pressing social issues with the likes of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, or highlighting the talents of Jack Benny, or the eccentricities of Andy Warhol. And there were more big stars to cover. Muhammad Ali. Jerry Lewis. Heck, even John Glenn gave her pointers on how to pass astronaut tests when she did her series on space.
Through all the deadlines and bylines, Mary Pangalos Manilla, the first woman on-air correspondent for CBS News, has always been there, supremely focused with her fabulous blue eyes, getting the story and getting it right. Her readers could always count on her for what she calls her duty – “Ask the questions that they (the readers) would want to ask if they were on the job.”
As I visited with Mary at her home in southern Manatee County, I knew I would be hearing some interesting insights on broad-ranging subjects from a woman who has lived a fascinating life. I was sure that the scenes from an interview of her life would be everything I thought and then some.
Where do you come from?
I can trace my roots to the Greek Island of Thasos. We come from a very old family and according to my now deceased mother, we are related to the great philosopher Aristotle. (Laughs) Everyone on the island makes that same claim. (Laughs) I was born in Manhattan. I’m a New Yorker.
Write the lead to what your childhood looked like.
I lived a very adventurous life in my imagination. When I was born, all the GI’s were coming home from the War and the stories back then were War stories. When I worked at Newsday, all my editors had War stories. When I grew up, I pictured myself as a General, nothing less than a General. It was a time of great heroism and pride. So I grew up wanting to be a hero.
When did you know you could write or when did the journalism bug hit you?
I was three years old and my mom was making the bed. There was a picture on the bedspread made with those knobby shaped things – a picture of young girl with a bonnet carrying a bucket with a little lamb next to her. And on the hill, you could see a well, and the whole thing was surrounded with these green and blue shaped things. My mother placed my hands on these blue shapes and said, “Mary had a little lamb.” And I had this epiphany. I realized that those were not just random designs, but were in fact words that communicated something. And if you knew words, you could tell stories; you could understand things and you could communicate. From that day on, I was infatuated with words. I became a bookworm early on. In fact, I read before I could talk. The first book I ever read was one of the Dick and Jane books. I had an aunt who gave me Little Women. I read everything from Treasure Island to Tom Sawyer. Whenever she came to visit, she gave me books, which I still have up on my shelf.
Was there a mentor or teacher who encouraged you?
My teacher in grammar school, Mrs. Kruztnis, would read to us in class. They would give you a book to teach you reading. I would finish the book the first week, so she was slipping me books on the side. She brought me into the library and I used to take out seven books at a time. She always stuck in my mind. Many years later, while I was working at Newsday, and I had just been nominated for my second Pulitzer, I was walking down Jamaica Avenue (in Queens, NY), and I saw her and shouted, “Mrs. Kruztnis!” She didn’t recognize me at first, but I went up to her and said, “I want to thank you for all you did for me, and what an incredible influence you were on my life.” She just stood there kind of stunned, but I felt so happy that I could thank her. Having the opportunity to thank her was a big highlight of my life.
What do you remember about your parents from early on?
Mom was so quiet. She gave me one of those toy ovens and I remember thinking, “I don’t want that.” My brother was out in the street playing stickball and I said, “I want to go play.” She said, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “Why not?” And she said, “Because you’re a little girl.” And I said, “I don’t want to be a little girl. I want to go and play.” From that day on, she enrolled me in school sports programs and never gave me an oven again. My father couldn’t fight in the War because of an ear injury. He wasn’t a college graduate, but he was gifted. At work they would say to him, “We need a thing-a-ma-jig that could do so and so,” and he could come up with a way to do it. He had a workshop in the basement. I would watch him work. He once made a little necklace of airplanes for me.
What was your first job in journalism?
My first real job in journalism was Newsday. After graduation, I had a part-time job doing PR for the summer. It fed me. But everyone who knew me knew I wanted to be a reporter, and I wanted a job on Newsday. I found out that the managing editor, Alan Hathaway, had lunch every day at this Chinese restaurant. So I would go there. I had $10 to my name, and I would sit at the bar and order a Coca-Cola. He would come in and I was too shy to talk to him. But a lot of the other reporters came in for lunch, and the bartender got to know me as well as my motives. This happened for a while and it got to the point where all these reporters would leave notes on Mr. Hathaway’s desk telling him that there is this young girl who wants to be a reporter for Newsday and that he should interview me. Even the Chinese owner of the restaurant said to Mr. Hathaway, “You hire her. She nice girl.” Still nothing was happening, and I had to get a job. I was just about to give up when he came up to me and said, “I want to eat my lunch in peace. Report to work 9 o’clock Monday.” The obvious lesson there is persistence, because you know something? That’s what all bosses are looking for. Determination and persistence and someone who really wants and can do the job.
As a Newsday beat reporter, take me through a typical day of the challenges and the rewards.
You never knew what to expect. That excited me. You could never be bored. I would walk in one day and they would say, “There’s this guy who is trying to set the World Underwater Record. We want you to interview him.” So I went home, got my bathing suit, and put on scuba gear. I had never used scuba equipment in my life. They gave me a brief lesson showing me how to breathe through my mouth and I went down there with a blackboard that I could write on and a photographer who had been a Navy Seal, figuring he’d look after me. During the interview, as I’m writing, I look over and I see the photographer lounging near the pool. And I’m struggling not to swallow water. As it turned out, they had to jump in to rescue him because he almost drowned. The adventure was always appealing, but it was after you built a rapport and the people trusted you. They gave you an assignment, and you went out and did it. You would come back and say, “It was a fire. It started like this and there are five people in the hospital.” Okay, 300 words. Boom. Then you wrote it and it was all yours. And then when you drove home at night, you repeated the story word by word to yourself, each sentence of your own writing.
Tell me about the importance of the byline for a writer.
To me it meant that I was accepted, and that I passed the bar so to speak, and that I was a real reporter.
You moved to the entertainment department and covered theater, film and celebrity interviews.
It sort of happened accidentally. After a couple of years, the entertainment editor asked me to work in his department. Here was a chance to write a feature, get a byline and be a columnist. Those were the best and most educational three years of my life. I learned so much.
What was your favorite entertainment feature?
My favorite story was about Jack Benny I did for Newsday. He didn’t want to be interviewed because he felt he was above and beyond interviews. As his show ended at the Ed Sullivan Theater, he said to me, “You can talk to me as I’m going to my hotel.” So as he’s running to his hotel, I’m asking him questions, and he’s mumbling, “Yeah, hmmm,” not even answering my questions. I said to him, “Are the rumors true about you being cheap?’ He mumbled again, “Hmmm.” I also asked him about his career. The same mumbled short answers. So I wrote this story, making up how cheap he was because he was walking to his hotel and that he collected nickels along the way to his hotel, and it was done in a funny light manner and not in a mean fashion. After the story, I actually got a note from Jack Benny, saying, “Good job.” (Laughs) When I came back to the office, I literally had no story, so I wrote about how he was living up to his character of walking to save money and that he was grumpy and unapproachable. I made up the whole thing and he wrote me a note. I was delighted because I had nothing when I came back to my typewriter. A similar thing happened when I interviewed Andy Warhol. He was looking off in the distance, not making eye contact with me. And this was live, and I was trying to ask him questions, and he’s saying, “Hmmm,” and not giving me anything and you can’t have dead air. So I’m throwing him softball questions like, “What’s your art all about?” He wouldn’t answer anything and once again I had nothing. My producer at CBS was mad as hell and said, “What do you mean that you couldn’t get anything?” Years later I’m at a Halston fashion show, and who is there but Andy Warhol. I went up to him and said, “Mr. Warhol, I just wanted you to know that you got me into a lot of trouble.” I told him the whole story and how I even gave him softball questions. He said, “It’s all about money.” And he took the Halston press kit out of my hand and wrote on it, “To Mary, ” wrote a dollar sign ($) and signed it “Andy Money.” (Laughs)
You were nominated for two Pulitzers. Tell me about that and what that means to you.
I should have won the first one, but then it was a man’s world. I broke the glass ceiling that got women into the NASA program with my space test results. I finagled my way into letting them give me the tests to see if women could take it. I remember going to my editor and saying, “Why can’t women be astronauts?” He said, “Great idea. Call Washington and take the tests.” They refused me at first, but I got in. It was incredible. I took every single test. I actually have the results memorized. They read, “As good as any man and better than most.” It proved that women could pass the test. One of the principles of being awarded the Pulitzer Prize is that my series helped achieve something worthwhile. After that, the door was open for women to enter the space program. Astronaut John Glenn actually mentored me and told me what to do to pass the tests. Without him, I wouldn’t have passed. Sadly they confiscated my camera, and wouldn’t even let me have a photograph with him.
The other Pulitzer nomination dealt with your series on civil rights. What was the focus of that series and how proud were you of that work?
The reason I was nominated was because I was one of the first people to say that this is coming and that it was a big issue, and a life-changing moment in our history. I was working in the entertainment department and interviewing people like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, who were furious about what was going on regarding their treatment. Every time I talked with them, they mentioned how they hated being stereotyped to play certain black roles and how they were treated in society. I thought that this is a hell of story. These were some of the most famous and talented people and this is how they were treated. In talking with them, I met many of the civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I’ll tell you how discriminatory it was toward women at that time. Everyone was trying to get an interview with Muhammad Ali and they wouldn’t give any. One of the reasons I got the interview is I got friendly with Malcolm X. I said to him, “How could you discriminate toward me? We have the same color eyes.” He was part white. He didn’t say a thing then, but eventually he said, “Come here, you can interview him.” So I had the first interview with Ali and CBS would not run the interview because I was a woman so they arranged for a man to do the interview. I knew a thing or two about discrimination, that’s why I was drawn to doing the series on civil rights. And the story with the man interviewing Ali ran on CBS. I did get to interview Ali and he was the sweetest and nicest man. When he talked to me, I remember him saying that he wanted people to give him that pride and recognition. He felt that his religion called on him not only to be a good man, but a great man. And they didn’t use it.
With the release of the film Hidden Figures covering the role of African-American women in the space program, do you feel somewhat redeemed?
Yes, absolutely. The recent death of John Glenn really hit me. In that movie the director includes a significant scene where the astronauts are visiting the staff. I met Cooper and Grissom and got to know them, but only John Glenn walked over to the African-American computer ladies and introduced himself. And when they couldn’t figure out the glitches on what was going wrong, Glenn got on the phone and he said to get the one who can fix it. When the asked which one, he said “The smart one.” I have nothing but admiration and gratitude regarding my personal experience with John Glenn. I had to take my tests in three days and the others took theirs in over three weeks. I remember having breakfast and someone coming up behind me and saying, “I understand that you’re here to take the astronaut test? Well, I’m John Glenn.” I was speechless. When my PR guy came on the scene, there I was with Cooper, Grissom and John Glenn busy taking notes. There is one test that I know John Glenn helped me with that prevented me from bodily injuries. They had one chair in which they strapped you in and you are jarred more than 1300 times a minute – a test that simulates reentry with severe G-forces. They want to see if you can take it. John said, “The only way you’re going to survive this test is by tensing every muscle in your body. Tense your neck or your head will fall off. Tense your stomach to protect your internal organs. Tense everything.” And I did, and that’s how I passed the test. John Glenn helped me by giving me advice and guidance. It was the best story of my life. I remember the publisher congratulated me and asked me how I felt. I remember saying, “I feel sad because I know that in my entire career I will never have a story as great as this.”
You went to the moon.
Do you consider yourself a journalist first and a filmmaker second?
A journalist. Even in film, I’m a storyteller.
Tell me about your work as a documentary filmmaker.
I received the greatest compliment of my career on my documentary work from legendary film critic Pauline Kael. She called me and said she had just finished watching my documentary The Year Time Changed. She asked me if she could have a print of my film because she teaches a class at Columbia University and wanted to show her class my film and to show them that this is how you make a documentary.
When you became a CBS reporter, were you nervous or fairly comfortable with the challenge?
I was ready and thought I would take that camera and combine pictures and words and tell great stories. I won that position over 10,000 applicants including Walter Cronkite’s niece. I remember Walter telling me, “I recommended my niece for that job and you got it.” I used to go into his office and cry on his shoulder. He was a nice man and he was a protégé of Edward R. Murrow. I remember him telling me that Murrow’s last words when he walked out of CBS were, “These people don’t know what the blank they want.” They wanted control. It was more entertainment. The biggest mistake of my life was to go from newspaper to TV. If I had to do it over again, I would have stayed at Newsday. It was much more satisfying and truthful and it was really news. You were actually telling people what was going on.
What is the most important duty of a journalist?
You are there to represent all the people who want to ask questions of these big figures and your job is to tell them the truth.
Who surprised you the most as being the most unassuming person you ever interviewed?
Laurence Olivier was the shyest and was very sweet. He spoke with his head down and was very humble. All the British were like that, really. Alec Guinness. Paul Scofield. Even Dudley Moore, whom I dated. He was so shy. I was a chatterbox and Dudley was a sweet charming man, but he had such a complex about being short. And I would say, “Oh come on Dudley, get over it.” And that’s why he liked me.
Who was the smartest person you ever interviewed?
Probably Bobby Kennedy. But he was a mean Irishman. Don’t kid yourself.
Probably Woody Allen. He sat about 20 feet away from me at his desk twisting paper clips nervously and when I finally asked him why, he said, “The very act of talking to another person makes me very nervous.” That was the weirdest interview of my life.
Finish the following sentences:
A great journalist always …
Tells the truth.
When people read my stories I hope they…
Make up their own mind. I take the title of journalist very seriously. A reporter reports.
Writing to me is…
The job of the press is…
Really to be a check and the balance to power.
A great documentary is one that…
Reveals something that should be revealed in a way people understand why it should be revealed.
My favorite word is…
My least favorite word is…
A journalist should never be afraid to…
Stand up for what they believe in.
What did you consider your greatest skill or attribute as a journalist and filmmaker?
I really didn’t care if people liked me. I wanted them to like my work.
You’ve written a novel (Foretold), produced TV shows and series, and have written many articles. Where did you feel most comfortable and where did you find your greatest joy?
Writing stories for Newsday. A time period that lasted six years and brought me immeasurable joy and a lifetime of memories.
What is your advice to those who seek journalism as a profession?
Don’t go into for the money. Don’t go in it for fame. Go in it for the story. Not for yourself.
How did you find your way to Sarasota?
I came down on vacation fell in love with the palm trees, ducks, birds and nature of it all. The Selby Library was a clincher, too, in helping me want to stay here.
What do you like most about Sarasota?
I like the people. They are so polite. And of course the eclectic arts scene. I once said that Sarasota is the one city that a New Yorker can be happy in.
What’s the one story you would love to cover in Sarasota that doesn’t get enough attention?
I would really like an investigative piece about development, and the relationship between development and politics, because I see all the things that make Sarasota so special can be buried. What’s happening here happened in New York City and California.
Please write the first line of your obituary that hopefully won’t be printed for many years to come.