SHE SASHAYED INTO the acre-square newsroom of the Washington Post on the third day of 1980, wearing a red wool suit over a white silk shirt, the neck opened casually to the second button, exposing a thin gold chain and a teasing glimpse of lingerie. Her long acrylic nails gleaming in the hard fluorescent light, she made her way down a long aisle between the desk pods of the Metro section toward the Weekly section, carrying her cashmere coat, oversized purse and soft leather brief- case—inside of which she carried, like a girl on her first day of school, pads, pens, maps, two pairs of glasses, a spare pair of black tights, and a pink knit sweater for the back of her chair.
As she passed, heads turned, eyes bugged, people whispered and winked and smirked. They swiveled around in their chairs and tracked the pleasing sway of her hips, the jaunty bounce of her long, Marie Antoinette ringlets, a mass of dark, lacquered curls trailing past her shoulder blades. Men and women, editors and reporters, distinguished members of the press, they clucked their tongues over the shortness of her pleated skirt, the self-possessed coolness of her gait. For years the customary greeting in the newsroom had been “What’s the gossip?” At the moment, this clearly was it.
Her name was Janet Cooke. Six months earlier, when her letter and CV had crossed Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s desk—on one of those slow afternoons when he would occupy himself by reading unsolicited applications from reporters around the world—the brass-balled legend had sat up abruptly in his chair. Before him, as he might have said in more retrograde era, was a fuckin’ wet dream: twenty-five years old, Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar, master’s in literature, fluent in two foreign languages, television experience, one writing award in two years at the Toledo Blade, member of the National Association of Black Journalists.
As the newsroom had yet to convert to computer, Bradlee took up a red grease pencil and circled “Phi Beta Kappa,” “Vassar” and “Black Journalists.” At a time when papers were just beginning their perilous journey toward newsroom diversity, here was the ideal candidate—an Ivy League twofer with a resumé́ of gold. He sent Janet’s letter along to Metro editor Bob Woodward, noting that she should be recruited before The New York Times or the networks scooped her up.
After her two, day-long interviews in D.C. with Post brass and ranking members of the paper’s informal Black caucus, and even with Watergate investigator Woodward—who was being given a chance, as the assistant managing editor in charge of the Metro section, to try his hand at management, with an eye perhaps to Bradlee’s chair—Woodward himself called Janet and offered the job. Later he would joke how tough she’d been, negotiating for a later start date and five thousand more in salary.
Now it was her first day, and she was almost two hours late, having lost her way walking the three blocks from her hotel to work. Over the coming weeks and months, the layout of L’Enfant’s capital city would elude Janet dramatically. Driving four blocks to a grocery store, she’d end up miles away in Maryland. The two-mile commute to work from her apartment in fashionable Adams Morgan—from her parking place at her apartment to her parking place near the Post, the route required two left turns and a right—routinely took an hour. On assignment she’d struggle through the streets in her sporty green Datsun 240Z. She’d pull over, cry a little, consult her map, set out again. Finally, magically, she’d arrive at the place she’d been searching, and her work could commence.
As Janet strolled so erect and proud and seemingly in control down the long aisle toward the Weekly, she had no idea she was causing such a stir. In fact, so constant was the turmoil of self-doubt inside her head that she rarely knew what was happening around her. From the earliest age, Janet’s father had instilled one desperate and overriding philosophy that haunted her every step: Because you’re a girl, because you’re black, you must do everything twice as well as anybody else. There is no room for screwing up. There is no slack. Even if you’re better you will never be considered the best.
Had she been able, Janet would have noticed that her entrance into the newsroom was garnering her just the kind of reaction she had always worked for and wished for and dreamed about. Since she was young, wherever she went, people had taken notice. They’d measure her accomplishments, her stunning looks, her regal aspect. In high school kids called her the Ice Princess, so cool and intimidating did she seem. Of course, the read was 180 degrees off. In Janet’s own mind, she was more of a “frog.” She had secrets, horrible secrets, that nobody knew. Walking down the aisle toward her future at the Post, she remembers feeling “like Jell-O, just very shaky, really frightened, and totally unsure.” What if I’m not good enough? she agonized.
Nevertheless, Janet carried on as she always did, plying the industrial carpet in her sensible black pumps, holding her chin high, hooding her large eyes, aiming them straight ahead. Trying to calm herself, she concentrated on some of her mother’s maxims, little recipes for living that had stuck with her though the years. Be cleaner than clean, more polite than polite. Pay too much attention to others and they’re likely to pay too much attention to you. As was her practice in pressure situations, Janet sang to herself, an old favorite song from the musical The King and I, “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a happy tune, and no one ever knows I’m afraid.
“That’s my anthem,” she would joke, eyelids fluttering, full lips curling upward into a mischievous grin. And then she’d laugh—a low-pitched giggle, sultry and suggestive and somewhat devil-may-care; her trademark, her smoke screen.
After what felt like an endless walk down the aisle, Janet arrived at the Weekly section, next to the glass offices occupied by Woodward and the columnist Richard Cohen. She was met by Stan Hinden, editor of the three zoned local editions that comprised the Weekly section, one of the nation’s earlier experiments with zoned local editions. Launched in reaction to the recent boom of “neighbor papers” across the nation, the Weeklies were tasked with touching the home lives of subscribers, bringing the world-famous institution back to its roots as a local daily. Designed to be a “paper within the paper,” the section featured happy four-color fronts, good-news stories, calendars of events, roadwork listings, and a commuter columnist called Dr. Gridlock.
The Weeklies were considered a kind of in-house farm team—some said boot camp—staffed with summer interns, two-year interns, and a number of probationers and misfits who’d had trouble in other sections or were nearing retirement age. In short, nobody who worked on the Weekly fit the mold of the idealized Washington Post reporter, Bradlee himself—a dashing, brilliant, connected, roguish ivy league liberal who was known for his friendship with John F. Kennedy and his marriage to celebrity journalist Sally Quinn. Almost from the beginning, Janet noticed the difference between the Weekly and the rest of the paper. In time, she’d begin referring to her assignment as “the ghetto,” and “the back of the bus.” She’d joke that her parents had spent lots of money sending her to private schools in order to keep her out of such circumstances. Internally she’d wonder: If she was good enough to be hired by the Post, why wasn’t she good enough to be part of the “real” staff? What is wrong with me?
At last, Janet was greeted by Stan Hinden, a kindly, white- haired, Jewish grandfather who stood five-foot-two. Where most in the newsroom were called by their last names, he was universally known as Stan. Janet was five-foot-eight. Her new boss reached up and relieved her of her coat, then led her to the closet, showed her which hook she could use. Then he led Janet to the desk of her new editor, Vivian Aplin-Brownlee. A light-skinned black woman from Texas, Aplin-Brownlee was known for her prickly tongue, her skill in office politics, and her fine touch as an editor. Many likened her to a drill sergeant, someone who fondly, ruthlessly tore you down in order to build you back up—Lou Gossett with a short Afro, dangling earrings and oversized glasses.
Like most of the black staffers at the time, Vivian was equally fluent in the King’s English and the language of the streets, the first used with whites, the second only with other blacks. At the time, Washington was nearly seventy percent black; the city’s residents openly, gleefully, called it Chocolate City. Janet had never encountered such a place; neither had she met black people like those in Washington. Always the lone black girl in the crowd of white faces, Janet did not speak jive.
During her first job interview at the Post, Janet met Dorothy Gilliam, the grande dame of black female columnists. Gilliam asked what Janet thought the role of a black reporter should be. Janet was shocked by the question. She had never dated a black man. She had never had a black girlfriend. On the bus home from school one day during her sophomore year, two of the black boys from her high school doused her with baby powder so she would look the color she acted. Janet didn’t know black people, never got along with them. She’d been raised to believe, however conflictedly, that race didn’t matter, that it was not a crucial factor in determining an individual’s life. In many ways, Janet thought like a white person: She was frequently accused by other blacks of being an Oreo, meaning black on the outside, white on the inside. It was not very far from the truth. As a child, before bed each night, she would pray on her knees: “Please, God, let me wake up blonde.”
To Gilliam’s question, Janet responded that the first thing a black reporter should do is not think of herself as any color. She should just go out, find the story, come back and write it.
Gilliam looked stunned. “Why, you poor silly little girl,” she exclaimed.
Thankfully, Janet’s meeting with Gilliam had not counted against her. She was hired and she was here, standing in the Weekly on her first day of work. After meeting Hinden and Aplin-Brownlee and being introduced to a number of other new co-workers, Janet felt so welcomed that her anxiety eased a bit, she was able to take in her surroundings. She was impressed with the vastness of the room, a full acre that stretched over three interconnected buildings. Everything was so bright; just like the movie All the President’s Men, which had been shot in this very room with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman and all the rest. It also impressed her that that so many of the people sitting at the desks around her looked so young. From where she was standing, she could see Bob Woodward speaking on the phone in his glass office. A guy who was going down in history was actually her boss. Hell, he’d hired her personally.
At some point there came a lull in the conversation—one of those uncomfortable silences where everybody’s standing around in the middle of the office and nobody knows what to do next.
“So,” Janet ventured, “where do I sit?”
Hinden’s smile disappeared. He scratched his head and surveyed his fiefdom, looking this way and that.
Seconds ticked by.
Beneath her calm and beautiful exterior, Janet began to roil.
Hinden led a little tour, walking from desk to desk, trying to find a suitable desk for his new prize. Janet followed two steps behind, mortified, the voice inside her head chirping, Jesus Christ, this is the Washington fucking Post. Can’t they find me a desk?
Copyright © 2003, 2013 by Mike Sager