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This Week in Freudenfreude: Along Comes A Woman

Today is one of those days that we're going to use this space to talk about a notable historical figure, namely Martha Rountree. There's a fair chance that most readers don't know her, as she died more than two decades ago, and her period of maximum notability came before most readers were born.

Rountree was born in Florida and raised in South Carolina, and attempted to get a college education at the University of South Carolina. The bad news for Rountree is that she and her family had little money, and she was unable to afford the required BMW. No, wait. Wrong USC. What she was actually unable to afford was her tuition. The good news is that it was still reasonably plausible, with just a high school diploma, to land jobs that would be impossible to get without a college diploma today. So, she found employment with The Tampa Tribune in 1938. Women reporters were not unheard of back then; the unusual part, which perhaps foreshadowed future trailblazing, was that Rountree was hired by the sports department. As many women writers did back then, she used her first and middle initials in her byline. Presumably the more chauvinistic readers never realized that M.J. Rountree was sans penis.

In the early 1940s, Rountree relocated to New York City, where she did some freelancing and founded a production company, Radio House, with her sister. Their first big success was Leave It to the Girls, in which female celebrities responded to questions sent in by the audience. Rountree also became associated with the New Yorker-like magazine The American Mercury, eventually rising to become a roving editor (and leaving not long before the publication veered hard right, and went full-on antisemitic).

In 1945, given that Rountree had experience with both radio and print journalism, Mercury publisher Lawrence E. Spivak suggested that she put together a public-affairs-focused radio program. Rountree liked the idea and, after properly fleshing out the concept, debuted The American Mercury Presents on June 24, 1945. It was the first program of its kind, and did very well with listeners. It was also dirt cheap to produce. In view of this, the program was a natural for one of the TV networks, as they looked to get off the ground. It was NBC that landed the program, and the first episode of the TV incarnation aired on November 6, 1947:

Martha Rountree, sitting with a microphone in front of her

Rountree stayed with the program through the change in media, and through a change in names, hosting it until 1953. In that capacity, she was a part of several historic TV "firsts." For example, she welcomed Rep. John F. Kennedy (D-MA) for his first national television appearance, on December 2, 1947. She also hosted Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) on August 7, 1951, for a widely watched interview. Since the Senator was rather unpopular with some people, and since he feared for his life, he did the entire interview with a gun sitting in his lap (though it was only visible to the host, not the TV audience).

Between her public platform, her Southern charm, and her gender, Rountree spent years as a central figure in Washington society gatherings. When she bought a new house in D.C. in 1952, the guest list for her housewarming party (not to mention the fact that Life magazine showed up to photograph the event) was a testament to her influence. There were no fewer than four presidential candidates there (including eventual major-party nominees Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower), along with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and the other party leaders in Congress. The menu was a testament to Rountree's no-nonsense style. She served hamburgers and plain potato salad.

After leaving the program she'd created, Rountree kept busy as a freelancer and an activist. She covered the presidential conventions of the 1950s and 1960s, started a magazine and a radio station, hosted a couple of other TV shows, and founded the Leadership Foundation (which works to cultivate future leaders among young people) and Leadership Action (which lobbies Congress). Rountree, once described by Millicent Willson (a.k.a. Mrs. William Randolph Hearst) as "a diesel engine under a lace handkerchief," didn't begin to slow down until the late 1980s, by which time she was nearly blind due to damage done to her eyes by the very bright klieg lights used in the early days of TV. She eventually succumbed to Alzheimer's disease in 1999.

And that's the story. Although, reading things over, it would seem that we forgot to mention the name that Rountree's program eventually acquired. We'll have to rectify that, now won't we? The American Mercury Presents, on its move to TV, became a little show called... Meet the Press. It is now the longest-running program in U.S. television history, at 75 years and counting. That puts it at a little less than 6 months older than CBS Evening News, which debuted on May 3, 1948. And in a sign of how far ahead of her time Rountree was, the next time that Meet the Press would have a permanent female moderator would be... this weekend, when Kristen Welker takes over for Chuck Todd. The 11 moderators between Rountree and Welker have all been... well, avec penis.

Whether you tune in on Sunday to watch Welker interview Donald Trump or not, have a good weekend! And look for something of a sequel to this item in a couple of weeks. (Z)

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