Column:

The trailblazing of Georgie Anne Geyer, a journalist ahead of her time

Next to the golden elevator doors in Chicago’s old Drake Hotel is a case filled with photos of famous guests.

Princess Di is there, Aretha Franklin, Vince Vaughn, Diane Keaton, and a woman whose fame is less glittery, Georgie Anne Geyer.

I was studying Geyer’s photo the other day — her frank gaze, her elbow propped on a typewriter, a bow at the collar of her silky blouse — when a bellhop passed by. He paused.

“She’s an amazing lady,” he said, unsolicited. “My favorite guest.”

Geyer, who was in town for an event in her name at Dominican University, is 82 now, but when she came to her hotel door the other afternoon she still had the keen gaze of the younger woman in the photo downstairs.

She was wearing bright red lipstick, her blond hair pinned up. With a smile, she waved a hand slightly in front of her mouth to indicate that she has trouble speaking. Ten years ago she had surgery for tongue cancer, and her speech has been slurred ever since.

It didn’t matter. For the next couple of hours, we talked.

Geyer is often described as a “legendary journalist,” but she prefers the word “reporter,” a life that began at the Chicago Daily News.

“I don’t think there was a day when I wasn’t filled with expectation,” she said, thinking back on her newspaper life. “Who am I going to interview today? What am I going to learn today?”

Reporting wasn’t an obvious choice for a woman of her place and moment. Born in 1935, raised in a brick bungalow on Chicago’s working-class Far South Side, she grew up in an age when, as she wrote in her autobiography, “there was no women’s movement, and the old feminist movement of the twenties had left little residue for our type of world. Too, World War II had left the United States with men who craved the hearth and women who craved their men.”

Chicago, as well, was different in that era.

“It was a very harsh city then,” she said, glancing toward the hotel room’s windows and Lake Michigan just beyond. “It didn’t have this gorgeous front lawn that Chicago has today. Not the gorgeous big buildings.”

Geyer was still a girl when she felt the urge — her destiny, she says — to write and to explore. In her 20s, after graduating from Northwestern University, she took a job at the Chicago Daily News, where she was surrounded by men. One was Mike Royko, who went on to be the most famous columnist Chicago ever produced.

“Royko sat in front of me,” she said. “He was a very smart boy when he came. He never expected to be as good as he was. Suddenly you saw this genius come out of this sweet boy.”

Years later, after she’d seen the huge stress and success that writing brought to that boy, and after he’d watched her become a famous foreign correspondent, he wrote the introduction to her autobiography, “Buying the Night Flight.”

“Out in the newsroom — and the Chicago Daily News was typical of major newspapers of that era — a woman was as rare as a teetotaler,” he wrote.

He went on: “‘She’s nuts,’ we all laughed, in our basso voices, when Gee Gee made clear her intentions to become a foreign correspondent. … We were still chuckling when she managed to get herself assigned to South America.”

They soon learned it was no joke. Geyer traipsed into the mountains of Guatemala to interview guerrilla fighters, covered a revolution in the Dominican Republic and scored an interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, just one of many foreign leaders through the years who agreed to talk to her.

And what was Castro like?

“Essentially incoherent,” she said.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi?

“He was a desert boy, raised in a tent. He never really got it in the city.”

Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini?

“I knew that everything he said was dissimulation.”

In those years, before computers and Wi-Fi, she traveled with three outfits of clothes, a bathing suit and an Olivetti typewriter.

She went to Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, almost everywhere, it seemed. She wrangled interviews with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan, almost everyone, it seemed.

It was the kind of foreign correspondent’s life that’s rare today, not only because newspapers are shrinking but because the world makes it harder.

“One of my specialties was getting to these guerrilla groups,” she said. “Today I couldn’t do that with ISIS or al-Qaida. They’d kill me.”

Eventually, Geyer moved to Washington, D.C., and settled into writing a syndicated column. She was so well-known that her doppelganger — an ostensibly fictional blond journalist named Georgie Anne who had worked in Chicago and written a biography of Castro — appeared as a regular character in the 1990s sitcom “Hearts Afire.”

She hated the depiction, notably the dubious way the sitcom Georgie Anne used her feminine wiles. That was not her way. Royko wrote a column denouncing the show. (The show’s creator denied the connection.)

Meanwhile, the real Georgie Anne continued to make her mark, giving speeches, appearing often on political TV talk shows.

Then the tongue cancer came.

“It destroyed my professional life,” she said.

Words, not just written but spoken, were the tools of her trade. After the surgery, she went to therapy after therapy, hoping in vain.

“I kept thinking I would be the way I was,” she said.

She never would be. It meant the end of phone interviews and Washington events where she once cultivated sources.

“When you come and you can’t speak,” she said, “people tire of you very quickly.”

Still, she could write.

One day this week, she went to the Drake business center to compose her weekly syndicated column, a reflection on President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia. It wasn’t a glowing review.

She’s still mulling what to write about the new wave of outrage over sexual harassment. She calls this moment “way overdue,” but isn’t sure what she wants to say.

“I don’t want to get to a point,” she said, “where men are afraid to say, ‘Hello, beautiful.’”

Geyer hasn’t been overseas in 10 years, but her mind still roams the world. Every morning, she reads five papers, with CNN on mute, and a cup of coffee and her cat by her side. Her favorite moment of the day is happy hour, 5 p.m., when, although she can no longer eat, she can sip a scotch and soda.

The night after our interview, she went to Dominican University in River Forest for the second annual Georgie Anne Geyer Initiative lecture, part of a program that funds scholarships for students who want to be foreign correspondents.

She wrote a speech that a friend delivered for her, about the need to search for truth in the country, in the world, beyond the screaming.

Few people have seen as much of the world as Georgie Anne Geyer has, and there’s still more to see, though she may not get there.

“I miss going into a place, getting to know people, getting their stories,” she said on the afternoon we talked. “But you have to come to some peace in yourself.”

Out the window, Lake Michigan had gone dark. It was 5 p.m.

Happy hour.

[email protected]

Twitter @MarySchmich

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