A syndicated columnist for Hearst News Service after spending most of her career as a reporter for United Press International, Thomas died early Saturday at her apartment in Washington. Her friend Muriel Dobbin, a longtime Baltimore Sun reporter, said Thomas had been in declining health for some time and had recently been hospitalized.
Thomas covered every administration from John F. Kennedy to
Perhaps her most lasting achievement as a journalist was to shatter the glass ceiling in the press room. She was the first woman to serve as White House bureau chief for a wire service — UPI — and the first female officer of three Washington institutions that defined press power: the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents' Assn. and the Gridiron.
In May 2010, Thomas was forced to give up her Hearst column after making anti-Israel remarks in a short videotaped interview. Days later she apologized for saying that Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home," but she couldn't escape the controversy and resigned.
In 2011 she began writing a column for the weekly
Thomas had a reputation for asking questions with an edge and was so vociferous in her criticism of the war in Iraq that for three years President
She broke news — Lyndon
Born Aug. 4, 1920, in Winchester, Ky., where her parents had moved after arriving at
Earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1942, she headed to Washington. It was wartime, and with men in the service women were getting career chances once unheard of in the workplace. She worked briefly as a copy girl at the gritty Washington Daily News. When she was laid off, she headed to the National Press Building, where she knocked on doors until United Press, later UPI, hired her for $24 a week to write copy for radio broadcasters. She held the job for 12 years.
She got her break in 1956, when UPI gave her a beat covering the Justice Department. Finally, when she was 40, UPI sent Helen Thomas to the White House to cover the stylish first lady, Jackie Kennedy.
It was a mismatch from the start. Joining forces with the Associated Press' Fran Lewine, the two staked out the
By then, Thomas had worked her way onto the men's side of White House coverage, clamoring to end gender discrimination at the National Press Club where foreign dignitaries and other visiting notables spoke to reporters and often made news. She, Lewine, Elsie Carper of the
Change came to the tradition-bound club reluctantly. In 1956, the club deigned to allow women to sit in the balcony without asking questions or eating lunch. Thomas called the balcony "purdah," referring to the Hindi and Muslim practice of shielding women from strangers. In 1959, visiting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev refused to speak at the Press Club unless women were allowed to cover his speech. The club allowed a one-time only exception: 30 female reporters could sit on the main floor, eat lunch and cover the address, during which Khrushchev told the West, "We will bury you." Finally, in 1971, the club opened its doors to women. Thomas was its first female member.
Similar stories applied to the other two organizations. The White House Correspondents Assn. black-tie dinner was not open to women until 1962, when Kennedy, at Thomas' prodding, threatened not to attend unless women were allowed in. Thomas and Lewine broke through the Gridiron's male-only policy in 1974, when they attracted big-name guests to a counter-gridiron party that stole the original's thunder. The next year, they were in.
By then Thomas was a fixture in Washington, and at the White House. She was named UPI's Washington bureau chief in 1974. She liked to get to work early, starting the day at 5:30 a.m. with the newspapers and some coffee, parking herself outside the press secretary's office by 8 a.m. "to see if I could buttonhole them early." She liked routine, often dining at Lebanese restaurant Mama Ayesha's in Washington's Adams-Morgan neighborhood.
She worked for UPI from more than half a century, until 2000, when the news service was sold to Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. She quit, and went to work as a columnist for Hearst, trading in her reporter's dictated facts for the opinions that had long dominated her thinking — and her family tradition.
"I wrote dull copy because I was afraid even a verb would sound pejorative or judgmental," she said in a 2004 interview with Progressive magazine. "But now I go for broke." After 57 years of playing it straight, she could say it out loud. "I was a liberal the day I was born, and I will be until the day I die."
At 51, Thomas married a colleague, Douglas Cornell. Four years later he was diagnosed with
Thomas, who had no children, is survived by three sisters, according to a family statement.
Neuman is a former Times staff writer.