Lloyd Shearer, who wrote the popular “Personality Parade” column in Parade magazine for three decades under the nom de plume of Walter Scott, died Thursday at his Los Angeles home after a heart attack. He was 83.
Spoken of in awed tones by Pulitzer Prize winners and Washington politicos, Shearer originated the question-and-answer column that is considered a Sunday morning must-read by millions. He wrote it every week for 33 years, stopping in 1991 when Parkinson’s disease made it too difficult for him to continue.
The column tried to satisfy a nation’s curiosity about its public figures, titillating and informing on such matters as whether Elvis Presley wore a girdle (no), why Jackie Kennedy Onassis preferred pants to skirts (bowlegs) and whether Raquel Welch had her fanny reconfigured (no).
Every column also delved into weightier matters, such as why Executive Order 9066 was called the shame of the nation (it ordered the internment of Japanese Americans and nationals during World War II without proof of their disloyalty) and whether Stokely Carmichael was ever a Communist (no, but he often sounded like one).
It may have been the most widely read column in the country. Parade, a colorful supplement found inside 350 Sunday newspapers, has the largest national distribution any magazine, reaching as many as 75 million readers every week. “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade” comes first in the lineup, occupying prime space on the inside cover. Now written by Edward Klein, a former New York Times Magazine editor, it remains Parade’s most popular feature.
Shearer wrote about such celebrities as Presley and Jerry Lewis before they became household names. He wrote--in 1973--that Ronald Reagan would become president. The romances of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, and of Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis? Shearer had the news first.
His phone calls were returned by the likes of Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader. Although he often disagreed with his politics, he got so chummy with Henry Kissinger that he could play practical jokes on the former secretary of State, sending his office photographs of starlets inscribed with messages like “Thanks for the wonderful night in Oxnard.”
“He told me my father was the only one who could play a joke on him,” Shearer’s son, Derek, the ambassador to Finland in the Clinton administration, said of Kissinger.
His network of sources included Hollywood secretaries and the wives of the rich and famous, whom Shearer made a point of befriending. Those relationships often proved invaluable, such as during the military buildup in Vietnam in the 1960s when Margaret McNamara, wife of the Defense secretary, called him nightly to confide the travails the war was causing in her own family. Richard Nixon was said to have been a loyal reader.
Walter Anderson, who was Parade editor for 20 years before becoming its publisher, said Shearer deserved all the credit for the column’s success.
“He had an innate talent for understanding what people are interested in . . . a genius for popular culture,” Anderson said. “And he worked at it. Besides having creativity, intelligence and incredible curiosity, he worked hard, seven days a week, 365 days a year. No Rolodex in the world is more valuable than Lloyd’s.”
The son of Austrian immigrants, Shearer grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New York City, where his father worked as a typesetter. He began writing in high school and majored in English at the University of North Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1936.
His first reporting job, at the Durham, N.C., Sun, was interrupted by conscription into the Army just before the outbreak of World War II. He became part of the original staff of Yank, the World War II military magazine that made pinups famous.
Near the war’s end he transferred to Los Angeles to cover the Pacific Theater for Armed Forces Radio. He later became an in-Army correspondent for the New York Times. He gained some notoriety as the star of a popular book, “See Here Private Hargrove.” After the war, he wrote regularly for the New York Times Magazine and Reader’s Digest.
In 1957 he wrote a series of personality profiles for Parade that elicited a flood of queries from readers: Was Katharine Hepburn living out of wedlock with Spencer Tracy? Did Gen. MacArthur really hate Gen. Eisenhower? Did author Sinclair Lewis drink too much?
He suggested to Jess Gorkin, then editor of Parade, that the magazine start a column “devoted to separating fact from fiction, truth from rumor,” Shearer recalled in the foreword to a 1995 compilation of columns, “The Best of Walter Scott’s Personality Parade.” The purpose was to “tell, if legally tellable, what the readers wanted to know and apparently could not find out elsewhere.”
The column was launched in March 1958. Each one offered about a dozen items, illustrated with mug shots of everyone from Winston Churchill to Dinah Shore. It was not a gossip column per se, although every week featured tidbits that appealed to the appetite for news about the rich and the royals, as in this item from 1959:
Question: I’m told Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, has the greatest collection of guns in Europe, but that he can’t hit the side of a barn. Is it true? --T.R., Newark, N.J.
Answer: The Prince owns an arsenal of guns--all embossed in gold with the letter P. He used to be a terrible shot, but after much practice, he’s improving.
He showed his biases, and some of the questions he used were criticized as tastelessly blunt. He could also be coy, and sly. Take this question, published in 1970:
Q: Does Raquel Welch have any talent as an actress?
A: For years Raquel Welch has been kind to her mother.
Although he refused most requests for interviews, his column was the subject of analysis in political magazines, such as the Washington-based Weekly Standard, and popular media, such as the Boston Globe. Some journalists suggested that he made up many questions to suit his own agenda. His editor and family members say he did not make up the queries, but the questions he used often were composites. He would receive 4,000 to 7,000 letters a week, including as many as 100 on the same topic. His assistants, who often were his children, would gather them in piles according to subject, sorting out those that were confusing or from crackpots, who were as legion as his legitimate and well-placed sources.
It took him only two phone calls to break the story of the female driver who had an affair with Dwight Eisenhower when he commanded Allied troops during World War II. “He had a friend in the Army who had been in Ike’s press office,” said Derek Shearer. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, that was Kay Summersby. Here’s her address.’ He got her phone number and called her. She was ready to talk about it. That was in the ‘60s.”
Ed Guthman, who was press secretary to then-Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy before joining the Los Angeles Times as national editor in the 1960s, recalls being at a cocktail party on Cape Cod years ago that was attended by such prominent Washington figures as House Speaker Tip O’Neill and prize-winning journalists. When the subject of Walter Scott’s column came up, Guthman mentioned that Scott was his neighbor in Los Angeles. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, wow! You know Walter Scott?’ They read his column every week.”
The eminent muckraker Seymour Hersh, who writes for the New Yorker, considered Shearer a mentor. “Lloyd understood that no one story was going to change the world. In other words,” Hersh said, “his message was simply that there are other things in life besides chasing the bad guys. It took me many years to realize how right he was.”
Shearer is survived by his wife, Marva; sons Derek and Cody; and daughter Brook.
The family asks that any donations be made to Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, 1920 Marengo, Los Angeles, CA 90033; the Casey Shearer Memorial Fund, c/o Development Office, Brown University, 110 Elm St., Providence, RI 02903; or the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution, 1424 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.