Georgie Anne Geyer, a longtime foreign correspondent who chased after the world’s most despotic leaders while clearing the way for a future generation of women journalists who’d largely been excluded from the male-dominated foreign press corps, has died at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 84.
First as a reporter in Chicago, then as a syndicated columnist whose work appeared in the Los Angeles Times and scores of other publications, Geyer seemed to live a life of adventure — trooping through the hills of Guatemala with guerrilla fighters, held by Palestinian commandos who believed she was a mysterious foreign agent known as the Israeli Blonde, locked up by jittery government officials in Angola.
Geyer interviewed autocrats, strongmen and fiery revolutionaries. Fidel Castro, she told the Chicago Tribune, was sweet, though “essentially incoherent,” while Libya’s Moammar Kadafi seemed nothing more than “a desert boy.” Saddam Hussein, she said, was mysterious, his intentions hidden behind his “hooded eyes.”
“One of the nice things about interviewing Castro is that you don’t really have to ask him any question,” she told The Times. “He starts talking and eight hours later he stops talking.”
But for someone who leaned on the written and spoken word to tell her stories, Geyer’s upward arc as a journalist was slowed when she was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. She continued to write a column until late in life, but had to largely forgo speaking engagements, and found it difficult to carry out interviews or appear on the Sunday morning news roundup shows she so enjoyed.
“When you come and you can’t speak, people tire of you very quickly,” she said.
Dan Southerland, a former Washington Post correspondent and a friend, said Geyer’s death on May 15 arose from complications of pneumonia.
At its height, Geyer’s column — first syndicated by The Times and later by Universal Press Syndicate — was carried by more than 100 newspapers across the United States. Geyer was a regular on news talk shows and she filled bookstores with her biographies, commentaries and even a book on the relationship between royalty and their pampered cats.
On the road in Central America, the Middle East and Africa, Geyer traveled with three sets of clothes, a swimsuit and an Olivetti typewriter.
Her mission was to seek out the powerful men — always men, she came to see — who ruled the world, often with bloodshed and unchecked cruelty as their chief weapons.
A woman in her 20s in what then was a middle-age man’s world, Geyer cringed at the suggestion that she should use her femininity to land interviews or coax world leaders into talking freely.
“I just couldn’t picture waking up at 3 in the morning with some stranger lying next to me and saying, ‘Eh, Che, mi amor, tell me where your missiles are?” she wrote in “Buying the Night Flight: The Autobiography of a Woman Foreign Correspondent.” “Men apparently think this is the way it’s done.”
Born April 2, 1935, and raised in a brick bungalow in Chicago’s working-class Far South Side, Geyer grew up long before the women’s movement arrived. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and attended the University of Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship. She became fluent in Spanish, German, Russian and Portuguese. To most, she was known simply as Gee Gee.
“World War II had left the United States with men who craved the hearth and women who craved their men,” she explained to the Chicago Tribune in 2017.
She began her newspaper career at the Southtown Economist in suburban Chicago and then moved on to the Chicago Daily News, where she sat across from Mike Royko, who would become the city’s signature columnist. Women in the newsroom, he advised her, are “as rare as a teetotaler.”
Abroad, Geyer met with Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Juan and Eva Peron, the Argentine strongman and his charismatic wife. She was drawn to Latin America and its cast of rebels, freedom fighters and iron-willed rulers. She hiked the hills in Guatemala with guerrilla fighters.
Her reporting was questioned at times as being shoddy and she was branded by some as being anti-Israel because of her focus on Palestine. Others complained that she fawned over tyrants and human rights abusers, failing to appreciate the everyday people who suffered under their rule.
In her 1996 book “Americans No More,” she underscored her right-leaning beliefs by predicting that “illegal aliens will destroy the very fabric” of America and complained that too many “non-Europeans” were pouring across the border. The world, she wrote, was filled with people who shared the same question: “Who belongs, and why?”
“Above all, I am a true universalist, appreciating every culture, speaking five languages, exploring the countries of the world with the passion of a lover,” she wrote.
When age forced her to cut back on travel, and cancer silenced her speaking schedule, she continued to roam the world from her home in Washington, reading five newspapers daily with CNN humming in the background and a cup of coffee at her side.