When retired reporter Dolores Plested says "I'm cracking up," she means it physically, not mentally. By last summer, she had fully recovered from a broken hip suffered several years previously, but then she sustained a stress fracture in one ankle due to the effects of osteoporosis. The injury slowed her down again, which irritated her plenty. Since her birth back in 1908, she's never liked staying still.
Although Plested is moving better now, thanks to the occasional use of a walker or a wheelchair, she initially turned down a request to speak at an upcoming event: the October 25 grand opening of the restored Fitzsimons Army Hospital suite where President Dwight Eisenhower stayed following his 1955 heart attack. It wasn't that she objected to sharing memories from her time as a member of the White House media contingent -- far from it. Likewise, she understood that the gala's organizers had few options when it came to journalists who'd been on this specific beat. Aside from Masterpiece Theatre host Russell Baker, a onetime Baltimore Sun and New York Times scribe who declined an invitation, "most of the other reporters are dead," Plested points out. Nonetheless, she had an awfully good reason for being reluctant. "I'm 95 years old!" she declares.
In the end, Plested reconsidered; she's on the bill for a 2 p.m. symposium at the University of Colorado Hospital's Anschutz Centers for Advanced Medicine, 1665 North Ursula Street. (For more information about the panel and tours that begin at 10 a.m., call 303-724-5430 or visit www.uch.edu.) But with the bash fast approaching, she continues to emphasize that bad weather or other unforeseen circumstances might prevent her from appearing -- and at her age, any excuse for missing the festivities would undoubtedly be a good one. Besides, she's already done her part to guarantee that information about the Eisenhower period, as well as word of other important happenings that took place during her career, is documented for future generations. She's a recipient of the Colorado Historical Society's Stephen H. Hart Award for distinguished service in the field of historic preservation and has donated stacks of photos and other material to CHS's books and manuscripts collection. "It's wonderful to be able to work with a donor like Dolores," says Keith Schrum, the society's associate curator of manuscripts. "She can give insight into what she did and how she did it. And she's sharp as a tack."
Plested has also been active with the historical society in Trinidad, her home town; among other accomplishments, she helped save at least two threatened landmark buildings, the Baca House and the Bloom Mansion. To acknowledge these contributions, elected officials in Trinidad designated this past July 17 Dolores Plested Day and gave her the key to the city. The ceremonial doodad is framed and mounted on a wall in her modest Denver home next to a reproduction of a painting completed by Eisenhower while he was convalescing at Fitzsimons and a personal letter from the old general himself.
In Some Reminiscences Along the Way, a loosely organized autobiography Plested self-published last year, Eisenhower-related matters are juxtaposed with Zelig-like personal observations about nearly a century's worth of political and cultural figures who crossed her path. Yet the first trails she cut were in Trinidad, where she and her four siblings grew up in the vicinity of a mine their father owned. (The details of this enterprise are documented in Life and Death of a Coal Mine: The Story of One Man's Battle for Its Life, another tome penned by Plested.) She subsequently enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, emerging in 1931 with a journalism degree that didn't come with guaranteed employment. "It was the Depression, and the only job I could get was selling Christmas cards," she recalls. Fortunately, her sister Evelyn, who worked at the Trinidad Chronicle, got pregnant, opening a position for Dolores. She stayed at the Chronicle for four years before deciding that she wanted to be a fashion reporter in New York City. Today she laughingly calls this goal "stupid," but fashion represented one of the few areas of specialization where women reporters of the day were allowed to practice.
After earning a master's of science degree in retailing from New York University, Plested worked in a variety of capacities for outfits such as the Retail Reporting Bureau, which she describes as "a service to stores all over the country to tell them what was selling and where. It was a terrible job; I hated it." Far more intriguing was her gig at The Midtowner, a paper circulated on the west side of Manhattan that often featured profiles of prominent residents. Her roster of interviews was highlighted by chats with vocalist Carmen Miranda -- "You know, the one who wore all the fruit on her head," Plested says -- and Fannie Hurst, author of such filmable potboilers as Imitation of Life.
Clearly, New York in the '30s was an interesting place, and Plested took advantage of it, regularly attending Broadway plays, receiving a personal tour of a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit from photographer Alfred Stieglitz, hobnobbing with Glenn Miller (her brother, Bill, was a Miller pal), and even watching the Hindenburg float past en route to its fiery fate. She finally broke into the world of big-time journalism, too, as a food writer for the New York Times. Money remained tight, however, and it got tighter in 1941 when her sister and roommate, Alice, decided to resign as a typist at Time magazine and leave the island. Plested didn't think she could cover the rent alone, and she was feeling a bit homesick for Colorado, so she followed Alice's lead and hit the highway.
Following a stopover in Trinidad, Plested moved to Denver and was promptly hired as a temporary copywriter at KMYR, the city's fifth radio station and the first not affiliated with a network. Six months later, she got up the nerve to ask Frederick Meyer, the owner, if he'd give her a raise. "I'm not sure we're going to keep you," he replied, but he did. She stayed for seven years, toiling alongside KMYR personality and future Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole, who became a lifelong friend, and rising to the title of program director before deciding that she wanted to strike out on her own.
This move took a while to pay off. "I thought I could be a great writer," she says, "but I got all the rejection slips you could pile up." Fortunately, Fairchild Publications, which encompassed trade magazines such as Women's Wear Daily, used her as a stringer, and when the bureau chief moved on, Plested took her place. Fairchild didn't have to look for another replacement until Plested retired in 1973, ending a 25-year run.
Half a decade into her Fairchild tenure, President Eisenhower began spending significant portions of his summers in Denver at the home of Elivera Doud, the mother of his wife, Mamie. To accommodate the reporters who tagged along with him, a space for the press was constructed at Lowry Air Force Base, close to a bank of offices Eisenhower used when duty called. "It was a long, narrow room with typewriter tables on each side," Plested recalls. "Back then, everything was sent by Western Union, so at the end of the room was a battery of Telex machines. They'd come down the row to take everyone's stories." When Eisenhower was in town, James Hagerty, his spokesman, would stage daily press conferences at 9 a.m. "They got them over with early, because Ike wanted to be off to golf and fish," Plested says.
Despite her Women's Wear credential, Plested wasn't required to report on Eisenhower's taste in recreational duds. Instead, she was charged with gathering any news that might affect retail businesses served by Fairchild mags. For the most part, this assignment was loads of fun -- a vacation for the reporters as well as the chief executive. "We had all sorts of parties and picnics and barbecues; they were marvelous," she says. She was thrilled to tag along on presidential jaunts to the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, the Cherry Hills Country Club and the mountains at Genesee, where special guest Ethel Merman was one of the revelers.
Things got a lot more serious on September 24, 1955. That night, Eisenhower awoke feeling chest pains, which he attributed at first to a hamburger he'd eaten the day before -- shades of George W. Bush's killer pretzel. In truth, he'd experienced a heart attack, and after being taken to Fitzsimons, he spent around a month and a half under the watchful eyes of doctors, nurses and a lot more reporters than normally shadowed him. Press from around the country and around the world descended on Denver, waiting to see if the man who'd commanded U.S. troops during World War II would succumb to an excess of peacefulness. It became one of the first modern media events, with television, a rather new industry at the time, offering sweeping coverage and still photographers going all out for scoops. "From what I understand," says Karen Harris, the architect in charge of restoring Eisenhower's eighth-floor suite, "there were a couple guys out on the esplanade with huge lenses trying to get pictures of the hospital room and the sundeck."
In attempting to precisely reconstruct these areas, Harris was blessed with adequate funding; according to James Brownson, annual program administrator for the University of Colorado hospitals, the project was paid for by more than $60,000 in grants secured through the Colorado Historical Society and a $20,000 gift from Wells Fargo. In addition, documentation was plentiful. Harris, who first got involved in the restoration back in 1998, had access to copious notes taken by both the nursing staff (each bowel movement was recorded) and the Secret Service crew stationed in an adjacent room that has also been restored. The latter went so far as to write down the name of each song on Lonesome Echo, a chart-topping 1955 Jackie Gleason album that Eisenhower listened to.
There were also stacks of photographs, but Harris says they were of only limited assistance: "We didn't have any pictures of pedestrian things -- light fixtures, bathrooms -- and no medical equipment was shown. There was definitely some spin." The furniture, meanwhile, had been dispersed long ago, and finding duplicates was tricky because it came from "an era that's not widely popular in collecting," Harris allows. "They weren't classy; they were pretty military." Harris and interior designer Lisa Gallun had better luck finding appropriate items at thrift stores such as Goodwill and ARC than they did at antique shops, and they're still looking for a few pieces. Harris is sure someone has the perfect wing-backed, floral-patterned chair sitting in his basement at this very moment.
Other challenges included arriving at the right color of paint, employing the proper plastering technique and discovering an effective way to get adhesive off the floor. "It was a linoleum floor that was linseed-oil based, and the different solvents we tried would begin to dissolve it," Harris says. "So we posted a question in linoleum chat rooms, which I didn't even know existed. I thought, 'Somebody doesn't have a life,' but I was there, too, so I couldn't talk -- and when people responded and solved our problem, I thought it was great."
Visitors shouldn't expect splendor when they see the suites, Harris warns. "It was the VIP suite, so it was considerably nicer than the wards back then, but it's a huge contrast to modern hospital rooms. It's like a bad 1955 hotel room. But walking into it really gives you a sense of what it was like."
For Plested, the incident that exemplifies the differences between press coverage in 1955 versus today revolves around a set of red silk pajamas the press corps gave Eisenhower to commemorate his 65th birthday, on October 14. Plested arranged for the PJs to be adorned with five gold stars and monogrammed with the phrase "Much Better, Thanks." The President liked them so much that he wore them in a photo that wound up on the cover of Life magazine.
A restored Eisenhower left Denver in November, and afterward, Plested mostly reported about individuals of less national significance -- but there were exceptions. The first vacation taken by Jackie Kennedy after the 1963 assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was in Aspen; she was accompanied by family members such as young John-John Kennedy and future senator Robert Kennedy. Plested was assigned to get the story, but she faced an unanticipated obstacle. "One of the photographers I got wanted to give them a lot of privacy," she says, "so I had to sneak the pictures myself."
Most of the folks in these snapshots have gone on to their final reward, as have the majority of Plested's colleagues. "There aren't many of the KMYR people left," she admits, "so mostly I stay in touch with the kids." She's also planning to take another pass at Some Reminiscences Along the Way because "there are a lot of typos. I want to get it right."
No doubt Ike would have liked it that way.
Pubic access: When the Kobe Bryant trial that's expected to take place next year is finally over and assorted commentators have finally exhausted the question of who got off in every sense of the phrase, Denver attorney Pamela Mackey should offer seminars in how to handle the press. She may not be a favorite of Saturday Night Live faux newscaster Tina Fey, whose recent Mackey routine was recapped by the Denver Post in its sports section, of all places, but she deserves recognition as the media manipulator of the year.
Why? Because Mackey knew that if she could get sexually titillating factoids into the marketplace of (usually boring) ideas via this month's two-part preliminary hearing, members of the punditocracy would go bonkers, and man, have they ever. Reporters are now commonly referring to the young woman who says Bryant raped her as the basketballer's "accuser" -- a word that carries a pejorative taint -- and many legal experts have already buried the prosecution case. The only thing talking-head Craig Silverman seems to like better than treating Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert like Zippy the Pinhead is lingering lovingly over words like "semen" and "yellow panties." Somebody hose this guy off.
Which isn't to say that such specifics should be banned from discussion. The Aspen Daily News's decision to become a Kobe-free zone is an obvious publicity stunt designed to captivate the likes of Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker, who described the move as a triumph for Americans "tired of feeling like they need a shower after reading the newspaper or watching the evening news." Sterling Greenwood, publisher of the rival Aspen Free Press, understands the silliness of this gesture; in a letter to Westword, he vowed that his paper would ban Bryant in favor of covering "a sodomy case in Buzzardsville, Co., where a wino has been reportedly spreading jelly on his male member and allowing the town dawgs to lick it off."
To put it another way, not reporting about a legitimate but unwholesome news story is as wrong as doing it in a libidinous, heavy breathing way that's wholly inappropriate to what may have been a serious crime. But more power to Mackey for knowing that so many media types would take to the low road like a four-wheeler in a mud pit. If you decide to launch a lecture series, Ms. Mackey, I'll be the first to sign up.
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