Don Shannon was an army artillery officer during World War II who served in the Pacific and in the occupation of Japan just after the war. He joined the Los Angeles Times in 1951 and spent nearly forty years as a foreign correspondent in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In this interview with Kevin Delany, Shannon talks about exciting times as his paper’s first White House correspondent during John F. Kennedy’s administration. For more than fifty years, Don and his late wife, Sally, have lived in a house built in 1800 on 31st Street. Shannon was very active in CAG during the 1970s and 1980s.
Kevin Delany: All right. I’ll introduce myself, and then we’ll pick it up from there. This is Kevin Delany, and I’m in the home, this morning, Saturday, January 9, 2010, of Don Shannon, for an interview for the CAG oral history project. Don’s home is at 1068 30th Street.
All right, maybe we should just start at the beginning, Don.
Don Shannon: All right.
Kevin: When and where were you born?
Don: I was born in the state of Washington, in a small town, Auburn, between Seattle and Tacoma. It’s kind of lost in the subdivisions now, I think, but when I was born, it was a separate town, and you got on the train to go into Seattle, and it was a big adventure.
Kevin: What about your family? Tell us about your parents.
Don: My father was born in Mississippi and kind of grew up in Texas, I guess, and he was working on the Duluth and Minnesota and Northern Railway when he met my mother in… I’m not sure exactly where on the Iron Range in Minnesota. She had been born in Duluth and was teaching in northern Minnesota when they got married, I think. He came out to the West Coast with the Northern Pacific Railroad, and they moved there, and I grew up in this small town of Auburn. We’d occasionally go back to Minnesota to see cousins and so forth, but otherwise I didn’t have any close relatives, no family, around, while I was growing up.
Kevin: Any siblings?
Don: I had one brother, an older brother, a year and a half older. He’s still alive.
Kevin: Where does he live?
Don: And living in this little town of Auburn.
Kevin: He lives there still?
Don: He never left.
Don: He was on the basketball team in high school in Auburn and didn’t want to leave. My mother and father were divorced when I was 11, and I went with her to California. She was going to California to take care of my great uncle – wait a minute now. Yeah, her father’s brother would be her uncle, my great uncle.
Don: And so I grew up in San Diego and went to San Diego High School. And when I was getting out of high school, we had a woman who lived near us who was the vice principal of another high school in San Diego. And my uncle said, “Well, where should we send the boy?” And she said, “Well, there’s only one school on this coast, Mr. McCarville. It’s Stanford. So you’ve got to send him there.” [laughter]
Kevin: Pretty good choice.
Don: Those days, it wasn’t a tough entry. Main thing was if you wrote the check. And so I drove up to Stanford in 1940 and had never been there before. I’ll never forget driving down. It was so detached then. They called it the farm, and it really was. It was Governor Stanford’s farm that had been converted into a university. It was different. Then, of course, it stayed that kind of quiet way until the war started, and then things changed a lot. And, I had been in ROTC. We had a curious arrangement. They drafted about six of us that were in advanced ROTC, although we were only sophomores. We were in the Army. I was a private getting $25 a month, and I was paying tuition and going on to school, taking civilian courses, for about a year.
Kevin: This is pre-war.
Don: No, the war had started.
Kevin: Oh, the war had already started.
Don: The war had started. And this was the strangest arrangement I ever heard. The six of us or so were supposed to be the cadre for what was called the ASTP. It was something that the Army was putting kids into various universities and so forth.
Kevin: I recall.
Don: I think it was a great program for the universities. It kept them alive when a lot of people were not going to be there.
Kevin: Sort of a predecessor to the ROTC, I guess.
Don: Well, no, it was an ROTC. That’s what we were doing to start with.
Kevin: It was that, too. I see.
Don: And we had horse-drawn field artillery.
Don: So, yeah, it was a different thing. Every time I see these people here at state funerals or something or other, when they get out the caissons and so forth, it reminds me of those wonderful days when we used to go out about once a week. We’d go maybe a couple of miles out of the campus and, invariably, one team would run away. [laughs] Each gun had about six horses, and you’d be on them or else riding the caisson or something like that, and every time they would be out on these little excursions, we’d have a team run away. But then they gave us trucks, two-and-a-half-ton trucks, and we were supposed to learn how to drive those and so forth, and we did. And then, finally, they didn’t know quite else what to do with us, so they decide, OK, they’ll send us to OCS. [laughs] So we went to Fort Sill. That was the artillery school, and when I got through with that, I came out as a second lieutenant and assigned to another place in Oklahoma, Camp Gruber, which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m happy to say.
Don: And for a while there, we had eight-inch guns, which were very unusual artillery. We were scheduled to go to Europe, and I thought I was really lucky, because they sent me the other way. I got sent to the Pacific, and we went through Fort Ord in California. And the reason I say we were lucky was because the outfit that I had been with, the 527th Field Artillery, did that Italian campaign.
Kevin: Oh, very rough…
Don: Going up through the mountains, brutal, cold, miserable, and all we had, maybe a touch of malaria here and there or something or other, but otherwise, our war in the Philippines was not too bad. By the time I got there, the Japanese were out of everything, out of ammunition, and really suffering. It was just about six months and the war was over. Then we came down near Manila. We were in a camp there when the war ended. The war had ended in the Philippines, but the war was still on in Okinawa and so forth. So when it was over…
Kevin: Moved you up to Japan.
Don: They decided to send us to Japan for occupation duty.
Kevin: Now, before we leave your family discussion, your older brother who’s still living in Auburn, what is his age now?
Don: Well, he’s a year and a half older than I am, and he was in the Navy during the war.
Kevin: I see.
Don: They got him in the Navy. He was, I guess, in the, what do you call it? He was a yeoman, I think. He did payrolls and stuff like that.
Kevin: So he was born in, what, ’21, ’22?
Don: He was born in ’21.
Kevin: ’21. OK.
Don: I was born in ’23.
Kevin: ’23. OK. What about your genealogy? Your name would indicate it might have been from the old sod…
Don: Not too much. As far as we can tell, the Shannons, I guess my grandfather, I think, was born in Mississippi, but his father was from South Carolina. And, I think, before that, his grandfather had come from Virginia to South Carolina because they gave free land to Revolutionary veterans or something or other in South Carolina. So there was a big move from Virginia. A lot of people came from Virginia down into South Carolina then.
Kevin: So a lot more southern roots than Irish roots at this point.
Don: Oh, yeah. They were never Catholic. They were always Protestant.
Kevin: They weren’t. Really? Maybe from Ulster or somewhere.
Don: They’re probably Ulster. Probably Scotch-Irish from Ulster.
Don: My mother was genuine Irish. Her father was born in Canada, I think, but her mother was born in… No, wait a minute, her father was born in Canada, and her mother had come directly from Dublin to northern Minnesota. And on the boat coming over, she met this Norwegian who was going to work on the boats in the Great Lakes, and they sort of ran off and got married in Buffalo on the way to Minnesota. So I have this kind of Norwegian aspect. My mother’s name was Ericson when she was born. That’s, I guess, about the most common name in Norway. Supposedly, I think he came from Bergen, Norway, where I’ve never been. I did get to Ireland when I was in England. When I was working in England, I got over one time. It was really nice. Before jets, I think Ireland, it was like Brazil. I got to Brazil before jets, and those were the good old days, when tourism hadn’t swamped either place.
Kevin: [laughs] That’s a good transition. Let’s talk about your career and what finally brought you to the Georgetown area.
Don: I came back from the Army, and I decided I would like to try to go to law school on the GI Bill, which was just coming on. So I got into law school. The grades weren’t too good, but I got into law school by the skin of my teeth at Stanford, and had the opportunity. [laughs] It was a good class. Warren Christopher was in the class and a few other people. I think if I’d stuck with it, I probably could have done well in the law, but I really didn’t like it that much. And I also had a girlfriend who was going to Mills, which is about 45 miles across the bay, in Oakland, and that was not a good combination for law school.
Don: We were living in this kind of village they’d set up after the war in Stanford to accommodate a lot of the people that came back from the war and so forth. So the law-school people were in that for a short time. No, I guess I was living in the fraternity house that I’d lived in before the war, and that was a worse thing for the law school. It just didn’t work out after the first year ended, the law school. I had been taking Portuguese because I had run out of courses in Spanish to take. I’d run through the entire roster, almost, on Spanish, and I was taking Portuguese.
One of my classmates decided he wanted to go to Brazil to look at the business opportunities or something or other. I said, “OK, well, let’s go.” So we went down and went to Rio, where a friend of ours’ father and mother were living, and I got into a pensao on Ipanema Beach. We lived right on the beach. It was really something.
Don: In those days, there would be falta de agua: no water. That was frequent. We would sort of go across the beach. Instead of a shower, we went across the beach and got salty to go downtown. And I was working at this tabloid daily that had been started by a group of Americans there. I’d gone in and got a job with them. Anybody that came along could get a job, and I thought it was kind of interesting to work for this English-language paper in Brazil, and it was. We had a good time.
Kevin: You were a reporter?
Don: Yeah, I was a reporter. And then, when Parks Rusk came down to take over the paper, it had been bought by the man who was the ambassador to Brazil then, and he owned a paper in Miami Beach that Parks Rusk had been running. Parks was Dean Rusk’s older brother. So Parks came down. By that time, in less than a year, I was news editor of this paper. [laughter]
Don: It was small staff. We had a collection of Polish countesses who were proofreaders and so forth. It was a really wonderful place, but after about a year there, I decided that it would be a good idea to move on or you would wind up sort of being one of those permanent ex-pats living in Rio.
Kevin: I know that feeling.
Don: So I got a ride on Panair do Brasil, to go to Lisbon. And then, I went around by train through Lisbon, from Lisbon around the south of Spain and up to the border, and across and into France, where I was totally surprised. About 10 miles after the border, no one spoke Spanish, or Portuguese. So I went on up to Paris, and by this time, Parks Rusk had sent a letter to his brother, Dean, who was an assistant secretary of state in charge of international relations. The General Assembly was meeting in Paris, and I thought, “I’ll probably get a job with the Herald Tribune with my vast experience in an English-language paper in Rio.” And there were probably 50 people a day coming into the Herald Tribune office looking for jobs. [laughs]
And after a while, I decided that it was getting close to starvation, so I decided I’d better get over to London because nobody wanted to work in London. It was a brownout. Piccadilly was browned out, and you got a lamb chop a week on the ration and a quarter of a pound of butter. It was tough.
Kevin: Bad English food in those days, wasn’t it?
Don: Oh, it was really austerity in London. So, United Press was taking on anybody that came in, and I think I was working for a pretty great total of, maybe, could be $50 a month…
Kevin: What year would this be?
Don: This would have been 1950. The General Assembly in Paris was in ’48. It was the only time the General Assembly had met outside of New York since they started. I guess I was arriving in London at the beginning of ’49. Yeah, ’49, and I was working for United Press. It was cold and rainy and miserable, London. It really was, but it was kind of a fascinating time because the war was still kind of on everybody’s minds in London, and there was a great spirit. I mean, the Brits were still, they were going to make it…
Don: They were determined to make it, and they came out of it all right, but after about a year and some, I thought, again, I’d better think about getting back to the States. So I went down to the south of France and got a freighter going from Marseilles. Had this little Morris Minor, put it on this French freighter going to New York, by way of several ports in Spain, Lisbon, Nassau in the Bahamas, nd believe it or not, we went into Miami. I didn’t know Miami was a seaport. [laughter]
Don: We got there, and oh, wow. No, I’m sorry. I’m skipping ahead. We went on this French freighter from the Bahamas to New York, I think, and I bailed out in New York with no money in my pocket and a big, heavy suitcase, and I’m out on the street. And I asked which way, how I could get up to the middle of Manhattan. This man said, “Well, that’s a pretty long distance. You’d probably better take a bus or something or other,” and I said, “Well, I don’t have any money.” And this New Yorker gave me bus fare to get [laughs] up to the middle of Manhattan.
Kevin: Really? That’s surprising.
Don: There was a Pennsylvania University club that we had some sort of relationship with. Phi Gamma Delta was my fraternity from Stanford. So I went there to stay, and I went into both AP and UP. And again, UP had the first job, so I said, “OK, fine, I’m on,” and I was doing radio… No, I guess my job was with the AP Radio. We were doing radio news, and then this friend of mine from Washington said he needed somebody in Washington because he had a small bureau of western papers. Pat Monroe was his name, wonderful man.
So I got this little Morris Minor again and drove down to Washington, and that was before Highway 95. You kind of drove through the country in Pennsylvania and everything. [laughs]
Kevin: Took quite a while.
Don: It was a wonderful country. [laughs] It was really different. And arrived in Georgetown, where he was living in a bachelor house on N Street, 2721…
Kevin: What year now are we? We’re into the ’50s?
Don: We’re up to about 1950, I guess. 1950. About 10 of us lived in this house on N Street. I think there were probably the usual number of our CIA, about four CIA, I think. Nobody would tell you then where they worked. We’d go downtown in the morning, walk downtown in the morning, and they would peel off going toward the old naval hospital behind the State Department now, what is now the State Department. The old naval hospital was their kind of original headquarters for the CIA, and then they had some buildings on the canal, these temporary buildings on the canal. Did you ever see those?
Kevin: I don’t think I did.
Don: It was really awful. They put these damn things… Did I say canal? I meant on the Mall.
Kevin: On the Mall? Oh.
Don: They were on the Mall. They had a series of kind of temporary buildings.
Kevin: This was CIA?
Don: Yeah, the CIA, and other government offices were in them, too. That was one of the great things Nixon did was to get rid of those things, all those temporary buildings. They were along the reflecting pond in the Mall. Really ugly.
Kevin: So how long did you stay with this job?
Don: So I stayed for about a year there. And the Los Angeles Times changed their Washington bureau in about 1951, I guess it would be. They sent Robert Hartmann from Los Angeles – he was an editorial writer – to run what they were going to do, have a new bureau, and they started hiring people. I was the first hire, but then we soon had others. The bureau got to be about four or five people, and then a few more, and so forth. Otis Chandler became the publisher of the paper, and Otis was very ambitious. He wanted to make the paper, really, an outstanding national newspaper, and he did. He spent a lot of money, and the family didn’t like it, but they had to like it because his father, Norman Chandler, had decided he would be the editor of the paper. And some of the other cousins and so forth weren’t too happy…
Kevin: So this was the start of your LA Times career. How many years did you finally stay with the…?
Don: 40 years. [laughs]
Kevin: 40 years?
Don: Almost 40, before I retired. I was sent to Paris in 1961. By that time, I had married. I had met my wife in London. She was working at the embassy in London.
Kevin: Was a Foreign Service staffer or…
Don: She was a Foreign Service staff, and she had a cigarette ration and could buy booze duty-free, so she was a really wonderful person to know. [laughter]
Kevin: Tell us about your wife.
Don: Well, she was a Navy officer’s daughter. She was a Navy junior. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia, because her father was off on a goodwill cruise to Australia, I think. They did this thing. She was born in 1925. I guess this was a follow-up. Theodore Roosevelt used to send the Navy around on goodwill tours or something. So they’d be gone for a long time. They were gone for so long that my mother-in-law went to Atlanta to be with her twin sister, and they looked so much alike that their children couldn’t tell which was their mother. And my wife’s mother went into the Peachtree infirmary [laughs] in Atlanta, and the doctor said, “Weren’t you just here last week?”
Don: [laughs] Because her sister had been in just shortly before. I think the Atlanta period was not too long, and she grew up just all over. Her father was one of the very early Navy, the Aviators, so she was in Pensacola kind of when it started, and they were…
Kevin: What was her maiden name?
Don: Her maiden name was Van Deurs. Van Deurs.
Kevin: Van Deurs. And what was the first name?
Don: First name Sally. She was named for her grandmother. They were all over. She had been in China because of her father, and her father and her uncle were the two Aviators in the Asiatic Fleet in the 1920s, I guess. There was a base in China in the winter, and then they went to Manila in the summer.
Kevin: She was well-traveled, like you are.
Don: She was all over.
Kevin: How long was your courtship?
Don: Well, it was about a year or so, I guess. I left London, and we weren’t exactly… Well, I think I was more [laughs] enthusiastic about the romance than she was, but when I got here to Washington, she decided that, OK, she would take the offer and come to Washington. So she did. By that time, I’d bought this house on 30th street, for 10,500, bought this house. It was a condemned slum. [laughter]
Don: But this builder that I had run into said, “Oh, we can have all that fixed up. We’ll have that all fixed up.” And I always remember, “There would be a bouquet of roses on the table by the time she gets here.” Well, of course, there was nothing like that. It was sort of like that picture that you saw. [laughter]
Don: And still a long way to go.
Kevin: So it was pretty modest when she arrived.
Don: Oh, God, and we had to live with Navy friends of hers. We kind of farmed around, living with these various Navy friends of her father’s, but for some reason or other, Georgetown was always it. We were even living with one of their friends who lived on O Street then. Finally, the house was ready and we were able to live here.
Kevin: You started in Georgetown, then, in what year?
Don: 1951, I think. Yeah.
Kevin: ’51 was your earliest.
Don: We were married in 1952 in San Francisco. Her father and mother retired in Belvedere, which is just across the bay from San Francisco.
Kevin: When did you acquire this house, then?
Don: That was just before we were married, in 1951.
Kevin: Oh, ’51.
Don: Yeah, ’51, and we were working on it, but it wasn’t getting done.
Kevin: Yeah, you had a lot of work, and in fact, wasn’t it, at one point, it was condemned by the city fathers? [laughs]
Don: Oh, yeah. I have a letter from the assistant engineer commissioner. The district then had three commissioners that ran it, and one of them was an Army Engineer colonel, who would be hoping to make general. So he generally behaved himself, I think, and the district was run fairly efficiently at a fairly low cost. They were the people who looked after the construction and building department of the district. We finally were able to live here…
Kevin Delany: How did you get rid of the condemnation edict?
Don: One of Sally’s father and mother’s Navy friends came over. She was a wonderful woman, lived in Arlington. She came over and helped us nail quarter round around the baseboards here because they weren’t going to lift the condemnation under the quarter round was installed, which I never could understand.
Kevin: A quarter round being a major support, I guess?
Don: I don’t think it was. I think the object of that was the inspector was hoping maybe to get another case of whiskey left under a tree down by the canal.
Don: They did it the night before, and it was done.
Kevin: You showed me that letter that the condemnation was lifted.
Don: Yeah, then they sent that letter and so we could live here legally. It was really funny.
Kevin: When was the house built? You were not the first, obviously.
Don: I sure wasn’t. Somebody said the other day said, “Did you buy it when it was new?” It was built in 1800! So 1801 was the year my great-grandfather was born in South Carolina. I thought that was kind of funny.
Don: The house was built in 1800. The original line of Georgetown was in our back lot.
Don: The line between Thomas Jefferson and Washington Street property was the original eastern line of Georgetown. It didn’t even go to Rock Creek.
Kevin: And you still had outhouses in those days.
Don: Well, the house had a permanently running toilet attached to the back, and they were one step up from an outhouse, but it was still pretty primitive. There was no plumbing inside the house, no water. They had a spigot out in the back. They had these houses, the whole row were rented one family to a room.
Kevin: So you are lugging water?
Don: No, I never did that.
Don: We had to have water when we rebuilt the house.
Don: We had to have water and a little more electricity than they had. They had a light bulb per room strung around. We had to come up to code on the interior.
Don: We stripped the house, took all of the old plaster out and started again. We had to put a concrete slab floor in. The floor looked like the black hole of Calcutta. I think there had been a part cellar at one time, but the builder I had said we better just fill that in and do a concrete slab down there, which they did. So then we were finally able to move in maybe six months after we were married. We had been camping around places. When we moved into the house, we were the first people in this row. The builders, the people who had bought the row, finished the rest of the houses from here down to the canal, but nobody was living in them.
Across the street was the gas company, and they parked their cars on the land in back between the houses on 30th Street and Thomas Jefferson. It was a parking lot for gas company employee cars, and they parked their trucks down on what is now the Four Seasons Hotel.
Every morning a lot of trucks went out to service the whole metropolitan area. It was all from this spot here on the canal.
Kevin: Really. Did you know your neighbors pretty well?
Don: Well, we didn’t have any.
Kevin: Didn’t have any neighbors at that point.
Don: We didn’t have any neighbors until, I think, after we’d been living here for a couple of months. The man had fixed up the house next door. He’d taken it down against the law because the 1950 Georgetown Act had already taken effect. He should not have been able to do this, but he took it down to the ground and rebuilt it as two halves, so the original house is gone. There are some bricks from the original house there, and that’s about it.
Kevin: Was this a white neighborhood?
Don: Not then, no. It had been Africans, I suppose since the Civil War.
Don: I have never really traced much. I know that there was a carriage maker living here before the Civil War. He had a place where these houses are, between us and the canal, of course the canal wasn’t there until 1830. That’s why the main floor of the house is below street level because when the canal was built, they raised the street to give a level crossing of the canal for horses to pull heavy loads. There was this space between what is now the canal and this house, and he had a yard there where he kept used carriages for sale. He had also a place that made canvas for floor clothes and carriages. The carriage had a floor cloth of canvas, oil canvas, and this same thing was used for carpets for people who couldn’t afford Oriental rugs. They bought canvas floor clothes.
He sold those, too. He had a family who lived here, and I think the third floor was just one room. It was the only room without a fireplace. I often wonder how they made it through the winter. The chimneys came up. There were two chimneys, and we had four fireplaces on the lower two floors. The two chimneys came up through there.
I guess that they got kind of warm. I always figured that they must have kept all of the children, and the hired girl probably lived on this third floor. The mother and father lived on this floor, and then down below – what is now our kitchen – was their parlor and dining room. The kitchen of the original house was, of course, out in back.
Don: It had burned down a long time ago. That was a standard thing. The kitchen would be made of wood, and it would be separate from the house because you didn’t want to have a kitchen in the house and hot weather in Washington. So the kitchen frequently burned down. I dug down and found the brick floor for it, but it was three feet below the level we finally established here, so I thought it would be a drainage problem. We filled it back in. We have only about half of the back yard now.
There had been a passageway between this house and the next house so that they could have got a horse and went through into the back. That was fairly common, but no alley. There was never an alley, and when they sold the houses, the real estate people that had taken over the row of houses told us that they would sell us garage lots.
They would put an alley in and sell us garage lots, us and the people on Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson had been gentrified a few years earlier. Yes, that was wonderful, and of course here I was. I flunked out of first year law school, but I knew even then you were supposed to get promises concerning land to be in writing.
We didn’t do it, so for a long, long time there were all sorts of ideas of what to do with the land back there. We were involved in a long-running, constant, long-distance fight. I remember in Japan, I would be writing letters to Senators that I knew. We papered the town with letters.
The Park Service finally bought it after two or three shots at it. Now it’s part of the C&O Canal Park. The park wasn’t really run by the Park Service. It was Federal property, but the first barge that they had for people to go up and down and give them a little ride out of Georgetown was somebody’s private enterprise.
The Park Service didn’t get serious about the C&O Canal Park until after we had moved in. Now they have a little house on Thomas Jefferson that is their headquarters. They run it fairly efficiently.
Kevin: Well, I want to hear about your career with the LA Times and on your many travels, but I’m going to…
Don: You have to switch…
Kevin Delany: Don, we’re about to talk about your career with the LA Times of almost 40 years, I think?
Don Shannon: Almost 40 years. Yeah, I was fairly close to 40, not quite. But, we had just this very small bureau at first and we were adding a few people. By 1960, we were, for the first time, covering the Democratic candidate for president, and I was… That was my job. I was covering Kennedy. It was really an experience. You know, that campaign, it was sort of… It was a kind of new politics, almost like this last one with Obama, I guess, you know. Kennedy was a dark horse, you know, a Catholic. He was not supposed to be President of the United States and…
Kevin: A lot of excitement in Washington.
Don: Yeah, the press core was a rooting section for Kennedy, you know. It was just shameful the way the press was entirely in Kennedy’s camp, you know. The poor guy from the Chicago Tribune was our nominal Nixon guy on the bus and he had a hard time. It was Lyn Nofziger.
Kevin: Oh, really?
Don: Lyn Nofziger was working for the copy papers in San Diego, California and poor Lyn, he was just shaking his head all the way through this thing, and he later became Reagan’s Director of Information. Not Press Secretary, but the job sort of above that that they have now.
Kevin: Were you surprised at Kennedy’s victory?
Don: A little bit, you know, we got together. Hartman was covering the Nixon campaign, and we got together a couple of times towards the end of the campaign and we added them up from his view of the Nixon campaign and what I was getting on the Kennedy campaign. And we had Kennedy as a narrow lead, and I think that’s just about the way it came out. I’ll never forget, you know, we were up in Hyannis for three days waiting for the results of that election to come in. And that was a narrow victory, but then we were in the White House, and for the first time, we had a correspondent stationed in the White House.
Kevin: Which is yourself?
Don: You know, we had a little stand‑up counter with a phone, is what we had. That was our little crowded thing. This was before somebody figured out they could board over the swimming pool down below and use that for press space, which they have now and they’ve got a good deal more of space than they had. But in the first days of the Kennedy thing, we would all be sort of parked around the entrance to the Executive Wing, and anybody that came in had to pass the gauntlet sort of, you know. [laughs] And they finally figured out a way to beat that by putting a screen across the back of the lobby. And so these people would come from West Executive Avenue and be brought in to the Oval Office. Kevin: So you didn’t spot them then?
Don: So that they wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet, you know. Kevin: What was it like to be a White House correspondent during the Kennedy era?
Don: Well, you know, everything was new and different. They did…Kennedy was doing things like the Peace Corps and his whole approach to government was so much different and all that we had a…it was an exciting story, practically everyday, and I was really enjoying it. But then our correspondent in Paris was retiring, and so they had to send somebody, and I had European experience, so I was nominated. And I went to Paris to be the only correspondent for the paper then. Then we started adding others, eventually. [unintelligible]
Kevin: Before we leave Kennedy, what was your impression of Kennedy in this…?
Don: Well I was totally for him. I thought he was brilliant. He spoke well, and that was the thing that I think that most people like about Kennedy, was that he spoke well and he had a really unusual sense of humor. You know, he had a kind of dry wit. He could turn almost any situation to his advantage very well. And we certainly didn’t know about Kennedy’s extracurricular activities. Vaguely, you knew about them, and some people might have known a little more than I did, but I certainly didn’t know that he had all this number of friends and this and that, and some of them here in Georgetown. But, no, I was not too aware.
Kevin: But, it was believed that the press core was giving him a pass on some of this, actually.
Don: Well, you did because it wouldn’t have been printed if you had… If you did want to do a story about some girlfriend of Kennedy’s, it probably wouldn’t have been printed then. It was just a… You know, we still call the president, “Mr.” In the Los Angeles Times reported, any stories from Washington were always, “Mr. Kennedy said, ” or this and that. Of course, we had arrived at the televised press conference, but that was just barely. Kennedy really opened it up. Eisenhower had had filmed…They filmed his press conferences, but they could not be used and you couldn’t quote the president directly ’til almost the end of Eisenhower’s administration. And then Jim Haggerty, his press secretary, was very capable. He decided that if they were filming these things, they might as well go ahead with the president’s actual words. So they did that, and then by the time Kennedy came in, we were geared up for television and they used the room at the State Department that’s in the new part of the State Department. It’s kind of an auditorium…was rigged up so they can have press conferences there and be photographed and et cetera, as versus the Indian Treaty Room in the old Executive Office building where we used to do Eisenhower’s press conferences, you know. Very crowded situation, very different.
Kevin: I remember watching some of the Kennedy press conferences and he did seem to have the press core in the palm of his hand.
Don: He could turn almost any question, even a hostile question…Kennedy cold turn it with a… He had this sense of humor that he could really do it, you know. And he could turn it on himself too, which, I think, is always the winning characteristic…
Kevin: Self‑effacing, yeah.
Don: …for a president. If the president could turn the…
Don: …his humor on himself, that’s always a redeeming factor. It helps him out a lot.
Kevin: Well back to Paris. What transpired from Paris on…
Don: Well, I sort of wanted to have a bureau downtown. I wanted to have the office downtown. My predecessor had always worked from his apartment in Neuilly, France. I wanted to live in the center of Paris where I could walk to where I was going. And we got a wonderful house over at…an apartment over on the left bank across from the Hotel des Batignolles, which was the Prime Minister’s official office. Now he uses it for residence, he only used it as an office when I was there. And I could stand in the bathroom shaving and watch and see who was coming in to see the Prime Minister. I thought it was kind of useful and we had an office… Eventually, we got space in the Time Life building, so it was really much better and I had a series of French press secretaries who were always pretty good. We got along very well and I made a special effort to get over the Elysees and cover de Gaulle, ’cause de Gaulle was the president then and I thought we should be doing it sort of direct and not just sort of reading about him, but we should be there. So I kind of wormed my way into the presidential press core and I’d go on these “voyages offizielles” where… I thought we should be doing it sort of direct, not just sort of reading about them, but we should be there. So I kind of wormed my way into the presidential press corps, and I’d go on these “voyages officiel, ” was going to try and visit each department of France. It was educational for me, too. A lot of places I’d never been, we’d wind up. And sometimes it would be De Gaulle and the press corps, and in a village with cows looking out the windows or something or other.
Don: And he’d still stop and make his little speech and sang the “Marseillaise.” And the press corps had to back him up, because [laughs] De Gaulle couldn’t sing very well.
Kevin: Oh, really? [laughs]
Don: [laughing] He was not great on the “Marseillaise.”
Kevin: You sang along with the president?
Don: Yeah. So the press corps did the backup. It was really funny.
Kevin: Now, this period, your wife and children were with you.
Don: Ah, yes.
Kevin: We haven’t mentioned your children. Tell us…
Don: We had two children, both born in Washington. My son John was born first, in 1955, and my daughter Susanna was born in 1957. So they went to nursery school here. They went to Mrs. Kepla’s. Mrs. Kepla, on N Street, had a little nursery school in the basement of the house for people.
She had been the governess for their children. And I can’t remember the name of the people, but Mrs. Kepla, or Ms. Kepla‑‑she was never married‑‑was a wonderful German woman, middle‑aged, and she was good with children. And then there was, also, they went partly to a woman on 28th Street, and that house that looks like a New England house on 28th Street. It’s framed, and it has a little porch in front and so forth. That was another one of these…
Kevin: Cape Cod‑looking…
Don: Yes, Cape Cod‑looking. Exactly. It’s just below Boyden Gray’s house.
Kevin: What fields, your children, have they entered?
Don: Oh, well, they eventually got through. I made poor John, went through the French system, all the way from Paris through Tokyo. And even at the United Nations, when I was stationed there at the end of my foreign service, I made him go to the lycée in New York, and I thought, “Well, OK, he’s bilingual.” He got the baccalaureate. They hand them out very easily in the foreign lycées. So I said, “John, how about it? Would you like to go back to Paris for the university?” Because you could go for free. And he said, “I don’t want to ever see the inside of another French institution.
Don: He’s a total Anglophile. He went to Trinity College in Hartford, and he’s now an almoner, is the title‑‑almoner, I guess‑‑giving out alms for the St. George’s Society in New York City. They were established before the Revolution to rescue stranded British sailors, and now they rescue stranded British actors, chorus girls, and Rockefeller servants. Except lately, of course, it’s gone more to commonwealth people, too.
Kevin: Like a travel‑aid organization.
Don: People that are sort of…
Don: Stranded here, in various ways. And they get half their budget from the British government. The consulate in New York contributes half their budget. And the rest has to be raised. That’s John’s job.
Kevin: Your daughter?
Don: My daughter is a graphic designer. She started her design stuff in Paris. She had gone back to finish the lycée in France. She went back on her own, after she’d gone to California for one year for high school, staying with her grandmother and grandfather. And she wanted to do it. It was twice as hard to get a baccalaureate in France as it is in these foreign lycées. They hand them out to everybody here. But in France, it’s tough. So she made it, on the first try, which a lot of French kids have to try twice and so forth.
So she was OK. She was interested in art, and she wanted to be a graphic designer, I guess. And she was invited to leave France in the administration of the president before Mitterrand. They decided that Susanna had been seen at too many meetings of the Parti Communiste Gauche…
Don: So they invited her to leave. And Susanna went to London for a year and a half or so, at the London School of Printing, which is a very good design school. It’s one of the best in Europe. She got out of that, and then she’s been in graphic design ever since. She kind of specializes in book covers, and she did magazines for industrial groups, things like that. She has her own business, and it’s tough times in Paris right now. The recession is very much on…
Kevin: But is she back in Paris?
Don: Oh, yeah. She went back after…
Kevin: She was not a great threat to the [laughs] peace and order. [laughs]
Don: No, no. When Mitterrand was elected, everybody was all back…
Kevin: So it was sort of a conservative bent for a while.
Don: Yeah. Yeah. Giscard d’Estaing was the president when Susanna was invited to leave.
Kevin: Oh, OK. Yeah, remember him. [laughs]
Don: And I sort of knew him, but I didn’t think it was really much of my place to try to interfere.
Kevin: Stayed out of it.
Don: I just said, “OK, you’d better do what you think best.” So anyway, she’s still in Paris. And she has a daughter who was born there. She was married to a Frenchman for a short time. And the daughter is now going to school in Santa Monica, wanted to come to school in California, and didn’t want to [laughs] stay on in France. She’ll probably try to transfer to UCLA next year and wants to stay in the States. She’s interested in movies. And of course, UCLA is a school for that.
Kevin: Yeah. How long did you stay in Paris, and what assignment came after that?
Don: Five years in Paris. Africa…
Kevin: Did you go to Africa, was it? I’m sorry.
Don: I did, yeah. After about four years in Paris, we got John Cook from the “Herald Tribune” to be the Paris correspondent, and I was going to cover Africa, and I was going to do it leaving the family in Paris. I’d be in Africa for 12 weeks, and I’d get 24 days home. So you were like a tourist, but you lived there. It was really a [laughs] wonderful arrangement. I’ve never had a better time in Paris, really.
Kevin: So you traveled around Africa?
Don: I was all over, mostly Sub‑Sahara. The Congo was the hot topic when I first started this thing, so I was basing in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa. But the Congolese didn’t change that until long after their independence. In fact, the day before I left Africa‑‑by that time I was living in Rhodesia doing the Rhodesian independence movement with Ian Smith and so forth. The day I was leaving Africa, I think the Congolese finally got around to changing Leopoldville to Kinshasa.
Leopold was an absolute monster. [laughs] He worked those Congolese to death, and a brutal kind of a regime. They had 18 college graduates in the Congo when they were granted independence. The Belgians just decided to run and just left the place, with 18…
Kevin: Education was not one of their goals.
Don: It really was not, no. They did a pretty bad job, I think. Although, I must say that they ran the place efficiently, and people were fed. Nobody starved to death in the Congo before.
Kevin: But they were wrenching the wealth out of it.
Don: Yeah. Leopold and the subsequent‑‑it was personal property of the crown when Leopold first acquired the Congo. Personal property. And I think it kind of graduated a little bit more to the government operation by the time I got there and so forth. But the Congo was a strange place.
And then the next half‑year was Rhodesia, because of this independence movement with Ian Smith. That was fun. I enjoyed it. I traveled. I’d get up to Ethiopia and go up, when they had the…
Poor Sally never got to Africa until they had the Commonwealth Conference in Lagos, with Nkrumah. Not Nkrumah, I’m sorry. Nkrumah was Ghana.
Don: They had the Commonwealth Conference in Lagos. And as soon as it ended, there was a coup. The prime minister was executed [laughs] and the whole thing. And I had just got backed out of Rhodesia when all this happened. I had to go back up again. Africa was constant travel. Traveled all the time. And long distances. You could rack up 25, 000 miles in a couple of months without much trouble at all. But I enjoyed it. I thought Africa was interesting.
Kevin: And how long did that..?
Don: About a year.
Kevin: About a year or so? Then what? The United Nations? Where did you go next?
Don: No. Then I came home on home leave, and we were changing our correspondent in Japan. And since I had had that occupation experience in Japan, I thought that was a good idea. So I volunteered and got sent to Japan, where we stayed for five years. And so I really got to like Japan. It was a good time. The Japanese were just becoming prosperous, and it was still a good place for Americans to be. The exchange rate was favorable. The poor people that are working in Tokyo now, it’s really rough. There aren’t that many people working in Tokyo anymore.
Kevin: Very expensive. Yeah. Yeah. What year were your Japanese years? What time period was that?
Don: See, I came home in ’71. I came home to New York in ’71, so it must have been ’66. Yeah. When I left Paris, De Gaulle was still president. And when I got to Tokyo, he had died. He died while we were in Tokyo. Yeah.
Let’s see. What all happened in Tokyo that was of interest at the time. Americans weren’t that interested in Japanese news, but we did the best we could. We tried hard. I worked at learning Japanese, but it’s brutal. It’s a brutal language, really tough.
Kevin: Yeah, the honorifics, particularly.
Don: Well, just the vocabulary and everything…
Don: No, it’s a tough one. The man who succeeded me in Tokyo had spent 10 years there and then got a job with the “Chicago Tribune.” He was a bachelor, and he spent his time entirely with Japanese people so that he spoke Japanese. And I never really got to that. I could ask where the fire was or something like that.
Don: I couldn’t do a political interview or anything like that. I had to have somebody come with me, which was the case with most people. Bernie was getting pretty good at Japanese.
Kevin: Bernie Krisher, yeah.
Don: And of course, having a Japanese wife helps, too.
Kevin: Right, yes. Exactly, yes. So what happened after Japan? Don: I was sent to the United Nations. And we got there in ’71, I guess. ’71, yeah, because I got here in ’76. ’71, the United Nations, I thought it was a dead duck, and I thought, “Why are we going to keep a correspondent here?” Then, of course, the Chinese came in. And George Bush was the ambassador, and George was active and trying to do things and so forth. So the United Nations was, for a while, a story. I think it’s not much of a story anymore. It’s gone back to sleep. But it was an interesting experience.
Kevin: There was full media coverage in those days, though.
Don: Yeah. Yeah.
Kevin: It’s gotten less so.
Don: We covered it, absolutely, on a daily basis. We kept up. It was useful, because I knew people from Paris and I knew people from Tokyo and this and that, so it was an easy job for me to work there. I decided that where you had to be was between the British press secretary and the American press secretary.
We found an apartment on East 81st, top fourth and fifth floors of a brownstone on East 81st, within walking distance of the Metropolitan. And I had a bike, and I’d ride down to the UN and back.
I thought it was a great duty. I liked it. I could have stayed on forever. But then I think they decided that we didn’t need that much coverage of the UN. So I came back to Washington, and I covered the UN long‑distance. I would go for the General Assembly in the fall, coming from here, just travel to New York during the General Assembly. Then I retired in 1991, I guess.
Kevin: ’91. Then you’re back to Washington?
Don: Well, we were living in Washington, yeah.
Kevin: Oh, I see. I see.
Don: We had come back. When I left the United Nations the first time and we were no longer covering it in residence, we came back to Washington. And I couldn’t get in the house at first. It was rented, and we had to live in a little house on 29th Street. It was a door and a window, and I could just about touch both walls. [laughs]
Then, finally, the tenant that was in here departed, and then we had to do a little reconstruction. We had to put in central air conditioning, which it didn’t have before, and a couple of other things. Oh, had to redo the concrete slab down below because, believe it or not, apparently, Hurricane Agnes washed the gravel out from under the slab, and the slab was bending.
Don: I didn’t know concrete bent, but it did. [laughs]
Kevin: My gosh. Yeah.
Don: So we had to redo that with, what do you call it? Not pillars, but some columns underneath it…
Kevin: Straighten it out somehow?
Don: So the slab is stable now. If we had another hurricane, it would not get washed out, I don’t think. I wasn’t here for Agnes. Were you?
Kevin: No. I missed that.
Don: Apparently it was a big deal, and they were ready to evacuate people below the canal.
Kevin: Oh boy.
Don: That’s what I heard when I came back, that the cops came out with loudspeakers, telling everybody that they have to move, or something or other, because the river was so high.
Kevin: Now, you got quite involved with the CAG, the citizens association.
Don: Yeah. Very early on, I got involved. I was out in the back of the house one time, when it was still open space back there, and there were a lot of cars parked out there and so forth. And there was this woman out there, and she was sort of prowling around. And she asked me some questions about it and so forth, and she introduced herself. It was Eva Hinton, who was the guardian angel of Georgetown. She was one of those people who really got on the case…
Kevin: Sort of a liaison with the government?
Don: The developers disliked Eva. They had a real war with her. She was a great character. She did it for years and years. It’s what Barbara Zartman’s doing now. No compensation, you just do it. Of course, she was a widow of a man who had been in “The New York Times” bureau here, Harold Hinton, and previously had been in Paris.
She was a little abrasive, but I think she did a lot of good for Georgetown. She and these other people like her, women who didn’t have to work, really got that Georgetown Act pushed through. They decided that something had to be done or Georgetown might disappear. So they got the 1950 act, which prevents people from tearing down buildings in Georgetown, unless they’ve got the approval of the board.
She always said she wished they’d put an historian on the Georgetown board instead of three architects. And I think she’s right, that it would have been a good idea to have had an historian in there.
Kevin: For preservation purposes.
Don: Rather than just three architects, because some of the people they’ve had in as architects really didn’t know Georgetown. I remember one of the last times I was down talking to the board. I don’t do it anymore. I’m out of that. One of the architects said, “Well, Georgetown is wall‑to‑wall buildings. You can’t have anything on M Street, except just wall‑to‑wall buildings …
“Well, wait a minute,” I said. “The Stone House is a notable exception to that.” And, what we were gunning for was when they replaced Stouman’s Chevrolet, and so forth over here, was to have some open space there. And, something that would be reminiscent of the old First National Bank which had been on the hill above M Street, west of Wisconsin. And, on Wisconsin you have the opening for the Aged Woman’s Home and we had other openings on Wisconsin, which they let fill in. Up above Q Street, on the left, there was some open space and trees and, you know. We’ve lost a lot of open space and the board is a little more conscious of that, now, I think. They’ve adopted a working rule that you can’t exceed the footprint of an original house. And, to make an addition to a house in Georgetown, you can’t exceed the footprint of the original house. Which was a good idea. Otherwise, again, we would have filled the whole place up.
Kevin: I once heard that Washington, supposedly, had more green space than any other major capital in the world. Does that still apply, do you think?
Don: Well, I think it’s probably true. Because they have the Mall, those federal territories.
Kevin: Rock Creek.
Don: Yeah, Rock Creek and the other sort of semi‑governmental things. And, the embassies have kept a lot of green space. Some of them haven’t. They’ve paved over lawns and this and that. We’ve got embassies in Georgetown which I never thought would happen. But, we’ve got about eight now. Venezuela’s right down below us on the canal, here. And the one here at the corner and Ukraine beyond on western Wisconsin.
Kevin: Salvador, I think, is up near the Whole Foods.
Don: That’s not really the embassy, though. That’s a consulate.
Kevin: Oh, a consulate. OK.
Don: I think their embassy is still on Meridian Hill, somewhere.
Kevin: Have you noted any changes in CAG that you want to share with us?
Don: Well, yeah, I was not too happy about some of the things we did. I thought we were getting a little over friendly with business and so forth. As I told you last time, remember, I got started in this business with the Progressive Citizens Association which was progressive only in that it admitted women. It was a revolutionary thing. Because Georgetown Citizens Association did not admit women as members. [chuckles]
Don: But, they had businesses.
Kevin: Did they have wives? How about wives? No?
Don: No, no. The meetings of the Georgetown Citizens Association were strictly male. No women participated and when they combined the two, of course, then everything changed and women were going to be members of CAG. Remember what I told you last time, I understand Peter would never join CAG because he said business people had the vote there. Even if they didn’t live in Georgetown they had a vote. And he didn’t like that and he was a little conservative, on that score, I guess. But, you know, he kind of had a point. There is a basic conflict between business and resident’s interests in Georgetown. We try now to get them together as much as we can but there are still basic differences on questions. You know, the big fight was on the waterfront. There were a lot of people who thought the waterfront should be, including Marion Barry, who thought that the waterfront should be for business. But, I think we’ve got a fairly good compromise.
Kevin: For a long time it was, pretty much, only for business.
Don: Well, yeah. Of course, originally, it was a port. I always thought it was too bad when they exposed the foundations of some of the early buildings on the waterfront, that were exposed when they were doing the excavation for the park. I thought they should have tried to keep some of that. Sort of be kind of like Philadelphia, which has the ghost houses and so forth. But, they decided not, I guess. But, we have a lot of young people in Georgetown, now, who are just as interested in preservation as the old timers.
Kevin: What have we lost? Specialty shops and a few other things?
Don: Yeah, that’s it. The rents for commercial property in Georgetown have just gone out of sight for a small business, and which there used to be a lot. We had a little food mart where the … what is the place on the corner of 31st and … Pottery Barn. That was the food mart. Wonderful place and up above, in the apartment, up above was the author of the Lonesome Dove. And when he won the Pulitzer, Mrs. Greenberg really went fruitcake. I remember that day.
Kevin: Smith and Hawken came in.
Don: “You won the Pulitzer.” [laughter]
Kevin: ‑hm, right. [laughter]
Don: The Pottery Barn’s moving out and I don’t know what’s going to be in there.
Kevin: No, and Smith and Hawken moved out.
Don: Smith and Hawken moved out first and now the Pottery Barn’s going to moving, too. Now, these commercial rents are just brutal. I don’t know what could be done about that but, I think they should try. Because there’s just no place for a small business in Georgetown, anymore. Almost no place. There are a few that survive but, just barely.
Kevin: You’ve had a most exciting and remarkable career, Don. Anything that stands out the most for you?
Don: Well, I think probably, of all the things there was the Kennedy election. When Georgetown really came to the top. When Georgetown was it. And the morning he left Georgetown to drive to the White House and pick up the Eisenhowers, I was up on the Senate wing of the Capitol, up on the roof. Or, not quite on the roof. I was on that thing that sticks out from the stairs and somebody dropped one of those aiming [?] boards, a plywood thing about this. Dropped that and clonked me on the head. I had something to remember the inaugural for. [laughter] I kept going. I just got a little bandage from the First Aid tent, or something or the other, and we really kept going. That was non‑stop. The first few weeks of the Kennedy administration was non‑stop. Terrifically exciting and I suppose that was the highlight of my life in the newspapers.
Kevin: Wonderful. Well, let me end by asking you something that we all get asked one time or another. Any regrets about your career, your life here?
Don: Oh, gosh. I don’t think so. I sometimes think, I still get the law school newsletter or something or the other, and I sometimes think, “Well, maybe I should have worked a little harder and stayed in law school.”
Kevin: What might have been, you mean?
Don: Yeah, but I don’t think so. I don’t think I would have made a very good lawyer. So, things worked out for the best. I really think people should do what they feel they want to do. If that’s the way you want to run your life, you should. Don’t have any regrets about what you might have done or something. Just do what you want to do. Of course, I’m sorry to say that our profession has kind of fallen on evil days and papers dying all over the country and it’s television or nothing, now, I guess. It’s going to be very hard for print journalism, I think, for the next few years. News magazines are suffering. It’s just tough.
Kevin: Times have changed. Well, thank you, very much, for sharing all this with us today.
Don: Well, I didn’t even hear, at all, about your career. But, we’ll do that sometime. [laughter]
Kevin: Sometime. That’s right.
Don: We’ll do that sometime.
Kevin: No, today is about you. Thank you, very much, for your comments.
Don: Well, I hope the thing works this time and that you’re …
Kevin: OK. [laughter]