Theo Wilson · 1998
Theo Wilson loved a good news story, one full of drama, people, passion, contrast and irony. She wrote that kind of story over and over again for more than 45 years as are porter -three decades of which she covered America’s highest profile criminal trials.
In that sense – and understand how we mean this – Wilson would have loved to cover her own death. Here she was, ageless at 79, her memoirs freshly pressed, her observations on the world of journalism as she experienced it about to enlighten a current media world beset, in her view, by too many joyless editors and uninspired reporters.
Here she was on a Thursday night dressed in what one writer called a “sassy” dress, waiting for a limousine that would take her to a CBS-TV studio to be interviewed by Tom Snyder about her book, “Headline Justice: Inside the Courtroom: The Country’s Most Controversial Trials.”
And, then tragically, here she was, desperately on the phone to her best friend and neighbor, Linda Deutsch of the Associated Press, telling her that she was having an attack and needed help.
In a matter of a few hours, a cerebral hemorrhage had claimed Wilson’s life, shocking her friends and colleagues who couldn’t imagine the world without this 5-foot-1, 100-pounderwho once was described as a “nuclear pixie.” Wilson died on Jan. 17, 1997.
The weekend of Wilson’s death was supposed “to be the weekend of her life, “Deutsch told the Los Angeles Times. “The book [‘Headline Justice’] was out after more than ten years of working on it. She had scheduled book signings and television and radio appearances, and the publisher had just told her the book was going into a second printing. It is just so doubly unfair because this was such a happy time.”
One of Wilson’s five sisters, Marion Rose, while devastated, saw a symmetry to Wilson’s death. “Theo had an impeccable sense of timing,” Rose told the L.A. Times’ Claudia Luther, who went on to write:
“[Rose] knew that Theo would have enjoyed the irony of it. Just when she had finally finished the book everyone had been bugging her about, the book she was tired of hearing about already, she checked out. We envied her the elegance of it, knowing she would have hated along illness or slowly declining years.”
Last August, seven months after Wilson died, the Los Angeles City Council named in her honor the intersection of two streets in her Hollywood Heights neighborhood. Now the confluence of Glencoe Way and Camrose Drive is also called Theo Wilson Square.
An intersection is a fitting memorial, because Wilson’s career was itself an intersection – the intersection of gutsy, lively, street-wise newspapers and corporate-induced, cookie-cutter ones; the intersection of informed trial reporting and what she called “flash and trash”; the intersection of lively writing and dull, formulaic stuff; the intersection of serious work and great socializing after hours.
Wilson started on a road toward those intersections in Indiana, in 1938, at the Evansville Press. “Fresh out of college [University of Kentucky] with a Phi Beta Kappa key and no formal journalism training,” she writes in her book, she began working at the Press for$10 a week, writing hard news, features and obits. Later she became tri-state editor.
“The most wonderful thing about starting out in the newspaper business when I did and where I did was that I was thrust into a world of fiercely independent, creative, well-read, vastly underpaid and overworked people who loved the newspaper business so much, cared about writing so passionately, that they stayed in a job distinguished by low wages and long hours.”
Her stay in Evansville was brief. She moved to Indianapolis to marry Bob Wilson and got a job on the Indianapolis Times. From there, she moved to the News-Leader in Richmond, Va., to the AP bureau in Philadelphia and to the Philadelphia Bulletin.
But for three decades she worked for her beloved New York Daily News, returning in 1952 to the city in which she was born as Theodora Nadelstein on May 22, 1917. In that job with the News she became acknowledged as the best trial reporter in America.
Other reporters – both young and veteran – were advised by their editors to find Wilson and follow her lead. The legend, in fact, is that after countless trial sessions, reporters would seek out Wilson and, calling upon her superior knowledge of the courtroom and on her near-flawless note taking, would ask, “What’s the lead?” Generously, she obliged. “If you missed a quote,” Deutsch told The Washington Post, “chances are she had it in her notes.”
Wilson was the one who got the story, but in her book she is careful to credit good editors at the News for supporting her work. “…To cover a trial correctly, you must have capable editors who can handle the vagaries and unpredictability’s of a trial, with leads sometimes changing three or four times within one session. Trial coverage and trial editing are not for the slow or lazy.
“… I was lucky for a long time. The Daily News was considered the best trial paper in the country, and the editors I worked with always knew how to handle a trial. Actually, they just knew how to handle fast-breaking news of any kind, even if it meant tearing the paper apart at the last minute. “Name a high-profile trial of the mid-’50s to mid-’80s and Wilson covered it: Dr.Sam Sheppard, Patty Hearst, Sirhan Sirhan, Charlie Manson and Family, the Pentagon Papers, Jean Harris (Scarsdale Diet Doctor murder case), Candace Mossler, Jack Ruby, Angela Davis, Son of Sam, Claus von Bulow.
Once, at a dinner party, a woman asked Wilson, “Watching those sensational cases, don’t you feel like a voyeur?
“My answer,” Wilson writes in her book, “gave her pause. ‘Why no, not at all,’ I replied. ‘Is that how you feel when you go to see ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Hamlet’?”
“It was an easy answer for me, because I always have compared big courtroom trials to great theater, filled as those trials are with revelations of human weakness and folly, with violence and sorrow and humor and pity and passion, all the more fascinating because these are real people, real life.”
Real writing made those real people come alive on the newspaper page, Wilson believed. In a chapter called “The Joy of Writing,” she says:
“At the News we had the challenge of not only getting the information out fast, accurately, completely, and tightly, but of making the story as dramatic or as hilarious or as sad or as packed with information as possible, and it had to be readable.”
“… Ah, those wonderful little details that filled our stories, that our readers loved because they made the News so special; those details that in later years at the News some editors chopped from our copy, edited with such heavy hands that our newspaper was emptied of people and of color and of quotes, the stories so flattened that the news may as well all have been written to formula by one very competent, very dull hack.”
Yes, Wilson saw a malaise settling over her newspaper and many others. “The newspaper business these days seems to be just that, a business. The reporters are probably better trained, and thanks to unions they have job security and decent wages at some newspapers. But there seems to be no passion, no deep loyalty in the city rooms….”
Wilson also despaired at much of the media coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, which she labeled “flash and trash.”
“Once embarrassingly trumpeted as ‘the trial of the century’ by reporters who apparently never before had been involved in high-profile cases,” she writes in her book, “the Simpson trial now is referred to as a circus, a fiasco, an aberration in the criminal justice system….”
The Simpson coverage was characterized, she said, by “the hype, the manipulation of unseasoned media, the bias shown by commentators even before they heard the evidence from the courtroom, the publication of rumors and gossip and leaks that violated every principle of trial reporting my colleagues and I practiced.”
Much of the Simpson coverage especially violated her Rule No. 1 of Trial Reporting: “Stay in the courtroom. The only important news is what the jury hears from the witness chair, what the judge rules on and what the lawyers say inside the courtroom. The rest is junk.”
Another rule, Wilson believed, is that reporters covering trials have to capture every detail in their notes.
“You have to be taking it all down, and you can’t stop, no matter how shocking or graphic the testimony is. So many times after an extraordinary statement by a witness, I have glanced up and seen some of the reporters immobilized, mouths open staring at the witness, pens unmoving in frozen fingers. ‘Write! Write!’ I whisper to them, or jab them with an elbow if they are within range.”
“… But while you are scribbling away, you also have to keep looking up at the jurors, at the opposing counsel, at the relatives and friends in the trial room, to get their reactions when the defendant says something particularly shocking or revealing.”
“When Patty [Hearst] testified that she had been raped, I was able to write into my story that her father pressed his head into his hands so tightly that he left red fingerprints on his face.”
Covering such intense trials almost demanded after-hours relief for Wilson and her colleagues. In addition to being the trial beat’s leading reporter, she was its top raconteur. Her hotel room almost always ended up being the hospitality suite for the press corps.
Wilson’s credo, Deutsch says, was: ” ‘I was put on earth to have a good time.’ And she was going to make sure that happened, not just for her but for everybody else around her.”
She and her fellow reporters would contrive skits and parties, such as the Helter Skelter Party during the Manson trial, for which Wilson dressed as Linda Kasabian, one of the Manson girls. The group also composed songs and poems (the words to some of which were just a little naughty).
Such was the need to break the tension of long trials and near-constant deadlines.
This is the same Theo Wilson, of course, who once masqueraded as a chambermaid to get an interview with the Beatles; the same who once hailed a cab in L.A. and had the cabby drive her 200 miles north to Chowchilla, Calif., to cover the kidnapping of a busload of schoolchildren; and the same who gave the name Lois Lane to her 22-year-old cat, whom she lists in the acknowledgments of her book.
Yes, had it been someone else’s life, all of this would have been a great Theo Wilson byline in the days when grit, not glitz, made a good story.