Half a century ago, the editor of Cleveland News wanted Doris O'Donnell to rework her lead. "Have you ever walked down Euclid Avenue and looked in the window at Beattie's?" he asked. "Their diamonds are displayed on satin pads and the lighting hits them just right. Make your lead as perfect as Beattie's makes their diamonds."
O'Donnell listened. And for many years thereafter, Cleveland listened to O'Donnell.
She was the daughter of a city fireman when the firemen still used horses. Her mother owned a confectionary shop, and in a part of her history that even she has come to disbelieve - because of its storytelling flare and her reporter's mistrust of easy explanation - her father used to take the horses to the confectionary shop to feed the animals some sugar before responding to a call.
Her mother became a ward leader in their neighborhood, often bringing young Doris with her on house calls to unregistered voters. "My mother used to take me to visit the Italian immigrants," recalls O'Donnell. "The deal was, she'd take them down to the federal building and help them get their green card, in exchange for them registering Democrat." The extended family was deep into area politics; uncle Marty was county sheriff.
Her father brought home newspapers for her to read and quizzed her when she was through. But it was the Sisters of the Precious Blood who taught her how to write. By the time she got to James Rhodes High, O'Donnell was writing essays for the boys in her class. In 1937, at the age of 15, she covered the Republican National Convention for the school paper. But her first big story was about a young artist who fell into the bear pit at the zoo. The Press and The Plain Dealer had to call up the high-schooler for the scoop.
After graduating from Cleveland College, it was on to the News, the afternoon paper that competed with the Press at a time when Cleveland could support three daily rags. As the city shrank, and as print journalism began to wither with the advent of television news, O'Donnell persevered, surviving the shuttering of both her beloved News, and then the Press, finally retiring from The Plain Dealer in 1995.
Unlike many of her peers, O'Donnell never accepted a promotion that took her off the streets; she remained a general-assignment reporter, instead of disappearing behind a desk to edit the adventures of others. In exchange, she witnessed Cleveland history. She got to know, personally, the people we know only as legends. And finally, O'Donnell is sharing some of what happened behind the scenes with a new generation.
Beginning Sunday, September 14, at 10:30 p.m., PBS channels 45 and 49 will air half-hour documentaries chronicling O'Donnell's fascinating accounts of local news - from the East Ohio Gas explosion to Dennis Kucinich's rise to mayor.
Last week, she dished some details to Cleveland Scene, from the apartment of a friend in Lakewood. She still gets excited over a good story, breaking from chronology only to dispense advice about how reporters often get it wrong these days. From behind thick, fashionable soda-bottle glasses, she tells her tale. Here are some highlights. For the rest, watch the documentaries, or buy her new book, Front-Page Girl.
On Indians legend Satchel Page: "I had to travel to Springfield, Missouri, to accept an award one year for this series of stories I wrote while living with a black family. This state senator tells me Satchel Page is living in St. Louis, in a small room without air conditioning. So I call up Hal Lebowitz and by the next day, Satchel had air conditioning."
On Sam Sheppard's trial: "I was in the courtroom every day. The turning point for the jury, I think, was when they brought out this wax reproduction of Marilyn's head, showing each of the 30-some separate blows that killed her. Sam just put his head in his hands. That jury would have convicted him right then."
On mobster Danny Greene: "I used to meet Danny Greene at the Carter hotel for breakfast. He would wear green shorts, green shirts, he'd write with green pens. When you went to his house, he had these big police dogs sitting around. I was sourcing, using him for leads. But he didn't mind. He loved the publicity."
On traveling to the Soviet Union: "They sent me to Russia during the Cold War, to find out what real Russian people were like. People think there's all these editors' meetings that happen with things like that, but what happened was the editor went out drinking with the owner of a large department store. He had two martinis and asked him, 'What do you want to read in the paper?' The man said he wanted to read about Russians. So that's how I got to go to Russia."
On the feds raiding the county administration building: "I wish I was working. The reporters had to be pretty goddamn lazy if they didn't know that Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo have been living on the hog for 10 years. Reporters nowadays, all they do is talk to themselves. They became incestuous. They never leave the office. I was invited to mayors' houses. We'd drink with them. When I went back to The Plain Dealer in 1991, their reporters got in late, then went out to lunch. They never went to the courts, never tried to get info from lawyers. You know why they couldn't find the people who could tell them about this story before it happened? They don't know what bars they drink at.
"I grew up adoring reporters. These journalists were peeling people back like onions. How can they get away with those houses and that real estate company without anyone knowing?
"You have to get out on the street. If you don't, it's like you're writing for yourself."