On Her Trail: A Son's Memoir of his Working Mom.
Now here’s the thing about book critics. They’re supposed to keep their minds open, at least until they’ve read the book. Seems only reasonable (if not always possible). So, a true confession is in order: When I picked up John Dickerson’s On Her Trail, his memoir/biography of his mother, Nancy Dickerson, the first woman star of television news, I was prepared to dislike it intensely. Other reviewers had damned either it with faint praise or made me think that opening its covers would release a sustained whiff of Mommy Dearest-ness, not exactly what we need in these days of backlash against successful women who are also mothers. So I was happily surprised to discover a lot to like in On Her Trail, which turns out to be not one but two books within the same set of covers.
The first is indeed an account of John Dickerson growing up feeling neglected and even used as a prop in the theater of his mother’s celebrity. Nancy Hanschman had climbed from small town girlhood in Wisconsin to become Nancy Dickerson, media phenomenon - the Katie Couric or Barbara Walters of her time. She was the first woman member of the Washington TV press corps, the first to cover a presidential convention (the one at which JFK won the nomination), and the first reporter to interview Kennedy after he was inaugurated. She was also beautiful. She was a pal to LBJ and admired by Edward R Murrow, the journalist who was her hero. She won a Peabody, the journalistic equivalent of an Oscar, for her television work. And she loved that work. She was terrific at it. She had labored long and hard to get to the top and savored every minute of being there. The family lived lavishly, in a historic home in suburban McLean, Virginia filled with priceless antiques and staffed by multiple servants, the backdrop for fabulous parties attended by the most important figures in news and politics, including Presidents. It was the Dickersons who hosted Ronald Reagan just before he was inaugurated. And there were children: five of them – three belonging to her husband, Wyatt Dickerson, and two, John being the younger, born to Nancy and Wyatt. Here comes the Mommy Dearest part:
John and his brother Michael felt neglected, not ignored by their mother, exactly, since he tells us she was always there for their doctors’ appointments and school conferences; since she rushed to their sides at any emergency and consulted with physicians and educators when one of them had a problem. But according to John, her kids were not exactly the center of her universe, either. Instead of shaping her career around her children, as John remembers it, she used them to support her own need for recognition and reward. For parties, the boys were decked out in their blue blazers and flannels, expected to smile cheerfully as they received the guests’ coats before running off to make vengeful, sometimes cruel mischief. As he moved into his teens, John became more resentful of his mother’s dedication to her work and the discrepancy he noted between her charm and wit in the outside world and what he felt as her coldness to him. When his parents divorced, he went to live with his father.
But then journalism changed. Reporters who were cozy with their subjects became suspect and Nancy’s career star faded, though she continued to work in television. More important (for the book, at any rate), John became a reporter. Some of the best parts of this book, in fact, are those that let us in on what reporters do, how they go after, get and write a political story, and reflect on how difficult her journey must have been for his mother, an extraordinarily pretty woman who resembled Jackie Kennedy, but who had no professional women models to pattern herself on. (In an aside, Dickerson notes that in 2005, NBC reporter Campbell Brown faced the same sort of prejudice directed at pretty professional women as his mother had in the early sixties.) Not coincidentally, as John began to grow his own career, he became reacquainted with his mother and the two became friends and colleagues, exchanging tips about how to get and write good stories. And here is where On Her Trail becomes the other book, as John comes to admire and respect not just his mother’s work ethic, but her warmth and savvy intelligence.
As so often happens, it is not until Nancy Dickerson dies at 70, in 1997, and bequeaths her son 20 boxes of her letters, notes, and diaries, that he really comes to know her, to understand and come to terms with her as an extraordinary human being as well as his mother. He comes to believe in two Nancies: the fresh, earnest, young girl, almost guileless in her determination to succeed and her commitment to her craft and the tough, ambitious, needy woman who required constant public admiration to assure her of her worth. There’s a moment in the book when John goes to his grandparents’ farm after they and Nancy have died and discovers the trove of clippings about their daughter that they’d saved, along with every letter she’d ever written to them. Nancy had always insisted that her parents were emotionally cold. As John goes through the boxes his mother left behind, he learns that she had kept every piece of her son’s childhood drawings, letters, school papers, professional clippings. He and his wife name their daughter Nancy.
Read On Her Trail for the glimpses it provides of mid-twentieth century politics and culture, for the insights it gives into a public professional woman’s life only forty years ago, and for her son’s honest struggle to come to terms with who she was.