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Veteran journalist Shana Alexander to give UI her papers

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
(217) 333-2177;


EDITORS: Shana Alexander will be available to meet with members of the news media from 2:45 to 3:15 p.m. April 17 in the gallery of Foellinger Auditorium, 709 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Of the thousands of documents, photos and artifacts that veteran journalist Shana Alexander has just given the University of Illinois Library, perhaps none telegraphs her career better than her collection of press passes.

The passes, a tiny part of the vast Shana Alexander Collection, reflect her decades of globetrotting in pursuit of the story – whether it was in Lewiston, Maine – site of the May 1965 heavyweight boxing championship, or in Chicago – site of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Her Temporary I.D. and Ration Card, issued by the U.S. Navy on Oct. 4, 1965, testifies to her war reporting. "For use in Vietnam only," the card gave her "full privileges" in the Navy Exchange and the Commissary Store. She also received – and kept – a photo I.D. from the "host" country.

Alexander was a journalist for Life magazine for 18 years; the first female editor of McCall’s; a columnist for Newsweek; co-host of "Point/Counterpoint," a segment on the "60 Minutes" television program; and is the author of seven books, including "Happy Days," an autobiography. She teaches nonfiction writing at Southampton College in New York.

Alexander will be celebrated during a free public event and exhibition at the UI, beginning at 3:30 p.m. April 17 in the UI Foellinger Auditorium. She and some of her closest friends, including poet-author Maya Angelou, will speak at the event.

Another of Alexander's friends, former school headmistress Jean Harris, the subject of one of Alexander's books, also will be on hand. Items from the Alexander Collection will be on display in the Marshall Gallery and in the Rare Book and Special Collections Library, both in the Main Library, 1408 W. Gregory Drive, Urbana.

Alexander’s papers were given to Illinois because, "I asked Shana and she said 'yes,' " said Barbara Jones, head of the UI Rare Book and Special Collections Library, which is the repository for the new collection. In 1997, Jones began what is to date a six-part and ongoing oral history of Alexander.

According to Jones, Alexander’s career spanned a "crucial time" in the history of print journalism.

"She witnessed firsthand the steady flow of advertising dollars from print media to television. She also experienced the difficulties of a woman journalist navigating the
male-dominated world of publishing as she reported on the war in Vietnam, the women’s movement and the Civil Rights Movement."

Alexander’s papers, Jones said, "will serve as an invaluable resource to the new generation of interdisciplinary scholars in fields such as women's studies, communications research and social and family history, as well as the art and craft of nonfiction writing."

The collection is wide-ranging. Among other things, it includes many photographs: files of publicity glossies of Alexander, as well as photos of her in the field. One shows her on a campaign-trail bus, surrounded by 1968 presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy and several of his aides. The photo is signed: "To Shana – with remembrance of 1968. Gene McCarthy."

The collection also includes boxes of reporter’s notebooks, drafts of stories and hundreds of letters. Among the letters: a 1979 typed note from Kurt Vonnegut praising her for her book "Anyone's Daughter," the story of the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Vonnegut, who, like Alexander was trained as an anthropologist, described the book as a piece of "deeply responsible work," and its author as "a social scientist of the first rank."

Not all of the fan mail was positive. Alexander also kept files of the correspondence between irate readers and her editors at Life. Her 1966 "The Feminine Eye" column titled "On the Lookout for Lurleen," a profile of Alabama first lady Lurleen Wallace, drew a great deal of fire, most of it for Alexander's conceptions and self-described misconceptions about the Wallaces and the American South.

Many transcripts and sets of raw notes also are included in the collection, among them transcripts of Alexander's visit with Jean Harris at Bedford Hills Prison on March 3, 1982. Harris was convicted of killing her lover, Scarsdale-diet doctor Herman Tarnower, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Alexander's 1983 book about the trial is titled "Very Much a Lady."

Alexander’s archive is "particularly rich" in documenting her research on the Harris trial, Jones said. Interviews with friends, physicians and others associated with Tarnower and Harris are among the papers, as well as diaries, trial notes and press clippings.

Alexander's original Teletyped columns and later marked-up drafts and comments from editors show the process of journalism – from the field to the newsstand. From Saigon on Oct. 13, 1965, Alexander sent a telex of her draft of a "Feminine Eye" column on the musical "Hello, Dolly," which was playing for U.S. troops in Vietnam. Because it was difficult for a female reporter to get an assignment in Vietnam, Alexander signed on as a dancer in the road show.

"Feel free to change, rewrite, trim or junk," she wrote Kunhardt Morse, her editor, above the text of her story. While the piece started off "fine," Morse had some questions and concerns. The ending posed the most serious problem, he said, because its final observation was too "obvious." He requested more details from Alexander – about the "feel" of the country, for example, and "the smell of war."

Alexander made several changes in her piece. A new ending read: "I'm glad now that I went along. Despite or perhaps because of the preposterous nuisance of sending a full dress Broadway musical comedy on tour through a combat zone in what turned out to be the hottest shooting week so far, it came to seem that somehow the right show had got sent to the right war after all."

Admission to the Alexander events, which are sponsored by the UI Library, the Library Friends and the Office of the Chancellor, is by ticket only. Free tickets may be picked up at the Library office of development and public affairs, 227 Library.