Anne Morrissy Merick, Trailblazing Journalist, Dies

  • In this 1967 publicity photo made available by ABC News shows television producer, Anne Morrissy Merick. Morrisy Merick fought to give female reporters equal access to cover the Vietnam War. ABC assigned Morrisy Merick to the war in 1967. She died at age 83 on May 2, 2017, in Naples, Florida. (ABC News via AP)

The Washington Post
Published: 5/13/2017 11:21:30 PM
Modified: 5/13/2017 11:23:46 PM

Anne Morrissy Merick, who broke barriers in the mid-1950s as a female journalist covering Ivy League football and who later as an ABC News producer in Vietnam persuaded the U.S. military to reverse an order barring women from the battlefield, died on May 2 at a nursing home in Naples, Fla. She was 83.

The cause was complications from dementia, said her daughter, Katherine Anne Engelke.

By the time of her death, Morrissy Merick was perhaps best known for her role during the Vietnam War in undoing a regulation handed down by William Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander, that would effectively have excluded female reporters from combat coverage.

But her gumption in Vietnam was nothing new. As a philosophy student at Cornell University, she became the first female sports editor of the college’s Daily Sun newspaper. In that capacity in 1954, she was the first woman admitted to what she described as an “impenetrable male sanctum” — the press box at the Yale Bowl.

“Miss Morrisy is a slick little chick whose name probably will be linked in history with those of other crusading cupcakes such as Lady Godiva, Susan B. Anthonly, Lydia Pinkham and Mrs. Amelia Bloomer,” sportswriter Red Smith observed in the New York Herald Tribune.

The alert, or even mildly unalert, reader might have noticed that Smith misspelled Ms. Morrissy Merick’s maiden name, as well as that of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. After those mistakes, the columnist frothed on that “the first sports-writing doll to thrust her shapely foot through the door of an Ivy League press coop” had “breached the last bastion of masculinity left standing this side of the shower room.”

Morrissy Merick, for her part, wrote in the Boston Globe at the time that the greatest revelation of her press box debut was that “the gentleman of the newspaper profession weren’t the whisky drinking, cigar smoking, swearing men they were reputed to be. Or was it just because there was a woman present?”

She was the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune in Paris before joining ABC in 1961, rising to producer and occasional on-air reporter. She covered the civil rights movement, the space program and politics before landing a wartime assignment in Vietnam in 1967.

Because of her petite stature — 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds — she couldn’t wear a U.S.-issue uniform and had to acquire a South Vietnamese one on the black market. She braved snipers, shelling, monsoons, fire ants and a monkey bite — as well as Westmoreland’s order.

It came after he saw Denby Fawcett, a young female reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser and a family acquaintance, reporting from the field. Citing security concerns, and despite the long tradition of female war correspondents, Westmoreland decided that women would not be allowed to stay overnight in combat.

“An edict like Westmoreland’s would prohibit women from covering the war. It was a knockout blow to our careers. We had to fight!” Morrissy Merick recalled in the book War Torn: The Personal Experiences of Women Reporters in the Vietnam War.

Along with Ann Bryan Mariano, a journalist for Overseas Weekly who later retired from The Washington Post, Morrissy Merick appealed to Defense Department officials, including Phil Goulding. After a round of drinks in Morrissy Merick’s hotel room, Goulding agreed to lift the ruling.

“And, if you are wondering if I slept with him,” she wrote, “the answer is no!”

Anne Louise Morrissy was born in New York City on Oct. 28, 1933. Her father was an advertising executive for Time Life, and her mother was an actress and homemaker.

Following her graduation from Cornell in 1955, she launched her journalism career. It included a freelancing stint in Syria, where she was deported on accusations that she was a spy. But nothing, she said, prepared her for what she called the “maelstrom” of the Vietnam War.

In 1969, she married Wendell “Bud” Merick, then Saigon bureau chief for U.S. News & World Report. Their daughter, Katherine Anne, was born the next year in the South Vietnamese capital. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the family moved to Australia, where Morrissy Merick freelanced.

They later settled in Washington, D.C., where she did production work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before retiring in the early 1990s. She moved to Florida in 2001.

Bud Merick died in 1988. Morrissy Merick’s second husband, Don Janicek, died in 2016 after 14 years of marriage.

After her Yale Bowl conquest, Morrissy Merick confessed that in her “excitement” to enter the press box, she had “forgotten to learn anything about football.” She recalled with gratitude one male colleague who kindly guided her through her maiden experience of punts and plays.

“Some day a granddaughter will see one male thorn among the buds in a press box and will express astonishment at his presence in a female domain,” Red Smith wrote in his column on the occasion. “It would be nice to be able to say then, ‘Yes, child, but men used to write sports, too. Why, I was there when the first girl football writer —’ ”

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