Mary Z. Gray Paints Unique Capitol Hill Depiction
The Capitol Hill that Mary Z. Gray knows is “a different Capitol Hill than the one the world knows.”
By a long shot.
Gray spent most of her life living on the Hill and writing for a living. Now, at 93, she has written a book about her life and about a Hill that few people know.
In the beautifully crafted and enchantingly executed “301 East Capitol: Tales From the Heart of the Hill,” she lifts the veil from this old neighborhood and brings into focus the life and color of the streets and the residents who live in the shadow of the Capitol Dome.
For Gray, Capitol Hill is more like an old village or a small town than the hub of the nation’s political elite.
“Washington is not a typical city,” she explains. “It is the headquarters of the political world, [but] the politicians have simply been voted in. They are no different from us. They are human beings.
To the world, she says, Capitol Hill is the United States Congress.
However, “Capitol Hill is also a literal place. … It’s a tiny neighborhood,” she says. “The neighborhood itself … is a microcosm, a reflection of the whole rest of the country.”
Gray’s book deals only tangentially with the Capitol. It focuses instead on the 10 or 12 streets that have made up her family’s village for nearly two centuries. Reading the book, one cannot help falling in love with the place — and the writer.
“Capitol Hill is where the people rule, Alexander Hamilton said. It is also where the people live,” Gray says.
And it is clear Gray loves her hometown and the people who reside there.
“It’s different from any other place in the world, because when there was lots of troubles — and there have been through the years and through different generations — what happens on Capitol Hill reflects back on that body that represents the whole country.”
The people she writes about in her book are her family, who lived in and around 301 East Capitol from the 1840s through the middle of the past century.
“It covers a great deal more than just my memories. There’s a great deal more there,” she says. “I want it to be seen — I hope it can be seen as a kind of background material of life on the Hill written by someone who lived life on the Hill … a different Capitol Hill from the one the world knows.”
‘A Very Satisfying Thing’
Gray was born in 1919. She spent most of her career as a reporter, landing her first byline with the Washington Post in 1940.
She also worked as a speechwriter in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In 1984, her funny and wry first book “Ah, Bewilderness!” was published.
“I’ve been a writer all my life. I can’t do anything else. I really can’t. I literally can’t do anything else very well. I don’t even know that I write well, but that’s what I do. I’m a writer,” Gray says.
“I did have a teacher in college, a gruff, mean teacher who liked what I wrote. He said, ‘You are a writer. Don’t bother with all these things I’m telling these other people. Just do what comes naturally,'” Gray recalls. “And it worked.”
She graduated from the University of Maryland and immediately started pounding the pavement trying to land a newspaper job in the District.
“I went to all the newspapers, the Washington Post and the [Washington] Star were the two most reputable. Also the Times Herald and the Washington Daily News, a tabloid,” she says. “They had the most fabulous headlines. Not a lot of hard news, but a lot of fun.
“I walked around Washington and went into the newsrooms with one of the guys from my English [literature] classes. He wanted to do the same thing I did. Unfortunately, we went around together,” she laughs. “That’s not a good idea.”
In those early years, she recalls, she wasn’t self-conscious about being a young woman knocking on newsroom doors. She says she didn’t wonder whether they were going to hire her because of her gender, or whether being a woman would stand in her way.
“I don’t like to be pigeon-holed,” she says. “[Even now a] ’93-year-old woman writes book?’ It’s like we have a talking dog in the room.
“The Post editor is one who told me, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that there are no openings. There will always be openings. There will always be openings if you stick at it long enough.’
“I didn’t think of myself — looking back, maybe I should have — I didn’t think of myself as hitting the glass ceiling,” Gray says.
“People think that you had to bang down doors,” but that’s not the way it was, she says.
“[I wasn’t] going to stomp around after the editor said, ‘We might be able to do something for you [pointing to the young man], but I’m not interested in you [pointing at Gray]. We had a copy girl once, but she died.'”
Except for the Post editor, Gray says, the other papers waved her off.
“And I thought, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is.'”
It took a year, but she finally landed her first job writing ad copy for Woodward & Lothrop, a local department store.
“It was because of one woman who was the assistant head of the art department,” Gray says. “She saw [that] I had been sending in ads. She was one of the few that understood there was a cause. I benefited from those people, but I wasn’t a part of it. I just wanted to write.”
Paradoxically, Gray finally backed into journalism, precisely because she was a woman.
“In Washington, you have to be in the right place at the right time,” she says.
An editor was having problems with “the boys” in Broadcasting magazine’s newsroom using foul language. He thought Gray, by virtue of being a woman, would help class up the joint.
Whether you can write is beside the point, he told her. Gray’s main job was to straighten out the newsroom filth.
“Except I picked up their language [and became] a foulmouthed writer,” she says.
And she never looked back.
“[Being a reporter] is much better than it seems,” she says. “Looking back, you can say, ‘Well, that piece made a difference.'”
Books are different.
“Writing this book made me realize that I look at life in a different way now. It’s like looking down from a mountaintop and see: Woo! That connects to that. And that’s why that happened. And it makes sense.
“But,” she continues, “I don’t think that happens while you’re doing it. The train is already on the track [and] — oh! — now look at where we’re going! And I didn’t realize that I was already onboard.”
“It is a very satisfying thing to have happen as a writer, don’t you think?”