On Her Trail

by John Dickerson

A former White House correspondent for Time magazine examines his stormy relationship with his mother, describing his mother's role as a pioneering woman journalist, the lavish political soirees that marked his parents' marriage, and his feelings of ambivalence about his mother's perpetual absence throughout his youth. 75,000 first printing.

On Her Trail

Chapter One

There were many Nancy Dickersons. I'll start with the first one I knew. On July 5, 1968, Mom started the day at Saks Fifth Avenue before the store opened. Three times a week she arrived with the morning shift for her appointment with Mr. Eivind, the Norwegian hairdresser. She said hello to the ladies arranging the compacts at the makeup counter. She knew them well.

After Mr. Eivind had shaped and set her brunette hair, Mom raced in her blue Mustang convertible -- the top up to keep the freshly done work intact -- and pulled into the NBC studios by 8:00. She had been repeatedly named among the best coiffed women in America for a reason. She was disciplined.

She would have two hours to write her script and prepare the stories she would deliver on The News with Nancy Dickerson, from 10:20 to 10:25, the first NBC newscast anchored by a woman.

She sifted through the Friday papers. On the front page of the New York Times was a story about a Dallas bar that had refused to serve an African diplomat because he was black. Alec Rose completed a 354-day sail around the world. The wires were reporting that Allied ground forces found three major caches of enemy munitions as they swept the provinces around Saigon.

By 9:00 she started typing out her script. Her long nails made almost as much noise as the typewriter keys. By 10:00 her colleagues could hear her practicing to the ping of her regulation NBC stopwatch as it switched on and off.

Twenty-four hours later I was born. Dad was in Fort Lauderdale closing a business deal so my eighteen-year-old about-to-be-half sister Elizabeth had to drive Mom to the hospital. Dad took the first flight he could find and arrived just before the blessed event.

Mom was 41. Viewers were shocked when they heard that the Nancy Dickerson, whom they had just been watching, had given birth. They had seen her every day and weren't aware she was pregnant. She and her bosses at NBC had stuffed me under the desk, careful always to shoot her from the chest up. Any signs of pregnancy or blatant womanhood would distract viewers from the news.

In the summer of '68 Mom was in the middle of covering the presidential race, and so my birth was reported in that context. "What's in a Name," read the headline of a Washington Post item. "Lyndon Hubert Eugene Richard Ronald Nelson seemed like a nice name to NBC's Nancy Dickerson, who was looking for something safe to call her son. Now she thinks it's just as well that she and her husband decided to call him John Frederick instead. 'Because,' she said with a sigh, 'we never even thought of Spiro.'"

Three weeks after I was born, Mom was in Miami covering the Republican convention. That confused viewers even more. Didn't she just give birth? She had, but she gave up on her experiment with breastfeeding and went off to cover the story.

Nancy and Wyatt Dickerson, my father, were leading an exciting life. Mom was not only one of the country's most famous newscasters, she was a celebrity. Dad was the CEO of a successful conglomerate. His company, Liberty Equities, developed real estate and owned businesses that manufactured everything from industrial pipe to processed foods. A butler polished the leather in their Rolls-Royce and they flew off for beach weekends in a private plane. They lived in a very big house and their liquor was excellent. In Miami, Dad stayed in their apartment at the exclusive Palm Bay Club while his superstar wife stayed in grungier digs with her press colleagues.

In the pictures from this era, my parents appear in conspicuously hip clothing -- Dad wore turtlenecks with his blazer and looked like the Man from U.N.C.L.E.; Mom wore minis and pink lipstick. Their lingo matched the fashion of the times. "Come on upstairs. The party in 4-A is really swinging," Wyatt Dickerson is quoted as saying in a Women's Wear Daily article about the society scene around the GOP convention. "It started in Virginia Gore's apartment, but it was a dud and we moved it down to Julie and Bill McKelvy's."

Groovy.

While Mom and Dad were partying, I was drooling in my crib back in McLean, Virginia. An army of uniformed servants watched over me and the other four Dickerson children. Like all successful couples of their time, my parents outsourced a lot of the child maintenance. In many of the candid shots of me as an infant or toddler I'm with at least one woman in white stockings and a white nurse's uniform. I was a very ugly child. I had a misshapen head and skin the color of cooked flounder. My bruised head and the uniforms of my caretakers made it look like I was raised in a ward of some kind.

When my older siblings and I look at pictures after Thanksgiving dinner, we try to guess the names of the nurses. Carolina, Louise, Veronica and Renata. Regular people tell stories about crazy aunts who collected Jello molds. We tell stories about Winston, who drove a cab during the day and cooked for us at night. He'd been a cook for the railroad so he couldn't prepare dinner for fewer than five hundred. He had to run out the back door one day when a girlfriend came looking for him with a razor in her shoe.

It is our ritual. We get together and return to the subject of our family the way other families return each year to summer homes. But the family legends we trade over turkey don't help me reconstruct my early days with Mom much. They suggest she wasn't home. At age five, my brother somehow started a tractor that had been brought in to build the new pool. If he'd known how to drive it he could have started a nice addition before anyone found him.

For a period, I expressed myself on the wall next to my crib. I was Jackson Pollock and my diaper was my palette. My siblings consulted with the nanny and all of them decided to sew my pajamas shut with shoelaces and a diaper pin. (I have only just forgiven them.)

Veronica is the first caretaker I can remember. She was a solid woman. I would run to hug her and bounce off. Every day, Veronica and I would visit a family of fluffy white rabbits she was raising in the abandoned poolhouse at the edge of our property.

I had fallen in love with rabbits in my storybooks. To have live, warm ones to pet was a special heaven. In the fall, I played hide-and-seek with them in piles of leaves. I let them pounce around in my warm coat. I named them: Mike, Liz, Ann and Jane. Not very creative; those are my siblings' names.

One afternoon, I asked Veronica if I could make my daily visit, but she told me the rabbits had run away. I was very upset, and I insisted we must search for them. Veronica seemed uninterested. I left a box by the back door lined with newspaper and scarves in case they were cold when they returned.

They weren't coming back; Veronica had put them in the stew.

I didn't find this out until much later. My older brother and parents told the story with a chuckle because apparently eating your family pet is funny. Today nannies are fingerprinted and have FBI-style background checks. What kind of parent leaves their children with a nanny who cooks their bunnies?

Most people have too many pictures of themselves eating spaghetti as a child. For some reason, parents feel compelled. It's almost a national requirement. It's the same with the naked tub shot. I have thousands of pictures of my children in these poses. There are no such pictures of me. Staff did the feeding and cleaning and it wasn't proper for those caring for me to go snapping photos behind the scenes. The few snaps I do have were taken by my grandparents.

Instead, what I have is publicity photographs. I appeared in the Washington Star and Oakland Tribune. Mom's star was fading -- she left network television for independent production before I was two -- so I didn't get nearly the exposure my older brother and sisters did. They made Vogue, Parade, the Saturday Evening Post and the Washington Post back when she was really famous. But I am represented in a few profiles of her. I was a necessary stop in the tour between the garden room, painted to match the Oval Office, and the library with its walnut paneling. The photographers tilted my fontanel the right way or caught me from the right angle so I look much better in glossy prints than I do in the scary candid photos.

"Luncheon with Nancy Dickerson begins with the impressive drive to her house," reads a profile in the Oakland Tribune in 1970. "The butler answers the door and Nancy walks into the gorgeous foyer, with its sweeping view of the Potomac below. Toddling along with his mother is 20-months old John, truly an angel child . . . a friendly, smiling, fair-haired carbon copy of his father, Wyatt. After an embrace and a one-sided conversation, John is carried away by his English nurse, for his afternoon nap. At his mother's cajoling, he blows kisses from the stairway."

Here I am in a New Woman profile: "Before setting down in the study, we go up the broad, thickly carpeted stairs and down the paneled hallway to John's room. John is two [sic], and his mother picks him up out of his crib and introduces me. Then she winds up his big tick-tock clock and we tiptoe out, hoping he will not roar when he discovers he has been conned into a nap. He doesn't."

I was a very accommodating child, blowing kisses, nodding off on cue, and I didn't call Mom on it when she told her profilers I was just two. I was three and I'm sure that like my three-year-old son now, I was very anxious to make sure people got that right. I might have had a wobbly head but I wasn't an idiot. At age forty-four, Mom fibbed about my age to make herself seem younger. Presumably, if Mom had stayed famous, future profilers would have been shocked by the disconnect between my behavior and my supposed age. How big a lie would they have let her tell? His crib seems cramped for a six-foot boy, but he doesn't seem to mind.

I was dressed for these photo shoots as if my parents were entering me in some kind of pageant. In one profile, I'm wearing a cap with a chin strap, short pants with straps over my shoulders, a capelike coat and red leather sandals with white socks. Outside the picture frame, you can sense the line of boys preparing to beat me silly.

This is the way you dress your child when you're paying someone else to dress him. To be fair, it's also the way you probably should dress your children when they're going to be kissing the president. My brother won this honor and he couldn't look more adorable in his hard red shoes, blue kneesocks, short pants and blazer as he plants one on Lyndon Johnson's cheek. In the picture that captures that moment, Johnson is down on his knees in the Oval Office and Defense Secretary McNamara and Secretary of State Rusk look over the spectacle from the doorway.

Mom's career on television may have been slowing while I was growing up, but throwing A-list parties was the part of her profession that endured and we needed to look nice when senators and cabinet officers were coming. At age four or five, I wasn't old enough to take full part in the production, but I wanted in on the excitement, so I followed Mom through her preparations.

Party day often started with a trip across the river to Washington to visit Mr. Eivind, the hairdresser. I got to play with the adjustable chairs while Mom was being tended to. At the end, when surveying his work in the mirror, she swiveled her head to the side while keeping her eyes fixed forward. It's the look most people give you when they think you're pulling their leg. "My eyes are sharper when I look from the side," she said, sucking in her cheeks a touch to show her high cheekbones.

It was more fun to watch her when she did her hair herself. She teased it with flat metal combs tapered to a point like a knitting needle. When I was older I'd play dressing-room Ninja, throwing them at the Styrofoam heads on which she stored her hats. If your aim was true and you really winged it, you could drive the end in all the way to the tines. She'd stick a couple of those comb ends into her hair, and by the end of the flurry of arm movements, it looked like she'd just pulled her finger from the wall socket.

When her hair was done, I followed her down the hall as she got dressed. Her dressing room off the bedroom had twenty feet of suits and gowns and silk shirts puffed with tissue paper to keep their shape. I had two pairs of shoes -- loafers and sneakers. She had a wall of them, at attention in their shoe trees. Dad had far less real estate but seemed to emerge from his dressing room as if the tailor had just recut his suit for the evening.

In the back of the house were three more closets of colorful Dior, Cardin and St. Laurent outfits. She would pluck a dress, drape it across the other hanging clothes and stand back to think. Then she would repeat the drill with another and then another. This was very boring, so I ran through the dry-cleaning sheaths into a deep corner. When my friends and I played hide-and-seek, it was into these back closets that I would disappear. The cedar walls smelled like a fire burning somewhere.

Copyright © 2006 by John Dickerson

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BOOK DETAILS

Full Title: On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News'
Author: John Dickerson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date Published: October 17, 2006
Format: eBook, Blio
Platform: XPS Enabled
Length: 352 pages
Language: English
ISBN: 0743298349 / 9780743298346
Category: Biographies & Memoirs / Literary
Audience: General Adult