Excerpt: A Farewell to Arms, Legs & Jockstraps

Book cover and author Diane K. Shah
Throughout her career as a sports columnist, Diane Shah covered major events like the Olympics, Super Bowls, World Series, NBA championships, and Final Fours—including the Hoosiers’ 1981 national championship.

“Unlike a lot of sports writers, it wasn’t in my mind to be a sports writer—I just wanted to be a journalist,” says Diane Shah, BA’67. The Chicago native and IU graduate not only became a journalist, she became the first female sports columnist for a major daily newspaper when she took a job at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1981. During her career, she wrote for the National Observer, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and ESPN, and her memoir, A Farewell to Arms, Legs & Jockstraps, collects many of her funniest, realest, and most personal stories. 

Chapter Two
Can’t Hire a Girl for That!

I have often wondered who that woman was, the one who strode so boldly into the forbidden dinner, the one who declared, “You’ll have to bodily remove me!” Had I heard that line in a movie? Certainly, that wasn’t me. I was shy. As a child I had a hard time making eye contact. My father was strict. You didn’t talk back. You obeyed. But in time, I realized the professional me bore little resemblance to the kid growing up.

I was born in Chicago, but my family moved to Highland Park, an upmarket suburb north of the city, when I was eight. Although I had a younger sister, my parents used to joke that I was an only child, because I would plant myself in my bedroom, door closed, reading Nancy Drew and other books—or talking on my Princess phone—until I had to emerge for dinner. In fact, soon after we moved into our two-story house, I woke up my four-year-old sister one Sunday morning and said, “How would you like your own bedroom!” Without waiting for a reply, I began moving her bed and dresser out of our bedroom, down the hall, and into the guest room.

My Brooklyn-born father had been deployed to Navy Pier during World War II, met my mother, and they married. When I was four, my mother pointed to an airplane flying overhead and told me we were going to travel in one of those to New York. How, I asked, looking upward, could I fit into that little-bitty plane? In New York I met two cousins and became a pen pal with one of them, Danny, who was my age. At some point we began writing to each other. Whenever one of Danny’s letters arrived, I would race upstairs to my bedroom and quickly pencil a reply. I found I loved writing back.

When I was 12, a friend of my mother asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a writer but added I didn’t think I was creative enough to write a book, so I wasn’t sure. The friend suggested journalism. I said, “What’s that?” She explained it was writing stories for a newspaper. This sounded incredibly dull, but it gave me something to consider. Even at that age, I didn’t think I could write books like Nancy Drew. But newspapers? Hmm.

I think it was seventh grade when I discovered that maybe, just maybe, I could be a little creative. For English class I wrote a short story called “The Car of Life and Death.” I don’t remember the plot, but since I read mystery novels, it probably was suspenseful. The teacher called on me to stand in front of the class and read my story aloud. Before I could finish, the bell rang. I paused, expecting everyone to jump up and bury me in the stampede for the door. But not one student moved. I finished reading the last page and a half. Only then did everyone dash out.

Wow! I thought. Wow!

Although I soon became obsessed with being a journalist, pretty much the only journalism I read as a kid was in the sports pages. I had few qualities that portended journalism would be a wise career choice. I read books about famous reporters, and they all stressed that you needed to be curious, aggressive, and familiar with the dictionary. I had little curiosity outside of baseball, I was painfully shy, and looking up words in the dictionary seemed too much trouble. I only wanted to write.

My misguided outlook was hammered into me my senior year in high school, when my guidance counselor summoned me to his office. By then, I had earned my first real byline, in my hometown paper, the Highland Park News. I was 14 years old and chosen to write a story about students taking over the town’s government for a day. After school I worked on the Highland Park High School newspaper and somehow landed a bimonthly column for the Waukegan News Sun. It was called HPHS something, and I haven’t a clue what I wrote.

This guidance counselor asked about my plans after college. I said, “I want to write for Time or Newsweek.”

He shook his head. “Time and Newsweek each have about fifteen writers, all middle-aged, all men. What else would you like to do?”

In truth, I hadn’t thought any of this through, so I blurted out the only thing I could think of. “Then I want to be a sportswriter!”

He rolled his eyes. “Dear, no editor will hire you. Sports reporters have to go into locker rooms, and girls can’t do that.” He sighed. “I suggest you go home and start thinking sensibly about your future.”

For some reason, this blast of cold reality did not faze me.

I was going to be a journalist no matter what.

Although women’s lib hadn’t surfaced yet, I began to realize there were jobs women were not allowed to do. Had I been a man, I would have applied for a copy boy’s job at the Chicago Daily News or Sun-Times or Tribune. That was how many male journalists got their start. But something told me I would not be hired for that. Nope, I would have to get a journalism degree.

In a hurry, I graduated from Indiana University in three and a half years. I wrote for the Indiana Daily Student and, the summer between my final two semesters, I carried a bunch of clips to the oddly named Bloomington Herald-Telephone, where I was hired as a reporter for the summer. Then, that fall, a new paper appeared, the Bloomington Tribune. I hadn’t even heard of it when I got a phone call offering me a part-time job until I graduated in January; then I could work full-time. I agreed and was handed the education beat. In June, I announced I was leaving. My boyfriend was graduating, and I wanted to go to Europe for the summer. The editor said I mustn’t leave and offered to make me the highest-paid writer on the staff. But despite this inexplicable offer, Bloomington was not my kind of town. I wanted the big time—Chicago or New York. When I again said no, thank you, he said, “You’re making a big mistake. Someday, you could be the most famous woman journalist in Indiana!”

I gulped, smiled, and fled.

I got married, moved to Washington, D.C., and began to hunt for a writing job. Nobody wanted me. I could not help noticing that most of my male classmates had secured newspaper jobs, while I kept trying to find one. I had no trouble reaching managing editors to ask for a job. Back then you simply dialed the newspaper’s number, asked for the M.E., and were put right through. Also, back then, managing editors did not mince words.

“Just got married, eh? Well, soon you’ll be having babies. Sorry.”

Or “Only thing available is the four-to-midnight shift. Can’t hire a girl for that.”

I didn’t know what to do with myself. We didn’t have much furniture in the one-bedroom apartment we rented, so there wasn’t much I could do at home. Lacking anything meaningful to occupy me, I was horrified to discover I was having trouble stringing coherent sentences together. When my husband came home from his job as a TV director at a local station, he could tell me about his day, but all I had to offer was that the price of tomatoes had gone up.

Desperate to do something, I took a job selling sportswear at Lord & Taylor in Bethesda. And every lunch hour I carried a handful of coins into a payphone booth. Over the next two months, I called every newspaper, magazine, wire service, and radio and TV station in the D.C. metropolitan area. Sometimes a managing editor would tell me to call back. “Something might be opening up soon.” And call back I did—to no avail. Meanwhile, I had put together quite a résumé. After Lord & Taylor, I wrote newspaper ads for a department store under the tutelage of two men who screamed at each other all day, and at Christmas, I sold cosmetics at Saks.

I might add that I struck out completely at Newsweek. Ignoring my guidance counselor’s advice, I wrangled an interview with the Washington bureau chief, who asked what I wanted to do. “Be a writer,” I declared.

Two weeks later, I received a letter saying that I didn’t have the experience to be a Newsweek writer, but might I be interested in a reporting or research job? I hastily wrote back that I was. Two weeks later, another letter arrived. I really wasn’t qualified to be a reporter or researcher, it said, but I might consider applying for an opening as the bureau’s part-time librarian. Yes, of course, I eagerly wrote back. The third and final letter said, “Sorry. We just hired a college guy for that position.”

At 23, I was clearly washed up. And miserable. All I had ever wanted in life was to be a writer. (Okay, after I figured out that being a cowgirl wasn’t going to happen.) I had grown up in a wealthy suburb, and I prayed—actually prayed—that I wouldn’t end up getting married and living in a house with two powder-blue Mercedes in the driveway, as one of my classmates had. I didn’t want that—I wanted adventure.

This was the end of the 1960s, a topsy-turvy decade filled with rebellious youngsters, long tangled hair and ratty clothes, blaring music, communes, shocking assassinations, and a war everybody seemed to hate. My husband and I lived in a three-building complex called Eldorado Towers in Silver Spring, Maryland, not far from where he grew up. Some nights his brother and several of their friends—including a young Catholic priest—would come over, smoke marijuana, and talk about overthrowing the government. The priest would tell us how he agonized over the church’s ban on birth control and how many in his poor parish desperately desired it. What to do? What to do about America? Leave it? Go to Canada? All this was debated amid plumes of pot smoke.

Twenty years later, I met a lawyer in Los Angeles who, after getting his law degree, worked several years for the FBI. I mentioned Eldorado Towers, and this lawyer, Jay Grodin, said he had lived there too, at about the same time. “That’s where they housed us during our first year at Quantico,” he said. I burst out laughing. If only we had known we were breaking the law just down the hall from dozens of FBI agents!

Eventually, I did land a journalism job with Roll Call. A sort of Politico before Politico, it was an inside look at doings on Capitol Hill that I wasn’t sure anyone read. After routinely getting lost on D.C.’s alphabetical one-way streets, I would walk into a federal building and stare down a hall that stretched for blocks and then turn right, only to start down another hall that stretched for more blocks. Maybe, I thought dismally, I ought to find another career. But I couldn’t come up with anything. Some nights I could hardly sleep.

Then everything changed.

My first job interview after arriving in Washington had been at the National Observer, a Dow Jones–owned weekly like Time or Newsweek, only in newspaper form. I had spoken with the managing editor, Roscoe Born, and he—like most of the others I would soon meet—took a few notes on a three-by-five index card, slid it into a metal card file box, and said he would be in touch if something opened up.

Eight months later, shortly after I had begun working at Roll Call, he phoned to say he had a job that might interest me. Dow Jones also published a weekly current events newspaper called Spotlight for junior high school students. The staff consisted of one editor, one art person, and one writer. The writing job was available. “And maybe,” Mr. Born said, “in a couple of years, we could give you a story for the Observer.”

Good God, I thought, how boring this sounded. Writing for junior high school kids? But my husband thought it was a gamble worth taking, the pay was enticing, and there was a chance I could write for the Observer—someday. The paper was extremely well written and highly regarded, so I took the job. I gave the boredom factor three months to kick in.

After two and a half months, I was already twitching when Mr. Born summoned me to a large conference room with a desk at the far end. He was seated behind this desk, and it seemed to take me forever to reach it. He had bad news. Spotlight was folding, leaving him with two choices. He could put me on the Observer staff or he could let me go. “I know you gave up a job to come here, so I am going to put you on staff.”

Later I learned that Born had tossed me up for grabs and that no editor would take me on—except for one, Lionel Linder, who, it turned out, was the best mentor any reporter could wish for. The first story he assigned me was to fly to New York to interview Jean Nidetch, the founder of Weight Watchers. I turned the story in late one afternoon. The next morning, he called me over.

“Kid, you did a great job,” he enthused and carried on for several minutes praising my work. Then he said, “Pull up a chair. I think we can do a couple of things to make it even better.” He tapped my story with a blue pencil. “Here, look at the fifth graf. That’s your lead. See? Now the second graf should be …”

Basically, we rearranged—rewrote—the entire story, though he left me feeling I had created a masterpiece all by myself. Normally, the Observer ran five stories on page one. My Weight Watchers piece was good enough for front-page consideration, I was told, but according to one editor in the room, “It came in number six.”

My second story, about a weird yoga camp in Canada where you couldn’t talk, did land on page one, and after that, so did most of my stories.

I was stunned by my good fortune; not only was I the youngest staff writer (also the lowest paid) but one of the first female journalists Dow Jones had ever hired. Indeed, two years before, when an editor from the Wall Street Journal came to Indiana University to interview prospective hires, a department secretary called me two hours before my meeting to inform me the Journal did not hire women. “You should go anyway,” she said. I decided not to bother.

Six months into this job, a new editor-in-chief arrived at the Observer. He was Henry Gemmill, a highly regarded writer and editor from the Wall Street Journal. During one of our first meetings, he said, “I really don’t know what to do with you. I not only have never worked with a woman, but I never considered that I was writing for one.”

Despite these ominous words, I got along well with Henry although—as it turned out—maybe too well. From time to time, he asked me to lunch. We’d talk about stories I might do, or he would comment on stories I had done. One day he took me to lunch at a pricey French restaurant in Georgetown. Afterward, as we got into his car (the first Mercedes I had ever ridden in), I realized we had not talked about story ideas or the paper at all. Why, I wondered, did we have lunch? But as soon he started driving up Connecticut Avenue, he “proposed”—he was quite the gentleman—that we have an affair.

Oh god, I thought. It will take 25 minutes to drive back to the office … what am I to do?

“Henry,” I said, “I am so flattered that you are interested in me. A man like you. But I am married. And I work for you. Sometimes I get a little crazy. Like, if I got a pay raise, I would wonder if I really deserved it. Or if I didn’t get a raise, I would think, Oh dear, he’s punishing me. I’m so sorry, Henry, but I don’t think such an … er, arrangement could work.”

I don’t remember what else was said during that interminable ride, but when I walked into the newsroom, Nina Totenberg, our amazing Supreme Court reporter (who would go on to become one of the best in country) grabbed me. “Is Henry hitting on you?” she asked. I nodded. She said, “Me, too.” That night, Nina came to my apartment—my husband was working—and we camped out in the kitchen. I opened a bottle of wine, and while Nina sat on a countertop, I made us something to eat.

“What if we went to New York?” I said.

“You think they would believe us?” Nina said. Since we were the first—or among the first—women reporters Dow Jones had hired, and since Henry was a Dow Jones star, we couldn’t imagine Dow Jones executives in New York, specifically Wall Street Journal executive editor Warren Phillips, doing anything to help. Unable to concoct a strategy, we finished our wine and put our problem on hold.

Yet my success at the Observer had made me think, screw it. If Henry tries to interfere with me, I’ll quit and go to the Washington Post. (Assuming, of course, they would hire me.) To my relief, Henry never raised the subject again, and I kept getting good assignments and pay raises. But this experience taught me two things. One, I could think on my feet (or in a car). And two, I could take care of myself. Both lessons would serve me well when I plunged into the macho world of sports.

Excerpt from chapter two of A Farewell to Arms, Legs & Jockstraps by Diane K. Shah. Copyright © 2020 by Diane K. Shah. Reprinted by permission of Red Lightning Books, an imprint of IU Press. All rights reserved.

Written By
IUAA Staff