Charlie Lyons, who produced/financed dozens of movies as managing partner of Holding Pictures and Beacon Communications, told me recently of the passing of his 92-year old mother, Anita Angela Chester Lyons. She died last month, and I missed the email and just found it over the July 4 holiday. I thought noting her passing still was worth doing, in the wake of Independence Day. Beyond being the first woman ever to produce a continuing network news program with the launch of Face the Nation, her work in support of Edward R. Murrow as the legendary CBS newsman went up against the bullying communist hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy seems particularly timely, given the unprecedented current climate of hostility from the White House toward the Fourth Estate.
The daughter of Russian immigrants, Lyons was born in Chicago in June 1925 and grew up in Los Angeles. She attended UCLA, where she was president of her class and of her sorority, and graduated in 1946 with a degree in political science. First stop was United Airlines, but that ended when she was told that, at 5’6”, she was too tall to be a flight attendant. And so began her career in broadcasting at KCAL-TV as a production assistant to Chet Huntley.
In 1950, she took a break from journalism and relocated to New York to work with fellow UCLA alum Ernie Martin and his partner, Frank Loesser, while they were creating and producing the Broadway show Guys and Dolls. But once a journalist, always a journalist. While in New York, Lyons joined CBS News as an associate producer for Murrow and was on the production team for both the Republican and Democratic conventions.
All that led to the famed confrontation between Murrow and McCarthy, when the newsman devoted an entire broadcast of See It Now to what he deemed the dangers of the senator’s Red Scare furor, which ravaged Hollywood and prompted the blacklisting of talent deemed to be communist sympathizers. While Hollywood capitulated, Murrow stood up to him. He broadcast a careful dissection of the McCarthy’s contradictory statements and a personal note that was considered a seminal TV news moment: “We will not walk in fear, one of another,” Murrow said. “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night, and good luck.”
Said Charlies Lyons: “The morning after Murrow took on Joe McCarthy, my mom went to her office at the Broadcast House in D.C. Murrow had driven from NYC all night and was asleep on her couch. My mom told him, “The world is looking for you.’ He said that was his fear. My mom assured him the switchboards had lit up in his favor, that people were sick and tired of Senator McCarthy and his bully pulpit. It was the beginning of the end for that demagogue.”
While McCarthy accused Murrow of being “a symbol, a leader and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors,” the schoolyard bully effectively had been punched in the nose; the national tide against the senator swelled following the broadcast.
That same year, Anita made history herself, becoming the first woman in history to produce a continuing network news program, Face the Nation. Also that year, she and her husband, former President Harry Truman’s acting Attorney General Ellis Lyons, had their first child, Charlie. She then relinquished her producer’s chair to Nancy Dickerson, mother of current Face the Nation host John Dickerson.
She remained an active member of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, working closely in the 1960s with First Lady Ladybird Johnson on its Widening Horizons for Youth program, particularly its Tom Sawyer project to benefit inner-city youth.
Charlie Lyons recalled that when he got to help his mother relive her experience with Murrow when George Clooney directed the 2005 film Good Night, And Good Luck, from a script the Oscar winner wrote with Smokehouse partner Grant Heslov. “George and Grant invited Anita to come to the set, and George was really kind and put her in the director’s chair,” Lyons recalled. “She was spellbound to see it brought to life. When they were getting ready for the last shot, he turned to my mom and asked, ‘Does this remind you of CBS?’ She said, ‘No, this is much cleaner.’ She took a moment to add a subjective aside. ‘George, I’m 83 years old, and there is not a darn thing I can do for you, but you still do it for me.’ He gave her a smack on both cheeks.
“My mom said afterwards …”You can’t possibly understand the fear and intimidation which came from the House Un-American Activities Committee. They hunted my friends for being artists, journalists, educators, labor leaders and immigrants. You kids need to make sure it never happens again.”