Linda J. Greenhouse ’68: ‘A Largely Exemplary Life’

Greenhouse says that acclimating to and excelling in The Crimson’s male-dominated newsroom was “a toughening exercise.”
By Molly C. McCafferty

Linda J. Greenhouse '68 studied government at Radcliffe College.
Linda J. Greenhouse '68 studied government at Radcliffe College.

On an average weeknight in 1967, you could often find Linda J. Greenhouse ’68 eating a burger alone in Harvard Square.

Greenhouse—then the features editor of The Crimson—was often expected to remain in the newsroom late into the night. However, as a Radcliffe student, she was not allowed to eat in Adams House with the rest of the staff.

“That was a privilege that Adams House extended to The Crimson but not to the Crimson women,” Greenhouse says. “Because we weren’t paying Harvard, so Harvard didn’t care to feed us. So The Crimson guys would all leave for supper, go to Adams House, and basically say, ‘well, goodbye.’”

By Maria H. Park

Greenhouse says that acclimating to and excelling in The Crimson’s male-dominated newsroom was “a toughening exercise.”

“There was some teasing and some hazing, and it was a little hard to take in the beginning,” Greenhouse says. “But I think once I proved myself, we all sort of bonded as equals, and a number of those people became my lifelong friends.”

Greenhouse would overcome many such challenges over the course of her thirty-year career as a female journalist in male-dominated newsrooms, from The Crimson to the New York Times.

‘Game for Everything’

In the fall of 1964, Greenhouse was one of just three students accepted to The Crimson. She recalled that she was the only female freshman with “the nerve to comp,” or try out for the organization, though a handful of Radcliffe women were part of the paper. Greenhouse’s peers from The Crimson, most of whom are men and many of whom are still her friends, noted her talent early on.

Former Washington Post publisher Boisfeuillet “Bo” Jones Jr. ’68 remembers that Greenhouse was “game for everything.”

“What I remember as being particularly a special talent she had was being able to write a feature piece or write a profile, or something, where she, in a limited amount of time, could grasp a situation—the complexities of it—well enough that she could then write it in an interesting, clear, understandable article,” Jones recalls. “Linda fit right in.”

Greenhouse was covering Harvard at a time marked by tumult and uncertainty, on campus and nationally. During her time at the paper, she covered everything from Harvard’s involvement in LSD research to opposition against the war in Vietnam. She even tried her hand at sports reporting with coverage of the local racetracks.

Another colleague—R. Andrew Beyer ’65, a former Crimson sports writer who has gone on to write about horse racing for the Washington Post—wrote in an email that he often brought Greenhouse with him while covering the raucous local race tracks, where the two consulted with a “raffish” gambler and former Cuban consul known to them as “Mr. D” to gain insights into the sport.

Greenhouse continued the tradition even after Beyer graduated, producing such headlines as, “Top Racehorse Buffle Is Dead At Age Three” and “No Sweet Revenge for Dancer in Preakness.”

“It was a shabby place, and it was easy to suspect that it was teeming with corruption,” Beyer wrote of the race tracks. “With hindsight, the image of a future Pulitzer Prize winner hanging out in this environment may be hard to imagine. But Linda always seemed bemused by the seedy side of racing, and she loved the nobler aspects of the sport.”

On occasion, Greenhouse also offered analyses of other local sports. “I hate to be the kind of guy who upsets anybody's fond hopes, but this is one of those times when a sports-writer just has to be brave. The Sox won't win a single game. I just can't see it in the cards,” she wrote in an Oct. 1967 piece.

Greenhouse also devoted much of her time to covering the disparities in resources that isolated and undermined Radcliffe women at the time. Besides being barred from Harvard dining halls, Greenhouse and her classmates were also excluded from accessing resources in Harvard’s libraries. One of her bigger projects was covering the battle over the opening of Lamont Library to the women of Radcliffe.

“When I arrived at Radcliffe, it sort of seemed kind of ridiculous that Radcliffe had an undergraduate library which, as I recall, had an open door policy,” Greenhouse remembers. “There was Lamont Library in Harvard Yard, and women couldn’t go in? I mean, that’s crazy.”

By 1967, during the first semester of Greenhouse’s senior year, women were granted full access to Lamont. Though she denies she was a leader in the movement, Greenhouse acknowledges that she “probably brought it to people’s attention.”

“It was just an artifact of an age that was changing under people’s noses,” Greenhouse says. “It was one of the old things that gradually fell away, the remnants of the old Harvard—like a lot of other things, maybe too gradually.”

“Maybe I lit a spark, but I think it would’ve happened anyway,” she adds.

Outside The Crimson, Greenhouse, a Government student, excelled. She was granted membership in Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude.

“She was really good at The Crimson, worked hard as an executive of it, and on the other hand, she maintained her life,” Jones says.

Another friend and Crimson colleague, T. Jay Mathews ’67, wrote in an email that he recalls times when Greenhouse was “annoyed at inconsistencies of a Harvard education.”

“I remember her walking out of the Crimson telling her sister Carol, also a student there, that ‘that section man is such a little boy,’” Mathews wrote.

'One of the Greats'

Greenhouse still remembers the first time someone stopped the presses on her account.

The year was 2000, and Greenhouse—then the Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times—was waiting to learn how the Court would decide the contentious case of Bush v. Gore, settling the presidential election.

When she finally got a printed copy of the opinion in her hand and began the trek back to the New York Times’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, it was late at night, right at deadline.

“At that time, there was a press run that physically produced the next morning’s newspaper, and I arrived back in the office in Washington from the Court, having been there all day waiting for the opinion,” Greenhouse says. “Then holding the printed opinion in my hand, I heard the top editor say on the phone, ‘Hold the presses!’”

“That was really the first time in, by then, my pretty long career that I had ever heard ‘hold the presses’ with respect to me,” she adds.

The “pretty long career” that stretched from Cambridge to Washington was marked by unusual opportunities and shifting gender dynamics.

After graduating from Radcliffe in 1968, Greenhouse became a clerk for James B. Reston, a New York Times columnist who was then chief of the Times’s Washington, D.C. bureau. According to Greenhouse, the “thick skin” she developed as a woman at The Crimson was helpful in transitioning to her professional career.

“If anything, the Times was a more macho place than The Crimson had ever been,” Greenhouse says. “It certainly was not a warm and fuzzy place, and it never was, and it’s never going to be.”

“I would sort of say to myself, ‘Okay, I didn’t screw up today. That means chances are I won’t screw up tomorrow, or the next week,’” she adds.

Because of Reston’s sudden elevation to the office of bureau chief and the large staff that came with the position, Greenhouse was often able to freelance and pursue publication as a clerk, an opportunity she called “quite anomalous.”

“It was extremely helpful to me to basically make my way around the different parts of the newsroom peddling my ideas, just hoping to get the go-ahead to write this and that. It was quite a productive learning curve for me that year,” Greenhouse says.

Being hired by Reston, “the great of Washington,” was a sign that Greenhouse was making strides even at the beginning of her career, according to Jones.

“That was a great clerkship to get,” Jones says. “You have to be at the top of your game to get that.”

After about a year of clerking, Greenhouse was promoted to general assignment reporter. From there, she rapidly rose through the ranks, working as a correspondent in Westchester County, then covering New York state government in Albany. After a stint as the Albany bureau chief and a one-year break to earn her master's degree at Yale Law School, she returned to the bureau where her career began, in Washington D.C.—this time, as a senior correspondent covering the Supreme Court.

Greenhouse reported on the Court for over thirty years, from 1978 until her retirement in 2008. In 1998, she won a Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting for “consistently illuminating coverage” of the Court, and in 2004, she won the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Kennedy School. By her own count, she covered a total of 2,691 decisions.

What Greenhouse remembers most vividly during her long tenure as a Supreme Court reporter was not any individual case or decision, however. Rather, it was the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the bench in 1981 that struck her as truly momentous.

“It’s probably hard to grasp what a shock to the system that was,” Greenhouse says. “In the culture, it just seemed kind of ridiculous that a woman would be on the court. Of course not. And then, there she was.”

According to Jones, Greenhouse was “one of the great reporters of that age,” and the justices that Greenhouse covered recognized this and “admired Linda as a reporter.”

“She would know in detail the cases she was covering, the Court cases. They could be controversial cases, they could be ones that weren't so controversial, but she made sure she understood what the parties were litigating over,” Jones says. “She'd understand the issues so that when the decision came down, she could tell the public, first of all, what the Court decided before leaping off into the political ramifications of what they decided, and she had just such a good sense.”

'A Largely Exemplary Life'

Though Greenhouse retired from reporting in 2008, her lengthy career with the Times has not ended altogether: she now publishes a column on the Court every two weeks. Though she has not been in the newsroom for years, Greenhouse said she pays close attention to the strides made by “lots of young women in very prominent roles” at the Times, citing White House correspondent Maggie L. Haberman and Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller as examples.

“It’s got to be a very different atmosphere, but I can’t personally attest to it because I just haven’t been there for a long time,” Greenhouse says.

Greenhouse has also written a memoir and three books on the Supreme Court since retiring, and lectures and serves as journalist-in-residence at Yale Law School.

“I teach full time so that I’m still in the classroom,” Greenhouse explains. “I don’t feel as old as I would expect today’s undergraduates to assume that I am.”

Jones speculated that Greenhouse also teaches in order to “give back in ways that she didn't really have when she was an undergraduate.”

“I don't know who her role models might have been, women, when she was in college, but she certainly could be one for women over the last four decades or so,” Jones says.

Beyond her reporting, Beyer said Greenhouse has lead “a largely exemplary life.” Jones describes her as “empathetic” and “self-effacing,” averse to bragging about herself yet “certainly not milquetoast.”

“She's quite an independent thinker and always has been, and she just has very good values: a decent person, fun to be with, engaging. She was quite popular among her Crimson colleagues, hardworking, loyal as a friend,” Jones says.

“I think people would like her as a colleague or classmate or first cousin, you know?” he adds.

According to Mathews, as a journalist, Greenhouse has had an influence as both a woman in the field and a reporter who has “encouraged people of both genders.”

“Every woman who succeeds, as Linda did, encourages younger women who see that byline to consider the possibility that they can do it too,” Mathews wrote.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff.

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