By Clifford Pugh
HOUSTON -- Houston Chronicle columnist Maxine Mesinger, who wrote about big names for half of the 20th century and became a celebrity in her own right, died Friday after a long illness.
For more than four decades, Mesinger covered the lifestyles of Houston's rich and famous as well as the world's notables in her Big City Beat column. She was 75.
She counted such luminaries as Barbara Walters, Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli and Shirley MacLaine as close friends. Judy Garland once tracked her down in a Houston beauty salon to ask advice. Elizabeth Taylor dropped by her Washington hotel room for a visit. Frank Sinatra took her along when he toured Africa.
But she also made time for everyday people, who were among her most loyal readers.
"I talk to everybody who calls me," she once said. "I hate it when they say to me, `We're not society.' I say, `Well, this isn't the society page. What's happening honey?"'
Early on in her career, she dubbed herself "Miss Moonlight" because of her evening hours on the social circuit. The moniker stuck, but most people knew her by one name: Maxine.
Such Maxine-isms as: "She snoops to conquer," "Miss Moonlight's memos," "The soft thud of name dropping" and "Have tongue will tattle" were staples of her popular column. She also coined such unique catch phrases as "swankienda" and "playcation" that Houston's "smart set" adopted as their own.
Intensely competitive, she loved nothing better than a big scoop. She was the first to detail the news of the first heart transplant performed by Dr. Denton Cooley, the surprise wedding of Houston Rocket Hakeem Olajuwon, and former Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher's decision to file for divorce from Georgette.
"I'm a news person," she once boasted. "I could do any news story. I could cover World War III."
With a throaty, deep voice -- perhaps the most distinctive voice this side of Lauren Bacall -- blazing blue eyes and immaculately coiffed blonde hair, Mesinger was at the center of social history during her career.
Jack Sweeney, Chronicle publisher and president, described her as "the last of her breed of gossip columnists in major U.S. newspapers. We'll all miss her dearly."
In the 1960s, Mesinger covered the White House weddings of Lynda Bird and Luci Johnson and received a kiss from President Johnson at Lynda Bird's reception.
In the 1970s, she was on a first-name basis with John Travolta when "Saturday Night Fever" was a big hit and attended a White House Halloween party hosted by President Carter.
In the 1980s, she lunched at the White House with the Reagans and visited with the Bushes.
In the 1990s, periodic flare-ups with multiple sclerosis didn't keep her from attending the Academy Awards or visiting with Queen Elizabeth II.
Even when detailing a messy Houston divorce or the romantic liaisons of the Duchess of York with former Houstonians Steve Wyatt and John Bryan, Mesinger maintained a sense of civility that earned her the nickname "the Queen of Nice."
"I try never to be mean or dirty," she once said.
Born on Dec. 19, 1925, in Houston, Maxine David made her presence known from the start. Her mother, the late Ella David, often said Maxine arrived when the noon whistles were blowing and "she's been making noise ever since."
But her interest in show business probably came from her father, the late Julian "Drake" David, a Houston produce broker who moved his family to Galveston every summer and was always bringing home nightclub headliners.
While in high school, she began to work in local theaters, acting in small roles and working behind the scenes. She studied drama at Texas Woman's University and Indiana University.
In 1944, she married a young private, Emil Mesinger, whom she had met a few months earlier on a blind date when he was stationed at Ellington Field.
In the 1950s, Mesinger hosted two celebrity-oriented shows on the University of Houston's fledgling TV station. One of her guests was Bill Roberts, whose popular gossip column appeared in the Houston Press, one of the city's three daily newspapers in the 1950s. He was so impressed that he hired her in 1954 to be his "Girl Friday."
As Roberts' assistant, Mesinger got her first taste of celebrity reporting when she interviewed such notables as Mike Todd, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Gabor and Rosemary Clooney.
Her friendship with Todd led to an important scoop in 1957. The filmmaker was dating Elizabeth Taylor and Mesinger asked him if they were going to marry.
"Let's go ask her," he replied.
They went to a phone and called Taylor, who later accepted the proposal.
In 1959, Roberts moved to The Houston Post and Mesinger took over his column at the Houston Press. When the Press folded in 1964, she was immediately hired by the Chronicle, where she remained throughout the rest of her career.
Over the years, Mesinger watched Houston grow from a dusty cowtown to a sophisticated international city. She held court at Tony's restaurant, the watering hole for the city's cafe society set who vied to be mentioned in her column.
At times, her fame created odd moments. While covering the inauguration of George Bush in 1989, she was in a restroom stall at the National Air and Space Museum when someone in the next stall pressed a piece of paper across the floor with an item for her column.
On her 25th anniversary as a columnist she remarked, "I've been around the world. I've met people in all walks of life. It's a life I never could have afforded otherwise. Who could afford it?"
Over the years, any famous face who passed through Houston made it into her column and often became her friend.
Unlike today, when a superstar does a one-night stand and moves on to another city, the nation's top performers in the 1950s would stay in Houston for two weeks or longer while performing nightly at the Shamrock Hotel's Cork Club.
"Frank Sinatra would come here for two weeks, Rita Hayworth would come with (singer) Dick Haymes, and we would meet them on their day off," Mesinger once recalled. "I'd have them over to my lousy little apartment and have one pound of hamburger meat, a lot of spaghetti, garlic bread and Chianti."
In her own inimitable way, Mesinger also pushed for equal rights for blacks. Long before civil rights laws were passed in the mid-1960s, Mesinger broke the color barrier at the Cork Club when she invited entertainer Pearl Bailey to sit down as her guest.
Lewis warned her not to pull out a notepad or try to take photos of Sinatra. But as her deadline approached, Mesinger called Sinatra's room and told him her plight.
"I said I could list three possibilities: Kill myself, resign my job and/or get his help," she recalled.
Sinatra replied, "Anything you want, baby."
She got her photo and story.
In the heyday of the Rat Pack -- Sinatra, Martin, Davis, MacLaine -- Mesinger made frequent visits to Las Vegas. She traveled the world to record the openings of Hilton hotels and regularly visited on assignment such glamour spots as Venice and London.
Mesinger took her job seriously. For much of her career, she wrote a grueling six columns a week. She only grudgingly reduced her workload to four columns a week, then three as her health faltered.
In recent years, Mesinger was confined to a wheelchair. For a long time, she didn't write about her illness and when she did, she did in a straightforward way and then moved on to other topics.
In a July 1996 column about how Elizabeth Taylor dropped by her hotel room for a chat, Mesinger wrote, "I'm not very agile these days due to multiple sclerosis. Some of MS's effects definitely were showing, and to greet a guest like Elizabeth should have been horrible. But Elizabeth certainly had had her share of serious illnesses in her lifetime, so if anyone could understand my position that day, it was she."
Once the word was out, Mesinger lent her name to a fund-raiser for MS. She was honored at a series of "Dinner of Champions" events that raised almost $2 million for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Friends say such largess was not unusual. As a close friend of actor Rock Hudson, she was among the first notables in Houston to sign on nationally in the fight against AIDS.
She organized lavish fund-raisers for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR).
Even as her illness worsened, she continued to write her column. While she was hospitalized, an extra phone line was put in her room and she happily typed away. She loved writing the column so much that she joked to friends she would quit only "when they pry my fingers off the keyboard."
A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Monday at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons, 1010 Bering Dr. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the MS Society or AmFAR.
Survivors include her husband, Emil Messinger; daughter, Julianne Mesinger Haas, and son-in-law, ThomasHaas, of Amelia Island, Fla.; son, Jay Monroe Mesinger, and daughter-in-law, Sandra Goldstein Mesinger, of Boulder, Colo.; and seven grandchildren. The grandchildren are T. Jason Haas and his wife, Jennifer J. Haas, of Austin; Liza Maxine Haas of Amelia Island, Fla.; Kurt Emil Haas and Adam David Mesinger, both of New York; and Joshua Matthew Mesinger, Jessica Lauren Goldstein and Hillary Beth Goldstein, all of Boulder, Colo.
Mesinger's columns from recent years are available online at www.houstonchronicle.com/maxine. Remembrances and condolences may be sent to maxinechron.com.
Distributed by The Associated Press (AP)