Diana McLellan, who died June 25 at 76, was a self-described “jolly pariah” whose Washington gossip column the Ear became a puckish, first-read chronicle of social news and intrigue in the 1970s and 1980s.
She mock-lamented the foibles of public officials (“Where are standards?”). She detailed who was going “wok shopping” (getting married) or “expecting more than the mailman” (pregnant).
She coyly alluded to extramarital dalliances sometimes under the very nose (or coats) of chic partygoers. “It is very poor form in Washington,” she wrote, “to use your host’s bed for any purpose other than storing outer clothing.”
Washington — the city where hostess Alice Roosevelt Longworth popularized the quip, “If you haven’t anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me” — has long been a free-trade zone of rumor. In the 1960s, The Washington Post’s Maxine Cheshire brought an investigative zeal to the gossip trade, while the Washington Star’s genteel Betty Beale scouted human-interest items in the lives of the black tie and champagne set.
Into this mix came the British-born McLellan, who wrote gossip in the 1970s and 1980s, first for the Star, then for The Post (where she narrowly avoided libel action from President Jimmy Carter) and finally at the Washington Times.
Chuck Conconi, a former editor at Washingtonian magazine who for seven years wrote a gossip and celebrity column in The Post, described McLellan as “the best of any of us. She wrote a smart, sassy little column that had this effervescence of British humor.”
The Ear began in 1975 — around the same time People magazine launched — to satisfy the appetite for celebrity news presented with a droll touch. Conconi said McLellan developed a “flippant” writing style that drew readers into a Washington social orbit that otherwise seemed irrelevant to their lives.
“She wasn’t arch, she wasn’t mean,” Conconi said, “but she was clever.”
Her path to journalism was circuitous. She was a former “poodle portraitist,” dress designer and telephone operator who landed by 1970 in the classified advertising department of the Star. She then worked in promotions for the afternoon daily before parlaying freelance articles into a writing assignment in the society and home pages.
Once the city’s dominant paper, the Star was rapidly losing subscribers as The Post rose in prominence during the Watergate scandal that led President Richard M. Nixon to resign in 1974.
The next year, top Star editor James Bellows tapped McLellan to start a “tongue-in-cheek” gossip column — a journalistic staple in New York and Hollywood — in a bid to boost readership.
Initially, he recalled in his memoir, McLellan begged off.
“Mr. Bellows, gossip isn’t very nice,” she protested. “It’s tacky and tawdry. There would be a public outcry. People would cancel their subscriptions. It would inflict pain. There’s nothing you can say that would make me write a gossip column.”
Bellows: “We begin next Monday.”
McLellan: “I’ll get on the phone.”
The column was dubbed the Ear and was syndicated to dozens of newspapers. It helped the Star achieve a 6 percent circulation gain in the first year, Time reported, and proved so popular that The Post soon tried to copy the Ear with a short-lived Style-section feature called the Gossip Column. (The Post’s Reliable Source personality and gossip column did not start until 1992.)
McLellan “did not make a fetish of checking out fully every little nugget that came her way,” as onetime Star political columnist Jack Germond put it. She freely admitted that she had a terrible memory for names and information. Her mischievous, nonchalant tone made the column a hit as she chronicled the “glamorosos, biggies, the Fairly Divine” of Washington high life.
She ribbed The Post as the “Other Paper,” or “O.P.,” and zestfully followed the personal life of Ben Bradlee, The Post’s executive editor, and his future wife, journalist Sally Quinn (“the Fun Couple”). Like others who became fodder for the column, Bradlee and Quinn received in the mail a goldplated ear-shaped pin.
The Ear was “highly unprofessional and highly readable,” Bradlee told Time in 1976. Once, when Bellows asked Bradlee for a favor, Bradlee reportedly agreed on the condition that he and Quinn not appear in the Ear for a month.
Yet when the Star folded in August 1981, Bradlee told an interviewer about McLellan, “We hope she comes over. Tell her to call me and put me out of my misery.”
In the Ear’s formative years, The Post was not its only target. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was “Henry the K,” and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Massachusetts was “Teddy K.” McLellan printed divorce news and used innuendo to report on rumored infidelities, although she once said, “I don’t think I should be the first person to let someone know her husband is having an affair.”
She poked fun at perceived slights. When she was left off a White House party list, she wrote that “Ear’s invitation got lost in the mail, again.”
She disliked attending parties — “the toady circuit,” she termed it — and preferred to gather details over the phone. One bash she bashed was for King Hassan of Morocco. The monarch was a no-show. Attendees were further irked, she wrote, to discover “that romantic word [on the invitation] something like ‘Casbah’ actually turned out to be ‘Cash Bar.’ ”
When standards in her column fell short, McLellan summoned “the grovel.” Once, at the Star, she noted a “D. Acheson” on a party guest list and erroneously reported in her column the attendance of statesman Dean Acheson.
In her apology to readers, she wrote that “Ear writhed with anguish to learn that Dean Acheson, whom it had listed among Terrifics whooping it up at a divine party recently, is a teensy bit dead, and has been for ages.”
Her most infamous debacle happened at The Post, in an Oct. 5, 1981, column promising a “hot new twist” on the “tired old tale” of inauguration tensions earlier that year between the incoming Reagans and the outgoing Carters.
She accused Jimmy Carter of “bugging” Blair House, the presidential guest quarters, and illegally eavesdropping on the Reagans, who were staying there. McLellan said she had sources confirming the story, but she did not seek comment from Carter. Post lawyers and editors had seen the story before it ran.
Carter threatened to sue The Post for libel and demanded a retraction and public apology, which the paper issued after printing an editorial calling the bugging rumor “utterly impossible to believe.”
About a year after she joined The Post, McLellan left for the new Washington Times and wrote a column called “Diana Hears” until 1985. (The Post copyrighted the Ear but did not revive it.)
In her final Times column, before announcing she would pursue magazine writing and other endeavors, she offered tips for a career trafficking in Washington gossip:
— “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.”
— “Don’t get too serious. You ain’t gonna get the Pulitzer Prize.”
— “Spelling people’s names wrong sometimes helps keep them humble. (Does not work in Zbigniew Brzezinski.)”
— “If you make a horrible mistake, grovel. Nobody’s perfect.”
Diana Blanche Dicken was born Sept. 22, 1937, in Leicester, England. Her father was a British military officer who became a defense attache in Washington in 1957, and she accompanied him to the city.
Her first marriage, to Robin Bull, ended in divorce. In 1963, she wed Richard X. McLellan Jr. Besides her husband, of Easton, Md., survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Fiona Weeks of Easton, Md.; a sister; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
McLellan died at her daughter’s home of cancer, said her daughter.
In her post-column years, McLellan wrote for magazines such as Washingtonian and Ladies’ Home Journal. Her books included “Ear on Washington” (1982), “The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood” (2000), which explored the lesbian scene in the film capital during the 1930s and ’40s, and “Making Hay” (2012), a poetry collection.
McLellan once offered advice for those hoping to stay out of the news: Do whatever you want in August.
“August is when congressmen go away and drop one wife and marry another, when people build additions to their houses that other people don’t want built, when shops in Georgetown turn into porno shops,” she once told the reference guide Contemporary Authors.
“It is sort of the Mardi Gras of Washington,” she added, “when everybody gets away with everything. The Senate is out, the House is out, the Supreme Court is out, and the White House people are usually away. So the gossip columnists go away too.”