In December 2003, widespread celebrations marked the centennial of the maiden voyage of Wilbur and Orville Wright's flying machine. Yet few seem to have taken note of this month's centenary in the history of aviation: the anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first successful flights to be witnessed by the news media. And yes, there is at least a slight Nashville connection.
Only a few journalists were on the beach at Kitty Hawk when the Wrights tried out their latest model in May 1908. One of them was a cub reporter and graduate of Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy named Fred Essary.
The dispatches he filed as a freelancer met with skepticism from some of the editors he approached — after all, the New York Herald Tribune had run a skeptical feature on the Wrights under the headline "Flyers or Liars?" The public had seen little proof that the supposed 1903 flights, or any others since, had really taken place.
On May 9, the Baltimore Sun carried a story from Essary proclaiming that the Wrights were able to fly "forty miles an hour with a new aerial engine of war." He did his best to describe their contraption:
"They have built their machine after the principle that enables a bird to fly, but it looks nothing whatever like a bird. The main body of the machine is in the form of a long box, the sides and ends of which are entirely open but for light uprights and guy wires. Each end of this box may be said to form a wing, the ends of which are movable somewhat after the manner of a bird’s as the bird soars."
Though Jesse Frederick Essary was born in Washburn, Tenn., north of Knoxville, in 1881, he was in Nashville attending MBA by 1897. He graduated in 1899 and attended Emory and Henry College before entering the newspaper trade.
The Wright Brothers scoop didn't make Essary famous. The stories ran without bylines; reporters rarely saw their names in print at the time. But the Wright stuff probably helped Essary move on within the next couple of years to become Washington correspondent for a series of papers, finally settling into that role for the Sun in 1912.
At the Baltimore daily, Essary became the prototype for the Washington-insider-gumshoe-reporter image embodied later by the likes of Drew Pearson, Scotty Reston and Helen Thomas. He covered presidential administrations from Taft to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cultivating insider sources in each one and breaking one big political story after another.
Essary shadowed Woodrow Wilson throughout the European travels and negotiations that led up to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. He became a confidant of Wilson and his successors in the White House, though he also had public face-offs with FDR. Even so, the Washington Post later reported that "President Roosevelt came to know Essary so well that he could recognize his deep baritone at crowded White House press conferences and would call him by name even when he could not see him."
As president of the National Press Club and the exclusive Gridiron Club, Essary became widely known as a senior figure in the Capitol Hill press corps. He was an A-lister in D.C.'s social set and was much in demand as a speaker for organizations that wanted an insider's glimpse at the corridors of power.
"I wish that straight news — legitimate news — were the only product which proceeds from Washington," Essary told Time in 1925. "But I know that it is not, just as you know it. The Capital is the great germinator of gossip and of scandalous whisperings regarding the great and the near-great."
Essary retired as the Sun's bureau chief in late 1941, remaining as a correspondent. He dropped dead in his Washington office on March 11, 1942, aged 60.
Roosevelt sent personal condolences to the widow, while Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a Tennessean, wrote to her that “Fred and I were close personal friends for 35 years.” Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley paid tribute to him on the Senate floor. Colleague H.L. Mencken was among the active pallbearers.
"It was not even because his career as Washington correspondent extended over nine administrations that he was called 'the Dean' by his colleagues," the Post editorialized upon Essary's demise. "The term was primarily one of affection and respect pinned onto him by younger men who looked up to him as a friend and guide and an exemplar of what a Washington correspondent ought to be."
Birthdays of note this week:
Each week, this column is made freely available to NashvillePost.com subscribers and non-subscribers alike. If you would like to be alerted by e-mail as each new edition is published, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org . Your personal information will not be shared with any outside entity.
"Nashville now and then " from the second week of May 2007:
The Tennessean's beginnings in May 1907, signs of change on two fronts in May 1879, and the desegregation of Nashville's police force in May 1948