Lowell Mellett · 2013
A key figure in Washington, D.C., during World War II as part President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, Lowell Mellett was a respected and acclaimed figure in journalism for most of his life.
He said his interest in public affairs came from holding a torch for Grover Cleveland at Democratic Party rallies and for Benjamin Harrison at GOP rallies. “It was a practical interest,” he said, “since a boy could keep the torch if he was thoughtful enough to drop out of the parade before it reached the finish line.”
Born on Feb. 22, 1884, in Elwood, Ind., Lowell was one of seven sons raised by Jesse, a teacher and editor and publisher of the Elwood Free Press, and his wife, Margaret (Ring) Mellett. Each of the seven sons was connected in one way or the other with journalism or public relations, and Don, inducted in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame in 1969, gave his life for the profession as a crusading editor of the Canton (Ohio) Daily News. He was gunned down at his home by an assailant on July 16, 1926.
According to his brother John, Lowell’s first “job” in newspapers was delivering copies of the Muncie Herald “on a route through the west side, including the office of the Eastern Indiana Normal University (now Ball State).”
At the age of 16, Lowell became the high school correspondent for the Muncie Star and in 1900 covered the Democratic National Convention in Kansas City that nominated William Jennings Bryan as its presidential candidate. Mellett never missed another national convention. He said the greatest part of his political education came from his time in journalism, noting that his career carried him “all the way from coverage of small town local affairs up through county, state and national politics and a few years of similar activity in Europe.”
During his career, Mellett worked for the Indianapolis Sentinel and Indianapolis News before taking a position with the Seattle Sun in 1913. While in Seattle, he met Roy Howard, head of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, who got him a job as secretary to Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In 1914 Mellett married Berthe Knatvold, a feature writer for newspapers in Tacoma, Wash. The couple had a daughter, Anne.
After jobs with the Cincinnati Post and New York Evening World, Mellett in 1915 took charge of the Scripps-Howard news bureau in Washington, D.C. He covered the French and British armies in World War I, and reported on the peace conference at Versailles before returning home in 1920 to become managing editor of Collier’s Weekly and editor of the Washington Daily News, a position he held from 1925 to 1937.
“His humanitarianism guided every story and policy always,” said John T. O’Rourke, who succeeded him as editor, “and he imparted to all of us who worked with him a sense of responsibility which every reporter and sub-editor should have.”
In 1937 Mellett, who supported the New Deal programs of President Roosevelt’s administration, quit his job at the Daily News to become head of the National Emergency Council, a central information bureau charged with conveying to the public information about the growing number of government agencies. With the Council’s abolishment in 1939, Roosevelt appointed Mellett to head the Office of Government Reports, where he checked newspapers, polled the public, and provided information to the public and Congress. Congressional opponents of the New Deal soon took to calling the agency “Mellett’s madhouse.”
Roosevelt called Mellett “a general handy man,” and during World War II the Hoosier reporter also became part of what was known as the president’s “secret six.” According to an Associated Press reporter, these were men in the government who, for a $10,000 a year salary, assembled and analyzed “the mass of information Mr. Roosevelt needs for his many decisions.” The AP reporter said of Mellett: “He is smooth, scholarly, has countless friends, can get as politely indignant as Cordell Hull [Roosevelt’s Secretary of State] if he gets roughed up.”
Another reporter marveled at Mellett’s understated influence with the administration. George Durno of the International News Service noted that although Mellett did not travel with Roosevelt on the president’s successful try for a third term in office in 1940, his voice was still heard in policy matters. “He [Mellett] swings in and out of the White House quietly,” wrote Durno, “never discussing his frequent sessions with the chief executive.”
Mellett holds the historic distinction of being part of the first private presidential conversation to be tape recorded in the Oval Office — a discussion of Roosevelt’s 1940 re-election campaign.
In 1942 Mellett took charge of the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures. In appointing him, Roosevelt wrote “The American motion picture is one of the most effective mediums in informing and entertaining our citizens. The motion picture must remain free in so far as national security will permit. I want no censorship of the motion picture.” The bureau is best known for its production of the Why We Fight documentary film series, which was directed by legendary Hollywood film director Frank Capra and featured actor Walter Huston’s narration.
In March 1944 Mellett resigned from his government work to return to journalism, writing a column, titled “On the Other Hand,” for the Washington Star (the column was later distributed nationally by the Bell Syndicate). Mellett said he returned to his writing career out of “an urgent sense of danger.” Noting the chaos caused by the war, he said the world was being broken into pieces. “The intelligence exists to assure a better world,” Mellett said, “but, in addition to intelligence, we must have good will. I want to work for good will.”
Mellett wrote his column until ill health forced him to quit in 1956. After a long illness, he died at 76 on April 6, 1960. Upon his death, J. Russell Wiggins, executive editor of the Washington Post, lauded him as “one of the great newspapermen of the country and of Washington. He was a gifted writer and a brilliant editor whose work will long be remembered in his profession.”
By Ray E. Boomhower, senior editor at the Indiana Historical Society Press and manages the IHS’s quarterly popular history magazine, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History.