Everybody in the country goes to bed with Johnny Carson—I go to bed with Walter Cronkite,” says TV reporter Lesley Stahl about her hours since she was promoted to Washington anchor of the CBS Morning News. The new job makes Lesley, 35, the second anchor-woman in the history of the male-dominated CBS News. The first was snippy Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn, who bombed in 1973 after six nerve-frazzling months. Quinn blames her failure in large part on a hostile profile in New York magazine written by journalist Aaron Latham. Ironically, Latham is now Lesley Stahl’s husband.
Of course, the Quinn drubbing came before Latham, 34, and now an editor of Esquire, had met Lesley. That happened in August 1973 when Aaron was scrounging for Watergate anecdotes and was advised to contact Stahl, then a CBS rookie covering the story. Lesley was not thrilled at the request. ” ‘How dare you call me at home? If you want to talk, call me tomorrow at the office,’ she barked, and then slammed down the phone,” Aaron recalls. Dutifully he obeyed, and they agreed to meet the next afternoon. “I said, my God, I’d better turn on the TV to see what this person looks like,” he remembers. He did and “was terrified. I thought, ‘She’s so beautiful.’ My heart stopped, my mouth dried up and I said, ‘What have I got myself into?’ ” Meanwhile Lesley had checked out Latham’s credentials and to his surprise suggested dinner. “I found out I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I could talk,” he laughs, “because I never got the chance.” “Oooh, cruel,” Lesley moans.
Latham soon became New York’s Watergate reporter, and for over a year the two of them dined together and talked shop whenever he came to Washington. Their private lives, however, never meshed. Aaron had a live-in lady in New York and Lesley dated many men, including Bob Woodward and then recently divorced Sen. Robert Dole, Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1976. “The most personal thing we said to each other that year was, ‘Do you think Nixon will resign?’ ” reveals Latham. When Nixon quit, “We didn’t have anything else to talk about,” Lesley remembers. “Suddenly we started seeing something different from what we had been seeing—almost like the old story of the boss who marries his secretary after 35 years.”
Gradually Aaron moved his things into her Watergate apartment, and last Christmas Lesley became pregnant. She decided to have the baby, and in February they had a low-key wedding. “I wouldn’t have a child without being married,” says Lesley. She stayed on the job up to the day before she gave birth in September to a daughter, Taylor, and returned to work after six weeks. During her pregnancy, “They weren’t easy on me,” she says of CBS. “I had the Korean scandal, which meant stakeouts on my feet.” Lesley credits her mother with having talked her into having the baby—”She said it would be a big mistake not to experience a child. Now I agree.”
Stahl grew up in Swampscott, Mass. with a younger brother. Their father is a wealthy Jewish food company executive, their mother an unproduced screenwriter. After graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., Lesley went on to graduate studies in zoology at Columbia to become a doctor. Instead she ended up marrying one. After three years they divorced, and she focused on her career. First she worked as a researcher on Mayor John Lindsay’s speech-writing staff (she got her job through the New York Times). In 1967 she joined the NBC election unit as a researcher. Finally she became a producer and reporter at Boston’s WHDH-TV. When the station changed management she was picked up by CBS, moved to Washington and assigned to the Watergate break-in at its beginning. Stahl soon was known as a fierce competitor. “Lesley had the reputation,” reveals a friend, “of scratching your eyes out to get to a phone booth and get her story in first.”
Latham, born in the tiny town of Spur, is from a long line of west Texas Methodists. His father (“who looks like a cactus,” cracks a writer friend) was a high school football coach, and his mother taught grammar school. At 15 Aaron had ambitions of being a football star until he lost a kidney severely bruised in practice. A bright student, he was recruited by Amherst, became editor of its newspaper and graduated in 1966.
He went to Princeton for his Ph.D., where his dissertation was published as Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. The next four years he worked at the Washington Post (where one of his friends was Sally Quinn) as the in-house radical reporter covering the peace movement. “Friends leading the marches thought I was a total sellout for working for an Establishment newspaper,” he says. “Most have since called me to see if I know where they can get a job.” Later, while at New York, he wrote his first novel, Orchids for Mother, a roman à clef about the CIA and the early stages of his relationship with Lesley.
Home for the Lathams is a $180,000 penthouse condominium near Georgetown, overlooking Glover Park. A nurse cares for Taylor, since Lesley gets up at 3 a.m. and reaches the studio by 4. After skimming the papers and consulting with the producer, she writes her script, makes up (she’s neither coiffed nor clothed by the network) and is on the air at 7. Besides Stahl, CBS is substituting another new face, reporter Richard Threlkeld, 39, for longtime New York Morning News anchor Hughes Rudd, 56. Rudd will continue to appear on the show with a daily essay.
Aaron spends five days a month at Esquire in New York, the rest back home working on his second novel and reading Trollope and Homer. Despite Lesley’s $60,000-or-so salary, there’s no professional jealousy—over money, at least. Celebrity recognition could have been another matter, however. After Lesley co-anchored the 1974 elections, she walked down Fifth Avenue with Aaron, expecting people to notice her. No one did. The farther they walked the cheerier Aaron got. “If anyone had recognized me,” she now laughs, “I would have asked for their autograph!”
The Lathams’ friends are a journalistic crowd, including CBS correspondent Fred Graham and his wife, Lucille, Gail Sheehy (Passages) and Esquire publisher Clay Felker, Bob Woodward and Francie Barnard, Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, and Richard Reeves. Obviously Sally Quinn is no longer a friend and though she admires Lesley, she won’t forgive Aaron for his article (“It was the most hurtful thing he has ever done, because he was a friend”). Latham is remorseful, but insists he “didn’t say she slept her way to the top—as everyone implies.”
For the most part, the tailored, self-assured Stahl is the perfect foil for Latham, who still looks like a rumpled campus radical. “East meets West,” says Latham of their differences, gesturing toward the sketch over their bed—Mickey Mouse in flagrante delicto with Marilyn Monroe.