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Lloyd Shearer; Leader of the 'Personality Parade'

May 26, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lloyd Shearer, who wrote the popular "Personality Parade" column in Parade magazine for three decades under the nom de plume of Walter Scott, died Thursday at his Los Angeles home after a heart attack. He was 83.

Spoken of in awed tones by Pulitzer Prize winners and Washington politicos, Shearer originated the question-and-answer column that is considered a Sunday morning must-read by millions. He wrote it every week for 33 years, stopping in 1991 when Parkinson's disease made it too difficult for him to continue.

The column tried to satisfy a nation's curiosity about its public figures, titillating and informing on such matters as whether Elvis Presley wore a girdle (no), why Jackie Kennedy Onassis preferred pants to skirts (bowlegs) and whether Raquel Welch had her fanny reconfigured (no).

Every column also delved into weightier matters, such as why Executive Order 9066 was called the shame of the nation (it ordered the internment of Japanese Americans and nationals during World War II without proof of their disloyalty) and whether Stokely Carmichael was ever a Communist (no, but he often sounded like one).

It may have been the most widely read column in the country. Parade, a colorful supplement found inside 350 Sunday newspapers, has the largest national distribution any magazine, reaching as many as 75 million readers every week. "Walter Scott's Personality Parade" comes first in the lineup, occupying prime space on the inside cover. Now written by Edward Klein, a former New York Times Magazine editor, it remains Parade's most popular feature.

Shearer wrote about such celebrities as Presley and Jerry Lewis before they became household names. He wrote--in 1973--that Ronald Reagan would become president. The romances of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, and of Jackie Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis? Shearer had the news first.

His phone calls were returned by the likes of Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader. Although he often disagreed with his politics, he got so chummy with Henry Kissinger that he could play practical jokes on the former secretary of State, sending his office photographs of starlets inscribed with messages like "Thanks for the wonderful night in Oxnard."

"He told me my father was the only one who could play a joke on him," Shearer's son, Derek, the ambassador to Finland in the Clinton administration, said of Kissinger.

His network of sources included Hollywood secretaries and the wives of the rich and famous, whom Shearer made a point of befriending. Those relationships often proved invaluable, such as during the military buildup in Vietnam in the 1960s when Margaret McNamara, wife of the Defense secretary, called him nightly to confide the travails the war was causing in her own family. Richard Nixon was said to have been a loyal reader.

Walter Anderson, who was Parade editor for 20 years before becoming its publisher, said Shearer deserved all the credit for the column's success.

"He had an innate talent for understanding what people are interested in . . . a genius for popular culture," Anderson said. "And he worked at it. Besides having creativity, intelligence and incredible curiosity, he worked hard, seven days a week, 365 days a year. No Rolodex in the world is more valuable than Lloyd's."

The son of Austrian immigrants, Shearer grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New York City, where his father worked as a typesetter. He began writing in high school and majored in English at the University of North Carolina, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1936.

His first reporting job, at the Durham, N.C., Sun, was interrupted by conscription into the Army just before the outbreak of World War II. He became part of the original staff of Yank, the World War II military magazine that made pinups famous.

Near the war's end he transferred to Los Angeles to cover the Pacific Theater for Armed Forces Radio. He later became an in-Army correspondent for the New York Times. He gained some notoriety as the star of a popular book, "See Here Private Hargrove." After the war, he wrote regularly for the New York Times Magazine and Reader's Digest.

In 1957 he wrote a series of personality profiles for Parade that elicited a flood of queries from readers: Was Katharine Hepburn living out of wedlock with Spencer Tracy? Did Gen. MacArthur really hate Gen. Eisenhower? Did author Sinclair Lewis drink too much?

He suggested to Jess Gorkin, then editor of Parade, that the magazine start a column "devoted to separating fact from fiction, truth from rumor," Shearer recalled in the foreword to a 1995 compilation of columns, "The Best of Walter Scott's Personality Parade." The purpose was to "tell, if legally tellable, what the readers wanted to know and apparently could not find out elsewhere."

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