Anne Morrissy Merick, who as a television field producer persuaded the Pentagon to overturn an edict that prevented women in the press corps from covering combat during the Vietnam War, died on May 2 in Naples, Fla. She was 83.
Her daughter, Katherine Anne Engelke, said the cause was complications of dementia.
Even as a college student, Ms. Morrissy Merick began blazing trails for women. She was the first woman to be named sports editor of The Cornell Daily Sun and the first woman admitted to the press box at the Yale Bowl.
In Vietnam, Ms. Morrissy Merick was working in Saigon for ABC News in 1967 when Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the United States commander there, was horrified to encounter Denby Fawcett, a 24-year-old reporter for The Honolulu Advertiser, embedded with American troops on a dangerous mission in the Central Highlands. Ms. Fawcett’s mother was a friend of the general’s wife.
Fearing for their safety, General Westmoreland barred female journalists from remaining overnight on the battlefield.
In effect, his order handicapped them from covering combat, because in a guerrilla war, the front could materialize suddenly anywhere and there was no assurance that journalists could be evacuated quickly.
(As it turned out, Ms. Morrissy Merick’s only war wound was a monkey bite, inflicted by a soldier’s mascot.)
In response to the Westmoreland order, Ms. Morrissy Merick and Ann Bryan Mariano, an editor of Overseas Weekly, organized the half-dozen other women covering the war to join them in meeting with Phil G. Goulding, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who was in Saigon, the South Vietnam capital (now Ho Chi Minh City).
After an inconclusive meeting, he and Ms. Morrissy Merick adjourned for drinks in her hotel room, where she persuaded him to have Westmoreland’s edict reversed. (“And if you’re wondering if I slept with him, the answer is no!” she wrote in “War Torn: The Personal Experiences of Women Reporters in the Vietnam War,” a collection of remembrances published in 2002.)
Ms. Morrissy Merick argued that giving her access to the battlefield would enable her to produce the kind of in-depth reporting that she found lacking in daily television coverage, in which “the war was just chopped into little pieces of bang-bang every night for dinner entertainment,” as she was quoted saying in Joyce Hoffmann’s book “On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam” (2008).
“My objective was to get ‘the story behind the story, not only what these men did but how they felt about it,’” Ms. Morrissy Merick said.
The Westmoreland order and its reversal were not widely reported at the time, but the journalistic precedents she set as a student at Cornell University in 1954 did make headlines across the country.
As Anne Morrissy, she defeated three male students that spring to be elected the first female sports editor in the history of The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper, which was founded in 1880. (Its editor in chief at the time was Dick Schaap, who would become an accomplished sportswriter.)
On Oct. 16, 1954, after having been admitted to the press box at Cornell’s football stadium, she overturned another hoary tradition. Traveling to New Haven for a Big Red away game, she became the first woman credentialed to sit in the press box at the Yale Bowl.
She was seated next to Allison Danzig of The New York Times, and her photograph appeared in The Times the next day with his article on the undefeated Elis’ 47-21 victory.
For the most part, her milestone at The Sun and her giant step for womankind in integrating the Yale football press box were greeted with condescension by the male-dominated profession.
Misspelling her surname, the syndicated columnist Red Smith wrote in The New York Herald Tribune, “Miss Morrisy is a slick little chick whose name probably will be linked in history with those of other crusading cupcakes such as Lady Godiva, Susan B. Anthony, Lydia Pinkham and Mrs. Amelia Bloomer.”
He continued, “The first sportswriting doll to thrust her shapely foot through the door of an Ivy League press coop, she has breached the last bastion of masculinity left standing this side of the shower room.”
In an editorial, The Chicago Tribune wrote that Ms. Morrissy might bring a fresh viewpoint to sports coverage, as a woman and as a philosophy major.
“She can explain Cornell’s victories and defeats in terms of the categorical imperative, the Platonic doctrine of ideas, or the pessimism of Schopenhauer, holding that the will is an irrational form in conflict with the intellect,” the Tribune said. “Or she can write a fashion review, giving a description of the costuming in Dartmouth green or Harvard Crimson, and what accessories the athletes carried.”
She had earlier covered varsity crew, swimming and even intramural horseshoes for The Sun, agreeing to take sports assignments that her male colleagues had spurned. That left her at a disadvantage when, as The Sun’s sports editor, she entered the Yale Bowl press box.
“In my excitement over the opportunity to sit in the press box,” she wrote in The Boston Globe. “I had forgotten to learn anything about football.”“To me, the hardest part of covering football is being able to keep your eye on the ball,” she added, “and I consistently found myself watching the wrong person.”
Anne Louise Morrissy was born on Oct. 28, 1933, in Manhattan to John Morrissy, an advertising executive with Time Life, and the former Katherine Harriett McKay, who had been an actress.
After graduating from Cornell in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, she toured Europe and became sports editor of the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune. She was on assignment in Syria for an Israeli newspaper when she was arrested as a spy and deported.
Hired by ABC as a producer in 1961, she covered the civil rights movement, presidential primaries and spaceflights. Posted to Vietnam later in the ’60s, she remained there until 1973.
By then, she had married Wendell S. Merick, a U.S. News and World Report correspondent whom she had met in Vietnam, and had a daughter with him. The family moved when the magazine closed its Saigon bureau. He died in 1988.
She later married Dr. Don S. Janicek, a physician, who died in 2016. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a sister, Katherine Hemion; four stepchildren, Larry, Steve and Nancy Janicek and Julie Janicek-Wilkey; four granddaughters; and 13 step-grandchildren.
“From the many articles I have read about her,” her daughter, Ms. Engelke, wrote of her 5-foot-2 mother in an email, “it sounds like she was happy to play up her cute, attractive spunkiness in order to get a foot in the door, and then she walloped them with her knowledge and ability to ask good questions.”
It is unclear why Yale relented and allowed Ms. Morrissy Merick into the press box that day in 1954 (perhaps because of her imprimatur not only as a reporter but also as an editor), and its decision was not immediately transformative: A few weeks later, Faye Loyd of United Press was barred, and in succeeding years, few women were assigned or chose to cover sports.
But for Ms. Morrissy Merick, it may have been an epiphany.
“I think the whole Yale press box thing was a big deal,” Ms. Engelke said. “That really set her up to not be afraid to do the job of a man.”