Dorothy Fuldheim, News Commentator and Author, 18931989


It’s unlikely that Dorothy Fuldheim’s career as a broadcast journalist will ever be matched for longevity. By the time of her retirement in 1984 at the age of 91, she had been a nightly presence on television screenand before that a respected radio commentatorfor an unbroken span of 47 years. As WEWS-TV Channel 5’s resident news analyst (and top guest interviewer on the Cleveland station’s noontime news program), she offered a thoughtful nightly commentary on life, death and every aspect of human endeavor in between.

To put that accomplishment in clearer perspective, consider this: Fuldheim (born Dorothy Violet Schnell in 1893 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—Fuldheim was her first husband’s name*) got her first job in television at the age of 54 after careers as a country school teacher; a little-theater actress whose finest hour came as Juliet in an outdoor production in Milwaukee; a book reviewer; an immensely successful lecturer (who, even in her 80s, proudly asserted that she could still have audiences “eating out of my hand within five minutes”); and a radio commentator. In her Biography series, which ran for two years on ABC's radio network, she used her dramatic training to recreate the thoughts and voices of more than 100 headline-makers of yore, including Marie Antoinette, Rasputin, Cleopatra, George Washington and Lenin.

In 1947, Fuldheim was hired away from radio by WEWS to do news commentary. More than three-and-a- half decades later, she was still the only female TV news analyst in the country. A press release the station used in her later years to promote their premier ratings booster only hints at the breadth of her journalistic experiences, which included a prescient 1937 interview with Adolf Hitler. (“He carried a riding whip and every so often struck it against his boots." “He was the circus trainer and the world was to jump through the hoops at his command.”) The enterprising and intrepid “redhead” also went one-on-one with the Duke of Windsor; Beatrice Lilly; John, Robert and Ted Kennedy; James Hoffa; historian Arnold Toynbee; Madame Chiang Kai-shek; Willy Brandt; Helen Keller; and Muhammad Ali.

Fuldheim landed an exclusive interview with the first brainwashed American prisoners released by Red China. She dodged bullets in Israel at the outbreak of the Sinai campaign and tore her suit on barbed wire in Cyprus. But then, Fuldheim had survived the riots of the Nazi Brown Shirts and been shot at during Palestine’s war of independence. (In 1981, at the age of 87, she went overseas on assignment three times.)

In between her world travels, Fuldheim found time to write four books; marry twice; raise a daughter (Dorothy Fuldheim Jr., a distinguished professor at Case Western Reserve University whose death in 1980 came as a crushing blow to her mother) and a granddaughter; produce her commentaries; and work the after-dinner lecture circuit, where Fuldheim, working sans note cards, remained a popular and sought-after speaker. After her first appearance on the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson sent her flowers and immediately invited her back. Barbara Walters called Fuldheim “the first woman to be taken seriously doing the news.”

Locally, however, she was best known as the woman who within one month in 1970 threw Yippie Jerry Rubin off her show (“He was vulgar; I have an elegance of spirit. I don’t want any vulgarity on my show”) and denounced the Kent State shootings as “murder.” (“I find myself always seeing the underdog’s agony," she later reflected, in a 1982 Northern Ohio Live magazine interview with editor Diana Tittle, “I see the other side’s reason, but I guess the agony distresses me more.”) The first action brought her candy, flowers and wine; the second, a pile of outraged letters.

Given her national stature (she told Larry King in 1982 that she had turned down offers from the national networks out of loyalty to WEWS station manager Don Perris) and the flamboyance of her on-air personality, fans were often surprised to discover that she was a diminutive woman. However, dressed in a simple coral sheath with “good shoulders,” one of her trademark jeweled rings bedecking her hand, said Tittle, Fuldheim was a commanding presence. She could knock you for a loop with a bold declaration: “I think some of the stuff that’s broadcast is rubbish. Why do you have to see every fire? Why do you have to see a dead body?”

But her indignation was kindled to white heat when members of the Ohio National Guard shot four students in 1970 during an anti-war protest at nearby Kent State University. “And who gave the National Guard the bullets? Who ordered the use of them? Since when do we shoot our own children?,” she raged, unable to hold back the tears. The station’s switchboard lit up with hundreds of phone calls, followed by thousands of letters, from irate viewers who thought the governor and Guard had been in the right. Shaken, Fuldheim offered to resign; but Perris stood by her.

She was still doing commentaries and interviews when she turned 91 and the first of two strokes ended her career in broadcasting, but she would live another five years with the tender ministrations of her legal guardian, Sam Miller, and other friends. (“Why didn’t God take me?” she had anguished, after the death of her beloved daughter a decade earlier. “Dorothy,” said her long-time director and friend Yvonne Breslin, attempting to comfort her, “God isn’t ready for you yet.” “No one is ready for me,” said Dorothy Fuldheim.) A sampling of her feistiness and her passion about many issues is preserved in her books: I Laughed, I Cried, I Loved: A News Analyst’s Love Affair with the World (World Publishing, 1966), Where Were the Arabs?, a snapshot of Israel at the end of the Six-Day War in the form of 17 vignettes (World, 1967), A Thousand Friends (Doubleday, 1974) and Three and a Half Husbands (Simon & Schuster, 1976). Her commentaries are preserved in Kent State University’s Special Collections.

For more on Fuldheim, see Patricia M. Mote’s 1997 biography, Dorothy Fuldheim: The FIRST First Lady of Television News (Quixote Publications) and Dorothy Fuldheim’s Activist Journalism and the Kent State Shootings by Russell J. Cook (1992).

* Milton H. Fuldheim, whom she met and married in Milwaukee in 1918, was also the reason she relocated to Cleveland, where he had grown up and intended to practice law. After his death in 1952, she married Cleveland businessman and civic leader William L. Ulmer, who died in 1971.



How We Become Complicit in Evil

“Tell me,” I asked him, “why did you plead guilty?”

“Because I was guilty,” he answered. “I closed my eyes to what was happening because my ambition was so great. Hitler gave me the fulfillment of an architect’s dream, carte blanche to rebuild Berlin as I desired. Who would not have paid almost any price for such an opportunity? Then the war came and my dream for a new Berlin was shoved aside and Hitler appointed me czar of all German industries to produce armaments. By then I was too involved to withdraw.”

“But, Herr Speer,” I asked, “couldn’t you smell the dead flesh in the gas chamber, couldn’t you hear the cry of little children, didn’t you know that behind the trim landscaped concentration camps children were being held naked in their mothers’ arms, their clothes neatly piled in great stacks, and shoved into gas chambers? Didn’t you realize that you were using slave labor in your factories pouring out instruments of destruction?”

“No,” he said. “I closed my eyes to all of what was happening because it was too late. I had no choice or I would have also been a victim, too, for Hitler was irrational.”

—From Fuldheim’s prison interview with Hitler’s architect and later munitions czar Albert Speer, excerpted from A Thousand Friends. (“Hitler would have hung me like a carcass on the wall,” she recalled Speer’s telling her, as a guest on the Phil Donahue show in 1984. “And I told him, ‘It would have been a worthy and noble death.’”)


On Being the First Woman in TV News

I was the first woman to do news on television— certainly the first woman who had a news show of her own. And when [Duquesne Beer] became the sponsor, they didn’t want me—they thought, “Oh my God, a woman.” Matter of fact when they got the show ready they forgot to call me in until somebody asked: “Where’s the talent?” They called me in, and this guy—I can’t remember his name, tall guy from the advertisers—said, “What do you do?” I said, “I analyze news.” He said, “Well, we’ve never had anyone do that.” I said, “Well, you’ve probably never had anyone competent!” But the man who ran this station, a man whom I admired very much, was a stubborn guy, and he said, “If you want the time, you’ll have to take her,” so they said, “For God’s sake, let’s take her, we don’t need to keep her.” They kept me eighteen years. And there’s no other woman yet [1982] who does an analysis of the news.


On Soap Operas

I hear a lot of criticism about soap operas. I don’t concur in that at all. You know, one of the reasons for their popularity is that there’s no front porch anymore. When you had a porch, you sat on the porch and you visited with the neighbors. Well, old people no longer live with their families as they used to; they go off into an apartment, and they’re very lonely. They live an isolated life, with the exception of a few friends that they may have, so the soap opera becomes their friend. I see nothing wrong with that.

—“Fuldheim on Fuldheim,” Northern Ohio Live, January 1982


On Marriage

Marriage has been tested for many centuries, and it has stood firm like the Rock of Gibraltar until this generation. It is being chipped away, assaulted, ridiculed, ignored, cheapened, but it still stands as the one great moral shelter in our lives.

It is true that bearing a child outside of marriage is no longer the disgrace it used to be. No longer would a famous actress be publicly insulted as was Sarah Bernhardt who was announced by the butler at a reception as Mademoiselle and son.

Today the Ms. does away with the Miss or Mrs. No longer is a family disgraced by a daughter who though not married is having a baby. In the past it may have been annoying to have a son father a child outside of marriage, but it never the disgrace as when such a thing happened to a daughter. And it’s about time. Just as it is unreasonable to arrest a prostitute who is selling her wares, but not the male who is the buyer. Injustices are being wiped out.

. . . Life is a lonely business at best. We are each imprisoned by our own natures. In marriage, there is a touching of heart and of soul. In marriage the husband knows that his happiness, his strength, is guarded by the woman who is his wife, while she knows that he is her security, her strength, that their fates are intertwined and that she is first in his concern and he is in hers.

It is an intertwining of destinies. If there are children, it is the fruit of some sweet and sublime hour. A child is (or should be) the blossom of a moment of exquisite tenderness. . . .

—From a May 27, 1979, commentary dated May 27, 1979, reprinted in its entirety in Dorothy Fuldheim: The FIRST First Lady of Television News


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