Chapter Nine

1959

     In the wake of the NASA press conference, the seven Mercury astronauts found themselves in the centre of a media feeding frenzy. Of the seven men who had been selected for the Mercury Program, only John Glenn had had any prior experience in dealing with reports. He had been the subject of media attention in the wake of Project Bullet, but that had been nothing in comparison to this.

            “How are we supposed train?” asked Deke Slayton.

            “There are too many distractions,” said Wally Schirra, echoing Deke’s sentiment.

            “Look,” began Shorty Powers, “I know that things seem really crazy right now, but give it time. They’re doing their job, just the same as you are doing yours. They can’t cover you 24/7. Just be patient and things will die down in a couple of weeks.”

            “I don’t know,” said Shepard sceptically. He turned to John Glenn. “What do you think?”

            “I agree with Shorty,” answered Glenn. “They can’t keep this up forever.”

          In spite of the assurances of Shorty and Glenn, the media onslaught did not die down. If anything, it got more intense. Much to his own chagrin, it was John Glenn who bore the brunt of the scrutiny. At the time, John Glenn and his family lived in Arlington, Virginia, not far from NASA’s Washington headquarters, which also meant that he was more readily accessible to the press than the others. He was also the most articulate of the seven Mercury astronauts, and unlike the others Glenn didn’t try to put on the cool, collected test pilot persona. As a result, he quickly came to be seen by his colleagues and the press as the astronauts’ unofficial spokesman. Whenever a reporter on the space beat needed a sound bite or quote for a story, it was John Glenn who got the call.

       At first, John Glenn tried to be accommodating with the media. He knew that the space program was important for the country and that NASA didn’t any want any bad publicity. After all, the journalists were just doing their jobs, and he didn’t see that as an excuse to hold a grudge. He was even able to shrug off the gaggle of reporters, TV crews and even tourists camped in front of his house at all hours of the day and night, but when Glenn and his family found themselves moving furniture so that the TV crews could plug in their blazingly hot lights, Glenn decided that enough was enough and he buttonholed Walter Bonney, the space agency’s Director of Public Affairs.

      “Look,” said Glenn, “we need to come up with a better arrangement, as far as the media is concerned.”

       “What do you mean, John?” asked Bonney.

        “We’re being overwhelmed,” responded Glenn, “and I don’t just mean my family. Ask Al or Gordo or Deke, and they’ll tell you the same thing. We feel like we’re spending more time answering questions about our families, than we are trying to get this program off the ground.”

         “John,” said Bonney carefully, “this program is important. People all over the world are watching you very carefully.”

         “We understand that, Walt,” said Glenn, “and we want the program to succeed, but there have to be boundaries as far as the media and our privacy is concerned.”

          Bonney nodded. “Alright, let me see what I can do.”

        Over the course of the next week, Walter Bonney consulted with his superiors and proceeded to make a number of phone calls to media outlets all over the United States; the three major networks, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time and Life Magazine, just to name a few. At the end of the week, he called the astronauts together for a meeting. “I’ve given your situation some thought,” he said, “and I think that the best way to handle the media is through exclusivity.”

         “Exclusivity,” said Carpenter, as though weighing the word, “What exactly would that entail?”

        “Well, to start with, it would mean that you and your families won’t be harassed by reporters anymore. It would also mean that only one media outlet would have the right to print your pictures or anything that you say, subject to NASA approval of course.” Bonney paused. “There is one other matter to consider in all of this, and that is the matter of representation.”

         The astronauts all looked at each other.

          “Representation,” said Schirra. “You mean a lawyer?”

          “Yes,” replied Bonney. “Some of the media organizations that I’ve talked to over the past few days are very enthused at the prospect of being granted the exclusive rights to tell your stories, and they have indicated a willingness to put up considerable sums of money for the privilege.” He began to hand out business cards.

            “Leo DeOrsey,” read Gordo Cooper.

            “Who is he, exactly?” asked Slayton.

           “He specializes in tax law,” answered Bonney. “He represents the Washington Redskins and has a number of high profile clients on Capitol Hill. He’d like to meet with you.”

           A few days later, the astronauts and their wives pulled up in their cars in front of the main entrance to the Columbia Country Club. They went inside and were escorted to a private dining room. It was intimately decorated with leather chairs, dark coloured wood panelling and brass light fixtures. A slightly pudgey, affable looking little man stood and came around the table to greet them. “Gentlemen, and ladies,” he said shaking all their hands warmly, “welcome. Please sit down.” The astronauts and their wives sat. Over the next three hours, the astronauts swapped jokes with Leo DeOrsey, and war stories with each other, while their wives passed around pictures of their children, compared which bases and billets they had liked best and least and commiserated with each other over the trials and tribulations of being a test pilot’s wife.

          It was not until the remains of dessert and coffee had been cleared away, that Leo DeOrsey got down to business. “I’ve had a number of conversations over the past week or so with NASA, regarding the extension of exclusive media rights to the media outlet of your choosing and I understand there are number of organizations that are interested in the exclusive rights to your stories. I’ve examined the proposals that have been extended to the agency and in my opinion Life Magazine offers the best balance between giving NASA maximum publicity and preserving your privacy. Furthermore, they are willing to pay you $500,000.”

          “I’m sorry,” said Trudy Cooper in amazement, “did you say $500,000?”

          “I did,” answered a smiling DeOrsey.

            Sitting next to his wife, Gordo Cooper did some quick mental arithmetic. “That’s $25,000 each,” he said.

           “Now, wait a minute,” interjected Scott Carpenter. “This is all subject to approval by the brass.”

           “That’s a good point,” responded John Glenn, “and there’s another factor to consider.” He turned to DeOrsey. “Tell me, Mr. DeOrsey, what exactly is your fee acting as our representative.”

           “I am waving my fee.”

           Shepard tried to hide his scepticism and failed. “You don’t believe me,” said DeOrsey. It was not question. It was a definitive statement.

             “You have to understand, Mr.DeOrsey….” Glenn began.

             DeOrsey waved a hand in the air, cutting Glenn off in mid-sentence. “Yes, Colonel Glenn, I do understand. You have highly specialized skills for highly dangerous work that you‘re paid not nearly enough to do. Like you, I believe in the space program. I understand what it could represent, both for the country and the world. I want to see Mercury succeed, and this is my way helping to ensure that it does.”

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