From escaping house arrest while on assignment to becoming the first female panelist on TV’s Meet the Press, Ida Lewis has leapt over obstacles to establish a brilliant career.
By Julie Rattey
Above: Ida Lewis in her home in New York City. Photo by Conor Doherty
“Stop her! Stop her!” Ida Lewis’s luck had run out. In 1964, on assignment for Life magazine in East Africa, she was investigating what she calls “a government entanglement” and had irritated the Tanzanian government by contacting some persona non grata. She was just about to board a plane to Zanzibar when she heard the shouts. Three men were racing toward the plane. Believing her to be a spy, the officials took her passport and told her she would be held for three days at a hotel “as a guest of the government.” But Lewis (DGE’54, COM’56), determined to finish her story, snuck out of the hotel and headed straight to the American Embassy for a new passport. Then she went right back to interviewing. Life published her article, “Black Mask of Angry Africa,” in its April 2, 1965, edition.
Looking back at her 20-something self, Lewis says, “When you’re young, you don’t realize reporting is as difficult as it is. You’re fearless. You don’t think it can be dangerous until you really get involved in what you’re doing. Then you realize, ‘My God, this is a matter of life and death.’ ”
Lewis has made a habit of achieving what she sets her mind to, no matter the obstacle. “Whatever I’ve set out to do, I’ve done,” she says. She was a Paris correspondent for publications including Life and the New York Times, became editor-in-chief of Essence magazine and was the first black female panelist on TV’s Meet the Press. For launching the newsmagazine Encore, she’s been heralded as the first African American woman to publish a national magazine. She worked as a media consultant on Ross Perot’s (Hon.’94) 1992 presidential campaign and, in 1998, became editor-in-chief of NAACP’s magazine the Crisis. She considers interviewing South African politician Winnie Mandela as one of the highlights of her career, along with the Life assignment in Africa. Of the latter, she says, “That piece was my greatest challenge and one of the best things that I’ve ever done.”
Lewis’s interest in reporting kicked in at an early age. “My parents used to send me to different relatives around the country, and I decided that I liked doing that and that one day, I would become a journalist so I could move around. I wanted to travel to Europe and Africa, and as soon as I could afford to do that, that was what I did.” A high school English teacher who refused to believe she’d written a paper without help only served to fuel her determination. Lewis also had support from loved ones: “I came from a family of folks who encouraged the children to follow their dreams,” she says. “Education was very important to us.”
Lewis studied journalism at Boston University, admitting that it wasn’t strictly academics that attracted her. One summer when she was about 13, Lewis visited relatives in Roxbury and became smitten with a local Portuguese boy. “I thought he was the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen,” she recalls. “I said that if they have them like that in Boston, then I’ll go to Boston!” She “loved” the school, and remembers with fondness a chance conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) on Marsh Plaza. “I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, and God knows I didn’t know that he would become Martin Luther King, but he was such a gentleman, and I felt his goodness. He asked me what I wanted to do and I asked him what he wanted to do, and we just started talking about life in general.” She saw him occasionally at functions in later years.
Throughout Lewis’s subsequent career, she played a leading role in publications that speak from an African American perspective—including Essence, Encore, the Crisis, the Eagle & Swan (a magazine for African Americans in the military she founded in 1978) and Five Fifteen (a publication she published and edited that called itself “the first black women’s newspaper”). “The news that we read in Newsweek and Time was not enough for the black consumer,” she explains. “We needed something special that dealt with things that were happening in our community. And I thought it was up to us to do that. Because only we could tell our story.”
It’s a niche that still needs filling today, she believes, though perhaps with television as opposed to print. “The black community still is opening up for understanding their position in America. We’re not there yet. But gradually it’s happening.”
In the process of establishing herself, Lewis faced challenges not just because she was black, but because she was a woman. She wasn’t always the first person that men in power—black or white—would think of for an assignment. But she took it in stride, saying to herself, “That’s their loss,” whenever she was overlooked. “I never allowed my race and my being a woman to stop me,” she says. “I just kept going.” And as time went on, “it became easier. The calls would come.” She adds, “It was harder to get an apartment in New York then because of my color than it was to move along in my career. Now figure that one out!”
Having established her own career, Lewis took time to share her expertise, educating aspiring journalists at BU and Columbia. “I really love young people,” she says. “The mind is still open, and they have a craving to know.” She received a Distinguished Alumni Award from COM in 1999, and in 2005, she pledged a $100,000 bequest for scholarships for minority students at the College. “I loved the four years at Boston University—they were the best in my life,” Lewis said at the time, as reported in BU Today. “I want more (people) from my community to go and share that experience.”
Lewis’s next project is producing a feature film on the life of writer Aleksandr Pushkin. When she was 11, she says, a teacher had told her, “Ida, we have great hopes for you, and you write so well. We think that you may become our Aleksandr Pushkin.” After learning he was a talented writer with black ancestry, Lewis became fascinated. “When I was at Boston University, I decided, ‘When I finish whatever I’m going to do in life, I’m going to do a film on Aleksandr Pushkin.’” She adds: “When it’s done, I will say, ‘Well, I can sit back and say that my life has been good.’” Lewis has the script; now she’s drumming up $30 million to finance the project. If Lewis’s past achievements are any indication, it’s only a matter of time before she succeeds.