January 1996: Legendary courts reporter Theo Wilson dies
By Linda Deutsch, AP Special Correspondent
Theo Wilson, a journalist whose coverage of America’s history-
making trials from Sam Shepard to John De Lorean made her the dean of trial reporters, died early Friday (January 1996) in Los Angeles.
Wilson, whose memoir, “Headline Justice,” was published this week by Thunders Mouth Press, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as she prepared to give a TV interview about the book Thursday night.
She was believed to be about 78, but her age was a closely guarded secret. “A woman who will tell you her age will tell you anything,” she said.
“Headline Justice” reflects Wilson’s witty take on a world of journalism past and was the culmination of a career spent primarily at the New York Daily News in its heyday as the nation’s top-selling newspaper.
She was quick to point out that although the Daily News was tabloid size it had nothing in common with today’s tawdry array of supermarket tabloids.
Trials were her forte, but she also made her name on big stories ranging from the early Mercury space shots to Princess Anne’s wedding in London.
When first lady Jacqueline Kennedy traveled to India and Pakistan, Wilson went along. When Wilson covered the murder trial of socialite Candace Mossler in Florida and got an exclusive interview, the News plastered pictures of Wilson and the defendant on its trucks and in subways with the logo: “Follow Theo Wilson Every Day.”
With her unisex first name, it may have been the first time readers discovered the byline they followed belonged to a woman.
Wilson would often laugh about letters she received beginning, “Mr. Wilson, you jerk. If you were a woman, you’d know the real story.”
White House correspondent Helen Thomas called her “a reporter’s reporter, the kind we look up to with awe and admiration.”
Famed trial attorney F. Lee Bailey recently wrote of how “perceptive and highly reliable” her accounts were. “I felt comfortable using them as a substitute for a trial transcript.”
Although she moved to California in the 1970s, Wilson was a New Yorker through and through. Born in Brooklyn, Theodora Nadelstein was the youngest girl in a family of 11 children. Her father was a printer and publisher of the first “Amazing Stories.”
Her first piece of writing was published when she was 8 years old and told the story of the family’s pet monkey. Her Siamese cat of 22 years, Lois Lane, died in June.
Wilson graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky at Lexington and took a job with The Evansville (Ind.) Press. Later, she would go to work for the Indianapolis Times, the News Leader in Richmond, Va., The Associated Press in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Bulletin.
With her then husband, TV anchor Bob Wilson, she moved to New York and joined the Daily News. She and Wilson had a son, Delph Robert, now a lawyer in Los Angeles.
Big trials — Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson, Angela Davis, Patty Hearst — found her in California. Finally, the News suggested she open a West Coast bureau. Like many New Yorkers, though, Wilson didn’t drive.
Usually, that wasn’t a problem. Reporters would drive her anywhere just to share her company. But when a busload of children were kidnapped in Chowchilla, in central California, she had a problem.
She did what any New Yorker would — she called a cab. The trip was about 200 miles, and in the News, the tale of her wild cab ride became almost as big a story as the kidnapping.
In “Headline Justice,” Wilson speaks of “a breed of fiercely independent, well-read, vastly underpaid and overworked people who loved the newspaper business so much, cared about writing so passionately, that they stayed in a job distinguished by low wages and long hours.”
She is survived by her son, five sisters and a brother. Funeral services were scheduled Sunday at 10 a.m. at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch, who has covered courts for The Associated Press for more than 25 years, worked alongside Wilson at the trials of Charles Manson, Angela Davis, Squeaky Fromme, Claudine Longet, Daniel Ellsberg and John DeLorean. Deutsch consider Wilson a friend and mentor. Both were long-time members of JAWS.