Columnist Alice-leone Moats Dies

Posted: May 15, 1989

Alice-Leone Moats, 81, the acerbic, sharp-minded, irrepressible author and journalist who wrote commentary with the same bright, stylish pluck that characterized her life, died yesterday at Graduate Hospital.

Widely known among friends as "Moatsie," Miss Moats, a resident of Center City, had been ill in recent months with heart disease and other ailments.

After a lifetime of writing that took her from the thunder of battle during World War II through nine published books and hundreds of magazine articles, Miss Moats had devoted much of her efforts during the last 12 years to a column she authored for the Commentary page of The Inquirer.

As comfortable discussing the chaos of international politics as a boorish clerk she encountered, the tart, meticulous Miss Moats developed a wide following for her weekly column, which was syndicated in other newspapers.

"She could really bring the saber out and put it to good use," said Phil Joyce, editor of The Inquirer Commentary page. "She had people looking for that column every week. I knew. When I didn't run it, I would hear. I think a lot of people looked at her as a lovable sort of cranky person."

If she had a loyal readership, however, it was not that people always agreed with Miss Moats. A reader who lauded one week's column might rail against the next.

In her last, published March 28, Miss Moats argued that U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum's vote against the appointment of John Tower as secretary of defense should have been played up by the women's movement. The Kansas senator was the only Republican "to have the guts to go against the president of her own party as well as the senior senator of her state," she wrote.

The column began, "It is not surprising that the feminist movement has been unable to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, since it doesn't know how to take advantage of its assets."

Not one to be stuck with political labels, Miss Moats defied being known as a Republican or Democrat. She had a conservative slant. But she was intolerant of Presidents Reagan and Bush. She never voted in elections.

She read voraciously and was up-to-the-moment on issues of all kinds.

Indeed, just 10 hours before she died - as she lay in a hospital bed under an oxygen mask with her eyes half closed - Miss Moats insisted a close friend, Sharon Dougherty, explain the details of the tax revision referendum that is to be on tomorrow's ballot.

"Most people at that point have long ago turned inward," Dougherty reflected. "They don't care if there's an election on Tuesday. But not Moatsie.

A slender, blue-eyed woman whose dress hinted at both her privileged upbringing and enduring sense of style, Miss Moats also was a woman of manners - a woman of exquisite etiquette who had early on become known as an expert on courtesy.

Her 1933 book, No Nice Girl Swears, a practical guide to etiquette for young girls, became a best-seller when it was published and was reissued 50 years later.

In a 1984 interview after the book was reissued, Miss Moats observed: ''Certainly young people now need all of the advice they can get about manners. And certainly, I can use the money."

But the art of manners never included being passive or demure or sentimental. She was inarguably brazen. She was cantankerous. She was stubborn. She talked straight and didn't worry about offending people.

At a dinner party shortly after she came to Philadelphia 15 years ago, Miss Moats was asked how she liked the city, recalled Tony Auth, editorial cartoonist for The Inquirer.

Miss Moats responded tersely, "It's just like the gay '90s. All the men are gay and all the women are 90."

Manners and all, the veteran journalist, who had seen as many ports as a sailor, could also curse like one.

During an appearance on David Letterman's show, after her book on manners was reissued, Miss Moats, dressed in a Chanel suit, told a story about a party at which Nikita Khrushchev chased her around a ballroom and pinned her against a wall.

The episode was ended only when an onlooker yelled, "Everybody, come look. Khrushchev's trying to . . . a capitalist," recalled Dougherty. "They had to bleep it out. . . . Maybe she didn't realize that you couldn't curse on network TV. Or maybe she did."

Born in Mexico to American parents, Miss Moats had grown up as the only child in a family that lived with luxury and servants. Her father, Wallace, ran a lumber business in Mexico City, and her mother, Leone, "was in the business of being a lady," she once recalled.

Her mother was determined that Miss Moats learn five languages, and as a child she had lessons with private teachers. At 10, Miss Moats went to the Brearley School in New York, and then she went on to schools in Rome and Paris.

After a year of schooling in Mexico and two years at the Fermata School in Aiken, S.C., Miss Moats was accepted into Oxford University in England.

"It lasted three days," she recalled in the 1984 interview. "The food was unspeakable."

After publishing No Nice Girl Swears in 1933, Miss Moats wanted to move on to straight reporting. She worked for King Features in the mid-1930s, but then filled in as a technical adviser for six weeks in Hollywood on the picture Coming Out Party before starting at Collier's magazine, which sent her in 1940 to be its correspondent in the Soviet Union.

But the assignment wasn't by way of a direct flight. Plagued by visa problems, Miss Moats went from Washington to Japan to apply for a visa. When that didn't work, she wound up dodging Japanese patrols on the Burma Road to get to Kunming. She finally got to Moscow in May 1941.

When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, American diplomats urged Miss Moats to leave. Instead she spent four months in the Soviet Union with no visa.

She had better luck with her work. Soviet censors, she once recalled, appreciated the style of her dispatches. Other stories they reviewed, she said, "made no pretension to style."

Not long after returning to New York, Miss Moats was sent off again, this time to Spain. In April 1943 she went there as a correspondent for Collier's, the New York Herald Tribune and CBS.

William Paley had asked her "to try to get CBS back on the air again in Spain" after years without American dispatches, Miss Moats recalled in biographical writings. She said she personally handled the first broadcast.

While in Spain, Miss Moats made contact with members of the French underground, who made it possible for her to walk over the Pyrenees and go up to Paris in April 1944.

After the war ended, Miss Moats felt Americans had less interest in events abroad, and she gave up work as a correspondent.

She freelanced for magazines for many years, including the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, the New Yorker, Life and Time.

After living in Rome for 11 years, where she was Newsday's correspondent

from 1962 to 1963, Miss Moats moved to France and worked for two years on the newspaper Le Monde.

Her return to the United States in 1974 eventually led her to settle in Philadelphia. Over the years she never married, though she had been engaged ''about eight times," she said.

"She was a very courageous, indomitable person who had a very, very sharp mind and a very quick tongue," said Edwin O. Guthman, the retired editor of the editorial page at The Inquirer, who hired Miss Moats. "She was one of a kind."

Possessed of a remarkable memory - she never used a tape recorder or notebook - Miss Moats also was the kind of writer who lived by revision. She was ardent about grammar, punctuation and word choice.

Miss Moats' passion for things written was evident all over her Delancey Street apartment - where a collection of 4,000 to 5,000 books was stored on shelves built into every crevice.

In recent years, after the illnesses of her parents had drained the family fortune, Miss Moats lived modestly. She didn't complain of the change.

"She was born brazen and she matured into an independent, elegant, resourceful, acerbic and literate woman," said a close friend of 19 years, Sylvia Hoffman. "She could define friendship, humor, intelligence and professionalism and style and class.

"She suffered no nonsense in her own life, and I think that was most what was reflected in her writing. She was a rotten singer, but as a writer she never hit a wrong note."

"In short, she was a great broad disguised in a Chanel suit and pearls," Hoffman said.

Miss Moats' books included Off to Mexico, a guide she wrote with her mother in 1935; Blind Date With Mars, a 1943 account of her experiences in the Far East, the Soviet Union and Africa, and No Passport for Paris, a 1945 account of her experiences in Spain and occupied France. Her last book was Million

Dollar Studs, a 1977 profile of famous gigolos.

There are no immediate-family survivors, and no services are planned.

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