Green reporters, Congressmen, exotic dancers and death — and redemption

Posted 3/10/21

My very first assignment in my very first college journalism class was to write an obituary for the not-yet-dead Wilbur Mills.

If his name doesn’t ring a bell with you, then Fanne Foxe’s may …

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Green reporters, Congressmen, exotic dancers and death — and redemption

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My very first assignment in my very first college journalism class was to write an obituary for the not-yet-dead Wilbur Mills.

If his name doesn’t ring a bell with you, then Fanne Foxe’s may not, either.

You wouldn’t be alone. Even back in 1983, less than a decade after Mills and Foxe made unwanted headlines together, I’d heard of neither. And I’m sure the same could be said of most of my fellow wannabe-journalists on that frosty January morning 38 years ago as we walked into the first day of our Reporting I class on the campus of the University of Kansas.

What happened over the next 48 hours, though, would ensure we would remember.

Ted Frederickson, our professor, gave our class a base set of facts about Mills’ fictitious demise: that he’d died that very January day; the circumstances (which I no longer recall) of his death; when and where he was to be buried, and a few more tidbits.

The rest was up to us.

We were turned loose to do our own research in the campus library (no internet back then, and certainly no Google) and come back to class 48 hours later with a finely crafted obituary. Accuracy, perspective, solemnity, a sense of history and weighing critical facts — such as where in Mills’ obit to talk about Foxe, and how much “space” to give her — were factors that would play into our grade. (Those, along with the correct spelling of “cemetery” — misspell that word, Professor Ted told us after we handed in our copy, and you’re getting an automatic “F.” You’d be surprised how many people stick an “a” in that word.)

It was the perfect first assignment. In the movies and on TV, reporters may sneer at the “obit desk,” but in reality, it’s not the case. On real newspapers, Professor Ted told us, obits are sacred copy, something I had already learned working the six previous summers in the newsroom in Sanford. (Here at the News + Record, obituaries are entrusted to the venerable Doris Beck.)

I write about this now because memories of that class came back to me after reading an obituary last week — that of Annabel Battistella, who died in February.

She’s definitely a part of this story, but let’s start with Wilbur Mills. For a period of time in the 1960s and early ‘70s, he was one of the most powerful members of Congress. Mills was chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, meaning he had a hand in everything involving money and finance in Congress. He held the government purse strings, and seemed destined either for the White House or a seat on the Supreme Court.

But at 2 a.m. on Oct. 7, 1974, all that changed. As Battistella’s recent Washington Post obit read, on that morning, “U.S. Park Police pulled over a silver-blue Lincoln Continental that had been swerving and speeding without headlights near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. A female passenger in an evening gown ran from the car, climbed the stone parapet along the Tidal Basin and — acting on what she later described as a frantic impulse — leaped headfirst into the frigid, inky water. Her splashdown would ripple into one of the capital’s most infamous sex scandals.”

That female passenger? Battistella, better known by her stage name: Fanne Foxe.

Mills’ actual obituary — not the assignment I completed for my Reporting I class, but the real 1,043-word death notice published in the May 3, 1992, edition of the Post, nearly seven years to the day after I graduated from college — was somberly written. I don’t have a copy of what I wrote, of course; I seem to recall a “B” grade. But I found the Post’s obit fascinating. The words “in the company of a local exotic dancer who threw herself in the Tidal Basin” appeared in the fourth paragraph. But Battistella and “Fanne Foxe” didn’t appear until the 14th graph of the 21-graph story.

That passage in his obituary read thusly: “Early on Oct. 7, 1974, his swerving car was stopped near the Tidal Basin by U.S. Park Police, and Mr. Mills, bleeding from the face and obviously intoxicated, shakily emerged from the vehicle. A passenger, Annabel Battistella, a stripper who performed locally as ‘Fanne Foxe, the Argentine firecracker,’ emerged from the car and leapt into the Tidal Basin.”

The next two paragraphs read: “Mr. Mills, who rapidly became the butt of jokes for the first time in his career, said Battistella was a neighbor and friend whom he was driving home after she became ill. He also said his face became cut when she accidentally broke his glasses with her elbow.

“’I did something I shouldn’t have done,’ he said in Little Rock 10 days later. ‘I drank some champagne when I knew it went to my head quickly. And it did.’”

One of lessons for us in that assignment was to weigh story elements carefully. For a long time, “Tidal Basin” would have been a defining part of Mills’ and Battistella’s stories. But there’s such a thing as redemption, and both would eventually find it: Mills did win re-election to his seat, but his struggles with alcohol (and the married man’s relationship with Battistella) would cause him to leave politics, get sober and eventually testify before Congress on the need for alcohol treatment programs before his death at age 82. He was remembered for much more than just that night.

Battistella would earn several college degrees (including a master’s in marine science) before her death at age 84. She was reclusive in later life, but along the way said this to the Post about that period of her life that found its way into our Wilbur Mills obituaries: “What happened happened, so that cannot be repaired completely. But sometimes things can be mended enough to allow you to live comfortably and not be completely ashamed of yourself.”

“Redemption” probably wasn’t a word any of us used in that first class. But thankfully, before someone gets assigned to write our obit, we get a chance to re-write our stories every day.


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