Memories of “Miss Moonlight”—Looking Back at the Extraordinary Life of Houston Chronicle Columnist Maxine Mesinger
With the recent passing of twelve Social Book Houston Treasures during 2020 and plenty of time on my hands due to the pandemic, memories flowed to an easier time in past years when one of the first things the social community did every morning was to check Maxine Mesinger’s social column in the Houston Chronicle, aptly titled “Big City Beat.” Those who were lucky to know her, celebrated her nickname, “Miss Moonlight.” Writer Clifford Pugh once penned that Maxine “wrote about big names for half of the 20th century and became a celebrity in her own right.”
She didn’t just write about celebrities. She focused much of her attention on local individuals’ comings and goings─their ups and downs, their triumphs and embarrassments─writing about them accurately without being abrasive or mean, unlike gossip columnists in today’s digital world. Still, Maxine’s “take” on a story influenced opinions in a way today’s “social influencers” would envy.
For my millennial friends, you didn’t have the pleasure of enjoying a daily respite of living dreamily through Maxine’s eyes … eyes that had seen celebrity up-close, heard celebrity through sound ears and written celebrity with a deft hand typing on what became an antique Smith Corona typewriter. Maxine meant so much to the city and beyond. She was an institution. I wonder how she would have handled today’s social media. How many followers would she have had? How much influence would she have commanded? How many emails would she have received daily from those whom she had helped or needed her advice? It would have numbered in the thousands! One blurb in her column would have translated into great value for whomever she mentioned. People listened to her—respected her—and wanted to always stay in her good graces. She had a way with words and is remembered for such “Maxine-isms” as “she snoops to conquer,” “swankienda,” “have tongue, will tattle,” and “slow down for the low down.”
She was a Houston native, born at St. Joseph Hospital. Her father was a Houston produce broker who was always bringing home nightclub headliners. She attended San Jacinto High School, worked in local theaters, acted in small roles and worked behind the scenes. She was a drama major at Texas Woman’s University and Indiana University but dropped out in 1944 to marry a young Air Force private and New Orleans native, Emil Mesinger. Thirteen months later, on the night their daughter Julianne was born, Emil was sent to the South Pacific as part of American forces in World War II. After the war, they moved to New Orleans, where Maxine did live television commercials. Five years later, they moved back to Houston and she returned to school at the University of Houston, hosting two celebrity-oriented shows at the university’s fledgling Channel 8. After giving birth to son Jay, Maxine was hired as the assistant to Houston Press gossip columnist Bill Roberts in 1954, interviewing such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Gabor and Rosemary Clooney before taking over the column in 1959. She was hired at the Chronicle five years later when the Houston Press folded. She remained at the paper for the remainder of her life, which also encompassed a marriage of 57 years.
She was a fixture in the early days of Tony’s Restaurant. For her, the restaurant’s center table was always reserved and she held court like a queen. Usually, the next day you could read about who was there and what was happening in their lives. Of course, any celebrity who visited the famed restaurant always graced Maxine’s table and the city was abuzz by morning when it came out in the new column. Tony’s quickly became the place to be because of Maxine. During her storied career, those who called her their close friend included Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Carol Channing, Barbara Walters, Frank Sinatra, Mitzi Gaynor and so many more.
Her prolific journalism had a decidedly philanthropic emphasis in her write-ups of Houston’s charitable society events, including her own work in support of the MS Society and amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research). In her honor, Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital dedicated the Maxine Mesinger Multiple Sclerosis Clinic.
If Maxine were still with us, we would be celebrating her 95th birthday next month, but January will mark twenty years since her passing. For many, she has never left. People still have clippings of her columns in scrapbooks, framed photos with her proudly displayed in their home or office, gifts that she gave them, and memories on top of memories of all she was and all she meant to the community. Philanthropist Rose Cullen said, “Maxine was my idol … a friend … a good, warm person. The time spent with her was beyond all expectations. I miss her so much and I will never forget her.” Another Houston icon Warner Roberts writes “Miss Moonlight” wrote about everything I ever did, and my mother saved every column. That was so helpful when I was writing my book, Life is an Adventure. Because of her, I could remember so many things—from the time I introduced Queen Elizabeth outside of City Hall to when I interviewed John Travolta and Mickey Gilley at the ‘Urban Cowboy’ opening—she documented it all in her ‘Slow Down for the Low Down.’ What a Houston Treasure she was—and is.”
If you were Maxine’s friend, it usually was a lifetime appointment and one you cherished. Ann Hodges, Chronicle Television Editor for many years, worked side by side with Maxine at the paper, and in many instances answered Maxine’s phone for her, never knowing who of importance would be calling to “drop a bit of gossip” in her ear, asking to see her, or needing a favor. Ann said, “Maxine had the greatest sense of humor and an infectious laugh. She was the funniest person I have ever known … a wonderful companion. Maxine always had great ideas of where to go and what to do. Everyone wanted her there with them. Her biggest gift though was talking about people in a way that made them love her more.”
Maxine was an extraordinary person who lived an extraordinary life and made all of us feel extraordinary, if only for the little while we were reading her column. I’m sure her heavenly “swankienda” is amazing and full of friends!