Maryon Allen, 92; talked her way to Senate absentee rate record

During her five months in office in 1978, Mrs. Allen missed 155 of 356 roll-call votes.
During her five months in office in 1978, Mrs. Allen missed 155 of 356 roll-call votes.

WASHINGTON — ‘‘I have a penchant for being irreverent,’’ Maryon Allen said in the interview that may have ended her political career. ‘‘I learned one thing in politics. The hardest thing to do is to keep your mouth shut. I never have before.’’

In 1978, Mrs. Allen was named by Alabama Governor George Wallace to succeed her husband, Alabama Senator James Allen, after he died in office. During her five-month tenure, she was known as a tart-tongued gadfly, a storyteller of epic proportions, and an disengaged legislator with the worst absentee record in Senate history.

Still, she seemed safely on her way to winning a special election until she gave an interview to Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn, in which she offered views on politics, abortion, and southern femininity that stirred up the folks back home and led to her electoral downfall.


Mrs. Allen was 92 when she died July 23 at her home in Birmingham, Ala. A nephew, Alabama state Senator Trip Pittman, confirmed the death but did not provide a specific cause.

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Mrs. Allen, whose first name was pronounced ‘‘Mary on,’’ as if it were two words, met her husband in 1964, when she was a journalist for the Birmingham News, and he was Alabama’s lieutenant governor under Wallace. They married that year, and in 1968 James Allen was elected to the US Senate.

After they moved to Washington, Mrs. Allen began to write a column — ‘‘The Reflections of a News Hen’’ — that appeared in Alabama newspapers.

Her husband was known as a conservative Democrat with an expert knowledge of senatorial rules, which he used to delay legislation with which he disagreed, most notably, treaties to turn over US control of the Panama Canal to the country of Panama.

He had a heart attack on June 1, 1978, and died at 65, with his wife cradling him in her arms.


‘‘I knew when I saw his eyes he wasn’t going to live,’’ she later told The Post. ‘‘The very last words he said to me were ‘I love you and don’t ever forget that.’ Not many people have that.’’

Wallace then appointed Mrs. Allen to her husband’s seat, with a special election scheduled later in the year.

Before the September primary leading up to the special election, Mrs. Allen was the subject of a 5,300-word profile by Quinn, who quoted the newly minted senator on a variety of subjects.

On Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative opponent of women’s rights: ‘‘She’s supposed to be so feminine and all. Well, she’s about as feminine as a sidewalk drill.’’

On abortion: ‘‘I feel it is such a personal issue for women . . . I wouldn’t want anyone to dictate to me their religious beliefs or the right of my own body. I feel very strongly about that. I hope that’s an honest answer.’’


Alabamians were perhaps more aghast when Mrs. Allen mentioned that she had been in a hotel room, wearing her nightgown, when two workers appeared to wash the windows.

‘‘Always looking for votes, I just said, ‘Y’all come on in and have some coffee,’ ” she said.

‘‘We had a good ole time but if Jim Allen had ever found out I was having coffee with two window washers in my nightgown he would have killed me. But I got two solid votes for Mrs. Allen. Can you just see the head of the Alabama Baptist church if he heard that story?’’

The interview became a leading issue in the campaign — along with Mrs. Allen’s stated enjoyment of white wine, or ‘‘giggle juice,’’ and her refusal to debate her opponents, which she attributed to bad campaign advice.

‘‘I was made out to be the most irreverent, sarcastic, profane, constituent-hating, voter-contemptuous, late-husband-despising, naughty-merry-widow whore lady who ever drove up the road to Washington, D.C.,’’ she later wrote in The Post.

She failed to reach the 50 percent threshold needed to win the primary outright, then lost in a runoff to Donald Stewart, who went on to win the special election.

During her five months in office, Mrs. Allen missed 155 of 356 roll-call votes in part because she was campaigning. Her absentee rate of 43.5 percent has never been equaled.