Rene Carpenter was part of “The Astronaut Wives Club,” but that doesn’t define her life.
The premiere of the ABC TV show “The Astronaut Wives Club” made me think of a most wonderful wom and epicted on the program: Rene Carpenter. Recently divorced from Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter, Rene (rhymes with “teen”) hosted an interview/public affairs program on Channel 9 called “Everywoman.” She was so smart and warm and vibrant. Crafted with a bit of a feminist bent, the show was fresh and a little ahead of the curve. The show went off the air in the 1970s. Last I heard of Ms. Carpenter, she had married someone named Lester Shor and was remodeling an old Georgetown storefront into a unique home. That was at least 30 years ago. I would love to know what became of this remarkable woman. Can you help?
— Alisha Martin
Answer Man thinks hemay have a crush on Rene Carpenter, a “striking platinum blonde,” as The Washington Post once described her.
That was in 1961, but after a recent phone conversation with the now 87-year-old, Answer Man is pretty sure Rene is as vivacious as ever.
Not that she would want to be remembered solely as a bombshell. She was a syndicated
newspaper columnist, a TV presenter and a member of a social circle that included Benjamin C. Bradlee, Art
Buchwald and Katharine Graham.
The American public followed her family’s exploits in Life magazine when her Navy pilot husband went into space in 1962. Rene’s column, “A Woman, Still,” ran in papers across the country — although not in The Post.
“Ben wouldn’t buy it,” Rene said. “He said, ‘It’s not good enough.’ ”
The Carpenters were among the four of seven Mercury couples that later divorced. When it came time to pick a place to live postbreakup, Rene chose Bethesda. She wanted her kids at Whitman High.
Though The Post had passed on her column, she forged a connection with the company in a different way. At the time, The Post owned Channel 9, known then as WTOP. Between 7 and 8 p.m., all manner of dreck was broadcast— game shows, mainly. Kay Graham wanted to change that.
“At one of her parties, she said to me, ‘I want a woman’s show. I want a point of view.’ ”
And Graham wanted Rene to host it.
Rene had endured the media attention of the Mercury program but had never hosted a TV show. “My background was really nothing except enthusiasm and the ability to interview people and be curious,” she said.
The show debuted Aug. 10, 1972. The first episode featured a segment on birth control. (“The director said, ‘Go tight on the diaphragm!’ ” Rene laughed.) Another segment included a natural birth filmed at Georgetown University Hospital.
On the second show, a camera crew went to a park and surreptitiously filmed guys ogling busty women. Then Rene went to a bar and asked men, “Would you date a flat-chested woman?”
The show attempted to confront sexism straight-on, with segments on Title IX, abortion and the disgruntlement Continental flight attendants felt with the airline’s slogan “We really move our tail for you.”
“Everywoman” was not universally beloved ( Judith
Martin wrote that it “jumps so over anxiously into so many topics — natural childbirth, how to change a tire, sexist credit practices— that it doesn’t say anything about any of them”), but it had many fans.
Rene was on the D.C. airwaves from 1972 to 1976, on “Everywoman” and on a show called “Nine in the Morning.” She worked with such local fixtures as J.C. Hayward, Carol Randolph and Doug Llewelyn.
TV is a rough business, and Rene was among those fired in a purge in 1976.
Other broadcast opportunities were dangled, but Rene decided to instead sign on with the Committee for National Health Insurance. Universal health care was an issue she felt strongly about, having grown up during the Depression.
“There was no money for medicine” then, she said. “I can remember in the fifth grade, we had our eyes tested. Someone came to each class. And then in the sixth grade we were given vouchers to take to our doctor and get a tuberculosis shot.” (Rene said she’s still hoping for a single-payer system.) She met real estate developer Lester Shor when he was renovating a Georgetown house she was interested in. They married and in the early 1990s the couple moved to Colorado, where one of her daughters lives.
At 87, Rene doesn’t get around as much as she once did. She has seen a few episodes of the ABC series, which is based on the book by Lily Koppel. She’s not a fan, even if the actress portraying her, Yvonne Strahovski, is a knockout.
“Every segment of the show is fiction!” she said. “Every segment!”
It seemed to especially grate that when the Rene Carpenter character introduces herself to the other astro-wives, she says, “Rene— as in ‘peachy keen.’ ”
Keen she may be. But peachy keen is just a little too cloying a description for this fascinating American original.
Rene Carpenter appears at a news conferenceMay 24, 1962, in Florida after her astronaut husband, Scott, returned from orbit.