Now all that has changed. Williams landed on her feet as New York bureau chief for Ted Turner's 24-hour Cable News Network. Today, at 34, she is a vice-president of CNN and one of the highest-ranked female executives in television. This month CNN and Mary Alice celebrate both their third year together and the network's third year on the air.
For Williams, the career turnaround was startling indeed—especially in light of the second-class status accorded most women in TV news. Though there are nearly three times as many on-air network newswomen as there were 10 years ago, Williams knows there's a long way to go. "On camera, a double standard still exists," she says. "When men age, they gain authority. Women just get wrinkles. I hope the day comes when we will stop focusing on people's plumbing."
Born in Minneapolis, the daughter of a psychiatrist father who died last year and a housewife mother, Williams was the second of five children in a close-knit, Irish Catholic family. While attending Creighton University in Omaha, she worked part-time at a local television station, covering fast-breaking news. After graduation in 1971, she moved on to WPIX-TV in New York, where, at 23, she was hired as executive news producer. Williams moved over to WNBC-TV in 1974, but eventually ran afoul of studio politics. "One of the station executives said I belonged in a Dracula movie, not on television. He told me that my eyes were too blue and icy. He suggested I get brown contact lenses. I tried, but it didn't work out."
Two weeks after she was fired, Williams signed on with Ted Turner's fledgling CNN, which had not yet gone on the air. Turner's philosophy suited her perfectly. "People want the basic facts," she says. "They don't want pretty faces and polish." Now, in addition to spending two hours a day anchoring the New York portion of the network's news broadcast, she must attend to executive matters as diverse as representing CNN at conventions and making sure the studio air conditioning works. Says a longtime friend who now works for Williams as a writer, "She isn't as big a star as some of the network anchors—after all, CNN is to the networks as Off-Off-Broadway is to Broadway. But she's become much bigger than even she expected."
Williams lives in an airy Greenwich Village loft with her husband of four years, Scott Latham, 34, a former UPI wire service editor and reporter who now runs his own political consulting business out of their home. "Having been in the news business myself makes things a lot easier," he says, and Mary Alice agrees: "He understands the commitment." The couple split household chores, with Scott, a gourmet chef, doing the cooking and Mary Alice cleaning up. As for her next career step, Williams is noncommittal. "My early dream was to become a correspondent for NBC, and I did it," she says. Now, at CNN, she has found contentment as well as a title, and a future that couldn't look brighter. Says former CNN President Reese Schonfeld, who originally hired her: "The day will come when they look for a woman to be president of a network news division. And they will have to consider Mary Alice."
It was January 1980, and the news was not good for Mary Alice Williams. After five and a half years, the ambitious young reporter for WNBC-TV in New York received a call from the station telling her she was going to be fired. The disenchantment was mutual, but for Williams it seemed the end of her dream to become a correspondent for one of the networks. "I was in terrible pain," she admits. "I'd been unhappy my last two years at the station, but I might never have had the courage to leave on my own."