Laura Sanderson Healy ’77: Writing Royalty, A Correspondent’s Life

In the 1970s, Laura Sanderson Healy’s mother, Jane Sanderson, wrote stories about a king, so it seems appropriate that Healy, Class of 1977, ended up reporting about royalty as well.
Of course, her mother, a veteran entertainment reporter for the Memphis Press-Scimitar and People magazine, was filing stories about Elvis, who, while not technically royalty by blood, was christened the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Jane Sanderson’s review of a 1974 Elvis concert at the Mid-South Coliseum, nearly a half-century ago, still simmers with the spectacle and excitement of that night:

Blaring of trumpets, rolling of drums, beating of kettles, flashing of lights, and the ruler of rock arrives. Momentum propels to such heights that the first glimpse of Presley sends the audience into a frenzy. Like a streak of white lightning, Presley darts on stage. He is dramatically clad in all white, which sparkles with jewels and nail heads with a jacket slit to the waist and a diamond cross hanging from his neck. He nods approval to the overwhelming hometown reception, and he begins to sing.

A little over ten years after her mom rhapsodized about Elvis, Healy was living in London and working as a correspondent for People magazine. “My husband and I arrived in July 1985. We stayed for nine years, and it was go, go, go the entire time,” Healy recalled.

One of Healy’s regular beats was keeping tabs on the House of Windsor, particularly the ups and downs of Charles and Diana, but she also went where assigned. One day, for instance, her editors asked her to jump on a plane and rush down to Cornwall, England, to interview Simon Le Bon, the lead singer of Duran Duran, who had narrowly escaped death after his yacht capsized and trapped him and his crew underneath. Another time, she was lucky enough to join a junket to Amsterdam with Boy George to report on the launch of MTV Europe. And then there was the day they begged her to trek out to Woodside, the name of Elton John’s countryside manor west of London, to report on the glitterati at his famous White Tie and Tiara Ball.

Someone had to cover those events, and Healy was more than happy to oblige. She was one of a number of correspondents around the world who were on the ground and responsible for feeding the publication with the most salient facts to create vivid stories. As a result, Healy often shared writing credit with other correspondents.

This excerpt from People exemplifies Healy’s kind of storytelling:

A ROYAL UPBRINGING

April 25, 1988 — On a blustery day last January, England’s Prince William, 5, clambered to the top of a red antique fire engine, clamped on an old-fashioned fireman’s helmet, clanged the bell and exuberantly yelled, “Where’s the fire?” The scene captured in microcosm the delights and drawbacks of perhaps the most extraordinary childhood in the world. For while many children dream of becoming firefighters when they grow up—and in the meantime would gladly settle for a rampage in a station house—the boy’s play was a privileged but hardly spontaneous romp. Wills and his companions that day, younger brother Harry, 3, and cousins Peter and Zara Phillips (Princess Anne’s children, 10 and 6 respectively), were clambering over a 1939 engine that once belonged to their great-grandfather, King George VI. And they were on display at a preplanned “photo opportunity” staged by Queen Elizabeth at her Sandringham estate in Norfolk for the benefit of a phalanx of photographers. The Queen’s hope was that the press, sated, would then depart her 20,000-acre spread, leaving the family to enjoy its holiday privacy. Her Majesty’s ploy failed, and she was roundly criticized for pandering to the press and for her naïveté in thinking she could rid herself of the paparazzi.

One of the many People magazine issues that featured reporting from Laura Sanderson Healy ’77.

Like her mother’s story about the Elvis concert, this story evokes a sense of being at the Sandringham estate and watching the Prince from a distance. Writing royalty begat writing royalty, it seems.

SHADOWING HER MOTHER

“I grew up at my mother’s desk at the Memphis Press-Scimitar. I was always down at 495 Union Avenue hanging out with her,” Healy recalled fondly. Her mother’s instincts as a reporter and skills as a writer rubbed off on her. After graduating from Hutchison, she was off to The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, chartered in 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II. Healy studied English and also started an interview show at the college’s radio station. When she returned to Memphis in the summers, she accompanied her mother on her interviews. 

We’d go down to Jerry Lee Lewis’ farm in Mississippi, and mother would do her interview for the Press-Scimitar for the showbiz section. Then Lewis would give me an interview for the radio show.

Jane Sanderson and Laura Sanderson Healy ’77.

She got her first taste of covering the royals in 1981. “Two weeks before my graduation, the summer of Charles and Diana’s wedding, Prince Charles came to William and Mary, and I covered it,” Healy said. “That was one of my first assignments and my first press pass from the State Department.” In the year of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown, the Prince of Wales was receiving an honorary fellowship from the college.

In 1985, Laura Sanderson married John Healy, an Irishman. “I met John at William and Mary. He grew up with Irish parents and lived in Lima, Peru, Santiago, Chile, and Connecticut,” Healy said. “I liked the way he talked about travel and thought ‘I want to stick around with him.’ We continued to date, even after college; he went to Chicago, I went to New York, and we got married after I left New York.”

That same year, John was hired as the director of finance for the London Marriott Hotel, so he and Laura packed their bags. With his Irish citizenship, he could live and work in London and so could Laura. She decided to drop into the London offices of People magazine. “I had left New York on good terms, and I had a letter from Hal Wingo. By the end of the week, I had a job. I was a London bureau correspondent. ”Her mother’s instincts as a reporter and skills as a writer rubbed off on her.

After graduation, Healy’s father encouraged her to head to Washington, D.C., and apply for newspaper jobs, but she found herself competing with a sea of seasoned journalists in search of work. Never discouraged, she had an idea. She hopped on a train for New York City.

Some context: Healy graduated from Hutchison in 1977. Just before leaving for college, a defining Memphis moment occurred: On August 16, 1977, Elvis was found dead at his Graceland home. “My mom was at Baptist Hospital when they brought Elvis in because it was right down the street from the Press-Scimitar,” Healy said. Everyone was scrambling to figure out what had happened, and her mom called her in to help sort through photos as they put together the story for the newspaper.

"A year later, People magazine contacted my mom to help on a cover story about what had happened in the year since Elvis died,” Healy explained. “That’s how my mom started writing for People in 1978 and continued for 20 years.”

When Healy arrived in New York in 1981, she made a beeline for the People magazine offices and asked to meet with Hal Wingo, a pioneering reporter for Life magazine who was a co-founder of People magazine. Healy had met Wingo previously when accompanying her mom to New York. The next thing she knew, Healy was working as a freelance fact-checker. To get closer to the stories she loved to cover, she moved into a secretarial position in the entertainment section. She was not content to just answer phones and file papers.

“I weaseled my way into getting assignments to do on my off time,” Healy recalled. MTV started that same year and helped spawn the Second British Invasion of music acts from the United Kingdom. Healy remembered doing stories about English bands like the Thompson Twins. She covered the opening of the Hard Rock Café with its Memphis connection in co-founder Isaac Tigrett. Healy’s sister, Lisa Sanderson, a member of the Hutchison Class of 1980, joined her for some of her adventures in New York.

Eventually, Healy was fed up with the banality of her “day job” as a secretary and resigned. By that time, she had accumulated enough stories with her “byline” that she had some street cred as a reporter.

CROSSING THE POND

In 1985, Laura Sanderson married John Healy, an Irishman. “I met John at William and Mary. He grew up with Irish parents and lived in Lima, Peru, Santiago, Chile, and Connecticut,” Healy said. “I liked the way he talked about travel and thought ‘I want to stick around with him.’ We continued to date, even after college; he went to Chicago, I went to New York, and we got married after I left New York.”

That same year, John was hired as the director of finance for the London Marriott Hotel, so he and Laura packed their bags. With his Irish citizenship, he could live and work in London and so could Laura. She decided to drop into the London offices of People magazine. “I had left New York on good terms, and I had a letter from Hal Wingo. By the end of the week, I had a job. I was a London bureau correspondent.”

It was in August of that year that Healy found herself sprinting to Cornwall to interview Simon Le Bon about his yacht accident. Duran Duran was a supergroup at the time. They had performed at Live Aid in July, although in Philadelphia, and had recorded the theme song for the James Bond movie, A View to a Kill.

“I’m getting the words from Simon, and I’m phoning it down the line to New York,” Healy explained about her interview with the rock star. “The People photographer comes and takes photos, and it became a cover story for the magazine. It was exactly a year after I had quit in New York. It was being fact-checked by someone in the New York office where I once worked as a fact-checker.” The article’s title, “A View to a Spill,” was a play on the title of the Bond movie.

At one of her gatherings with Hutchison alums about five years after they graduated, Healy recalled that they each made predictions of what the others would be doing in the future. “Somebody said about me: ‘Laura will know every rock star on Earth.’ "

I was so lucky. I reported stories in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, all over England. I covered the royal family incessantly, especially Fergie and Diana.

Occasionally being a correspondent had great perks. In 1987, MTV chartered two jets to fly guests from London to Amsterdam to celebrate the launch of MTV Europe. Healy hitched a ride with singer Boy George and friends to cover the event for People magazine.

She also wrote stories about actors, writers, artists, musicians, and the London theatre.

In 1993, she had the meeting of a lifetime. It was the 300th Anniversary of the charter of The College of William and Mary, and Healy and her husband were invited to attend a reception at Drapers’ Hall in London. Queen Elizabeth II would be attending. Healy had reported on the royals for eight years but had never met the Queen face to face. “I had seen her at the Royal Ascot races, and you could roam around her and other people out by the horses,” Healy explained. “I did a lot of my reporting of the royals that way, just observing them like Jane Goodall did her chimpanzees in the jungle, studying them. That’s what it felt like.”

Laura Sanderson Healy ’77
Photo by Margie Woods

A SOJOURN IN SOUTH AMERICA

Having lived in Peru and Chile when he was growing up, John Healy was fluent in Spanish. In 1994, he was tapped to become the director of finance at the Marriott Plaza Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina. So, Laura and John picked up and flew south. Healy admits that at the time she was burned out from her nine years of running from story to story. She was still considered a People correspondent, but she didn’t plan to work full time.

Nevertheless, in November 1995, the BBC broadcast a bombshell interview with Princess Diana in which she admitted to having an affair and described married life with Charles as being miserable. Three days later, Diana arrived in Argentina on a goodwill ambassador trip. Healy followed Diana to the south for a whale watching trip in Patagonia. “I said, ‘I will be damned if I’m going to miss this trip!’” Healy remembered. She recalled fondly how a whale came right up to Diana’s boat.

The following year, in February, Buenos Aires prepared for another famous visit. “My nemesis, Madonna, who I was always writing about and chasing but could never get an interview with in London, came to make the movie Evita,” Healy explained. The movie was a musical biopic about Eva Perón, the Argentine actress, politician, activist, and First Lady, from 1946 to 1952, to President Juan Perón. “I knew all the people she was working with because I wrote about them, such as director Alan Parker and his whole crew. I wrote a story for People about Madonna making Evita, and I did a story about Eva Perón herself for People in Español.”

While in Buenos Aires, Healy and her husband welcomed their daughter, Lucy, into the world in September of 1996. Healy decided to take a turn at being a mom. By May of 1997, they were back in London again after John was promoted. Healy popped by the People offices with Lucy in tow, and decided to work freelance. “I wanted to stay home with Lucy and do whatever stories I could from there,” she explained.

Once again, her timing could be viewed as either fortunate or unfortunate: on August 31, 1997, Diana died in a car crash in Paris, France. “It was 6:00 am, and I heard the terrible news about Diana. I asked my nanny to hang on to Lucy, jumped on the Tube with my Filofax, and went roaring into the People offices. We put together three magazines."

There were assignments that I could do when Diana died, and others that I just didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to go out and meet the plane bringing her body back, for instance, because she had been so much a part of my life.

The Healys lived in London for another 10 years until 2007. “Lucy grew up in London. I loved being a mother and working only as much as I wanted.”

LIFE ON THE WEST COAST, WITH TRIPS TO MEMPHIS

These days, Laura and John live in Marina del Rey, California, near her sister, Lisa, and nephew, Benjamin. Lisa owns her own production company, working as a film and television producer, writer, composer, music publisher, and philanthropist. “I came to California for auntie duties,” Healy said happily. She’s riding horses again, too, which she enjoyed when she lived in London and Buenos Aires.

Keeping her connection to Hutchison, Healy recently served as a virtual mentor for Hutchison senior Alex McVean ’22. McVean was comparing the way the media treated Diana with their recent treatment of Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex and wife of Prince Harry. Healy offered McVean her own recollections of covering Diana and the royal family for so many years.

Healy also visits Memphis to see her daughter and mother, who recently celebrated her 96th birthday. “My mom covered stories in 22 states,” Healy said with admiration. “I will never be able to touch her. She’s like the Energizer Bunny.”

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Hutchison is the leading private girls school in Memphis for ages 2 years old through twelfth grade.