Read an Excerpt
“A compelling visit to the most interesting place I’ve ever been, by one of the most interesting and inspiring men I’ve ever known.”
“A wonderful evocation of [the] rough-and-tumble [that] was the era of manual typewriters, chain smokers and all-nighters. Beer was openly consumed in the newsroom and no one gave a damn, all part of a day’s mischief. . . . the sheer exuberance of a life inside the news.”
—Ward Just, The New York Times Book Review
“More than a colorful chronicle of the great events of the last century, Arthur Gelb’s exuberant memoirs prove to be keenly observed social history, full of fascinating tales and details. This hearty autobiography—which captures all the excitement and romance of a New York city room—reminds us just how challenging and thrilling modern times have been.”
—A. Scott Berg
“A wealth of terrific stories [and] vivid recollections [of] the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate break-in and the 1970 investigation of New York City police corruption abound . . . Gelb mingled with glamour and celebrity. A witty raconteur, he tells uproarious anecdotes about Tallulah Bankhead and Marilyn Monroe . . . plenty of amazing scoops and delicious gossip . . . a fascinating historical snapshot . . . Gelb naturally emphasizes high points, but he’s frank about internal politics, the paper’s uncharacteristic timidity in covering the Holocaust and its continuing struggle to diversify its staff.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An expansive, entertaining and insightful personal memoir . . . recalls a freewheeling atmosphere of green eyeshades, spittoons, profanity, and beer guzzling . . . the paper’s shortcomings (early reluctance to identify Holocaust victims) and its highlights (attention to journalism ethics) . . . an assortment of colorful characters—both the reporters and their subjects—and chronicles major social and political events, including the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the rise of Joseph McCarthy, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, and the resignation of President Nixon.”
“For all its forthrightness, City Room is the work of a gentleman reporter of a kinder era.”
—New York Daily News
“A fascinating insider’s look at the editorial and political quakes that have swept the city room of The Times.”
“A reminder of what it means to be the best.”
Table of Contents
AS I ENTERED THE LOBBY of The New York Times at 10:30 P.M., normally deserted at that late hour, I found myself in step behind a lissome woman with wavy ash-blond hair, wearing a snug-fitting black dress.
It was late May 1944, my first week as a copyboy, the humblest rank on the newspaper’s staff. I was on my way back to the city room, second home to a legion of reporters and editors, all collaborators in the daily ritual of getting the paper out in time to meet truck, mail and rail schedules.
Sammy Solovitz, also a copyboy, and I—both of us just turned twenty—were balancing bundles of newspapers on our shoulders. They were early editions of competing New York dailies, and the ink, still damp, smudged our hands and clothes. We had been sent to fetch the papers from a newsstand around the corner in Times Square, so that the editors could check whether The Times had missed any important stories.
I was uneasily aware of the odd couple Sammy and I made—he an elfin four-foot-nine and I a gangling six-foot-two. Despite the bundle weighing him down, Sammy nonchalantly blew smoke rings, mimicking the soldier in Times Square’s bigger-than-life Camel cigarette ad. By contrast, I must have appeared self-consciously earnest as I stared straight ahead through horn-rimmed glasses. My discomfort galloped nearly out of control when the woman we had followed into the elevator turned around, and I gazed into the sapphire eyes of Madeleine Carroll—for me, the screen’s most beautiful actress.
Among the films in which she had starred were The 39 Steps, the Hitchcock thriller, and My Favorite Blonde, with Bob Hope, and I had spent a good part of my adolescence fantasizing about her. When the elevator door opened onto the reception area of the third-floor city room, I was frozen. Sammy had to tug my arm and lead me out. Instead of following him into the city room, I rang for the ascending elevator and, when it returned, I asked my new friend, Herman, the white-gloved elevator operator, where he had taken Miss Carroll.
“Kid, keep your shirt on,” he said, and snapped the elevator gate shut.
Sharing Madeleine Carroll’s aura was beyond anything I had expected during my first week at The Times, but I realized I would have to restrain my curiosity at least temporarily. The last thing I wanted was to do anything to jeopardize my new job on this titan of newspapers.
The city room was in full cry, with the paper going into extra editions through much of the night due to the breaking war news. Reporters, virtually all men in those days, unwound with drink and camaraderie in nearby saloons, and wives and girlfriends were expected to understand and not scold when their men broke dates or came home late.
That night, after the next edition was locked up, a reporter invited me to join him and two of his colleagues for drinks at Bleeck’s, a legendary hangout for newspapermen three blocks south of The Times. While a wide gulf existed between reporters and copyboys, the invitation was my reward for having delivered a note the night before to my host’s girlfriend, a chorus girl at the Latin Quarter.
Named for its curmudgeonly proprietor, Jack Bleeck (pronounced “Blake”), the saloon, a former speakeasy, adjoined the rear entrance of the New York Herald Tribune building. Odd mementos adorned its walls and a suit of armor stood in an inside room, a donation from the old Metropolitan Opera House a block away. The pub was a warm haven and, at the elongated front-room bar, shop talk resounded into the wee hours. Among the regulars at the bar that night were Wolcott Gibbs, The New Yorker’s theater critic, and Richard Maney, dean of Broadway press agents—the only one of his tribe regarded as talented enough to write now and then for The Times’s Sunday Magazine. Also present was Ralph Ingersoll, the publisher and editor of the muckraking afternoon tabloid PM, the man I had most wanted to work for before I landed at The Times.
I was still puzzling over Madeleine Carroll’s presence at The Times, having read that she’d put her career on hold to join the Red Cross in Italy soon after American forces landed there. I also remembered reading she recently had been voted by Columbia University students for three successive years “the blonde with whom we would most like to be stranded on a desert island.” She and two other actresses were asked whom they would most like to be stranded with. One said Clark Gable. The second chose Albert Einstein, as his conversation would never bore her. Madeleine Carroll’s pert response was, “An obstetrician.”
During a lull in the banter, I quietly asked one of the reporters if he was aware that Madeleine Carroll had been in the Times building earlier that night. With a knowing grin, he told me it was an open secret that she made occasional visits to the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and had doubtless been on her way up to the fourteenth floor, where he maintained a suite and sometimes spent the night.
The disclosure that the publisher was having a liaison with the object of my most ardent fantasies convinced me I was working at the most glamorous place in the world. If the headiness of the job so far hadn’t been enough, if there had been the slightest doubt in my mind, all hesitation vanished. I felt I might implode with joy.
I remembered this episode some forty-five years later, as I was preparing for my retirement as managing editor. I was cleaning out my desk and happened upon an old photo of Madeleine Carroll. The memories came rushing back—what it had been like for a kid raised by hardworking immigrant parents in a provincial Bronx neighborhood to enter the cosmopolitan world of The New York Times. Sadly, I pondered how little was left of that raffish, freewheeling old city room.
When I began at the paper, out-of-town correspondents telegraphed their stories to a clicking battery of Morse code operators, and foreign dispatches usually arrived by cable. Now out-of-town stories flowed in accompanied by the faint hum of computer monitors. And instead of the rattle of typewriters, there was the barely perceptible percussion of computer keyboards.
As I continued to toss clippings and ephemera into a shopping bag, I came across a packet of letters from my first mentor at The Times, Wilson L. Fairbanks, the former telegraph editor (a title later changed to national editor). He was a stalwart eighty-one when he appointed me as his clerk a few weeks after I started in the city room, and I might never have had the privilege of learning from him had I not come to the paper during those more tolerant earlier days. The notion of mandatory retirement at sixty-five for top editors did not evolve until the 1960s.
The Times in 1944 was determinedly paternalistic. The only way you could lose your job was through a serious lapse in taste or ethics. I saw this happen to three people during my apprentice years. The first was a reporter on the transportation staff who wrote to an automobile manufacturer about a “lemon” he had purchased, asking that it be replaced. He was dismissed because he used stationery with Times letterhead to complain about this personal matter. Another wrote to the city’s chief magistrate asking that his parking ticket be excused. He too was dismissed.
The most bizarre case involved the photo editor, John Randolph. When Arthur Hays Sulzberger saw, in the first edition of January 15, 1954, a two-column picture of Marilyn Monroe, mouth slightly open, about to kiss Joe DiMaggio before their marriage ceremony, he deemed the picture a breach of taste and ordered it killed for the last edition. Randolph was demoted. He was reassigned to the national copy desk and later moved to the sports department, where he wrote the “Wood, Field and Stream” column. The beat took him on fishing excursions on the best boats, and hunting in fecund game forests with the best guides. Randolph never complained about his demotion.
Many editors still holding sway in the city room when I arrived had been hired by Adolph S. Ochs himself, the paper’s early visionary publisher, or by his managing editor, Carr Van Anda, who had come from the Sun in 1904. Van Anda, who could read hieroglyphics, was responsible for The Times’s exclusive American coverage of such milestones as the opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt—as well as Robert E. Peary’s voyage to the North Pole and Richard E. Byrd’s exploration of the Antarctic. Van Anda was so astute a mathematician that he once found a flaw in an equation that Albert Einstein had hastily scribbled on a blackboard during a lecture.
From the day in 1896 when the thirty-eight-year-old Ochs, publisher of the Chattanooga Times, took control of the failing New York Times on Park Row near City Hall, he sparkled with faith, imbuing his new acquisition with a decisive moral stance. With Napoleonic nerve, he had talked J. P. Morgan and others into backing his financial plan to take over the paper. (“I am impelled by only one desire in these negotiations,” he told Morgan, “and that is to secure permanent control of The New York Times, which I believe I can make a successful and very profitable business enterprise, and at the same time make it the model American newspaper.”) He then lured the cream of reporters and editors to his staff, and they in turn drew the elite of readers—and advertisers.
Ochs never commissioned polls to determine what readers wanted, relying instead on his own instincts. He believed, for example, that a civilized person should care about the world. Unlike most of his rivals, who gave primary position to local coverage, he mandated that news from abroad lead the paper’s inside pages. He enriched the foreign and national bureaus, despite the cost of maintaining a highly qualified staff and the expense of cable and telegraph dispatches. Unhesitantly, he reinvested much of his profits into strengthening the paper.
It was Ochs who encouraged a benevolent attitude toward the staff, which in turn responded with intense fidelity. He had died only nine years before I came to the paper, and his presence was still palpable. He was remembered with both affection and awe, especially by those he had personally hired; indeed, they held a unique status as members of the “Ochs Plan,” entitling them to an additional pension whenever they opted to retire.
With the precedent set by Ochs, it was not unusual for someone past seventy to continue working forty or fifty hours a week. The copy desk that handled obituary, society and cultural stories was led, for example, by another spry octogenarian, William D. Evans, known as “the Judge,” a title bestowed in part because of his courtly bearing, accentuated by his gray Vandyke and thatch of pure white hair. In 1885, soon after graduating from Yale, the Judge headed for a newspaper in Duluth, Minnesota, at a time, he would reminisce, when typewriters and telephones were considered “newfangled.”
As a young reporter he was stricken with a lung ailment, and his doctor gave him only six months to live. (“Doctors be damned,” he would tell each new copyboy, laughing merrily.) At his desk he wore a dark fedora in even the most sweltering weather. “It’s to prevent drafts,” he once confided to me, “a scourge that could give me a head cold and send me to an early grave.” The Judge retired at ninety, in 1952.
Even older than Judge Evans and Wilson Fairbanks was ninety-year-old Edward M. Kingsbury, one of the most lucid editorial writers in the business. In 1925, his editorial on New York’s poor won the Pulitzer Prize, The Times’s third. Six months after my arrival, he announced his retirement and turned in his last editorial, which throbbed with nostalgia; it was pegged to the death of Al Smith, that icon of New York grit who had climbed from the sidewalks of the Lower East Side to the Governor’s Mansion.
I WAS FIFTEEN when my history teacher at the all-boys DeWitt Clinton High School in the north Bronx opened my eyes (no doubt unwittingly) to the course my life was to take. Irwin Guernsey, called “Doc” by his students, had contracted polio as a child, walked with a limp and supported his stocky frame with two canes. Sometimes, to emphasize a point, he’d crack a cane across his classroom desk, alarming us all.
He knew I was stagestruck, for I’d told him about my habit of attending a Broadway matinee practically every Saturday—when I would take the nickel ride on the subway down from the Bronx and buy a fifty-five-cent second-balcony seat with money earned from working after school as a delivery boy for a dry-cleaning store.
When I was fourteen, I saw my first Broadway play, a comedy called What a Life! I was enthralled by everything about that Saturday matinee: the antics of an actor named Ezra Stone playing a problem-prone teenager, Henry Aldrich. I reveled in the sweet, slightly musty aroma of the playhouse and pored over the shiny, crisp Playbill. Many of the illustrious performances I saw as a teenager are alive in my memory: Paul Robeson’s rich bass in Othello and Laurette Taylor’s plaintive cry of “Rise and shine!” in The Glass Menagerie.
A theater fan himself, Doc urged me to supplement my playgoing by reading some of the noteworthy plays of the recent past—among others, the Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur comic masterpiece The Front Page. I was mesmerized by this glimpse into the embattled world of Chicago newspapermen, as personified by the cunning, unflappable managing editor, Walter Burns, and his resourceful star reporter, Hildy Johnson. I dreamed of myself as a real-life Hildy, tricking reluctant politicians into spilling the beans, beating the cops to their crime scenes, wheedling confessions out of criminals—and writing the front-page scoop. I had always wanted to be a writer, but as a practical matter, in those Depression years, I knew I would also have to earn a salary. As a newspaper reporter, I could realize my ambition to write, and be paid a weekly wage.
When I turned eighteen, with no end in sight for the war, I found myself up in the air about my draft status. I had, of course, received my draft notice, but my eyesight was poor and the draft board quota for the category I was placed in after my physical exam was “limited service (1A-L),” which was temporarily filled. I was told I would likely be called by the end of the year. With this disconcertingly vague forecast, I dropped out of college and went from one temporary job to another—an airplane washer at Fiorello H. La Guardia Field (recently named for New York’s much-loved mayor), a complaint clerk at Gimbel’s (the department store at Herald Square) and a soda jerk at a Bronx ice cream parlor—where I was fired within two hours for experimenting with lemon-flavored chocolate malteds. Dispirited, I went home to bed and stayed there.
My mother, the patron saint of my mental well-being, urged me to stop agonizing about forces beyond my control. She felt I ought to apply immediately for a job on a newspaper—that very day. I did.
I made my way to the offices of PM. The paper was the brainchild of Ralph Ingersoll, the man who would soon be standing just a few feet away from me at the bar of Bleeck’s. Ingersoll had been managing editor of The New Yorker and, later, Fortune. He had also served briefly as publisher of Time, where he had once angered Henry Luce by choosing Hitler as Man of the Year, and then depicting him on the cover as a little man playing a hymn of hate on an organ. Although considered a renegade from his privileged class, Ingersoll was included in the Social Register and was a member of both the exclusive Union Club and the Racquet Club.
He had followed a revolutionary vision of journalism in 1940 with PM, his grand experiment (or folly, as some thought it), and originally considered calling it, simply, Newspaper. Containing no advertisements, PM sought to retain its integrity at a remove from what Ingersoll regarded as the grubby, capitalist interests of sponsors. Its lofty goal to “seek truth” was derided by the mainstream press, which sneered at it as a “Red rag.”
One of PM’s early copy editors was Dashiell Hammett; Ben Hecht was a prominent, albeit short-lived, member of its writing staff. The paper’s premier photographer was Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, who night after night, lugging a cumbersome Speed Graphic, managed to capture Gotham’s seamiest street life. It was rumored that Weegee’s nickname derived from the Ouija board, a tribute to his almost supernatural ability to get to the scene of a crime before the police. His subjects included prostitutes, gang violence, suicides and grisly accidents.
To offset the lack of revenue from advertising, Ingersoll set the price for PM at five cents—two cents more than The Times. Ironically, the paper was bankrolled by Marshall Field III, the progressive Chicago department store scion; fearful that the country was becoming dangerously conservative, he also had founded the Chicago Sun.
When PM started publishing, it entered a crowded field of afternoon New York papers: the Sun, the World-Telegram, the Journal-American and the Post, then a broadsheet. Among the morning papers, the News, with a daily readership of 2,038,634 and 3,724,755 on Sunday, had the largest circulation, followed by the Mirror, The Times and the Herald Tribune. The Times’s circulation was 449,409 daily and 817,960 on Sunday. There were at least fifteen smaller papers, 100,000 or less in circulation, including the Brooklyn Eagle, the Wall Street Journal, the Morning Telegraph, the Staten Island Advance, the Long Island Press and the Journal of Commerce.
Against the backdrop of the war, newspapers played a role in people’s lives that was almost as vital as food and water. The correspondents, who provided wrenching descriptions of the military campaigns, were heroes to the average citizen; indeed several were killed on assignment, including Byron (Barney) Darnton, a beloved forty-five-year-old Times man who had lost his life in New Guinea less than two years before I started at the paper, and whose death was still being mourned. He had been on a small Australian fishing vessel crammed with soldiers and threading its way through enemy waters when an American B-25, believing the boat was Japanese, strafed it. Barney’s wife, Eleanor, worked for The Times as women’s news editor. Their older son, Robert, who became a noted historian, was three when his father was killed; their younger son, John, eleven months old at the time, was to become a Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign correspondent for The Times.
For news and editorial opinion about the war’s progress, I turned first to the pages of PM. Of the two papers I devoured (The Times was the other), PM seemed the more unpredictable and definitely more feisty. Ingersoll’s iconoclastic staff worked hard at setting the political and business establishments on their ears.
I wasn’t as radical as some of my school friends, but I did have a rebellious social conscience, and I often found myself at ideological odds with The Times. I respected its eloquent, thorough reporting, but its overall tone on several major issues had seemed to me less than balanced. I was upset, for example, by its decision to endorse Wendell Willkie rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt in his bid for a third term in 1940, and I thought its coverage of the Spanish Civil War had been too pro-Franco. My friends and I—supporters of the Loyalist side and despising Franco as a Nazi ally—had been influenced in our thinking by a letter in The Times signed by Archibald MacLeish and Bennett Cerf, among other literary figures, that criticized the paper for allowing its correspondent, William P. Carney, to rely heavily on Franco’s propaganda.
Then there was my sense that The Times’s coverage of Nazi atrocities—despite the moral loftiness and balance it espoused—was dismayingly thin. While it was true there had been scores of stories about the persecution of European Jews in the paper since 1939, the accounts were brief, rarely appeared on page one and bore no interpretation. Nor did the editorial page express sufficient indignation when our government ignored various proposals by Jewish organizations to rescue those destined for systematic slaughter in what, at the time, were insidiously designated as “reservations.”
I can remember, growing up in the Bronx, my parents’ anguish upon receiving letters from Europe disclosing the tragic fate of relatives. In my adolescent innocence, I did not want to believe that the timidity of The Times’s coverage might have stemmed from the insecurity of its Jewish owners and their dread that The Times might be seen as a “Jewish paper.” Was it that they—like other powerful assimilated American Jews—feared to raise their voices in outrage over the persecution of their co-religionists because such a stance might threaten their own hard-won social and economic status?
From anecdotal accounts in PM, as well as from what my father told me he was reading daily in the Jewish press—together with the preaching I heard on national radio by bigots like Father Charles Coughlin, the Catholic priest in Michigan who felt free to blame the recent Depression on Jews’ having cornered all the good jobs—it gradually dawned on me that anti-Semitism must be rampant in America. I had experienced scarcely any discrimination in my own Bronx neighborhood. The mostly Jewish, Irish and Italian families had their own hardships arising from the Depression and, while there were occasional flare-ups, prejudice among the ethnic groups was generally fleeting.
My first shocking encounter with discrimination came when I was seventeen and tried to land a summer job as an office boy at a downtown Manhattan law firm. Answering newspaper ads, I was rejected at one high-toned company after another. I finally went to one of the employment agencies on Sixth Avenue, underneath the El. The man in charge called me into his office. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” he asked. I was surprised and confused. “Let me tell you the facts of life,” he said. “The leading downtown law offices generally won’t hire Jews. That’s just the way it is. I’m sorry.”
I had a warmer reception when I tried for a job on a newspaper. At PM the friendly woman in charge of personnel told me there were no openings right then but we chatted a bit about theater and politics. She said she happened to know that The Times had an opening for a copyboy, and asked if I would be interested in working there. I swallowed my reservations and said I would. She dialed someone she knew at the paper and recommended me. “He’s an earnest, curious, enthusiastic young man,” she said, winking at me. “I think he’ll do well at The Times.”
I was told to report there the next evening to be interviewed for a night copyboy post. I had to admit I was somewhat cowed by the possibility of working for what was, after all, the most influential newspaper in the world. My heart began to race as I approached the building on Forty-third Street, a little west of Broadway. Arriving on the third floor for my interview, I had my first glimpse of the city room, the place that was to be my home away from home for nearly half a century.
What I saw was a high-ceilinged room filled with clamor, clutter and cigarette smoke. There was an overwhelming sense of purpose, fire and life: the clacking rhythm of typewriters, the throbbing of great machines in the composing room on the floor above, reporters shouting for copyboys to pick up their stories. Some of the editors wore green eyeshades while others relied on fedoras to block the glare of the suspended lamps as they worked feverishly with pencils, scissors, paste pots and copy paper. Solid brass spittoons were placed strategically around the room and a carpet of cigarette butts all but obscured the gray concrete floor.
A quartet of reporters who had finished their stories played a casual game of bridge at the front of the room, while others were intent on a poker game in the rear. The old city room was compact and cozy, with no partitions (as in later years) separating the rows upon rows of wooden desks. At the desks—some so worn they were splintering—reporters typed at top speed, while cradling the receivers of their upright phones between ear and shoulder.
Almost paralyzed with excitement, I felt as though I had walked into The Front Page. I knew instantly this was my element. It was where I wanted to stay forever. I was directed to the desk of the managing editor’s secretary, just outside the only enclosed office on the floor. There I was interviewed by Belle Sloane, a plump, no-nonsense woman with a round face and dark reddish hair. She hired me on the spot. My salary, she said, would be sixteen dollars a week, and I went to work that very night. I would happily have worked for lunch money and carfare.
Still reeling with wonder, I watched as the boss of the entire city room, managing editor Edwin L. James himself, emerged from his office. He was a cigar-chomping, dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman with a flashy wardrobe and a reputation for gruffness. He sported a plaid vest, striped shirt with a white collar, and a pearl stickpin in his cravat; yellow spats covered his gleaming black shoes. Despite his rotundity and lack of height, he was a dashing figure and he knew it.
Once, while doing research in the public library for a high school report, I had come across James’s classic Times account of Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris. James’s imagery gave his readers the sense they were at his side as he described the scene at Le Bourget, scurrying along with a mob of thousands past policemen, pushing through barricades, climbing over fences, finally reaching The Spirit of St. Louis as Lindbergh emerged, tousle-haired and triumphant. I read the story over so many times I could recite some passages from memory.
James’s uncanny mind for detail was the envy of his peers. In 1915, when he became a Times reporter at twenty-five, his first assignment brought him accolades. The city editor had sent him to the Astor Hotel to cover a banquet attended by diplomats and other dignitaries. The host, accompanied by a U.S. Marine Guard, presented himself as “Lieut. Comdr. Ethan Allan Weinberg, K.G.,” the new consul general for Romania. In the harbor earlier that day, he had received an eleven-gun salute.
Of the many reporters present at the banquet, only James sensed that something was askew. He noticed that though the consul general’s jacket was adorned with medals, his shoes were unpolished and scuffed. James called The Times’s Washington bureau, which checked with the State Department. There was no Weinberg listed as the new consul general for Romania. In fact, Romania did not have a consul general. It turned out that the banquet’s host was a grand impostor who prided himself on assuming bogus identities purely for the joy of exploiting the gullibility of men of influence. Weinberg was arrested and returned to upstate Elmira to complete a prison term. James had his scoop and was on his way to stardom.
Like other fabled newspapermen of that era, James (known as “Jimmy James” to his peers) was a true eccentric. He had trundled all over the continent as chief European correspondent and, relaxing between stories, had drunk the finest Armagnacs and dined in the best restaurants. In New York, he took long, solitary walks late at night down unfrequented streets and alleys. And, as everybody knew, he was an addicted horse player. He usually came out of his office only to place or collect his bets. Actually, he hated to come out at all. Hiding in his office was the best way to avoid the reporters and editors who sought to badger him for raises.
I watched as James, adhering to what I later learned was a daily routine, ambled past me, oblivious of the tumult surrounding him. Daily Racing Form in hand, he headed for a desk in a corner of the room where two bookies presided. Tough and street smart, they were originally hired as copyboys, as were other youths who lived in neighboring Hell’s Kitchen—but their particular bent led them to bookmaking as a supplementary career.
James had promoted Angelo Gheraldi and Phil Brennan to clerks’ jobs, but taking bets seemed to be their principal duty, and wads of bills always peeked from their pockets. Eventually they graduated to clerical supervisory positions and gave long, loyal service to the paper. But once, when Angelo and Phil were still placing bets for James and other Times staffers, two detectives arrived in the city room looking for them.
A reporter’s wife had called the precinct station house when her husband came home without his weekly paycheck. He finally confessed he had lost his salary betting with the office bookies. His wife turned up in the city room demanding to see James, who hid. Her next stop was the police station. A copyboy somehow discovered the detectives were on their way, and alerted Angelo and Phil, who quickly beat a retreat. The bookies rewarded their Paul Revere with a week’s holiday in Miami.
When the detectives left the city room, James relaxed with a cigar, donned his black derby and prepared to leave for the night, in a ritual anticipated by the city staff. Approaching one of the slow-moving elevators, he would hurl oaths at it. If that didn’t bring results he would strike the elevator with his cane.
When at last the elevator door slid open, James departed regally, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the city room, at 6:30 P.M., had begun its climb toward the peak of nightly activity. By now, copy was pouring in by cable and telegraph, and most city-room reporters were putting the finishing touches on their local stories.
I was astonished to see the managing editor turn his back on this crucial phase of producing the paper. “Who’s in charge now?” I asked Sammy Solovitz, who had been at The Times some months longer than I. “The boss will be here soon,” explained Sammy, pointing to a desk in an enclosure known as the bullpen. That was where, Sammy said, James’s first deputy, the night managing editor, Raymond H. McCaw, would take charge of putting the paper to bed—his job since 1930. Before joining The Times in 1923, McCaw had been part of that wanderlust breed of newspaper tramps journeying from town to town across the country in search of work as reporters or copyreaders, or even typesetters.
As unaffected and down-to-earth as James was self-conscious and foppish, McCaw arrived promptly at seven o’clock. Completely at home in the world of printer’s ink and newsprint, he hung his rumpled jacket on a coat rack, rolled up his sleeves and attacked the pile of copy and proofs on his desk awaiting his approval. He also looked at the memos James had left him; since James often made it a point to be gone by the time McCaw arrived, the two rarely spoke.
After each edition, when the paper was delivered to him just off the press, McCaw methodically turned every page and corrected anything amiss. In the staff’s view, the “day side,” represented by James, and the “night side,” represented by McCaw, were separate, autonomous worlds. I soon discovered that James, convinced the paper went to press under a remarkably successful system, was content to leave its production entirely to McCaw. Thus, McCaw had final say about editing of stories, their space allotment and position, and, most important, which stories would appear on page one.
Marveling at the hectic but somehow orderly pace of the city-room operation during that first night at The Times, I nervously awaited a summons to duty. When McCaw shouted, “Boy!” I rushed to his desk. He handed me a proof and told me to take it to the composing room.
For a moment, I forgot where the composing room was. Seeing my hesitation, McCaw took the trouble to smile reassuringly. “You’re new here, son, aren’t you? Go up that spiral staircase over there and give this proof to the man at the desk. And watch your step going up.” He was the first editor who had said a word to me—and a gracious word, at that. He made me feel I was a bona fide member of The Times, and I sprinted joyfully up the narrow iron stairs to the composing room.
PAT SPIEGEL WAS the first reporter in the city room to befriend me, disregarding the caste system that dictated a haughty distance between reporters and copyboys. He had himself started on The Times as a copyboy in 1925, and enjoyed nothing more than satirizing reporters who assumed snobbish attitudes.
Pat was also a racetrack fiend and, not long after I came to The Times, he invited me to accompany him to “play the ponies” on my day off. In my insular Bronx neighborhood, I had never met a bookie, nor did I know anything about horses. Pat promised to introduce me to a milieu that I had, up to now, only glimpsed in the movies—a world of big-time bettors and small-time touts. Kinetic and fast-talking, Pat posed as a knowledgeable handicapper, and he tried to teach me how to read the Racing Form; but it turned out he didn’t know much more about the ponies than I did.
Nonetheless, I soon was putting down $2 bets—“a deuce,” in track parlance. His pals at the track considered his system somewhat radical. To have a winner, he would bet on six horses in an eight-horse race. It didn’t faze him that he had to invest $12 to arrive at a $2.80 winning ticket. It was the win that was important, not the money. And if he did chance to come out ahead, he would spend his winnings on whomever he happened to be with.
Pat’s real name was Irving. The nickname “Pat” stuck when, years earlier, an assistant city editor, Walter Fenton, had assigned him to cover Sunday sermons at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; every time Irving returned to the city room, Fenton would announce: “Our Jewish Patrick is back.” Later, when he began covering what we all took to calling the “Jewish beat,” Pat would occasionally invite me to join him, and we would “schul-hop,” going from one congregation to the next, as one might go nightclub hopping. Religious news in those days was a kind of gossipy, neighborhood-oriented staple of the paper, and it was important for a modest-sized synagogue to get a mention in The Times; the rabbis at such congregations stood in terror of Spiegel’s power.
Pat saw no reason why he shouldn’t interrogate a rabbi about parochial ins and outs in the same manner that got results on the police beat. “Now, listen, Rabbi,” he’d shout into the phone, “you’d better play straight with me. You mean to tell me you’ve been sitting on this story for three days? Listen, Rabbi, if you’re going to play the game that way, I’ll get the story from someone else. And you won’t like that, Rabbi, will you?”
Pat was a self-taught pianist. No less an authority than The Times’s music critic, Harold Schonberg, evaluated his musicality: With a twinkle of mock envy, he told me: “Once, and only once, did I hear Spiegel auf dem Flügel. It was at a Times party, and he was sitting at the piano. He was quietly amusing himself with the first movement of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto. Landowska used to play it, and Casadesus once or twice. Not many others. There was Spiegel, hands in classic position, fingers nicely curved, rippling out D Major phrases with perfect equilibrium, articulation and weight placement. He saw me coming and suddenly got bashful. I did not ask him to continue. It’s not fair that a man should play pinochle like Moorhead, gin rummy like Goren, and Mozart like Artur Schnabel.”
Wherever he happened to be, Pat drew an audience. He loved to translate Hamlet’s famed soliloquy into Yiddish, interspersing it with double-talk in both languages. A popular lecturer, he once invited me to a talk he gave at City College about police reporting. He described walking beside Dutch Schultz as he was marched in handcuffs to Police Headquarters. “How do you think you’d look with daylight streaming through holes in your body?” the gangster slyly joked to Pat. A humorless Daily Mirror reporter misinterpreted the remark as a threat and filed a story. Pat recalled his anxious efforts to persuade Schultz’s pals he had nothing to do with the Mirror’s report.
Pat’s talent for instant camaraderie was a big help on assignments. Once, covering a train wreck upstate, he secured exclusive access to the only telephone in the vicinity by flattering the elderly woman who owned a house near the site. The woman told competing reporters trying to reach their city desks that she would allow no one to use the phone except “that nice, kissing reporter.”
Pat was at his most relaxed when Emanuel Perlmutter, his closest ally in the city room, joined us at the track. Manny, who had grown up in the Brownsville–East New York section of Brooklyn that had spawned a generation of mobsters, came to The Times in the early thirties. Like so many other reporters in the Depression years, he had come of age in a working-class family and believed a glamorous job on a newspaper, despite the low pay, would rescue him from the sort of drab existence endured by relatives and friends in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Although he had a bachelor’s degree from New York University, he was happy to begin as a copyboy, and, like Pat, he was promoted to reporter after several years of demonstrating he had the right stuff.
There were other ways, of course, to make reporter: You could come to The Times after gaining a reputation on another paper; you could establish a journalistic knack as a college correspondent for The Times and be hired upon graduation; or you could be related to someone important.
I hoped to follow the route taken by Manny and Pat: climbing from copyboy to desk clerk, thence to desk news assistant, wangling some short writing assignments and hoping to demonstrate my ability and motivation. Many of the top reporters and editors, including a number of Pulitzer Prize winners, had also started out as copyboys—including the paper’s premier reporter, Meyer Berger.
While Manny talked tough, wore a fedora slouched over his eyes, dangled an unlit cigarette from the side of his mouth and jabbed his forefinger at you for emphasis, he didn’t intimidate anyone, for we all knew he was soft at heart. Manny and Pat were inseparable in the city room, checking each other’s copy, relishing the stories behind each other’s assignments and supplying one another with hot track tips.
“When I started as a night office boy,” Manny once recalled, “young Spiegel was already showing other copyboys how to make the tough points on dice—ten and four. He was the best craps shooter on the night shift. When he went out to cover police districts a few years later, the cops who wandered into the West Side, East Side and the Centre Street reporters’ shacks were just as easy marks.”
At times Sammy Solovitz joined us at the track. Before starting at the paper, he had been a messenger for Western Union, and had taken pride in the cap and uniform he wore when delivering telegrams to The Times. When Steve Moran, the assistant head of the copyboys, first saw him, he groaned: “Is Western Union running a kindergarten now?” Sammy put his hands on his hips and jutted out his chin: “Shut your trap, you big fathead.” James, overhearing the exchange, promptly hired Sammy as a copyboy. Sammy, who had “resigned” from Brooklyn Automotive High School after his sophomore year, was soon bossing a group of copyboys all taller, older and better educated than he.
The actual chief of the copyboys was Tim Connery, a cheerful man in his mid-thirties, who looked like a prizefighter because of his broken, flattened nose. Adolph Ochs had given him the job some years earlier after Tim was injured working as a flyboy in the press room and lost his right arm. Tim and Moran kept watch over the city room, standing like sentinels at a post near the city desk. Moran’s nose glowed nightly after he consumed pitchers of beer fetched by Sammy from a nearby saloon.
Along the Forty-third Street side of the city room, directly in front of a wall of tall casement windows, stood a large desk for the city editor and smaller ones for his secretary and three assistants. These desks, known collectively as the “city desk” (later the metropolitan desk), were flanked on the west side by the managing editor’s office; on the east side was the bullpen, containing, along with McCaw’s desk, seating for three assistant night managing editors.
From his command site, the city editor looked out into the city room, where his staff of almost a hundred reporters—an all-white and virtually all-male domain—sat at their battered desks, fourteen rows with six desks in each, connected like Siamese twins. Also within his view were the fifteen copyreaders seated around the long, wooden horseshoe-shaped city copy desk. And nearby were the other two horseshoe copy desks: telegraph and cable (later renamed national and foreign).
The room had undergone no major change since the building, which opened in 1913, had been somewhat enlarged in 1924. (The paper had previously been published from its cramped 1905 structure in the trapezoidal Times Square island.) While the additional space allowed more elbow room, there was still a sense of intimacy. And not least among the room’s unplanned perks was its view from a rear window of the dressing-room windows across an alley of the Forty-fourth Street Theater. Copyboys took up nightly vigils to watch the chorus girls changing costumes, an entertainment that ended when the theater (which housed the Stage Door Canteen in its basement for soldiers and sailors) was torn down to make room for The Times’s new annex.
No one felt more at home in that city room than Sammy Solovitz as he bantered with reporters and editors through the long night. Sammy wore his hair in a crew cut. He was a chain-smoker, though he never bought his own cigarettes, preferring to cadge them, regardless of brand. Under pressure, he’d shout curses, sometimes in the obscure Yiddish he had picked up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where his parents owned a candy store.
Eventually, Sammy ascended to bona fide boss of the copyboys, many of whom were destined to be correspondents in bureaus all over the globe. One of his charges was Al Gore, who had himself worked as a copyboy during a summer in the late 1960s, and went on to become a reporter on the Nashville Tennessean. Once, on a visit to The Times during his vice presidency, he recalled Sammy fondly as a “hard taskmaster.”
I had not known Sammy for more than half an hour when he suddenly grabbed my arm, squeezing it so hard his eyes seemed to pop out under his heavy lids. His long, sharp nose quivered as he muttered furtively, “There she is. I have to have her! I have to have that Lucy Greenbaum!”
The object of his lust was a generously rounded young reporter whose low-cut dresses drew all eyes in the city room. Lucy belonged to the female vanguard of four, all hired to replace men who had been drafted or become war correspondents. She had a gracious smile that masked a tough, spirited core, and it was surely her competitive training as a catcher on school and neighborhood baseball teams that provided her with ideal seasoning for survival in this male jungle. She boasted she could catch the fastest ball thrown, but “I gotta have the right kind of mitt.” No one doubted her.
“Sammy,” I said in disbelief, “that woman could squash you! She’s twice as tall as you and three times as wide!” Sammy was not to be dissuaded, especially when Lucy drew close to him and spoke his name in the whisper she affected. “I must have her!” he cried, a refrain I heard month after month.
As tokenism, The Times had been hiring women reporters since 1869, when Midy Morgan, an Irish-born expert on livestock, was engaged as a business staff reporter to cover the cattle-market beat. But it wasn’t until 1935 that the paper hired a woman, Kathleen McLaughlin of the Chicago Tribune, to cover breaking news for the city staff.
Lucy was the second woman engaged to write about hard local news. She was the niece of the Sulzberger family’s attorney, General Edward S. Greenbaum, and after her graduation from Bennington in 1940, she persuaded her uncle to ask the publisher to grant her a chance to try out. At that time, women reporters were generally known as “sob sisters,” mostly relegated to writing sentimental human-interest stories, or contributing columns on the “Four F’s”: Family, Food, Fashions, Furnishings. This was an era when newspapering was considered a rough trade, when almost all editors thought it unthinkable for a woman on The Times to cover stories of violence and mayhem. Women staffers were considered delicate, breakable objects, to be treated with chivalry to their faces—and often with scorn behind their backs.
Reversing that kind of thinking over the years was a hard struggle—and pity the woman reporter who rejected an assignment because it was dangerous. (Once in the early 1970s, during my tenure as metropolitan editor, I assigned several reporters to cover the celebration of Earth Day in Union Square, at that time a deteriorating neighborhood. As night fell, the crowds became rowdy and one of the reporters, a young, attractive woman, phoned me from a sidewalk booth; she complained she was being harassed by some youths and asked, “Could you please send a man to replace me?” Linda Charlton, one of the stars on the rewrite battery, happened to be standing nearby and picked up the drift of the conversation. “How can you let her come back?” she demanded. “If you do, I insist you send me out to replace her.” I did.)
An outstanding exception in my early days at the paper was Anne O’Hare McCormick, the first female columnist and one of the most influential writers on the editorial staff. In 1921, after having submitted several notable articles to the Sunday Magazine, she wrote to Carr Van Anda asking if she could send him an occasional story from Europe, when she accompanied her husband, Francis J. McCormick, an importer and engineer, on a business trip. Van Anda replied, “Try it.” Her assessment of Mussolini’s rise was in astute contrast to the dispatches from other correspondents who tended to dismiss him as a poseur, and her place at The Times was assured.
She wrote about domestic and foreign policy events and obtained exclusive interviews with European heads of state, including Hitler as well as Mussolini. She rarely took notes, once explaining that, “It makes people too cautious.” She relied on her flawless memory and ability to sense the mood of a situation. Despite her renown, Adolph Ochs refused to employ her—or any woman—for the foreign or national staffs.
It wasn’t until a year after Ochs’s death in 1935 that his successor, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, offered Anne McCormick a job on The Times’s editorial board. Only one year later, she became the first Times woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. Sulzberger later said of his decision: “It’s a pretty scary thing to be a brand-new publisher of The New York Times and to score a bull’s-eye when your trigger finger is still trembling.”
Mrs. McCormick, as she preferred to be known, spent months at a time reporting on military and political developments in war-torn Europe. One night she and her husband were invited to dine with General George S. Patton. The road to his headquarters was under bombardment, washed out in places. The officer who served as their driver and guide suggested it was too dangerous to make the trip in the dark, especially under enemy fire. But Mrs. McCormick was undeterred. When they arrived at Patton’s camp, the general was amazed to see them.
It appeared that commanders at the front were more at ease with Mrs. McCormick than with her male counterparts. Patton, for example, allowed her to witness his blunt briefing of his officers. She complimented him on putting on “such a good act.” Responding good-humoredly, he said, “The American stage lost a great actor when Geeorge S. Patton joined the Army.”
I had heard many such stories about Mrs. McCormick’s exploits, and imagined her as a kind of Rosalind Russell playing the wisecracking, flirtatious star reporter in His Girl Friday. I was confounded when I first delivered copy to her to find a matronly woman in her sixties, sitting at her desk wearing a lacy hat.
FROM MY VERY FIRST DAY at the paper, I had savored working in Times Square. Even before reaching the city room, I breathed in the exotic aura of nighttime Broadway, the pulsing, gritty essence of the city. Broadway’s lights were now dimmed for the war. But on dark, cloudy days during my boyhood, the lights in Times Square were switched on early and the gray haze magically vanished. Often, I left the subway from the Bronx at Columbus Circle to walk down Broadway, sometimes lingering to listen to the speakers in the Circle as they ranted from their soapboxes, American flags at their sides.
Below the Circle, the island enveloping Times Square was incandescently white, an effect achieved by tens of thousands of glittering electric bulbs in gigantic advertising signs, along with the beckoning movie palace marquees that lined both sides of Broadway. I felt myself transported to another world. Jewel-like in its iridescence, the light flew skyward, visible for miles. It was enhanced by the relatively new neon signs, which were introduced in a big way in 1925 when the George M. Cohan Theater heralded “Ben-Hur” in red letters five feet high.
In 1936, I was taken by my uncle to see the dazzling multicolored Wrigley’s Spearmint sign, erected to a height of five stories above the Criterion movie theater. A forerunner of the neon spectaculars, the sign provided free sidewalk entertainment; people stopped, sometimes for as long as half an hour, to gaze at the animated electric aquarium of eleven vari-sized green, red, purple and yellow fish swimming up and down and blowing neon bubbles.
Polished brass everywhere along Broadway reflected the lights. All the movie theaters and restaurants were plated with brass, and brass buttons dotted the smart uniforms of ushers standing under their marquees, erect as soldiers on parade, staring straight ahead. With rare exceptions, these ushers were fair-skinned all-American boys, drilled daily on the roofs of the movie houses.
One of Times Square’s enticements was the stage show, often featuring big bands, that followed the film presentation in the larger movie houses. When Sinatra made his bow at the Paramount not long after my arrival at the paper, some twenty-five thousand screaming teenage girls, all wearing the requisite bobby socks, snaked around three city blocks trying to buy tickets—or at least get a glimpse of their idol—causing traffic snarls and requiring a detail of two hundred policemen. Since the entrance to The Times was a short distance up Forty-third Street from the Paramount’s stage door, my colleagues and I had to force our way through the crazed mob. Sammy Solovitz flirted with the girls as he shoved through their ranks, confiding that he was a close friend of Frank’s.
I spent part of my dinner break people-watching in Times Square. There was a flower shop above the front steps of the Astor Hotel where gigolos bought corsages for the matrons they escorted. Young couples crowded the barroom of the Taft Hotel to hear Charlie Drew at the piano singing risqué ditties, and I became an expert at nursing a single beer for the duration of the hourlong show. Dinner at times consisted of an outsize hot dog and a small beer at a bar called McGuiness that set me back a quarter, but for no extra charge I could watch ribald cartoons revolving above the bar.
Returning from my dinner break during my first week at work, I was just in time to hear a reporter yell, “Copy!” I ran to his desk as he pulled a page from his typewriter. Copy paper, on which all stories were written, was shiny, cheap, lightweight newsprint cut into sheets eight by ten inches and stacked high in the city room.
Grabbing the page, I turned to carry it to the copy desk when suddenly I heard a loud whistle. I spun around in time to see the reporter, lanky, balding and bespectacled, stand up from his chair, rub his hands together and blow into his closed-knuckled thumbs, again creating the piercing noise. He then leaped onto his desk and began a lap around the city room, jumping from desktop to desktop. Reporters sensing his arrival nonchalantly ducked their heads and then went about their business. I was bewildered.
“Sammy, what is he doing?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s just his way of blowing off steam when he finishes a story. That’s Mike Berger.” Meyer Berger, who occupied the first desk in the first row, was the preeminent stylist on the staff and arguably the best writer on any newspaper. When the paper—which generally shunned frills—boldly inaugurated a column of whimsical, human-interest anecdotes, no one doubted the assignment would go to Berger. The column, which grew out of a feature launched at the 1939 World’s Fair, was called “About New York,” but because it focused on the lighter side of life, it was discontinued with the onset of the war (and didn’t reappear under Berger’s byline until 1953).
Born in 1898, Berger had left grammar school at twelve to take a job as a messenger for the New York World. But when he finally tried out as reporter, it was clear he was a natural. After starting at The Times in 1928, he was invariably assigned to the front-page story about the St. Patrick’s Day parade, in an era when there were more Irish in New York than Dublin. He always wrote his story in metrical prose. One paragraph went like this: “Shrill blew the pipes and shriller the fifes, and shrill were the million wind-whipped at the curb. Bright sun spread pale gold on the pavements and turrets, and in late afternoon the marching phalanxes clumped through barred shadows.”
Raymond McCaw made only one correction in his story. “I wrote that the leader of the Ancient Order of Hibernians ‘marched stiff as a ramrod,’” Berger later told me. “The slanderous implication was fixed by his substituting the word ‘straight.’” McCaw was sensitive to the word “stiff”; he himself consumed a three-martini dinner most nights, and occasionally, when an important story broke, I was sent to fetch him from Kieran and Dineen, his favorite Eighth Avenue haunt.
The Irish called Mike “Meyer O’Berger,” and his parade stories were must reading in classrooms all over New York. Berger was also an authority on bootleggers and gamblers of the Prohibition and Depression years. They confided in him, for he understood their patois and habits, and could be trusted with their secrets.
He liked to tell copyboys about the gangsters he knew, and we all read his book The Eight Million to learn more about the murderers he had covered. He described some of them as “rather merry-looking fellows”—for example, Al Capone, who resembled “any head barber who hadn’t watched his diet. In repose, his face was fat and smiling.” Then there were the less merry ones, like Jack “Legs” Diamond, who was “sinister and ratty,” and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, who had killed fifteen men and two women and was finally gunned down in a phone booth; he had “eyes the texture of cubes fresh from the ice tray.”
When Berger was first introduced to Dutch Schultz, the beer baron stared at him (in no mood for the kind of humor he had once directed at Pat Spiegel). “Ain’t you the one who wrote I was a pushover for blondes?” he asked. “Didn’t you write that in The Times?” Berger, a whiz at shorthand, prided himself on the accuracy of his quotes. He had the quote from a good source, he said. That was beside the point, Schultz argued. “I only remember it made me feel bad when I saw it in The Times. I don’t think ‘pushover for blondes’ is any kind of language to write for a newspaper like The Times.”
Most of Berger’s peers found it hard to believe that with so little schooling he could write so articulately, and credited his wife, Mae, a teacher at P.S. 1, with encouraging his self-education. I once tried to talk Sammy Solovitz into going back to school. “Why?” he asked. “School never did anything for Mike Berger.”
The newspaper business was considered just that—a business, not a profession. “Journalism” was a dirty word, thought to be highbrow, and when college graduates first began entering the field in large numbers, flaunting their journalism degrees, veterans like Berger were disgusted. He felt they should be exposed to the old-style methods of newspapering, that their soft brand of writing with delayed leads would spell the end of the great, hard-nosed tradition of American reporting as it had evolved.
The New Yorker’s editor Harold Ross once lured Berger away from The Times, but it was not long before he returned. Although the job at The New Yorker paid more, Berger couldn’t abide the idea of waiting, sometimes months, for publication of his stories at the weekly magazine. He told me the true pleasure of being a newspaperman was seeing a story in type often within an hour or less of writing it.
Like Berger, most Times reporters held the belief that their paper was the pinnacle and they embraced its tradition of building a career methodically, always sharpening the essential tools of their trade. This arsenal included, at its best, a crisp curiosity about everyone and everything; a detective’s obsession to probe for facts; a rational mind to interpret them and write them up speedily in a logical sequence; and finally, the gift to imbue these facts with imagery, suspense and—if possible—wit.
A year on the police beat was typically a reporter’s first assignment in those days. There he learned by trial and error, working alongside veteran, street-smart legmen, who were not expected to write their stories and never received a byline, but who knew everything about pinning down the facts. They phoned in their information to rewrite men in the city room, who stitched them into stories, often in a race against the clock. Then came a period of “general assignment,” when the reporter might be sent out by the city editor to cover just about any kind of story—a labor demonstration in Union Square, a political rally in Brooklyn, a building collapse in Queens, a charity banquet at the Astor Hotel, a brawl on the Staten Island Ferry.
There was additional seasoning to come before a reporter was considered truly rounded—often an assignment to the rewrite battery, doubtless the most pressured job in the city room; and then possibly a stint at City Hall or in Albany, or a specialized beat such as the courts or the hospitals department. Finally, for some, there was the prize of a national bureau, Washington or an overseas assignment.
Sometimes there was a refresher period back in the city room. In this way, traditions were baked into a reporter’s marrow, and by the time he was offered a promotion to editor he was in no doubt about what his paper stood for, and how and why its standards had to be fiercely protected. (It is true that aspects of this process remain in effect today, but all too often the successive roads are traveled at dizzying speeds.)
In my early days at the paper, I was struck by the fact that most reporters were poor typists, often using a two-fingered technique, yet their speed and concentration were remarkable when up against deadline. After completing each paragraph, the reporter would yell for a copyboy, who dashed over and took the page to the city copy desk.
There sat a dozen or so copy editors clutching thick, soft, black pencils (stamped “Ebony 6325”); also at hand were a paste pot, scissors and a stack of copy paper. Swiftly and often ruthlessly, they pencil-edited a reporter’s copy, cutting out and rearranging paragraphs, pasting them up on a clean sheet of copy paper. The discarded portion of a story was impaled on a small green spike, positioned at each editor’s elbow.
Edited copy was dispatched to the floor above where a squad of Linotype operators, schooled at translating the editors’ hurried marks and scribbles, typed the day’s stories onto hot metal slugs. With everyone racing against the clock, mistakes were often made in the hot type, to be subsequently corrected on proofs. I remember the first time I picked up a newspaper that had arrived directly from the basement press room—it was still warm and the ink rubbed off on my hands and stained the cuffs of my shirt. I learned to turn up my sleeves and secure them with rubber bands. In those days, even copyboys wore long-sleeved shirts with ties and often jackets.
Every day we filled glass jars with paste, and I can still smell its pungent sweetness. Other of our routine chores included sharpening pencils, preparing towers of copy and mimeo paper and, at night’s end, rolling up the discarded copy from the spikes to be retained for its background information in case of a libel charge.
Many years later, in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis in 1968, I experienced an instance of city-room pressure at its most extreme. As the then metropolitan editor, I had assigned my top rewrite man, Sylvan Fox, to piece together the breaking page-one story about the burst of looting and violence by bands of young black men in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the details of which were being updated by the minute. A reporter sat by Fox’s side, feeding him facts phoned in by reporters in the field. I scrutinized every page of Fox’s story as it was brought to me, and several times interrupted his typing to request changes.
I thought Fox had buried a facet of the lead in the second paragraph, but I didn’t want to bother him about it until he’d finished the entire story. We were right up against edition time. Fox was hugely admired for his speed and organizational skills. No story, no matter how big or complex, ever seemed to ruffle him, and I had little doubt that he would be able to handle this last-minute change.
Red in the face and perspiring, Fox finished the story, leaned back in his chair, and let out a sigh. I gestured to him—“May I see you for a second?” He came to my desk and I suggested how he could change the lead. “How much time do I have?” he asked. I told him, “Five minutes.”
Fox went back to his chair, sat down and keeled over. The reporter who had been feeding him the phoned-in facts shouted: “Arthur, you killed him!”
I ran to Fox and found him still breathing. The medical department was summoned and he was carried out on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to St. Vincent’s Hospital. I was devastated. My assistant editor, Sheldon Binn, suggested I phone Fox’s wife, Gloria. I tried to sound reassuring as I relayed the story of her husband’s collapse.
Gloria was a nurse and asked for additional details, then offered a diagnosis. “Don’t worry,” she said. “He’ll be fine.” And he was. He had simply fainted from the stress and, Gloria said, it wasn’t the first time that had happened. We never did get around to changing the lead of his story.
I HAD BEEN AT THE PAPER roughly a week when we were electrified by the arrival of D-Day—the opening of a second front in Europe by Allied forces. We had known something momentous was brewing; rumors of an invasion were rife. Advance stories were being written, and set in type, and we had stayed up several nights until six A.M.
On Tuesday, June 6, shortly after midnight, a bulletin arrived from the Associated Press in London relaying reports picked up from Berlin radio dispatches that the Allies were storming the beaches: “Combined British– American landing operations against the western coast of Europe from the sea and air are stretching over the entire area between Cherbourg and Le Havre.” But there was no confirmation from Allied headquarters. We wondered if this was some sort of Nazi disinformation.
The cable editor, Theodore M. Bernstein, who had left for the night, was summoned back to the city room. As the bulletins flew in over the wires, I delivered them to Raymond McCaw. I still have the original bulletins, which I’ve kept all these years. McCaw regarded the bulletins with suspicion as there had yet been no confirmation from Allied sources. The Times’s Washington bureau, asked to check with the Office of War Information, telegraphed the following to McCaw:
“Washington is still quiet. OWI [Office of War Information] and the War Department continue to say they have no information, although Elmer Davis of OWI rushed to his office to await further developments, showing the reports to be true or not. Anything new up there?”
Despite the lack of confirmation, McCaw decided to put out an extra at 1:30 A.M. based solely on the reports from Berlin.
As the city room grew tense with speculation, McCaw and the cable desk leaped into action. War maps were consulted. Theories attempting to pinpoint the area of invasion were debated. The foreman of the composing room had begun planning with McCaw the paper’s makeover and two forty-eight-point headlines were set in type as a precaution—one heralding the invasion of southern France and the other of northern France. Knowing we would all be in the city room until dawn, McCaw sent Sammy and me out to buy sandwiches and coffee. We appropriated a mail-room cart and, wheeling it at high speed, stalked the delis of Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Finally, at 3:33 A.M., when the suspense had grown all but unbearable, confirmation came over the wires from the United Press: “FLASH FLASH LONDON—OFFICIALLY ALLIED TROOPS LAND IN FRANCE.”
With all eyes focused on the machines, the UP ticked out: “Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces, Somewhere in Great Britain, Tuesday, June 6—Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s Supreme Allied Expeditionary Headquarters announced today that Allied Armies were landing on the northern coast of France.”
Within a short time, The Times’s chief correspondent in London, Raymond Daniell, began filing from Supreme Headquarters: “The invasion of Europe from the West has begun. In the gray light of the summer dawn Gen. Dwight Eisenhower threw his great Anglo-American force into action today for the liberation of the Continent.”
The Times was the first New York—and the only morning—newspaper that carried the early reports so long awaited, a major coup I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand.
Advertisements were killed by McCaw to open additional space for dispatches from war correspondents—which, I was impressed to learn, was an undisputed rule when important news broke suddenly. The last extra was off the presses at six A.M. All of us in the city room were too highly charged to go home to sleep. After a while some of us headed for Hector’s, the all-night Broadway cafeteria, for breakfast and talk. When we emerged at eight o’clock, we were startled to see groups of people on their way to work, gathered on the sidewalk, gazing upward at The Times’s “zipper,” the horizontal ribbon of electric lights that displayed war headlines on its revolving screen between the third and fourth floors of The Times Tower, the paper’s earlier headquarters in Times Square.
Powered by almost 15,000 amber bulbs, the headlines were written by Times reporters at regular intervals and dispatched by copyboys (later by teletype) to the technicians in the Tower. The zipper’s design made it possible to get a bulletin moving around the Tower within three minutes of the time the story broke. The zipper had its start on election eve of November 6, 1928, and had been running continuously ever since, except for recent breaks caused by wartime blackouts and dimouts. Only a month before, the zipper had resumed operation daily from four P.M. to midnight.
As I later discovered, permission had been granted to turn on the zipper at eight that morning in response to the Normandy invasion. A cheer went up from the street when one of the bulletins flashed: “PRIME MINISTER CHURCHILL REPORTS ALLIED AIRBORNE TROOPS HAVE CAPTURED SEVERAL STRATEGIC BRIDGES IN FRANCE BEFORE NAZIS COULD DESTROY THEM.” Another bulletin followed quickly: “THE LANDINGS ON THE BEACHES ARE PROCEEDING AT VARIOUS POINTS AT THE PRESENT TIME. THE FIRE OF SHORE BATTERIES HAS BEEN LARGELY QUELLED . . . OBSTACLES WHICH WERE CONSTRUCTED IN THE SEA HAVE NOT PROVED SO DIFFICULT AS WAS APPREHENDED.”
My colleagues and I were, naturally, elated. But just about all of us who were gathered in Times Square that morning had a relative or close friend in the service, and we were sure that when the cost in lives of that heroic invasion was added up, the numbers would be devastating.
At last, exhausted, we called it a night, and I took the subway home, reading and rereading my copy of The Times’s Extra. I knew the edition would be devoured nationwide and filed away for future historians. Heading to my Bronx neighborhood, I couldn’t help feeling a surge of pride for the role I had played, insignificant as it was, in helping to proclaim this world-shaking event.
DURING THE EVENING CITY-ROOM HOURS, copyboys warmed a wooden bench, anticipating various commands. After a few weeks on the bench, I was tapped for my first promotion by the telegraph editor. Wilson L. Fairbanks had evidently taken note of the speed with which my long legs enabled me to whisk copy up the spiral staircase to the composing room. He beckoned to me, and I approached him with trepidation, for he was a presence to be reckoned with.
Everyone addressed him as Mr. Fairbanks—including the managing editor and the publisher. A gentleman of the old school, he was an unreconstructed Victorian—wiry, proud and upright, wisps of white hair falling over his ears and forehead. The deep pouches under his eyes were a testament to the puritanical fervor with which he attacked his work, reminders of triumph over slovenly copy thrust on him by careless writers.
Mr. Fairbanks’s intimidating air, combined with his age and his reputation as a teetotaler, kept him at a certain remove from the rest of the staff. When he shouted “Copy!” the boy whose turn it was rose like a private saluting a four-star general. Orders would be muttered, and if a mission was not completed with speed and exactitude, his accusing stare was enough to make a grown newspaperman tremble. Because he mumbled his commands, head down into his chest, he was often hard to understand, and this was what got copyboys into trouble. One of them walked out of the city room one night rather than face Mr. Fairbanks’s anger, and was never heard from again.
Mr. Fairbanks’s desk clerk had to leave when he developed a facial tic, and I was chosen to fill the vacancy. I didn’t know whether to celebrate. The promotion to the telegraph desk meant a weekly salary increase from sixteen dollars to twenty-two. What concerned me was having to sit at the copy desk in a swivel chair at Mr. Fairbanks’s immediate right. This proximity, at first, threw me into heart-pounding anxiety. But I was determined to decipher his mumblings, and I finally found the key. It was almost like learning a foreign language.
My eagerness to conform to his finicky ways was recognized and, to my shock, he appeared to take to me. Like virtually all the paper’s senior editors and reporters, Mr. Fairbanks was rooted in the long-established tradition of mentoring, and he became, in effect, my first newspaper tutor. Every night, after the edition, he swiveled his chair to face me and talk about the old days. The pre–World War I era of anarchists and socialists came alive in his stories, as did the postwar period of our country’s growth as a prosperous nation, the tragedies of the recent Depression and what he condemned as hypocritical party politics in Washington.
Mr. Fairbanks’s worship of the paper was evangelical—and he was the first to instill that reverence in me. Through our informal conversations, I began to understand the attachment that senior editors and reporters had for The Times. I also absorbed some of the paper’s stringent ideals, chiefly its insistence on factual accuracy, its demand for fairness and its intolerance of trendiness and triviality.
“We record the deeds of men in all their multicolored shades of good and evil,” Mr. Fairbanks was apt to pronounce. “Here in the night’s copy are the sins—and the glories, too. But we must not gaze too long on these things. We must keep the record straight and without prejudice.” Mr. Fairbanks guarded these principles with a ferocity that surpassed the merely professional. For him, it was a lifelong commitment.
Mr. Fairbanks was merciless in trimming inflated stories to their lean essence. Some of his theories about writing were documented in the letters I was to hold in my hand close to five decades later. These letters, in an ornate scrawl, were mailed to me at intervals from his hilltop farm in Newfane, Vermont, following his retirement in 1946. He was too preoccupied with inspirational advice to bother with tidy penmanship. He was upholding his duty to bestow his wisdom on those who, like me, would one day inherit the mantle of responsibility and trust.
In the city room, Mr. Fairbanks enjoyed analyzing and dissecting for me the mystical power of The Times’s front page—in those days set in an eight-column format. He described how the page, over more than nine decades, had evolved into the most carefully crafted, authoritative daily summary of major news events—foreign, national and local. Day after day, knowledgeable and sophisticated readers, including the president himself, relied on that balance.
“Page one must always reflect the most significant occurrences in yesterday’s world,” Mr. Fairbanks said. “Deciding which stories go there is based on the intuitive wisdom of editors with a solid work foundation, both out in the field and for the various news desks. Those of us who managed to come through it all now know in our bones why a story belongs on the front page, whether it deserves to lead the page in the top right position, or in the second most important placement on the top left, or in the top positions in the middle of the page, or above or below the paper’s fold.” He chuckled. “I have to admit that the only editors who can compete with our own decision-making process are those over at the Herald Tribune.” Although he regarded the Tribune as a serious newspaper, he disapproved of its efforts to achieve a livelier makeup and snappier writing style than The Times—which might have made the paper an easier read but at “a cost in dignity.”
With restrained amusement, Mr. Fairbanks alerted me to a bizarre practice about which I already had my suspicions: If the night bullpen editors discovered that the Tribune, in its first edition, had positioned a spot news story on page one that The Times had consigned to an inside page, The Times often switched its story to page one for the second edition; conversely, upon examining the front page of The Times’s first edition, the Tribune might well move its story from page one to an inside page. When the second edition came up, it was not unheard of for both papers to reverse positions again.
Several times Mr. Fairbanks went so far, in his letters, as to write out for me variations on his own credo of good newspapering. In one entitled “Some Essentials of Good Leads,” he advised:
Introductions rank high among the essentials of newspaper writing even if we call them nothing but leads. Many a story is saved by its lead and by the same token many a story is sunk by its lead—dull, heavy-witted, inadequate for its subject which may be itself very interesting.
In essence, I should say the very first requisite for a lead is directness. Directness means going straight to the ‘it’ of the news—the one fact that makes your story worthwhile writing and perhaps fit for the front page. So far as The Times is concerned, it wants to know (first of all) in every important story “what happened.” And this one thing should be told right away without elaboration.
Directness is the most natural method of expression by a normal human being. If a man, coming from a railroad wreck, met a friend, would he say to him, “A horrible event has just occurred downtown?” Or would he say, “The chief of police has just announced that,” etc.? Would he say, “Much grief has been caused to the people of the city as a result,” etc.? Of course, he will say nothing of the sort. He will assert in imperative words that “ten persons have been killed in a head-on collision” and then the details as he knows them. As a rule, one sentence can convey the essence of the story it is your privilege to tell. It is real art to make every word count weightily in producing the final effect.
Another relative of directness (perhaps a first cousin) is concreteness. This is the summons for a sharp and distinctive statement which abhors generalities as a pestilence (which they are). I suppose there are more failures in fashioning a good lead, due to wandering off into the byways of generalities, than can be blamed on almost any other way of writing. . . . Simplicity has always had a charm for me as a news element worth the striving for. . . . Then you are kindred in spirit, even if only a humble disciple, of the Bible, and on to Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill.
No one could accuse Mr. Fairbanks of not speaking with concrete directness, or of pandering to petty diplomacy. A crusty New Englander to his core, he was the descendant of Yorkshire pioneers. His family had settled in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1636, establishing a permanent and respected presence near Boston, that bastion of Yankee tradition. Born on Washington’s birthday in 1865 in the town of Natick, Mr. Fairbanks graduated from Tufts College (majoring in Greek and Latin) before embarking on his newspaper career.
His background in the classics was the bedrock of his standards as copy editor nonpareil. Virtually every member hired to his staff had studied Latin. He insisted on grammatical perfection, and the improper use of a word, or a flowery adjective, could cause him almost physical discomfort. On such occasions, he would lean back in his swivel chair (for once not mumbling), thrust out his chin and declaim arcane epithets in one of the dead languages. If a reporter handed him a story containing a sloppy phrase or imprecise use of a preposition, it could drive him to despair, eliciting a lecture about the “grotesque state” of the American intellect and the evils of mental laziness in the young.
One night, the picture editor asked him to check the accuracy of a caption. The word “homes” was used in the caption to describe new buildings for war veterans. Mr. Fairbanks growled that “houses,” not “homes,” was the correct word.
“What’s the difference?” asked the picture editor.
“Houses are built of wood and brick,” Mr. Fairbanks snapped, “but it takes a woman to make a home.”
Mr. Fairbanks was always confident that such an “error” would be caught by The Times’s trusted proofreaders, and he often assured all sixty of them that they held a special place in his heart. In those days, they were highly educated grammarians—both men and women—who combed through every story after it was set in type to make certain it was free of typographical errors and lapses in style. Ensconced in offices off the composing room, the proofreaders worked in pairs, one reading the copy aloud to the other, who made the corrections in the proof. About fifteen minutes was devoted to each column of type.
Every night as the first edition went to press, George, the cafeteria waiter, brought Mr. Fairbanks a tray with a sandwich, a small salad and tea. He would gulp down his food, never taking his eye from the copy as it poured onto his desk from Times bureaus around the nation. Sometimes at this point, briefly leaning back in his chair, he would mutter a sort of apology to no one in particular: “The sharp words that pass in the headlong plunge toward edition time are forgotten with the tick of the clock.”
No matter how acerbic he was during the processing of copy, he instantly became a courtly New England gentleman on those rare occasions when one of the few women on the staff approached his desk. I used to watch in astonishment as he rose from his chair, nodding graciously, a genteel smile warming his face.
One such visitor was likely to be Rachel Kolloch McDowell, the religion editor. Whenever she had a problem with a story, she cautiously crept from her tenth-floor office to seek Mr. Fairbanks’s guidance. Lantern-jawed and slouching sideways, she created the impression that one leg was shorter than the other. She would slip between Mr. Fairbanks’s chair and my own to make her presence known and, no matter how harried he was, he quickly stood to inquire: “How may I be of service to you?”
As she grew older, Rachel McDowell became ever more distrustful of the male sex, to the point of near-delusion. She was the only editor in the building who locked her office door, fearful of being attacked. Sammy had given me a scenario for the procedure to be followed when I knocked on her door to pick up her copy:
“Who is it?” Miss McDowell would call.
“A copyboy, Miss McDowell.”
“What’s your name?”
“Who sent you?” she would ask, thinking (as Sammy had warned) that I had designs on her.
“Mr. Fairbanks, Miss McDowell.”
After a few seconds of silence, presumably spent tiptoeing across the room, she would unlock the door and slowly open it—but only a crack. She would thrust her copy at me, while giving me a hard look.
“I’ve heard you talk downstairs,” she would scold, “and you should be ashamed of yourself!” The door would be slammed in my face.
There was a story afloat that a newly hired copyboy once came to her door and, when she opened it to hand him her copy, he moved toward her too quickly. She screamed, and the boy turned and ran, pages spilling to the floor. Those few copyboys to whom she took a liking, she would compliment by saying, perversely, “You’re a good little girl.”
When she took her clothes to be dry-cleaned, she specified that they were to be processed separately from the men’s garments. The dresses she wore were lopsided, one side of the hem hanging lower than the other, and they were buttoned up to her chin. She always wore a feathered hat. Once, when a Times physician removed her shoe and stocking in a corner of the city room, so that he could examine the ankle she had sprained on assignment, she almost fainted with embarrassment.
She was known to all as “Lady Bishop,” and her utter lack of worldliness often drew peals of laughter from the copy editors. On one occasion, when she was covering a religious convention in Atlantic City, she sent an apologetic telegram to the desk: “Copy a little late. Have been on the Boardwalk all day. Am hustling.”
Despite her eccentricities, Miss McDowell was a good reporter, respected by clergy everywhere, and was the only reporter in the city to have the cardinal’s private telephone number. “Quite often,” she once said, “I have made a friend of the preacher’s wife before knowing the preacher. In this way, I have an advantage over a man reporter because he cannot do this. When the preacher’s wife is my friend, the preacher also is.”
When she ventured into the city room, she moved very slowly, eavesdropping for evidence of the foul language against which, as president and founder of the Pure Language League, she waged a ruthless campaign. The managing editor gave her permission to have the cashier distribute small leaflets on League letterhead with everyone’s paycheck, urging employees to eliminate profanity from their conversation.
On several occasions, she caught me saying “damn it.” Her eyes blazed as she told me my soul would be consigned to the devil if I persisted. She conducted informal lectures on the evils of liquor, gambling, dancing, and smoking by women. Strangely enough, she chose to reside at the Times Square Hotel, just yards west of the Times building. This somewhat run-down establishment was home to traveling salesmen and assorted Broadway characters, some down on their luck, all of whom received complimentary lectures in the lobby from the one-woman Pure Language League.
One of her principal targets for conversion in the city room was a friendly man with a salty vocabulary to whom smoking, drinking and a lust for life were second nature. His repertoire of funny, off-color stories drew listeners from all corners of the city room. He was a second-string movie critic, A. H. Weiler, known to everyone as “Abe,” a slight, urbane man with a brush mustache.
Soon after his birth in Russia in 1908, Abe settled with his parents on the Lower East Side. While taking night courses at City College, he was hired by The Times in 1927 as a clerk in the morgue (the voluminous archives containing clippings about people and other subjects that had been mentioned in The Times or other major journals). He had longed to study medicine but grew discouraged when told that medical schools would probably not accept him because of his religion. (Many Jews seeking medical degrees at that time were forced to apply to schools in Scotland or Mexico.)
One night Abe, after having dinner with another clerk from the morgue, bade his friend good night and, with thirty dollars in his pocket, he bought a ticket for the first bus out of town. It was June of 1930, early in the Depression, and Abe lived in a Chicago flophouse for ten cents a night. Traveling west and south, he witnessed streams of jalopies headed to California from the Dust Bowl.
Abe had left New York without saying good-bye to his parents. Devastated, they called the police, but they were unable to trace him. A year later he was back, and promptly reported for work at The Times. The assistant managing editor, the dignified Osgood Phillips, walked Abe to his old desk in the morgue and Abe set back to work at once as if nothing had happened. Mr. Phillips went to Mr. Ochs to inform him of Abe’s wanderings and his return. “What a silly thing to do,” said the publisher. “But tell him he’s always welcome here.” After hearing this story, I remember saying to myself, “This is a place that will shelter you for the rest of your life.”
ONE OF THE BEST LESSONS I ever received about newspapering was through watching Mr. Fairbanks’s herculean feat on the night of August 29, 1945. The long-awaited Pearl Harbor Investigation Report, with little advance notice, was flown in from Washington at 5:45 P.M.—only four hours before the first edition deadline.
The report contained 130,000 words, the equivalent of a 400-page book. Mr. Fairbanks and managing editor James, after scanning the document, decided it was of such major significance that every word of it should appear in the paper. The Times’s reputation as “the paper of record” stemmed from its long-held practice of running complete texts of documents and speeches, but no text up to that time had ever run this long. It would take up fifteen full pages, and numerous ads would have to be killed to make room for it, at great expense to the paper. Mr. Fairbanks, his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, instructed me to divide the report into roughly twenty sections.
He summoned copy editors whose day off it was and recruited others from disparate city-room operations, and the composing room foreman called in additional Linotype operators and compositors. Mr. Fairbanks then distributed the sections of the text to his editors to check for misspellings and incorrect punctuation and to write heads and subheads. He kept the edited pages flowing to the composing room at an ever-quickening pace. Glancing often at the large, round wall clock and muttering oaths at editors who were falling behind, he himself pitched in, editing portions of the copy and occasionally handing me pages to check.
Without air-conditioning and with no breeze coming from the open windows, the city room was stifling. Electric fans whirring nearby offered little relief. The editors, their faces flushed and perspiring, were under fearsome pressure, while Mr. Fairbanks somehow managed to stay dry and collected. I heard one of the editors whisper to another, “He has no blood.”
Although most of the report reached the composing room just before deadline and made the first edition, a few final pages had to be held for the second. Nevertheless, The Times was the only paper to publish the entire report that morning. Mr. Fairbanks did not leave the office until after the 3:20 A.M. closing time, wanting to be certain the report was free of error. The desk editors—some of them half his age—were bent and weary as they headed for home. Mr. Fairbanks stood tall and unruffled as he bade us all good night.
Prominently seated at Mr. Fairbanks’s left that night had been his chief assistant, Frederick A. Austin, a man whose habits and idiosyncrasies I also became privy to at my new post. Lean and angular, with inquisitive eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses, Austin was one of the sharpest copy editors in the business. He was a second-generation Times man, his uncle having joined the paper in 1878 after working in Nevada with Mark Twain. His mother was said to be descended from the Indian tribe that welcomed Roger Williams into Rhode Island after his expulsion by the Puritans in Massachusetts. Austin never tired of reminding us that he had Indian blood.
He had joined The Times in 1919, and his background as a grammarian led to his recruitment to Fairbanks’s telegraph desk. He was a close friend of Frank Vizetelly, editor of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, an association that inspired a series of Times articles on Mr. Vizetelly and uses of the English language. Austin went dancing on his days off, and it was at his behest that The Times gave dance reviews a respectable status almost on a par with that of its theater criticism.
He was one of the best-tailored and best-natured men to grace the city room. A conspicuous imbiber as well, he didn’t always manage to keep his habit from interfering with his work. Often, by the time he was ready to take his departure from the city room, his balance was not quite steady. He drank one green-tinted bottle of ale after another throughout the course of the night, lining the bottles up on his desk as he emptied them.
All of us watched with concealed mirth as the night progressed. I expected him to fall out of his chair at any moment—and occasionally he did. I tried to be there in time to catch him, but when I didn’t make it, he landed on the floor. Mr. Fairbanks disapproved of this, naturally, but Austin was never, in so many words, asked to stop.
There was a popular saying, “Drink is the curse of the Herald Tribune and sex is the bane of The Times,” but liquor seemed to play as much a role as any other vice in the Times city room. Two or three drinks during a lunch or dinner break at a nearby eatery or saloon were not uncommon, and there were reporters and editors other than Austin who drank openly in the city room. (Beer, in fact, was sold in the Times cafeteria until the 1970s.) While some kept whiskey in their desks, others would sneak off to their lockers. Open or concealed, this behavior was usually overlooked.
A goodly amount of off-the-job drinking was done at Schrafft’s, a restaurant on the east side of Broadway at Forty-third Street that was traditionally the territory of middle-aged dowagers. A table was regularly reserved for the Sunday department editors in the back part of the restaurant, which contained the bar. One of the stars of the Sunday department was Charlie Palmer, who invariably downed three martinis before returning to his Times desk. One day he chose to have four, and a colleague complained to Sunday editor Lester Markel, a sour disciplinarian. “I’d rather have Charlie around here drunk than the lot of you sober!” came the reply.
Alcoholic or not, just about everyone at The Times smoked. Though there were spittoons for the tobacco chewers, ashtrays were nonexistent. Cigarette butts were swept up nightly by porters. Now and then someone threw a cigarette butt into a wastebasket and copyboys had to stamp out the fire. The only spittoon preserved from those olden city-room days was appropriated by the publisher’s son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known to everyone by his nickname, “Punch,” who later housed the polished, proud relic in the den of his New York apartment.
While certain behavior was condoned, other behavior was not. The rules seemed to be that quirky habits were permitted if they did not impede the sacred task of getting the paper out on time. Those who dared cross the line between eccentricity and insubordination, however, were dealt with severely.
At the end of the day shift, at around seven P.M., reporters customarily began lining up at the night city editor’s desk, in conformance with an unspoken rule that you did not go home until you received a “Good night” from the editor. Only when he looked up and said “Good night” was it permissible to leave. If you left without a “Good night,” it was tantamount to a felony. The ritual was not unreasonable, since it gave the editor an opportunity to raise questions about a reporter’s copy before he departed for the night.
Once, Pat Spiegel neglected to wait for his “Good night” and had to face the ire of the night city editor Bruce Rae. Another such victim was A. J. Gordon, a reporter known as the “gumshoe.” He served as in-house informer and, whenever a suit was filed against The Times or when an employee was perceived as causing trouble, Gordon would be assigned to dig up unsavory and potentially damaging details from that person’s past.
Everyone on the paper was aware of the gumshoe and, of course, he was universally despised. But there was one aspect of his behavior that provided endless amusement: When he received his weekly pay from the cashier, he hurried to his bank to trade in his bills for crisp new ones. He was convinced old bills carried germs.
When Bruce Rae discovered that Gordon had gone home without his “Good night,” he could not restrain his pleasure in pursuing the matter. Rae’s background was similar to Mike Berger’s; he had left school at an early age and received his real education in the city room of The Times. Always reading, he could quote long passages from his beloved Dickens and Thackeray. He had started as a copyboy at five dollars a week in 1909, and was steeped in Times tradition. Known for his wit and a tongue that spared few, he had particular disdain for those who shirked responsibility.
After calling the local bars, Rae’s clerk finally, at around ten P.M., found Gordon at home. He told him the boss wanted him to come back to work immediately.
“What’s it about?” Gordon asked, assuming there was some hot story or other breaking. “I don’t know,” said the clerk, “but you’d better get back, quick!”
Gordon dashed for the subway and started the long commute from his home to Times Square, raced to the city room and presented himself at Rae’s desk, breathless. “What’s up?” he asked of what seemed to be a strangely calm city editor perusing some paperwork. Without looking up, Rae paused a moment and said, simply, “Good night.”
THE TELEGRAPH DESK became my classroom and gave me a sense of belonging. The other great copy editor on the desk was Grover Cleveland Loud. Like Fairbanks and Austin, he carried on the tradition of mentoring young staffers he thought showed promise. On my first day on the desk, Loud watched with amusement my bewildered reaction to some of the city room’s antics. “Newspapermen are strange,” he said wryly. “There is a bond which unites them in a noncompetitive fraternity, and if you don’t belong on a newspaper it won’t be long before you realize it. After twenty or thirty years, a person may receive a salary of only sixty or seventy dollars, but that’s of little consequence. People work on newspapers for the fun of it.”
Grover Loud was a tall, thin man with a shock of red hair and a flair for the dramatic. One of the stories he loved to tell involved his introduction to reporting. While still in high school, in his home state of New Hampshire, he was witness to a train accident and took it upon himself to contact the region’s largest paper. He related the details of the disaster, and the story made the front page. The editor was so impressed with Loud’s reporting skills he offered him a stringer’s job.
Loud also reminded me frequently that, like Austin, he had Indian blood. And he was forever talking about his experiences in combat during World War I as a captain in the infantry. “Here, feel the shrapnel I still have in my back,” he would say. He smoked a corncob pipe, always wore a vest and a polka-dot blue bow tie, and carried a cane. When I occasionally left the city room with him at the end of the shift, he would twirl his cane in the midst of telling a story.
“Someday, young feller,” he once said, “you will be amazed to discover that behind your back you are being called the ‘Old Man.’ That’s the way it is on the timeless Times. The best of it is how all of us can go forward with the living personality of a newspaper into everlasting remembrance. Achievements and peccadilloes alike become legendary. Human qualities survive. Beneficent ghosts tread the paths trod by their successors.”
Loud chewed tobacco. Mr. Fairbanks, when in a playful mood, would wait for Loud’s mouth to be stuffed with chaw and then ask an urgent question about a headline that Loud had just begun to write. Loud, whose great pride was as a headline writer, would speechlessly point at his mouth, rise from his seat and head for the nearest spittoon. In his momentary absence, Mr. Fairbanks would himself compose the headline and send it up to the composing room. Mr. Fairbanks’s mind worked so fast that he never had to count the units of a headline to make sure they would fit a column’s width—the only city-room editor capable of such a feat. When Loud returned to the desk and looked for the story, he was informed of Mr. Fairbanks’s meddling. It was painful to witness his fury.
Loud’s bred-in-the-bone New England manner, like that of Mr. Fairbanks and Austin, led him always to speak his mind. When reading particularly bad copy, he would blow through his teeth, whistle low and say, “Jesus wept, and well he might!”
When the mandatory retirement policy was introduced some years later, Loud, who had been growing increasingly crotchety, wrote his own advance obituary and filed it in the morgue. It was succinct, and at its conclusion stated: “Spare me the obscene hypocrisy of newspaper management which likes to expand an obituary as compensation for a conscience it never had. And spare my family the ultimate mockery of flowers and condolences.” When Loud died in 1968, The Times, ignoring his instructions, published a fulsome obit.
THE NIGHTLY WHIRLWIND around the telegraph desk gathered force at five o’clock and did not abate until the first edition went to press at ten. Stories from Washington were dispatched by Morse code operators to their New York counterparts in the “wire room,” which housed the various news service ticker machines and was adjacent to the telegraph desk.
All the Washington correspondents began filing their stories at about the same time. The New York operators decoded the telegraphed copy and typed each page onto a stencil for mimeographing. The unsorted mimeographed pages were then routed to my station at the telegraph desk. As the deadline approached, I was half buried in a blitz of paper. It was my job to put each page of every story in its proper order as it flew onto my desk; I felt like a frantic Charlie Chaplin struggling to prevent a pileup on his assembly-line conveyor belt.
Mr. Fairbanks gave me a copy of the assignment schedule at the start of each evening, and I was required to distribute the stories, page by page, to the copy editors assigned to read them. The copy editors, in turn, sent the stories, a page or two at a time, to the composing room. I had to keep a duplicate of every page, assembled in sequence, in case Mr. Fairbanks or a bullpen editor needed to check back. I knew that my new job would evaporate if by some horrible mischance I gave the wrong page to the wrong editor, thus disrupting the smooth running of the conveyor belt.
One evening, after I had endured a nerve-wracking two weeks, Mr. Fairbanks turned to me after the edition had gone to press: “Well, young man, what of importance have you learned in your job thus far?”
I hesitated briefly, then decided to be forthright: “Mr. Fairbanks, I’ve been surprised to learn President Roosevelt has an understanding with the White House press corps that prevents them from quoting him directly unless he gives his permission.”
“So, you’ve caught that, have you?” remarked Mr. Fairbanks, and went on to express his own irritation with the agreement. He said that Roosevelt had insisted upon those terms at his initial press conference in 1933, and it had been blithely accepted by the Washington reporters. “Personally, I don’t like it,” added Mr. Fairbanks with a dismissive shrug. Then abruptly changing the subject, he praised my work and, to my joy, offered me a promotion from clerk to news assistant and a ten-dollar raise (bringing my weekly salary to thirty-two dollars!).
Later that night, Grover Loud told me I was the first person in the job to keep nightly copy flowing without error. But, he pointed out, good-humoredly, surely I must realize it didn’t take a mental giant to assemble and distribute copy, no matter how severe the pressure, and I mustn’t let the accolades go to my head. He said I was doubtless capable of rising to higher challenges, and invited me to meet him at the Harvard Club the next afternoon at three o’clock to celebrate my raise.
The Harvard Club was a short walk from The Times. I had never been inside, nor for that matter inside any private club. I was awed by the climate of subdued orderliness and studied the punctilious staff as they served a mostly graying male membership plainly beyond draft age. (I myself was still awaiting notification from my draft board.)
Loud asked me what I would like to drink. “A Manhattan,” I said, with all the insouciance I could muster. I knew from the movies about Manhattans, a mixture of Canadian rye and sweet vermouth, stirred with ice, poured into a stemmed glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry. Elegant sophisticates like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, William Powell and James Stewart sipped what I believed to be Manhattans in their penthouses or country estates in the company of seductive but virginal women (Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur and, of course, Madeleine Carroll).
“A Manhattan?” exclaimed Loud in mock horror. “A mixed concoction like that will turn your brain to the white of egg. Drink only Scotch with water. At least it won’t give you a hangover—unless you drink too many.” The waiter brought us each a Scotch and water.
“Well, young man,” said Loud. “Now that you’ve reached the first rung upward, I’d like to know why someone as well-read as you does not have a college degree?”
I explained that I had left CCNY in my junior year because I was waiting to be drafted and simply could no longer concentrate on my course load. Formally called the City College of New York, CCNY was an exemplary tuition-free school that mainly served the underprivileged children of European immigrants, who shared the conviction that the only escape from financial struggle was through education. CCNY was so highly regarded that it was jocularly referred to as the Harvard of New York.
When I first arrived at the gates of the campus in Harlem at sixteen, the tumultuous scene startled me. Students confronted me with leaflets espousing every conceivable cause. There were petitions against bigotry, members of Congress, the president, landlords, socialists, communists, bosses. Among my fellow undergraduates—at least during the tail end of the Depression—were several future Nobel Prize laureates. Admission was based solely on high school grades, a minimum average in the high 80s being required. Two of my friends from affluent families, whose high school grades were among the highest, were students at CCNY; they had been rejected by Ivy League colleges because of the so-called “New York quota,” a euphemism for limiting admission to a few token Jews.
Savoring the unfamiliar but admittedly clean taste of my Scotch and water, I told Loud I was proud of being among the youngest freshmen. The money I earned from after-school jobs I spent primarily on books and theater tickets. I skimped on lunches, relying on an invention of my fellow students in the cafeteria: the ketchup sandwich. Bread was a nickel and ketchup was free—not bad at all, especially when washed down with a nickel cup of coffee.
“Go back to school,” Loud commanded. “You may become a reporter without a college degree, but that era is fast disappearing. And you certainly don’t want to stay around here in a clerical job the rest of your days like some of the human fixtures in our city room. Do what I did. Keep your newspaper job while you finish your college credits. If CCNY is too tough a school to attend while holding down a full-time job, what about NYU?”
I told him I would seriously consider his advice. If nothing else, it would make my mother happy. Then Loud asked about my parents. He seemed absorbed as I diffidently described my roots. Perhaps it was the sense of being accepted by so formidable a member of The Times, or maybe it was the Scotch. Whatever the reason, I regaled Loud with my family history, which had its beginnings in Eastern Europe.
Both my parents, Daniel and Fannie, came from the same small town in the Carpathian Mountains, in what is now Ukraine—a border town called Kimyat. The town was then part of Czechoslovakia (and before that Hungary). My paternal grandfather owned a flourishing tavern there, which he operated with the help of his second wife and his twenty-year-old son—my father, Daniel.
Daniel did not get along with his difficult stepmother. One day, when he talked back to her, he was reprimanded severely by his father, who raised a threatening fist. My father ran out of the tavern and, feeling misunderstood and maligned, decided to take dramatic action. He returned to the tavern after it had closed, helped himself to money from the cash drawer and took a train to Prague, where his younger brother, Joseph, was studying. When he told his brother he was going to America, Joseph made a quick decision to leave school and accompany him.
New York was their destination, and they arrived filled with hope. My father settled into a tenement on the Lower East Side and found work as a cigar maker, a trade that had attracted other recent immigrants from his area. Joseph found lodgings in Brooklyn, and a job there driving a horse-drawn laundry wagon.
Making his rounds in foul weather, Joseph caught a cold that turned into pneumonia, and he died in a matter of days. My father, who had not at once received word of his brother’s illness, reached his Brooklyn rooming house too late. By the time he got there, Joseph was dead. My father never recovered completely from the shock. His faith and optimism evaporated, and his life began to spiral downward.
My father was haunted by guilt over his brother’s death for the rest of his days. He blamed himself for having encouraged Joseph to leave a promising life as a scholar in Europe for the uncertainty of life in America. In his mourning, he did not shave for months. Within the next year, he embarked on a period of restless drifting, spending his time gambling at cards and drinking.
In Kimyat, my grandfather grieved over both lost sons. He was a leading figure of the town, respected and well-to-do. From the closely knit immigrant community in Manhattan, he received word that his prodigal son was living somewhere on the Lower East Side. When he was told that a young woman from his town was preparing to embark for a new life in America, he sent for her. If she should ever run into Daniel, he pleaded, would she ask him to write to his father, who loved and forgave him.
My mother was seventeen when she set out alone in 1913 in steerage, the first member of her family of ten to travel to America. Her father, Eliezer, was a Talmudic scholar, and he and his wife, Hannah, eked out a living operating a small general store. When Fannie left home, the town and the farming area surrounding it were experiencing a depression. She was determined to make good in America so that she might provide at least a small measure of support for her family.
Fannie found room and board on the Lower East Side among the now thriving community of European immigrants, and landed a job in a large children’s dress factory. It did not take long for her employer to recognize her ambition and ability and decide she should study designing. When I met him years later, he told me my mother had been his most talented employee. He wanted her to ascend in rank, but fate intervened.
One day in Tompkins Square Park, Fannie was with a friend who pointed out a lanky, melancholy, but quietly dignified man. “I think he’s from your town in Europe,” the friend said. It was, of course, my future father, Daniel Gelb. Somewhat shyly, Fannie and her friend introduced themselves. As surprised as she was to find the man for whom she carried a message from across the ocean, he was equally astounded to hear news of his estranged father.
More than anything, he was captivated by Fannie. Tall for that era—five-foot-seven—she was striking, with long black hair and green eyes. Daniel’s melancholy seemed almost instantly to lift. He asked to see her again and she—equally attracted—agreed. As she later told the story to my brother and me, she persuaded him to marry and settle down.
As I continued the narrative, Grover Loud, who at times interrupted with a question, seemed genuinely interested. My parents, I told him, were an ideal match; my father loved to listen and my mother loved to talk. Fannie gave up her job at the dress factory to have children. Not long after, the cigar workers’ union, of which my father was a member, was called out on strike by its leader, Samuel Gompers. My father was out of work for a long, hard year. Finally, my mother suggested they open a shop specializing in custom-made children’s dresses. She would make the dresses and he would run the business.
My parents’ first child, Harold, was born in an apartment behind their store in Harlem, at 205 East 102nd Street, near Second Avenue, and I was born there four years later. On the cold February day she gave birth to me, my mother was at work at her sewing machine until the last minute. She had been feeling uncomfortable all day, but needed to finish a dress for a customer’s daughter, who was to wear it for her birthday party. She did finish it, and went into labor. My father called our postman’s son, a newly graduated medical student, with whom he had earlier made arrangements. I was the first baby that the young doctor delivered. He later went on to a practice on Park Avenue, and became our family physician.
At first, my parents used to open their shop very early in the morning and did not close it until late at night. They struggled through times of economic uncertainty, but somehow we always had enough to get by and our home glowed with hope. My parents were extraordinarily loving—I can’t remember either of them ever raising a voice to the other. The bond between them seemed so unassailable that, in my youth, I honestly believed all marriages were made in heaven.
The store was a happy place, so happy that I loved falling asleep there, under the counters on top of bolts of fabric. I loved the shop life and the comings and goings of customers and tradesmen. People constantly sought out my mother, who became the neighborhood sage. The store was an informal therapeutic center. I used to listen intently, absorbing the advice my mother dispensed to customers and friends.
From the time I was four, I looked forward to each day’s adventure on the block outside my parents’ store. From early morning until nightfall, I went back and forth between the store and the sidewalk. The sidewalks were absolutely safe, and we kids—not unlike the Our Gang rascals—were basically on our own, exploring and making friends under the minimally watchful eyes of our mothers, who never seemed to find it necessary to interfere with our social interactions. Looking back, I see myself as a blissful urchin, dressed in short pants, playing until my face and knees were black with grime. I was so deeply engrossed in my street activity that my mother had a hard time persuading me to come in at last, to scrub my face and knees and eat my dinner. When I started school my street life, to my regret, was postponed until after the three-o’clock bell.
When I was almost five, my parents decided to move from East Harlem to the Bronx, convinced that the high hills and abundance of trees would provide clean, healthy air for my brother and me, and that the endless vacant lots would serve as our playing grounds. They leased a shop close by the Grand Concourse, less than a mile from Yankee Stadium, and rented a sun-drenched apartment nearby on a tree-lined street.
The Grand Concourse was the Bronx equivalent of Manhattan’s Park Avenue. It was a broad, three-mile-long boulevard that cut across the borough from 138th Street to Mosholu Parkway. Its expansive middle lane was reserved for fast-moving automobiles, while narrower lanes on each side, bordered by large shade trees, carried buses and slower vehicles. Hugging both sides of the avenue were row after row of tidy five-story walk-up tenements, occasionally interrupted by a sleek art deco apartment building that boasted a uniformed doorman and elevator operator.
For Sunday strolling, there was no more inviting avenue in the city than the Grand Concourse. Jewish families lived mainly on the west side and Irish families on the east, and it seemed perfectly natural for Jews to do their strolling on their side and the Irish on theirs. The Irish appeared to enjoy jogging (then called “running”), and “foot races” were a weekly occurrence along the Concourse’s side lanes.
Most of the Irish children attended parochial school, but there were several older Irish boys in my school with whom I teamed up to play basketball after class in the schoolyard. I had the height for basketball and I was good at it, and our camaraderie helped protect me from the schoolyard bully, who also happened to be Irish.
On Halloween, my friends and I sometimes filled old silk stockings with flour and swung them across each other’s legs and back, the flour leaking through the stockings onto our clothes. One year the bully added rocks to the flour and, when he struck, his principally Jewish victims howled in pain. My Irish friends knocked him to the ground and dumped the contents of his stocking over his face and body—a satisfying finale if there ever was one.
My parents eventually moved their shop a little farther north, elevating the business to the Concourse itself and settling into an apartment above the shop. As I was growing up, I explored what seemed to me every inch of that boulevard and three of its landmarks will forever be etched in my memory.
The 4,000-seat Loew’s Paradise was the Concourse’s palatial movie house and a beacon for everyone who yearned to escape to a romanticized world; it was an essential pleasure of my life. The marbled grand lobby, lofty ceilings, fat columns and grandiose, spotlighted statuary wrung sighs from patrons not long since arrived from the Old Country. The lobby’s magnificent fountain and its pool of giant goldfish delighted the neighborhood children. The auditorium was crowned by a realistically painted azure sky with slow-moving fluffy white “clouds” and twinkling lights that looked like stars.
The Paradise was as much an addiction for my mother as for me. It took her mind off the confined and drab world of the Depression years that seemed to go on and on. Every Friday night after dinner, my mother and I rushed off to the Paradise. My father preferred to stay home devouring his newspapers, and my brother was happier in the company of his friends. On Saturday mornings, my brother and I went to the Avalon, a much smaller, cozy movie house that showed third-run double features, a weekly chapter of a cliff-hanging serial and two or three comedy shorts. Sometimes on Sundays, my mother succeeded in persuading my father to take the entire family on an outing—to the RKO Fordham on the bustling throughfare of Fordham Road.
Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage, modest and cramped, was another Concourse landmark significant in my life. Situated at the edge of Poe Park north of Fordham Road, it was where Poe had written “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” almost a hundred years earlier, and I liked to linger there, envisioning the impoverished poet at his tiny desk scribbling by candlelight as his ailing wife, Virginia, lay in her bed upstairs.
Toward the southern end of the Concourse and not far from Yankee Stadium was the pride of Bronx hotels, the Concourse Plaza. Flag-bedecked, it stood tall and gleaming among the neighborhood tenements. Upper-crust weddings and bar mitzvahs were celebrated there, and it housed the Yankees when they were in town, as well as visiting teams. Now and then my friends and I would take the trek down the Concourse to the hotel’s entrance, hoping for a glimpse of Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig.
One night during the depth of the Depression, at the time our apartment was above the store, the doorbell rang loudly after midnight. The policeman at the door told my father that the store had been burglarized. Several thousand dollars’ worth of dresses had been stolen—to us, a fortune.
My mother had refused to pay some mobsters who demanded a hard-earned two dollars a week to “protect” the store, and the police were convinced that the burglary was intended to teach her a lesson. By early morning, my mother was at her sewing machine in the empty store, beginning work on a new dress. When one of her friends appeared, asking, “How can you start all over again?” my mother said, “There’s no other way. I have my children to look after. No one will do it for me.” So, with some borrowed money and much courage, she and my father began anew.
Loud was curious about the cultural influences of my early childhood. Self-consciously, I began to describe some of the religious rituals we practiced, such as the lighting of candles on Friday night before dinner. I feared he would find my background so alien, it would threaten our newly forged bond.
Nonetheless, I did tell him about the traditional Friday-night dinner enjoyed by all the neighborhood Jewish families, and how on Friday morning every butcher store was packed with housewives. My mother, a natural cook, taught my father the rudiments.
On Friday afternoons, they took turns dashing from the store to our apartment to prepare the elaborate evening feast, usually consisting of a cold fish loaf (gefilte fish), spicy chopped chicken liver, chicken soup with thin homemade egg noodles, roast chicken accompanied by a mixture of carrots, peas, sweet potato and stewed prunes, and an assortment of cakes and pies that my mother had baked early that morning before leaving for work. The aroma of the baking sweets—apple, nut and raisin, cheese, sponge and honey—was the alarm clock that woke me for school every Friday.
On all mornings, in fact, my mother was already at her command post in the kitchen when I awoke. By then, my father had brought in the two bottles left outside our apartment door by the milkman, who had arrived at dawn by horse and wagon. Milk came in two grades, A and B, and my family’s standing order was for one of each. The richer Grade A was for my brother and me. In those days before homogenization, the cream in the Grade A would rise to the top and the bottle had to be vigorously shaken before pouring. The bottles were stored in a wooden icebox, whose top compartment was regularly filled with a block of ice carried up the stairs of our apartment house on the back of the iceman.
As the Friday-night meals were being cooked throughout the neighborhood, I and the other hungry kids playing in the streets would shout up to our respective tenement windows for a snack. The indulgent mothers would toss down brown paper bags containing sandwiches, usually an onion roll cut in half, lathered in chicken fat and spread with chopped liver and something called gribenes, bits of fried chicken skin that tasted like bacon. The sandwiches were nutritionally appalling and absolutely delicious. As dusk descended on Friday evenings, you might look up and see half a dozen paper bags flying out of windows.
Loud seemed to delight in this sort of ethnic flavor, and I felt encouraged to go on.
What bound my friends and me together were the streets, where we played stickball; the empty lots, where we played baseball; and the schoolyard, where basketball was the attraction. We ingeniously fashioned guns out of wood and rubber bands that shot small squares of cardboard cut out of discarded movie posters. We made wagons from wooden fruit crates dumped by grocery stores, old baby carriage wheels and old roller skates.
We stole potatoes from produce stands and baked them in fires we made in the lots until they were charcoal-black. Nothing tasted better. At the end of the day, our faces would be caked with dirt and ash. We were learning how to live together, what friendship meant, and how to get along with people who were different from us.
There was no air-conditioning, so when it was too hot to sleep, my parents took my brother and me to the park—Central Park (near the 110th Street lake) when we lived in Harlem, and Echo Park (a quiet neighborhood oasis) when we lived in the Bronx. We brought a basket of food and spread a blanket on the grass, where we slept until it grew cool enough to return to our apartment. Summer’s end was heralded by a ritual in which the older boys went around grabbing straw boaters from the heads of strolling or loafing male pedestrians, and burning them in empty-lot bonfires. Anyone who wore a straw hat after Labor Day was fair game.
Every square block contained its own tribe. At the corner candy store, a meeting place after school, you could get a ten-cent malted, a two-penny glass of seltzer, or a strip of sweet, crunchy halvah for two cents. Vendors proliferated on the streets, selling flavored shaved ice and corn-on-the-cob in summer, baked sweet potatoes and hot salted chickpeas in winter. Peddlers, too, were common, walking up and down the street shouting, “I cash clothes!” or whatever it was they were trading in. Troubadours went from backyard to backyard, rewarded with spare change wrapped in strips of newspaper and tossed from windows. An Italian man cranked up his hurdy-gurdy while his monkey on a string danced and begged for pennies.
On Sunday nights during the Depression, radio provided a free comic marathon to households in all neighborhoods. Families gathered around their sets to listen to three consecutive hours of shows starring Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, and Jack Benny. The streets on those nights were deserted. If someone happened to be walking in my neighborhood on a Sunday night, he was likely to hear the same programs blaring forth from scores of apartment windows.
Loud asked me about my brother, and I told him that Harold was very important to me as I was growing up. Both my parents had a profound regard for education and constantly urged us to do well in school. My brother helped me with my schoolwork and encouraged me to read. Every Saturday after the movies we went to the library together, where he amassed an impressive armload of books. I was sure he would grow up to be a writer. The more educated my brother and I became, the more educated my parents became as well.
Harold was almost ten years old when the Depression descended. Every few blocks, there was a jobless man, always neatly attired—sometimes in tie and jacket—selling apples for a nickel apiece; long “bread lines” were set up by the city and people waited for hours to obtain free loaves.
My brother was traumatized when he accompanied my father to stand on the blocklong line outside the bank where our family savings were deposited. My panic-stricken father prayed that he could retrieve his money before the bank was forced to close, and while on line he kept muttering, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”
I was similarly traumatized when my parents took me to Central Park one Sunday to make an offering of cans of food to the hungry and homeless. Desperate to find shelter, they had set up huts of tin, wood and newspaper on one of the park’s spacious lawns, creating what came to be known as a “Hooverville.” In contrast to my earliest years in Harlem, I never saw a black person in my Bronx neighborhood. I witnessed only white poverty—which was pervasive. One heartbreaking childhood memory was the sight of bereft parents clutching their infants, huddled on the sidewalk after they had been dispossessed for not paying their rent.
The endless hardships led to frequent protest rallies in the streets. During the 1932 presidential election campaign, the sidewalks resounded to oratory propounding ways out of the Depression. On almost every corner, speakers set up soapboxes and American flags. My father, as a kind of civics lesson, took my brother and me from corner to corner to listen to them. Most of the speakers in that overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood extolled New York’s governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his battle to defeat President Herbert Hoover. Although Hoover was blamed in our neighborhood for the ills of the Depression, there was a scattering of intrepid speakers who tried to rally support for him. But the hostility was so palpable toward the Hoover boosters that I wondered how they would get out of the neighborhood unharmed.
During the Depression, the way my family lived was unpredictable, all depending on the volume of business in my parents’ store. There were good times, particularly during the Easter and Christmas shopping seasons. The extra money taken in was put aside for summer vacations in the Catskills or the Rockaways. During the lean times, though—when my mother had to work on her sewing machine past midnight—there was often nothing to spend on entertainment or even on clothes.
But I can never remember my parents skimping on food. Those hard times were endured by almost everyone in the city, many on “home relief.” Sometimes I shared my lunch with two of my school friends, Linky and Sammy and, often after school, brought them back with me to my parents’ store so my mother could feed them.
It was then that Harold vowed to find a secure job when he grew up. In high school, he was impressed with the lifestyle of his best friend, who lived in an elite building on the Grand Concourse. My teenaged brother soon discovered the source of his friend’s wealth: his father was a certified public accountant, a profession about which Harold made inquiries. If being a CPA could do that much for his friend’s father, why wouldn’t it do the same for him?
By the time I started at The Times, Harold had graduated from CCNY, married his college sweetheart, Sylvia, and passed his CPA exams. He eventually became the co-managing partner of one of New York’s most prestigious accounting firms. I told Loud I felt I was perhaps more of a dreamer.
Loud appreciated my sharing these intimate details, and said he wanted to help me along. He thought there might be a shortcut to getting me onto the reportorial staff.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Why not start an in-house organ in which you interview various staff members about their backgrounds, mixed in with stories about the goings-on in the building? You and a couple of your peers could edit it, and it would be the quickest way to get your skills noticed.”
I immediately embraced the idea.
“The sheet might be sent overseas to our foreign correspondents,” Loud continued. “And to those on the staff serving in the war. It could provide them with a much-needed taste of home.”
But how would I get it published, I wondered.
“Before you begin work tonight, go and wait for James to come out of his office,” Loud advised. “Tell him your idea. And remember what I told you about finishing college. Don’t worry about sleep—at your age you don’t need much. Hard work will keep your imagination flourishing. To smooth your way, make sure to take classes in Latin and Greek. And you will profit from studying Emerson and Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists. Never forget, as Emerson taught us, knowledge is transmuted into truth by action. Keep exploring, keep experiencing, keep questioning, until you find the right path here at The Times or wherever life may lead you. Above all, never lose your childlike curiosity—the staple of all good reporters in their quest for facts, facts and more facts.”
Fortified with the sound of our own words and our Scotches, we walked back to The Times. Loud continued to coach me about talking to Edwin James.
As soon as we reached The Times, I grabbed several of the news clerks and told them of the idea. Two of them, John Meixner and Gene Davis, quickly grasped the possibilities. When I saw James leave his office, nervous as I was, I surprised myself by boldly blurting: “Mr. James, may I talk to you for a moment?”
As always, he was preoccupied, chewing on a cigar and studying the Racing Form, and he recoiled. “Yes?” he asked, feebly.
I made my proposal and requested permission to have the house organ printed in the composing room. He looked bemused.
“What kind of sheet will this be?” he asked. I explained, stressing that it would be good for our men overseas. James finally nodded. “Have it hectographed,” he said. Hectographing was a duplication process employing purple ink, cheaper than mimeographing and less efficient. But of course I didn’t argue.
“Prepare a sample and let me look at it, and we will go from there,” James said.
TOWARD THE END OF JUNE 1944, when I’d been at The Times for about a month, Gene Davis, John Meixner and I met for lunch at the Blue Ribbon, a vintage rathskeller on Forty-fourth Street near Broadway, to plan our paper’s first issue.
Davis was short, curly haired and wore his trousers pegged at the bottom, aping the style of his Brooklyn peers. Meixner was as tall and gangly as I; his black hair was slicked back and his tired eyes peered from behind rimless glasses. Davis and Meixner, both my age, were, like me, waiting to be drafted. They shared my hopefulness and curiosity as well as my sense of the absurd. The three of us had picked up from reporters the habit of parodying the crotchets of editors behind their backs.
We had in common, too, a passion for exploring the city—especially the midtown area—from Professor Heckler’s circus of trained fleas on Forty-second Street to the jazz dens along Fifty-second. They also loved to walk and talk, and we often did both after we finished work—sometimes down to Greenwich Village, sometimes up to Harlem.
The streets were safe for nocturnal strolling save for a smattering of dangerous pockets. We generally avoided Central Park, which only recently had been declared off-limits for walking at night; the Bowery; parts of Hell’s Kitchen; and a few sections of Third Avenue with its rows of dingy saloons, cringing in the shadow of the El. Street brawls were commonplace there and passersby were occasionally mugged.
Food at the Blue Ribbon was hearty and cheap—Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, outsize sausages on heaps of sauerkraut. By the time we got to dessert—giant pancakes smothered in Preiselbeeren—Meixner, Davis and I had agreed to function as a triumvirate, each with the masthead title of managing editor—an arrangement no grown-ups would have dreamed of accepting. We christened our paper Timesweek and mapped out story ideas for the first issue.
The best part was the recruitment of a dozen or so reporters for our staff. We would select them principally from the clerical pool, which consisted of the appealing young women who, in most cases, had replaced the young men recently drafted. We would have been delighted to date any one of them and, by inviting them to join our staff, we believed we would have an edge on the reporters already taking them out.
Among those I assigned myself to enlist were three I thought particularly congenial and pretty. They all happened to be Irish and reminded me of the Irish girls who lived on the other side of the Grand Concourse and had sat near me in class at P.S. 79. Sometimes, overcoming my shyness, I had talked to them in the schoolyard during lunch recess. I was especially drawn to a girl with long dark hair named Adeline Ryan, but, with the three-o’clock bell, she always vanished, along with the others, across the Concourse into her own neighborhood.
My first recruits for Timesweek were Lee McCabe, Sally McKay and Ann Marie Burke. Lee, spunky and iconoclastic with fair skin and reddish-brown hair, could always make me laugh. Sally was an auburn-haired beauty who seemed unconscious of her attractions; she always looked sad and in need of cheering up. Ann, who a few years later was to marry the then United Nations correspondent, A. M. Rosenthal, was golden-haired, with brilliant blue eyes and the most trusting and optimistic nature I had ever encountered.
Now I had the perfect excuse to spend more time with them. As an adolescent I’d had the standard self-consciousness about the opposite sex, but my older brother and his friends had passed on some tips on how to talk to girls. I was also gregarious by nature and it seemed reasonable that since I liked girls, they would like me.
I had already begun my dating career at CCNY, which hosted Friday late-afternoon dances. As there were far fewer female students than male, girls from Hunter College were recruited. My brother, a deft dancer, had shown me some steps that I’d practiced for hours to Hit Parade songs on the radio in our living room, using a pillow as a partner.
The Peabody was a tangolike dance calling for close body contact. The Shag was a silly exercise that involved thrusting your head forward, like a chicken, on either side of your partner’s head. I counted on my mastery of these steps to impress the girls. Other boys knew only the fox-trot or the Lindy (also called the jitterbug, and actually quite difficult to do), while I had finessed these more esoteric routines. I’m sure the girls I led around the floor weren’t as bowled over as I’d hoped, but some of them agreed to go out with me. Most were from the Bronx.
After calling for them at their apartments, where I underwent a sizing-up by their hovering mothers, I took them to the movie and stage show at the Paradise. Settling into our plush seats in the theater’s gilded splendor, I felt a twinge of disloyalty to my own mother—until recently my faithful moviegoing companion.
After the movie we strolled north to Poe’s Cozy Nook, a barroom hideaway on a quiet Concourse block across from Poe Park. To me, this tiny, nearly pitch-dark lounge, down several steps, seemed the height of cosmopolitanism. To find a table, you more or less had to feel for one. In my most debonair voice, I’d order a Manhattan for each of us. My opening conversational gambit was apt to be a discourse on a recent best-seller, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Light-headed, my date and I ambled home. If all was going well, I might serenade her (somewhat off key) with snatches of “Mandy,” the jaunty ballad Paul Robeson had recorded in Europe (along with such other renditions as “Shenandoah” and “Dere’s a Man Goin’ Roun’ Takin’ Names”). I had a 78 recording and played it obsessively at home. When I got to the lyric “Me and Mandy, hand in hand, down de lover’s lane,” I would slip an arm around my date. If she leaned in toward me I was reasonably sure she would let me take her to the roof of her apartment house to watch the moon and stars over the Bronx, and that she would accept a kiss or even, on a rare lucky occasion, more exploratory maneuvers.
They were nice girls, all of them, sweet natured and soulful. But the Irish girls in the Times city room seemed worldlier and smarter, and they didn’t have that dampening preoccupation with getting married. I flirted relentlessly, eventually taking Lee and Sally on dates. We drank at Bleeck’s or at Childs on Forty-third Street, the combination restaurant and barroom diagonally across the street from The Times, where an affable Irish magician-turned-bartender named Bill McKinney demonstrated his trick of making a coin fall through the bottom of a beer glass.
When I first found myself standing at the bar at Childs, I felt eerily at home; the establishment—with its distinctive nameplate painted in script across the windows—was part of the same genteel chain of family restaurants familiar to me while I was growing up. For a very special Sunday treat, my parents took my brother and me to one or another Childs in Manhattan for pancakes—the chain’s specialty—where waitresses in pleated black uniforms and starched white caps made us feel we counted. But I remember no trace of a bar at any Childs my family patronized.
Actually, there was a second Childs on Forty-third Street, this one in the basement of the Paramount building, and I occasionally took my girlfriends tea-dancing there. A five-piece band played fox-trots and, when we got tired of squeezing around the other couples on a dance floor not much larger than a pocket handkerchief, we sipped our drinks at tiny tables and tried not to gobble the platefuls of watercress sandwiches that were my cheap substitute for dinner.
Only rarely could I afford to treat a date to a real meal. I managed to supplement my meager income with filler copy—or, as it was known, “CGO,” as in “can go over.” Since you were paid by the word, you padded the stories to make them as long as possible. The paper in those days rarely ran house ads and so was in constant need of such copy, mainly to hold space for stories that would break in later editions.
I rewrote press releases from the National Park Service—about, say, the decline of the bear population in Yosemite, or precautionary bulletins from the Department of Health. Once in a while I was flush enough to buy my date roast chicken at Bleeck’s, or ham with raisin sauce at Toffenetti’s on the southeast corner of Forty-third and Broadway, but these were special occasions.
WHEN DAVIS, MEIXNER AND I got back to the office after lunch at the Blue Ribbon, fired with dreams of success, we ran into Mike Berger. Meixner, a clerk on the city desk, had come to know Berger fairly well, and began describing our new venture. Berger congratulated us and offered to help in any way he could.
During the week we scrambled to prepare Timesweek, commandeering reporters’ desks on their days off. We more than once stopped by Berger’s desk to ask his advice—an excuse, really, to listen to him talk. Although Berger at his most unrestrained not only desk-hopped but also stood on his head while the change in his pockets rained onto the floor, much of the time he was a quietly intense presence.
His speech was rapid, but soft as a librarian’s, and he stammered slightly when excited. He rarely barked “Copy!” or “Boy!” as was habitual with other reporters, preferring to walk his own copy to the city desk. And even the newest copyboy was invited to address him on a first-name basis. He was “Mike” to everyone.
Then forty-five years old, he was often surrounded at his desk by a cluster of admiring young reporters, clerks and copyboys who came to him with questions about newspapering or with personal problems. Like most reporters, Mike was proud of his calling, and pleased to bring along its neophytes. Of all the seasoned reporters, he was the most generous with his time. He listened patiently to all cub reporters who sought him out, and suggested fixes on their copy. A dead-on mimic, he told ribald stories about his exploits on assignments. And he even offered advice on how to take care of a cold and other ailments (he himself suffered from a stomach ulcer).
Murray Schumach, who as a young reporter had been a Berger disciple, later recalled the pride he felt at being permitted “as a man among men” to join the circle around his desk—especially when Mike came back from an out-of-town assignment “bubbling with tales not fit for a family paper.” Ending an anecdote, Mike might abruptly confront an acolyte and ask, “Do you believe in God?” “Do you think it’s all worthwhile?” or “Are you a good boy?”
The graphic and uncensored details of criminal trials related by Mike in a casual city-room chat would surely have enriched his published stories had he felt free to include them. Sometimes these unsavory details carried significant information that would have made a jury’s verdict more comprehensible to readers. But all reporters practiced self-censorship. In those days, such facts were not perceived as fit to print. It wasn’t until much later that, for example, the quaint “woman of ill repute” emerged boldly as “prostitute”—and in some cases even as “whore.” Murray Schumach once told me about a trial he had covered in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1930s, of a black man accused of raping a white woman.
It was extraordinary for The Times to cover a rape trial in the first place, but this was an unusual case—the woman was the wife of a prominent advertising executive. The defendant insisted she had invited his advances and, at her request, he had ejaculated into her handkerchief during their assignations.
The man was found not guilty, but the crucial evidence on his behalf, a semen-stained handkerchief produced on cross-examination, was not described in Murray’s story. The reader was left wondering on what basis the jury had made its decision. Murray had actually included the vital evidence in his account, pleading in a note penciled at the bottom that the copy editor find a way of getting the handkerchief into the story—but to no avail.
When I became deputy metropolitan editor in 1963, reporters were still straitjacketing themselves, despite a loosening in both the paper’s and the public’s perception of what was appropriate to publish. Intimidated by the aura of The Times, they saw the paper as more prudish than it actually was. I cautioned young reporters not to save their best stories to tell around the office, and not to assume that their editors would necessarily excise juicy facts in the interest of good taste.
Davis and I, new to the paper, were at first too shy to join the group around Mike Berger’s desk. But we were gradually emboldened by Meixner’s acquaintance with him, as well as by our brand-new positions as managing editors of our own newspaper. One day I found myself telling Mike I was planning to go back to college. Why? asked Mike, whose attitude was exactly the opposite of Grover Loud’s. Peering dubiously at me, he asked if I thought there was anything college could possibly teach me about reporting.
“And if you do go back,” he said, “for God’s sake, don’t take any journalism courses. Forgive me for sounding like a crusty old man, but the only way to learn newspapering is by doing it.”
He told me about his childhood—how he’d left school in 1910 when he was twelve, to work full-time helping support his immigrant parents and ten siblings, and about his first job at the Brooklyn office of the old Morning World, running copy over the bridge to the main office on Park Row.
When there was no copy to deliver, he fetched pints of cold beer and hot bean sandwiches from Dinty Moore’s for the office poker games. While the reporters played, he listened to them swap stories—the tricks they’d used to cajole information from balky subjects or to scoop rivals, the telling tidbits of color they’d finagled from cops at crime scenes. These sessions had formed his basic education and engendered his love affair with newspapering. (“I contracted newsprint fever,” he wrote years later, recalling those poker-playing reporters. “The men from whom I caught this fever have, for the greater part, long since died of it.”)
“You wouldn’t get that foundation in any classroom,” Mike told me, “and you’d never get it in journalism school—especially now, with such a well-oiled public-relations industry out there.” Between slick publicists and the news services, he explained, rookie reporters were failing to rely on their own resources. Only hanging around veteran reporters, being exposed to some of the old-time methods of reporting, would teach me to stand on my own pins.
He told me that Adolph Ochs had never finished high school, going to work full-time at fourteen as an apprentice, or printer’s devil, in the composing room of his hometown newspaper in Tennessee, the Knoxville Chronicle, and had bought the Chattanooga Times when he was only twenty. “As his daughter once said,” Mike added, “he had ‘newsprint in his fingers.’ And what more do you need to be a good newspaperman?”
It was not a scolding speech and, as he talked, he filled a page in a stenographer’s notebook with little leprechauns, his habitual doodle.
“Tell me,” he said, “did you say why you’re going back to school?”
I could think of only one reason. “I’m doing it for my mother,” I answered sheepishly. It was the truth: My mother, still upset over my dropping out of CCNY, longed to see me graduate.
He shrugged, smiling gently. “Oh, well, in that case you have to go. Read some good books for me while you’re there—and don’t forget what I told you about those journalism classes.”
ON THE AFTERNOON OF JULY 18, 1944, flanked by Davis and Meixner, I set a stack of Timesweeks on an empty desk in the city room, where the staff was sure to see them as they straggled in after lunch. We retreated to the back of the room, where we stood nervously sneaking looks to see if we were being read.
Restricted to cheap paper and condemned to fuzzy printing, Timesweek looked even more amateurish than my high school weekly. It consisted of five eight-by-eleven-inch pages that we had stapled together, after having stayed up all night typing copy onto purple carbon stencils and then hand-cranking the hectograph machine to produce the copies. Our fingers were stained purple from the carbons and our heads were woozy with the fumes from the alcohol toner the machine required.
Timesweek’s unpolished appearance was at odds with its high-minded goals. “We intend to be a serious, energetic and intelligent publication,” we wrote in our page-one editorial. “And though this might suggest dullness to some, we believe they are important virtues—the elements necessary for a successful and interesting newspaper.” Our first issue was an earnest, eager-to-please statement of purpose—containing the very same qualities associated with The Times itself.
Our lead story, as befitted a publication produced by three freshly promoted copyboys, was about an ex-copyboy named Richard J. H. Johnston, who had been posted to the paper’s London bureau the previous week. We continued, in subsequent issues, to take a proprietary interest in Johnston’s career, reporting when he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel in France, and eventually quoting him on his return home from Germany: “Patton is a good soldier, a helluva good actor and a bit of a swami who hypnotizes correspondents.”
At the bottom of the front page, as a thank-you for suggesting the idea of Timesweek, we featured a profile of Grover Loud that I had written, leading with a description of “his nightly scrap” over copyediting with Wilson Fairbanks, who, Loud conceded, “is always ninety-nine-point-nine percent correct.” Other stories included the trouncing by The Times’s softball team of the Herald Tribune. A reference to a Times second baseman, a file clerk named Kathleen Burke—Ann’s sister, soon to enlist in the WAVES—was smugly sexist, in the manner of the era: “She’ll fill a uniform nicely,” we commented.
Exhausted, bleary-eyed, but pumped full of coffee and adrenaline, we watched as reporters, editors, clerks and others took copies back to their desks where, to our delight, they appeared to read the issue cover to cover.
By the second issue I had begun “Talk of the Times,” a column with facts and anecdotes about Times personnel—with priority given to excerpts from letters to friends from homesick staffers fighting overseas. “Times Square is shown often in the movies and makes me wish I was back working in the pressroom,” read one missive from New Caledonia. “Some day when all this is over I’ll be back printing a paper for you again.”
Also noted were weddings, parties (though downplaying the liquor that flowed freely), promotions, vacations, retirements, babies born. Timesweek often read like a small-town newspaper. We recorded the comings and goings of its prominent citizens—correspondents and bureau chiefs—and profiled its favorite sons. With experience, we began doing pieces on significant developments at the paper, especially stories about how reporters got their scoops—the exclusive account, for example, by Brooks Atkinson about General Joseph W. Stilwell’s recall from China.
The Times had sent Atkinson, its famed drama critic, to Chungking when he became restless during the course of the war and told Arthur Hays Sulzberger he could no longer stick it out as drama critic, which he labeled “a job for little boys” in wartime. Soon after his arrival in Chungking, Atkinson could not resist evaluating a performance of Hamlet in a theater crowded with soldiers, students, women with babies, and “intellectuals in Western attire.” In the dispatch, which ran on December 8, 1944, on page one, Atkinson jested that the production was “not yet quite ready for Broadway.”
But it did not take long for Atkinson to demonstrate his superb reportorial talent. He took the measure of the hidden animosity between Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and General Stilwell. Although stricken with jaundice from malaria, he managed to get an exclusive interview with Stilwell, who had been quietly relieved of his command by General George C. Marshall. Atkinson flew back to the United States with his great scoop, thereby ducking the Chungking censors controlled by Chiang Kai-shek. The story received prominent display on the front page.
Years later, Theodore White, Time magazine’s correspondent in China, told me that being beaten by a drama critic was the most humiliating professional experience in his career. In any event, when Atkinson returned home, it was Timesweek that allowed me access to him; weak from his illness, he nevertheless managed to answer a few questions from his hospital bed—an introduction that began our long association at the paper.
A year after we began publishing, the trade magazine Editor & Publisher ran a piece about us, calling Timesweek “well-written and dignified,” not like other house organs, which were “full of such coy items as ‘Telephone Room Office Boy Ernie Hicks . . . has been getting sand in his ball bearings passing the desk of Jennie Lee Goon. Could it be . . . ?’”
The response to our second issue was even more encouraging. Front-page stories included an account of coverage of the Democratic convention in Chicago by “Times staff men” (though the paper’s twenty representatives included Times staff woman Anne O’Hare McCormick). They had found, we reported, that the vice-presidential contest between Henry Wallace and Harry Truman “made the gathering lively” but that “eight newspapermen for five seats does not make for comfort.” Mike Berger acted as quartermaster for the group, foraging for “120 bottles of Coca-Cola and two dozen chocolate bars besides a three-day supply of fruit which included a crate of plums and one basket of peaches.”
Edwin L. James approved of us, too. H. K. Tootle, the head of the personnel department, who was big-hearted over small matters, wrote James a memo recommending that Timesweek be mimeographed outside the building. If not as good as printing, mimeographing was far clearer and less odoriferous than hectographing. Tootle urged that The Times take over the cost: $15 to run off four hundred copies.
“I would be very much in favor of doing it,” James wrote Sulzberger. “I like to encourage this sort of thing.” And so it was done, though apparently not quite as cheaply as Tootle had promised. “The mimeograph people now say it will cost $35 a week,” James wrote in August to Orvil E. Dryfoos, Sulzberger’s son-in-law, who was later to succeed him as publisher. “What will we do now?”
Memos flew back and forth in an effort to solve this momentous question. One from Dryfoos read, “You authorized the $15 and it seems a mistake was made and the boys were told The Times would pay for the mimeographing. I think we should go to the $35.” Sulzberger agreed.
Other affirmations came our way as well. In late September, Sulzberger suggested to Dryfoos that Timesweek be sent to the news staff abroad. Dryfoos agreed: “There is a lot in it, besides which, it would show the staff what is being done here.” In January, Dryfoos asked Sulzberger if Timesweek could be sent (at $20 per mailing) to employees in the armed services, and again Sulzberger gave his consent.
By year’s end, I was given the best encouragement yet: James decided that one of Timesweek’s trio of editors should devote a full day each week to putting out our publication. I was chosen, and my duties were rearranged to widen my experience during the remaining four days. For two days each week I would continue working on the telegraph desk as a news assistant. For the other two days I would work in the same capacity on the cable desk, sitting at the end of the horseshoe table next to cable editor Theodore Bernstein. Wilson Fairbanks and Grover Loud, my staunch supporters, readily went along with my broadened schedule.
I welcomed the arrangement because under Bernstein I would have the chance to learn how foreign news was edited. The youngest of the major editors in the city room, he was a mild man whom everyone called Ted. He had arrived at The Times in 1925, fresh out of the Columbia School of Journalism. Ten years later, after having served as assistant to the cable desk editor, he was named night cable editor. Now, at forty, he was still a neophyte compared with the editors who had slipped into old age on the job.
The desk men under Bernstein’s command, most of them youthful like himself, were a contentious bunch, prone to endless debate over everything, from predicting the war’s outcome to which office girl had the shapeliest legs. This rambunctiousness was in sharp contrast with Wilson Fairbanks’s desk men—most of them elderly like their boss—who worked in near-silence. Virtually all of them had been top reporters whose legs gave out and who no longer wanted to chase stories. Many of Bernstein’s men were not long out of journalism school, and preferred copyediting to reporting. But Bernstein had the unquestioned respect of his colleagues. Even on nights when blizzards of copy flew around the cable desk, he could quell all bickering with a firm “We must get the copy up.”
Bernstein was evolving into The Times’s official grammarian—a position that became increasingly valued when tight editing was made a premium at the paper. He eventually assumed the role of in-house arbiter of grammar and usage, The Times’s resident Fowler. For years, he and night city editor Robert E. Garst had taught a popular copyediting course at the Columbia School of Journalism, their common alma mater. “Garstein,” as their students called them, had collaborated on Headlines and Deadlines, a copyediting manual that was a bible in the field.
Foreign correspondents, often prickly about Bernstein’s changes in their copy, would grouse that he had no reporting experience, that he was strictly a desk man. When in New York, they rarely invited him to join their drinking sessions at Bleeck’s. However, Mike Berger, even with his contempt for journalism schools, never belittled Bernstein on this account, perhaps understanding it was enough to be an intuitive grammarian—and that the street smarts that couldn’t be learned in school might be essential for a reporter but not for a copy editor. As for Bernstein, he was unperturbed by the correspondents’ attitude. A man of reserve and routine, he eagerly returned home after work to his lower Fifth Avenue apartment, his wife, Beatrice, and his nightcap.
Even under deadline pressure Bernstein was cordial and considerate to me, occasionally ribbing me about having enrolled at CCNY instead of Columbia, and reminiscing about DeWitt Clinton, the high school we had both attended. When we published a grammatical blunder in Timesweek, he pointed it out, but gently. After a while he became Timesweek’s arbiter of grammar and style. I dreaded his reading each new issue, sure he would find something to criticize. He once circled the word “asserted” four times in a four-page issue. “What’s wrong with ‘said’?” he asked. He then gave me a copy of his manual with the following passage underlined:
“Discrimination in the use of words is an art. The synonym is convenient but dangerous, and it should be employed with great care. If the copy editor substitutes ‘assert’ for ‘say,’ a common practice to obtain variety, he has altered the meaning perceptibly. Variety can be achieved in many other ways than by abusing the synonym.”
The show I most anticipated nightly before deadline was enacted by Bernstein and the art department’s cartographers, who were responsible for creating the front-page war map, a highlight of The Times’s daily coverage. Before turning to any story in the paper, readers often studied this precisely delineated map to see whether our troops had advanced in the past twenty-four hours and by precisely how much.
By eight o’clock, I had prepared the cables for Bernstein from the half-dozen press services as well as from The Times’s correspondents. Chain-smoking and oblivious to the clatter around him, he completed his reading of the data just as the two cartographers walked briskly into the city room, one of them carrying cardboard “base” maps of the European and Pacific theaters.
Huddling at a table to one side of the cable desk, Bernstein and the two men updated each of the maps, drawing in—on tissue paper overlaid on the base maps—battle lines, arrows and numbers to show cities under siege. When he was certain of the changes, Bernstein allowed the cartographers to copy the additions onto strips of celluloid, which were then placed over the maps.
While the finished maps were whisked off to the engraving room, Bernstein returned to his desk to compose, in his own clear handwriting, meticulously worded captions to accompany the maps, concentrating so intently that the cigarette he had laid down at the edge of the desk burned its way into the wood. “In the past five years,” he said to me once, after finishing his nightly stint, “I’ve learned more about cartography, geography and military strategy than I thought it was possible to know.” For me, observing the mapmaking process was a journalism lesson no school could have taught.
Despite the grant of a day each week to work on Timesweek, I still stayed late at the office some nights, napping on reporters’ desks. Around dawn, I would awake in a dark and empty city room, silent except for a porter or two carting away discarded copy paper from rows of wastepaper baskets.
I was so sleep-starved that I often nodded off halfway through eating a sandwich, but I didn’t much care. My Timesweek obligations brought rich dividends: I had entrée to everyone at the paper, from the publisher to the managing editor, to all the city-room editors, reporters and rewrite men, to the mallet-swinging typesetters in the composing room, to delivery truck drivers. I learned about the daily problems of getting The Times out on time, and about the process of replating the paper for breaking news stories.
I called whomever I pleased—and no one refused to speak to me. On the contrary: Reporters wanted their names in Timesweek, to show off to their friends and families, and they enjoyed being asked about their work, a welcome break from asking others about theirs. Correspondents in Washington talked to me collegially about everything from national politics to backbiting antics in the bureau and, by telegraph and cable, I was in touch with correspondents all over the globe.
No one treated me like the raw youth I was. Even the formidable, high-handed chief of the Washington bureau, Arthur Krock, came to the phone to answer my questions. Soon some of the reporters and editors, including Berger, Loud and Fairbanks, were writing feature articles for Timesweek and graciously allowing Davis, Meixner and me to fact-check and edit them.
One of the staffers I met through Timesweek was A. M. (Abe) Rosenthal. A couple of years older than I, he had been two years ahead of me at CCNY. And while I’d been aware of Abe’s reputation as editor of the college newspaper, the Campus, and as The Times’s college correspondent, our paths had never crossed in college. More than any other New York college except Columbia, CCNY had been an incubator for Times reporters. The job of college correspondent, which often led to a full-time position at The Times, was a coveted one, bestowed only on a school’s most promising would-be journalists. The correspondent was paid a small fee for each story he filed.
Abe had left CCNY in 1943, a few months before graduating, when the city editor, short of gifted reporters because of the war, offered him a job. (Seven years later, he was awarded his diploma, with his reportorial experience credited toward his degree.) Mike Berger recognized Abe’s talent at once and treated him less as a rookie than as a peer—enviable attentions not lost on the rest of us. Abe from the first believed he was destined to become a great foreign correspondent. But never—despite his unswerving faith in his own journalistic gifts—did it cross his mind that he would one day be executive editor of The Times, arguably the most powerful newspaper job in the world.
Abe’s childhood, I discovered after we became close friends, had been haunted by hardship and death. Abe’s father, Harry Shipiatsky, a socialist and a farmer in Byelorussia and the son of an Orthodox rabbi, had loathed the czar with a passion. He and Abe’s mother fled his despotic rule for Ontario, Canada, where he changed his surname to Rosenthal, the name of a maternal uncle, and drew away from his Orthodox roots.
The darling of five older sisters, Abe was born in Sault Sainte Marie, where Harry traded farming for fur trapping. But he later decided to move his family to New York, to a cooperative union housing project in the north Bronx on the edge of an expansive stretch of greenery, Van Cortlandt Park. In New York, Harry became a housepainter.
Abe adored his father. He saw him as physically powerful, charismatic and a spellbinding storyteller. Just before Abe’s thirteenth birthday, Harry died after a fall from a ladder. More tragedies followed while Abe was still a child: One of his beloved sisters died of pneumonia, and another, who had married George Watt, a commissar of the volunteer Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War, died of encephalitis after giving birth in a crowded city hospital. Two other sisters died of cancer.
At seventeen, Abe was stricken with terrible pains in his leg. Unable to diagnose the illness, doctors at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Harlem ordered him placed in a body cast from the neck down, telling him he would never be able to walk again. For weeks, he lay in a ward of forty sick and dying men—an experience, he later said, that was no less than a living hell. One of his sisters was his salvation. She got in touch with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and arranged for Abe to be sent there as a charity case—where he was, at last, diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a degenerative bone marrow disease. A complicated operation finally corrected the problem.
These punishing early traumas did not break his spirit, but instead gave him a fiery desire to excel, as if to make the ghosts of his lost loved ones proud of him. He hadn’t smothered his sadness. He seemed in constant touch with it, unable to talk about his childhood and his father and sisters without tears welling in his eyes—a far healthier adaptation, it seemed to me, than burying it. And when Abe cried, I cried. The two of us in later years would sit at a bar, wiping away our tears.
But these disclosures—and my close identification with Abe as the son of immigrants, as a Bronx boy, a DeWitt Clinton High School graduate, and as a CCNY student—all came later. To those of us who wanted desperately to become reporters, Abe seemed totally self-possessed and mature. He smoked a pipe, looked intellectual in his dark-rimmed glasses, and his lighthearted quips made us laugh. But he kept a tentative distance.
If Abe’s writing style was imposing, his physique was not. He had an indoor pallor and slight build, and the differences in our heights irked him no end. He was utterly indifferent to clothes. One shirttail sometimes hung outside his rumpled trousers, which rode low on his narrow hips, seemingly about to slide to the floor. He looked hip-hop before hip-hop. It was years before he began taking even a minimal interest in what he wore, claiming to be more than satisfied with the bargain suits he bought at a downtown discount clothier—which gave me something to needle him about:
Abe (looking at me looking at his suit): “What’s the matter with it? It was a bargain!”
Me: “That’s great, Abe. If you don’t know the difference between a bargain suit and a good suit, then a bargain suit is fine for you.”
And so forth, while those around us rolled their eyes, having heard the routine before. As a dressmaker’s son, I had a fondness for fine fabrics and good tailoring, a trait of which Abe was contemptuous. He sneered when I began buying my suits at Paul Stuart on Madison Avenue. In the early 1980s, while Abe was executive editor, and Seymour Topping was managing editor, I came to work one day in a new suit of Canadian wool.
Abe and Top promptly decided to make an expedition during lunch to Paul Stuart—which neither had ever patronized. As it happened, a big story broke while they were shopping, and I had to find Abe. I called Paul Stuart and explained to the salesman who came to the phone that I was looking for two customers. “Since the store is very crowded at the moment,” said the voice at the other end, “that will be difficult.” “Try looking for two men who don’t belong there,” I said. Abe and Top were delivered to the phone within seconds.
Actually, it was Abe’s obliviousness to his appearance that gave me an excuse to approach him for the first time. A story had circulated in the city room about a curious remark he had made while covering a press luncheon hosted by the writer Christopher Morley. It had been a sweltering day, and Morley had suggested that each of the reporters at the small gathering introduce himself and remove his jacket. “I am a reporter from The New York Times,” Abe said when his turn came, “and reporters from The Times never remove their jackets.”
I walked over to Abe’s desk and said I wanted to write up the item for Timesweek. He smiled mischievously, and told me that he had made his comment out of desperation. The sleeve of the shirt he had put on that morning had ripped. It was his last clean shirt and he hadn’t had time to pick up his freshly laundered ones.
His remark had been the only thing he could think of to keep the torn shirt concealed. Fifty years later, I find a certain poignancy to this story. Abe’s statement, although a clever way out of a tight spot, was also a foretaste of his identification with the paper. He grew increasingly sensitive to any criticism of The Times, as if he and the paper were one.
He told other stories at his own expense about learning on the job. On his first day as a reporter, he was sent to cover a death—a murder or suicide, it wasn’t immediately clear—at the Mayflower Hotel. Abe rang the buzzer of the room where the body had been found. A detective—“twelve and a half feet tall,” as Abe put it—opened the door. Abe identified himself as a Times reporter and said, “I want to see the body.”
“Beat it,” said the detective.
“Oh, but there must be some misunderstanding,” Abe told him smoothly, flashing his brand-new press card.
The detective studied it and handed it back. “Shove it in your ear,” he said.
“But I’m from The Times!” Abe protested. “A reporter from The New York Times! Don’t you want me to get the story right?”
“Listen, Four Eyes,” said the detective. “I don’t care if you drop dead,” and slammed the door.
It was a year or so after Abe’s rude initiation that I arrived at The Times. For the next year, I and the other clerks never tired of watching him at his typewriter. He was mesmerizing—like a virtuoso pianist or an action painter. He had composed the entire story in his mind before starting to type. He was not so much writing it as copying down, word for word, what was inside his head. His fingers danced over the keys of his typewriter. He didn’t pause, either to check his notes or to look up a spelling of a name, until he tapped out the last letter of the last word of his story. Not even Mike Berger wrote with such speed.
Those of us who observed Abe were beyond jealousy. He clearly had a gift that could not be duplicated. As his stories were being edited, I sometimes glanced over the copy editor’s shoulder, awed by the clean pages with scarcely any editing marks. But it was not until October 1945 that a story by Abe was signed. Bylines in those days were a rarity, and only given as a reward for a scoop or a story written with special flair. They were bestowed with no prior notice by the city editor, a tormenting tradition that all local reporters believed had been designed to make their lives a misery and drive them to drink.
As Abe later said, when reminiscing about his first bylined story, he had a feeling he would make his bones on this one. And snatching a peek at his typically clean copy—not a single word crossed out—I had the same feeling. That night, the article was one of only two city stories on page one. Dated October 20, it carried the headline:
THE NEW YORK HERE ON LAST TRIP HOME
First Battleship of Fleet to Arrive
Is to Be Scrapped or Made Atom Bomb Target
The story began:
The battleship New York, sixth of her name, arrived here yesterday, thirty-one months and four battles out of home port. It was her last homeward run. In a matter of weeks the New York will be given over to the cutter’s torch or sacrificed in research to a test of the atomic bomb.
Aboard the New York were 1,400 crewmen and 1,050 other Pacific veterans returning to a life of peace, and one of the proudest and longest battle logs in the fleet. The latest volumes in the neatly written records of thirty-one years at sea tell in laconic Navy fashion of three days of sharp triumph off North Africa, of slow, tense months in the Atlantic, of bitter weeks in Iwo’s waters and seventy-eight days of hell and glory off Okinawa.
It was superb newspaper writing under deadline pressure—eloquent and authoritative. Abe, usually after a few drinks, loved to recite these two paragraphs. He quoted them so often over the years that friends would groan in theatrical agony:
“No, Abe, not the battleship again! Enough already with the days of hell and glory!”
But all of us knew the truth: This was the bylined piece that marked the rightful beginning of his brilliant career—the one that made his name at the paper as a rising star. No wonder he loved to recite it. It was his birth announcement.
TO MY RELIEF, The Times decided to support President Roosevelt for a fourth term, maintaining he was far better qualified than Governor Thomas E. Dewey to bring the war to a victorious end. The coverage of the campaign had to be planned with extra care because wartime restrictions made newsprint scarce.
Early the previous March, James had counted the number of columns used to cover the 1936 and 1940 presidential elections. Estimating that 160 tons of paper would be needed this time, he set up a newsprint reserve. (The columns for the 1944 campaign, when added up, came to 158.6 tons—a variance of only 1.4 tons from James’s forecast.)
Determined to demonstrate that our Timesweek staff was every bit as professional as that of The Times itself, Davis, Meixner and I decided to publish our seventh issue as a special election report. It was a self-imposed trial by fire.
In those pre-polling, pre-electronic days, newspapers tried to predict winners on election night by evaluating the ongoing tallies in election districts in certain bellwether states (or, for local elections, counties). Even though they strove for caution in projecting winners, occasionally there were embarrassing errors. Times editors, however, took pride in knowing their scores in the guessing game were the best in the field.