City Room

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Arthur Gelb was hired by the New York Times in 1944 as a night copyboy-the paper's lowliest position. 45 years later, he retired as its managing editor. Along the way, he exposed crooked cops and politicians, mentored a generation of talented journalists, was the first to praise the as-yet-undiscovered Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand, and brought Joe Papp instant recognition. From D-Day to the liberation of the concentration camps, from the agony of Vietnam to the resignation of a President, from the fall of ...

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1st Edition, Fine/Fine Clean, tight and bright. No ink names, tears, chips, foxing etc. Price unclipped. ISBN 0399150757 Author spent 45 years at New York Times newspaper going ... from night copyboy to managing editor. Read more Show Less

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Overview

Arthur Gelb was hired by the New York Times in 1944 as a night copyboy-the paper's lowliest position. 45 years later, he retired as its managing editor. Along the way, he exposed crooked cops and politicians, mentored a generation of talented journalists, was the first to praise the as-yet-undiscovered Woody Allen and Barbara Streisand, and brought Joe Papp instant recognition. From D-Day to the liberation of the concentration camps, from the agony of Vietnam to the resignation of a President, from the fall of Joe McCarthy to the rise of the Woodstock Nation, Gelb gives an insider's take on the great events of the past fifty years-what he calls "the happiest days of my life."

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
When Gelb was still a copyboy at the Times, he edited a chatty internal newsletter called Timesweek, and this voluminous memoir suggests that although he rose to become managing editor, he retained a taste for his old job. His account of five decades at the paper is rich with personalities—from the wartime rewrite men, who had shrapnel in their backs and scorn for college boys, to the sixties-era female reporters who shook up the city room with frank language and countercultural convictions. Gelb is generous with praise, but not above a little score-settling—accusing his rival, Scotty Reston, the longtime Washington bureau chief, of having missed the Watergate story because he was too busy palling around with the White House élite to maintain contacts in the police department. Gelb also enjoys dishing vintage gossip, and cites a once popular dictum: “Liquor is the curse of the Herald Tribune and sex is the bane of the Times.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
...offers a large window into the inner workings of one of the country's premier institutions....enlightening as it is entertaining.
A. Scott Berg
Arthur Gelb's exuberant memoirs prove to be keenly observed social history, full of fascinating tales and details.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault
...a must read for all aspiring journalists [as] a reminder of what it means to be the best.
Richard Reeves
...compelling visit to about the most interesting place I've ever been, by one of the most interesting and inspiring men.
Anne;Stiller Jerry Meara
City Room gives us all the news that was fit to print and some of the stories that weren't.
Gay Talese
...the chronicler of the ups and downs of America's greatest journalistic institution...his new book is always interesting, insightful, and fair-minded.
Mike Wallace
...a fascinating insider's look at the editorial and political quakes that have swept the city room of The Times.
Wendy Wasserstein
Anyone yearning for the romance, energy, and integrity of journalism should read this book.
The New York Times Book Review
It has to be said that this is a book for aficionados, those readers who are either in the trade or on its margins, though the attentive general reader—the Kansas City milkman who may not care what Abe said to Scotty and what Scotty said to Punch and what Punch did in the climactic winter of 1968—will find the early chapters of City Room a wonderful evocation of what the newspaper business was like in the postwar years; the words are rough-and-tumble.—Ward Just
The New York Times
A sense of intelligent innocence permeates this affectionate memoir of Arthur Gelb's life across five decades at The New York Times. Without falling into sentimental mush, he expresses clearly his love for his immigrant parents; his wife, Barbara; the city of New York; the imperfect craft of newspapering in general; and The New York Times in particular. The book's low-key triumph is that Mr. Gelb is able to look back with such innocent eyes and make the past as fresh as the present.—Pete Hamill
New York Daily News
For all its forthrightness, City Room is the work of a gentleman reporter of a kinder era.
Publishers Weekly
"To me, there was nothing as stimulating as a good story," declares Gelb in this enthralling memoir of his 45 years at the New York Times. Gelb, who began as a copyboy in 1944 and retired as managing editor in 1990, has a wealth of terrific stories. An airplane's crash into the Empire State Building in July 1945 marked his professional reporting debut. Vivid recollections of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate break-in and the 1970 investigation of New York City police corruption abound, and Gelb's recounting of these events illustrates how reporters investigate and present complex news stories under deadline pressure while striving for accuracy, fairness and good taste. Later, as drama critic and cultural editor, Gelb mingled with glamour and celebrity. A witty raconteur, he tells uproarious anecdotes about Tallulah Bankhead and Marilyn Monroe. Although there are plenty of amazing scoops and delicious gossip, Gelb devotes equally passionate attention to the evolution of the Times as a workplace. His portrait of the city room circa 1944, with 100 all white and virtually all male reporters, is a fascinating historical snapshot and becomes more telling as he describes its changes over the years. By 1972, the department included 425 reporters, but only 40 of them were women. As a paean to his colleagues and the organization where he spent his "happiest days," 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. Addressing this year's Jayson Blair affair and the subsequent management changes at the paper, Gelb helps put those issues into a broader context with his balanced and sympathetic overview. (Oct. 13) Forecast: Gelb's authoritative view of the paper of record will attract widespread media attention, and his lively storytelling should have great appeal for general readers. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this fast-paced memoir, former New York Times managing editor Gelb reminisces fondly about his coming of age as a reporter and editor. The story begins in 1944, when Gelb landed a job as a copyboy at the Times. He vividly re-creates the hustle and bustle of a newsroom where typewriters clattered, reporters yelled out "Copy!" and hands were smudged by newsprint still black with fresh ink. After about two years at the Times, he and some other copyboys started up an in-house news sheet called Timesweek that covered the news of the newsroom for the reporters themselves. Because of his impressive work on Timesweek, he was promoted to reporter and was later assigned to review theater. During those years, he began writing about a then newly popular theatrical form, stand-up comedy, covering the young Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Lenny Bruce, among others. When he eventually became metropolitan editor, he covered the Harlem riots, the blackout of 1965, and the opening of Lincoln Center. In a memoir that views the growth of the city in terms of the growth of its greatest newspaper, Gelb succeeds fully in re-creating the liveliness and charm of an older Manhattan. As with many memoirs, however, Gelb's piles detail upon detail in a chockablock fashion that often makes for tiresome reading. Recommended for large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/03.]-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A loving, extremely guarded memoir of the author's 45 years with the New York Times, from durance vile to managing editor. A son of the Bronx, Gelb appeared in the Times' "raffish, freewheeling" city room in 1944 at the age of 20, a copy boy in a world of paste pots and scissors, bookies and cigars, Morse code and cable, a rough trade with its own caste system and clashing personalities. The best reporters, like Meyer Berger, awed him with their crisp curiosity, their obsession to probe, logically interpret and explain the facts, and their desire to imbue newspaper writing with style. The Times aimed to get the record straight and without prejudice; it was not a crusading paper, but a centrist one. But as Gelb took on the editor's mantle, first at the cultural desk and then as deputy metropolitan editor, reporters began to take a feistier approach: Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, were among those who shook the system until creative restlessness drove them from day-to-day journalism. Though hardly pugnacious, Gelb did help bring an "up-front, spontaneous style" to the paper, lest we forget the Pentagon papers or the Weekend section. The only slightly dirty laundry he washes is his prickly relationship with James Reston and a major put-down (recounted here with relish) inflicted on R.W. Apple by Homer Bigart. Gelb's critiques of news and managerial misjudgments are bland to the point of why-bother: Of the paper's insensitivity to gays he writes, "I believe that on this issue, of such poignancy to so many, the paper did tarry for too long." Still, under Gelb as managing editor, the Times entered the 20th century, kicking and screaming, with more black and female reporters andbetter coverage of African-Americans and women, even as hard news made room for soft features. The company line from a protective organization man: readers will learn little more than they would by reviewing the microfiche.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399150753
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/26/2003
  • Pages: 672
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Arthur Gelb joined the New York Times in 1944, when manual typewriters, green eyeshades, spittoons, floors littered with cigarette butts, and two bookies were what he found in the city room. Gelb, who had just turned twenty, began as a copyboy. When he retired at the mandatory age of 65, he was managing editor. Gelb is now director of The New York Times College Scholarship Program.

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Read an Excerpt

ONE

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.

—from City Room by Arthur Gelb, copyright © 2003 Arthur Gelb, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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