Arthur Gelb was hired by The New York Times in 1944 as a night copyboy—the paper’s lowliest position. Forty-five years later, he retired as its managing editor. Along the way, he exposed crooked cops and politicians, mentored a generation of our most-talented journalists, was the first to praise the as-yet-undiscovered Woody Allen and Barbra 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 this nation's history—what he calls “the happiest days of my life.”
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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.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for City Room
“Essential reading for people who love (and hate) The Times.”—Gay Talese
“A large window into the inner workings of one of the country’s premier institutions…enlightening as it is entertaining.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Superbly written, with integrity and elegance.”—Elie Wiesel
“A magnificent memoir of coming of age amidst the vibrancy and kaleidoscopic life of America’s greatest city, seen from the perspective of a brilliant career on our greatest newspaper. City Room is a grand read.”—Neil Sheehan
“A sense of intelligent innocence permeates this affectionate memoir.”—Pete Hamill
“Rich with personalities.”—The New Yorker
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The author began working at the The New York Times in 1944 at age 20. He retired 45 years later as a top editor. Published in 2003, City Room tells the story of those 45 years, emphasizing the historical events he and the newspaper covered, the insider story of the newspaper¿s workings, and the nitty-gritty of a journalist¿s life at America¿s best -- if not the only true (in my humble opinion) -- national newspaper. The author¿s liveliest prose concerns his early years at the Times, a Front-Page-like experience but with more civility, because it¿s the Times. His affection and respect for the paper come through on every page. Mr. Gelb is a master storyteller; he is also a self-confessed pack-rat, saving just about every scrap of paper associated with his years at the Times, so he is able to flesh out his story in incredible detail. Much of his experience at the newspaper was in its cultural department ¿ so Mr. Gelb includes plenty of stories about Broadway and off-Broadway plays in the 1950s and 1960s. City Room is a big, fat book ¿ almost 650 pages ¿ that is, nonetheless, a fast and exciting read for anyone who enjoys reading about journalism history. I am next reading Scotty, a biography of James R. Reston, the Times¿s legendary Washington bureau chief -- for another piece of the story.
A very interesting book on three levels ¿ first about the New York Time and how it has worked and changed over the 20th century. Second about an interesting career in journalism over several decades. And most of all, as a window into the city itself over those decades, along with events in other parts of the world.