Thursday, March 06, 2008


Mid-Century New York Herald Tribune:
'The Most Beautiful Place in the World,
A Community of Mavericks & Oddballs'

'Decades of use by people not known for fastidious habits had given the room a patina of grime. The desks, scarred with cigarette burns and mottled with coffee stains, were shoved together, and the air was thick with smoke. In summer it was circulated but not noticably cooled by ancient fans with black electrical cables that dangled to the floor. There was no air conditioning, but we would have scorned it anyway. We were newspapermen, conditioned to discomfort, reared on movies like The Front Page, in which gruff men wearing fedoras barked at each other in sentences that moved as fast as bullets. I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world.

Not everyone was as charmed by the environment. A copyreaders named Mike Misselonghites, who sat along the rim of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, arrived at his post a half hour early every day. He would take off his coat and walk to the men's room, where he soaked and wadded up an armful of paper towels. Then he brought them back to the copy desk and scrubbed his area of the desk. Then he scrubbed his telephone and its cord. Then he lifted his chair onto the desk and scrubbed its seat and back and legs, not resting until his workplace was free enough of dirt and bacteria for him to safely go to work.

Nobody gave Mike's daily ritual a second thought, just as nobody was surprised when the absent-minded music editor, Francis D. Perkins, who often smoked his pipe upside down, started a fire in his wastebasket. It was a community of mavericks and oddballs, held together by the common purpose of our daily voyage, equally hospitable to the portentous political columns of Walter Lippmann and the high-society gleanings of Lucius Beebe, the legendary fop, who arrived for work in midmorning, after a long night of prodigious intake at the Stork Club and El Morocco, immaculately turned out in a derby, a bespoke suit, and a magenta shirt with a white silk tie, his gold watch and chain suspended from a figured vest.

Much has been written about the Herald Tribune's bright stars in those postwar years: the foreign editor Joseph Barnes, the foreign correspondent Homer Bigart, the city reporter Peter Kihss, the sports columnist Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nat Fein, the music critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Virgil Thomson, and many others. But the paper never forgot that its readers were an infinitely mixed stew of interests and curiosities, and it had experts squirreled away in various nooks to cater to their needs: the food critic Clementine Paddleford, the fashion columnist Eugenia Sheppard, the stamps editor, the crossword-puzzle editor, the garden editor, the racing columnist Joe H. Palmer.

Palmer was typical of the paper's passion for good writing, nowhere better exemplified than in the sports section. It was in those pages, as a child baseball addict, that I found my first literary influences. The Trib sportswriters were my Faulkner and Hemingway, and now I was in the same room with those bylines-com-to-life: Rud Rennie, Jesse Abramson, Al Laney. Laneym, who covered golf and tennis, never took off his hat. I often paused at the sports department to watch those Olympians, wreatehd in cigarette smoke, tapping out their stories with ferocious speed--especially Abramson, who seemed to have the entire history of boxing at his fingertips.'
--from a book now in progress by William Zinsser, a memoir of places where he has worked as a writer and a teacher. When completed, it will be his 18th book, and possibly his best yet. To review earlier mentions of the immortal Mr. Z, go
here, here, here and here.

6 Comments:

At 10:56 AM, Blogger roldo bartimole said...

I was never in the Herald Tribune city room. However, his description is reminiscent of likely most newspapers of the day. I remember similarly when I started at the Bridgeport Telegram in 1959, a similar feel. I was the new addition to three older men. I remember one, in particular, typing furiously with a cigarette dangling from his lips and his ash tray filled with some still smoldering cigarettes. From time to time he'd go to his bottom desk drawer for the pint bottle that helped him through the nite. Copy moved in a cylinder shot by air to the composing room. There to be set in hot metal type, set by men at huge machines holding lead, I guess, that dripped into forms of each letter to later be made into a metal plate for printing. It was a hot and crowded composing room.

I guess it is nothing like what I'd consider an antiseptic atmospher in today's newspapers.

What I enjoyed most was after a night of work a number of us would head to the diner for coffee and breakfast and more cigarettes before heading home to bed.

Roldo Bartimole

 
At 11:15 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for that wonderful addition to the point, Roldo. Yes, while the Herald-Tribune of that era was considered the ultimate writer's paper (the NYTimes, then as now, was more editor-driven, but even then their writing just wasn't as good as the H-T, which was more of what we'd now consider a magazine style of writing), the thing that really stands out from this description was how quirky the collection of people were. The modern newspaper staff is, by comparison, sadly vanilla, and mostly lacking in the kind of personalities that give it panache and punch. Most of those types have either been drilled out of the organization, gone on to PR to make a better living, or were never permitted to enter in the first place, in an era when a college degree (and often the dreaded journalism major) is a necessary ingredient of hiring.

The Cleveland Press in mid-century ran rings around the PD, because its writers knew more about the city, cared more about it, and were encouraged from the top (by people who were native to Cleveland) to work harder and dig deeper. We now have a series of carpetbagging editors who breeze through town for a few years, begin to learn the town, and then leave, to be replaced by another new fresh set of eyes. The staff's accumulated institutional knowledge of the region--and even more, their feeling for its soul--slowly withers each year. I think it's beyond sad.

In David Halberstam's seminal book about the media, The Powers That Be, there's a haunting passage about Carl Bernstein as a rookie reporter with the Wash. Post, when he covered the riots that enveloped the city shortly after M.L. King was assassinated. Halberstam described in his usual lyrical fashion how, because he was a hometown guy, and had extensive connections to the place, he could vividly bring to life in his riot coverage the lives that were effected and the stories behind the businesses lost in the riot. He knew, or could quickly find out, the human stories behind the news, because he knew and cared about the city in such a deep way, as only a native of that city could. We've all but lost that in most major metro papers. Ironically, the web is going to force papers to reinject that element, if they're going to thrive, because that's always been their competitive edge, and the Internet's easy access to news from elsewhere will only redouble that push for deep hyperlocal coverage.

 
At 5:14 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

Thanks for that great snippet, John. And Roldo for your recollections too.

Years ago when I was in the trade pub business as an editor I remember hearing a member of the "old guard" lament the fact that nowadays writers wrote stories based on press releases and other sanitized information instead of sending a reporter into the field to do the hard work themselves. Of course, the view from the top is that the former is a lot less expensive than sending someone out to actually do the legwork...

 
At 5:22 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Miles, how timely your comment is. Don't get me started on the subject of "journalists" rewriting press releases. A couple of months ago, I was at an event in which Susan Goldberg, the new PD editor, was asked about that by a corporate PR person. She gravely responded that at large papers such as the PD, they would never incorporate language from a press release. The next day's business section gave the lie to that absurd notion.

 
At 1:53 PM, Blogger Michelle O'Neil said...

Wow. What powerful descriptions! The smoke is making me gag.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go wipe down my chair and phone.

 
At 2:04 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

It is incredibly vivid writing, recreating a scene so well (from a half century ago) that you feel like you're in the middle of the room. But then, one would expect no less from the master.

 

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