JANUARY 27, 2012
A MERE 60 YEARS AGO, at the front end of my love-hate affair with the published word, I went to work for my first “real” newspaper, an actual evening daily willing to pay a salary-like sum for my dubious services. The paper was the Herald in Augusta, Georgia. It subscribed to a feature service called NEA, which sold columns and other stories in a one-price package deal that the Herald and many other papers seemed to find irresistible. Unlike its à la carte rivals, whose wares were typesetter-ready, NEA delivered its viands neatly laid out on printed pages that made them look more attractive to editors.
That extra dash of typography meant somebody had to clip the stories chosen for print and paste them onto sheets of copy paper – a quaint necessity of the day – before writing a headline and sending the lot to the composing room, there to be set in type once again.
That somebody – often me – could be counted on to have scissors, rubber-cement pot, and a deskload of soft-leaded, blacker-than-Hitler’s-heart No. 2 copy pencils at the ready. Which is how I came to be thus accessorized for my first meeting with the work of James Earl Breslin Jr., whose writing accounted for roughly half of the most interesting stories in NEA’s sports section, the Green Sheet. I had no reason to wonder about the fellow’s age then, and besides, he was in New York and I was in Augusta. Had I known he was 23, but a couple of years older than I was while gluing down his columns for the linotype operators, I might well have considered dropping out of the game then and there.
Jimmy, you see, had already fast-tracked himself into a job that required more than mere reporting and promised greater rewards. He was very nearly a columnist already, all but freed from the tedious requirements of “objectivity.” In Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columnists, a new and important anthology, the great Russell Baker describes it this way: The objectivity code “forbade a reporter to write of, say, Senator Blattis: ‘Lying as usual, Senator Blattis declared today …'” Baker concluded, “This obligation to assist in dignifying inferior men … made you feel as though you were nothing more than a megaphone for the convenience of frauds.”
And that is why, like the young Jimmy Breslin, Baker made it a priority to become a columnist as quickly as possible, succeeding so famously that his op-ed essays ran in The New York Times from 1962 to 1998. For Jimmy, NEA’s many papers supplied a nationwide wall on which his talent could grow like a trumpet vine. He’d gone from a 15-year-old copyboy at the Long Island Press to 25-year-old pro still honing his talents under NEA sports editor Harry Grayson, and preparing for … who knew what? What he became was the columnist’s columnist, perhaps the best ever, still writing at age 82 in a time when newspapers themselves are in their own twilight.
If you’re drawn to the form that Jimmy pretty much whipped into shape, you’ll probably enjoy this well-stocked (168 columns) volume, the product of some very good though inevitably imperfect anthologizing by its three editors, John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis. This is the column-lover’s bedside companion, perfect for those who’d like to relive that moment when the 1960s came along, bearing Jimmy Breslin’s ship. That voyage would not have been possible, he will tell you unhesitatingly, without the New York Herald Tribune‘s other J.B. – Jimmy’s and my late friend Jim Bellows – who took the Trib‘s tiller in October 1962. That Jim was about to firm up his unspoken bid for the U.S. newspaper-editing championship, a strictly fictitious title many would have given him for real and instantly. And he had no finer hour, he wrote later, than the autumn day in 1962 when he became editor of the Tribune.
Bellows came in with a not-bad lineup. There was Breslin near the top of his game, and in another part of that newsroom sat Tom Wolfe – yes, in white suit and big-lunch tie, the now-famous outfit he has yet to shed. Both men were underutilized and ready to fly. This one wasn’t tough for Bellows to figure out. “I may be wrong,” he’d say, “but I’m never in doubt.” With all deliberate speed, he gave both Breslin and Wolfe, writers of entirely different kinds, the run of his new playground along with his private brand of encouragement that neither has forgotten. It was quite a moment. The rest is said to be history, and it already had a bit of that feeling even then.
It was only a year later – a third of it consumed by a newspaper strike – that Breslin wrote what may still be his most famous column, filed from the Dallas emergency room where JFK lay dying. (Or was the president already dead? Even the doctors were confused, as Jimmy’s tale tells us.)
In that column, he wrote a sentence that dares the reader to accuse him of using a single “and” too many: “[Dr. Matthew] Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Perry walked into it.” This is one of several ways a Breslin column “jumped and moved”- a phrase used to describe the minimum requirements for any New York tabloid headline even before the current loneliness in that category. The sole survivor is, of course, the Daily News, a newspaper that was soon to become important to a slightly older Jimmy Breslin.
And here he is back in that paper only a couple of months ago, right after we (or somebody) “got” Qaddafi. He starts by quoting a New York Post editorial: “Fact is, after 42 brutal years at Libya’s helm, Muammar Khadafy was a man who just needed killing.” Writes Breslin:
Our country has been fighting in the Middle East long enough for soldiers to lose their youth in the process. Yet instead of washing the blood from our hands, we wash them in blood and say proudly how we got it. American drone bombs hit Khadafy’s motor caravan to start him down the road towards death. Children of the Middle East will be taught this in classrooms now for how many hundreds of years? Beautiful!
Breslin’s “beautiful” is, as usual, no pat on the back; that its author is back writing such un-bashful opinions every Sunday in the New York Daily News is reason to celebrate. So is the news that he has not been muted by all the years in which his columns surely drew more readers and applause than a kid from Ozone Park, Queens could ever have dreamed.
By selecting six of Breslin’s pieces for their collection, editors Avlon, Angelo, and Louis have crowned Breslin King of Deadline Artists, an act many will consider a mere re-crowning of an oft-crowned king. And right behind Jimmy, with five columns each, come Murray Kempton, the sage of Baltimore, and Mike Royko, the widely admired Chicagoan whose attendance at Wilbur Wright Junior College was interrupted in its second year by service in the Air Force. When that distraction was over, he came home and began writing for his hometown papers, forming a habit not broken until his too early death in 1997, aged 64.
For his part, Kempton spent his last years columnizing for New York Newsday, which often crowed about its other three “names” (Breslin, Gail Collins and Sydney Schanberg), while hatching a few names of its own, among them Dwyer, Henican and a Hamill called Denis for others to crow about some unseen day. Murray was also a mainstay contributor and later editor of the old, very liberal New Republic of the fifties and early sixties, in whose pages I encountered the Kempton mind before I met the man years later in the New York Newsday newsroom at 2 Park Avenue. Which is also where, by asking me why I couldn’t edit his column as I did several others, he earned my enduring gratitude for a sine qua non compliment worth writing about.??
In one of this collection’s columns, Kempton tells how Mose Wright testified against two men for the murder of his great-nephew, Emmett Till. Till was the 14-year-old black kid from Chicago who had the temerity to talk to a young married white woman in Mississippi in 1955. His badly beaten body was pulled from a river three days later. Kempton takes us to the courtroom, where we can see the tiny Wright stand up to the height and the bulk of the two white defendants, as well as the “coals of hatred” that Kempton saw in the eye sockets of J. W. Milam (who years later confessed the murder to an interviewer) and his crony. “He was a black pigmy,” Kempton wrote, “standing up to a white ox.” And yet he stood. But Mississippi would never convict anyone for Till’s murder, not even the two in that courtroom who had kidnapped the boy.
Royko, you might remember, is the tenderhearted Chicago tough guy and John Wayne fan who loved to see the good guys win. He seemed to believe, however, that in Chicago this could only happen if John Wayne actually rode to the rescue on a galloping white horse. At the hushed unveiling of the huge metal sculpture that is Picasso’s gift to Chicago, Royko encounters the massive, uncongenial work along with the waiting crowd, and cynically imagines it as the artist’s verdict on his hometwon, sight unseen: “Interesting design, I’m sure,” he wrote. “But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect.” After further consideration, Royko credits Picasso with scoping out his city’s damaged soul from across the sea. “Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.” Then he polishes it off: “You’d think he’d been riding the L all his life.”
In fourth place with an appropriate four columns each in Deadline Artists, are two men of earlier generations, Damon Runyon and Westbrook Pegler. And with them, unaccountably, is George F. Will, a young fellow of 70 and a half whose regular breathing reminds us his companions are not quite so lively, though the prose they left behind them suffers no such shortfall.
The name Westbrook Pegler (b. 1894), also with five columns in the collection, may ring a bell. Pegler had a recent collision with the news when Sarah Palin (or, rather, speechwriter Matthew Scully) quoted him extolling the values of small-town America when she accepted the GOP nomination for vice president in 2008. “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity and dignity,” quoted Palin. When someone noted that Pegler wrote these words, his name jarred loose ugly memories of his World War II-era columns. Some of these were said – by Eleanor Roosevelt, no less – to smack of treason. Pegler, a dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt hater, worked hard and steadily to deserve the bad opinion of others in return for his own bad opinion of them – growing progressively more anti-union, anti-Semitic, and anti-FDR-and-Eleanor. But still he had fans of distinction, two or three with opposing views, Murray Kempton being both the most loyal and least probable of them. Deadline Artists features “The American Mussolini,” in which Pegler paints Louisiana’s ever-controversial Huey Long as one in dictator-hood with Il Duce, making Long responsible for rousing that host of murder-bent enemies said to be on the scene of his 1935 assassination, at age 42, on the capitol steps in Baton Rouge. (History has not uncovered one assailant other than Carl Weiss, the man shredded by a hail of bullets from Long’s bodyguards after he fired one bullet into Long’s stomach.)
As a writer of short stories, Damon Runyon is in a category of American literature so exclusive that no rivals have so far filed for entry. Not that the work of Runyon the author always calls to mind the work of Runyon the newspaperman. Still the two Runyons seem seated at the same typewriter for a 1927 column included in the collection. In this piece, which begs to be called “Murder Most Foul, Murderess Most Blonde,” Runyon describes characters in a Long Island City, Queens, courtroom during a murder trial he covered for his paper, Hearst’s New York American. How blonde was the murderess, and how impressive was her co-conspirator? Runyon writes:
A chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble you-bet-you-will chins, and an inert, scare-drunk fellow that you couldn’t miss among any hundred men as a dead set-up for a blonde or the shell game or maybe a gold brick – on trial for what might be called the Dumb-bell Murder, it was that dumb!
James M. Cain turned the trial into his novel Double Indemnity, which Billy Wilder later made into a movie with Fred MacMurray and the very un-blonde Barbara Stanwyck.
Runyon’s world was both eternally Broadway and a land all its own. His syntax was unique yet easily decoded, and it sported a swagger that bragged of magic. In such a world thrived crooks, near-crooks, and angels with names like Nathan Detroit, Big Julie, Harry the Horse, and oddly enough, Miss Sarah Brown. Runyon transferred his entire stock of verbs into the present tense, which produced a flow of street-spun wisdom displayed in lines like these, useless to a mere reporter: “To hear the old-timers tell it, every pancake they ever see when they are young is a double Myrna Loy, although chances are, figuring in the law of averages, some of them are bound to be rutabagas, the same as now.”
George Will, heavyweight champion of column-circulation in these United States, is no slacker, even if he does have the effrontery to keep breathing in the company of Runyon and Pegler. Will’s liberal Washington Post op-ed colleague E.J. Dionne calls him “our premier conservative polemicist now that William F.Buckley Jr. has passed on to his reward.” To the chagrin of liberals everywhere, Will has a whopping 21.3 million readers via 328 subscribing U.S. newspapers. The unbending advocate of virtually all things Republican, Will lets us in on his rarely seen personal life (who knew?) in two Deadline columns that humanize this down-to-business fellow a bit. One is on his mother’s death, the other on his son Jon, who suffers from Down syndrome. In another column he chews out a fellow named “George Bush,” who turns out to be the one we now call Poppy. Papa George F. takes Poppy George H.W. to the woodshed for some sins you’d expect only a liberal to notice – lies, unfair accusations, and the like! But why such talk from George Will? The smart money, and probably the columnist himself, would tell you that Will had begun to see Bush the elder as unlikely to stave off a Democrat in the next election, and indeed, Poppy was beaten by Bill Clinton. While the White House was lost for two terms, that loss set the stage for the son’s victory, by fair means or foul, in 2000.
Being observant, you may have noticed how ubiquitous are male columnists – no news to editors Avlon, Angelo, and Louis, who in a recent New York radio interview said they hope to correct the imbalance in future editions of their book. Among the exceptional women notably absent from Deadline Artists are three I knew, admired, and was even said to edit at Newsday: Gail Collins, probably the best informed and wittiest writer ever to feed her words into digital typing devices at three big ones – the Daily News, New York Newsday, and her present paper, The New York Times – and a writer whose copy could only be aided by an editor who served refreshments; Sheryl McCarthy, whose signature column, “Why Are the Heroes Always White?” gave its title to her book of many substantial columns written in her 18 years as the paper’s first nonwhite female opinionist; and the unsquelchable Linda Stasi, pre-modern humorist and TV critic of the New York Post. Also overlooked is the most widely circulated progressive columnist in the U.S., Ellen Goodman, who I knew in her Detroit newspaper infancy, and who has almost ever since been the quintessential Boston columnist (along with Mike Barnicle, a known male, who made the book twice).
One woman did break into the fraternity, the self-described “Too Tall Jones of my time,” Molly Ivins, the very same witty, courageous Texas liberal who named one of her books after a frequent question evoked by her work: Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? Another of her titles is Shrub, her potent sobriquet for George W. Bush, whom she never stopped taunting as long as she lived. She gave him a regular dose of Texas hell for seven of his eight years in the White House, even co-authoring two more books to that end with her friend, editor Lou Dubose of The Texas Observer.
Strangely, her three columns in Deadline don’t breathe fire, an unusual turn of events, as the full-strength Molly could normally be counted on to be tearing into your face before you knew she was off the floor and moving in your direction. Take, for instance, these lines written back in Bush-the-father days:
We have a president who vetoed Congress’s first effort to raise the minimum wage in 13 years but supports a tax cut for the richest people in the nation, and House Democrats are offended that anyone should introduce the notion of class-warfare politics into the discussion? You could have knocked me over with Dan Quayle’s brain. Breathes there a Democrat with soul so dead he cannot recognize that as an issue from heaven? … What the hell do they think the Republicans are practicing – mah-jongg?
Yes, of course it must be the editors’ worldview that kept Molly’s voice down, I said, talking to myself again. That must be it because this book, good as it is, was put together by people whose politics are not the same as mine and Molly’s. For the record, editors Avlon and Louis both apprenticed at The New York Sun, the now defunct daily that was edited by the conservative former editor of The Forward, Seth Lipsky, husband of author Amity Shlaes, who is among Franklin Roosevelt’s most implacable critics.
Now, by necessity, we go back to male columnists – nine of whom tied with Molly for Deadline‘s seventh-place finish. Pete Hamill is represented by three columns, two of which were the stuff of history the minute he wrote them, describing events whose echo will probably long outlive us. Both contain the drumbeat of their mid-panic births, one in downtown New York on 9/11, the other in the Los Angeles hotel where Robert F. Kennedy was shot to death in 1968. And, oh, the detail, the writer’s intimate knowledge of his characters, the storytelling that bobs, weaves, and goes where Pete sends it. And though being present at either of these events may sound terrifying to non-journalists, many a newspaperman and woman will only think how lucky Hamill was to be in two such places in one lifetime.
Even readers of 65 may have difficulty recalling the columns of Ernie Pyle, who in World War II earned his stripes as a war correspondent of the so-called common man and the families awaiting his return. Following him (he was carried in 300 newspapers) was like reading an extremely articulate soldier’s letters home. And those who do remember know he won America’s heart and that his death with one enemy down and the other falling was mourned accordingly. In his three-and-a-half years of following the front lines from Africa to Europe, Pyle had more than one man’s share of near-death experiences. Still, he wanted to go on serving, and let himself be transferred to the Pacific. As he intuited he would, he died there on an island off of Okinawa, when he was hit by Japanese machine-gun fire in 1945.
At the pace of a short-order cook making burgers, Pyle always seemed to be in the place from which America saw the war because his being there made it that place. Only a man writing that regularly could rip from his typewriter the pure gold of Pyle’s “The Death of Captain Waskow,” a column so simple, brief, and complete I doubt anyone will ever say he or she wrote a better one. Yes, in the book.
Next, we arrive at William F. Buckley, who seems to have no moral qualms when it comes to explaining why it is okay for the U.S. government to abstain from helping out the poor and handicapped. Most Republicans don’t mind supporting such an un-Christian standard if their words can dress it in a tutu. Not so Buckley, who states as plainly as you please that no nation can help everybody, the poor and handicapped included, or it will go broke – an obvious, goes-without-saying explanation back at the country club. I want to ask this perhaps too honest man, whence came the trillions not given to the handicapped but sent instead by speediest transit to financial crooks on Wall Street? And in amounts still held to be barely believable?
Dave Barry is The Miami Herald‘s genius of written risibility, a man who could mine comic gold from under a chair or behind a barn door. In one of his offerings here, he tries to provide tax tips without falling asleep and does not succeed. In another, he tells his readers how to win every argument from friends who will soon be former friends. But can anybody here help Barry get his missing Pulitzer while he’s still grinning? Get serious, Dave. (He’s trying, he says, but promises not to try too hard.)
William Allen White is the legendary Kansas newspaperman whose column “To an Anxious Friend” is one to hang on your wall – or read aloud to someone you know who’s rooting for the immediate removal of all “Occupy” protesters by any means necessary. This is White’s reply to a friend who worries that it might be unwise to care about protecting free speech in times of stress. The editor from Emporia replies that stressful times are the only ones in which defense of such freedom is required. “Peace without the justice born of free discussion is tyranny,” he says:
Violence is the child of suppression. Whoever pleads for justice helps keep the peace; and whoever tramples on the plea for justice temperately made only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man that God put there when we got our manhood. When it is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line … Reason has never failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.
Grantland Rice, born in far-off 1880, helped transform newspaper sportswriting into vital stories of modern-day hero and heroine myths, before handing them off to the great poet-practitioners who came after, writers like Jimmy Cannon, Jim Murray, Furman Bisher, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Bill Plaschke, and others here or gone. Deadline Artists contains Rice’s splendid report on Seabiscuit’s miracle four-length victory over triple-crown winner War Admiral 73 years ago. “You could see from the stands that the Admiral suddenly knew he had nothing left in heart or feet to match this wild, crazy five-year-old,” Rice wrote. “Down the final furlong the great-hearted Seabiscuit put on extra speed … but the Admiral was through. He had run against too many plow horses and platers in his soft and easy life. He had never tackled a Seabiscuit before.” It happened November 1, 1938 and is still called the race of the century.
Heywood Broun is represented by “There Is a Ship,” a column that tells for the first time a story that has been retold a hundred times over, mainly by historians examining our World War II record for blemishes. Writing in the moment, Broun catches a different wind in the tale of a hellish voyage.The ship in question is the one that reached American shores in 1939, carrying 931 Jewish refugees from Germany who were denied entry in Cuba and the U.S., then sent back to Europe on the same ship. Broun fully understood this was a death sentence for all aboard. The ship’s story is still used as a club against FDR, who was said to have sent back the ship in order to avoid an anti-Semitic backlash that might prove costly if there was a war with Hitler, for which he knew he would need 100 percent support.
If the reader hasn’t counted them for himself, there are 25 columnists with two columns each waiting to be revisited, had we but room enough and time. Imagine what talent we now glide past: Hemingway, Mencken, Lippmann, Will Rogers, Red Smith, Eleanor Roosevelt, I.F. Stone, Mark Twain, Woody Guthrie, and Ben Hecht and – and right behind them, the five dozen (five dozen!) or so writers who landed only a single column in the book.
Let’s now take a moment to consider two of the very best columns in the volume. Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke’s moving narrative of his search for Sarah D. Morris, a young woman whose emails stood up in his inbox until the day they talked him into making a visit to Anderson, Texas, where Sarah lived with her mother. After landing in Houston, Plaschke drove 75 miles to the way-back country road on which he found the shack where Sarah was typing sports columns with her head pointer:
I walked out of the sunlight, opened a torn screen door, and moved into the shadows, where an 87-pound figure was curled up in a creaky wheelchair. Her limbs twisted. Her head rolled. We could not hug or even shake hands. She could only stare at me and smile. But that smile! It cut through the gloom of the cracked wooden floor, the torn couch, the broken cobwebbed windows.
And from this visit and the column that followed came a new life for Sarah D. Morris. Take a look; see if you approve.
Finally there is Meyer (Mike) Berger’s 1959 New York Times column about a new patient at the Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat Division of St. Clare’s Hospital (later St. Vincent’s Midtown). The patient is a slender, pale old man with neither eyesight nor, at his time of entering, any memory then in hollering distance. He had been picked up, homeless and tempest-tossed, from the streets of the Bowery.
Under the nuns’ tender care, he mellowed enough over several days to begin recalling his East Side boyhood and the violin lessons he had taken, which led to remembering he had played his violin for Victor Herbert in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Thus in the hospital he was brought a violin left behind by the late sister of one of the nuns. He took it, slowly lifted it to his chin, tuned it, and then brought from its reluctant strings “Sidewalks of New York,” Handel’s “Largo,” “The Blue Danube,” so that when at last Gounod’s “Ave Maria” reached an audience that had formed in the hallway, there were lumps in more throats than one.
But the old man could not keep the same violin when he went to a nursing home, as the nuns now planned. Berger ends his column, “If someone could offer a violin that he could call his own, he would know ecstasy.”
Writing in the moment, columnists have a chance to change events in a way historians never do. In the case of the old man, Berger too had a sequel to write:
Eight violins were offered the other day to Laurence Stroetz, the 82-year-old, cataract-blinded violinist who was taken to St. Clare’s Hospital from a Bowery flophouse. The first instrument to reach the hospital was a gift from the Lighthouse, delivered by a blind man. A nun took it to Mr. Stroetz. He played it a while, tenderly and softly, then gave it back. He said: “This is a fine old violin. Tell the owner to take good care of it.” The nun said: “It is your violin, Mr. Stroetz. It is a gift.” The old man bent his head over it. He wept.
My God, there are so many great columns, those first drafts of history that sometimes give us more history than the history books – retaining the freshness and flavor of their exact time and place. Many are not at all ephemeral, as readers of Deadline will surely appreciate. For some writers, not having the luxury of a lot of time is a virtue. Right, Mr. Breslin? Right, Mr. Hamill? Or would you like another hour before that deadline falls?