Essays - Winter 2008

The Daily Miracle

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Life with the mavericks and oddballs at the Herald Tribune

By William Zinsser

December 1, 2007


 

I did my first writing as an adult in North Africa and Italy during World War II. That’s where I learned that writers can write anywhere. As a boy I had taught myself to type because I wanted to grow up to be a newspaperman, preferably on the New York Herald Tribune, the paper I idolized for its humanity and humor. My ability to type caught the attention of Colonel Monro McCloskey, the commander of my Army unit. The colonel had an elevated sense of personal glory, and I was a captive sergeant. He put me to work writing company histories and other reports that would exalt his feats of leadership. Once, near the Algerian town of Blida, just under the Atlas Mountains, a sirocco from the Sahara swirled through the tent where I was typing, pelting me with hot particles of sand that I sometimes think are still lodged in my scalp. The next winter, near the Italian town of Brindisi, the particles swirling through my tent were cold and felt very much like snow.

Those wartime stints at a typewriter prepared me for a lifetime of writing in odd or exotic places, starting in 1946, when I came home and got a job on the Herald Tribune—my boyhood dream come true. The Trib building, at 230 West 41st Street, extended through the block to 40th Street; the city room, which housed most of the editors, reporters, rewrite men, sportswriters, and columnists, occupied almost the entire fifth floor.

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 noticeably 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 copyreader 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 paper 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 my Hemingway, and now I was in the same room with those bylines-come-to-life: Rud Rennie, Jesse Abramson, Al Laney. Laney, who covered golf and tennis, never took off his hat. I often paused at the sports department to watch those Olympians, wreathed in cigarette smoke, tapping out their stories with ferocious speed—especially Abramson, who seemed to have the entire history of boxing at his fingertips.

Ruling over that domain was the sports editor, Stanley Woodward. Built like a 250-pound fullback, he was as sensitive to good writing as a 125-pound poet. No hoopsters or pucksters played in his pages, no batsmen bounced into twin killings. Woodward had recently hired two stylists to add luster to his stable. First he plucked Red Smith from the Philadelphia Record, thereby presenting to a national audience the best sportswriter of his generation. Then he imported Palmer, an English professor at a college in Kentucky, to write a column called “Views of the Turf.” I knew nothing about horses, but Palmer’s columns, a blend of erudition and wit, strewn with allusions to Shakespeare and Chaucer, took me into a picaresque new world, often straying far from “the turf.” I still remember a column extolling the virtues of Kentucky jellied bourbon.

I had landed at the Trib on the high tide of the GI Bill of Rights, which promised to pay the tuition of every veteran who wanted to attend college. Millions did, most of them the first member of their family to go beyond high school, and I persuaded the Trib’s managing editor, George Cornish, that the paper needed its own returning veteran to tell their story. That wasn’t strictly true; any trained reporter could have done the job. But it got my foot in the door, and for a year I wrote articles on education for the Sunday paper.

In 1947 I became assistant editor of the Sunday review-of-the-week section. The Sunday editor, Robert L. Moora, was putting out the section almost single-handedly—the impecunious Trib had a much smaller staff than the Times—and he needed an all-purpose lieutenant. Working for Bob Moora was a crash course in writing, rewriting, editing, layout, and “making up” the paper in the composing room. He had been managing editor of Stars and Stripes in Europe during the war and had seen every journalistic calamity. Nobody was faster at repairing a story that had gone wrong or banging out a new lead that would get it started right. I loved to read those leads as he ripped them out of his typewriter, each one a small gem of narrative construction.

He also sent me out almost every week to write a feature article about some new or old marvel in the marvelous city. The shad were running in the Hudson. The Queen Mary made a record turnaround of 24 hours and five minutes at her New York pier. The Wrigley’s Spearmint gum sign in Times Square was replaced by a 50,000-gallon-per-minute waterfall advertising Bond Clothes. The Board of Tea Examiners met for its annual sniffing of imported blacks, greens, and oolongs. The Ringling Brothers circus had a new acrobat named Unus who stood on one finger. (“He’s a very nervous man,” his wife told me.)

I was also given copy to edit for various backwaters of the paper that nobody else wanted to touch. One was horticulture. Gardening-advice articles then filled several pages of the Sunday paper. They were brought to me every week by Henry B. Aul, the editor who assembled the columns written by outside experts, whose bylines are still imprinted on my retina: Alfred Putz, Gisela Grimm, Betty Blossom. I knew as little about gardening as they knew about syntax, and I was locked in weekly combat with their prose. Often the sentences took a startling turn; there was much talk of divided bloomers, and unspeakable acts were prescribed for the maidenhair fern. Henry Aul was patient with my efforts to untangle the gnarled sentences, and he became a good friend. Every winter he took me to the flower show at Grand Central Palace, touchingly eager to make me a believer.

Not to make good friends in every cranny of the room would have been impossible. We were a tribe in motion, meeting each other everywhere: going out on stories, coming back from stories, getting clips from the morgue, reading wire copy off a machine, stretching, smoking, visiting the water cooler, stopping at each other’s desks, endlessly talking shop. The talk continued downstairs at the Artist and Writers Restaurant, known as Bleeck’s and pronounced Blake’s, a former speakeasy with a mile-long bar, located just a few steps from the paper’s back entrance on 40th Street, which was a second home—and often a first home—to almost everyone who worked at the Herald Tribune. Reporters and editors missing in midafternoon could reliably be found there and invited back up to work.

My desk was quite near the city desk, where the city editor, L. L. Engelking, a choleric giant from Texas forever in pursuit of perfection—like his legendary predecessor, Stanley Walker, who wrote the first Herald Tribune stylebook—roared his displeasure at the imperfect efforts of his staff. Clustered around “Engel” were the desks of his assistant city editors and a bank of rewrite men—anonymous craftsmen revered by their peers for their ability to stitch into an enjoyable narrative the threads of information provided by reporters telephoning from all over the city. Phones rang incessantly.

Every desk had an ancient typewriter in its sunken well, leaving only a small surface to hold the other necessities of the trade: a rotary telephone, a wire basket for copy, an ashtray, a cup of coffee, and a spike for impaling any piece of paper that a reporter might later regret throwing away. The spike was where old press releases went to die.

The rhythm of the room quickened as the afternoon turned to evening and the great reporters, like the crime reporters Walter Arm and Milton Lewis, pounded out deadline-meeting articles, which, consumed over breakfast the next morning, seemed to have been as carefully composed as a story by Guy de Maupassant. Periodically the cry of “Copy!” cut through the noise as reporters summoned a copy boy to take the page they had just written. Their articles were brought in successive “takes” to the editors and were then dropped down a chute to the composing room on the fourth floor. There they were set in type and assembled with the rest of the next day’s paper, and everything went down to the presses on the third and second floors to be printed and bundled and then loaded onto trucks on the ground floor and rushed out into the night. None of us ever got tired of being in the room where that daily miracle was set in motion.


One day in 1948, George Cornish called me into his office to tell me that the paper’s drama editor, a kindly septuagenarian who had started his career on the Brooklyn Eagle in the 1890s, was to be retired and that a thorough renovation was wanted for the Sunday drama section, which included the theater, movies, music, dance, art, photography, and radio. Would I be interested? I thought I already had the best job in the world; no larger aspirations had come knocking.

But I had no trouble deciding to accept. The Sunday drama section was a creature from some primordial bog of journalism, its antique typefaces and borders and drawings wholly out of step with the vibrant postwar theater of Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan and other emerging playwrights and directors. I would enjoy giving the section a fresh identity. The job would also tap into my lifelong love affair with the American musical theater, with Hollywood movies, and with classical and popular music.

I moved across the city room to the drama editor’s desk and found myself in a universe inhabited by some of the most skittish birds in the Herald Tribune aviary. They included Virgil Thomson, who presided Buddha-like over a coterie of part-time junior critics like Paul Bowles; the dance critic Walter Terry, who, when he got up to stretch, stood in fourth position; and the bibulous drama critic, who, soon after my arrival, took one drink too many and fell to his early retirement while walking down the aisle to his seat on opening night of a Broadway play. Four men on the drama and film staff had gone to Yale—a club within a club. I hadn’t met any of them before I was dropped into their midst, an outsider who had somehow stumbled into the sacred grove. Walter Winchell reported in his column the alarming news that the Trib had turned over its drama section to a 26-year-old kid.

But the kid was generously received by the department and also by the industry. The Broadway theater was still a fraternity of like-minded men and women, longtime habitués of Sardi’s and Shubert Alley, and Hollywood was still a company town run by a half-dozen major studios. I enjoyed working with the press agents of those two citadels of entertainment. I also enjoyed assigning articles to city desk reporters, like Judith Crist, who had seldom strayed far from their beat and found a fresh voice writing about the arts. I gave his first byline to a skinny young copy boy named Roger Kahn, who would later become a star sportswriter for the paper. In his classic book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, Kahn wrote:

William Zinsser, the young drama editor, assigned me to interview a female ice skater, pointing out that in a few weeks at Madison Square Garden the skater would play before the equivalent of a full year’s attendance in a Broadway Theater. Zinsser liked anomalies. Later he sent me to an off-Broadway production of Juno and the Paycock. “Everyone calls O’Casey the greatest playwright alive,” Zinsser said, “but he can’t get his stuff on Broadway.” Preparing, I read five O’Casey plays in three days, which would have been a semester’s worth of work at NYU if NYU admitted that Casey existed.

Yet in that world of Broadway opening nights and Hollywood hoopla. I never lost my love for the mechanics of the job. My favorite day was Friday, which I spent mostly in the composing room, making up the drama section with the printers, who also were good friends. Their union didn’t allow editors to touch the type, but I could hover over the pages, which were secured in rectangular iron frames called chases, and figure out how to assemble the section. From a boyhood fling with a printing press I knew how to read type upside down, and Bob Moora had shown me, with lightning dexterity, how to calculate with a string whether a galley of type would fit into the jagged hole waiting for it in the page, snaked around the ads that were already there. The composing room was a symphony of sounds, none sweeter than the irregular clacking of rows and rows of Linotype machines, and no perfume was more inviting than the metallic smell that greeted me when I went down to the fourth floor, an instant link to earlier generations of newspapermen and to the beautiful technology of 19th-century industrial America.

After six years as drama editor I became the paper’s movie critic. The studios would screen their new films for the local newspaper critics, who ranged, in order of solemnity, from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times to Leo Mishkin of The Racing Form, perhaps its only provider of non-horse-related news. I spent hundreds of hours in those smoky little screening rooms near Times Square. Then I would walk back down Broadway and write my review. My walk took me past shooting galleries and porno movie arcades and novelty shops, past papaya juice stands and Nedick’s and Bickford’s, past strip clubs and jazz clubs and cheap hotels, past Jack Dempsey’s and the Latin Quarter and the Paramount, where legions of bobby-soxers once lined up for a chance to swoon over Frank Sinatra, and, finally, past the horror-crazed Rialto theater, at Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street, which beckoned me with ghoulish posters of monster movies and vampire movies, their titles dripping with blood.

From there it was only one more block to my block, 41st Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, and I always felt a rush when I turned right and saw the Herald Tribune building rising out of an asphalt sea of parking lots and small terminals for buses going to towns in New Jersey that almost nobody went to. The block also had a cut-rate barbershop and a store that rented tuxedos to waiters and musicians. I wouldn’t have wanted the paper to be in any other part of town. It was where a great metropolitan daily ought to be, tuned to the streetwise cadences of Damon Runyon and the love songs of Tin Pan Alley.

I was a fugitive from the expectations of my wasp upbringing. I had left the cocoon of Princeton to enlist in the Army, and when I came home I didn’t go into the 100-year-old family shellac business, William Zinsser and Co., as I was meant to do, being the namesake and only son, but followed my own dream. I enjoyed being outside the boundaries I was born into. At that time newspapermen were still a fairly disreputable social class; nobody actually knew any newspapermen. As a boy I had been taken with my three older sisters to Best and Co. and De Pinna’s, upscale stores on Fifth Avenue that expediently sold both girls’ and boys’ clothing, and there I was properly outfitted for a proper life. Now, in the 1950s, Best and DePinna’s were still doing business, just a few blocks to the east. But in the geography of my life they were many miles away.

My desk as movie critic was so close to other desks that no nearby chitchat or phone call went unheard. Writing more than 600 movie reviews and Sunday columns there, I learned to tune out most extraneous patter. My loudest neighbor was the society editor, Mr. Gifford, whose temper rose by the hour as he fielded phone calls from anxious mothers of the bride. The daily paper then ran several columns of engagement announcements and photographs of Eastern Establishment girls. The Sunday pages were mainly devoted to weddings, in which, it seemed, every bride wore a gown of peau de soie and an heirloom veil of Alençon lace. Gifford and his lady assistant would explain their requirements to each mother in a tone of voice increasingly suggesting that she wasn’t the only woman in the world whose daughter was getting married.


In the winter of 1958 an uninvited guest began looking over my shoulder. The paper was in financial distress, and one of its biggest advertisers, Twentieth Century Fox, whose movies in those years were mostly mediocre, let it be known to the Reid family, which owned the Trib, that it might cancel its ads if its films were negatively reviewed, thereby lobbing a grenade at the sacred wall that protects a newspaper’s editorial staff from its business department. Unluckily, in the next few months the studio released two of its most pretentious bombs.

The first was South Pacific, a movie derived from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that was directed by Joshua Logan. Logan also directed the movie, which starred Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. But something had gone badly wrong in almost every area of the production, including a special color process that was meant to bathe certain scenes in a gauzy Polynesian glow. I had no choice but to say what I thought, and rumblings from the Fox volcano were duly heard.

The other film was A Farewell to Arms, a trashy remake of Ernest Hemingway’s novel starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. As I wrote my review I had the feeling that I was also writing THE END to my career as a movie critic, and that turned out to be the case. George Cornish, the Reids’ consigliere, suggested that I become an editorial writer, and I jumped at his typically diplomatic solution; he knew I would never be anyone’s hired lackey. But I was also eager to get beyond the world of entertainment. I gladly moved into the office of the editorial board and wrote editorials for the next year, enjoying the wide range of subjects and the discipline of the form. I was replaced as movie critic by a bland city desk reporter who never met a picture he didn’t like. Several months later I got a letter from Joshua Logan that said, “I just wanted you to know that you didn’t hate South Pacific as much as I hated South Pacific.” Time has not upgraded my opinion of the two Fox films; Leonard Maltin’s popular Movie Guide dismisses them both as dismal failures.

My sudden change of jobs, which was reported in the press as an ethical surrender, didn’t tell us Herald Tribune survivors anything we hadn’t long known in our bones. Our much-loved house was far gone in decay. The rot had begun in the years after World War II, when the cost of newsprint and labor rose sharply and the paper started to lose money. To reduce costs it began to reduce its coverage, thereby losing readers and advertising to the Times, its rival for the same upscale demographic base.

The solution, concocted by Whitelaw (“Whitey”) Reid, who had become editor in 1947 upon the death of his father, Ogden Reid, was to build circulation by luring the “masses” away from the proletarian Daily News. He introduced a succession of tawdry gimmicks: gossip columns by the likes of Hy Gardner and Billy Rose, a “personality” profile by Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg (actually written by a kid press agent named William Safire), a green sports section, an “Early Bird” edition that went on sale at 8:00 P.M., a circulation-boosting contest called Tangletowns, and other features that eroded the character of his paper and drove many of its best people away. Homer Bigart and Peter Kihss both went to the Times. The masses also stayed away; they knew when they were being patronized. Whitey must have resented their ingratitude.

In 1955 Whitey Reid was ousted in a palace revolution by his blustery younger brother, Ogden R. (Brown) Reid, who saw Communists under every chair and sometimes wore a gun. (The allegory of the white prince and the black prince had a desolate symmetry.) Under Brown the decline accelerated. Almost every month seemed to bring the departure in sadness and despair of gifted journalists who knew what they were doing and the arrival of hustlers and mountebanks who didn’t.

One day I looked up from my desk and saw a curious figure being escorted across the city room to George Cornish’s corner office. He was a small man in a shabby black suit and a black hat who looked as if his job might be to stamp passports at the airport in Bogotá, and he was carrying a long black box. Word soon got around that his name was Luis Azarraga and that the box contained a secret camera that could take panoramic pictures. He had been hired by Brown Reid to enliven the paper with his miraculous wares.

Sure enough, over the next few weeks the Herald Tribune’s front page, long an ornament of American typography, was dismembered to accommodate an eight-column photograph, often running above the paper’s handsome masthead, that showed 40 or 50 blocks of New York skyline. There was no journalistic reason for running the pictures; they conveyed no information that the reader couldn’t glean with his own two panoramic eyes. Nor were they notable examples of the art; the paper’s own photographers did far more interesting work every day. What the pictures did have was one undeniable trait: they were very wide. After a while the Trib’s owners realized what everybody already knew—that there isn’t much demand for very wide pictures—and Azarraga vanished as abruptly as he had arrived. Nobody ever did see what was in the black box.

Finally I could no longer wish away the truth I didn’t want to face. The paper where I had spent so many happy years, where I had expected to stay forever, had ceased to be a happy place. I didn’t want to stick around for the long illness that, in 1966, would finally kill it—a fate briefly redeemed by two late-arriving acrobats, Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe, doing high-wire acts on the deck of a sinking ship.

One day in 1959 I walked across the city room one last time to the office of George Cornish. He was still sitting where he had hired me 13 years earlier—in a leather chair at the head of the long table where he presided over the daily news conference, watched over by the bullet-punctured bronze bust of Adolf Hitler that Homer Bigart brought back from Berlin after the war. A cultivated man from Demopolis, Alabama, Cornish seemed to me a tragic hero, in whose incremental yielding of journalistic integrity the tragedy of the Herald Tribune itself was played out. He never forgot that he was the servant of the owners, passing along their shabbiest decisions as if he really thought they were worth a try, never betraying by the slightest tic what must have been happening to him inside, standing Canute-like on the beach as the Reids gradually washed away the foundations of his paper.

I told Mr. Cornish—I still called him Mr. Cornish—that I saw no end to the steady erosion and that I felt I had to resign. He said he was sorry, but I don’t think he was surprised; I was only the latest in a long line of men and women who had finally lost patience with him.

I telephoned my wife, Caroline, to tell her what I had done.

“What are you going to do now?” she asked. I thought it was a fair question; by then we had a one-year-old daughter, Amy.

I said, “I guess I’m a freelance writer.”

And, along with being a teacher of writing, that’s what I’ve been ever since.


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.

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