Article - Summer 2012

Yellow Journalist

Confessions of a novice writer at the New York Post

By Gerald Nachman | June 1, 2012
Murray Kempton (Library of Congress)
Murray Kempton (Library of Congress)

 

In 1963, fueled by a passion for all things New York, I decided it was time to move to Manhattan. My mother and grandfather were dumbfounded by my urge—no, compulsion—to abandon a plum job as a 24-year-old TV critic and humor columnist on a fat, medium-sized daily, the San Jose Mercury. “Jerry, m’boy, one day San Jose will surpass San Francisco in population!” said my security-minded granddad, certain that this fact alone would persuade me to stay put. But logic could not compete with the luster and lure of  E. B. White’s Here Is New York, James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, the lore of the Algonquin Roundtable in the 1920s, and anything written by Robert Benchley.

Before boarding a train in downtown Oakland that June, I had spent six months mailing my résumé and a dozen writing samples to 50 midsized newspapers within a 50-mile radius of New York City. In those pre-Xerox days, sending clips involved having columns photographed and printed, a major financial outlay. The only response I remember getting was from a New Jersey editor who sang into the receiver (mimicking Alan Sherman’s 1962 parody of “Frère Jacques”), “Jerry Nachman, Jerry Nachman, how’s by you? How’s by you?” He broke himself up but failed to extend a job offer, unless it was a menial position such as (ugh) reporter. I was spoiled by the Mercury and refused to consider a mere reporting job, not realizing that small papers didn’t hire feature writers.

As the train streamed eastward, I clutched my lifeline—The Village Voice Reader, a book that my mother had brought me as a farewell gift. I pored over articles by the likes of Norman Mailer and cartoons by Jules Feiffer, and the unimposing paperback persuaded me to find an apartment in Greenwich Village. I had a temporary place to bunk, the pad of a Bay Area friend, Chuck Alverson, a sardonic, ambitious guy who had graduated from San Francisco State, sped to New York, and gotten a job working for the legendary Harvey Kurtzman at Help!, a pulpier, much less inspired version of MAD. Kurtzman had started Help! after leaving MAD, which he had founded. I sat in on a few rollicking late-night Help! paste-up sessions—there’s an archaic term—with the artists, one of whom was a native Minnesotan named Terry Gilliam with a crazy glint in his eye and a maniacal cackle. He soon moved to London and joined Monty Python as the group’s animator.

I, an avid reader of The New York Times, the Herald Tribune, and the Voice, had barely noticed the tabloid Post and News—squalid, noisy little newspapers. The idea of my writing for a tabloid seemed absurd, and I considered the Post a notch above The Police Gazette. Even so, I dutifully sent clips and a letter to the Post’s managing editor, Al Davis, and I was astonished when he called me in for an interview, said my columns were funny, and offered a spot as a summer fill-in. If I did well for three months, they might offer me a full-time job. Miraculously, in a few weeks’ time, I had landed a job at one of the city’s best-read papers.

I was desperate to get a New York City newspaper job, but there was a tiny hitch: I had spent almost no time in city rooms, done little hard-news writing, and was sadly unprepared to be a street reporter. Not unpredictably, the city editor first stuck me on the lowliest and loneliest beat, the midnight-to-eight rewrite desk, an almost cruel assignment for someone new to rewriting and to night work. I tried to sleep before going in, but the stark terror of what I was about to bluff my way through kept me wide awake in my shoebox room on West 10th Street. So I trudged groggily to work every night and could barely keep awake.


The Post, an afternoon paper, grabbed stories from the Times’s first edition, so there was a need not just to rewrite but also to refurbish articles so that they would seem less counterfeit. It came as a startling revelation that a major newspaper routinely stole many stories from a rival. The process usually involved crunching a 30-inch Times account to six paragraphs. Yes, the Post had a much smaller staff; mostly, though, it was because—well, this was just how it was done.

The Post of 1963 was a famed left-wing bastion with a largely Jewish staff and a readership that was primarily Jewish, black, and Hispanic. (The Daily News readers were mostly Irish American and Italian American, the Trib was considered solidly WASP.) If the Earth were destroyed, the joke went, the Post’s headline would read, WORLD ENDS; JEWS AND BLACKS SUFFER MOST.

The Post’s writers—Murray Kempton, Pete Hamill, James Wechsler, Gael Greene, and Max Lerner—were equals to the heralded Tribune writers, Jimmy Breslin, Red Smith, Dick Schaap. The rest of the staff was comprised of an all-star team of dogged investigative reporters, sparkling feature writers, slick rewriters, and savvy critics. Ted Poston, the Post’s, and the city’s, ace black reporter, filed most of his stories that summer from Selma, Birmingham, and Memphis. He was a tall, rumpled guy in suspenders with a big laugh and a gold front tooth. The punchy sports section was ablaze with talent, including Larry Merchant, Leonard Schecter, Maury Allen, and Vic Ziegel—a virtual sportswriters’ Hall of Fame.

The Post men’s room lacked a door, so the scent of urine wafted through the lobby as you stepped off the elevator. It was an introduction to the defiantly grungy spirit of the city room, where wastebaskets were overflowing and wadded-up copy paper, reeking cigarette butts, and greasy wax paper from week-old pastrami sandwiches littered the desks. Desktops went untouched throughout that entire summer, covered with paper coffee cups, cigar stubs afloat in them, and decaying press packets. You wouldn’t have been surprised to find, beneath a pile of old carbons, a snowshoe in August. Typewriters with snarled, dangling ribbons went unfixed for weeks. There was no air conditioning, just tall, partially opened, grimy windows. Fans on desks scanned the room like radar dishes, blowing loose papers all over the place. Reporters typed with one elbow holding down their fluttering notes.

The sweltering city room was in constant chaos. When a call came in for someone, the switchboard boy would swivel around in his chair and bellow the name of a reporter, who would shout an acknowledgment and take the call. A thick macho-intellectual air pervaded the place. The editors were flinty guys, heirs to a generation of cynical, wise-cracking, hard drinkers out of The Front Page. Paul Sann, the executive editor, was the city room’s scariest mug, a wiry, swarthy, mean-looking fellow with a crewcut, a curled lip, and an intimidating bark of a laugh. He later edited a book about legendary New York gangsters and resembled one himself. From the fenced-off bullpen where he had his cowboy boots shined every day, he regarded everything, especially me, with a sneer. I, a hopeless greenhorn, tried to avoid his gimlet gaze. The few times Sann muttered anything to me, his voice was drenched with disdain. I never saw him actually edit copy.

Sann’s henchman, as I thought of him, was Johnny Bott, the daytime city editor, an ornery Claggart figure, with a wooden leg (or maybe a leg brace), to my trembling Billy Budd. Johnny clumped across the city room when forced to take a bathroom break, or he growled “Boyyyy!” while waving a sheaf of copy paper for a copy boy (no girls allowed) to pluck from his impatient hand and take to the copy desk. In that prehistoric era, stories were typewritten in triplicate on copy paper separated by two carbon sheets—paper sandwiches called books.

Al Davis, my city-room “rabbi,” gave me a few opportunities to shine, possibly to vindicate hiring an otherwise unschooled reporter from someplace out west he called San Joze. Portly and bald, a cigar stuck in his mouth, he never seemed displeased with my meager output. On the other hand, I failed a major reportorial test when one of the star rewrite guys, Gene Grove, invited me to have a drink with him one day after work. It was a gracious gesture, his way of welcoming me aboard, and I was flattered. At the bar, he ordered a grownup drink, probably a scotch, and I, a lifelong teetotaler, ordered a ginger ale. His face fell, and I sensed his interest in me oozing away. After maybe 20 awkward minutes I excused myself, having flunked a fundamental city-room initiation rite.

The Post’s rising star, Pete Hamill, liked my celebrity profiles and invited me to a party at his house with young journalistic hotshots. I most vividly remember Gay Talese, who leaned against a mantel as if modeling his sleek and snazzy Italian suit. The party was for 7 P.M., and I, in my unschooled, Oakland-bred ways, got there at 7:05 while Pete was finishing dinner with his family. I mumbled hello, ducked out quickly, and returned in an hour. Clearly I also wasn’t going to cut it as a New York social butterfly.


My first major assignment was to find a desk. There was nowhere permanent to sit if you were a summer replacement, so I would scamper to another desk whenever a regular came in and plopped his stuff down next to mine—my cue to move even if I was taking a story over the phone. More seasoned staffers had desks they had staked out, but rookies searched for vacancies when they returned from an assignment. Sooner or later, a veteran would tap me on the shoulder, the signal to vamoose. The political writer Oliver Pilat hung an “Occupado” sign on his vacant chair. This sort of frontier justice was taken for granted at the Post.

I never mastered some technical rudiments of reporting, such as typing while cradling a telephone receiver between the chin and shoulder. Post headsets were either busted or didn’t fit; the band kept slipping off my ear during interviews and I’d have to press the earpiece against my head, release it after hearing a reply, type a line, and repeat the procedure. Clearly this was not an occupation I was born for. Did E. B. White start like this?

The hodgepodge office atmosphere, like the lack of desks, extended from the city room to the Post’s tenuous street presence in a large yellow building near Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. There were no signs to indicate that a major metropolitan newspaper resided within. The only clue you were at the office of the New York Post was a large “75” on a glass door on West Street, the official address. The main entrance on Rector Street was really the rear of the building. Lewis Carroll would have felt right at home. Once inside, you found yourself in a long, mostly blank hallway enlivened only by a sad little news- stand and a dingy luncheonette. If you persisted, you could find the newspaper office itself on the second floor after a long walk down another anonymous hallway, a right turn, and a cardboard sign that read, “Visitors go to switchboard.” There was no place to sit and wait, no desk, no receptionist.

The head of this madcap household was owner and publisher Dorothy (Dolly) Schiff, a pre–Katharine Graham archetype who was roundly mocked by the staff. Dolly sat in “the tower” far above us and descended into the city room about once a month. Reporters parted as she strode imperiously among the riffraff, elegantly coiffed, for a talk with Paul Sann, who suddenly turned from hard-bitten editor to deferential hired hand (“Sure, Dolly.” “Whatever you say, Dolly.”). Editors lived in constant fear of her memos, and speculation was endless about what Dolly wanted in the paper. Once she sent down a note saying she had liked a story about a treed dog, and for months afterward there were stories about beleaguered animals.

Nobody seemed to be in charge. Jimmy Wechsler, who would eventually earn a place on the Nixon enemies list, had been the Post’s editor-in-chief and editorial conscience since the late 1940s, but he was deposed in 1961. By the time I arrived the city room was in serious decline. Wechsler’s position had been more or less assumed by Schiff, who ran the paper with an iron whim.

I never mastered some technical rudiments of reporting, such as typing while cradling a telephone receiver between the chin. Just how the ramshackle Post got out a newspaper every day was a dark mystery, 50 percent repetition and 50 percent luck. The paper had the smallest news hole in town after all the columns, features, photos, sports, and puzzles were subtracted—about five pages, of which maybe three dealt with examples of racial injustice, demonstrations, and labor disputes. The front page was usually devoted to a huge headline, a photo of a movie star, and a news story that had nothing to do with either the headline or the photo. Occasionally a picture, a headline, and a story would coincide, as when Pope John XXIII died or Mandy Rice Davies testified in the Profumo sex scandal in England—stories of equal weight on the Post’s topsy-turvy news scales. When the nuclear test ban treaty was signed the story ran on page seven, while page one carried the latest news of the Profumo trial. When someone asked a city editor to justify this odd news positioning, he replied, “How many people own atom bombs and how many people fuck?” The amusing feature stories, the only reason I applied for a job there, were relegated to the back pages during that legendary long hot summer of  ’63.

The Post seemed both overstaffed and overburdened. Seventeen of my assigned stories, half my total summer output, failed to run, yet news holes were plugged with wire features.

I spent my evenings at home, staring at the grease-stained walls of my little room and listening to towed cars being delivered, with a clang, at the garage across the street, accompanied by profane shouts from mechanics. When I got to work at midnight, the city room seemed deserted, a few whirring fans the only thing stirring. A night city editor would toss me a pile of Times stories to rewrite (i.e., disguise), with no instructions to do any original report- ing—just as well, I thought.

I fed the city desk all sorts of story ideas, but few got a response and most of them were quickly spiked on an actual spike. The infrequent times I was allowed to cobble together a feature story after midnight required calling people at 1 or 2 A.M. to get a reluctant quote. Once I came up with an idea the night city editor liked—how bagels were invented, thus appealing to the paper’s big Jewish readership (bagels were not yet a nationwide staple). The editor suggested I call a few Jewish celebrities for their views on the subject. I reached a few names via an outfit called Celebrity Service that provided contact numbers. When I dialed George Jessel, the comic barked, “How the fuck should I know where bagels come from? I just eat ’em.” He hung up, annoyed at being pestered with a dopey question at midnight. The allegedly jolly, warmhearted Gertrude Berg, Molly of the radio and TV mainstay The Goldbergs, also gave me an irritated reply. Somehow I cobbled together my late-breaking bagel story and the paper ran it on page two, giv- ing me a day of short-lived credibility.

It became evident that I was an all-night liability, so I was reassigned to the daytime newsroom, then ruled over by the fearsome Johnny Bott, who growled and used a spittoon. I was as terrified and hapless “working the phones” as I was going into the streets for a live story. The few times I was trusted to go out on a story, I got most of my information from helpful rival reporters. I never knew what questions to ask at a fire. When an editor snapped, “How much damage was there?” I stammered, “It sure looked like a lot to me.” He commanded me to call the fire department and get a goddamn dollar amount, which had never occurred to me, nor had it seemed especially interesting. I was more curious about what firemen think while battling a blaze.

One of the more peculiar rituals I encountered at the Post involved leaving for the day. You never knew when you were supposed to go home until an editor bid you an official good night by waving his hand and saying, “Take a good night, Jerry.” How I longed to hear that. Another version involved taking a slide, as in, “You may take a slide, Mr. Nachman.”


I was the dunce in a bright freshman class of cub reporters that included Nora Ephron and Sidney Zion. Ephron quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with. She deftly parlayed a privileged childhood, good connections, nerve, and natural talent into twin careers in writing and film directing. An unfazed Nora seemed utterly at ease at the Post, mixing it up with senior reporters, while I hid behind a pillar for fear of being sent on a story. Paul Sann would glower whenever his eyes met mine; Nora sauntered about the city room, bantering with guys like Sann. The daughter of Hollywood screenwriters and accustomed to being among studio bigwigs, sharks, and charlatans, she kowtowed to nobody. She would even quarrel with editors over stories, though she was only a year or two out of Wellesley and even less experienced on newspapers than I was. Yet she orbited among such other hot young journalists as Calvin Trillin, Victor Navasky, and Tom Wolfe.

Her later rise was fascinating to chart. I would lunch with her at the greasy spoon in the Post lobby, where she, off-Broadway critic Jerry Talmer, teen columnist Susan Szekely, and the perpetually ranting Sid Zion bantered and complained over grilled cheese sandwiches and Cokes. Ephron once told me that I got show people to open up because they were fooled by my innocent (i.e., doofus) manner—a backhanded compliment, but I relished it anyway, coming from a smart cookie like her. I liked her, maybe was even attracted, but was also wary. There was something daunting about Ephron’s certainty; I can still hear her saying, “Oh, Jerry, how can you possibly say that?”

One of the many guys I feared at the Post was Ed Kosner, a skinny, sharp-featured young assistant city editor from City College who later was editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire, and The Sunday Daily News. At the Post Ed wore big horn-rimmed glasses, had a brash manner, and treated me as an alien. Though only a few years older than I was, he always seemed to be smirking at me. He came through later when it counted, though. He knew I couldn’t be trusted on an actual breaking story, but there was still a little room in the paper for features that I was competent to handle, like one about a softball game between Playboy Bunnies and Broadway Show League actors, a story full of double entendres that ran on page 34 as filler between the used-car ads.

Kosner once handed me a story off the AP ticker about a tour of New York piers commemorating “World Port Day,” an assignment meant to keep me occupied. Eager to prove myself, I jammed the clip in my pocket but neglected to read the time of departure and from which pier the tour was leaving. Upon arriving at the harbor, I spied a line of people boarding a boat and a man with a megaphone crying, “All aboard! Hurry up! Boat leaving in five minutes!” I bought a ticket and hopped aboard. It was 10:30, which meant I’d be back at the office in plenty of time to write the story; news deadlines, of course, traumatized me.

About an hour into the cruise, as the boat made its leisurely way around Manhattan, it dawned on me that the vessel I was on was a Circle Line tourist boat. My stomach fell as I reread the AP clipping and saw that the tour I was assigned had left a half-hour after the boat I was on. I was semi-comatose for the rest of the three-hour trip, certain I would be sacked that afternoon. The moment the boat docked, I frantically began asking where I might find out something about the port tour. “Sorry, pal,” someone said, “that cruise won’t be back for two hours.” In my defense, I had been handed the World Port Day assignment at the last minute, a typical Post practice. You would often get an assignment at 11 A.M. to cover a meeting that had begun at 10:30, forcing you to fill in the blanks by interviewing rival reporters.

I slunk back to the office and sheepishly told Ed what I had done. He whooped loudly, a slightly menacing laugh. He told Johnny Bott and Al Davis, who also howled. But Ed told me to write up the notes I had taken on the Circle Line tour. He liked the piece I constructed from my monumental screw-up and ran it the next day, maybe out of pity. I came out with my shredded ego intact. Al Davis greeted me the next morning with a grin: “It’s a good thing you didn’t get on the Queen Mary or you wouldn’t be back for a month!”

The story helped salvage what little reputation I had remaining, but I was slowly catching on to the unstated Post credo: anything goes. This wasn’t a real newspaper,

I realized a little too late. This was the French Foreign Legion for lost reporters—some young and gifted, some old, boozed-up, and at the end of the line, and a few, like your cowardly correspondent, simply dysfunctional.

At the end of the summer, I was let go, as expected, secretly delighted to escape with my life, ending an anxious three months, half of it spent rewriting the Times while trying to keep my eyes open all night, half of it waiting for an assignment crumb. When I left, I figured my newspaper career was over, but Al Davis let me down easy. “I’ve liked what you’ve done,” he said. Johnny Bott’s farewell to me was just the reverse: “You just don’t have the right approach for a metropolitan paper.”

Not unlike the Post. 

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