The day that Japanese foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, boarded the battleship USS Missouri to surrender his nation to General Douglas MacArthur, I boarded a shabby North Shore Line train near Fort Sheridan and headed for Chicago and civilian life. I had just been discharged from the U.S. Army Air Corps. It was September 2, 1945, and V-J Day.
By midweek I was back at work at the Chicago Times, a lively picture tabloid published at 211 West Wacker Drive just west of Wells Street. Before being drafted 17 months earlier, I had made $50 a week at my job on rewrite. I went back at $100 a week. For days I had the tedious job of typing long lists of the names of Chicago soldiers who had been liberated from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
At the turn of the century Chicago had ten daily newspapers. By 1945 there were only five. The morning papers were the Sun, started by Marshall Field before Pearl Harbor day, and the Tribune, the town's dominant paper, run by the conservative Colonel Robert R. "Bertie" McCormick. In the afternoon there were the Hearst American, the Times, and the Daily News, the last known for its literary coverage and prize winning foreign correspondents.
The Times had been started in September 1929 by Samuel Emory Thomason, a classmate of Bertie McCormick's at Northwestern University Law School. Before founding his own paper, Thomason had been McCormick's business manager at the unheard-of salary of $250,000 a year. Compared with McCormick, Thomason was a left-winger. The Times was then the only Democratic paper in town, and it feuded constantly with the Tribune. The Trib warned, for example, that a defeat by Roosevelt in 1936 of GOP candidate Alfred M. Landon might mean the end of page-one box that read: "Only _ _ _ days to save your country." When Roosevelt finally carried every state except Maine and Vermont, the front-page headline of the Times sneered: "Only 52 Days to Christmas."
The Times occupied about eight floors of an 18-story building owned by the multimillionaire insurance magnate Alfred MacArthur, brother of the playwright Charles (The Front Page) MacArthur and the billionaire insurance man John D. MacArthur. The editorial department was on the fourth floor, in space that was incredibly cramped and squalid. In those days few offices had air conditioning, and several tall floor fans provided the scant relief we found on sweltering nights. To keep the fans from blowing our stories across the room while we waited for a copyboy to hustle them away, we impaled them on huge spikes embedded in lead. Sometimes we spiked our hands by mistake and had to go to the nurse's office.
The city desk--actually half a dozen battered metal desks shoved together was in the center of the room and was ringed by brass spittoons that we routinely tripped over. six editors sat there, making revisions and assigning reporters and photographers to stories. We used standard manual typewriters and wrote on "books," a sandwich of carbon paper and half a dozen sheets of cheap, coarse newsprint clipped together by a copyboy.
The writers closest to the city desk were the six rewrite men. The Times had seven daily deadlines, about one an hour, so it was often impossible for a reporter at the scene of breaking news to come in and write his story. Instead, he called the facts in to a rewrite man, who, puffing furiously on a cigarette, listened with headphones and typed notes at breakneck speed. I remember forcing myself to type so fast that I could actually feel the words being pulled from my brain. There was no time for leisurely contemplation of the notes. As a result, cliches were common, such as "The raped and battered body of 16-year-old Mary Ellen Jones was found late today in a vacant lot at 16th and Kedvale." Then, ripping the lead paragraph out of the typewriter and calling, "Boy, copy!" I tried to remember what I had written as I raced through the rest of the story.
For a lot of the news we relied on the City News Bureau, an agency that stations reporters at police stations, courthouses, and City Hall, and is owned in common by the Chicago dailies. Today City News transmits stories by computer. At that time they were typed on stencils, and half a dozen blue-inked copies of each page were wadded into a leather cylinder and whooshed by compressed air through tubes under the city's streets, landing with a loud thump in a brass receptacle near the city desk.
The tube system had unauthorized uses, as well. If I found myself without cigarettes on a Sunday morning while working alone on the fourth floor, I would report my predicament to City News on the direct-line telephone that brought us news bulletins. Moments later a pack of cigarettes called Marvels and a book of matches would land in the receiving receptacle.
I would send back a dime--the price of Marvels in those days.
Not long after my return from the army, the fourth floor was filled with other war veterans, such as Roman Pucinski, destined to become a U.S. congressman and a leading Chicago alderman. Pucinski's first assignment was the sensational Heirens case. I remember my horror one night when the photographers brought in gruesome pictures of the severed head of a child that had been recovered from a sewer. William Heirens, a University of Chicago student who had murdered the little girl, had previously killed a woman in her North Side apartment and had scrawled in Dipstick on the wall: FOR HEAVEN SAKE, CATCH ME BEFORE I KILL MORE.
Another Air Corps veteran was Ray Brennan, a topnotch rewrite man and a nationally famous reporter of the old school. He was responsible for a tremendous scoop after the Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, known as the Kefauver Committee, came to Chicago in 1950 to question the Democratic candidate for sheriff, Captain Daniel A. Gilbert, the chief investigator for the state's attorney for 12 years. After two hours of secret questioning, Gilbert's testimony was sealed.
For days the Times had been unsuccessful in its attempt to unfreeze Gilbert's testimony. Suddenly inspired, Brennan had flown to Washington, telephoned the stenographic firm that had recorded the hearing, and identified himself as a Kefauver Committee staff aide. "We need a copy of Captain Gilbert's transcript," he said. "I'll send someone over
A few days before the election, I went downstairs to the Pall Mall, our favorite saloon. Ray Brennan was at the bar, having just flown in from Washington, D.C. "Have a drink!" he commanded as he downed what appeared to be his sixth or seventh. I quickly learned the reason for his manic mood. Opening his briefcase, he smugly pointed to the transcript and ordered another round. "Please! Go upstairs right now," I begged. Brennan laughed. It took half an hour of coaxing before he left to show the editors what he had. They stopped the presses--something that usually happens only in newspaper movies--and started setting 20 new columns of type.
Captain Gilbert, whose salary was $100 a week, admitted to a net worth of $350,000. He also confessed to patronizing crime syndicate gambling joints and called himself "a gambler at heart. " And this was the man who had vowed to close down gambling in Cook County. The results were devastating for the Democrats. Previously an odds-on favorite in the election Gilbert went down to defeat by 1O0,000 votes, dragging the Democratic ticket with him. Senator Scott Lucas, the Democratic majority leader, was defeated by Everett Dirksen, a conservative Republican. Brennan's play-acting earned him an indictment, but the charges were ultimately dropped.
The one Times rookie in those days who would go on to the greatest fame and fortune was John Chancellor. He returned from the army in 1947 to take a job with the paper as a copyboy. It struck us as incredibly elegant that he lived in a suite at the Stevens Hotel (now the Chicago Hilton and Towers) with his mother, who was the hotel's executive housekeeper. Chancellor dropped out of DePaul Academy after two and a half years but built up a library of several thousand 25-cent paperbacks. When his day of running copy was over, he'd still hang around the office, hoping to accompany a photographer on a news assignment.
To this day Chancellor is still deeply affected by the night he sped to an extra-alarm fire with photographer Russell "Bud" Daley, a cigar-smoking pixy who never drove less than 60 miles an hour on assignment. Regarding themselves as ex-officio members of the police department, photographers like Daley drove black Fords that looked like detective cars. They had sirens, Mars lights, and police radios. As the two approached Washington Park a red sky loomed and they found a whole city block in flames. Without hesitation Daley bounced his car over the curb and across the park dodging bushes and benches and trees while Chancellor held on for dear life. Years later he said of the experience: "It expanded my mind. Of course you drive across a park to get a story, if you have to! I learned a lot from the Bud Daleys."
Chancellor's dismissal from the Chicago Sun-Times offers an insight into a darker side of life at the paper. The debt-ridden Times, which had been unable to pay its newsprint bills, was purchased by Marshall Field III for nearly eight million dollars, and the Sun moved its large staff into our already overcrowded office. A major staff purge was ordered. I sat with averted eyes as city editor Karin Walsh, clipboard in hand, walked around the fourth floor looking at tense faces and writing down the names of those to be fired. When the list went up on the bulletin board, I had survived; but Chancellor and 69 others were out on the street. He found a job writing fillers for Advertising Age, but three days later he left for lunch and never went back. In 1950 WMAQ Radio hired him as a summer replacement to write radio copy and stories at $60 a week. Except for two years as director of the Voice of America, he has been with NBC ever since, serving as host of Today and later becoming the network's star anchor.
World War Two proved to be an invaluable training ground for some newsmen. Carl Larsen, who had been an editor on the Gl daily Stars & Stripes in Europe and had served as an agent in the U.S. Counter-lntelligence Corps, was not averse to using his cloak-and-dagger techniques as a reporter. A promoter named Preston Tucker was one of his targets.
During the war, the production of new cars had been suspended. Afterward, with automobiles in short supply, Tucker raised approximately $26 million from investors to set up an assembly line in what used to be the Ford aircraft-engine plant at 76th and Cicero. His plan was to make an opulent new car, called the Tucker Torpedo, that would put Ford and General Motors to shame. But as the months went by, Larsen heard that Tucker was having trouble delivering cars and stockholders weren't receiving dividends. The Times editors suspected a scandal.
The plant was tightly guarded, but that didn't faze Larsen. He went to an official in the fire department and asked for an inspector's credentials. The official said that giving them to him was against the law, but he left Larsen alone in hie office with an identification card on the desk. The next day Larsen showed up at the plant and flashed his card to make a two-hour "inspection." Before he left, he noted that Tucker had assembled only 12 cars, and those had been put together by hand. Larsen's expose burst the Tucker bubble. The old plant is now the site of the Ford City shopping center. Larsen went on to become the public-relations director of the University of Chicago and later of the Smithsonian Institution. Misrepresentations such as Larsen's were routine, particularly when reporters checked stories by telephone. We had all learned from the exploits of Harry "Romy" Romanoff, a great Hearst desk man. When a murder was reported at some distant location, Romy would h ave a copyboy pull out the voter-registration lists for the address and find a telephone number at the scene. Then Romy would dial the number and pose as a police official to extract information. Occasionally this backfired. Once he called a number and said that he was Sergeant Jiggs Donohue, a coroner's investigator. "That's funny," said the man who answered. "So am I."
Our best phone man was Art Petacque, who is still tying up lines as a columnist at the Sun-Times. Once when I was night city editor Petacque got a tip that a man had been shot in the hallway of an apartment in South Chicago. Sitting himself across from me, called the building and reached a tenant who told him, "Hell, this guy is bleeding all over my carpet. The victim had run upstairs after being wounded from a shotgun blast by a Mafia hit man. The police had not yet arrived. "Can I talk to the guy?" Petacque asked. "Tell him it's Art Petacque."
The wounded man, "Blackie" Sullivan, picked up the phone and croaked answers to Petacque's questions. Sullivan was a tough who had offended the crime syndicate by sticking up their bookmakers and hijacking their slot machines. Responding to a scrawled note from Petacque, I called for an ambulance. "Take it easy, Blackie," Petacque said. "An ambulance is on the way." Then, to my horror, he turned Sullivan over to me for any questions that I might have. That was one night when we were ahead of the Tribune. Sullivan would live through a few other wounds and ultimately die of natural causes.
Petacque, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for general reporting, was also the office social worker. Once he came to the rescue of a copyreader who had fled a La Salle Street poker game after he was threatened with sudden death for having given the Mafioso management bad checks. In his hurry he rushed into the zerodegree cold without his hat and coat. "Can you get him his coat and keep him from getting killed for writing the bum checks?" the copyreader's boss asked Petacque.
Petacque telephoned the police district's "captain's man," the officer who collected tribute from gamblers and saloon owners, and described the situation. "No problem," said the officer. "Your guy doesn't to pay a debt to a poker game that's closed down." Then Petacque suggested that while you're closing the game, how about picking up the guy's coat? No problem. The next day it was hanging in the police station.
The night shift--or night side, as it is called on a newspaper—is even more raffish than the late afternoon shift, which is quite raffish compared to the day side. For ycars the night editor at the Times was Edward Groshell, who also taught philosophy at Northwestern University. To compensate for the strain of working nights, Groshell went all out to entertain us.
When Bruce Grant, our dayside city editor, placed a tall rubber plant beside his desk, Groshell made it his mission to torment it. Although Grant pampered the plant with fertilizer and bottled water, it languished and finally had to be thrown out. What its owner never knew was that every morning at three, someone relieved himself in the plant's pot.
Groshell's next victim was Jack O'Connell, our chief telegrapher. (In the days before computers, writers at a political convention or ball game would hand their copy to a Western Union telegrapher at their side, who dispatched the story to the newsroom on a Morse key.) Every day at 7:30 a.m., O'Connell, a short man, would walk in briskly and stretch to pull a light cord above his bank of telegraph keys. This became harder and harder for him to do because every morning at seven, Groshell would cut a quarter of an inch off the cord. Eventually, O'Connell had to stand on a chair to turn on the light. Groshell's response was to saw a quarter of an inch off the chair legs daily. The prank ended when Groshell severed the light cord and reconnected it with a rubber band. As O'Connell tugged in vain, he finally realized that he had been had.
For recreation at night we would wander over to Randolph Street for a post midnight supper and then drop in to visit our friends at the City News Bureau, which faced the old Sherman House. After years of research. the staff at City News had devised a diagram of the hotel's facade with the room numbers inked in at each window. It was the responsibility of anyone not working on a story to keep an eye on the facade and call out "Beaver!" if he saw anything interesting. Then we would all rush for the pair of binoculars on the window ledge. One night I distinguished myself by dialing the room of a couple who had failed to pull down the window shade. "Aren't you ashamed of performing such abominable practices?" I asked in an oracular voice. "Who-oo is this?" the man quavered. "This is God!" I shouted. "Repent!" Having ruined his night, we went back to work happy.
At four in the morning, with most of our work done, a poker invariably began. The worst of the players was Jacob M. Burck, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist. We all counted on him for lunch money. As night picture editor, I was responsible for getting Burck's cartoon to the engravers, and I never knew him to meet a deadline. Not having finished his cartoon he would spread newspapers on the floor of his cubicle and sleep until the Muse inspired him. When he woke up he joined the game, and only after losing all his money would he return to his drawing. One morning, late as usual, I delivered Burck's cartoon to the engravers and he went home. At 8 a.m. when the presses rolled I got an emergency call from the night editor, who was looking through the first edition in the saloon downstairs. That day's cartoon featured a drawing of Adolf Hitler, arm upraised, sieg-heiling— and sexually aroused. Spurning the elevators, I ran down six flights of stairs to the pressroom where for the first time in my life I stopped the presses and watched a frantic foreman obliterate the offending image with a chisel and hammer. Retrieving the original cartoon so that it could be remade, I noticed that some saboteur had inked in the offending lines. We never found out who it was, but the chief suspects were the stereotypers grimy men in wool union suits who went through a quart of whiskey a shift and charged usurious interest when lending money to reporters.
Our editors were remarkably tough, particularly the executive editor, Milburn "Pete" Akers, who had roughed it out in politics as an aide to Governor Henry Horner, the state's first Jewish governor and a nationally known liberal. Akers had an obsession about getting reporters out of the office and onto the street. Anyone sitting at his desk was assumed to be loafing. Routinely, as an assistant city editor, I had to roust protesting writers out of their chairs. "Go to the Art Institute," I would whisper. "Go to the movies." I was adamant when Robert Kleckner, the medical writer, insisted that he had to finish a story. "Finish it later, " I told him. Within an hour the story started to arrive by telegraph from the Sherman House, where Kleckner had rented a room and borrowed a typewriter from the hotel press agent.
The wrath of Akers could be devastating. One evening a reporter made the mistake of telling him that Robert Fleming, Newsweek's benevolent bureau chief, had heard a rumor that Akers was quitting. "Stick around!" Akers ordered the reporter. "I'll show you how to start rumors!" whereupon he ran into the newsroom and soon had half the staff at work on the "rumor" that Fleming was being transferred.
The Associated Press and United Press were asked to develop stories on the tip. A call left at the home of Newsweek's editor in Princeton, New Jersey, wasn't returned until 1:30 a.m. Fleming was out of town, but a Sun-Times reporter startled Fleming's wife by ringing the bell of their house to ask if her husband was being transferred.
By 4 a.m. the press services and the New York Herald Tribune wire had stories on the teletype denying that Fleming would be transferred, but the editors of Newsweek undoubtedly must have wondered if their man in Chicago was dissatisfied with his job. A Nieman Fellow and a fine reporter, Fleming went on to serve as deputy press secretary in the White House under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
I never got along with Akers, and my growing resentment of him led me to take a higher-paying job at Look, where I spent nearly 20 years working all over the world, meeting presidents and kings, dukes and queens. But now these many years later, I still miss the characters from that shabby fourth-floor newsroom on Wacker Drive.