The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman

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Excerpts

The Daily Mirror
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The New York Daily Mirror treated the world as one great police blotter. Typical was its coverage of a state visit to the U.N. in December 1957 by the Saudi monarch Ibn Saud. While The Times and The Trib were worrying themselves about the balance of power in the Middle East and the price of oil, The Mirror focused its energies on Ibn Saud’s harem at the Waldorf. Under a headline that read, “Y’Know About U.S. Girls? / Well, Harems Scare ’Em,” the Mirror ran a story by an intrepid woman reporter who’d putatively investigated harem life. Should any female Mirror reader have illusions of an idyllic existence as odalisque to a pasha, our Nellie Bly debunked the myth of exotic harem life, warning instead that the reality was more akin to “cell-block A in the women’s penitentiary.” Accompanying the story was a prominently displayed photo of an Arab potentate, identified as Ibn Sam glaring out at the reader, with a bushy black mustache, fiery dark eyes, a white kaffiyeh somewhat askew and an uncanny resemblance to Sam Susskind, the Mirror copy chief. Perhaps this was a near-relative of the Saudi ruler if not the King himself, in a caption that could have easily been misread by The Mirror audience as Ibn Saud. Now Susskind, a Brooklyn native, had what in those crustier times might have been considered a somewhat Semitic face. Presumably, so did the King, whatever he looked like. Moreover, they would have been about the same age, and shared a certain portly dignity, a weightiness and substance that were attributes of maturity, authority and good living. Moreover, Sam was a good company man and would do whatever was necessary to advance the paper’s interests. Ever since then, Susskind was known as Ibn Sam or, to the more literate, Susskind of Arabia. Years later, when I was City Editor at Newsday, long after The Mirror’s demise, I got a call from the publicity director of Nassau Community College complaining about some malfeasance we had inflicted on the school. My secretary told me the PR man’s name was Sam Susskind. I got on the phone and said, deadpan: “Is this Ibn Sam?” End of complaint.


Rewrite Men

The legendary Harry Altshuler, the master of the Mirror’s rewrite bank, could turn the dross of other papers into tinsel in a twinkling. Harry looked as if he'd been embalmed by an inept apprentice. Slicked hair, deadpan eyes, a face drained of emotion, Altshuler had a pallor that was meant for the blue fluorescence of poolrooms; it was as if he had lived indoors for 50 years. If Harry smiled he kept it to himself. But that bleached neutrality provided a perfect conduit for whatever muck The Mirror was serving up that day. While the great rewrite men have different styles, they all maintain that distance from the news, a certain emotional asbestos that enables them to get close to the heat of a story but not consumed by it. Al Aronowitz could affect a Jewish, schmaltzy sensibility at The Post, Bob McFadden had a more cerebral approach at The Times, Like piano virtuosos, although their interpretations were idiosyncratic, their command of the craft emanated from a special talent that is as teachable at journalism schools as writing string quartets. Harry Altshuler had the touch. He burned with the cold fire of a lesser hell.


Newsday

As a new beat reporter, I started out in the back of the city room with the scrubs, which is where I expected to be. My beat had been expanded further east along the South Shore to an area that included Massapequa and Massapequa Park. Its famous sons—Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin— were then in grade school. I inherited my beat book from a somewhat laconic colleague, Leo Seligsohn, who had been less than attentive in keeping it up to date. In that pre-computer age, a beat-book, handed on from one shifting reporter to another, was like a house key passed among merchant seaman as they went abroad. There was usually only one and to lose it meant despair. The book’s upkeep was critical. If a town clerk, a school-board president, a helpful village police chief, a local political hack, was replaced, it was essential that the change be duly recorded in the beat book so that when the moment came late at night to run down a story, the right source was available.

While writers husbanded their own rolodexes, there was so much flux among beat reporters that the only way to survive when thrown in cold was to inherit a reasonably up-to-date beat file. Often, these books were only semi-legible, with names scratched out and others scrawled in journalistic hieroglyphics, the phone numbers confusing sevens and ones or threes and eights. Should these books ever fall into the wrong hands, little would be given away. Much of the time, you’d have to ask your predecessor to decipher what he’d scribbled and then reconfigure it in your own script, writing over what he’d already written over, resulting in a palimpsest of calligraphy that looked like the work of an inept Sung poet. If the reporter wasn’t there, you had to call him at home and get him—often half asleep—to decipher from memory what he’d written down months before. If they’d left, God help you. Should a municipality be in turmoil it could mean countless scratch-outs as the book tried to reflect the vicissitudes of whatever was taking place.

The worst chroniclers were compulsives who tried to fit in everything at the end of a page. This meant increasingly minuscule chicken scrawls, like the bottom of an eye-chart designed for microbes. On the other hand, it showed diligence. More ominous was a beat book that was relatively unmarked, suggesting that it had not been kept up to date by one’s predecessor and perhaps his precursors as well. Leo’s was uncomfortably neat.

This led to a series of embarrassments, not the least of which was my phone call to the Mayor of Massapequa Park. I should note that although I may have wafted through Massapequa, I considered it a point of honor never to have set foot in adjacent Massapequa Park. This left me totally dependent on what was in the beat book. One night, responding to some alarum in that village, I dutifully called the Mayor. It was close to midnight and I had clearly woken the woman on the other end. I told her I was sorry to disturb her and asked if her husband the Mayor could come to the phone. She responded that he was unable to because he was dead and had been so for the last six months. She then proceeded, with some justice, to lace into me about how Newsday should have known this since we ran his obituary—although minutely— and this showed how little respect we gave to local coverage. For good measure she advised me that she only read the Long Island Press, that I was the third Newsday reporter who had phoned her in the last half year and if she got one more call she’d report us to the police for harassment.

I thanked her for her candor and promised she would never hear from us again. Then, trying to assuage her further, I observed that perhaps I’d mixed her municipality up with Massapequa. A mistake, since Massapequa Park had gone to the trouble of incorporating itself as distinct from Massapequa which was agglomerated in Hempstead Town. This set off a new diatribe about our general stupidity and ignorance. I let her ventilate a bit more—by now she was quite awake—and then I came clean and told her I’d blundered into this situation and threw myself on her mercy. She must have had a good catharsis because she gave me the number of the current mayor but told me not to phone him because he went to bed early. I called him immediately and got the story.


The Paris Herald-Tribune

The old Paris Trib headquarters was at 21 Rue de Berri, off the Champs-Elysees, a few blocks down-slope of l’Etoile. The building was threaded with the bureaus of other news outlets—Newsweek magazine, for one, had an office there. The Trib city room had an improvised quality as if it were a stage set that would be removed during the day and used for other purposes—an off-track betting parlor or some-such. Only at night did it come to life—but a fitful life of shadows, a gloomy Brigadoon where the mist never lifts. There was a tentative quality about the office that reflected the transient lives of the editors it housed. As a group they seemed to be the last of the itinerant journalists who moved from one paper to the next in that quixotic odyssey fueled by romance, restiveness and rum.

The city room of the Paris Trib carried a whiff of the seedy bars that used to dot the Bowery except that the denizens had upgraded the elixir of choice from Irish rotgut to French red. There was a pecking order to the staff. Pride of place was allotted to a venerable old sport mildewing in his virtue who was said to have fought for the Spanish Republic, already mythologized in these quarters. Another fellow planned to buy vineyards in Tuscany—I later heard that he’d actually done so. The Paris expat model for most, however, was not the outsized Hemingway, much less Henry James and his prissy aestheticism, but Henry Miller who offered a lifestyle that was improvised, anarchic and, ultimately, unaccountable. In the bars to which they frequently repaired, they were great spinners of disconnected stories that required the listener to fill in the dots. The ghosts of expatriates past hovered over the city room, smothering it with literary pretensions as evanescent as the smoke from the ubiquitous Gitane. Almost everyone affected to be writing a novel, or an article or something that justified their inglorious toil as copy editors at the Trib. And it was inglorious.

In those days, there was no reporting; simply cutting, splicing, reconfiguring what others had done and then slapping on a headline. In late afternoon, the news editor—me—who’d arrived an hour or two earlier, would cull the next day’s news from the AP, UPI, AFP and Reuters wires and distribute them to the various copy editors who would transform them into a recombinant collage, with the “breaking” news updated periodically. This was done with scissors and paste-pots so that the copy desk looked like an adult version of a kindergarten table. Invariably, a shaky hand would spill a paste-pot, occasioning a messy cleanup with a telltale lump of glue spurting out from an edited piece of copy, creating an odd litmus effect by blurring the words so that the French printers couldn’t read them. This caused the copy chief to glare and his peers to grumble at the offender. The glue fumes and the smoke ionized into a gaseous vapor that gave off a scent akin to a piney disinfectant, leaving the desk smelling like a hospital ward.


The New York Times

One of the benefits of my copy desk chores was to be around late Saturday afternoons when things were fairly quiet and there wasn’t much to do except advances for Monday. I’d wander back along the aisles and banter with the reporters. My favorites were two old-timers, Irving (Paddy) Spiegel and Manny Perlmutter. They would tipple from a bottle of plum brandy that Manny had tucked away in his desk and reflect on how the paper was not what it once had been. They told wacky stories about the doings at the old Police Headquarters on Center Street, now a condominium, and the characters who presided at the cop shack across the street. One of their favorites was a police reporter named Willy Kane, a one-armed maverick who had a special knob attached to his steering wheel allowing him to drive with his good arm. Willy was distinguished from Jew Kane, no relation, by his penchant for packing a pistol and dragging neophyte reporters to a nearby nameless hell-hole generally known as the Dago bar. The police shack was not a redoubt of political correctness.

Perlmutter, paunchy and balding, played Sancho to Paddy’s Quixote. They must have been doing this act for years. By that point Irving wasn’t doing much more than the Alternate-Side-of-the-Street-Parking briefs for the Jewish holidays. Occasionally, Manny got a homicide but they came fewer and farther between as the Times became less gritty and more yuppified. Once in a while, the silver-haired Edith Evans Asbury, a grand dame of the paper, who was then still working, would come by and engage in a back-and-forth of anecdotes with her two old comrades. Who knows what truth there was in any of it but the atmospherics were good.

On occasion, I’d have to stick around and clean up some advances into the early part of Saturday night. When I emerged, on winter evenings, I’d stop off in the street as the Sunday paper was rolling off the presses and the handlers were bundling them into the Times trucks. There was always a cluster of pressmen huddled around an ashcan fire, smoke coming out of their breath, some wearing ear flaps, others still in white caps made from newspaper stock, shooting the breeze, taking a nip, shivering in the frost. Then, with a snap, they’d close a filled-up truck which would pull away, making room for the next one. I enjoyed the coziness of loitering in this truck-bay area with the presses thrumming above, the hoarse shouts of the pressmen and the wind causing just a slight chill as I stood under the doorway globe lamps.


Literary Days

It was early in my tenure as Newsday’s Book Editor that I attended a literary gathering at the home of Corlies Smith. Better known as Cork in the chummy book world, he was a paragon of the old-shoe literary editor. He had been one of the young lions at Viking in its heyday, where he had coaxed, nurtured and out-waited Thomas Pynchon through “V” and “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The glory days were long gone and Cork brought to mind a once-great pitcher throwing junk for a second-division team in August, aware that his best efforts were well past.

Smith’s apartment was one of those grand, wood-paneled confections on Park Avenue in the 90’s. Everything was low-key, even the noise level which was more murmur than maelstrom. The fulcrum of the party was in an immense room with high ceilings, dimmed chandeliers and wall-to-wall bookshelves that reached to the roof. It was an early evening in mid-fall and even the twilight frosting the windows seemed to enter discreetly. The waiters were unobtrusive, the canapés were spare, the drinks served on tip-toe.

Cork was the editor-in-chief of Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, and an elder statesmen of the book world not so much in age but in demeanor: graying, boney, chiseled, wearing something tattersall and bookish. I don’t remember a thing of substance we said but the adverbs, “impeccably, graciously, immaculately,” come to mind when I recall the impression his bearing made on me. We chatted briefly; he welcomed me aboard but even this was delivered with a touch of irony, given the direction of the book business and his own future. Harcourt was one of the old-line publishers that boasted a pride of literary icons—many of them European and most of them virtually unread in America outside of campuses and a few urban precincts. Dori Weintraub, its publicist, would gamely pitch me on the worthy offerings of her house and its venerable backlist, a brave little sloop sailing into the winds of expediency.

This party was in honor of the critic Irving Howe and Harcourt had pulled out all the stops in terms of the guest list. I’ve been to fancier and bigger parties since, but none that caught the quality of the literary world as I’d envisioned it. Discriminating company, good conversation, a premium on the quality of books and the efficacy of letters. As I was becoming aware, it was a Last Hurrah.


Parade's End

On July 17, 1995, a Monday, I was invited to attend what could justifiably be described as a memorable occasion in the publishing industry. On the cusp of its centennial in America, Oxford University Press was moving to new quarters in what was the northeast corner of the old B. Altman Building on Madison Avenue at 35th Street only a few blocks from our own offices. To celebrate the event Oxford had assembled the Press’s governing body, delegates from the university’s staff as well as the top tier of academic luminaries who produced the publishing house’s 600 annual volumes. Several of them had been reviewed by and written for us such as the Roosevelt scholar William Leuchtenberg, and a few greeted me as old friends. What made this event special, however, was that prior to the cocktail party and speeches in the marbled sanctuary within its portals, Oxford had lined up an array of scholars in serried ranks outdoors and marched them majestically in full regalia for a block along a closed-off Madison Avenue. No other publishing house—no matter how big—could have carried this off. Oxford University Press, founded in the 15th century, was right back there with Gutenberg, and it knew how to do tradition. Decked out in their ceremonial robes, the assembled academics gathered in the twilight of a pleasant summer evening and strode with stately step and measured self-consciousness in solemn procession. In fact, it was serving as my own valedictory. On the previous day New York Newsday had published its final edition. I knew that this would be the last of such events that I’d be attending. In retrospect, with the recessional of print, this moment takes on ever more the aspect of a final salute, the dipping of colors, the lingering haze of a sunset.


Finale

Shortly before I left The Times, my wife and I visited Antwerp, among whose treasures is the oldest printing house in Europe. The building, which dates to the 16th century, houses its original print shop containing a cornucopia of type in a dazzling array of styles, fonts, musical notes and you name it. A tour of the premises takes a visitor through the various stages of the printing mechanism. This includes the copy desk, a high altar festooned with galley proofs bearing markings not dissimilar to those I myself made in earlier days. The busts of copy editors adorn niches on the wall, a distinct improvement in immortality over anything their current-day heirs may expect. The final stage of the process took us through the hand-press, onto the mat and finally to the printed page. I noted that, with the exception of the linotype machine, very little had changed between the 16th century and my own early days in journalism. A Renaissance printer would have recognized that the rotary press, although mechanized, operated on the same principle as the hand-press, only bigger and faster. I realized that between the invention of the printing press and the first half of my own career in hot type, not that much had altered. Then, everything changed. And I had been around to see it.

When I left the paper there were no more printers and the presses were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We had recently changed to a streamlined system which digitalized everything so that a single person at the keyboard could do the work of a dozen people — backfield and copy editors, make-up editor, copy-cutter, linotype operator, make-up man, lithographer, pressman, as well as picture editor, paginator and God knows what else to come. And that was probably becoming obsolete. As was the whole idea of paper and print itself, which seemed to be going the way of the Dodo—presses giving way to platforms, copy to content and the newspaper game to a recombinant journalism of online media, aggregation desks and contributor networks, twittering, gawking and buzzing into a digital future. I came to understand that, while not fossilized, I was a living fossil, a creature that had undergone the geologic stages of all these momentous changes. The craft I entered was, in spirit, much closer to the Era of Gutenberg than the Age of Amazon. I seek neither to celebrate this epoch nor mourn its passing but simply record it.