In 1966, not a word made it into The New York Times news columns that had not passed through one of the copy-editing desks in the well-worn newsroom on West 43rd Street. Reports from multiple wire services spilled through a small window at the back of the newsroom, along with transcribed reports that came in by telephone or over the Reuter wire from Times correspondents. Even as an eighteen-year-old from the Midwest struggled for blasé, it was impressive. One night, a correspondent in Africa broke his dictation to ask that the State Department be notified because he was, at that moment, being arrested. At a small desk under the window a hectic fellow scrawled an “F” or an “N” on foreign and national reports, tossed the paper into a tray from which a copy person (a boy in those days) delivered it a dozen or twenty feet to an in-tray on the appropriate news desk. Now and then something went to the Metro desk or to the arts and entertainment desk, called Soc-Obit. At each desk, a news clerk tried to bundle related pieces (or just chopped the wire reports into manageable lengths) and passed them to an editor. On the Foreign Desk, the usual first editor was Jerry Gold, who worked beside the assistant foreign editor, Nat Gerstenzang. The paper’s poodlesque foreign editor in chief, Seymour Topping, had a separate desk among the ranks of mucky-mucks a safe distance from dirty sleeves and paste-pots. It was a busy place, especially around the National Desk, where a sometime slot man named Gladfelter had a habit of screaming. The day three astronauts died in a space capsule, I was sent scurrying across town to one of the TV networks, which had promised to share audio from the doomed men. (I don’t recall if the famous words from one of them, who exhaled into the fireball “Fire in the spacecraft” made it into the morning paper.) The Foreign Desk, where I occasionally sat in as news clerk or news assistant (typing up the story list dictated by Gerstenzang), had a crew of copy editors with the forced erudition of longtime news people. There was a German-Russophile exile Ted Shabad, a Finn (if memory serves), eight or ten others on a typical night. The only woman was Betsy Wade Boylan, who sometimes set up a desk across town when the U.N. was in session. Her husband, James Boylan, was editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Betsy described one evening her culture clash with Boylan’s family in Iowa. Giving the New York girl a tour of the farmyard, Mom Boylan explained, “Now this is a cow, and this is a goat, and this over here is a pig . . . ,” to which Betsy replied, “And those little ones are shoats”—earning a “Heyuh?!” from the farm wife. Do New Yorkers ever tell stories in which they’re the butt? No matter, she was pleasant to young subordinates. I don’t recall what set the story off. Possibly she had noticed the deterioration of the support staff: one fill-in from Illinois and a regular news clerk, Barbara Bell, from Burlington, Iowa. Barbara, who had studied in Spain, soon was writing travel articles for The Times’s Sunday edition. Jack Badner was the florid slot man, in charge of processing what his soldiers on the rim produced. Allan Siegal, in his mid-twenties, a few years later joined the team editing the Pentagon Papers on his way to an assistant managing editor post. It was instructive to watch copy editing at a serious newspaper. Any story being worked might have several sources, as reporters from Associated Press or Agence France-Presse or a Times writer focused on different aspects. A copy editor might splice the pieces together, rising now and then to consult the Facts on File drawers that stood nearby. If the story carried a byline, information from other sources would be credited. A copy boy who filled in at the news window might, at night’s end, save stories in their raw form and compare them with what appeared in the newspaper. (Not quite sixty years later, I have a box stuffed with those lessons.) On the National Desk, besides Gladfelter, there was a crew mostly middle-aged and later. Evan Jenkins was perhaps the kindest to underlings. But one evening, an aged fellow named Walters noticed the direction of my longing look toward the girl from Burlington and asked kindly what I was afraid of, “She’s only a hundred pounds.” Some of the old newspaper movies have it right. A National Desk copy editor would bring from his locker each night a waste basket half-concealing a brown-crusted spittoon. Back in the arts section, Walter Kerr, the theater critic, would knock off his review by around 10, and a copy boy—sensing from a safe distance when each page was available—would rush it out to the Soc-Obit desk, from where it would go page-by-page by pneumatic tube to the composing room, possibly in time for a city edition. After the first edition, pages would get remade. Gladfelter would scream. More deadlines. By then the eminentos had largely departed. Earlier in the day a rank of assistant managing editors with the newsroom’s window seats would confer with the national, foreign, local and other editors about what was important. The roster included Theodore M. Bernstein, who in 1933 had collaborated with Robert E. Garst on Headlines and Deadlines, A Manual for Copy Editors. My third edition, from 1961, sixth printing, has crossed the ten feet to my desk as I write this. A foreword from a Columbia journalism professor repeats the hope that “although journalism may never become an exact science it should become a more exacting profession.” By that time Bernstein had begun a series of popular usage guides, Watch Your Language, that took up where Fowler and Follett had left off. Also in the a.m.e. ranks was Abe Rosenthal, who became managing editor a few years later. His insolence toward lowlifes in the room—when I slighted him as among those getting the second round of copies of the Foreign Desk story budget one night, he puffed “Do you know who I am?”—falls away in his long tenure at the top, dedicated to keeping (or perhaps making) The Times a straight newspaper. (It couldn’t have been easy. Walter Duranty’s cover-up of Stalin’s famine, which won him a Pulitzer in 1932, has been disowned even by The Times. Herbert Matthews’s apologetics for Castro are blush-worthy. Arthur Krock, if memory serves, acknowledged concealing (along with his colleagues) Roosevelt’s frailty in 1944. The paper had numerous other embarrassments even before the latest generation decided that objectivity was a myth.) The sleekest figure in the newsroom, who visited occasionally from his private office in crisp navy pinstripes and silver hair, was a former London correspondent, E. Clifton Daniel, the managing editor. Somewhere along the way he had married President Truman’s daughter Margaret, of piano fame. Assorted Sulzbergers were visible, including the publisher, Punch. A young Sulzberger sat in the ranks of metro reporters. I don’t recall if he was doing rewrite. It felt like the center of someplace important. I’d gotten the copy boy job by a fluke, walking in, a day off the train from Moline, and asking if they were hiring. Most of that staff came from college students on work release. Antioch College supplied a friend I hung out with investigating Manhattan. (People really did sit staring by candlelight-through-a-jelly-glass at pictures of Jesus, as a synthesizer moaned.) Godard College supplied a small young man with a dense black beard who wandered the newsroom with The Tibetan Book of the Dead under an arm. There was John Conti, who I think became a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Lacey Fosburgh, a Metro desk assistant, wrote sophisticated novels and married Joan Baez’s war-resister ex. Ellis Nassour, a diminutive Southerner, became a writer (Patsy Cline: Honky-Tonk Angel). Barbara Bell, who told me I should read Orwell’s “Marrakech” and whose favorite novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude, married an ex-Baltimore Sun news editor, Sam Abt, and moved to Paris. Despite Mr. Walters’s optimism, I got to stand with her just once at Herald Square watching Christmas tree sales; one drink in a Second Avenue saloon while Scott McKenzie urged all to head for Frisco, one dinner where they lit the crêpes Suzette . Working on the International Herald-Tribune, Abt redeemed himself by getting Waverly Root to write his memoir, The Paris Edition, 1927-1934. (Forty-five years after The Times, an allusion to “Marrakech” made it into “Marley’s Rescue” in Hitchcock’s. So, a year later, did a story about a young woman from Iowa, a Wall Street quant rather than a writer, who faithfully recounts a visitor’s admiring “Oooh, zat is of zee Gypsies!” in “The Gypsy Ring.” Not everything went to waste.) Overseeing the copy boys were Steve Moran and his helper, Sammy Solovitz, whom Moran called “the miserable dwarf.” Both were good to work for. Both were remembered by The Times in obits, which recalled days when real newspapermen smelled of printer’s ink: Sammy’s obit celebrates a “wise-cracking, hard-living mentor to generations of copy boys.” Is wise-cracking still allowed? Hardly matters. Seems unlikely today’s diminished newsrooms have room for copy boys. I haven’t visited The Times in forty years. For a while, in the mid-80s, I wrote Sunday Investing columns for the paper. In the early Nineties, Diana B. Henriques wrote a sweetly generous piece about an odd duck in Baltimore who published institutional research on bankrupt companies from a row-house garret—and oh, had a first novel about to be published. A few years ago, The Times copy desks were abolished.
March 13 2023
The Newburyport News is a rarity among small newspapers I worked for: still at 23 Liberty Street, still publishing a print edition. It was owned by Philip Weld, who had been in Merrill’s Marauders during WWII. In the early 1970s he was a catamaran sailor and owner of four small dailies (if memory serves) including one in Ipswich that employed a future best-seller writer and pundit, Joe Klein.
The pay was so miserable that the managing editor John O’Neil, who had a wife and children, had to moonlight a couple of nights a week on the copy desk at The Boston Globe, an hour’s drive south. That benefitted me, because John liked me and recommended me for a part-time gig as well. The city editor, Bill Coltin, picked up a few dollars whispering our stories over the phone to a wire service or other buyer.
I had phoned ahead, jobless and past desperate (having driven east from the Midwest job-hunting in a recession) and got hired as city hall reporter. Found a $15-a-week room at El Rancho Motel on Beach Road in neighboring Salisbury, the only heat that February a small metal box with a frayed cord. My first full day on the job, Bill Coltin took me out to the embouchure, where the Merrimack River meets the Atlantic, for my first nor’easter. If I could have afforded gas to Florida I’d have left that minute.
The job turned out to be fun. My first night covering a City Council meeting, Mayor Byron Matthews called me into his office, where a few of his pals were loitering, and told me if I wanted to get on in Newburyport I had to understand who ran things. My predecessor, who hadn’t understood, was an “asshole.” (The predecessor also was now a reporter for The Globe, the relevance of which fact the Mayor didn’t seem to grasp.) The next eighteen months were reporter payback. A few dissidents on the City Council supplied an endless flow of material. It wasn’t a corrupt city, just one where things were done to serve good friends . . . with an occasional snub of Massachusetts’s open-meeting law. Matthews survived my version of friendly coverage, got re-elected at least a couple of times before landing a job with the state.
Newburyport had become slightly famous a generation earlier, partly for a book of sociology called Yankee City and partly because an earlier mayor, Bossy Gillis, ran the city from his gas station. I didn’t see the place before Urban Renewal gutted the downtown. Whether the buildings that were lost were historic treasures or slums or both I’ve never learned. Redevelopment took decades. Today Newburyport is a pricey bedroom town connected to Boston by rail.
In the summer there was beach-trodding on Plum Island with my colleague and a bottle of Zapple wine. Or runs in an MG up US 1A to a roadhouse called Rye on the Rocks, drinks followed by friendly groping on the shore.
Was there ever any news of note? A Weather Underground squad raided the Newburyport National Guard Armory in September 1970, preparatory to a bank heist a few days later in Brighton, where a policeman was killed. But the paper mainly covered the town, with its squabbles and minor problems.
The only things I wrote that I remember were a couple of opinion pieces. One essay my previous employer in Illinois had refused to publish; there were still statutes criminalizing encouragement of draft resistance. I posed what I thought was a reasonable moral question. If a party (the state, say) is threatening your life (with a military draft, say), and you could remove the threat by murdering someone on your draft board, never mind the pragmatic questions could there be a moral objection against doing so? The essay ran without any federal cops showing up. The other, in which I tossed off what I thought was a Menckenesque aside about Christian Scientists as heathens, got me bawled out by the editor in chief. I hadn’t been hired, he pointed out, to vent my spleen. Turned out that either the Christian Science Monitor was being printed on our owner’s presses, or an edition of one of the owner’s papers was printed on Monitor presses. Seditious scribblings were one thing. Undermining business another.
Ned Brown, who edited the section for outlying towns such as Newbury and Amesbury, had hired a new reporter shortly before I came on, Perry MacFarlane. Her son, born a few years later, entertains me some Sunday evenings with Family Guy. One summer there was a festival at a park, not the Newburyport Commons where the courthouse sat. A few bikers may have roamed; I don’t remember. I also don’t remember if it was Perry’s husband who sang something about “only castles burning”; it wasn’t Neil Young.
When the string finally ran out and the paper decided it really had to have some communication with the Mayor’s office, they helped me land a place on the Framingham News. That enabled me to continue moonlighting on The Globe.
A few fragments of Newburyport made it into stories. Wood floors that seemed to stay cold into summer. Dead wisteria. Two creepy tales, “Mad Hare” (Mike Shayne, 1980) and “Evidence Seen” (Hitchcock’s, 1989), were set in that neighborhood. A crime story, “The Freezer” (Hitchcock’s, 2013), was set in neighboring Salisbury, which had a beachfront carnival that closed up in winter. We remember what we can.
My friend got a job offer in Binghamton, my next post, but stayed behind with her divorce lawyer.
March 14, 2023
February 27 2023 I’ll add a note while the ink is still wet. This is my benign memory of a brief period of life, but is not how I experienced it. There is a splendid line at the end of John Updike’s story “Grandparenting” that sums up the lives of Richard and Joan Maple: “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory.” There’s a good reason we reminisce. The past is all locked up, of no present consequence, and we can remember it as we wish. (This is counter to a trope that used to be popular in mystery novels, and maybe still is: that sins of the past reemerge to demand payment from the present.) My experience of Binghamton was that I hated the place and despaired of my life, which I viewed—at the considerable age of twenty-four—as a failure. The move turned out to be a tactical mistake. Besides working on a daily in Framingham, I had been moonlighting as a part-time copy editor at The Boston Globe. No sooner did I sit down at the Sun-Bulletin than a letter came from The Globe, inviting me to apply for a full-time slot. I didn’t. There was the allure in Binghamton of writing a style book for the paper (on my own time, of course). That seemed more interesting than twice the pay, which Boston offered. That Binghamton management didn’t give a hoot about a style book emerged gradually: whatever came over the AP, Gannett or UPI wires was good enough for them. If I’d backtracked to Boston, no telling what would have happened—I might even have met my future wife a decade sooner; she was a student at Tufts and Fletcher. Whether she’d have hit it off with a Globe hack the way she did a decade later with an unemployed hack who was determined never, that February of 1983, never to collect another W-2, I can only speculate. But if I hadn’t sat near that open window in '73, would those stories or books have gotten written? So I remember Binghamton fondly.
Miscellaneous ArticlesBarron’s Financial Weekly (1977-1983)The Wall Street Journal (1982-2009)The New York Times (1984-1988) Also: Financial World, Sylvia Porter’s Personal Finance, Trillion, The Baltimore Sun, Warfield’s, Baltimore Magazine, Fortune, The Boston Globe, The Washington Times, Reason, The American Spectator Just for amusement sake, evidence that some people can’t hold a job: The New York Times (copy boy 1966-67), The Moline Dispatch (reporter 1967-69), The Newburyport News (reporter 1969-71), The Framingham News (reporter 1971), The Boston Globe (part-time copy editor 1970-71), The Binghamton Sun-Bulletin (copy editor 1971-73), The Annapolis Evening Capital (copy editor 1973-75), The Baltimore Sun (copy editor 1975-78), Barron’s (associate/senior editor 1978-83).
June 6 2017