Thursday, June 01, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 4 Part 1
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
A President and a Prize-Fighter (part 1)link to previous installment link to next installment
Houston was reached at sundown. The trip of 216 miles in sixteen hours matched the hobo record for freight-train touring in that region. But the vagabond fraternity would have withheld formal recognition of any achievement. Rules of the fellowship forbade the payment of one penny for transportation. Lavish use of cash branded the boy traveler as a rank outsider. Starting in possession of 65 cents, he had arrived with only two dimes. And none of his expenditures had been for chow. That omission, incidentally, restored to an effete phrase an unforgettably acute realism. Never again could an aching void represent mere rhetoric.
Twenty cents would buy a satisfying five-course meal. But the problem was not that simple. There must be a prompt canvass of the newspaper field. Nutrition was a supreme necessity, but a presentable exterior was also a commanding need. The wave of a good jinni's wand would have set a barbecue on the ledges of a bathing pavilion. In the absence of such magic, the jobless journalist split his capital in twain. One dime went for a bath. The other bought a crock of milk and a raisin pie. Not a drop was spilled nor a crumb wasted. The partiality engendered by that occasion excluded for a number of years indulgence in any other species of pastry.
A sublime optimism guided the boy. Otherwise, he would have tumbled into a morass of despondency. Penniless and shelterless, in a strange city, he dare not stop to contemplate his lot. Anyhow, there was no question in his mind that a newspaper job awaited him. A comedy of false conclusions supported his confidence. Houston was the home of Uncle Dan McGary, editor of the Age. It was to Uncle Dan that Alex Sweet addressed a weekly letter of comment on current affairs. It appeared in Texas Siftings, a magazine of satire with a nationwide circulation. McGary must be a great journalist to inspire an outstanding feature in such a periodical. He would surely welcome the recruit from San Antonio.
|Texas Siftings cover, via Yesterday's Papers|
All immediate problems were absorbed in the compensation offered. There would be board and lodging at the McGary home, beginning at once, five dollars a week in cash and commissions on advertising sales. But the evening's high hopes wilted under the revealing light of day. The quarters of the Houston Age looked more like a neglected junk heap than a newspaper printing plant. By nightfall Houston had taken its toll of the newcomer's vaulting fancies. He had traversed a circuit of chaff and banter. He had learned that a newspaper could be a common butt of contemptuous jest.
The Houston Age was a pitiable relic of a tempestuous past. Uncle Dan McGary was the doddering shadow of a vanished but memorable puissance. Together they had challenged providence and together they sank from arrogant profligacy through successive stages to the quagmire of disrepute. The story of Uncle Dan and the Houston Age spelled to the young recruit a special course in journalism. It was a potent sermon with a graphic chart showing quicksands and reefs of newspaperdom. Above all, it emphasized the paramountcy of character.
The day's disclosures cast Uncle Dan's newest employee into a maze of strange scruples and keen misgivings. But a gracious intervention drew him forth. It hoisted him into a new berth. It shifted him from daily to weekly journalism. From the precarious position of a reporter on the impecunious Houston Age
he passed to the editorship of the solvent Texas World. It was a radical change. It thrust a novice into managerial responsibility.
The Texas World enjoyed a regular paid-up circulation of 3,800. No other weekly in its field rivaled that figure. But this primacy was not attributable to the paper's content. A personality that found no reflection in the weekly's pages was wholly responsible. Individual solicitation by the proprietress had built and maintained the subscription lists. She made little use of specimen copies. A single sample of the Texas World was adequate for her presentation. It served merely as a prelude to her canvass of a prospective subscriber or advertiser. Her success was easily traceable to a pair of provocative brown eyes under exceedingly skilful management, a vivacious manner, a petite figure and a penetrating shrewdness. The verve with which she presented her resources of persuasion and the extent to which she applied them were never discussed. A pardonable reserve covered these details.
Florence Rice, who subsequently became Mrs. Palmer and later Mrs. Erichson, was a bundle of unceasing animation. She played tag with her birthdays. Shrewish gossip retailed a similar game with husbands. The degree of tardiness in her acknowledgment of a thirtieth anniversary was debatable. The number of her matrimonial adventures was a topic of livelier discussion. She admitted two and avoided conversation about a third, past or prospective. That was a mark from which tattling tongues could not be disentangled in those days. Mrs. Rice seldom visited her newspaper plant. Canvassing trips consumed most of her time. Brief periods of relaxation were spent in a comfortable cottage near the business section of Houston. It was during one of these respites from travel that the need for a new editor suddenly arose. The differences that precipitated the emergency centered nearer to Florence's boudoir than her publishing office.
The Texas World and the Houston Age occupied adjoining space. Both papers were printed on the same press. Hence it was convenient for Mrs. Rice to consult Uncle Dan on those rare occasions on which she considered herself in need of a publisher's advice. Now she besought him to dig up an editor in a hurry. Since time was the dominant factor in Mrs. Rice's quandary, McGary would make a sacrifice. He would immediately release to her service a brilliant young member of the Houston Age staff especially fitted for the position. Of course, that entailed not only an operating hardship, but a definite expense as well. However, if Mrs. Rice would assume a very small share of this burden, a new editor would take charge of her paper forthwith. An adjustment of an overdue account plus a pitiably small sum of cash closed the bargain. Uncle Dan's coup in chicanery remained a secret for several months. Then a woman's petulance bared the amusing details.
The new editor accepted his post with ill-disguised alacrity. He listened in a silent flurry to his employer's program. The job paid $12 weekly in cash, lodging and breakfasts at Mrs. Rice's home and twenty-five percent of such advertising accounts as the new incumbent secured in Houston and Galveston.
"You begin this minute," the strenuous publisher directed. "Here is the latest issue of our paper. Follow that pattern. Do the same, but try to do it better. Dont rock the boat. We want no shenanigans, no smart-aleck curlicues or hanky-panky four-flushing. Keep the Texas World the greatest weekly newspaper in the state."
That was all. It comprised the only instructions with which this unusual woman intrusted to a lad she had never seen before the management of her publication. To the tyro, these directions, though incisive and succinct, seemed uncomfortably inadequate. But among the scores of statements of managerial policy that passed through his hands in later years, he found none that exceeded it in lucidity.
The most serious strain of executive judgment came on Saturdays. It was occasioned by operation of the printing press. Each run, beginning before dawn, required completion by mid-afternoon to catch certain mail trains and to meet other peremptory conditions. The motive power consisted of Senegambian sinews energized with mule-kick gin. The ration was one and a half pints a week. It had been fixed after careful observation and computation. But rare discretion was needed for efficient meterage of its consumption. George, the coal-black pressman with the simplicity of a child and the body of a gorilla, went on strike weekly for the right to control his fuel supply. Once, under a previous regime, his demand was granted. Half of that week's edition was never printed. By dint of firmness discreetly spaced with jiggers of gin and spells of cajolery, the new editor won through each hectic press day.
But the routine became monotonous. Once mastered, it smacked of drudgery. All the excitements of daily news-gathering were absent. Here there was neither matching of wits nor spurring of imagination. There would be no whir of quick action with swift changing contacts and eye-blink decisions. To remain would mean a halt in professional progress. The student journalist must move on to major courses in the university of empiric knowledge. A mark was set for this next step. It was reached when a cash reserve of $75 was attained. Now the way lay open to New Orleans, nearest of the metropolitan centers.
Departure awaited the discharge of two duties. The newspaper property, with various documents, must be turned back to the proprietress in person and terminal facilities must be provided for the serial story. This feature had been written by the editor himself from week to week. It was burdened with a plethora of characters. So great was their number that their own progenitor had begun to suspect their legitimacy. All these people couldn't have entered the plot while he was looking. Some of them must have sneaked in while his back was turned. Heroic treatment was required to dispose of them in the next instalment. The entire roster of figures that had set up the cross-currents of this strange narrative were assembled on a barge chartered for an excursion. An explosion blew the craft into smithereens. Every passenger perished. It was a lamentable end of the tale, but it left the author free to move on.
That afternoon Mrs. Rice returned to Houston. The author-editor went straight from the massacre to the publisher. This would be his second and last meeting with her. Responsibility for the wanton carnage on the boat oppressed his conscience. But the calamitous fiction was not discussed. Mrs. Rice would talk about nothing except the bad judgment, the bad spirit and the bad manners that entered into such a lad's resignation from such an institution as the Texas World. Anyhow, the editor should serve at least two months more to recoup the employment fee paid to McGary. The demand was a revelation. It turned a chiding into a rare compliment. It was an admission that a payment had been made for the privilege of hiring me. Didn't that raise the novice to the rating of a full-fledged professional? Was not this grievance the accolade that conferred on him the rank of a journeyman journalist? The departing editor's elation provoked an abrupt surrender to the egregiously feminine. The interview terminated on a trite note of squeaking futility. Good riddance to bad rubbish, snapped Mrs. Rice. A Valkyrie turned vixen.
There were three morning papers: the Picayune, Times-Democrat and New Delta. In the afternoon field were the Item, Daily States, Truth and the News. The Item impressed the young journalist as the most enterprising. There was more virility in its headlines and make-up than in any newspaper he had yet seen. One of its owners was Dominick O'Malley. It was this O'Malley who had figured in the backwash of an international imbroglio that was still pending.
On March 14, 1891, several thousand enraged Louisianians stormed the parish prison, dragged eleven prisoners from their cells and lynched them. Some were shot to death. Others were hanged to lamp posts. It was a liquidation of members of the Mafia, a secret society known to have decreed the assassination of Police Chief Hennessy a few months before. The riot occurred the morning after the acquittal of six of the men on trial for Hennessy's murder. Before the vigilantes had dispersed, sensational stories were current about the disappearance of O'Malley. One yarn described his narrow escape from death at the hands of the avenging posse. Another rumor placed him in seclusion to avoid testifying against the mob leaders. He became the object of a widely heralded search.
He owned a detective agency that had served the Mafia. His name had been bandied about in sinister stories of jury tampering. One of these reports was the basis for a libel suit brought by O'Malley against the Daily States for $10,000 damages. The local newspapers were at loggerheads over the activities of the vigilance Committee of Fifty. The Times-Democrat was especially resentful of their arrogation of extra-judicial authority.
All the victims of the lynching eruption were Italian citizens. When the government of Italy lodged a protest with the United States against the slaughter of its nationals, the hunt for O'Malley was at its height. When diplomatic relations were ruptured with the departure from Washington of the Italian ambassador, O'Malley was still missing. Then, while Secretary James G. Blaine was conducting negotiations with the premier of Italy, O'Malley reappeared in New Orleans, resuming his normal pursuits.
It was many months later that O'Malley announced his sole ownership of the Item. Meanwhile, the entente cordiale between Italy and the United States had been restored when Congress appropriated 125,000 lire for indemnities to the families of the slain Italians.
O'Malley wasn't annoyed by prying questioners. Few men in the state exceeded his proficiency with the pistol. The absence of two fingers from his right hand was a reminder of his grim tenacity in battle. When the digits were shot off, he transferred his revolver to his left hand and continued firing. And this hero of a dozen legends of deadly combat and ruthless machinations had the ingratiating demeanor of a dancing-master with a soft soprano voice and a pronounced lisp.
To O'Malley's newspaper was accorded the first opportunity to engage the newly arrived journeyman journalist. That was, in effect, the applicants announcement. Colonel Fairfax, the editor and manager, was unprepared for this type of salesmanship. It captured his fancy. Like the other executives on the Item, he worked standing up at a high desk. The courtliness of the antebellum era lingered in his speech and gestures. Every detail of his attire confirmed his loyalty to a treasured past. "We should feel highly honored," he beamed with an exaggerated bow, "that out of all the newspapers in New Orleans you have chosen ours for embellishment with your talents. The least we can do is to reciprocate the compliment. The city editor, Mr. J. J. McGinty, will welcome you to our staff." The astonished youngster wavered between a suspicion of irony and an impulse toward grateful acknowledgment. His hesitation challenged a closer scrutiny. "Hold on!" Fairfax burst out. "How old are you?" This was not an unforeseen emergency. The answer had been carefully rehearsed: "It is my plan to deliver results instead of years." There was an actual cash value in this response. It added $3 to the salary fixed for beginners. "Tell McGinty to put you on at fifteen a week," Colonel Fairfax directed.
|Grover Cleveland on the cover of Judge|
This was big-city stuff. It was a job any veteran would welcome. News worth flashing from ocean to ocean and even over the cables to foreign lands! But why had McGinty selected me for this main chance? Was it because he felt sure Cleveland wouldn't break his silence? There was such a thing as surprising a reticent man into speech. The right question must elicit a reply. The remainder of the day was given to a study of newspaper files. Out of the ex-presidents' utterances in the past must come a key to unlock his reserve. The incalculable assurance of youth!
Mr. Cleveland declined to be interviewed. A dozen newspapermen, half of them representing out-of-town publications, barred the distinguished visitor's egress from his Pullman car. Charlie Jefferson smoothed the tangle. At his instance, the ex-president agreed to receive one of the reporters to be chosen by them as their representative. William J. Leppert of the Times-Democrat was elected. The boy from the Item wasnt consulted. He wasnt even noticed. These seasoned journalists couldn't waste time on a callow kid who apparently had no idea of what was going on. Leppert emerged from Cleveland's drawing-room with his hands raised in token of defeat. "Still the sphinx," he announced. "Absolutely nothing for publication." Five minutes later, the ex-president, with Charlie Jefferson beside him, was seated in a cab headed west on Canal Street. The galaxy of star reporters broke up. The assignment had fizzled. A cub could have handled it.
The cab in which the ex-president rode was carefully driven. The driver's caution earned my high approval. It made pursuit possible at a brisk dog-trot breaking at times into sprints. The chase ended at Moreau's restaurant on Canal Street, scarcely a mile from the start. The cafe was noted for its exclusiveness. Only three other guests were at breakfast in the dining-room when Mr. Cleveland and his companion entered. This was a momentous occasion. A face-to-face meeting with an ex-president of the United States who might again be president! Stanley may have felt something like this when he found Livingstone. The comparison was captivating. It dominated the young interviewer's manner of approach and the phrasing of his salutation: "Mr. Cleveland, I presume."
"You certainly presume too damned much," interjected Jefferson. "What do you want?"
Brusqueness was not to defeat the journalist, who stood mantled in the dignity of a great newspaper tradition. With his eyes on the ex-president, there came to his tongue a retort much better framed than he knew. The spirit of Stanley was in the measured accents of his speech: "I represent the New Orleans Item. I came here to interview Mr. Cleveland. I do not believe he will approve the brow-beating in his presence of a newspaperman engaged in the performance of his duty."
The ex-president of the United States slapped his thigh.
"There went hook, sinker and line," he rumbled in great merriment.
Jefferson's face flushed a deep red. "You have no right to interrupt Mr. Cleveland at breakfast," he said angrily. "You're breaking an agreement. Mr. Cleveland spoke to a representative of all the New Orleans newspapers only twenty minutes ago, with the express understanding that he would not be bothered with any more requests for interviews here on this trip."
"I was not bound by that agreement," was the quick reply, "because I wasnt consulted."
Again Mr. Cleveland was amused.
"We seem to have here both a lawyer and a journalist," he said with a smile. "The boy is entitled to the same information that was given to the reporter who didn't represent him." Then, turning to me, "I told him as I tell you now, I have no statement to make for publication."
"But that doesnt mean," I pleaded, "that you won't answer some pertinent questions."
"I won't say that your perspicacity equals your persistence," the ex-president answered. "But in view of your years, that persistence or perseverance, if you prefer, deserves a reward. So that you may ease your conscience with the sense of a duty thoroughly performed, I'll give you five minutes."
This was the instant for which I had drilled myself the evening before. "It was my hope," I started, "that you might consent to make one or two observations as former president of the United States, wholly aside from partizan politics. For instance..."
Mr. Cleveland raised his hand to stop me.
"The nature of your suggestion," he said coldly, "indicates an absence of that degree of discrimination which is necessary for the formulation of proper questions."
The rebuke stunned me. It was all the more crushing because of my inability to comprehend the cause. Long afterward, I pieced together the mosaic of that painful puzzle. The central pattern lay in Grover Cleveland's concept of public office. It partook of reverence. Tenure of the chief magistracy of the United States was to him an anointment. It consecrated the individual to a nationalism above and beyond any lines of division. He could remain a member of a political party only so long as that membership did not restrict his broader duty. To suggest to him an avoidance of partizan politics was offensive redundance. It implied the possibility of a lapse from his exalted estate.
The inspiring spirit of Stanley had fled. With it vanished the crisp forwardness of the Item reporter.
"Please let me apologize," I urged, "shifting from one foot to the other in painful embarrassment. Nothing was farther from my mind than to offend you. The best proof of my sincerity is the fact that Im not yet sure as to just how I gave offense. So, you see, it must have been wholly unintentional."
Even Charlie Jefferson was affected by the show of miserable penitence. He winked at me. Mr. Cleveland grunted. There was an awkward pause. Renewed courage came to me out of this silence.
"I shall make a careful analysis of what I said," I ventured, searching for words on which to string some sort of propitiating felicity. "Such a study should show me how I blundered. Then I shall be able to complete my apology. There was another moment of silent floundering and then an inspiration. Won't you let me present that apology on your way back from Orange Island?" I pleaded. "The Democratic National Convention will be closer then and you may have decided to issue a statement. You might even give it to me by way of pardon for my blunder."
The ex-president glanced up from his plate. There was a twinkle in his eye.
"There will be no need for that," he said slowly. "You may rest assured that I will make no statement for publication prior to the convention."
"You landed a whopper that time, my lad!" exclaimed Jefferson.
Triumph had emerged from disaster. This was a real story. True, it was a negative statement, but the negation was pregnant with vital affirmations. It meant that Grover Cleveland, titular head of his party, would refrain from any utterance that might influence the course of the next Democratic convention. It meant his declination to be a candidate for the nomination. The simple sentence was even more important than the juvenile journalist realized. The preface to an historic chapter in American politics, its portents grew with the passing months through the national canvass of 1892. It left the party leaders in a snarl they never raveled. It jumbled the deliberations of the convention that insisted on nominating Cleveland for his second presidential term. Its meaning was not fully recognized until the close of the campaign, in which he completely ignored the platform on which he had been nominated.
The new reporter preempted a vacant desk with an effervescent jubilance that piqued the city editor.
"What are you writing?" McGinty demanded.
"An interview with Grover Cleveland," came the smug answer.
"Rats! In the first place, it is the custom in all well-conducted newspaper offices to report to the city editor upon the completion of an assignment. Of course, you may consider that your long and wide experience entitles you to exception from this rule. It doesn't. And it will save time and effort if, before you begin to use up copy paper, you take me into your confidence about what you have that you think is worth writing for the Item. It is just possible our judgments might not coincide. In the next place, Tom Harris says five of the best reporters in New Orleans were at the train to get an interview with Cleveland and he turned all of them down. Do you expect me to believe that you succeeded where they failed?"
The city editor's masterly sarcasm had tied its victim in a knot of mortification. But his hint of mendacity was too much. It jerked an abashed boy from humility to the verge of truculence. It infused him with an adult sternness that sounded in his reply: "I expect you to believe what I tell you." McGinty winced. He had lost his whip. He listened intently to details of the conversation at Moreau's but, instead of elating, they seemed to depress him.
"You have a big scoop," he finally heaved forth with a sigh, "but I'm afraid of it. If we play it up, every other paper in the city will try to discredit us. Ordinarily, that would be grist for our mill. But just now we are in a delicately vulnerable position. I don't think we can afford to buck all the other papers at this time on an issue of accuracy. Even if we could get to Cleveland, he wouldn't help us. He'd probably refuse to deny or affirm anything. And we'd be suckers to give Charlie Jefferson a chance at us."
Nothing McGinty said lessened the new reporter's enthusiasm for his story. It was incredible that outstanding news might be suppressed to avert the displeasure of competitors. No newspaper could operate successfully with such a dastard policy. Nevertheless, the new reporter that afternoon searched the Item in vain for his first major scoop. In its stead appeared a cautiously written paragraph near the end of an account of the ex-president's brief visit to New Orleans. "Before Mr. Cleveland's departure for Joseph Jefferson's estate," it read, "he indicated that he would make no comment on the political situation during his current trip. One of the gentlemen present elaborated this into a broader statement. He was positive Mr. Cleveland said his silence would not be broken with any statement calculated to influence the Democratic National Convention this summer."
But my story was published. Three days later, a copy of the Atlanta Journal lay on the sporting editor's desk. At the top of the first page appeared a heading that startled me. "Cleveland Out of the Running," ran the main line. Then, after a New Orleans date, came the recital of my interview with the ex-president. Except for the omission of several local details, it followed verbatim the copy written with such burning ardor for the Item.
It was unbelievable. A scoop withheld from the newspaper to which it rightfully belonged was conspicuously displayed in a publication hundreds of miles away.
One phase of the explanation was unique. It covered the local newspaper situation. The aftermath of the Mafia riot still smoldered. Community leaders were eager to obliterate every vestige of that tragic upheaval. Italy's demand for reparation had not yet been disposed of. There was whispering of various sorts of dam- age litigation in which the municipality might be involved. A large share of blame for the lynching outbreak was laid at Dominick O'Malley's door. Several dailies had shown a disposition to ferret deeper into his secret activities. They bowed to the contrary pressure exerted by civic groups. Thus, O'Malley enjoyed an indulgence sharply at variance with the preferences of his fellow publishers. It was not difficult, therefore, to understand the extreme pains taken by the Item to avoid giving umbrage to its competitors.
A wrench came with the discovery that the Atlanta Journal was only one of many dailies that had published my scoop. But there was no impropriety in the fact. It was part of an economic program still in restricted effect in various cities. Subordinate editors were given, as part compensation, the exclusive privilege of "the office string." The term grew out of the practice of computing the earnings of compositors by measuring with a string the type they had set. In the case of correspondents it meant either the list of newspapers they were allowed to serve or the space in those publications filled by the telegraphic and mail matter they supplied. The office string was City Editor McGinty's perquisite. He may have lacked judgment in omitting my story from the Item, but he didn't lack diligence in transmitting it to his out-of-town clients. Nor did he lack finesse in forestalling my grievance. "It's too bad the decision went against using your story in the Item," he said in a soothing voice with an amiable smile, "but I have found a way to show my appreciation of your work. You are to get one of the most important beats in the city as your regular assignment. Beginning Monday, you will take over the courts."
Epaulets of asses ears! A special post for a chosen victim! McGinty played on the conceits of a beginner much as a virtuoso plucked the chords of a harp. It was an artistic achievement to bring a brazen cub to heel on the skids of his own self-assurance. "McGinty's pious joke," was Jimmy Augustin's description of this game of puffing up and puffing down the lamps of his acolytes. Augustin had been watching it for many months. He covered the run of the courts for the Daily States.
A dilettante in his late thirties, he scorned all labor for monetary gain. An economic upset had tossed him out of a life of leisure into the ranks of wage-earners. Journalism was to him merely the most convenient bridge to the essentials of existence. Despite my boyish appearance, he accepted me as a veteran. We became warm friends. The cordiality survived a severe trial. It came during a Sunday jaunt together when Jimmy disported the first monocle and spats ever worn in my company. The incident left me under obligation. Augustin's patience with my show of provincialism was a tongueless but none the less polishing lecture on social culture. It was a deportment depilatory. When Jimmy got through with me, he left few of the behavior bristles that had hung on from the chaparral.
Augustin showed a robust anger over McGinty's treatment of my interview with Cleveland. It only proved his contention, he argued, that neither logic nor equity fixed the compensation for talent. "How can it be otherwise," he asked, "so long as the artist must depend for his livelihood on the merchant? Here is Koenigsberg who paints a picture that McGinty couldnt conceive. But who gathers the gain -- the painter or the pedler?"
No matter how erratic the sociologic theories Augustin expressed, his sympathy was unmistakable. And the warmth of its expression kindled a responsive glow. My innermost secret welled out.
"Ever since I decided to be a journalist," I confided to Jimmy, "I have kept my eyes on one goal. I want to do such work as will earn a prize beyond valuation in dollars. We don't have such an emblem or reward in the United States. But there is an international trophy for distinguished service to society. It is membership in the French Legion of Honor. Of course, its only a dream, but thats my target."
Augustin shrugged his shoulders. It served me right. Why had an exuberance of friendliness tempted me into such a vainglorious confession? What folly to have thrust upon such a scoffer so intimate a confidence! The smart of that anticlimax was recalled by its double sequel more than thirty years later.
Chapter 4 Part 2 Next Week
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