Thursday, June 29, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 5 Part 3
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
At The Editorial Valhalla (part 3)link to previous installment link to next installment
The Star-News was published in the printing plant of Guessaz & Ferlet on West Commerce Street. We engaged a telegraph news service. It was supplied by W. S. Brewer, with offices in the Monadnock Building in Chicago. He
was a free lance. He gathered items from early Chicago editions, from uncorrected proofs delivered by newspaper employees, from ticker sheets, from tips for which he paid reporters and correspondents employed by different publications and from various clandestine sources. Most of his clients bought pony reports. These were identical sendings of a compressed volume of words relayed from central points.
No acknowledged impropriety attached to the purchase. Melville E. Stone had not yet begun his campaign to endow news with the rights of private property. The theory prevailed that ownership of a piece of new intelligence was limited to prompt use. The information was available to outsiders for any purpose other than direct or immediate competition with the original owner. There were many who contended that a definite and important public benefit grew out of the multiplication of channels of news dissemination. That was my view. Monopolistic agencies have striven through the years to upset this tenet. They have sought to impress on news the same exclusiveness of proprietary control that inheres in an individual asset. It has been my privilege to oppose them with a degree of success, as will be detailed here in later pages.
Brewer’s service afforded my first experience in editing telegraphic news. We received 500 words daily. The rate of payment was fifteen dollars weekly. The copy arrived so closely skeletonized as to border on the unintelligible. This was a purposeful economy. Each day’s report was expanded into a couple of columns of newspaper text. The task of amplification imposed a rigorous training. A ready fund of geographical and historic knowledge was necessary to interpret gaps of meaning. A sustained familiarity with current affairs was required to supply details judiciously omitted by the sender. The job developed faculties of large importance in my later years.
The handling of news by wire only added to my daily chores. It subtracted time from the hours useful for reportorial work. The harvest of local items was never overabundant. So, it was necessary to provide means for the production of fresh copy with greater facility than the accustomed routine. Material was at hand, but publishing rules prevented its use. Some of these restrictions must be evaded. Except for indisputable facts, such as births, deaths and casualties, a newspaper withheld publication of news lacking “a peg on which to hang the privilege of communication.” The peg usually required was a formal action of some sort.
A reporter might have all the data of a big crime exploit. Release of the story was deferred until one of the details reached an official record. An arrest or an entry in a police blotter was sufficient. A bank president might decamp. Until some official action was taken, public notice of his flight was suppressed. Inside information of the impending disruption of a large institution might be in hand. Without the covering license of some formality, it would not be discussed in print. Libel laws and business caution prompted this policy. It minimized the publisher’s accountability. But it also narrowed the field of his news resources. Many interesting and entertaining items fell under the prohibitions of this formula.
I worked out a simple plan to remove these constraints. By ascribing a story to its author, the newspaper could forego its restrictive prescriptions. The device transferred a responsibility more rhetorical than real. It was not intended to evade legal liability. The only actual onus lay in a departure from convention. And since novelty was one of the most desirable qualities of journalism, this burden could be cheerfully borne. So began my first stint as a columnist. A descriptive label—The Pilgrim—instead of my name, was chosen to head the feature.
The artifice was designed solely to enlarge service to the reader. It passed into a means for confusing and misleading him. Publishers in a later decade employed it as an avenue of escape. Close inspection will expose it as a blind alley. Originally a net for elusive news, it became a shelter for dubious views. As bait for dissident readers, a newspaper engaged commentators who opposed its putative policies. Either in specific terms or by indirection, it disclaimed approval of the viewpoints taken in their columns.
The disclaimer was nugatory. It was like the shrug of a host’s shoulders while introducing a questionable character in his home circle. The dissenting columnist and the off-color guest were present for the same reason. Both were enjoying a hospitality that had been extended to them. Neither their behavior nor their reputations could be dissociated from the sponsorship for their presence.
An extraordinary poker game was the subject of The Pilgrim’s first yarn. It was a type of story ineligible as straight news, but just the sort of matter to handle in my new department. The incident occurred in the Ranch Saloon. Five players started. The limit was “sky high.” The deal that broke up the party began at midnight. Before the draw, the pot had grown to $6,000. Then Nat Lewis bet $5,000. He had stood pat. Three men dropped out.
The remaining contestant was Ralph Chisholm, owner of vast sheep ranges. He was also content with the first five cards dealt him. A circle of silent spectators continued to grow while Lewis and Chisholm bullyragged each other in efforts to surprise a betrayal of purpose. It was a show. Chisholm, after deep study, “tilted” Lewis $5,000 and Nat re-raised him $5,000. An hour had passed since the beginning of the deal. Then Ralph shoved $25,000 in chips to die center. “I’m raising you $20,000,” he said.
That brought the nub of the episode. “I’m raising you,” Lewis announced, “but I don’t want to write any more checks. I’m putting up my JF brand. The difference between its value and your $20,000 is the amount of my raise.” Chisholm called. Since the wager was for an undetermined sum, it was a “blind call,” the first one of which The Pilgrim had ever heard.
A brand of cattle as a stake in a poker game was not unprecedented. But The Pilgrim deemed it most unusual news. The brand might include several herds. Its prompt appraisal in dollars meant quite a task. An umpire must be selected and data assembled for his guidance. Chisholm and Lewis agreed on Frank Umscheid as arbitrator. The two poker hands were sealed in envelopes and locked in the safe of the Ranch Saloon. The figure finally set by Umscheid swelled the pot to $90,000. Chisholm’s four tens beat Lewis’ four nines.
The Pilgrim ranged outside the field of casual news. He sought subjects in affinity with the unconventional character of his column. An interview with Madame Candelario was an example. In later years it would have passed as an ordinary newspaper feature. In the Victorian atmosphere of the period, it reeked with sensationalism. A halo of historic associations rested on Madame Candelario. She had witnessed the fall of The Alamo.
She lived in a cloistered sanctuary of reverend memories. It was proper to discuss with her for publication the details of the great massacre. But it would be brazen effrontery to peer beyond the shadows of that matchless epic into her private affairs. Yet that is what The Pilgrim did. He delved into her love life. And a tiny nugget of history came forth.
It had been common gossip that Col. James Bowie, inventor of the famous knife known by his name, was one of Madame Candelario’s girlhood admirers. Her sympathy—with that of many other Texas belles—had been commanded for this outstanding gallant by the untimely death of his young bride, the daughter of Ex-Governor Veramendi.
Madame Candelario was a weazened but sprightly little woman with a mischievous smile and astonishingly bright eyes. She readily accepted a high estimate of her importance. It followed that she should not leave to posterity any controversies about her relations with notable persons. She should set at rest any rumors that might be twisted into various meanings after she passed on. The reasoning laid a restorative unction on a wasting pride. Madame Candelario decided to set the record straight. However, she must consider carefully and speak with dignity. Fully ten minutes elapsed before she bade me to set down her words. They were in Spanish. Here is a free translation: “Colonel Bowie was my cavalier. He carried away from our last parting my favorite fan. It was made of fine white feathers. I gave it as a token for him to keep. I kissed the ivory handle before he tucked it inside his tunic. It was with him in The Alamo.
From the shrinking figure of Madame Candelario, The Pilgrim turned to the striking personality of William Cowper Brann.Then at the threshold of a fame that was destined to leap national boundaries, Brann had become known as the “fire-eating apostle of iconoclasm.” Already there were portents of the classic role he was to enact in journalism and of the tragic fate that awaited him. At that time he was editor of the Express. His editorials had divided San Antonians into two militant groups. His critics reviled him as “viciously venomous and damnably didactic.” His partizans, with equal belligerence, hailed him as “the creator of a new literature.”
|William Cowper Brann|
Snickering acquaintances dismissed any doubt about Brann’s meaning. “What’s ‘the Majah’ going to do about it?” they asked. My partner had not discussed with me his week-end jaunts. Now they assumed a disturbing significance. The facts dribbled to me from erstwhile reticent sources. Men who hitherto had been reluctant to talk about Harris at last spoke freely. Brann would keep “the Majah” too busy to bother with them.
Harris had come to San Antonio from Austin. There he had served as a sort of public relations counselor to Mayor Nalle. Ostensibly he was the Mayor’s private secretary. The rivalry between Nalle and George W. Brackenridge had reached a crisis a few weeks before Harris’ arrival in San Antonio. Nalle was attempting to wrest control of the Austin waterworks from his rival. Harris was suspected of covert activities beyond the secretarial field. He became the object of a riotous demonstration when a flaw suddenly developed in the stone dam across the Colorado River.
The structure banked the stream that fed the reservoir for Austin’s waterworks system. A fissure in the masonry engendered suspicion of sabotage. The hue was raised that somebody had “quicksilvered the dam.” A mob gathered. Bitter tirades were delivered against the foul miscreant that would endanger the health and safety of a city for political or financial gain. There could be no question of the enormity. “Quicksilvered the dam” was too ear-filling a phrase to admit any doubts. Its very sound was evidence of the outrage. A voluble witness presented himself. He had seen Mose C. Harris walking along the embankment. He had watched Harris pour a liquid in a number of crevices. It was quicksilver that would corrode and crumble the stone. Crowds of cursing men set out to seize Harris. Short shrift was promised for the Mayor’s assistant. “The Majah” eluded the hunters.
The next day he appeared in San Antonio with $3,500 in cash. That was the stake Nalle supplied to launch his journalistic venture in The Alamo City. The shift was highly strategic. It not only removed Harris from surroundings that had grown too hostile to defy, but it set up a salient in an enemy stronghold. The San Antonio Express was reputedly under Brackenridge’s domination. Harris could do more effective sniping at close quarters. But the story of the “quicksilvered dam” was never sifted. It held the imagination too firmly to risk refutation. Anyhow, there were few Austinites ready to believe that mercury would not corrode masonry. Such credulity might smother Austin’s indignation in ridicule.
It did not behoove me to meddle in Harris’ affairs outside San Antonio. My concern in his activities must be limited to the Star-News. Thus far, he had shown an undivided interest in our paper. Nothing he had written sustained the story of his vassalage to Joseph Nalle. In fact, Brann’s attack seemed wholly gratuitous. “The Majah” reached the office before anyone else the next morning. He handed me a sheaf of manuscript. “It is my purpose,” he announced in the most pompous tone in which he had yet addressed me, “to print this article double-leaded in the first two columns of our newspaper today. Since you share with me the responsibility for publication, I desire that you acquaint yourself with its contents before it is set into type.” Perhaps he expected some comment from me. He received none. The copy left me breathless. In Harris’ words, “it flayed Brann alive.” Never before or since has there passed under my eyes such an instrument of verbal excoriation. It was a torrential flow of vitriolic rebuke.
Two columns of intensive denunciation without the repetition of a single term! A typical passage read: “This advocate of adultery, this defender of free love, this imported pimp who debases the marriage contract to the level of a horse trade and who exemplifies his ideology in his private life . ."
Harris had established supremacy in one field. He had proved himself an unrivaled master of invective.
Admiration for the dynamic power of his composition engrossed me. Such scruples as withheld further approval were stilled for the moment by the recollection that Brann had been the aggressor. There was a vogue for editorial contests in vilification. My distaste for the fashion gave me no power to annul it. And so long as my partnership with Harris continued, loyalty to the Star-News would require my participation as his associate. It was that process of thought which enmeshed me in the next chapter of the Brann-Harris controversy.
“The Majah” waited for the first paper off the press that afternoon. He wanted to see his opus in type. Evidently, it gratified him. Strutting to the door, he pronounced a dictum. The proprieties demanded my companionship with him at Dick Strayhorn’s Buckhorn Bar across the street. There he paid assiduous attention to a series of three mint juleps. Meanwhile he expatiated on the indomitable courage that was essential to the character of a great editor. By five o’clock he had convinced himself of the soundness of his thesis.
“Now, sir,” he announced in his deepest basso profundo, “we shall present ourselves to the vile caitiff for such action as his foul gizzard will permit him to take.”
The proposal was not attractive. There was no hot blood rushing to my head to demand an encounter with Brann. In fact, it would be highly satisfactory to me if the editor of the Express were left to his own devices. Before any such recreant notion could reach my tongue, “the Majah” arrested it.
“Are you armed?” he asked.
The question left no alternative. To withdraw now would be arrant desertion. When my equipment was supplemented to Harris’ satisfaction, we set out along Commerce Street for the Express office. Locking arms with me, “the Majah” adopted a jaunty gait. It appeared to me disgustingly like a cake-walk. There was nothing infectious in his assumed gaiety. The three blocks beyond St. Mary’s, Navarro and Presa Streets seemed the longest walk I had ever taken. The west side of the Express building formed an angle with the Commerce Street bridge.
Twenty windows lighted each of the three floors. That meant sixty openings through each of which we might be potted. Harris’ approach had cleared the street of pedestrians. Innocent bystanders won little sympathy in San Antonio.
In the middle of the bridge, Harris released my arm. He stepped to the rail. His right hand on the gun holstered under his left arm while he looked up to the windows of the Express office, Harris lifted his stentorian voice.
“William C. Brann, stand forth!” The call echoed down the river and through the surrounding blocks.
There was no response. Twice again at full minute intervals, Harris repeated his shout. The intervening pauses were oppressive. Whether by design or accident, a strange quietude prevailed in the newspaper building. Faces could be seen furtively pressed against window-panes. A queer sensation annoyed me. One might have such a feeling if caught by critical eyes in a moment of shamed embarrassment. The vagrant thought came to me of a guest suddenly denuded at a full-dress function. Harris waited fully three minutes after his last summons. Then, turning to me, he spoke as if addressing an audience. “We have offered the craven cur an opportunity to behave like a gentleman. We have discharged our duty to him and to ourselves. Let us proceed.”
Once more locking arms, he led me to Scholz’s garden on Losoya Street around the corner. Either we had staged a bit from an unwritten farce or providence had deferred a grave denouement. Harris again preceded me to the office the next morning. His desk faced mine on the opposite side of a three-foot aisle. He was plainly ill at ease. But that was not alarming. His fidgets might be attributable to a night of dalliance. I was immersed in copy, when a loud exclamation startled me. “Don’t shoot! I’m unarmed,” came from a tall, slender man in the double-door entrance.
It was Brann. His hands were raised above his head. A long-barreled revolver, resting on Harris’ left arm, was aimed at Brann’s heart. Harris’ face was livid. Beads of perspiration showed on his forehead. His gun wavered and jiggled. This man was wholly different from the strutting brave of the day before. A revulsion came over me. A heroic mask had dropped.
With his arms uplifted, Brann advanced to Harris’ desk. He was amazingly calm. Seating himself in front of Harris, he spoke in a clear, firm voice. It was a puzzling picture. An unarmed man, his hands aloft, sat cool and collected while the antagonist, who kept him covered with a ten-inch pistol, trembled and squirmed. And the fellow with the unsteady hands bore a notoriety for “quickness on the trigger.”
“I have come to serve notice on you,” Brann said, “that if you ever again refer to me in print as a pimp, I shall fill you full of buckshot.”
His body still shaking in nervous agitation, but his brain functioning in perfect unison with his habitual pose, Harris made a characteristic retort. The author of a lurid melodrama of later years would reject as beyond credence the words of that reply. He would consider them too ludicrously stilted and unreal. Yet Harris uttered them without hesitation.
“There can be no more opportune time for the performance of that operation than right now,” he said.
“I have told you that I am unarmed,” Brann answered, rising with his hands still in the air. “I have served notice on you. That was my sole purpose in coming here.”
Brann and Harris never again locked horns. Both knew that Harris’ allusion to a pimp was merely a metaphor. It was another way of calling Brann “a Brackenridge maverick.”
Events moved me into a warm friendship with Brann. He was the bravest man it has been my privilege to know. His intrepid soul was balanced with an ineffable gentleness. His mind thundered with Jovian bolts. When he had gone to his untimely end a few years later, Elbert Hubbard said: “That hand, which wrote the most Carlylean phrase of any in America, is cold and stiff. That teeming brain, which held a larger vocabulary than that of any man in America, is only clay. . . . That soul, through which surged thoughts too great for speech, has gone a-journeying.”
It was Brann who had penned this paragraph: “As there is a beauty that eludes the painter’s brush, the sculptor’s chisel, as there is a music that cannot be written, as there is an eloquence that will not be spoken, as there is a love that can learn no language, so must there be a poetry, the very sum of these, which sets upon the lips the seal of silence.”
Brann attracted fanatic followers. Many of them believed his writings reflected the light of prophecy. His lectures on political economy were largely attended. His theories were not novel. But his method of statement captivated his admirers. Typical of his style is a passage from an essay on the problems of distribution. Describing the American masses, he said: “They flee naked and ashamed from the face of their fellow-man, while fabrics molder in the market place and the song of the spindle is silent; they freeze, while beneath their feet lie countless tons of coal, incarnate kisses of the sun god’s fiery youth.”
Various considerations of practicality turned the Star-News into the News. It was shortly after the name of the Star had faded from the journalistic firmament that The Pilgrim got a story from Brann. The editor of the Express had resigned. The following day he was badly pummeled in the office of the Light. Brann told me the facts cheerfully.
“Last week,” he related, “Judge W. H. Booker publicly denounced three employees of the Express. One he called a falsifier, another a liar and the third an ingrate and ex-convict. I satisfied myself that these men were trusted employees of the paper of which I was the editor. I felt it my duty to lambast the traducer of my fellow-workers. I expected trouble. Booker, though one-armed, is an extraordinarily powerful fellow weighing close to 250 pounds. Despite his lack of an arm, he is extremely bellicose and has trounced men matching him in weight. I expected Booker to come to me. Instead, he went to the owner of the paper. That gentleman ordered an apology published. It was a cowardly recantation. Its chief vice was in the statement that it came from the editor.
“I immediately resigned and demanded that a card be published announcing that I was no longer editor of the Express and that I was in no way responsible for the apology to Booker. The proprietor refused my demand. I took the announcement to the Light. There, while I was engaged in conversation with a clerk, the publisher ran past me and locked the door. A moment later, his purpose was disclosed when Booker entered from the rear. A fisticuff followed and I was soundly beaten. I was outweighed by more than a hundred pounds.
“When I was in a state of physical incapacity, Booker swore that he would blow my brains out the next day if I had not meanwhile procured the publication over my signature of a complete retraction of the article I wrote ‘roasting’ him. Instead of making any such publication, I slipped a revolver into my hip pocket and awaited the obituary program. There was no shooting. Friends of Booker came to me with offers of peace. They notified me that he had withdrawn his threat. My article stands unretracted. The poltroon trio on the Express have forfeited my sympathy and Booker’s blows go unavenged.”
Brann refused to resume the editorship of the Express. After a series of lectures, he moved to Austin. There he started the Iconoclast. It was a monthly magazine of comment. Never did a title fit more perfectly a publication or its editor. A bank clerk, keenly interested in literature, sought Brann’s friendship. It was William Sydney Porter, afterward delivered to undying fame under the nom de plume of O. Henry. Brann was unable to extract a livelihood from the Iconoclast in Austin. He decided to move on. Porter bought the magazine. Brann got some traveling money and Porter got a plaything. The new owner operated on a much less elaborate scale than the founder had attempted.
Chapter 5 Part 4 Next Week
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