Friday, December 04, 2015


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 5 Part 2

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Five (Part 2) - ONCE ABOARD THE LUGGER

The other papers soon imitated the World, but they employed better artists than myself and my youthful confreres; they got men like C. J. Taylor, Baron de Grimm, Thulstrup, C. G. Bush, John Hyde and Eddie Kemble. But these were far too artistic and high-hat for the class to which newspapers appeal, and they rarely made news pictures. They produced clever, well-drawn sketches of life at the race track or the sea beach, but they were geared too low for the fast-moving stuff that hopped circulations up.

For about two years I had, indeed, practically a monopoly of the cartoon field not only in town, but in many out-of-town newspapers. This continued until cartoonists grew up to meet the demand. The Tribune was the first to follow, with Barrett's cartoons; then, long after, the Herald engaged C. G. Bush of Harper's; Dan McCarthy and Rigby, the only newspaper artist who ever wore a silk hat, and Van Sant became well known. There appeared in Chicago after a while a whole flock of restive and able cartooners, Charlie Lederer, Tom Powers, Art Young and Hy. Mayer (see cartoon above), who all finally drifted to New York, but it was a long while before a cartoonist became so commonplace that conscience-stricken politicians could remain at ease in their presence.

Such events as the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, Odlum's fatal dive from the same, Grant's funeral, the Park Place and the Buddensiek disasters, the electrocution of Gibbs, the first man killed by an electric wire, right before my window, the first try-out by Edison of his gramophone, the first yacht races, the Charleston earthquake, the blowing-up of Hell Gate, and dozens of like happenings all had to be sketched, because the "instantaneous camera," as it was called, was not yet perfected for fast work, and all photographs had to be converted by the artist into pen-and-ink line drawings before being engraved. The half-tone process was not as yet applicable to newspaper print. I therefore led a busy life, no question.

Mr. Pulitzer presented me, in 1885, I think, with one of the first of these "instantaneous" cameras. It was in a case resembling those carried by physicians, about a foot long. It was elegant, but as a practicable camera almost a total loss. It cost sixty dollars, but it could not do the work of an eighty-cent "Brownie" of to-day's vintage. As soon as I had mastered its intricacies—no difficult task, as I had been brought up in a photograph gallery—I loaded a holder with two plates from a fresh box of a specially fast quality—with a speed, perhaps, of a twenty-fifth of a second, which was called rapid—and hurried forth. My first shot was at an antique horse and buggy hitched to a post at the curb in front of the International Hotel, with the Post Office in the background. Then I rushed back to my improvised dark room, a closet in my office.

The developed negative revealed a double exposure, one of the earliest and most startling of its kind. The old horse showed up plainly with a distinct Post Office in the rear, but in place of the buggy there was revealed a bare-legged woman seated on a short columnar pedestal! The resulting print caused great excitement in the World office and in that of the Photographic Times. It seemed to have a flavor of the miraculous and supernatural—in truth, these double exposures later became the basis of many spiritualistic swindles—and it permanently ruined my reputation for morality and veracity.

I was then one of those pink-cheeked, easy-blushing, timid souls looking many years younger than my age and incredibly innocent and unsophisticated, as anybody who can remember that far back will attest, but I was surrounded by tough, hard-boiled vultures of forty, such as Col. Cockerill, Sam Moffett, Nym Crinkle, John Dillon, Joseph Howard, Jr., Capt. Roland Coffin, Dud Levigne and Jeremiah Curtin, and these sin-seared veterans were only too glad to make the vilest, most shocking insinuations in order to bring the blush of innocence to my dimpled cheek.

Even several years afterward, on my turning in to Col. Cockerill, a man of parts if there ever was one, a snappy picture of some famous actress with six or seven inches of shapely leg exposed to view, he made a pencil mark on the drawing and, in a sanctimonious voice, protested: "That could not be published in a respectable journal, boy! Pull her skirts down to her shoe tops! We don't want another double-exposure scandal in this office. We'd have all the Goddam ministers in town down on us!"

Pulitzer and Cockerill were the most profane men I have ever encountered. I learned much from them, for their joint vocabulary was extensive and, in some respects, unique. When J. P. was dictating an editorial upon some favorite topic, such as Collis P. Huntington's extremely ill-gotten wealth, Jay Gould's infamous railroad-wrecking or Cyrus Field's income, his speech was so interlarded with sulphurous and searing phrases that the whole staff shuddered. He was the first man I ever heard who split a word to insert an oath. He did it often. His favorite was "indegoddampendent." When the stenographer—a he-one—took down every word he uttered, his editorials had to be sifted, as it were, at the conclusion of the dictation.

At this time he apparently actually felt all the red-hot indignation he daily voiced against all the wrongs he so constantly assailed on his editorial page. The famous "Belshazzar Feast" cartoon was a pictorial expression of his hatred of easily gotten wealth. It was really merely a Rogue's Gallery of millionaires. A million dollars was to J. P. a symbol of double damnation—in the year of our Lord 1884.

The misty clouds of myth are already dimming the outlines of the man who made the World. The writings of some of his former employees are creating a demigod out of a highly commercial gentleman who knew exactly what every cent in a dollar was worth and what sort of printed matter would at the least expense extract pennies from the lower classes. That was his job, and he went to it with enthusiasm and haste.

In the first years of the World's endeavors he was very approachable, and even companionable, when not irritated by fear of disaster or the increase of expense. He was almost absolutely devoid of any sense of humor, save of a certain banal sort, and the stings of that human wasp, Dana of the Sun, drove him almost frantic. He was so obsessed by the dread of libel suits that he read almost every paragraph in the paper nightly. This practice eventually cost him his sight. He was also haunted by a perpetual fear of dishonesty among his employees, and detected or even suspected commissions received by his buying agents drove him to extremes of passionate indignation.

Sometimes, in his depressed and harassed moods, he would come down to my quiet room and lie on the old mohair sofa. I had the big roll-top desk used by Manton Marble when he was editor of the World—still preserved in the Sunday World rooms—and in cleaning out the drawers I had come upon a bundle of letters hidden in a rear cavity, written to Marble by various persons years before. There were some famous signatures among them. I used to amuse J. P. by reading some of them, and he would in turn tell me his troubles and narrate his adventures. I wish I had made notes of these talks, but I was always a poor newspaper man. I doubt if he ever was, in later years, as communicative.

I early gathered that he had little or none of the personal courage of Cockerill, but as a writer he was as rashly bold and reckless as a rhinoceros. He narrated episodes of dealings with St. Louis gamblers, but there was nothing of the heroic in them, and he once told me that the fact that Cockerill had so coolly killed Slayback had at one moment the effect of kindling his admiration and at another filling him with a chilly repulsion. When I confessed to him that I had also killed a man, a Chinese, in self-defense, he regarded me with the dazed expression of a shocked boy, although he was eleven years older than I.

On one occasion the owner of a prize-winning dog whose picture happened to be printed with another canine's name beneath it, came into my room and began to vent his ire by denouncing the rascally World, Pulitzer and all newspaper men generally, in the presence of Charley Stone, afterward editor of the Chicago Herald, who then occupied a desk in my room and who was some years my elder. I did not want to hit the irate dog-owner for fear of injuring him, and I listened to his diatribe in patience until I caught sight of Stone's face, expressive of contempt for my seeming cowardice. Then I rose, seized the intruder by the collar and the rotunda of his trousers, burst the door open with his wriggling form, ran him down the hall, and threw him down the stairs encircling our four-passenger elevator. I heard his footsteps patter all the way to the ground floor, went back to receive Stone's hearty congratulations, and then, still being rather unversed in newspaper methods and not knowing how far I would be backed by my employer, I hastened to tell J. P. what had happened. When I told him that I had thrown my visitor down the stairs he simply said: "Hell! Why didn't you throw him down the elevator shaft?"

Very early in my experience I brought upon the paper a libel suit that threatened to turn J. P.'s dark locks a silvery gray. I had depicted two low dives at Coney Island, and the pictures were printed. Their proprietors at once brought suit for fifty thousand dollars, a sum so enormous that the "Kennedy Case" attracted nation-wide attention. It is, I believe, a sort of test case as regards pictures, at least, to this day. The World won the case, but no human being ever knew, during the trial or afterward, that it need never have gone to trial because the titles under the cuts had been transposed. I was saving this fact in case we were beaten but, as it was, I never mentioned it.


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