Friday, February 19, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life Chapter 9 Part 2

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall


Of all the reputations that have burgeoned from the World's upgrowth, that of Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane) was the most far-reaching and the most brilliant as far as mere acclaim went. Her appearance was at the precise moment when sensations were coming so fast and so plentiful as to begin to pall and a fillip was needed. This was supplied by femininity. A voyage through the Minetta sewer or a fake bomb attack on a British man-of-war no longer stirred the jaded senses, but done by a girl with a name like Nellie Bly, which was given her by Erasmus Wilson of the Pittsburgh Gazette, a name that rang with a musical note, any live story was bound to register.

She was of medium height, shapely, with gray-blue eyes in a pointed, eager face, her voice with that indescribable rising inflection peculiar to West Pennsylvanians, and dark brown, slightly wavy hair. In many ways she closely resembled Annie Oakley, that shooting star of the Wild West show. She was but a month or so over twenty when she came to the World in 1887, but she had been three or four years engaged in newspaper work of various sorts. She had, however, no real training, but for the work in which she was engaged she needed none. Her sole assets were courage, persistence and a modest unassuming self-confidence.

Nellie Bly

She was sprightly, yet not frivolous; like Nye, everybody knew her but she had very few familiars. Not a deep mind but a warm and sensitive heart. How the idea of her trip around the world germinated, I have forgotten. I can only remember her state of wild excitement as she rushed in and announced it. We both imagined, at the time, that I would accompany her, but we were promptly undeceived. No such luck!

Never has a newspaper received such advertising. Indeed, we fancied in the office that her progress around the globe was creating as much excitement and interest in Thibet or Kamchatka as on Park Row, but Nellie found many spots where the World was as yet unheard of. She started Nov. 14, 1889, and returned, via Pittsburgh, where some of us went to meet her, on Jan. 25, 1890. In Amiens, France, she contrived to interview Jules Verne, doing the best bit of literary work of her career under circumstances that could not fail to be inspiring. We made countless trips together, and I came to know her well. Nothing was too strenuous nor too perilous for her if it promised results; in sooth, she was more than once held back from a too dangerous venture, for she suffered the penalty paid by all sensation-writers of being compelled to hazard more and more theatric feats. Once we organized a round-up of all the celebrated alleged haunted houses in Connecticut, one of which I now own and occupy in summer, and we spent more than a dozen chill comfortless nights, before flashlights were invented, sitting up waiting for hitherto dependable and unfailing spooks, who, on these occasions, failed to make good. This trip was a dreadful fizzle.

One of her first big hits was managing, under pretense of insanity, to be sent to the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island, where she obtained material for a story exposing its methods, but there was considerable difficulty experienced in effecting her release. I went with another man to bring her back and, being left alone in the inner court of the asylum for a few minutes, almost had my clothes torn off by a raging crowd of female maniacs, idiots and plain bugs. The way that mob rushed me, one would have thought I was the first train out after a subway hold-up.

At the height of Nelly Bly's fame, the supply of what we now call "hokum" began to fail. She had shone for about ten years, the usual limit of a celebrity in New York, as a rule, when the New York Ledger, I think it was, made her a splendid offer for a serial story, which she accepted with intense complacency but with no plot, characters or ability to write a dialogue. She soon came to me in genuine distress, confessing that she could not start the story and demanding help. There came to my mind the distant days when Ned Buntline and Cody used to dig up enough thrillers in two hours to last the author a whole week, and I said with seeming seriousness:

"That's perfectly easy. You've merely to start off with a big thrill. Have your hero fall into a deep pit filled with big rattlesnakes, and go on to describe his terrors."

"But how'll I keep the snakes from biting him?" asked Nellie, deeply intrigued.

"He had a bottle in his hip pocket. It breaks, and the rattlers all keep their distance—but you don't mention this until you've written three or four thousand words, at least."

"It sounds great!" Nellie purred. "But how am I going to get him out?"

"It doesn't matter. Any old way. Of course the heroine—and to the reader, that means you—must get him out, but the real punch is in his terrible situation. You can get him out with an ordinary barn ladder, a well-rope or even a hop pole, nobody will notice —"’

"Yes, well, after that?" she demanded.

"Keep on getting him, or her, into more just such holes, one in each chapter, until they get married or take out accident insurance, when, of course, the story must stop, but don't bother me any more! Get the first chapter started."

She went off, and that was the last I ever heard about it, but she started the story off as outlined, and it ran I know not how many weeks.

Nellie was deeply attached to a friend of mine, and when he suddenly married another she abandoned New York. I never knew, nor does anybody, I suspect, what her intentions were, but on the way to Chicago she met an iron manufacturer named R. L. Seaman, aged seventy-two, and to everybody's amazement promptly married him. She was not yet thirty, in 1895, and when, nine years later, he died, he left her very wealthy. How her estate was deftly and smoothly taken from her by those to whom she confided its management is only another tale of a woman's trust in man. Poor Nellie had not known any of this sort, having only associated with newspapermen.

There were other famous and near-famous women on the World at various times—Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Marion Harland, Meg Merrillies, Elizabeth Jordan, Ella Starr, Edith Sessions Tupper, Kate Masterson, Dorothy Dix—but none with the fire and flame of Nellie Bly.

She died Jan. 27, 1922.

Another now-almost-forgotten meteor blazed into glory on the World and shone for years in the theatrical firmament, Henry Guy Carleton, by all odds the cleverest, most gifted all-around mortal whom I have ever encountered. A graduate of West Point, an electrical inventor, a wonderful descriptive writer and reporter, a successful playwright, an ardent fisherman and a superb cook, he was, withal, witty, sympathetic and affable. He had an aversion to pretense and affectation that sometimes tinged his speech and writings with bitter satire, and that impatience with stupidity which characterizes all men of brain, but the butt of his keenest wit was oftenest himself.

Coming to us from the Times, he made his first hit with a four or five-column story of the French Ball, an annual function of the depraved and abandoned, which each year shocked every police official, and others, into strict attendance for several hours, through which story the strains of "The Beautiful Blue Danube" were woven in words that brought the music perfectly to the ear of the reader, a remarkable literary feat. He wrote many plays, nearly all of them very successful and remunerative, yet he could never manage to keep out of debt. After his first wife had divorced him, he married Olive May, and when that venture miscarried, Effie Shannon, both well known, charming and altogether lovely actresses, but Henry was not built for matrimony and when Effie also had recourse to the court, he eschewed the practice.

He stuttered painfully, but he made this defect, which seriously hinders the career of most men thus afflicted, a source of amusement and jesting. One of his notes to me read: “Come over to my office for a couple of hours; I want to talk with you for ten minutes." This indicates the true stature of his mentality. He told me once, when relating incidents of his brief army career, that when he was a lieutenant with the troops in the West, his company was engaged in an attack upon a body of Indians entrenched at the top of a hill. As they charged up the slope, Carleton followed in the rear of his company, waving his sword and loudly shouting: "Ha!—Ha!—Ha!—Ha!"

"I was cited for conspicuous bravery in the face of the enemy for this," he added, "when all the time I was merely trying to say 'Halt!'"

He had an exhaustless fund of good stories and delighted in monopolizing the conversation, which his unique stutter materially assisted in doing. At Bronson Howard's house, on an evening when he was particularly entertaining, I heard a woman ask him: "Mr. Carleton, when did the impediment in your speech first begin to affect you?"

"W-w-w-h-h-en I b-b-b-e-egan t-to t-t-t-a-alk!" he sputtered with a highly delighted grin.

We wrote a play together entitled "The Summer Boarder," and Charles Frohman agreed to produce it. All I know about playwrighting I learned during the months spent on this piece, which satirized the efforts of snouty prudes and self-selected censors of the theater and literature and which, in truth, would be timely today. Frohman changed his mind on the ground that a character in the play, who is mistaken for an insane man, might distress tender-hearted auditors who had friends or relations in the asylum! On such trifles does the fortune of a play depend.

Then Billy Brady agreed to produce it, for he was a speculative manager who was willing to leave a little thing like that to the judgment of the audience, but Henry quarreled with him over a play he was doing for Jim Corbett, and "The Summer Boarder" never, never saw the footlights. I still have the third act, Brady has the second, and Carleton mislaid the third! It is recalled by me now merely because it was supposed to be a very risque and daring departure in that the plot rests on the possession by the hero of the heroine's garter! Of course, we handled that delicate situation most squeamishly, never actually showing the garter on the stage, for we knew too well the danger of flying in the face of public decency and morality, but the salacious suggestion of garter was always there, lurking in the background. Perhaps it was this dangerous sex element that really deterred Brady from putting the play on, and not his quarrel with Carleton. A manager had to watch his step in those days, when Olga Nethersole's non-stop kiss, and an actor actually carrying a woman upstairs, created an uproar among the clean-minded that was heard out in Morristown, N.J.

When Carleton came to live in Atlantic City, a stroke of paralysis had deprived him of speech entirely, but this indomitable spirit was not to be subdued. He had constructed a large alphabet framed in glass, upon which he would spell out words with a cane and thus converse with his friends. Frequently he would become irascible, swear fluently, and then smash the glass, thereby keeping a glazier in fairly constant demand. Yet even under the handicap of paralysis, that active brain found occupation, and he soon invented a superlative sauce which became very popular and amply provided for his needs.

Many misty, half-formed figures lurk among the shadows of those years, appearing fitfully as distinct shapes and then fading into the gloom. Ignatius Donnelly, the gifted and eccentric author of "Atlantis" and "Ragnarok," who lived in Minnesota but who appeared annually on Newspaper Row, probably for his settlements with Harper's, was always seemingly pinched for money but always jovial and disputatious. I was, and am still, one of his devoted followers, a catastrophist and an iconoclast like himself, and I am delighted whenever I see one of his prophecies come true. When he began to write about Atlantis, the whole world was united in regarding the tale of the Lost Continent as pure fable, but it is now getting ready to do some deep-sea diving in order to settle just where the mythical city was located.

Lafcadio Hearn is another of these dim shapes. Slouchy, negligent, unshaven, generally petulant, always broke and so shortsighted as to be unable to recognize anybody a yard distant, he courted Col. Cockerill assiduously, making my room his base of operations. He was usually rather reticent but on occasion would talk brilliantly, but somehow I always regarded him as an infliction, I suppose largely because he rarely had discretion enough to withdraw when a lady called upon me. I will frankly admit, in face of the fact that I was drawn into the Gould-Hearn-Bisland dispute through frankness, that in spite of having numerous opportunities, I never really became well enough acquainted with him to discern the hidden charms that many saw plainly. Frank Munsey, running a magazine with a packing-box outfit, used to come in after small and cheap pictures for headings, a slight, thin, hungry-looking and nervous figure, with a hayseed taste in attire that he was never able to subdue sufficiently to make him look urban —and has not yet. He was averse to paying regular prices for his pictures, and he was extremely slow pay, as well. But a more self-confident man I have never encountered. S. S. McClure, P. F. Collier, Fenno, Richard K. Fox, John Brisben Walker and other publishers had their moments of gnawing doubt, but Munsey never showed the least uncertainty even when hanging over the brink. He has never admitted that there was one moment when he was not convinced that he was to be the greatest publisher on earth.

There was Tupper, the Long Island poet, Dan Rice, the much married clown, Si Pickering, the jeweler, a natural comedian, Bryan Hughes, the incorrigible joker, Louis Mann, a young actor with the largest faith in himself of any living man, and Commodore Roome, who invented the burglar alarm and was rapidly becoming a millionaire, Henry Clews, John Mackey, Wicked Fred Gibbs, Baron Blanc, Ed. Weston, Schuyler Hamilton, Nathan Strauss, Fremont Cole, Henry George, Gompers and a regiment of others; a mixed and various company.

Don Seitz states in his "Life and Letters of Joseph Pulitzer" that on the occasion of the World's circulation reaching one hundred thousand, J. P. presented every member of the staff with a high hat. I do not remember one of the staff ever wearing such a headpiece except Jim Townsend, the society editor, who was weaned in a crush hat. I think this event was before Don's day, and it may also have happened early in the morning, before I got to work, but I think I would have heard about it. I well remember that day, and the actual truth is—and I regret, of course, to record it—that all of us who could be spared from the office went over to the Astor House and few returned. A bronze figurine about a foot high had been purchased by subscription, and in the midst of the festivities this was presented to Col. Cockerill, although my impression is that it was intended for the Chief, but I confess to a decided haziness as to details. Also, my ears were never stunned by salvos of cannon on City Hall Square or elsewhere.

We all used to get many presents, but I suspect that J. P. was not so freely favored. One day he came into my room and remarked, as if quite casually: "I notice that once in a while you put the name Grand Sec on a bottle in a cartoon. What do you get out of that?"

"Oh, that's a champagne sold by friends of mine, the Somborns," I ingenuously admitted. "They send me a case of it, now and then."

"Well, I never get any champagne!" he grumbled, but I noted a twinkle in his luminous eye.

"Why, I'll tell them to send you a case instead of to me, I never drink the measly stuff," I said. "I drink beer!"

He laughed and walked out. I promptly notified Eddie Somborn (who, by the way, was the original promoter and biggest stockholder in the first "Rubberneck wagons," to attend to the matter, and the next day he delivered a case of his finest vintage with a flowery note. J. P. came galloping down to my room as tickled as a boy, and I think he became a good customer of the Somborns.

Increases in salary are white stones marking the long road in every worker's life, and the longest life is not marked by them so plentifully that any are overlooked. My first increase came through the agency of William C. Reick, a Philadelphia boy working in Newark, whom my brother Harry secured for the Herald and who became its editor. Billy was a good-looking, conceited chap, rather pompous, but affable and courteous to his equals, and he always took off his hat to Bennett even when talking to him over the long-distance telephone. During his years on the Herald he amassed something like $800,000, according to Mr. Bennett, which demonstrated that he knew the newspaper game. When Bennett dropped him, he bought the Evening Sun, but it deteriorated under his management.

I met him on Park Row one day in '89, I think, and as we walked along, he asked me what J. P. was paying me. I told him I was receiving fifty dollars a week.

"Bennett wants you, and he will give you seventy-five," said Reick. “Wants you to do a daily cartoon and no other work."

"I'll let you know tomorrow, Billy," I gasped. "This is so sudden!"

I went to J. P. and, with ill-concealed elation, informed him that Bennett was after me, although I had no intention of accepting the offer, for I despised both Bennett and the Herald. J. P. regarded me with a pained and puzzled expression for a minute, and then with sudden decisiveness snapped out:

"I'll make it a hundred and ten dollars. You go away and be a good boy and don't bother about Bennett!"


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