Friday, April 08, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chapter 13 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Thirteen (Part 1) - A New One is Born Every Minute

Now a new star began to twinkle faintly and far away in the newspaper firmament. This was Thomas B.Wanamaker, eldest son of John, the great merchant, who had been Postmaster General and who yearned to supplant Senator Quay. Thomas had bought the moribund North American, established in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, and he proposed to revive the mummy if money could do it. This feat he accomplished by securing the services of men who had made reputations on the World, but to only a few of them did he offer the tempting salaries with which Hearst baited his hooks. In Philadelphia forty dollars per week was a managing editor's salary—which was plenty—and his action shocked the rival papers, sleepy fossils whose reporters used to meet every evening and share their news items, into a semblance of activity that was comical.

Wanamaker secured Sam Chamberlain as managing editor, at fifteen thousand dollars, on the advice of James Gordon Bennett. That eccentric individual, and his Herald, were Tom's ideals, from which perverted notion his efficient aids managed to divert him. He, of course, knew absolutely nothing about newspapers. On one occasion he entered the city room early in the day and, seeing a number of men sitting about, he asked John Hunt who they were. "They are reporters reading this morning's paper," Hunt informed him. "I'm not paying them to read the paper!" said Tom, testily. "Why ain't they out reporting?" It took some time to convince him that a knowledge of the contents of his paper is a reporter's essential qualification.

In his first haul he secured Julian Hawthorne, Marion Harland, Arthur McEwen, Owen Wister, Charles Dryden, Allen Kelly, Ham Marshall and William Bengough, with a staff of good artists managed By Fred. Schell.

In his selection of Ed. Van Valkenburg as business manager, one of his father's political lieutenants and the owner of an upstate quarry, he secured his greatest prize. Van, a sleek, well-dressed man—indeed, like all farmers who come to the city, rather too carefully groomed—knew almost nothing about city newspaper methods, traditions or ethics, but his energy and mentality were such that within a score of months he became the most efficient publisher and editor in America. An ardent, indefatigable politician, he developed a gift for editorial expression, vehement objurgation and caustic comment that was phenomenal. He was the only editor who ever was able to discern an idea pictorially. Owing to a reluctance to spend Wanamaker's money quite as freely as Quay spent his, and in the same way, Ed. never quite equaled the wily old scout's pace, and was, except in one instance, always beaten by a nose.

I received an invitation, through Sam, to join this North American aggregation early in the winter, but Wanamaker, a close dealer by training and instinct, could not bring himself to pay my price, but in June, with the National Republican Convention impending, he personally asked me to come down and decorate their pages for three or four days. As I was now working on a space basis on the World, and J. P. having put his two-cylinder method in operation in even the cartooning branch by employing C. G. Bush, which slightly piqued me, I gladly accepted. With George Folsom I bicycled down to the Quaker City on a lush June day, little guessing that I was leaving New York for ten years.

I found Wanamaker none too cordial or confident, and I sagely suspected that only the urging of Chamberlain and others had induced him to bother with me, but I splashed into the job with all the more energy for that reason and was lucky enough to hit the public taste of Philadelphia, which was quite inimical to the North American, at the first attempt. I think I mainly endeared myself to the readers of the paper by an illustrated article deploring the impossibility of a New Yorker obtaining any sleep in that noisy burg. Old Tom Platt posed for me with a broken rib torturing him, Hanna unbent sufficiently for me to do a sedate portrait of him, but this was Bengough's specialty and mainly I sought only to create laughter, and as this sort of stuff was novel in Philadelphia, I succeeded.

Three days later Wanamaker, after watching me working for a time in silence, suddenly asked me why I could not remain there permanently.

 "There seems to be only a matter of twenty-five dollars per week preventing me," I answered diplomatically.

"What's twenty-five dollars!" he sniffed contemptuously, in the typical Wanamaker manner.

"If that trifle is of no moment to you, I'll stay, gladly. If I don't make good, you'll find me easy to fire," I told him.

He squirmed a little, for such a hard-boiled egg was he that he would have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge for twenty-five dollars, despite the fact that he was rated at twenty-five millions, but he consented, grinning, and I resumed my work.

In a town where the politicians were as sensitive to caricature as is the proverbial aspen to the touch, it was less easy to capture their features than in New York, but on the other hand so well known were they personally, caricatures of them produced an unbelievable effect. It was the custom for all of them, high and low, to congregate on Broad Street, and the sudden appearance of a cartoonist would cause a perceptible agitation in the crowd and often the actual hasty flight of some alderman or other official who was prominent in the news. By the time the new North American Building was ready for occupancy, I had become well acquainted with the town and with its prominent characters.

Meanwhile I worked in the ancient Chestnut Street building, in the room of the managing editor, Sam Chamberlain, during a Summer when for weeks the temperature was about one hundred. When a hot spell blankets the Quaker City, its natives ease up on the pressure and survive, but we New York go-getters labored like furnacemen to make the North American a success. I was told that before our arrival the usual custom had been for the editor of a paper to send reporters out among the subscribers to collect their views and gossip, edit the material, and go to press, and if the North American accomplished nothing else—and I cannot perceive that it did—it at least placed the newspapers on a higher level.

Chamberlain was the first to succumb to the distracting and embarrassing interference and paralyzing criticism of T. B. Wanamaker, whose futile efforts to direct the paper's course would have been comical in cooler weather. Sam was one of those brilliant, laborious but sensitive souls who at stated intervals fell off the water wagon. At such times he retained all his faculties, apparently, doing his work with precision and ability, nor was anybody aware from his appearance or conduct that he was not entirely himself. He was one of the most debonair and fascinating men whom I have ever known, with none of the caustic satire or cutting wit of so many of his type. His two days' absence had made me suspicious of disaster when he came briskly into the office and seated himself at his desk. After a moment, ignoring his secretary, he turned to me and asked:

"Walt, do you think I'm drunk?"

"I'm as certain as death of it, Sam," I assured him.

"Perhaps you are right!" he agreed. "I suspected it."

Just then Wanamaker entered, a stout, commonplace-looking man of about forty, and with a sour look regarded his editor. Then, as Sam took up his mail, T. B. said abruptly: "You sent for me. What did you want?"

Sam pondered for a moment, and then with sudden decision announced: "I sent for you to tell you that you are a nasty little commercial person and I'm through with you!"

Without replying, Wanamaker turned and left the room.

Sam followed him shortly and did not return, but went back to Hearst. Not on his former footing, however, for now Brisbane and S. S. Carvalho, Pulitzer's former publisher, were Hearst's prime favorites and Sam was no adept in office politics. He was only a good managing editor.

We had as one of our popular stars a curious and amiable character, Charles Dryden, who wrote baseball stuff in a novel and unique manner, being in fact the originator of that special dialect in which most sport-writing is now presented. Charley could bat out more quaint, humorous phrases during one inning than other men could grind out in days. He was a valuable asset to the paper, yet one day he confided to me that he always carried the tools of his trade, that of a machinist, in his trunk, as he was confident that his employers would some day perceive how rotten he was and he would have to go back to work. However, this sad exposure never befell him, and ere long he met the fate of every genius: he was grabbed by a big Chicago paper, and we lost his merry quirks.

Upon Chamberlain's departure Van Valkenburg assumed charge of both the editorial and publisher's functions and made a huge success of both. He was a man of great briskness of movement, practiced in all the arts of social and political cajolery but lacking in the ability to select trustworthy and competent subordinates, falling an easy victim to adroit flattery. One of his peculiarities, which I used to flatter myself was known only to me, was a habit, or an infirmity, of winking one of his eyes with great rapidity when he was equivocating. It was probably a nervous affection of which he was unaware, but it was very useful to me on more than one occasion. He resented opposition and distrusted all criticism, yet he had a sort of grudgeful appreciation of brains not possessed by our boss. He had, like T. B., an unreasoning antipathy to and suspicion of all drinkers, and it was a long time before either of them learned that a man could drink in moderation and yet perform his duties. Their own experience had been to the contrary, it seems. Neither ever drank a drop.

They made a perfect team. Van had sufficient firmness to offset T. B.'s chronic parsimony, and the latter had sense enough to appreciate that he had a prize in Van, but as T. B. lived in palatial apartments in the new building, he was enabled to prowl and snoop into everything at all hours. He was a sufferer from a form of rheumatic gout and obliged to have recourse frequently to various cures abroad, during which periods Van was able to make the North American one of the successful journals of the country.

Wanamaker was a reticent, solitary and friendless man with a lust for money and power that was pathetic. Feeling his loneliness, he would sometimes emerge from his aloofness and talk for an hour upon business matters and, rarely, about himself. Now and then he revealed a vestigial sense of humor. Had the two possessed a modicum of genuine friendliness, they could have had an army of devoted friends. I doubt if either ever had a real intimate. While Van had cultivated affability, Wanamaker was deficient in almost every quality but money-getting, and a certain scoffing tone inherent in his speech did not endear him to his acquaintances.

City Editor Bob Murray came upon him at midnight sitting in the dark in one of the rooms, fondling a sparkling object which he said was radium worth fifteen thousand dollars, yet he once remarked, as he watched me blacking a large space of cardboard: "And I have to pay for all that ink!" At a dinner at his million-dollar country palace he mentioned that the wine being served cost twenty dollars per bottle, and Arthur McEwen instantly held out his glass to the butler and said, with an oily chuckle: "Give me fifty cents' worth more!" His energy was amazing, yet he was not a hustler. He kept some fifteen messenger boys going from morning until night at his office in the big store, and he owned at least one building in every one of the blocks in the center of town. Grover Cleveland, when with the Equitable, predicted that if he lived T. B. would be the greatest financier in America. Flattery was the short cut to his regard; he never forgave or forgot resistance to his wishes. Van was the only man who could oppose him and survive, yet I never heard of him betraying open anger or vindictiveness. His was a blending of caution and audacity that worked deviously, and Van's bold defiance of precedent often made him tremble. I had many opportunities to study this odd character; affable to me, as he once half admitted, because I was an intimate of his roommate at Princeton, he often spent hours in my studio, which was sumptuously fitted up. He had an inordinate share of the world's wealth, but he lacked friends, affection, amusement, hobbies or health or vices, and he must have had a dull time of life.


Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]