Thursday, July 27, 2017


King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 7 Part 1

 King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 7

Old Man River (part 1)

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“The silver-tongued orator of the Platte”—William Jennings Bryan—received me at our first meeting as a fellow-journalist. It was in St. Louis in the spring of 1895. Bryan was then editor of the Omaha World-Herald. After my departure from New York and a brief visit with relatives in San Antonio, St. Louis had been chosen as my next objective. There the field seemed propitious for the completion of my editorial training and for an exploration of the collateral departments of newspaperdom. Dent H. Robert was city editor of the St. Louis Republic. He engaged me as an assistant. Bryan was visiting St. Louis when Robert detached me from the desk to interview him.

The assignment was more of an office stunt than a news venture. It had been arranged as a compliment to a woman stockholder in the Republic. She was keenly interested in Bryan’s advocacy of various social reforms, including temperance. His only claim to national attention at that time rested on two speeches he had made in Congress. One, in 1892, was for free trade. The other, in 1893, was for “free silver.” Both stamped him as an outstanding orator. But defeat at the polls in 1894 had dimmed his political star. There was no indication of the tremendous role for which he was destined in the national arena. Our conversation initiated a friendliness that withstood repeated trials during the next thirty years. One strenuous difference between us was smoothed by a laughing reference to our St. Louis confab—“when Bryan interviewed Bryan for Koenigsberg.”

The writing of dramatic reviews varied the humdrum of copyreading on the St. Louis Republic. Homer Bassford, the regular dramatic critic, was also editor of the Sunday edition. My season on Broadway commended me to him as an expert. He was glad to divide with me his theatrical tasks. The arrangement begot a wealth of highly colored experience. It was my privilege to report performances of the two foremost actors of the decade, Richard Mansfield and Sir Henry Irving. It was the year in which the latter received his knighthood. From interviews with both came a veritable treasure of stage lore. It grew increasingly valuable through the years that multiplied my contacts with the theatre.

Mansfield impressed me as an actor greatly superior to Irving. He was at every moment wholly responsive to his role. He seemed fired by a passion to invest each line with the richest fulness of the author’s conception. It was a crime against art to slur or distort one shade or nuance of the character he portrayed. Voice, carriage, mood, gesture, poise and even stature belonged not to Mansfield but to the principal he delineated. Every trait and feature must be fitted into the mold formed by its creator. To flaunt one’s own personality was to corrupt artistic integrity.

Irving, on the other hand, was marked with so many and such distinctive mannerisms that he could not dissolve his individuality into different identities. His person dominated his personations. He lacked the protean magic that transforms the player into the part. A histrionic parallel of later years was presented by John Barrymore. Neither Irving nor Barrymore could forego the incense of his ego. Each seemed to revel in the reminders of his personal distinctiveness.

A political farce that gained international attention eventuated in the severance of my connection with the St. Louis Republic. It grew out of a proposed contest for the world’s pugilistic championship. Dan Stuart, a Texas sportsman, had arranged a match between James J. Corbett, the titleholder, and Robert Fitzsimmons. The bout was to have been staged at Dallas. Prize-fights were weekly occurrences in several Texas cities. Prohibitory statutes had been ignored for years. Nevertheless, Stuart fortified his position. He introduced an interstate factor by operating under the aegis of the Florida Athletic Club. Associates consulted Governor Culberson. They reported assurances of his favor. They claimed promises of the same considerateness that was extended regularly to managers of other boxing-shows. But as the date for the championship combat approached, a hue and cry arose from the reform elements. Leading church and social organizations launched a bitter campaign of protest. Governor Culberson found himself in the center of a civic whirlwind. He forbade the bout.

Then followed a series of events that could have happened nowhere except in the United States. Their recital would come more appropriately in a spectacular opera bouffe than from the national and state archives in which they are recorded. Dan Stuart and his Florida Athletic Club appealed to the courts. Judge Hurt ruled that the existent laws were inapplicable. Governor Culberson announced that the judicial decision would be disregarded. The fight would take place only if he were unable to rally men enough in Texas to stop it. Offers poured in to raise companies of citizen soldiery to enforce his wishes. Culberson answered that if the regular militia were inadequate he would summon posses from every county. The threatened outrage would be resisted at all costs. Meanwhile, he called a special session of the legislature. It was assembled, in late September, “to denounce prizefighting and prohibit the same by appropriate pains and penalties.”

The Florida Athletic Club gave notice of a strategic maneuver. It would establish headquarters in El Paso. There, on the borders of Mexico and the Territory of New Mexico, it would be in readiness on the day set for the fistic encounter. The site would be kept secret until the last possible moment. The spectators would be gathered on special trains. If the Texas legislature rebuffed the Governor, the show would be given on schedule. If the solons did the Governor’s bidding, the pugilistic contingent would slip across the Rio Grande to a meeting-place meanwhile to have been selected either in Mexico or the Territory of New Mexico.

The announcement evoked sensational reactions. Governor Culberson ordered the massing of the Texas Rangers along the Rio Grande. The Governor of New Mexico telegraphed the national capital. He urged that drastic measures be taken promptly. He should be invested with the authority and the power to repel the impending invasion of New Mexico by elements of potential disorder and depravity. His request received immediate action. Congress quickly put through.a law that defined prize-fighting in any territorial possession of the United States as a penal offense. President Cleveland approved the statute on the day of its enactment. A Falstaffean flavor was imparted to the situation by an earnest protest from the Governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. He felt deeply concerned over the published project to import among his constituents the corrupting influences of a brutal prize-fight. He trusted Governor Culberson would employ all available means to hinder the organization in Texas of an undertaking so repugnant to the cultural aspirations of Mexican humanitarians. There was no mention of the favorite sports of Mexico. Why should the abysmal brutality of pugilism bring to mind the gaiety that would fade from a Mexican fiesta without bullfights and cock mains?

The Florida Athletic Club countered with another demarche. It disclosed the pending acceptance of a proposal from a group of Arkansas sportsmen. The offer provided an alternative site for the championship mill at Hot Springs. At that juncture, a reportorial part in this extravaganza was allotted to me. Langdon Smith, heading a crew of New York Herald correspondents, stopped in St. Louis. He was on his way to “the front” of the fantastic campaign. The line of maneuvering now extended beyond a thousand miles. Smith, a brilliant journalist, afterward famous for his series of verses, Evolution, needed help. He called on Dent Robert. Leave of absence was given me to join the New York Herald squad. Smith assigned me to Hot Springs. Governor Clark of Arkansas was not to be denied his place in the limelight. He promised “the most vigorous action.” But he preserved dramatic suspense by surrounding his plans with secrecy. That policy prolonged his share in the headlines. It also kept alive the wide-flung burlesque of official dignity.

From day to day, newspaper reports throughout the country gravely recorded each incident in this extraordinary travesty of American decorum. The whereabouts of Corbett and Fitzsimmons were screened in mystery. The movements of armed units to prevent their meeting in the prize-ring were recounted in detail. Dent Robert telegraphed that he had released me to cover a prize-fight, not a pointless game of hide-and-seek. My answer nettled him. It pointed out that he had transferred my services to Langdon Smith, with whom it was my duty to remain until the completion of the assignment. “You were given a leave of absence, Robert wired back. “It is canceled. You will be on the job here as quickly as you can come by train or there will be no job."

It was my choice to follow to its conclusion the story that embraced one of the most striking lessons in civic complexity that had yet come to my notice. Balked at every turn, Stuart finally abandoned his undertaking. Eighteen months later Corbett and Fitzsimmons met at Carson City, Nevada—on March 17, 1897— Fitz winning the world’s championship with what became famous as the “solar plexus punch.” Meanwhile, there was widespread celebration throughout the Southwest of the triumph of righteousness. All of which emphasized the strange inconsistencies that burgeoned and blossomed in the glare of superlative publicity. Prize-fights among second-raters preceded and followed the tremendous outpouring of indignation against a projected championship contest. They were continually exploited. If pugilism were brutal, the community tolerated chronic brutality. The mustering of militant might was reserved to oppose a meeting between notable and highly skilled performers. Why? The answer runs through the exhibitionism aroused by pressure groups in all phases of mass agitation. Mediocrity is not a fruitful field for grandstand performers. Manipulators of public attention seek shining targets. For them, better one hour of floodlights than months of forty candle power.

A berth on the Star welcomed me back to St. Louis from Hot Springs. George E. Garrett directed the Star’s local news staff. He also served as sports editor under his pen name, Willie Green. He displayed much more aggressiveness than good judgment. Work as his assistant introduced me to a new level of high tension. A crack-up came on an exclusive story. John F. Magner, the managing editor, had received the tip. It concerned a strange tragedy hidden behind a fraudulent burial permit. Magner relieved me of desk duty to handle the yarn. The salient facts were extracted from medical students who attended lectures by one of the culprits. An official certificate had been issued ascribing to pneumonia the death of a woman patient. It was signed by both the regular family doctor and a confrere whom he had called into the case. There was no mention that death had resulted from a surgical blunder. The ailment had been originally diagnosed as a cancerous growth. When the condition grew critical, a specialist was consulted. The judgment of the attending physician was accepted and an immediate operation advised. The knife revealed, instead of a sarcoma, an unborn baby.

One feature bore special significance for the Star staff. It was the identity of the doctor primarily responsible for the tragic mistake. He was the son of the law partner of Nathan Frank. And Nathan Frank was the proprietor and publisher of the Star. This detail was discussed over the telephone with Garrett. “See Mr. Frank on your way into the office,” the city editor instructed. The visit had a tonic effect. It refreshed my faith in journalism. “The cardinal duty of a newspaperman is to publish the news,” Frank said. “Surely you did not come here expecting me to interfere with that duty.” The subsequent liquidation of his law partnership emphasized the personal burden the incident had laid upon him. Frank’s sale of the Star some years later saddened me. But it freed his time for philanthropic work.

Garrett spilled ashes in the gravy of our scoop. He demanded that my copy reek with homicidal flavor. Even without his insistence on the tags of a felony, the story presented severe difficulties. A lucid narration of the particulars taxed my resources. Inhibitions of the mauve era forbade a frank recital. Hazards of libel added constraints. On the other hand rose the conventional newspaper requirement for direct statement. Between these prongs of the problem, lay a favorite recourse of the period. Florid metaphor was used to soften the realities. The opening paragraph read: “The lives of two more human beings have been sacrificed to the Moloch that presides over the ethics of the surgical profession. A patient at The Female Hospital, still in the morning of womanhood, was fatally injured on the operating table and subjected to treatment that caused the extinction of a soul on which the breath of life had not yet blown.” A circumstantial account followed, with names and dates. It greatly annoyed Garrett. He grabbed my manuscript page by page. The narrative unfolded the gruesome error by which professional courtesy had led the operating surgeon to accept a wrong diagnosis. As Garrett finished reading each sheet, he glared at me. “I want murder!” he yelled. “When do we get it?” The writing consumed nearly an hour. Garrett’s demands alternated between “straight” and “double murder.” They remained unanswered. But the last line of my copy was accompanied by a more or less gentle invitation to “do his own murdering.” The next day, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat enrolled me as a member of its new staff.

Joseph B. McCullagh was the editor of the Globe-Democrat. Journalism can boast no abler exponent. Fate denied him the reclame accorded to less deserving compeers. Fame would have revised the order of its roster had McCullagh chosen New York instead of the Middle West for the theatre of his achievements. The white light that beats upon the national metropolis often lifts mediocrity into eminence. It is seldom focused on lesser centers. Else it would silhouette many an unacclaimed Titan. No journalist of McCullagh’s time exceeded his contributions to the development and elevation of newspaper standards.

It was he who devised the greatest single implement of the reportorial art, the interview in direct quotations. Until then, a barrier lay between the public and the subject of the reporter’s inquiries. It was a wall of interpretation. The interviewer set out in his own words what purported to be the opinions or statements he had elicited. McCullagh razed that obstruction. He brought together the principal and the reader of the interview. One spoke directly to the other. If not the first, the most noteworthy instance of the new method was McCullagh’s report of a conversation with a president of the United States, Andrew Johnson. McCullagh was then on the staff of the Cincinnati Commercial. He had previously gained lasting distinction as a war correspondent. One of his exploits was at the siege of Vicksburg. McCullagh made a personal though unattended inspection of the Confederate batteries. He floated down the Mississippi River past the rebel guns on a bale of hay.

Under McCullagh’s editorship, the Globe-Democrat took rank among America’s leading dailies. None excelled it in breadth of news coverage. Its enterprise, measured in telegraph and cable tolls, equaled if it did not exceed that of any other publication. In one respect, it was unique. Its first page, except for advertisements, was devoted exclusively to intelligence received by wire. The practice was designed to emphasize the newspaper’s claims to preeminence in the field of telegraphic news. It fell to me to assist in the suspension of this policy.

Chapter 7 Part 2 Next Week   
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