I OPENED THE DOOR and walked into a scene of controlled chaos. The United Press newsroom on the twelfth floor of the Daily News Building in New York was at the time the largest newsroom in the world: several hundred men at hundreds of battered typewriters arranged in great Us—a U for each department—and dozens of teletype machines ringing and clattering day and night, erupting with news from all over the world. The editor sat at the outside of the U, the assistant editor faced him across the desk in what was called “the slot,” and the rewritemen and reporters manned typewriters along the long arms of the U. The floors were littered with paper, cigarette butts, and the desks with graying, cooling, stained containers of coffee, empty Coke bottles, paper, pipes, debris. A haze of smoke hung over the scene; cigarettes dangled from lips or perched perilously on the edge of tables. Paper spewed from the open mouths of huge wastebaskets. The floor was filthy, debris smashed flat underfoot.
The shirtsleeved men kept their eyes on their machines as I walked down the long line of typewriters past the foreign desk where a tall skinny fellow with glasses looked up and almost nodded before turning back to the copy at hand. He was Harrison Salisbury, who would soon take over the job as foreign editor. Walter Cronkite had recently departed the scene to serve as a UP war correspondent in Europe. It was early January 1944.
Near the end of the room, an alcove on the left housed UP’s Radio News Department. Here was another U-shaped cluster of long and short tables, half a dozen men at their typewriters too busy to look up, and in the corner of the room, by the window, a couple of proper desks. Leaning way back in a chair at one of them, his feet comfortably resting on the desktop, arms behind his head, a picture of relaxation in a scene of restrained turmoil: Phil Newsom, chief of the radio desk, the man with whom I had an appointment. Newsom was in his late thirties, good-looking, with a reddish complexion (martinis) and blue eyes that were enhanced by his startling white hair.
I introduced myself. “Priscilla Buckley,” I said. “Are you Mr. Newsom?”
He sat up and invited me to sit down and very kindly, very gently, interviewed me. Yes, I was a recent Smith College graduate. (He took my word for it. I had filled out no forms.) Yes, I had worked on the college newspaper. (Even I knew enough not to press that point.) I had heard about the job opening for a copy girl through a college friend who was herself a copy girl at Associated Press in Rockefeller Center. No, I had never held a job before. Mr. Newsom explained to me that working for a news organization was not like any other job, and that I should understand that it had many drawbacks. It had no regular hours. You could be asked to work any shift around the clock. And there were no proper weekends. They tried to give everyone two consecutive days off every week, but it would be a long time, and maybe never, before I could expect a Saturday and Sunday off. The pay, he commented, was not good, although he didn’t mention a figure. Finally he told me that the job I was asking for had been filled a day earlier, but he would take my name and address in case that didn’t work out. We shook hands and I retired back through that long, busy newsroom and out the door where the receptionist, the only woman I had seen in my brief foray, asked how the interview had gone, and I confessed that I had not gotten the job. She said she was sorry.
We Were the Lucky Ones
It was years before I realized how lucky I was to be looking for a job just then, in January of 1944. Two years earlier, a third of the way through my junior year at Smith College, Japan had struck Pearl Harbor, and suddenly we were at war. Within weeks the campus scene had changed. Hundreds, thousands of young men dropped out of college and enlisted, and within months those who hadn’t were being signed up in all sorts of service programs as all branches of the military, with a world war on their hands, rushed to enlist college-level recruits for the officer corps needed to move from peacetime to wartime strength.
At Smith, my senior year, over a hundred of my classmates had enlisted in the brand-new WAVES, the women’s corps of the U.S. Navy, and girls I used to share a Coke or a malted milk with at the Corner Drug now marched in their neat blue uniforms, lisle stockings, and sensible shoes from dorm to mess hall to class to drill field in formation, looking neither left nor right. There was a feeling of urgency on the campuses to get on with life’s work. Betty Goldstein (later Friedan), who had edited the Smith College newspaper the year I joined it, and who was a year ahead of me, was already in New York working for International Press. The rest of us wanted in, too. What none of us realized was that because at the height of the hostilities nearly eleven million young American men were in uniform, jobs in the civil economy that would have been closed to women two years earlier, and would be closed to them three years later when the veterans came home, were there for the plucking. Employers were desperate for help and we were the only help in sight, young women, girls really, in the graduating college classes of’42,’43,’44, and’45. We were the lucky ones.
Book of Knowledge
That afternoon I applied for another job that one of my helpful Smith friends had told me about. It was at The Book of Knowledge. My brothers and sisters, as many others in our generation, had grown up with The Book of Knowledge, a wonderful encyclopedia for children that was great to look things up in, but greater still to browse about in. The editors of the encyclopedia were in the process of bringing The Book of Knowledge up-to-date for a new edition and the job that I had heard about would be to rewrite the fairy tales and other stories in more modem and somewhat more understandable language. An extremely nice Mrs. Foster, I believe that was her name, interviewed me. This time I did fill out a simple form (family, educational background, date of birth, religion, and so on). She asked me to write a thousand-word piece on some thing or event that would be of interest to a young audience and to bring it in as soon as possible, the next day if I could manage it, since they were anxious to fill the job.
I rushed home to the Phoebe Warren House, a woman’s boardinghouse where I was living with my sister Patricia, who was finishing off her senior year at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York. I took out the portable Royal typewriter father had given me freshman year at Smith, insuring that I would learn to touch-type by having its letter keys blacked out. The numbered keys had not been blacked out, and to this day I have to look down when I type a number or depress the shift key and reach for @ # % ? & * ( ) — +.,
A month or so earlier some of my siblings and I had made the arduous journey from Mexico City to Morelia and thence by jeep and mule and foot to the site of the volcano of Paricutín, which had erupted several months earlier and was now a mountain several hundred feet high. It had been a fascinating excursion—and touching, too, when you rode past a row of small wooden crosses the campesinos had raised to divert the flow of lava from their adobe villages. I thought this might be a new and different kind of a story, and started to type.
On Thursday I got a call from Mrs. Foster. She liked my piece and was offering me the job, starting the following Monday, at $35 a week. Friday morning, a telegram from Mr. Newsom. The copy girl had quit. Could I start Monday morning? The pay was $18.50 a week! In 1944, $18.50 bought more than it does today, but not that much more.
What to do? There had been something terribly exciting about the glimpse of the UP newsroom. So, with gay abandon, I tossed aside The Book of Knowledge’s security and a living salary, and opted for UP, starvation wages, and a wonderful life. Rich I did not become from the labor of my brow, but neither have I ever been bored.
New York, New York, It’s a Wonderful Town
In those days New York was the Mecca for the young and ambitious: it was where the action was. The very street names acted as magnetic poles. Want a career in business, in law, in finance? Head for Wall Street. In advertising? Madison Avenue. Publishing? Here were Time, Life, Fortune, The New Yorker, and a slew of the major book houses. (Boston still had a few.) Show biz? Broadway and Forty-second Street. Music? The Met, Carnegie Hall, Juilliard, and for the lower-browed, Fats Waller up in Harlem, Nick’s in the Village, and Jimmy Ryan on West Fifty-second Street. Art? The Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, and the Whitney, and the new and exciting Museum of Modern Art. Journalism? New York sported a dozen scrappy newspapers, among them the Sun, the News, the Mirror, the Journal-American, World-Telegram, and Trib, plus the staid New York Times. “New York, New York,” we all sang, “it’s a wonderful town.”
New York was big, exciting, bustling, clean, and safe. There was little street crime, certainly in Manhattan where we youngsters congregated.
It was a tidy kind of a city. The Italians lived in Little Italy and the Chinese in Chinatown. Writers, artists, poets, students, and kids settled in and around Greenwich Village where apartments were cheap and landlords permissive. The Germans were in Yorkville, in and around East Eighty-sixth Street. The blacks, who were called Negroes then, were mostly in Harlem and the Bronx. The homeless, who were called bums, hung out in the Bowery near the flophouses, soup kitchens, and municipal bathhouses. Jews ran all of the delis that the Germans didn’t, as well as the newspaper stands and stores. Italians were greengrocers, tailors, and cobblers. The Chinese did the laundry. The French ran cramped little restaurants—Le Bistro, Chez Jacques, La Grillade, Le Coin Normand—where you could get tasty three-course meals for a couple of dollars. We weren’t interested in who ran Wall Street and the banks because we knew little about the first and dealt sparingly with the second. The Irish owned, staffed, and patronized the corner bar, and patrolled the streets.
New York was the Mecca fur the young and ambitious.
There was little or no crime, aside from the front pages of the News or Mirror. It was known that jazz musicians—especially the drummers—got high on heroin and cocaine, but drugs played no part in most people’s lives. There was poverty—there is always poverty—but it was not much in evidence.
New York was also a nickel-and-dime city, where youngsters making twenty, thirty, and forty bucks a week could have a whale of a good time. Subways were swift, clean, graffiti-free, and safe, and they cost a nickel, as did most buses and the clattering, clanking elevated trains that ran north and south up and down Third Avenue. (Rents along Third, given that all conversation had to be suspended every minute or two as a train roared by, were cheap. That’s where lots of us lived.) The Fifth Avenue buses were so grand they cost a dime, but in spring, summer, and fall you could ride on the open top deck of a double-decker bus all the way up Fifth Avenue and Riverside Drive feasting your eyes on the river traffic along the Hudson and marveling in the twilight as the lights outlined the airy gracefulness of the George Washington Bridge. Fifty cents at the Automat, ten buffalo nickels, could buy you a chicken pot pie (five nickels), a lemon meringue pie (three nickels), a glass of milk, and a cup of coffee (a nickel each).
We lived on what would now be called the poverty level, but didn’t know it. (We did know enough, however, not to permit our parents to visit our apartments lest they give us The Look.) New York was our town. It was the tops! and so (we thought in our secret hearts) were we by the very fact that it had taken us in. To make it in New York, even at the bottom of the ladder, was to be in the Big Time. Every Broadway show told us that.
I arrived promptly Monday morning, shortly before nine A.M., inappropriately attired in a tailored suit, frilly white blouse, with hat and gloves and a navy blue purse that matched my high-heel shoes. Mr. Newsom was not yet in; he wouldn’t arrive for another couple of hours. As I stood around uncertainly one of the shirtsleeved men at a typewriter noticed me. (Dick Amper was the noticing type) “You the new copy girl?” he asked. I nodded. “Bobby,” he called, raising his voice. “Oh, Bobby, come here for a minute.” From the back of the room a tall girl in sloppy smeared white blouse, shirttail half out, loped over. “What’s your name?” Mr. Amper asked me. “Priscilla Buckley,” I said, “but most people call me Pitts.” “This is Bobby Ober,” he said. “She’ll tell you what to do,” and he turned back to his typewriter.
Bobby was about eighteen, with a huge mouth and a broad smile that revealed uneven teeth. She shook hands and happily undertook my education, which meant that when anyone called for anything she sent me to do it, and went back to what must have been a most engrossing story in the Daily News, which had just been delivered by another copy boy. A copy girl was the equivalent of an office boy: you ran errands for the editors, went out to pick up drinks (soft) and sandwiches for the newsmen, changed the big rolls of teletype paper when they were in danger of running out, suffering verbal abuse if a word was lost in the transition from old to new roll. We sharpened pencils, ran out to the newstands to pick up the latest edition of every paper then printed in the city, and even, occasionally, emptied ashtrays that had disappeared beneath volcanic ash. (We were never instructed to do this; it was just that we couldn’t stand the sight and smell of it.) It wasn’t much fun.
Most of the handful of remaining copy boys at United Press were overaged underachievers, content to stay put in a no-future situation because they didn’t aspire any higher. The copy girls, who were new to the enterprise, were something else again. For one thing they had aspirations: they wanted to be newspapermen. By most of the older newshands, we were, at least in those early days, contemptuously dismissed as collitchgirls , the syllables strung together in obloquy. “Collitchgirl,” sighed LeRoy Pope, who was riding the slot that first day when I went over to take his lunch order: “Another collitchgirl!”
Weeks later when the World War II manpower pinch had become so bad that I had been moved to the sports desk (over the all-but-dead body of the sports editor), LeRoy, again in the slot on a hot Sunday afternoon, would have his deepest suspicions of the inadequacy of collitchgirls confirmed. After he had responded to a dozen angry bells—complaints from local bureaus that something was wrong in a baseball score—and corrected my error, he stood up in the slot, brought his ruler down with a resounding slap that brought every head sharply around, and put me straight on how things work in the news world. “Pitts Buckley,” he roared, “you can call Franklin Delano Roosevelt a goddamn sonovabitch, but you can’t make a mistake in a baseball score!” He was absolutely right.
The Sports Desk
It was made clear to me when I was promoted to the sports desk ($25 a week) that I was never to mention my current assignment to anyone. What would editors around the country think if they knew that UP was so hard up it had had to assign a woman to the sports beat? My copy—even the nightly feature stories—went unsigned, or signed by the sports editor, and if a radio station or a UP bureau called for clarification of any point, I was instructed to call a copy boy and have him take the telephone while I dug up the needed information. He would then transmit it.
I didn’t like my boss, the sports editor. His name was Bud Watson and he was a rarity in the news world: he was pompous and fussy and full of himself. Shifts came and went on the radio desk, and when you arrived you sat at whatever desk was empty and used that typewriter, those pencils, any eraser or handy stapler within reach, and if you went to the john and returned to find someone else at your desk, you simply moved over to another of the rickety Royal, Remington, and Underwood uprights that looked as if they had been bought about the time of the Civil War.
But not Bud Watson. Bud insisted that a man (of his rank and importance) needed his own desk, a typewriter reserved for his exclusive use, and a drawer in which he could lock his possessions when he departed the office in the evening. This the rest of us found preposterous, making Bud the target of innumerable practical jokes. A common trait of newspapermen is that they engage in childish practical jokes from which they derive immense amusement. One overnight shift—outraged by a snotty note Bud had written informing them that he had locked the roller of his typewriter in his desk drawer since he couldn’t count on their complying with his civil request that they NOT USE HIS TYPEWRITER—spent hours planning a suitable revenge. When not otherwise engaged that night, they operated on his cherished Royal with a tiny screwdriver, loosening the screws that attached each letter—q w e r t y u i o p—to its support. Then they cunningly rearranged them, putting the y where the t should have been, the u where the y should have been, and so on. The day staff, which had been alerted to the caper, tingled with happy anticipation when Bud walked in that morning and, having first wiped off the top of his desk with his handkerchief, unlocked his drawer and replaced his roller, sat down, and pulled his chair up to the typewriter. After consulting his muse for a moment, he wrote: “With the opening day of the 1944 football season …” and only then glanced up to read what appeared on the page, to wit: “Eoyj yjr p]rmomh fsu pg yjr 1944 gppyns:: drsmpm …” Someone ripped the sheet out of the typewriter and passed it around. The newsroom exploded in laughter and even George Marder, on the desk, usually the soberest of characters, joined in the general hilarity. One lowlife was heard to remark that he had no idea Watson could be so eloquent.
They operated on his cherished Royal.
A classic newspaper joke, to which I was not subjected, but to which a few of my friends were, was the chase for the “paper stretcher.” An editor would call a copy boy and say that he needed his paper stretcher right away, but that it was on loan to Joe Smaltz at the Trib. “Run over and tell Joe I need it back.” Out the door would go the copy boy or girl, to the Trib where Joe would say, “Gee, I am sorry, but Ed Metz at the Brooklyn Eagle needed one in a hurry last week and I sent it over.” On to the Brooklyn Eagle, and the Sun, and the World-Telegram, and the next paper until a bright light flashed and the copy boy finally got the message. There was no such thing as a “paper stretcher.” What the slower ones then did was to return sheepishly to the office and the not unkind laughter of the staff. What the smarter ones did was to take in a movie and report back just before the end of that particular shift, having left the pranksters in the lurch.
Kill that story! Kill that story!
Two staffers on the city desk had a great thing going with the yokels who would crowd the ground floor of the Daily News building to watch the renowned, huge revolving globe in its well in the middle of the floor. These particular bozos would fortify themselves with a couple or so drinks at Sellman’s bar and eatery across Forty-second Street, and when well tanked, go into their act. The first, his fedora on his head, and a large PRESS sign tucked in the hatband, and carrying a bunch of manila paper in his hand, would race through the ground story of the building, past the globe and the excited tourists, yelling: “Scoop! Scoop!” and head for the elevators. Minutes later, Bozo number two, also attired with a fedora and a PRESS sign, would race in yelling: “Kill that story! Kill that story!” and head for the elevator. Thirty minutes later, they might well repeat the scene to an entirely different audience.
Sunday is a slow news day unless there is a major catastrophe—fires, floods, shipwrecks, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, that kind of thing—and the office in consequence was usually at half staff and the pace low-key. This particular Sunday, as we lazily perused the morning papers, someone got a laugh over a blooper in the Herald Tribune. On a feature page there were two stories, one about Congressman Hamilton Fish, a leader of the America First movement prior to Pearl Harbor, and a second about the arrival of a new consignment of tropical fish in the New York Aquarium. The captions had been reversed.
It was either Ed Korry or Arnold Dibble, I don’t remember which, who decided to rib the Trib editors about the boner. He called, identified himself as Mr. Fish, and asked to speak to the managing editor because he felt an apology was owed him. The editor came on the line and said that he was somewhat confused by the call since he had talked to Mr. Fish at some length earlier in the day and had promised to correct the error. Then, he asked, rather sharply: “Is this Mr. Hamilton Fish?” “No,” replied Dib. “This is Mr. Tropical Fish.”
This is Mr. Tropical Fish
Learning the Trade
After six months under Bud Watson’s command, Phil Newsom called me over and said there was now a place for me on the regular news desk. I would get another raise (all the way up to $27.50) and be placed initially on the afternoon shift—2 to 10 P.M.—working mostly for Arnold Dibble and his assistant editor, Ed Korry, both of whom became lifelong friends.
On the United Press radio desk, incoming news from all over the world was rewritten for the spoken word and dispatched by teletype to 1,400 radio stations across the nation. Radio in those pre-TV days was the source of all instant news. It didn’t work to tear a story from the regular news wire and read it over the air. It had to be reworked into shorter sentences and punchy prose and packaged into convenient five- and fifteen-minute segments. These packaged shows would be supplemented by sports and weather stories, feature stories and fillers, usually odd or piquant items useful to fill dead time on a radio show.
Our principal client was the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, for which we produced “The Esso Reporter.” At any hour of the day or night a local disc jockey could pull the latest five-minute news segment from the UP radio wire and intone: “This is your Esso Reporter,” and give out with the very latest news. On many stations “The Esso Reporter” was broadcast every hour on the hour and had to contain fresh elements, all of which kept us very busy indeed. We called these five-minute shows “WIBs,” from “The World in Brief.” The fifteen-minute shows were known as roundups. (When my sixfoot-tall friend Lee Jones—“the king-size Rita Hayworth,” as she was affectionately known—and I, five feet two, both arrived to work one day in our college Persian lamb coats, someone called out, “Here come the Roundup and the Wib,” and the names stuck for a while.)
There is a distinct knack to radio news writing, and our bible was the UP Radio Style Book, written by Phil Newsom. Sentences, for one thing, were shortened for easier delivery. Successful radio copy had a distinct beat to it; you had to hear it, not see it. And sibilants were taboo (“Sixteen suicides saw Stanford staggering” was not a good radio sentence). You had to be conscious moreover that a listener might tune in at any moment in the broadcast, which made it necessary to repeat the name of the person you were writing about more frequently than would be necessary in a regular news story. People were found to be innocent, or guilty. We didn’t use “not guilty” because a listener might turn on his set between the “not” and the “guilty.” That kind of thing. Great attention was also paid to sensibilities. If one hundred Flying Fortresses went on a raid and ninety-eight came back, you didn’t say “only two were lost,” because some listener’s husband, father, son, or brother might be aboard that missing Fort. You wrote either “ninety-eight came back,” or “two bombers are missing.”
A cardinal rule was that when difficult-to-pronounce names came up, the rewriteman supplied the pronunciation to help the announcer read it right off without hesitation. The classic story of what happened when such precautions were omitted is the bulletin filed in the Congo when Dag Hammerskjöld’s plane crashed. The first sentence read: “The secretary-general of the United Nations is believed to have been killed in a plane crash in Africa.” When one announcer came upon Dag Hammerskjöld’s name in the second sentence with no clue as to its pronunciation, he smoothly interjected: “The victim’s identity is being withheld pending notification of relatives.”
In the early forties, the networks were small and struggling; United Press with its 1,400 client stations was the nation’s largest radio news service, which gave us the heady feeling that we were in the front lines of news delivery.
There were, in general, three rewritemen on every shift. When we came in, the editor in charge—George Marder in the morning, Arnold Dibble in the afternoon, Ed Korry often on the overnight—would assign us one of three news areas: the home front, the Western front, and the Pacific. We’d inherit a folder from our predecessor that contained clips of all the incoming stories from the various desks: the foreign news desk, the cable desk, the city desk, the domestic bureaus, and the rest. He’d tell us how much copy—we talked in terms of news minutes—he wanted us to produce. On a hot news day in Europe, the Western front might be assigned eight minutes of the fifteen-minute report, the Pacific two minutes, and the home front five. But these segments could change as the news changed. An editor or a copy boy would keep replenishing our folder with more details, changed casualty figures, new enemy attacks, whatever, and we would have to weave them into our copy.
Often the editor, impatient to put the package together, would come over and tear the paper out of the typewriter as you plugged away. George Marder, unaccustomed to dealing with sensitive young women, once crumpled up Mary Frances Jordan’s copy and flung it in her face telling her it WOULD NOT DO. She burst into tears. Poor George was flabbergasted. No one he had ever worked with had burst into tears. Usually they would just swear back at him and attack the story again. Mary Frances wasn’t cut out for fast-action news rewrite, but since she was so very nice and sweetly Southern and willing to work practically for free, she was reassigned to the Feature Department to chum out stories for the Sunday supplements. (Features was, in our collitchgirl minds, the equivalent of the Woman’s Page.)
An Ear and Good Timing
To be good at radio rewrite you had to have an ear, good news sense, and an excellent memory so that you could absorb the news that was bombarding you from all quarters and reshape it in your mind into a coherent story with the numbers falling into place when called for. There was no time to leaf through the mounds of copy and check that it was ninety-eight bombers that got back, not ninety-six. Intelligence helped, but to be able to recognize the news nut and play it hard was essential. Digital dexterity—how fast you could hit those typewriter keys whatever technique you favored—was essential. (Sometimes you had to make an instant judgment call as when, on the night of FDR’s death, we got word that Harry S. Truman’s first reaction when told he was now president of the United States was, “I felt like as if a load of hay had fallen on my head.” After a quick consultation we excised the offending “like.”)
Both Lee Jones and Randolph (“Randy”) Jennings had those talents, plus intelligence. Lee would go on to become articles editor of This Week magazine in its heyday, and later the managing intelligence at Magnum, the premier news photograph agency in the nation. Randy would run UP’s West Virginia bureau at Charlestown and later, while her husband Norman Farquhar was going to law school at night in D.C., write most of the famous Eric Severeid fifteen-minute eleven o’clock news show in the early fifties. She wrote the ten-minute news segment, he the prestigious five-minute commentary that led to his later career in television.
Randy spent most of her UP days on the overnight shift, which was just as well. She, a West Virginia friend of hers, named Cissie Lively, who worked for Pan Am, and I once shared an apartment on Forty-seventh Street and Lexington Avenue. We were attracted to it by its wide enclosed wooden balcony on which we had a swinging couch, a picnic table, a cot, and several chairs. We slept there because the apartment had only one small single-bed bedroom. But come winter, when the winds howled through the wooden frame of the porch, we managed with just the bedroom only by working three different shifts: Cissie the conventional day shift, I the 2 to 10 P.M., and Randy the midnight to seven.
It’s Bische, Pronounced BEESH
It was Randy who pulled off a truly joyous caper. American forces pushing out from the Ardennes in Belgium were headed for a small but important rail junction at a town called Bische. Our managers, rightly fearful that when Bische—pronounced Beesh—fell some disc jockey would mispronounce it, ordered us to include its proper pronunciation in caps whenever we mentioned the town. “Attn: Editors: Bische is pronounced B E E S H.” To no avail. When the bulletin came in early one morning that Bische had fallen, Randy started her news report: “The sons of Bische surrendered tonight.”
In those days if the United Press wire had carried “bitch” or any other off-color word, dozens of newspapers and radio stations in the Southern bible belt would have canceled their contracts instantly. So when, some years later, President Truman blew his stack at Washington Post music critic Paul Hume for savaging his daughter Margaret’s performance in a concert, the UP reporter handled it thus: President Truman, he said, called the Post critic: “a --- -- - ---- .” Within minutes, a client was complaining that he couldn’t figure out what that last four-letter word could be, which occasioned the following deadpan correction: “Correction, In 2nd lead Truman, 2nd pgh, make it read xxx called him “a --- -- - ----.”
On another overnight shift, the cable desk sent out a story about an obscure military action which was datelined “Globasawanne, India.” The New York Times, then as now insufferably prissy and precise, called demanding that UP pinpoint Globasawanne on the map. Someone sighed and reached for the atlas, and many heads pored over it, magnifying glasses were invoked, but no Globasawanne could be located. It was only then that some old-timer went back to the original cable story and found that Globa Sawanne was the name of the local stringer who had originated the story, not the place from which he was writing.
Datelines sometimes were too good not to be used. Some years later when Bryce Miller was running UP’s Saigon bureau he found out that Senator Robert Kennedy would be touring a small village he had spotted in the south called Phuc Binh. When the day came Miller filed the story datelined “Phuc, Vietnam,” and to his delight it played throughout Asia. It was only when it got to New York that some spoilsport changed the dateline to Saigon.
On the Sunday that Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were lynched, we news staffers were lunching, not at a quick eatery as usual, but because it was Sunday, and LeRoy Pope, who was handling the desk, was in a permissive mood, at an inexpensive, small Italian restaurant in the East Forties run by a family of former Italian circus aerialists who had taken to pasta. The walls were plastered with pictures of the Flying Carbonari, or whatever was their name, slim, fit, and stern, pulling off impossible feats eighty feet above the sawdust circus floor. But that was all behind them, impossible even to imagine. Now they were a rollicking bunch, friendly and boisterous, each one stouter than the last, and the various spaghets they served with the cheap Chianti warmed the cockles. Our merriment was cut short when a panting copy boy—one of several who had been dispatched to find us—put his head in the door and summoned us back to handle the biggest news story of the day. We found poor LeRoy, all alone in the slot, doing a magnificent job at fielding the questions, writing the stories, urging the punchers (teletype operators) on, snatching copy from incoming wires, sliding back into his chair fingers flying. It was collitchgirls to the rescue! Never was a man happier to see his by-now-veteran staff walk in the door.
War on the Home Front, Joe Panico Commanding
Bibulous, paunchy Joe Panico was an Italian teletype operator, a slam-bang performer both at his keyboard and in the local beer halls, with a sense of humor and total lack of decorum. In these final war years, 1944 and 1945, Joe perfected his rendition of falling bombs. It started with a high whistle and whine, getting louder as it approached the target and ending with a climactic BOOM! that resounded throughout the newsroom. When Joe was on a bombing raid, we, around the corner from the main newsroom in the radio alcove, would often join in the fun. Someone would pick up an oversize stapler, turn it upside down, and slam it together in a clickety-click sound that passed for machine-gun fire. On the other side of the U, people would drop to the floor, pick up discarded sheets of yellow copy paper, roll them into balls, and throw them slowly across the room in high arching arcs, making like grenades, and adding their smaller ca-runch ca-runch to Joe’s whining bomb. A rifle squad, armed with rulers, would snake under the desks to ambush the machine-gun nest. Pow, pow, powpowpow! (Bud Watson, needless to say, did not take part.)
Late one evening when the battle was at its peak, Hugh Baillie, then president of United Press, hove round the corner with the president of Standard Oil of New Jersey—UP’s single largest radio account—in tow, and spreading his arms expansively, intoned: “This is your Esso Reporter.” BOOM! Clickety-click! Ca-runch! Pow! Silence.
The radio desk was formally admonished the following morning to cease and desist from playing war. Joe Panico was silenced, not to reappear in full bombing form until the great and glorious VJ-Day.
This is your Esso Reporter—BOOM! Clickety-click! Ca-runch! Pow! Silence!
VE-Day had been cathartic, but the war was far from over. Veteran troops, brought back from Europe, were in training in the South for the eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands. It was estimated, given the demonstrated fighting spirit of Japanese troops in the stiff Pacific island battles, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Leyte, that the conquest and defeat of the Empire of the Rising Star would cost a million U.S. casualties. This was the compelling rationale for using the atom bomb.
The first rumors that the Japanese might be making overtures about surrender terms through Swiss intermediaries came on Friday, August 11, 1945.
My heart sank. That was the day I was leaving on a precious four-day visit to my sister Aloïse in Falls Church, Virginia. Four-day weekends were not easy to come by, but I had made a deal with Bob Graff, a navy fighter pilot who had been discharged because of injuries when his plane was shot down. Bob was the first veteran to be hired, late in 1944. I would work two days of Bob’s shift in one fortnight, and he would work two days of my upcoming shift, which would give us each a four-day weekend in exchange for working ten days in a row. I was longing to see Allie and Ben, and their year-old Jimmy, but I might miss the biggest story of the decade.
Off I went, but I stayed glued to the radio over most of the weekend, monitoring every rumor and wild report about what was going on behind the scenes between Tokyo, Bern, London, and Washington. A second and a third day passed, and still nothing solid had developed. I boarded the train for Pennsylvania Station on the morning of the fourth day in time to report for work on my regular 2 P.M. shift. As I walked in the door it was apparent nothing much was happening, but just minutes later we got the word that Truman, who had become president on Roosevelt’s death in April, would speak to the nation at 7 P.M., and in London, Clement Attlee, who had replaced Churchill in July, would speak to the British people at midnight, when BBC ordinarily went off the air.
This was it: the BIG ONE. Arnold Dibble was on the desk. He looked around at the staff and said: “Pitts, you’ll handle the roundup, all of it.” I would write the first fifteen-minute radio news broadcast on the end of World War II. I have it still, on faded teletype paper. Not world-shaking prose, but competent and comprehensive. The FLASH—“Japan Surrenders”—went out at two seconds after 7 P.M. My fifteen-minute broadcast cleared the line at 7:48 P.M. August 14, 1945.
A Wild Night
It was a wild night in that huge, steaming newsroom on Forty-second Street. Every window that could be opened was, and the breeze sent paper flying around the room. Reporters in Times Square called in their color stories as fast as they could collar a phone and a phone booth quiet enough to dictate from. Dibble had sent a bulletin to every UP radio bureau in the land, ordering them to file two-minute pieces, no more, on celebrations in their area, to come in alphabetically, Albany, Albuquerque, and so on, at a given hour. From this wire, editors all over the country could pick the bits of color they wanted to enliven their report—if it needed any enlivening on that glorious night—and we at NXR (call letters) would stitch whatever stories caught our imagination into our five- and fifteen-minute reports.
There were some lovely ones. A troopship with veterans of the First Division, which had done so much of the heavy fighting in Europe, had left San Diego two days earlier en route to staging areas in the Philippines where they would train for the invasion of the Japanese homeland. As the veterans listened to news of the surrender, the ship made a 180-degree turn, and headed back to San Diego. Silence, followed by a tumultuous roar.
Off the Japanese coast the Third Fleet was on patrol. Admiral Bull Halsey announced the end of the war to his command but added: “Should any hostile plane fly overhead shoot it down in friendly fashion.”
Punchers and rewritemen didn’t even try to conceal the huge cartons of beer they carried in from the local saloons—no one would interfere with the open breach of the no-drinking rule on this night of nights. The overnight shift arrived but the night shift refused to leave. It was too much fun. It was too great. We—with the help of a few million soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen—had done it, we had brought Hirohito and his war machine to their knees.
Mary Frances and Ensign Raffles
We were starting to receive lists of American prisoners of war, men mostly long since given up for dead. Many of these missingin-action men were carrier pilots who had disappeared into the waters of the vast Pacific. But with the war winding down specially trained army units were being dropped at known POW camps to rescue the survivors lest fanatic Japanese commanders order their execution. The dead were rising from the grave.
Talk of human interest. Mary Frances, the Southern girl whom George Marder had terrified, now happily ensconced in Features, started to haunt the cable desk. Her concern was for Ensign Peter Raffles (I believe that was his name) to whom she had become engaged three years earlier in Memphis. They had been engaged less than a week when he got his orders to join a carrier in the Pacific. Months later, shortly after she arrived at UP, he had been reported missing in action somewhere in the South Pacific. Sometime later she received word from his family that his status had been changed to “presumed dead.” That had been eighteen months earlier.
Someone spotted the name on the overnight. There it was, Lieutenant jg Peter Raffles, on a list of rescued prisoners. Love, moon, croon, and June were all very well, but Mary Frances was worried. She had no idea whether she still, or had ever really, loved Peter. The courtship had been such a heady, whirlwind affair, a class graduating from flight school, awaiting orders. Like so many others in those frantic days, Mary Frances and Peter got engaged and off he went to battle.
In due course there was a phone call from a hospital in California: it was Peter. Mary Frances applied for a leave and left by train, the only way to travel those days, for the uncomfortable four-day ride across the country to meet a man she realized she hardly knew. That was the last we ever saw of Mary Frances. She and Peter were married and for years I would receive a Christmas card with a photo of Peter and Mary Frances, Peter, Mary Frances, and Joey, Peter, Mary Frances, Joey, and Mary Lou, and on until one day they stopped coming, and it was a year or so later before I noticed the omission, as tends to happen with friends whose paths you no longer cross.
Old Friend and Good
Rita Meyer and I overlapped at UP for only a few months. Rita was definitely not a collitchgirl; she had come up the hard way, working on small dailies, finally landing a job at UP in her late twenties or early thirties. Her husband was in the Coast Guard where, according to Rita, he spent most of his time playing chess by long-distance telephone. One gathered that they were not close. Rita moved on after a few months and disappeared from our ken.
A visit to the ruins of Angkor Wat
In 1961 I was in Thailand with my mother, my brother Jim, and his wife Ann. Jim was then exploring for oil in the Philippines. We had just returned to Bangkok after a glorious four-day visit to the ruins of Angkor Wat, which would very shortly after be shut off from the world when Pol Pot went about his vision of a new, and terrorized, Khmer Rouge civilization.
Mother had a bad cold, which was getting worse, not better, and I feared for her on the next day’s scheduled long flight home, via Hawaii. An American I sat next to at a lunch that my friend Jim Burnham had arranged suggested that I call a Dr. Jacobson, a Danish doctor who had a clinic just outside the city. Dr. Jacobson was most accommodating, said my new friend, and would either make a call on Mother or see her at his clinic. Back at the hotel I called the number, and was relieved when the woman who answered spoke English. I told her my story. She asked for the name of the patient. Mrs. William F. Buckley Sr. “I don’t suppose she’s related to Priscilla Buckley,” said the voice on the other end. “This is Priscilla Buckley,” I said. “Well, sonovagun. Hi, Pitts, this is Rita Meyer from UP.” The husky drawl was unmistakable. It was indeed my old friend Rita, who was now—seventeen years later—Mrs. Dr. Jacobson.
Her story was a lulu. After the war she had taken a job as a public relations spokesman for the then reigning Thai government. Three days after her arrival in Bangkok a palace coup had sent Rita’s employers into exile or jail. In the ensuing roundup of political undesirables, Rita was plucked from her new office and plunked into prison, and there she stayed for three months before the American Embassy managed to get her released. It was while recuperating from that experience—Thai jails were (and are) anything but spas—that she had met Dr. Jacobson.
The doctor called on Mother that afternoon, gave her a shot, and assured me that it would be safe for her to fly home.
The Music Man
Johnny Zischaung, like Rita and so many journeyman newsmen in those days, was a rolling stone. Johnny had been born with a stump instead of a left hand. He was short, with thinning reddish hair, quiet, and very shy. He did his work well, but without enthusiasm. He was hard to get to know, on the defensive in personal relations. It was only in his cups that Johnny came to life. He played a mean piano despite his disability, hitting a steady bass with the stump of his left hand while his right hand moved with astonishing agility over the usually tinny keyboard of the uprights to be found in many Greenwich Village apartments. He wrote songs and was the beery life of many an impromptu postwork party in the Village where most of us lived in dirty, crowded, cramped apartments. One of Johnny’s songs I remember—I can almost hear the thump-thump of its beat today—was entitled “The Blonde and the Yokel on the Uptown Local.”
Johnny and I became friends and then buddies because one Wednesday when he was broke he touched me for a five-dollar loan to tide him over to payday (if what we received from UP can be called such) on Friday. When I came to work that Friday, Johnny was there five bucks in hand. That set a pattern. I ended up keeping the five dollars in a separate compartment in my purse, lest I inadvertently spend it, to lend to Johnny every Wednesday. I got it back every Friday. Like clockwork. It became our joke. “Pitts is always borrowing from me,” Johnny would remark as he ostentatiously gave me back my bill on Friday. Improvident Johnny was, but not a cadger.
No one liked Johnny’s then wife. Her name, I think, was Betty, and our dislike was reinforced by an incident at a party in the Village one night. The Zischaungs were temporarily quartered in Margaret’s apartment. Margaret was our unit’s Guild representative and in that capacity had heard that the Zischaungs had been evicted from their apartment, probably for nonpayment of rent. She kindly offered them her own place for the three weeks she would be out of town on assignment. That would give them a breathing space to find new digs. We were all there one night, clustered around the piano, when Betty came into the living room with a shoebox full of letters. She had found it tucked away on the top shelf of the closet, way back supposedly out of reach.
“Look what I’ve found,” she said with glee, and proceeded to read a juicy segment from a love letter to Margaret from her lesbian partner, a phys ed teacher at Smith College. “Cut it out,” said Johnny from the piano, stem for once. “Betty, put those letters back.” She did, albeit reluctantly. Some of us, Margaret’s friends, left, thanking Johnny, but ignoring Betty, furious at her betrayal of Margaret’s confidence and kindness.
I was relieved that Margaret’s friend was not my particular favorite Smith phys ed teacher. My friend was tall, slim, and attractive with the brightest smiling light blue eyes. She had been the coach of our all-Smith golf team and had frequently piled two or three girls into the front seat of her rickety mid-thirties Chevy convertible, our clubs in the light canvas bags we carried in those days rattling around in the rumble seat, and driven us to the Mt. Tom golf course in Holyoke where we practiced and played our matches. Once, made jubilant by our unexpected victory over a faculty team headed by Smith President Jonathan Davies, she had even stopped en route home at a local tavern and bought us each an illicit beer.
After I left UP, Johnny moved over to the nascent television division, did well, and ended up years later as Paris TV manager. (This was after I had returned to New York from Paris.) I heard of his tragic death from Robert Ahier, a great buddy of mine in my UP Paris days. Johnny had fallen into the Seine one night and drowned, the exact circumstances of his death unclear. His host of friends suspected he had had a cup too many as on so many evenings past and hoped the fatal stumble had followed a rousing rendition of whatever was Johnny’s current “The Blonde and the Yokel on the Uptown Local.”
The war was over, and, as promised, veterans were returning to claim the civilian jobs they had left to go to war. Despite the waiver all the collitchgirls had signed agreeing to resign when the boys came home, no one was asked to leave. (I learned many years later that virtually every woman hired by AP during the war had been given the heave-ho as soon as they could be replaced.) The former servicemen hired on the radio news desk were all newcomers to UP. Each had a story. Bob Graff, the first returnee, had been so badly burned when his plane was shot down that while the surgeons had done a magnificent job in giving him a new face, it turned out to be so different from his old face that his mother had not recognized him at first. Bob went on to become a bigwig at NBC.
Dick Witkin, a bombardier in the European theater, was wiry, dark, intense, with a slight nervous tic. He didn’t do much talking about the war. He was friendly in a quiet, withdrawn way in contrast to his bubbling dancer wife Kate who would shortly land a part in the chorus line of the newest Broadway hit, Call Me Mister. A bunch of us were in the audience on opening night to cheer Katie’s performance. Dick went on to become the New York Times transportation editor and covered most of the Cape Canaveral space stories, including the Apollo 11 launch. When you became a friend of Dick Witkin’s you were a friend for life. He was one of my particular favorites.
Marvin Lorber’s Story
Marvin Lorber was everything Dick Witkin was not. Also a flier, he loped around the newsroom in long, easy strides, amused by every little happening, a smile always at the ready. He was the epitome of relaxedness in a frenzied environment, unflappable, a pleasant companion at work or play. He had spent a couple of years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Romania, after being shot down on a strike at the Ploesti oil fields. One night, over a sandwich and a pitcher of beer at the Old Brew House on Fifty-third Street, he told me his story. It had Marvin’s characteristic ironic spin. The first big American raid on the Ploesti oil fields that were vital to the Nazi war machine was flown from a base near Benghazi. A cocky flyboy brigadier general led the raid and when they were returning to base he broke radio silence to proclaim: “I saw Ploesti die tonight.”
Six months later in yet another raid on the far-from-dead Ploesti field, Marvin Lorber’s bomber was shot down. He parachuted out and was almost immediately picked up by a Romanian army patrol. On arriving at the prison camp he was put in a barracks with other captured American fliers where he joined their elite club which was called “The I Saw Ploesti Die Tonight Club,” membership limited to those who had been on that original raid, as Marvin had.
Conditions in the camp at the end of the war were frightful, Marvin went on. But the lot of the American and British prisoners, cold and hungry as they were, was nothing compared to that of the Russians, who were abused, tortured, kicked, and starved. The camp commander was a dandy, a lipsticked homosexual, always exquisitely turned out, and a sadist. He enjoyed ordering men stripped, flogged, and shot. Toward the end, as the Nazi war machine crumbled and the Red Army moved into Romania, conditions in the camp worsened dramatically. The officers in the British-American barracks knew from the clandestine radio they had pieced together that Romania was about to fall. The end came very suddenly. There was a frenzied knocking at the barracks door on a bleak winter’s night. It was the commandant, white with fear. The Russian prisoners had burst out of their barracks on news that the Red Army was at the gates, intent on revenge. The prison guards had fled, and the Russians were after the commandant. He pled with the Americans and British to give him sanctuary. Marvin paused, his easy flow interrupted by the memories of that moment. He was not smiling. “What did you do?” I couldn’t stand the suspense. “We threw the bastard out …”
“And they tore him to pieces.”
Home Is the Sailor
The call was for me, which was unusual. We got very few personal calls at United Press, partially at least because no one had a desk and his own telephone. The connection was so fuzzy that Phil Newsom had it transferred to his phone where the background din was less obtrusive, and motioned me to his chair.
It was Jimmy, brother Jim, on a very bad line, calling from San Diego. He was back in the States after two and a half years in the South Pacific aboard LST (landing ship tanks) 1013. And he had gotten his discharge that morning. He would get whatever transportation he could and would probably be in New York in three or four days. What he wanted was to surprise Mother.
So we arranged it. He would come to the UP office when he arrived, and he and I would drive home to Sharon in time for supper. I burbled that his timing was superb. Everyone, but everyone, was home, or would be home by the weekend. Our oldest sister Aloïse, her husband Ben Heath, and little Jimmy were in Sharon, Connecticut, while Ben decided what he would do next. He had been discharged as a major in the Army Air Corps. John, next in line to Aloïse, was back from France, finishing the dissertation he still owed Yale before he could claim his diploma. He had volunteered for service halfway through his senior year, right after Peal Harbor. And Bill, number six, was in Sharon, freshly discharged from an infantry camp in Texas where he had been stationed for the last few months.
Jim and I would drive out in my new car, a tiny Plymouth two-door sedan. The connection was too bad for me to explain how come I owned a car, but I would tell Jimmy all about it on the hundred-mile drive north from New York to Sharon, where all ten of us had been brought up in a rambling old clapboard house just off the town green.
At one time when his oldest four—Aloïse, John, Jim, and I—were in college, Father had told us that “in the unlikely event” that any one of us could save enough money to buy half a car, he would pay for the other half. Dear Father, a spendthrift himself, was always trying to instill habits of frugality in his children, with signal lack of success.
A car was what I wanted most in life, the only large object I had ever coveted, so I had gotten into the habit on payday, which was Friday, of going to the bank on the ground floor of the Daily News Building and putting whatever change was left in my purse from last week’s salary—$1.62, $2.45, 87 cents, whatever—into a savings account, while cashing the current check. I had also put my name in for a new Plymouth with dear old Mr. Benjamin in Winsted, Connecticut, from whom Father had bought cars for a number of years. There would be a long waiting list for new cars after the wartime drought, I knew. In due course my little hoard hit the magic $600 mark—you could buy a (modest) new car in 1946 for $1,200—and when Mr. Benjamin called one day out of the blue to say my car was on the lot, a much surprised Father dutifully ponied up the additional $600.
I had no trouble arranging my schedule for Jim’s arrival with Arnold Dibble, who was in charge of day-to-day activities on the radio desk. I could take whatever afternoon I wanted off, he said. He’d just call someone else in to take my place. This was the kind of thing that kept people at United Press. Whereas the front office was brutal in its handling of staff, the people you actually worked for, the Newsoms and Dibbles and Marders, and later on the Korrys and Millers and Landreys and Higbees in Paris, understood the importance of a brother’s return from an active zone of war.
Two or three days later, in walked a skinny bronzed young man in a rumpled grey uniform and the smile that had mesmerized me since the next toddler in line first turned it on me. I had last seen him in mid-1944, the night before he sailed. We had taken in the final night of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, and afterward had a farewell brandy Alexander at Longchamps.
I phoned Sharon to let Aloïse know we were on our way. She said she would try to delay supper until we arrived. We drove across town, through the Garment District, and up the West Side Drive. Anchored in the Hudson were elements of the Pacific Fleet on a postwar victory tour of major U.S. ports. I had written a series of two- and three-minute profiles of the more famous ships, those massive grey silhouettes in the sun-bespeckled waters of the Hudson. Jim had taken part in three Pacific island invasions, including Okinawa and Leyte, but he had never seen a giant flattop until I pointed the Endeavor out to him on that sunny, happy drive along the Hudson.
Buckleys were chockablock around the big table in the dining room, with Mother as usual perched on the massive chair at the head of the table, one leg tucked under the other, and Father, at the foot. As we walked in there was just an instant of silence and then Mother was on her feet: “Jimmy … Jimmy,” and running to meet and hug him. Then everyone was up, pounding backs, embracing, kissing. And the little children, who had been finishing their supper at the middle table, were all over Jim, only little Carol hanging back. She had been four when last she saw him, and now she was seven. Ella managed, in all the commotion, to set another place at Mother’s right, and everyone was asking Jim what his war had been like, but all he wanted to do was find out what we had been up to in his absence. Every once in a while Mother would reach out and take his hand, so happy to have him here, and we would smile at each other because it was well known in the family that Jimmy was Mother’s favorite—and such is Jim’s diffidence that no one ever minded the fact.
Mother interrupted the general babble. “Will, dear,” she said, “we must call Miss Sipprell tomorrow, now that all the boys are home.” Miss Clara Sipprell took family pictures that came out wispy and slightly Victorian in flavor and always, it seemed to me, just the slightest bit out of focus. But Mother and Father thought they were grand. The boys, as a man, announced that they would not be photographed in their uniforms: that that uniform stuff, and saluting and such, was behind them, old history.
But at lunch on Saturday, when Jeff told Mother that Miss Sipprell had set up her camera and that he had brought a bench out and placed it, at her instructions, in front of the Great Elm, Mother ordered the boys to “run upstairs and get dressed,” as if they were still five-year-olds, and without a word, the airman, the two soldiers, and the sailor disappeared to reappear fifteen minutes later in uniform, Jim’s navy blues now cleaned and pressed.
The black-and-white photograph still stands in its battered red leather frame in the patio, with little Jimmy Heath sitting stiff-legged on the bench between his mother and grandmother, the girls, Jane, Patricia, Maureen, Carol, and I, in short-sleeved summer dresses, Ben, John, Jim, and Bill in uniform, and off to the right, just a bit removed, sixteen-year-old Reid in a linen jacket and khaki slacks looking a mite sullen. The only thing wrong with World War II, in Reid’s opinion, was that it had ended before he was old enough to join in the fracas.
After the War, a restlessness settled on the group that had worked so well together for better than two years. Today’s news stories lacked the dramatic excitement of yesterday’s. Some of us started to move on. Bobby Ober, the copygirl I had met that first day in 1944, and whose unflappable good humor kept us all laughing a great deal of the time, got a job on a radio station in New Jersey, the second step in a career that would lead her to a protracted stint as executive editor of Cosmopolitan under Helen Gurley Brown. Randy Jennings, briefly, very briefly, engaged to Ed Korry, transferred to the Charlestown, West Virginia, bureau when their engagement collapsed. She wanted to be close to her childhood home and her ailing mother. And Ed got himself reassigned to the London bureau. Ed Korry would go on to run UP bureaus in Belgrade and Paris, and become foreign editor of Look magazine. He volunteered to write foreign policy speeches for JFK in the 1960 campaign and a thankful President Kennedy appointed him ambassador to Ethiopia. Later he served as ambassador to Chile under Richard Nixon in the tumultuous Frei-Allende years. Lee Jones moved on to This Week and later to Magnum, the prestigious photography agency. Dick Amper—who had greeted me the first day when I reported for work—became Governor Nelson Rockfeller’s press secretary.
Leroy Pope, who had so feared the advent of the collitchgirls, stayed on at UP and became a noted figure among New York financial and business reporters. He had an encyclopedic memory and a thousand unwritten stories in his head, stories to be tracked down and written up as fast as he could get to them. When computers spelled the doom of the teletype machine and the phasing out of the punchers who had serviced them—Joe Panico and his pals—when the hum of computers replaced the bells and clatter and clamor of the old-time newsroom, Leroy Pope, once again, resisted change. He kept pecking away at his balky old upright Royal and prevailed against the tide of modernity. In his comer of the newsroom one teletype machine and one puncher were retained to send out LeRoy’s copy. LeRoy finally retired, age eighty, as UPI headed into a near-terminal tailspin, a trouper to the last, much missed, among others, by a generation of admiring collitchgirls he had taken the time and trouble to hammer into shape.
Many of my good friends had left but I was still on hand on that memorable day in 1946 when the Nazi Nuremberg war criminals were to hang. We were waiting for the FLASH that the executions were taking place when, to our astonishment, in came the big brass from the thirteenth floor, superannuated newsmen turned businessmen and number crunchers: They moved in on the news operation and announced that THIS story was so big, THEY would handle it themselves.
The FLASH came. It was unexpected. The head honcho bent over his typewriter and produced a bulletin for the ages. He wrote: “Herman Goering cheated death by committing suicide.”
They left as quickly as they had arrived and someone corrected the bulletin to read: “Herman Goering cheated death by hanging by committing suicide.” How we underlings did laugh. This was a story that would go down in UP underground history along with The Kansas City Milkman.
I didn’t hear of The Kansas City Milkman until I joined the UP bureau in Paris some years later, and someone passed me a crumbling, much-taped-together paperback version of the story, a wickedly hilarious novel on how United Press really worked by longtime Unipresser Reynolds Packard. Everyone in the European division was warned not to read it on pain of dismissal. The title came from the legendary note an early editor had placed on a UP news spike instructing everyone to write stories so simply that the Kansas City milkman could understand them. But that’s another tale, for another day.
STRING OF PEARLS. Copyright © 2001 by Priscilla L. Buckley. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.