Hold the Front Page! - Umberto Tosi

Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end, when printing was industrial and newspapers weren't media because we never heard the word used that way. Editors chomped on cigars. Reporters rat-tat-tat-tatted on their Remingtons and Underwoods, cigarettes dangling from their lips, their white shirts open-collared and striped tie loosened. They'd yell, “boy!” when they ran out of copy paper, or were on a deadline and needed me to run their their hot sheets up to the city desk as they typed furiously.

Teletype machines clattered incessantly in the glass-walled wire room – AP, UPI, Reuters, INS – spitting out news of the world by the ream. The copy boy – me – had to step lively to keep up. Armed with a straight-edged length of leading, I would tear off stories as the machines inched them out relentlessly – short and long – and sort them quickly – local, state, national, international – each destined for the wire basket of their respective editors, No. 2 pencil at the ready. Red edges meant time to switch out the fat roll of paper while trying not to to miss a line.

Linotype operators in a typical
newspaper composing room of the early
to mid 20th century.
Every so often, a teletype machine would pause, then ring-a-ding-ding-rrrring-rrring-rrring madly as a stuck doorbell to announce an incoming “bulletin!” I'd run bulletins to the editor – but only if I deemed them “important” – not every damn one of them, or I'd get a dirty look and a dismissive snort, because the wire services were always overreacting. God help me, though, if I missed a big one. “Use your common sense, boy!” They didn't teach any of this in journalism school. In fact, editors looked askance a peach-fuzzed j-school grads. They much preferred English or history majors, or better yet, a talented dropout who had been around – by thumb and tramp steamer – worked on a small paper or two. For example, it was said that the legendary ScottNewhall, flamboyant editor of the San Francisco Chronicle at that time, would demand that prospective writers to show him novels-in-progress rather than resumes.

It was 1956, and I was a copy boy for the Los Angeles Times, a major metropolitan newspaper,
known at the time for running the most editorial and advertising lineage of any in the world – and it seemed to me that I was running through molasses in a dream world whose distortions I'd only glimpsed in comic strips and movies. The copy boy, as we knew it, is extinct. Nowadays they would call me an intern and allow me the privilege of working for nothing. I'd probably need an advanced degree to be a coffee gopher at what newspapers continue to exist. But back then, I, at least, got minimum wage and health insurance – enough to take care of an equally clueless young wife and unplanned baby. Progress.

Grizzled copy editors sat at a horseshoe table marking up stories that the slot man, with a sandy handlebar mustache and green-eye-shade, rolled up and sent pffmmp-clank-clanking up into a ceiling maze of pneumatic tubes destined for the composing room where rows even more grizzled, lightening-fingered Linotype operators rendered the news into lines of hot, silvery lead that clattered from their Rube Goldberg machines. As press time approached, I got to run last-minute corrections directly back to composing, where the production man pored over block-type beds that he could read upside down and backwards. Soon they let me write squibs and fillers. Then I got my byline on a story - a brief, police blotter account about a truckload of molasses spilling on the Hollywood Freeway. After my shift, I took a freight elevator to the cavernous subbasement and climbed out on a catwalk to watch the giant rotary presses printing the edition, glassy-eyed as the sheets whirled by with my little story, somewhere amid the blur of a million copies.

I know. It sounds like a scene out of Ben Hecht's “The Front Page (1931),” or my favorite film adaptation of same, Howard Hawks' “His Girl Friday” (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant.
Of course, it wasn't snappy dialog all the time. There were spells of tedium. We lived amid the naïve, cold war callus calculus of the 1950s, its despised materialism, red baiting and largely unacknowledged discrimination too many thought only happened down in Dixie. There was only one female reporter in the city room and her job was the go out and cover “the woman's angle” on breaking stories. The city room was a sea of white faces that didn't begin to include black and brown until the mid-1960s.

I feel no nostalgia for the 1950s, during which I spent as much time as I could reading forbidden texts, trying to be cool in Venice Beach beatnik coffee houses and watching art house films in French, Italian and Russian. I don't much like movies about the 1950s, even the good ones, and few books. I find “Mad Men” too irritating to be entertaining in the least. I can't help but resent its slick Hollywood coating of cool that never was.

One thing, though, for all its faults, the L.A. Times of the 1950s – like many of the paternalistic family owned papers of that day – wasn't corporate in the faceless way we know today. It wasn't yet infected by Wall Street or Madison Avenue in the way that major papers, TV and radio stations and big publishing houses owned by giant communications conglomerates are today. Newspapers then were a haven for oddballs and misfits, even radicals, not media careerists. You wore ties, but weren't expected to be conformist – at least not unless you worked upstairs in advertising, circulation and accounting. The paper still was the flagship of the Chandler family – a clan of old time of robber barons invested in the growth of sprawling Los Angeles to be sure. The family's energetic scion, Otis Chandler, had just become its publisher, with a burning desire, it was said, to make it the best paper in the world and plenty of money to make his dream come true. That set up a competitive dynamic – prideful to be sure – no longer seen in today's short-term profit-driven corporate empires.

Several of these magnificent misfits came to be among my best friends as I moved slowly up the
Gene Vier
editorial food chain at the Times – most memorably, the late, exquisitely eccentric writer, copy-editor, radical and gadfly Gene Vier. Lots of writers, authors in my circle and beyond – including Hollywood – have Gene Vier stories. He only talked to those he liked – had few social graces and never played office politics. He drove a broken down car, with boxes of hand-written notes – observations of live, fragments on stories and books – in the trunk and back seat. He was an often unkept, wiry man with a greying crew cut, thick glasses and a sometimes annoying nasal voice, a staccato laugh, and quick wit, a mind for connections, an enthusiastic conversationalist and, most of all, an intent listener.

He had encyclopedic knowledge of literature, politics, history, theater, films, art and especially, tennis, which he played devilishly well against various movie actors – only those he respected – at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. If you said something particularly insightful, he was known to pull out a notepad from his pocket and write it down. We used to call him our phantom historian, picturing future archaeologists someday discovering Gene's notepads and pondering what they were about. He lived in genteel poverty from his copy editor salary and a small inheritance from a French-German family that he never talked about. Peter Falk based his memorable TV series LAPD detective “Colombo” character on Gene at the suggestion of their mutual friend, director John Cassavetes, with whom Gene played tennis regularly and hung out with at the redoubtable West Hollywood hangout, Dan Tana's restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Gene authored a voluminous history about the Los Angeles Times and its place in the history of
California, plus biographies of tennis greats Bobby Riggs and Don Budge, but he never aspired to fame or fortune. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had been going through a financial patch, and was secretly living in the Times-Mirror building complex where we worked. He would do his copy desk shift, go out for dinner, and hang out with friends, then return to the times after all the executives had gone home, let himself into the publisher's suite, shower, brush his teeth and sleep over on the publisher's big leather couch, slipping out early, just ahead of the big cheeses.

He got away with this for many months – having reached an understanding with the janitor – until one late night a new cleaning lady came upon him and screamed, to which the startled Gene fell off the publisher's couch, yelling for his life. He very likely would have been dismissed outright in a a 21st century corporate environment. Instead, he got a only a reprimand and the employee assistance office helped him find an modest apartment.

I could fill pages about Gene and many of the other characters I encountered as a stripling writer coming up at the L.A. Times, but I'll save those for future posts. Many of those remembrances have found their way into my stories, for example, Our Own Kind, my novella of love, politics, newspapering and assassination set in 1968 L.A.

City rooms – those that remain – are carpeted cubicle warrens nowadays, filled with earnest young
professionals wearing ear buds clicking their pads and electronic keyboards No time for eccentrics. A Gene Vier would be as out of place in our contemporary corporate publishing world as a Linotype machine.

What I find most remarkable, looking back on these experiences, is the sense of permanence everyone seemed to share in the status quo – even in the face of daily, possible nuclear obliteration. The machines, the typewriters, the bells, the wire-photo machine miraculously transmitting pictures. Imagine! The senior staff had done things the same way all their working lives, as, it seemed, had those who preceded them behind those cigarette-burned oaken desks. The post-war 1950s world may have been changing – what with TV nationwide, in color, even showing overseas Olympics and British royal doings.

Little did I realize that I was witnessing a world that was about to die – and transform even more radically than Gutenberg's press changed the medieval world. I would spend my adult career, not behind a clunky Underwood typewriter, but riding a huge rolling wave through so many changes, one that has deposited me here upon the shores of digital publishing along with legions of like minded writers around the world, all of us, at first on the leading edge, then riding the wave, then becoming mainstream – and still trying to figure it out as we go along.

Print remains with us, of course, as do paper books, magazines and newspapers on which I've worked aplenty. Print isn't even mechanical anymore – except in fine art reproductions. Commercial printing became a digital process in the 1990s and is now completely so. Books are rarely, if at all, run off on rotary offset presses. They are coughed up as needed by super-glorified photo-copy machines one-at-a-time on demand. The rest, you know, is digital from conception to writing, to editing, to consuming and reading. And here we are.

But before I lull myself into thinking that this is it, I have to remember those clanging teletype machines, and realize that this too shall morph and morph again, into what will be... One thing, however, will remain a constant. We still write and we still read. Maybe – at least until androids start doing so along side  us. Then who knows?
------------------------- -
Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia Rising.


Wendy H. Jones said…
What a fascinating insight. I loved this.mthank you
Dennis Hamley said…
Terrific memoir, Umberto. You should turn it into a book. And I'm finding Ophelia Rising a wonderful example of the 'what if?' novel. Expect review soon.
Mari Biella said…
This was fascinating, Umberto. I wish our current media setup still welcomed oddballs and misfits - but then again, oddballs and misfits tend not to be quite so good at turning a profit.
Chris Longmuir said…
A really fascinating post, Umberto, and full of material and characters that could easily be turned into best selling books. I think I've said this before, but long posts often turn me off, but not yours. I'm glued to them from the first sentence to the last. Respect.
Absolutely fascinating and very entertaining too. What material you have here!
Susan Price said…
You knew Columbo! - An absolute storter of a post, Umberto. (Er, that means 'great, big, strong, wonderful.)
One for our next 'best of blogs' collection, for sure.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes a terrific post Umberto, so redolent and rich, a glimpse into a world of vintage cool!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you all for your kind and enthusiastic responses to "Hold the Front Page." I'm happy you enjoyed my post. And thanks, Dennis, glad you're enjoying Ophelia Rising. I look forward to your review.)
Lydia Bennet said…
I've just read this again, really wonderful, to think all those scenes we've seen in US films were true! You really should write a book about it, including all the celebs and eccentrics involved. Columbo's original - how fascinating.
Kathleen Jones said…
I love this, Umberto. It is such a vivid glimpse of the newspaper world of the 1950s. It also sounds like a precis for a very good memoir! I'd certainly read the longer version.
Marsha Coupé said…

While I was a big fan of Mad Men and His Girl Friday, I agree with you about the 50's, not a time I would want to repeat. You embrace NOW with the best of them. This is one of your many strengths, as this essay perfectly illustrates.
glitter noir said…
Wonderfully done. Set off many bankshot reflections of the printing industry in the Fifties--which I came to know through my father's job as superintendent. While I have no memories of newsrooms, I remember the gigantic presses, the 'web breaks', the frantic efforts to repair these in time for deadlines to be met, the tales of men losing their arms in the presses...and the boxes of books my father always brought home: boxes of paperbacks, many of them still warm.
ben said…
Umberto....my name is corrina donegan....i knew gene very very well....he was a good friend...my story is funny and warm...he was a good man...many funny stories

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