New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — NYC Dailies

Mr. Dana of The Sun

The slogan cast on the bronze-green clocks jutting from 280 Broadway has outlived the original and the new versions of the newspaper that coined it: “The Sun Shines For All.”

The Sun was founded in 1833 by Benjamin Day, a twenty-three-year-old printer. He produced a racy, sensational paper, which, according to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, focused on “fires, theatrical performances, elephants escaping from the circus, women trampled by hogs.” In August 1835 (as recounted in a recent issue of McSweeney’s), Day began a series of bogus articles recounting life on the moon as supposedly revealed by a powerful new telescope. Circulation exploded. At the height of the moon hoax, The Sun’s circulation was 20,000 a day—larger than any other newspaper in the world.

By the late 1860s, The Sun had become stodgy. Then in January 1868, the forty-nine-year-old Charles Anderson Dana took over. Slender, balding, heavily whiskered, and staunchly conservative, Dana championed the working poor (The Sun’s press room was a union shop) and African-Americans. (While in South Carolina during Reconstruction, he was invited to a black regiment’s military ball, which had been snubbed by the state’s corrupt carpetbagger governor; Dana accepted and later wrote of those present, “There was also a fair sprinkling of whites, but not enough to mar the pleasure of the company.”)

Though an innovator whose paper freshly defined the news and its presentation, Dana refused to install modern typesetting machines. He loathed illustrations: newspapers were for reading. But The Sun first published the photographs of Jacob Riis, probably because despite his prejudices Dana knew good stuff on sight. He disdained advertising, supplementing The Sun’s financing with circulation receipts to preserve its independence of businessmen and politicians. If a good story came in late, he might even rip out advertising to insert it.

Nearly all who worked for him found him warm, generous, and good-natured, as The Sun and its people were family to him; but his opponents and competitors found him spiteful and petty.

Dana was born August 8, 1819, in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. He clerked in an uncle’s store until he had saved enough to matriculate at Harvard in 1839, where he spent two years before his money ran out. He then lived for five years at Brook Farm, Bronson Alcott’s transcendentalist utopian community.

In 1847, Dana joined Horace Greeley’s Tribune, which assigned him to France and Germany for the revolutions of 1848-9. He became the paper’s managing editor (arguably the first journalist to hold the title), met most of the American intelligentsia, and hired Karl Marx as a European correspondent. (Marx contributed on and off to the Tribune for decades.) But Greeley sacked Dana in March 1862. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton then hired him as the government’s military observer to investigate the conduct of the Civil War in the field, and he became one of Stanton’s most trusted and influential agents.

Within a few years of taking over the paper, while tripling its readership to 120,000, Dana had transformed The Sun into what Joseph Pulitzer called “the most piquant, entertaining, and without exception, the best newspaper in the world.” For Dana, writes Allen Churchill in Park Row:

Life was not a mere procession of elections, legislatures, theatrical performances, murders, and lectures. Life was everything: a new kind of apple, a crying child on the curb, a policeman’s epigram, the exact weight of a candidate for President, the latest style in whiskers, the origin of a new slang expression, the idiosyncrasies of the City Hall clock, a strange four-master in the harbor, a vendetta in Mulberry Bend: everything was fish to the great net of Dana’s mind.

The Sun’s editorial standards became so high that it could neither be criticized nor disregarded. First, printing a four-page paper with all the news of both hemispheres required condensation, which required superior writers. He emphasized developing style, for he was obsessed by grammar and usage. A literary critic once sent Dana samples of his better columns. They were returned. The writer searched for some indication to Dana’s reaction. “Finally,” Churchill writes, “he found a black line of exclamatory outrage under two words in one column. The offending words were ‘none are.’”

Every edition of The Sun had to be perfect. A reporter sent out on a story had to return to the office to write it in longhand from his handwritten notes. Then Dana studied and analyzed the story. He cross-examined the reporter to explore its shadings and nuances. Then, Dana might fire him for using “balance” in the sense of “remainder,” the kind of subtle solecism Dana specialized in finding. Finally, he was unconcerned with respectability. Under Dana, The Sun felt free to keep no opinion to itself.

The Sun was published on Park Row, then the city’s media center. Its offices were at Printing House Square—a tiny triangle formed by Park Row, Frankfort Street and Nassau Street featuring a statue of Benjamin Franklin—in a shabby six-story building that had once been Tammany Hall. Visitors climbed a spiral iron staircase to the city room, emerging to find Dana’s office and beyond it a huge loft containing the paper’s departments. As Churchill observed, “…it perpetually resembled a madhouse…[filled with] shouted conversation, loud profanity…angry pressmen demanding copy…copy boys [scampering] about in answer to furious shouts from editors and reporters.”

The room was filled with cigar and pipe smoke; older reporters made expert use of the large brass spittoons “strategically placed about the wooden floor” from amazing distances. Out of this chaos came the newspaperman’s newspaper, “The Sun, [sparkling] like its name, with humorous stories, pathetic stories, bits of vivid description.” Though the writing is lean and concise, most Sun stories read like essays. As one contemporary wrote, “The Sun could evolve a classic out of a dogfight, an epic out of a football game, invest a tenement house eviction with pregnant pathos, or make an account of a fire vibrant with drama.”

One did not publish such a paper without interesting personalities. The staff included multimillionaires, Communists, lawyers, fishermen, poets, society men, former diplomats and future congressmen. Dana’s first managing editor, Amos Cummings, had a predilection for profanity. The Tribune had fired him as political reporter for his written response to two orders written by one of its subeditors and apparently posted on the paper’s bulletin board: Order 756: “There is too much profanity in this office.” Order 757: “The political reporter must have his copy in at 10:30 PM.”

There are several versions of Cummings’ response, all censored. He probably wrote something like this: “Order 1234567: Everybody knows —— —— well that I get most of the political news out of the Albany Journal, and everybody knows —— —— well that the ——— Journal doesn’t get here until 11 o’clock at night, —— —— it, and anybody who knows —— —— about anything knows —— —— well that asking me to get this —— —— out at half past 10 is like ——— asking a man to sit on a —— —— window sill and dance on the roof at the same time.”

In 1882, a cub reporter asked city editor John Bogart to define news. It is said that Bogart pulled on his pipe for a moment, or, more likely, paused to swig from a bottle of whiskey (when asked about drinking habits in the city room, one editor quipped, “We were not milk addicts”). Then he said, “When a dog bites a man, that’s not news; when a man bites a dog, that’s news.”

John B. Wood, Dana’s night editor, omitted needless words. Candace Stone wrote in Dana and The Sun,

Every few minutes boys came up to him on the run, bringing sheaves of yellow paper… To one batch he would scarcely give a glance before tossing it contemptuously into the basket at his feet. Another batch he would subject to merciless mutilation, seemingly sparing neither the dignity of the stateliest paragraph nor the innocence of the most modest part of speech as his terrible blue pencil tore through the pages leaving havoc in his wake. His only pause was to project a violent stream of tobacco juice in the direction of a distant cuspidor.

As for Dana’s editorial page, as Stone observed, “There was much in that page which ought to please everyone; there was much in it which cannot but grieve judicious readers. But whether it was right or wrong, and it could sometimes be both on the same question within forty-eight hours, it was almost invariably amusing. It is difficult not to believe that Dana’s main purpose was not to make it just this—always incalculable, always individual, frequently a little shocking, but always interesting.”

“Sometimes,” wrote Stone, “he used Titania’s wand; sometimes he used a red-hot poker.” Sometimes people responded. His paper did not appear in the libraries of the fashionable clubs, including the Century Association, the home of literary pre-eminentos, where, if a copy was found, some members were known to pick it up with fire tongs and drop it in the fireplace.

Dana wrote most potently during the Gilded Age, the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. Dana, who knew Grant, entitled one editorial: “The Presidency Office Holders’ Candidate For President: USELESS S. GRANT.” Dana then listed 34 relatives of the President who were in, or aspiring to, places on the federal payroll, ranging from the President’s father (U.S. Postmaster at Covington, Kentucky) to James S. Wadsworth, “son of the sister of the mother of the President’s wife,” who had been nominated for U.S. Marshal at New York, “but rejected by the Senate on account of his bad character.”

Dana’s reporters also exposed the Washington Safe Burglary Case, a scandal with a contemporary tone. The private secretary to the President, the solicitor to the U.S. Treasury, the chief of the U.S. Secret Service, the heads of the D.C. police and a number of congressmen and contractors conspired to burglarize the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, seize books of accounts belonging to an accused corrupt contractor, plant them in the home of his accuser and arrest the accuser as responsible for the burglary. The U.S. attorney arranged the employment of professional burglars to dynamite his own safe while the police stood outside to prevent possible interference. When the second break-in, to plant the books, failed, one of the burglars was arrested and signed a confession charging the accuser with hiring him to commit the crime.

Dana grew more acerbic with age. He thought nothing of calling the New York Journal, a third-rate paper known as “the chambermaid’s delight” (and edited by Joseph Pulitzer’s forgotten older brother Albert), “a newspaper edited for fools by fools.” Of course, journalism was rougher then. Both James Gordon Bennetts of the Herald, the Elder and the Younger, were horsewhipped in the street. William Cullen Bryant, poet of “Thanatopsis” and “To a Water Fowl” and editor of the Evening Post, waylaid a rival, whip in hand, after the fellow printed an editorial addressed to Bryant: “You lie, you villain, you sinfully, wickedly, basely lie.”

Dana’s editorials attacking Joseph Pulitzer and his World were cruelly personal. Yet Pulitzer was now the innovator. The Sun began slipping. By 1886, circulation had fallen from 137,000 to 85,000. Still, the paper continued, becoming ever more polished. Dana’s associate Francis P. Church wrote its most famous editorial in December 1897. Instructed at an editorial conference to reply to a letter of inquiry from an eight-year-old girl, Church was unenthusiastic. But he shrugged and, probably after a good slug from the bottle in the lower right-hand drawer, took up his pencil:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to our life its highest beauty and joy. Alas how dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus… There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance, to make tolerable this existence… The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.

But Dana would never read it, having died some two months before. His death was front-page news in every paper across the country save one. The Sun published its announcement of his death as he had directed in ordinary body type at the top of the editorial column on page two:

CHARLES ANDERSON DANA, Editor of THE SUN, died yesterday afternoon.

— New York Press, September 21,1999

January 29, 2015   No Comments

A Poor Printer of New York

William Bradford published Manhattan’s first newspaper, the New York Gazette, on November 16, 1725. According to F.L. Mott’s American Journalism, it was two pages long. Each page was ten by fifteen inches with two columns of text, “chiefly foreign news from three to six months old, state papers, lists of ships entered and cleared, and a few advertisements.” There were no illustrations. Its weekly circulation ranged from 300 to 350 copies.

John Peter Zenger would publish its first competitor. Born in Germany in 1697, he arrived in 1710 as a bonded apprentice to Bradford. Zenger served Bradford for eight years, learning the printer’s trade while repaying his passage. Later he opened his own printing shop.

On Aug. 1, 1732 Col. William Cosby became captain general, vice admiral, and governor in chief of His Majesty’s Province of New York and the Jerseys. The Colonel had needs. He demanded 1,000 pounds sterling from the Governor’s Council for lobbying services in London. Cosby also demanded that Rip Van Dam, the Council president, split the salary Van Dam had received while serving as acting governor and then sued for the money. Van Dam’s attorneys, James Alexander and William Smith, persuaded Chief Justice Lewis Morris to dismiss the suit. Cosby, in a fit of rage, replaced Morris with the “young and arrogant” James De Lancey.

The Morris family was wealthy, powerful, and proud. With other “gentlemen of the landed interest,” they organized against Cosby. In the fall of 1733, at a special assembly election, Morris crushed his Cosbyite opponent. Parenthetically, their campaigns largely consisted of treating voters to free drinks on Election Day, a tradition worth reviving.

On November 5, 1733 the Morrisites unleashed the New York Weekly Journal, edited and published by Zenger. Its articles attacked Cosby as an idiot, a Nero, a rogue and a lawbreaker, “tyrannically flouting the laws of England and New York.” The paper accused him of “incompetence, influence peddling, corruption, collusion with the French, election fraud, and tyranny.” It also exposed his padded expense accounts, mysterious dealings in government-owned lands, and greed for every imaginable perquisite. The Morrisites won the September 1734 city elections. On Sunday, November 17, 1734 Cosby ordered Zenger’s arrest for seditious libel. Seditious libel was the publication of statements intended to arouse the people against the government by either bringing it into contempt or exciting dissatisfaction. Truth was no defense to the charge. The hangman publicly burned the paper. Chief Justice De Lancey set bail far beyond Zenger’s means, requiring his imprisonment until trial.

The arrest prevented the paper’s publication on November 18. A week later, the Journal appeared with a front page apology:

As you last week were Disappointed of my Journall, I think it Incumbent upon me, to publish my Apoligy which is this. On the Lord’s Day, the Seventeenth of this instant, I was Arrested, taken and Imprisoned in the common Gaol of this Citty, by Virtue of a Warrant from the Governour where upon I was put under such Restraint that I had not the Liberty of Pen, Ink, or Paper, or to see, or speak with People, till upon my Complaint to the Honourable the Chief Justice, at my appearing before him upon my Habia Corpus on the Wednesday following. I hope for the future by the Liberty of Speaking to my Servants thro’ the Hole of the Door of the Prison, to entertain you with my weekly Journal as formerly.

Anna Zenger, John Peter’s wife, thereafter published the Journal, becoming New York’s first woman editor and publisher.

On April 15, 1735 Alexander and Smith appeared as Zenger’s counsel before Chief Justice De Lancey, challenging the court’s legality by arguing that Cosby’s appointment of De Lancey was unlawful. De Lancey held both lawyers in contempt, disbarred them and ejected them from the courtroom. He then appointed the honest and competent John Chambers as Zenger’s counsel, who took care of loose ends left behind by Alexander and Smith, such as entering a plea of not guilty.

On August 4, 1735, before a packed courtroom, the Attorney General opened for the prosecution, arguing the Governor, “the King’s immediate representative here, is greatly and unjustly scandalized [as a] person that has no regard to law or justice.”

Then, to nearly everyone’s surprise, an elderly man strode to the defense table and bowed to the Chief Justice. Andrew Hamilton, born in Scotland around 1676, had arrived in America, like Zenger, an indentured servant. He practiced law in Pennsylvania, where he had been attorney general and was presently speaker of the assembly-also a practicing engineer, architect and builder. (Hamilton’s most famous structure is Independence Hall.) Now he would argue his most famous case.

The Attorney General had used canned language in his pleadings, which charged Zenger with publishing “a certain false, malicious, seditious, and scandalous libel.” Each adjective thus became an element of the crime, requiring each to be proven at trial. Hamilton initially offered to concede that Zenger had printed and published the articles. The Attorney General claimed Hamilton was admitting libel: “I think nothing is plainer than that the words in the information are ‘scandalous, and tend to sedition, and to disquiet the minds of the people’ of this Province. And if such papers are not libels, I think it may be said there can be no such thing as a libel.”

Hamilton replied, “I must insist that what my client is charged with is not a libel; and I observed just now that [the Attorney General] in defining a libel omitted the word false.”

The Attorney General said, “But it has been said already that it may be a libel notwithstanding it may be true.”

Hamilton now had his opening. “We are charged with printing and publishing a certain false, malicious, seditious, and scandalous libel. This word false must have some meaning, or else how came it there? No, the falsehood makes the scandal, and both make the libel. [The Attorney General] has only to prove the words false in order to make us guilty.”

The Attorney General seemed irritated: “We have nothing to prove; you have confessed the printing and the publishing.”

Hamilton riposted, ” We will prove those very papers that are called libels to be true.”

Now, the Chief Justice interjected, “You cannot give the truth of a libel in evidence.”

Hamilton briefly discussed the law of seditious libel, arguing that the cases creating the doctrine all involved false statements, making falsehood an element of the crime. He then distinguished the common law of England and of the colonies. An act punishable as seditious libel in England might not be in New York, for colonials enjoyed greater liberty than Englishmen.

Finally, Hamilton argued the jury’s inherent power to judge the law as well as the facts and refuse to convict if the law is unjust, a doctrine called jury nullification. He discussed a 1670 case, involving William Penn’s arrest for breaking the laws establishing the Church of England as the only lawful religion, by preaching a public sermon on Quakerism. At trial, Penn freely admitted preaching. The judge directed the jury to find Penn guilty. Four jurors voted to acquit. The judge ordered them jailed without food or water. After four days, they still voted to acquit. The judge fined them and ordered them imprisoned until they paid the fines. One juror, Edmund Bushell, sought a writ of habeas corpus. The Lord Chief Justice of England ordered the jurors’ release, ruling they could not be punished for their verdict. It followed that defendants were entitled to trials before a jury unintimidated by the government.

As great defense lawyers will, Hamilton redefined the issue at trial from whether Zenger was guilty of libel to whether a free people might criticize their rulers.

The question before the Court and you gentlemen of the Jury, is not of small or private concern, it is not the cause of a poor Printer of New York alone, which you are now trying; No! It may in its consequence affect every Freeman that lives under the British government on the main of America. It is the best cause. It is the cause of Liberty; and I make no doubt but that your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow citizens; but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempt of tyranny; and by an impartial and uncorrupt verdict, have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right; that liberty, both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing the Truth.

After the Attorney General closed for the government, De Lancey instructed the jury. Their role, he said, was merely determining whether the statements had been published and, if so, whether they referred to the persons or institutions described in the charges. The truth of the statements was irrelevant and immaterial.

Zenger later wrote:

The Jury returned in about Ten Minutes, and found me Not Guilty; upon which there were immediately three Hurra’s of many Hundreds of People in the presence of the Court.

Forty Morrisites hauled Hamilton to dinner at the Black Horse Tavern, near William Street and Exchange Place. The next morning, as Hamilton sailed for Philadelphia, “he was saluted with the great Guns of several Ships in the Harbour, as a public Testimony of the glorious Defense he made in the cause of Liberty.”

After Gov. Cosby’s death in 1736, John Peter Zenger became public printer of the Province of New York. He published the Journal until he died on July 28, 1746.

Jury nullification-“non-cooperation with injustice,” as Clay S. Conrad of the Cato Institute called it-flourished until the last century. Jurors routinely refused to enforce the Alien and Sedition Act, the Fugitive Slave Act, and Prohibition as unjust laws. In 1895, the United States Supreme Court held that trial courts need not inform jurors of this prerogative. Today, a trial judge would hold Hamilton in contempt for attempting to advise the jury of it.

New York Press, June 12, 2001

February 5, 2009   No Comments

Hard-Boiled Charlie Chapin

In the golden age of American newspaper journalism, those 60 years between 1890 and 1950, New York had as many as 14 English-language dailies, with telegraphs and telephones to speed the news-gathering, even as high-speed presses printed tens of thousands of newspapers an hour. The radio was not a serious competitor and the television became a mass medium only after World War II.

Some of the journalists of that day still survive in memory: publishers such as Hearst or Pulitzer or reporters such as Gene Fowler, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Editors, however, being behind the scenes, are more obscure.

Some weeks ago, I picked up Johns Hopkins University’s elegant reissue of City Editor, a minor classic by Stanley Walker. Walker discusses the great editors whom he admired. He calls one, Charles E. Chapin, city editor of the New York Evening World before 1918, “the ablest city editor who ever lived.”

He is an interesting choice. Chapin’s autobiography, published in 1920, is on its face a splendid memoir, often amusing, and utterly sane. Until the closing chapter, one never realizes its writer was serving a sentence of 20 years to life for murdering his wife. The book is fascinating in context as a masterpiece of self-delusion. To read it, one might think Chapin was a nice guy who worried too much about money. However, nearly anyone who had ever worked for Hard-boiled Charlie described him as a cruel, sadistic tyrant.

Yet he was more than that. He instituted the legman/rewrite system of news-gathering, where a reporter gathered the facts and telephoned a rewrite man, who wrote the story. He envisioned reporting news as it happened, without prejudice, color or individual style, the reporters and rewrite men working as machines.

As importantly, he forced his reporters to use the summary lead, which puts the important facts-who, what, when, where, why-into the first sentence, and the inverted pyramid story form, which works from the lead down to the less important facts. This meant that he forced his reporters to abandon lengthy and winding news articles structured by chronology and usually written in an ornate, self-consciously literary style of “fine writing.” To be sure, Chapin alone did not change this. The expense of transmitting news by telegraph favored concision. Others argue that public education created a semi-literate reading public without the patience to decipher fine writing. However, Chapin’s importance as city editor of one of the nation’s most famous papers made his judgments stick.

Charles Chapin was born to poverty in Watertown, NY, in 1858. He taught himself to set type and take shorthand. For a few years, he was an actor with a traveling theater company; his reporters rejoiced to learn he had played Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In 1879, he married Nellie Beebe, an actress: it was a love match that would endure for 39 years. He then almost immediately became a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. One of his first editors defined journalism as “the art of knowing where hell is going to break loose next and having a man there to cover it.” He took it to heart: by his 25th birthday, he would be city editor of the Chicago Star.

At 33, he visited New York with Nellie for the first time. On an impulse, he walked into the World Bldg. and introduced himself. They knew his work; they hired him immediately. Tall, slender and erect—he stood like a pouter pigeon, shoulders back and chest thrust out—Chapin dressed with an exaggerated elegance: wasp-waisted tweed or herringbone suits, always with a calendula or gardenia in his buttonhole; spats; and selections from his collections of pearl tie pins, watch fobs, studs and flamboyant ascot ties in such colors as “baby blue, pink, orange, purple, and red.” His thin gray hair was trimmed daily and he exuded bay rum. He was grim-faced and square-jawed, with an ashen complexion and a military mustache. And his voice was a nasal blend of snarl and whine.

Allen Churchill’s admirable Park Row describes his response to the greatest single loss of life in the city’s history before Sept. 11. The General Slocum, an excursion steamer, burned in the East River. The final death toll was 1021. Eyewitnesses saw “women on fire and holding children in their arms running about the deck…women and children going over the rail by the dozens…” Charred and mangled bodies lay in piles along the beach or floated in the blackened water.

At the World, the rewrite men taking down the details burst into tears. Some vomited. However, Chapin strutted about the city room, humming a happy tune. “He would run up and down, peering over shoulders to read the nauseating details of the tragedy as they were typed out. Then, standing erect, he would shout, ‘Women and children jumping overboard with clothing afire! Water full of charred bodies!'” The dead and bereaved were immaterial to his good fortune: he was editing a great paper that was covering a great story.

Thus, when New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor was shot in 1910, a World photographer kept snapping pictures. When the photographs came out of the darkroom, Chapin rejoiced: “Blood all over him, and an exclusive, too!” A World story led to the arrest of a swindler for murder. Chapin rubbed his hands together. Walker wrote that someone “remarked that he seemed to be feeling his oats. ‘Why shouldn’t I be happy?’ asked the spirit of sweetness and light. ‘I’ve started a man on the way to his electric chair.’”

He loved firing people: for being two minutes late, for staying home to minister to a sick family, for being knocked unconscious in pursuit of a story. He even fired Joseph Pulitzer Jr., his boss’ son, for absenteeism and lateness. The father said not a word. Chapin once took a dislike to a particular piece of copy and fired its writer. As the reporter headed for the door, Chapin barked to the entire city room, “That is the 108th man I’ve fired.” Perhaps this explains why Irvin Cobb, one of his best reporters, was present on the unusual day when Chapin telephoned the office to report sick. “Let us hope,” Cobb said, “it’s nothing trivial.”

Chapin wrote, “I was boss of the office for more than twenty years and…in all those twenty years I never saw or spoke to a member of the staff outside the office or talked to them in the office about anything except the business of the minute. I gave no confidences, I invited none. I was myself a machine, and the men I worked with were cogs. The human element never entered into the scheme of getting out the paper. It was my way of doing things.”

He expected his men to know what they were doing. If they did, he allowed them complete freedom to do their work. If they did not, he fired them. Once a reporter asked Chapin what to do next about covering a fire. Chapin snapped, “Go pick the hottest place and jump into it.”

Walker writes that a reporter, writing of the discovery of a body in the East River, referred to the “melancholy waters.” “Pretty good phrase, that,” said Chapin. He was overheard. For days, the Harlem River, the Gowanus Canal and the Spuyten Duyvil all developed melancholy waters. Chapin ordered that the next man who used the phrase would be fired. A new reporter had not heard the warning. The next day, his first story was of a suicide in the Hudson. The article began, “The melancholy waters of the Hudson…”

Chapin called him over. “You’re fired. ‘Melancholy waters’! Now, look here, in all sense how could the waters of the Hudson be melancholy?”

“Perhaps,” the young man replied, “it was because they had just gone past Yonkers.”

“Not bad,” Chapin said. “You’re hired.”

He came to speak almost exclusively in newspaper terms. Churchill claims he couldn’t say, “Hurry up with the story of the child who was killed.” Rather, it was, “Hurry up with TINY TOT WITH PENNY CLUTCHED IN CHUBBY FIST DIES UNDER TRAIN BEFORE MOTHER’S EYES.”

Chapin’s lavish lifestyle, complete with limousine and yacht (he had lived in the Plaza from before the day it opened to the public), concealed a morass of debt. He had been related by marriage to Russell Sage, the financier and usurer. After moving to New York, Chapin had cultivated the old miser, who had led the editor to believe he would inherit a fortune. Chapin anticipated his inheritance in luxurious living. When Sage died, he left Chapin almost nothing.

By the summer of 1918, Chapin was wiped out and he began to go mad. There is literally nothing in the record to indicate anything other than mutual devotion in his marriage. However, he obsessively believed Nellie would be unable to bear his financial collapse, and so he resolved to kill her.

Perhaps it was more a matter of the guilt being unbearable for him. (Interestingly, Eugene O’Neill, who had a copy of Chapin’s autobiography in his library, has Hickey use a similar rationalization for murdering his wife in The Iceman Cometh.)

Chapin spent the weekend of Sept. 15-16, 1918, at home with Nellie. He mailed a suicide note to the World’s business manager, Don C. Seitz, on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16. Around 6 a.m. on Monday, as Nellie slept, Chapin drew a police special from under the bed, pointed it at a spot slightly above her right ear and pulled the trigger. For two hours, she moaned in agony. Chapin held her, weeping, speaking of nothing but love and beauty and joy. Then she died.

Chapin breakfasted and dressed for the office. He hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door to his suite. Then he began traveling the subways and elevated railways to Central Park, Bronx Park and Prospect Park, where a police officer came along as he was raising the revolver to his head.

Meanwhile, Seitz had received his letter. Mail was delivered much more quickly for three cents in 1918 than for 34 cents now. He telephoned Chapin’s hotel. The hotel manager and a police officer entered Chapin’s suite with a house key.

Chapin left the subway at W. 66th St., where he bought a paper and saw his name staring up at him from the headline: CHARLES CHAPIN WANTED FOR MURDER.

Then he became sane again. He surrendered at the nearest police station and never breathed again as a free man. In mid-January 1919, he pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life. He complained of how the newspapers handled the stories of his crime. “What’s the newspaper business coming to?”

Chapin adapted to prison life. In 1919, he was asked to edit the prison newspaper, The Star of Hope. According to James McGrath Morris’ Jailhouse Journalism, Chapin transformed the paper into an advocate for inmates’ rights. The prison authorities shut him down. Major Lewis E. Lawes, a new warden, who later wrote bestsellers such as Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, suggested that Chapin expand his autobiographical articles into a book, which he did.

Chapin took up gardening. Lawes let him direct a Garden Squad, which transformed the bleak compound with flowers. Chapin would probably have been paroled in 1933. However, in the fall of 1930, Lawes told him Sing Sing was being renovated. The garden would be ploughed under.

Chapin took to his bed. Lawes visited him. “Do you want anything?” “Yes,” Chapin replied. “I want to die. I want to get it over with.”

On Dec. 16, 1930, Hard-boiled Charlie turned his face to the wall. He had believed he would die in Sing Sing from the moment he had been assigned the number 69690. The individual digits totaled 30: the number a newspaper reporter types at the end of a story.

New York Press, April 16, 2002

January 29, 2009   No Comments

The Truth as You See It

In 1900, when newspapers were still the only mass media, over thirty daily papers of general and specialized circulation were published in Manhattan alone. But by the Twenties, a combination of massive capital investment and increasing difficulties in getting through traffic jams to deliver the newspapers to customers made launching a new daily something only an established publisher might try.

For example, the Daily News, first published on June 26, 1919, was founded by Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, an heir to the family that published the Chicago Tribune. Within five years its large photographs, wild headlines, and popular columnists had given the Daily News a circulation of 750,000, making it the most widely read daily in the United States. In 1924, William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal and the New York American, declared war on Patterson by starting his own tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

But these papers, however sensational, still published something that could be recognized as news. Nothing had prepared journalism for Bernarr Macfadden’s New York Graphic.

Macfadden proved that material success can be won by the hard-working, ambitious, and utterly humorless. He was an ignoramus with the courage of his convictions, believing that whatever interested him would interest everybody else, and for an amazingly long time, he was largely right.

He was a graphomaniac health nut: during his long career, he published some 150 books on diet and fitness. He was also fixated on sex, although to call his focus on the human body an obsession is to lend glamor to a grimly Celtic fanaticism.

Bernard Adolphus McFadden was born near Mill Spring, Missouri on August 16, 1868. No one knows when or why he changed his name: one memoirist wrote, “…there was a legend around the Macfadden magazines…that the name was a misprint of Bernard, but that upon seeing it misspelled by a printer he had decided to keep it.”

He arrived in New York in 1894 after a brief stint as a professional wrestler with Sandow, the Strong Man. Four years later, already a vegetarian and non-drinker, Macfadden launched his first magazine, Physical Culture, from the Flatiron Building. At first he wrote most of the magazine himself, including its serialized novels. He also posed for the magazine in various stages of undress as an exemplar of Healthy American Manhood. He lectured, denounced alcohol and tobacco, and advocated fasting, natural healing, and exercise.

In 1912, his five-volume Encyclopedia of Physical Culture argued that all major illnesses, including polio, cancer, and Bright’s disease, could be cured by simple diets, water therapy, and modest exercises. One diet called for grapes—nothing but grapes—which Macfadden insisted would eradicate any cancer in the system.

His four marriages produced eight children, six of whom were daughters—Berwyn, Braunda, Beverly, Brynece, Byrne, and Beulah. They were a handsome family, and he loved publishing photographs of his children as representative of ideal American youth, often wearing costumes that Graphic reporter Lester Cohen later described as looking “like…a number of silk handkerchiefs, hanging here or there.”

Then he made his fortune. True Story began publication in 1918. It was the first modern true-confessions magazine. It warned young women against “random flirtations and promiscuous sex.”

One of his writers once asked an editor, “Can a heroine of True Story have sexual intercourse?”

“Yes,” the editor replied, “if she doesn’t enjoy it.”

Perhaps the greatest argument for Macfadden’s sanity is that, when the magazine’s sales dipped in 1920, he did a complete turnabout, publishing stories that placed a heavy emphasis on women who sought sexual gratification outside the bounds of marriage (although Macfadden still drew a conventional moral lesson from his characters’ unhappy lives).

At a time when most magazines still used illustrators, Macfadden used posed photographs of actors or models to illustrate his stories. He always admitted the photographs were posed, usually in microscopic type on the contents page. The mere use of photographs blurred the line between fiction and fact: many of his readers believed the stories were true.

True Story became enormously popular. It spawned legions of imitators. Then he started True Detective Stories and other gritty pulp magazines. He made $30 million within five years. This was not enough: he had to publish a New York City daily. Thus, on April 15, 1924, the New York Graphic hit the streets for the first time.

Of course, Macfadden’s paper would publish Nothing but the Truth: it said so on the masthead. He knew what the public wanted: after all, he’d succeeded with True Story and his other magazines. And it would be a crusading newspaper, fighting for health and physical fitness and against medical ignorance, fighting against the use of pharmaceuticals and against what he called “Prurient Prudery,” to advance “a new human race, free of inhibitions and free of the contamination of smallpox vaccine.” Within days, the joke was that the Graphic was for fornication, against vaccination.

Macfadden, then in his late fifties, was slender, beaky, and about five feet, six inches tall. He looked vaguely exotic: many thought he had Native American blood. He spoke with a bizarre accent: one listener compared it to a combination of Old Scotch and Choctaw.

Macfadden had assembled some interesting professional talent. Money can do that. His managing editor, Emile Gauvreau, had been editor of the Hartford Courant at twenty-six; his memoirs, My Last Million Readers, is a fine, racy impression of Twenties tabloid journalism. Macfadden’s greatest catch was an unknown, Walter Winchell. It was Winchell’s first job on a daily newspaper. He was the nightclub editor, sports columnist, and dramatic critic. Within months, his gossip column made him famous; within two years, it landed him a job with Hearst. Better than Macfadden, perhaps, he knew what “they” wanted.

Between his own genius, the keyhole journalism of Walter Winchell, and contests (the Graphic appears to have been the first American daily to offer cash prizes in crossword puzzle competitions), Gauvreau built circulation from 30,000 to 300,000 within two years. Headlines like “Nude Models and Students in Mad Revel at Paris Ball” and “Boys Spill Beans on Nude Coeds in Reservoir Swim” helped a lot.

So did the Composograph, “a depiction, posed in the Art Department, of a sensational real-life scene that…could not be photographed.” To Macfadden, it was simply the logical extension of the sort of thing that his magazines  had done for years. His competitors found it fraudulent and unethical.

The tabloid photographers would do almost anything for a great shot. Thus, on January 12, 1928, Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer on assignment to the Daily News, concealed a miniature camera in his pants to illegally smuggle it into Sing Sing so that he could snap murderess Ruth Snyder, bound and hooded in Old Sparky, just as the executioner flipped the switch.

They were nearly two years behind the Graphic, which had used a Composograph to cover the execution of cop-killing post office bandit Gerald Chapman, whose polished manner had won him the tabloid nicknames “Gentleman Gerald” and “The Count of Gramercy Park.”  Gus Schoenbaechler, a Graphic staff, posed as Chapman; his editor hung him from a steam pipe for the shot; Schoenbaechler nearly strangled himself when he accidentally kicked away the chair; and the picture made the Graphic’s front page on Tuesday, April 6, 1926.

More importantly for the Graphic’s prurient readership, as long as the darkroom held out, the Graphic could simply fake front page photographs showing celebrities in intimate situations, as in the misadventures of Daddy Browning and his child-bride, Peaches.

Edward West Browning (1875-1934) rose from office boy to real estate multimillionaire by the age of forty. He first appeared in the tabloids when his wife left him for the family dentist in 1924. He complained, “How can any sensible woman fall in love with a dentist, particularly with the dentist who has done her own work?” Mrs. Browning’s response was to allege Browning’s weakness for little girls.

The divorce settlement left Browning with custody of his adopted daughter Dorothy. Within a year of the divorce, Browning, claiming she needed a sister, advertised in the Herald Tribune for a “pretty, refined girl, about fourteen years old…” He allegedly interviewed 12,000 applicants over two weeks, bouncing the girls on his knee as he caressed and pinched them. Unfortunately, the successful candidate was soon exposed as a twenty-one-year-old impostor.

A year later, Browning met Frances Heenan at a sorority dance. The fifty-one-year-old was entranced by the fifteen year-old blonde. He said, “You look like peaches and cream to me! I’m going to call you Peaches.” The tabloids had already named him “Daddy.”

At five feet, seven inches and 145 pounds, Peaches was a healthy girl. Damon Runyon wrote, “She is…one of those large, patient blondes…her legs are what the boys call piano legs. They say she is fifteen, but she is developed enough to pass anywhere for twenty.”

They were married on April 11, 1926; on October 2, 1926, less than six months later, she marched out of their hotel lugging $30,000 worth of jewels, furs, gowns, and gifts while screaming, “Money isn’t everything!”

Daddy and Peaches each held numerous press conferences, at which they washed, as one writer commented, not only their dirty linen but their scanties and socks as well. Before their five-day divorce trial, Peaches confusingly claimed that: that he had forced her to perform unnatural acts, that she had had nightly relations with him “except when ill,” and that she had never slept with Browning at all.

At trial, Peaches testified that Browning had forced her to look at pornography and eat breakfast with him in the nude. He loved to hide behind doors and screens and then jump out naked to surprise her, shouting “Woof! Woof!”

Macfadden found this material irresistible.  A flood of Composographs followed, such as one showing Daddy (discreetly in his pajamas) advancing on a cowering, towel-draped Peaches, saying “Woof! Woof! Don’t be a goof!” in an overhead comic-strip balloon while Daddy’s pet African honking gander, “perched on the marital bed,” comments “Honk! Honk! It’s the bonk!”

Peaches was awarded $350 a week in temporary alimony, cut off when the divorce was finalized.

The death of film star Rudolph Valentino, the Great Lover of the silent screen, made the Composograph almost  infamous. Near the height of his fame, Valentino was only 31 when he died suddenly of peritonitis on August 23, 1926. There was an orgy of frenzied mourning, encouraged by the studios and the tabloids, with hysterical mobs shattering windows to get into Frank E. Campbell’s funeral home on Madison Avenue where Valentino’s body lay in state.

Macfadden sent two photographers to Campbell’s before the body’s arrival. Presumably after a distribution of appropriate gratuities, one photographer posed in Valentino’s empty casket. The other snapped away. While developing the photograph, the darkroom boys superimposed the actor’s head on the photographer’s body. Thus the Graphic had a picture of Valentino in the box before Campbell’s had finished embalming him. The boys also created a picture of Valentino on the operating table (Graphic staffer Lester Cohen later wrote that he recognized two fellow reporters among the “surgeons” and “nurses” in the photograph) and yet another, based on a medium’s vision, showing Valentino standing with Enrico Caruso in heaven as scores of dead souls ascend the stairway to the Pearly Gates.

Macfadden responded to one critic of this sort of thing by snapping, “What’s the harm in telling the public the truth as you see it? I ask you, sir!”

Macfadden never tired of pushing his nuttier ideas into the paper against Gauvreau’s better instincts. In 1928, Gauvreau, worn out by fighting with his boss, left the Graphic for peace and tranquillity as managing editor of Hearst’s Daily Mirror, and the paper lost momentum with his departure. Macfadden, now convinced he should be President of the United States, further dissipated his energies by building a chain of newspapers and magazines to further his ambitions. Nearly all lost money.

On July 7, 1932, Macfadden folded the Graphic. In eight years, he had reportedly lost between seven and eleven million dollars. He never actually ran for President: in 1940, he ran for U.S. Senator from Florida in the Democratic primary, one of those old-fashioned races with sixteen candidates, and managed to poll a little over ten percent of the vote. A year later, the bankers took over Macfadden Publications and he was out.

In 1955, Macfadden was diagnosed with jaundice. Refusing all medical help, he trusted to fasting. He died on October 12, 1955—probably of his own prescription.

New York Press, January 11, 2000

January 11, 2000   No Comments