David Bruce: Newspaper Anecdotes

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Edgar White, a reporter, was once asked to interview Mark Twain on a certain subject. He went to Mr. Twain’s hotel close to midnight, and was shown to Mr. Twain’s room. Mr. Twain was in bed, reading and smoking. Unfortunately, Mr. Twain announced that he couldn’t talk about the reporter’s proposed topic, as a contract he had signed forbade it. Mr. White was understandably disappointed and said in that case he had nothing to write about. “I’ve been in that fix many and many a time,” Mr. Twain said. “Now if I were the reporter and you were the man in bed I’d tell how, over the vigorous remonstrances of the clerk I’d come up here in the dead hour of the night and aroused you from a sound sleep to ….” Mr. White interrupted to point out that that was not the truth — the clerk had politely shown him to the room and Mr. Twain had not been asleep. Mr. Twain sighed, then said, “If you’re going to let a little thing like that stand in the way, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Good night.” Mr. White decided to write an article stating the absolute truth, just as it is related here. The newspaper ran his article under a big headline.

During his American tour of 1883-1884, Colonel James H. Mapleson took his opera company out West where in Sacramento, a San Francisco reporter wished to interview prima donna Adelina Patti. Colonel Mapleson tried to put off the reporter, but the reporter insisted on an interview, threatening, “I have come hundreds of miles to interview Patti, and see her I must. Refuse me, and I shall simply telegraph two lines to San Francisco that Patti has caught a severe cold in the mountains, and that [rival prima donna Etelka] Gerster’s old throat complaint is coming on again. Do you understand me?” Understanding the damage to his profits that would occur if the San Francisco newspapers were to report that his leading prima donnas were not able to sing, Colonel Mapleson allowed the reporter to interview Ms. Patti.

During an actors’ strike early in the 20th century, four famous theatrical producers decided to descend upon various newspaper editors in an attempt to get more favorable publicity for their side. At The New York Times, one of the producers told a newsboy that he wished to speak with the editor: “Will you be good enough to tell him that Mr. David Belasco, Mr. George Broadhurst, Mr. E. H. Sothern, and Mr. Harrison Grey Fiske wish to see him?” The newsboy asked, “All four of you? What do you want to do? Sing to him?”

Corey Ford was a stringer for The New York Times while he was attending Columbia University; in fact, he kept himself very busy, even composing and sending in a football song to a contest at Columbia. One day, a Times editor called him up, wondering why he had not written an article on the winner of the football song contest. The editor ordered Mr. Ford to go interview the winner. Looking at his notes, the editor said, “Damn it, it’s you.” And that’s how Mr. Ford found out that he had won the contest.

John Chapman was drama critic and drama editor for The New York Daily News, and he supported his staff. A PR person once tried to withhold press seats from Daily News caricaturist Sam Norkin because Mr. Norkin had not sketched his play, but Mr. Chapman informed the PR person that if he took Mr. Norkin’s press seats, he would return his own opening night tickets. Since no play wants no notices, the PR person relented.

Mary Chase won a Pulitzer Prize for her comic play Harvey. Before marrying Bob Chase and becoming a playwright, Mary Coyle was a newspaper reporter for The Denver Post. Once, she arrived at a Denver home in which three of six family members had been killed in a drunken brawl, then introduced herself as a reporter to a bloodstained survivor. The man told her, “Go away. We’ve decided not to put anything about this in the papers.”

Gene Fowler hardly ever fired anybody, but when he was working for The New York Journal, he did fire reporter Walter Davenport. Mr. Davenport had written that the grand marshal of a suffragette parade was riding a “dappled-gray” horse, but Mr. Fowler knew that the horse was pure white. However, Mr. Davenport got his job back when he explained that he was covering the parade from a bar that had a dirty, fly-specked window.

Early in his career, H. Allen Smith was a member of the Denver Press Club. In 1949, after his membership had been lapsed for 19 years, he returned to Denver and spent a pleasant afternoon at the Press Club. A friend of his, Lee Casey, even gave him a new membership card — it was dated 19 years ahead. “We love you and want to see you again,” Mr. Casey explained, but only about once in 19 years.”

At the United Press early in the 20th century, a sacred cow story — so-called because the big wheels had decreed it was to be given special treatment — was called a “moo.” As the article was handed from person to person — from writer to editor to wire-filer — each person said “moo” to alert the next person to what kind of story it was.

A city editor once sent a reporter to interview a man, but the man refused to be interviewed and threatened to shoot any reporter who rang his doorbell again. The alarmed reporter called his editor with this news, but the editor gave him this order, “You go back and tell that fellow he can’t intimidate me.”

“Yours was not, in the beginning, a criminal nature, but circumstances changed it. At the age of nine you stole sugar. At the age of fifteen you stole money. At twenty you stole horses. At twenty-five you committed arson. At thirty, hardened in crime, you became an editor.” — Mark Twain, “Lionising Murderers.”

Harold Ross believed in separating the editorial staff and the advertising staff of The New Yorker — he put the departments in two separate buildings two blocks apart.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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