The life and mind of a Chicago newspaperman



George Murray is someone I never met but now feel I know intimately. He was a Chicago newspaperman at a time when newspapers were dying -- for newspapers have always been dying. He was vain about his skills but less so about his innate talents. With more money, or a more scholarly cast of mind, he might have been leading the life he aspired to -- the life of a prominent author. But there he was, in 1968, a rewriteman for Chicago's American, a terrific rewriteman, if he said so himself. But it was, after all, just a job, and his ambition, as he told an old boyhood friend, remained to "accomplish something before I die."

As that something involved writing a series of books and making a name for himself, by his lights he may never have felt he did. To the extent he's remembered as an author he's remembered for two books: The Madhouse on Madison Street, a history of the American he wrote in 1965, and The Legacy of Al Capone: Portraits and Annals of Chicago's Public Enemies, written ten years later.

Murray, in short, is a familiar personality, right down to his dissatisfactions. The appeal of the newspaper business to people in it, I sometimes think, has a lot to do with its sweet frustration. The brass ring the carousel swings you by is stamped "literary figure." You aren't, but it's a better pipedream than anyone else you know yearns for.

Leonard Aronson is a friend of mine who worked with Murray at the American. He remembers Murray as "a dapper fellow with a bald pate and a thin moustache who exuded an air of mischief and wit. He was a real pro, who'd been around a long time and who, still, was one of the men in the news room who felt accessible and regular and full of charm and willing to share his thoughts and experiences with neophyte reporters just breaking into the game.

"I remember one night his saying to me that I should make the most of my time at the American because 'one of these days this place is going to shut down and you're going to have to go out and really work for a living!' That was certainly a prescient observation. It captured how most of us felt ... that we couldn't believe we were actually getting paid to have so much fun, such an interesting and creative job which let us go out and not only poke our noses into everybody else's business, but then to be able to come back to an office filled with eccentric characters and vie for a spot on the front page and their respect for being able to make something memorable or noteworthy out of the experience...

"I remember another time when Murray told me that the paper couldn't possibly survive. 'I could put out a better paper than this with just two good rewrite men and a wire service feed. This place is way over staffed and worse off for it.'

"He was a wonderful writer and story teller, as was evident in .... 'Mad House on Madison Street," one of the best and most entertaining books ever written about the newspaper business.

"I vaguely recall that he spoke fluent German and served in Germany before or during World War II, either as a newspaper man, a spy or an intelligence officer. I can't remember which but he would have been stellar at any of those callings.

"One of my last recollections was his telling me about one election eve in the 43rd ward, where he lived, just north of North Avenue in Old Town. Paddy 'Chicago ain't ready for reform' Bauler was the alderman of the ward at that time and on election eve George said he wandered over to Bauler's saloon on North Avenue to watch the vote tallies roll in."

Murray's story: "One precinct captain rushed into the back room of the bar and proudly announced to Paddy that he had really done a job that year ... his precinct had turned in a vote of 127 to 0 for Bauler's reelection. 'You old reprobate,' I cut in. 'That's my precinct and I voted against you. This is the proof I've been looking for to show what kind of a crooked deal you have going here.' 

"'You dummy!' Bauler yelled at his precinct captain, then turned to me. 'You see what I'm up against Murray. I'm surrounded by idiots!' Bauler then turned back to the trembling subaltern. 'How many times to I have to tell you to make the vote 126 to 1. That way, anybody who voted against me will think that's his vote!'

"'I tell you George,' Bauler said shaking his head with mock despair and a twinkle in his eye, 'these guys are going to be the death of me!'"

Aronson continues, "I doubt that story ever made it into print, although it might have, but it was just the kind of tale you'd hear at a bar after work that made it all so much fun, and Murray had a thousand moments like that to share."

Why am I telling you about this long-vanished Chicago newsman? A friend of mine came across a letter from Murray to her late father. He'd written it in January 1968 (a few months before Aronson joined the American). Murray and Bill Grosse had been friends since they were boys in Saint Louis. Now Grosse was an ad man, and he'd apparently written Murray to complain about how hard he had to work. Newspapermen have never had any patience with complaining ad men, and Murray promptly sat down and wrote an eight-page reply. I'm guessing he told Grosse more about the newspaper game than his old pal ever wanted to know. But I savored every word. As I said, I know George Murray.

And as I said, newspapers are always dying; obsolescence is not a disease that's new to them, it's a chronic condition. The American was the Tribune Company's afternoon paper in Chicago. In an effort to stay alive, the American renamed itself Today and became a tabloid in 1969; even so, it folded in September of 1974. Murray wound up writing for a paper in Arkansas. The old Chicago Press Veterans Association named him their press veteran of the year in 1990. He died in 1996,

Here's that letter...

Now let’s turn to that matter of writing – and of how little time you have – and of how tired you are at the end of 9 hours a day at the office turning out 175 advertising campaigns a year. My heart is bleeding. Let me cry on your shoulder.

First, a bit about the newspaper business.

Fifty years ago all the American firms who had anything to sell on the consumer market budgeted their average of $100,000 a year for advertising and, except for a trifle spent on billboards and in institutional magazines, poured it all into newspapers.

Thirty years ago, although the number of firms doing such business had not increased appreciably and their average advertising budget remained approximately the same, they split their ad budget between newspapers and radio.

Today they split the budget three ways, between newspapers, radio, and TV – and the newspapers do not even get a fair third of the cash.

The amount of money available to newspapers has dwindled, is still dwindling, and there is nothing on the horizon likely to reverse the trend.

So a fellow such as I am became a master horse-shoer just as the time horsepower began to be measured in terms of 365 HP under the hood of a Thunderbird. Just as I was ready to hang out my shingle and call myself  “a lightning calculator” the office installed an atomic computer.

When I was a kid I was nourished on Richard Harding Davis and the tales of such newspaper greats as Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain, Jack London and Floyd Gibbons. I could not wait to get into the business, as I did 35 years ago.

Our office had 300-400 editorial employes, earning an average of $50 a week. I got $15 to start as a full=fledged reporter, not a copyboy! Today our office has about 50 reporters and they do not average $200 a week. Our union scale is $210 and I get $50 over scale. I think I am the highest paid rewrite in town.

There simply is no money in the business, despite stringent economies. The 50 editorial workers have to be divided into four unequal shifts because of the two-days-a-week off and the four-week vacations with pay. Ours is, of course, a 7-day-a-week paper. There are half a dozen editorial workers on from 4 p.m. until midnight; half a dozen or eight from midnight until 8 a.m.; and 18 or 20 on from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I am one of the daytime workers.

There are several categories of newspapermen, all of whom because of the union (the American Newspaper Guild) are paid the same salaries. There is no such thing as a merit raise anymore except in such unusual circumstances as I was lucky enough to create. The categories:

1. There is the reporter who goes out on an assignment, covers a fire or a club meeting or interviews a celebrity, and comes back to the office to write about it. This is everybody’s idea of the usual American newspaperman. Actually, probably the majority of editorial workers are of this kind. But the newspaper business is getting rid of them because they are uneconomical. Such a reporter can only cover one or at most two stories a day. He or she usually writes so slowly that they seem to be chiseling the words in granite for eternity.

2. There is the reporter who cannot write at all, but who knows news and in particular knows news sources. Such a man or woman is used as a “beat man” to cover the police stations, or the city hall, or the county building, or the courts (Traffic, Criminal, and Federal) or the state building, or the sanitary district.  The reporter will be left on the same “beat” for 30 years if he can survive that long and will get to know everyone who works in the building to which he is assigned. He will be able to telephone half a dozen stories a day to the city desk. He is somewhat more economical than the “assignment” reporter.

3. There is the rewrite man, who takes stories from “beat” reporters. He sits with a telephone headset clamped over his ears all day long, taking notes from reporters phoning in, writing up the news they give him, then immediately taking another call on the switchboard from another reporter. A rewriteman may write a dozen stories a day in the scant six hours that he works. The headset is almost never off his ears. His typewriter sounds like a machine gun all day long. Besides taking stories from reporters, he is sending copyboys to the reference room to get clippings – if any – on the many or woman mentioned in the story. And usually the material the reporter has given him is not quite complete so he dials one or two telephone numbers to talk to the principal in the story – or to some authority on the subject  -- and get one or two meaningful quotes which lift it out of the realm of the completely pedestrian. The rewriteman is the most economical man in the office: for the same money as the others, he handles a news story every 30 minutes all day long.

But within these categories there are grades. We speak of them as “the lightweights,” “the medium weights,” and “the heavyweights.” Many a man who has been on the paper for 20 years remains a lightweight. He is a nice guy and does a good enough job on certain types of stories but there is a limit to his uses. He has to be directed every step of the way. He exercises no initiative and accepts no responsibility. A middleweight is one who has grown out of the category of lightweight and may yet become a heavyweight. A true heavyweight is the man you can depend on at any hour of the day or night to give the story everything he’s got – to work as though he personally owned the paper – to direct the work of the lightweights and improve the work of the middleweights. He is a guy who has the interests of the paper at heart and knows what he is doing all the time.

Parenthetically I might say that at the moment I happen to be one helluva rewrite man. I am mature, knowledgeable,  conscientious. I know my business thoroughly and I am at the peak of my ability to deliver. I was nowhere near this good 20 years ago and, the laws of life being what they are, I will be nowhere near this good 10 years hence. (I am 58, right now.)  I have modesty in some things, but I speak truly of my abilities. I am probably as fast and as accurate and as all-around good as any rewrite man in Chicago today – and since Chicago is much faster than New York or San Francisco, I guess that means as good as any in the world today. As I say, I recognize the law of averages so I know that what is true today will not be true tomorrow, more’s the pity.

I told you all this about the newspaper business partly because I thought it might interest you and partly to make a point. That point is that when I come home from work at the end of such a day – and every single day is such a day – I am ready to drop. Three nights a week I go to bed as soon as I enter the house, at 6 or 7 p.m., and sleep through until morning. The other three nights I try – if my social life does not interfere – to work at the manuscripts until midnight or after. With the weekends, I try to make it average 2 hours a day when I am working. When I finish a book, I allow myself to read those two hours a day for a month or so until I get caught up on the things I have laid aside for the purpose. A prize fighter cannot slug it out today on the beefsteak he ate two years ago, and a writer cannot deliver anything meaningful today on the materials he read two years ago. Both must keep current in their nourishment, physical or mental.

I cannot remember a time since I finished elementary school at the age of 13 that I have not held two jobs. I was going to high school all day long and working every night as an usher at the Missouri or the St. Louis or the Grand Central or the Ambassador movie houses. After I went to work during the day, I went to school at night. When I no longer went to school, I held one job by day and another part time in the evening. When I had no evening job I was writing magazine articles, short stories, plays, books. Much of the stuff I wrote never saw the light of day but it was always being done.

One gets into the habit of working like this. I do now know that it is a good habit. But I could not help it, since  I was always driven to try to accomplish something. I know that this kind of work schedule can make a husband rather unattractive to a young wife. I have never been under-sexed, but the truth is that when a man is making love to a typewriter he is not capable of doing his marital duty with the energy and frequency that it ought to be done. When you have written a good chapter for a book you feel wonderfully exhilarated but just as though you have had a dozen orgasms you want to sleep with your face to the wall.

This does not mean you don’t want to play. You do, but often not just when your wife wants to do so. She may get miffed when she feels rebuffed – or at least feels that her mate is not sufficiently enthusiastic – and may take up knitting or some other interest. Then when you want to play, she shows how unresponsive she can be. Which is a mistake, if a woman wants to hold a man. Because there is always a pretty woman down the street or in the office – seemingly no matter how unattractive a man may be – who is perfectly willing to have him lay his head on her pillowy breasts. And, poof, goes the marriage!

Incidentally I think that we men are never the aggressors. We like to think that we are, and certainly we spend our lives making passes. But a dozen men will make a pass at a pretty girl in the course of a day – and she will choose none of them, or at most one of them. The girl makes the choice, not the man. We like to think we our picking out a babe for ourselves. We kid ourselves. If she wants us she picks us out, not vice versa. So I think women the aggressors in all sex relationships. And I think a pretty good case could be made for the fact that every divorce is the woman’s fault. (Except in cases of near-insanity or something else fairly abnormal.) If a man wants to hold a woman, he may or may not achieve his purpose. But if a woman is determined to hold a man, he’ll never never never get away. She might have to swallow her pride a few times, but when the infatuation is over she’ll still have him if she wants him. And as soon as the infatuation is over, most of us are damned docile husbands until the next time.

However …

I have given some thought to my work as a newspaperman and my work as a writer. The two, by the way, have nothing in common. A rewriteman on a paper has learned the trick of block paragraph writing and of putting the blocks together quickly and almost mechanically to make a readable news story. Playing scales on the piano has nothing to do with musical composition except to teach one the notes. Being a touch typist has nothing to do with authorship except to free one’s mind for thinking about content rather than form while typing. And being a rewrite man on a newspaper, being a fast hard news writer, is a mastery of a technique similar to though a few steps more advanced than touch typewriting. I think most rewritemen do not know this. But then I think most rewritemen do not have an analytical type of mind. They think they are writing. There is no point in disillusioning them.

My speed as a rewriteman comes by virtue of my nowing exactly what each sentence will say before I touch the typewriter for the first word of that sentence. I never have to “x” anything out. I never have to hesitate for a word. This is an easy technique to learn when dealing with hard news. Easy to learn, but requiring years of experience to develop to high speed and accuracy.

My stuff in the newspaper office almost never has to be rewritten except for the lead paragraph. I may write that lead paragraph once, twice, three times before I am off and running.

By contrast, the stuff I write at home is rewritten and rewritten again and again. I figure on about three sentences or more to a paragraph, five paragraphs on the average double-spaced on a sheet of typewriter paper, and 20 pages to a chapter. So each chapter is maybe 300 sentences, give or take a few. I will write a chapter at a time. Having done so, I may rearrange the chapter, putting one scene ahead of or behind another for greater emphasis or progression. But then when the next chapter is written, I may find I have to once again rearrange the preceding chapter to make it say what I want said with the emphasis and progression that I want to say things.

So it is constant revision, until the book is finished. Then I go through it and find that I was so in love with some new phrase I coined that I have used it twice in every chapter. I find I made the same point half a dozen times. I trim out the extra stuff and think I am finished. But a month or so later I realize that I was so close to the forest I did not see the trees. I got so interested in the book, and in my bright turns of phrase, that I somehow failed to make or point up the overall message I had in mind when I started to write the damned thing. Then I go back and see where I can insert the story I wanted to tell, or point it up so the reader will not miss it.

Not every writer works this way. Maybe if I could afford to devote full time to writing my own stuff, I would be able to get over it. I do seem able to organize myself and my work in other directions and I probably could do so in this direction, too. But this very inefficient method happens to be [on my] mind at the moment.

Above I showed no modesty whatever in talking of my ability as a rewriteman. So I am not being overly modest when I make the next statement. I long ago realized I had no particular talent for writing or for story telling. But I was determined to accomplish something in this field. I found out that I could accomplish by hard work what other people seem to arrive at naturally by talent. Hard work does not frighten me.

You speak of not wanting completely to swap Athena for the Golden Calf. I think there is another way to look at this matter. I believe that what I think may be valid for you, too, since we both earn pretty good wages by the standards we set for ourselves as kids in Clifton Heights.

I think that if I had been born the son of wealthy parents and left with several million dollars, so that my income were $36,000 a year or thereabouts, I would be free to write what I pleased and when I pleased.

I think that if I had been born with an excellent memory and an academic inclination I might have been getting scholarships and fellowships all my life and with that income would have been able to devote myself to writing.

But I was neither born rich nor with academic leanings, so I have to earn the freedom that I want for writing rather than depend on someone else to give it to me.

I consider my job to be a fellowship. It might as well be a teaching fellowship. I have to put in a certain number of hours a week (40 or more, as it happens) in order to be able to devote the rest of my time to what I consider my real work. By taking this attitude toward it, I unconsciously consign my hours spent in the office to second place in my overall scheme of things, with the work spent at my typewriter at home given first place. (Like you, I have been working for the same outfit long enough that I know I will continue to be conscientious about giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage, and also that I will not be fired.)

But if I consider my work at the office to be a fellowship, yielding me the income on which I am supposed to do my work, then I have an obligation to myself. If you were given a Guggenheim Fellowship for two years to go to Paris and write – and the two years were running out without your having written anything – you would have terrible attacks of conscience.

So with my view of my office chores as a paying fellowship. From time to time, months go by without my having produced anything for myself. Then my conscience begins to hurt. And I mean hurt. I begin to feel like a dog. I will know that I’ve been sleeping too much (I love to sleep), or playing too much (I love girls), or living it up too much (I enjoy eating as a gourmet and I am a pretty sociable person) – and with one thing or another I begin feeling guilty.

So I figure that if I can put in 14 or 15 hours a week on my own work, I will accomplish something before I die. I don’t expect to die for 30 years yet and I hope to be producing a book a year long before that. I will retire when I am 65 and hope to be established as a book writer by that time. Like you, I would hate to learn I was due to die in three months and have to look at the trifling bit I have accomplished in my lifetime. A man does not want to go to his grave, goddamit, without leaving some little trace on this earth to show that he passed this way.

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