Love at first sight
Long before the end of my first year in a real newsroom, I knew my teenage marriage wasn’t going to survive it. By the end of the next year, she knew too.
The first time my young bride choked back tears and sobbed, “You love that damned newsroom more than you love me,” I must have waited a split-second too long before denying it. She never brought it up again and I never admitted it, but by the time I moved out we both knew it was true.
My affection for the newsroom at the Anchorage Daily News was instantaneous and my devotion never faltered. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I was struck down by revelation: I belonged here, soaking up the well-blended cocktail of cynicism and idealism in a smoky, rundown room that looked a little like those photos of trailer parks after a tornado. The mundane world of city streets and Rotary Club meetings was eclipsed here by a daily miracle of storytelling fueled by equal parts of urgency, insecurity and ambition. No matter what you were before, here you could become a byline, privileged to add your words to those being delivered every day to doorsteps all over town.
“Come on, kid,” a veteran invited after deadline one night. “We’re done here; let’s go get drunk and be somebody.”
I was all for drinking, but I already felt like somebody: Staff Writer. It said so right under my name, often several times in a single edition. My dad, when he was sober enough to notice, was proud of me, and sometimes I didn’t feel like the poor kid from a shabby neighborhood any more. I couldn’t imagine ever giving up this feeling.
But inside I remained an insecure kid from Muldoon, and one day I would understand that the newsroom I adored was filled with fuck-ups and fragile egos every bit as twisted as my own. Nobody came to work for an under-staffed, under-paid, overworked newsroom at the dying number two daily in Anchorage, Alaska because they’d selected it over all their other bright prospects.
A few, like me, were young and hungry, learning something every day and still naive enough to believe this was a launching pad, not a warehouse. Others were not.
Everybody was a drinker, most were divorced or headed that direction and as far as I know only one person—the editor—owned a home. The apartments and rented old houses we shared were interchangeably shabby: cramped and aged quarters filled with musty rust-colored carpets and slightly mouldering furniture—where there was any furniture at all. Wobbly old refrigerators were full of cheap beer, the cabinets held whiskey and our medicine chests contained extra-large bottles of Extra Strength Excedrin, often with the top removed and simply thrown away. A gray film of accumulated cigarette smoke coated the inside of every window, and unless the living room smelled like Pachouli it smelled of tobacco and cheap marijuana.
There was no desk available when I started at the Daily News. Instead, I shifted around the small, crowded newsroom to occupy whatever spot was vacant at the moment; I got up and moved without being asked when the venerable veterans returned. I couldn’t touch type (still can’t) and couldn’t always avoid the oldest manual typewriters where the most frequently used keys had been worn smooth. Was this the “a” or the “s” key under my finger? Which is the “r” and which the “t”?
A few months after my arrival an old timer—he was probably 35, I realize now— passed me in the hallway on his way out. “Looks like you got a desk now, kid,” he told me.
That was Dan, a frequent lunchtime Martini drinker and would-be novelist who had just finished a spectacular series on big-game bandits, the ruthless mercenary guides who broke all the rules in leading trophy hunters—usually tourists—to prized kills. His florid, sanguinary descriptions and withering analysis had led to upheaval at the state Department of Fish & Game and brought telephoned death threats to the newsroom, and I was stunned to learn he’d just been fired. I never learned exactly why.
Nobody actually told me to, but I moved my stuff into his desk later that afternoon.
The city editor delighted in my clumsiness and rookie anxiety and loved to hiss “pressure, pressure ... deadline, deadline” while flicking paperclips that bounced off the back of my head. Despite my lack of typing skill or experience, I turned out to be a fast, clean writer and within a few months could frustrate his sport by turning in copy that not only satisfied the editors but often made it onto the front page.
Except for the sports section, I was the only local with a byline. I could tell some older colleagues thought of me as a kind of teacher’s pet, perhaps the newsroom mascot, but I also knew they didn’t mind that my uninterrupted, voluminous productivity took some pressure off them to help fill the paper’s newshole. It wasn’t uncommon for veterans to “reassign” stories they didn’t want to cover to me on the basis of an undefined scheduling conflict. I always said yes, always came back with something and sometimes surprised them and the editors by coming back with something good.
The characters I worked with in that newsroom could have been cast for The Front Page — and many cultivated their eccentric image. Many images spring readily to mind: Molly Bowditch, who’d worked at Time Magazine before Alaska, was an unlikely, sophisticated transplant from Mount Holyoke College. (“They taught us to pronounce it like “the whole yolk of an egg,” she once explained.) She also smoked Pall Malls and filled her tiny rented house with great Danes. Allan Frank, instantly recognizable by a mop of tangled hair and perpetually frantic demeanor, was a big city boy, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School whose father in New York City ran Family Weekly, one of the biggest Sunday supplements. Jeanne Montague—soon to become Jeanne Abbott, the editor’s wife—was only a bit older than me but behaved with poise I admired across the tattered newsroom. Elaine Warren was a winsome girl just about my age who seemed to me infinitely more worldly. Though her grandfather mined for gold in Juneau and her dad was born there, she had lived in California and was a stylish writer and dresser who drove a Karmann Ghia. At the next desk was A. Cameron Edmonson, who invariably asked “marrying or burying?” whenever I showed up with a necktie and wore his wristwatch on his ankle to keep track of time while he sat cross-legged and churned out business stories.
Our bosses weren’t that much older than me and certainly were no less strange. Tom Brown—he’d been a foreign correspondent!—brought 6-feet, 6-inches of talent, energy and cynicism to the city desk. He moved our typewritten copy to the production department by slamming open a sliding plexiglass window and shouting “Eat it up, you rats” as he tossed it into a wire basket. Tom Gibboney was managing editor but like everybody handled multiple duties; he edited the sports page or the front page with equal panache and once admitted to me that he had washed out of officer candidate school in the Army because he “lacked respect for authority.”
The big boss was Stan Abbott, our executive editor and a steadfast mentor who opened more doors for me than I realized until much later. He’d hired me as a stringer when he was sports editor and I was a 16-year old high school junior, ordering up stories on wrestling matches and hockey games that paid about $5 each and—far more important—put my byline in the paper. Seemingly equal parts Jack Kerouac and Jack Daniels, he loomed large in my career until his sudden departure years later, which likewise opened an important door when I ultimately succeeded him.
Outside the newsroom, the most important people in my world were at the Club China Doll: proprietor Louis Giggliotti and cocktail waitress Loma Bording, who tirelessly fetched drinks and flirted until our paychecks were gone or Jiggs’ patience was exhausted.
In my early days the paper still largely reflected the legacy of legendary Chicago newsman Larry Fanning, the editor and publisher who’d died a classic newsman’s deadline death at his desk in the same newsroom a year before I arrived. We believed in gangsters and crooked politicians and breathless headlines. Struggling one night for the right headline for photos of a remote shipwreck and rescue—”Drama In The Fog,” one proposed; another liked “Life and Death in the North Pacific“—editors finally asked Larry for help. He immediately turned and dictated: “First Pictures of Aleutian Rescue.” In his legacy newsroom I learned to write every story to its limit—and sometimes a step or two beyond. A barroom killing at the Beef & Bourbon nightclub early in my career became “the double shotgun slaying” on every reference thereafter and I still have the folder of notes and tips with which I fully expected to solve the case myself. (I didn’t).
When the younger brother of a high school friend was charged in a gruesome murder, I was ready.
The victim—a fetching young woman with the made-for-headlines name of ZeZe Mason—was discovered stabbed to death in an isolated gravel pit on the edge of town, and Gary Zieger was charged on the basis of classic who-done-it circumstantial evidence. He was guilty by virtue of reputation to the city cops and nearly everybody who knew him—suspected of more and even more hideous killings—but not to the two talented young Public Defenders who handled his case. They won a change of venue on account of our coverage and transferred the case to Kodiak, a move that also also resulted in my first out of town assignment. The city’s dominant daily, The Anchorage Times, wouldn’t spring for airfare to send its reporter, so I would have the story to myself. (The veteran court reporter I competed against was jealous but not spiteful, collegially advising me to take along a receipt book and two different colored pens to handle my expense reports.)
Communications in Alaska were still primitive in the early 1970s and I suspect I might have been one of the last newspaper reporters in the country to file stories by telegraph, as I did from Kodiak. Before long even Alaskans had access to the primitive Telecopier fax machines Hunter Thompson dubbed The Mojo Wire, but for now I had to finish each day’s story between the end of the court session, at 3:30 or 4 p.m., and the closing of the telegraph office at 6 p.m.
That left no time to travel out the road to the house where I was staying (free) with a friend-of-a-friend so I sat up shop at a little round table in a corner of Tony’s Bar, cranking out coverage on the little metal portable my uncle had carried throughout the Korean War. The trial lasted almost three weeks, and my daily visit soon became a feature at Tony’s, where a pretty dancer named Jeanne and other employees began to cluster around the table for a daily update when I arrived.
As much as that played into my Damon Runyon fantasies, I worried at first about wasting time with my unbreakable telegraph deadline looming. After a few days, though, I learned to use their reactions to help organize and shape my stories before I started writing, highlighting the scenes that most captured their attention—an early example, perhaps, of crowd-sourcing.
I’d always been more interested in writing for the audience than the copy desk and the success of my front-page exclusives from Tony’s Bar day after day did little to tone me down. Gary Zieger was found not guilty after his lawyers produced a surprise witness who said she’d seen ZeZe alive after the time prosecutors fixed for the killing, a storybook ending I wish I had written as well as its Raymond Chandler plot deserved.
I got better, though, and a year or so later Gary Zieger was to figure prominently in the best crime story and one of the best leads I ever wrote.