Please Don’t Tell My Mother I’m A Newspaperman. She Thinks I’m A Piano Player In A Whore House

As soon as the curtain rose for the Shaw Festival production of His Girl Friday on a recent Saturday afternoon, I was transported back to the newsrooms of my wildly misspent youth.

The design of the newsroom in this funny, inventive re-imagining of the legendary Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play,The Front Page, (actually the press room in the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, 1939) is exactly right, down to the wads of scrunched-up copy paper on the floor and the pall of gray cigarette smoke in the air.
The first newsroom I ever stepped into was much like the one in the play. It was on the second floor of Brockville’s small daily newspaper, the Recorder and Times. Big arched windows overlooked King Street in the heart of downtown–my windows on the world, as it turned out.
The room filled with the sound of clacking Underwood typewriters and teletype machines, the incessant shrill of telephones, the air thick with cigarette and cigar smoke.The city editor, a gruff fire plug named Harry Painting, jammed a roll-your-own constantly into the corner of his mouth.The elegant managing editor, Sandy Runciman, liked to light up a good cigar. The ashtrays overflowed. Only Betty MacDowell, the local gossip columnist–On The Prowl With Betty MacDowell–ever seemed to empty one.
I was sixteen when I landed a part-time job at the paper. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. A couple of years before, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, fighting for his political life, had arrived in town to deliver a campaign speech at what was then the Brockville Civic Auditorium.
Just before Dief appeared, a line of pale-faced, badly dressed men straggled onto the stage. They practically breathed cynicism as they took their places in the front row. I was transfixed. Who are they? I asked someone. “Reporters,” came the rather disdainful answer. Right then and there, I decided I wanted to be one of those guys. I wanted to be a newspaper reporter.
His Girl Friday does a great job capturing the cynicism I imagined emanating from those reporters that first time I laid eyes on them. The play is an adaptation by John Guare of the 1940 Howard Hawks movie classic starring Cary Grant as editor Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as his ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson.
As the convicted cop killer Earl Williams is about to be executed, Hildy (nicely played at Shaw by Nicole Underhay)  attempts to escape Walter (Benedict Campbell does the part to perfection) and “go straight,” i.e., not be a newspaper reporter anymore. The question is, can Hildy ignore the story of a lifetime–Earl’s escape–not to mention Walter’s determination to keep her at the paper.
Hawks transformed the male Hildy from the original Hecht-MacArthur Front Page into a smart, savvy female, thereby adding a layer of sexual tension and humor that didn’t exist before. Guare, working from a script by Charles Lederer (Hecht was off doing rewrites on Gone With The Wind) remains largely faithful to the movie, although he  cranked up the humor and if anything made the press room boys even more unrelentingly cynical–in the movie the reporters have a moment of remorse; there is no such moment in the play, and rightly so.
Before he wrote The Front Page, Ben Hecht cut his teeth on Chicago journalism and knew only too well the sort of sardonic, hard-living outsider who gravitated to the newspaper business.  I came along in the late 1960s, many years after the play was written, but even so Hecht’s vision of the newspaper life and the people who inhabited it had changed remarkably little.
When I started at the Windsor Star at the age of nineteen, reporters drank their lunches, played poker late into the night, filtered calls from their wives through the bartender at the press club (“Sorry, he’s not here”), knew the location of the best strip bars in Detroit (Welcome to the Fifty-Second Street Show Bar), and how to quickly round up the necessary ladies of the evening for a stag.
The assistant city editor played the piano in his underwear. The city editor downed three double scotches every day for lunch and then went back and did an afternoon’s work. The labor reporter no sooner shook my hand than he wanted to borrow my apartment for an afternoon assignation with his mistress–mortified to learn I was staying in a boarding house and thus of no help to him.
Everyone played hard and worked harder. Getting the story wasn’t just the thing, it was the only thing. If a baby drowned in a backyard swimming pool,  you pounded on the front door of the parents’ house, stumbled past grieving, crying relatives to snag a  photograph of the deceased. They told you there were regular working hours, but no one paid any attention to them; everyone worked all the time, and nobody thought twice about it.
The newspaper women were much like Hildy Johnson, or, more to the point, like Joan Barfoot, who would later become one of the country’s finest novelists, but when I met her was something of a newsroom legend: highly intelligent, funny, and a better reporter and writer than any of the guys.
Witnessing all this for the first time, I thought I had died and gone to–well, this was nowhere near heaven, but it was close  to the newsroom of my dreams. I had grown up in small, conservative Canadian towns where you were expected to do as you were told and maintain a certain decorum.
Here was a group of men (and some women) who never did what they were told, and flaunted decorum with an enthusiasm that was breath-taking. What’s more, they embraced me as one of their own; I found myself part of a fraternity of like-minded renegades, one of those badly dressed cynics that straggled in just before the speeches started.
It has been many years since I have been inside a newsroom, and these days they are nothing like the one so lovingly recreated on stage at the Shaw. My sense is that reporters, too, have changed a great deal. Even as I left the business, they were better educated, not so prone to drinking their lunches, avoiding their wives, or staying out all night.
 I doubt if today’s reporters would recognize the newsroom set at Shaw or empathize much with the boys of the pressroom.The business has become more civilized unless I miss my guess, and that’s all to the good.
For all the fun we had back in the day, I have since buried far too many journalists far too early.The Front Page neglects to mention that the price paid for a reporter’s life was an early exit from the newsroom. 
And His Girl Friday does not take into account a possibility that Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns never would have imagined–that the business that nurtured their souls and broke their hearts one day would be in much more jeopardy than any city hall politician.
The Recorder and Times newsroom is long since gone. In fact the whole paper has moved and the building has been turned into an apartment complex. Somehow, though, the mythology shines on, maintained by productions like His Girl Friday, and fueled by youthful memory.
By the way, if you are speaking to my mother, please don’t tell her about this column or my past.
She really does think I’m a piano player in a whore house.
 
 

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