OLD NEWSPAPERS NEVER DIE, THEY JUST BECOME PROPSby Rip Rense
(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times.)
When I worked as a copyboy (sorry, egalitarians---that was the term back then) at the old Valley News and Green Sheet in the early 70s, my first duty early each morning was to "rip the wires." This meant picking up the curly-cue pile of wire copy that had accumulated during the night from United Press International and City News Service, "ripping" it into individual stories with a pica pole, then organizing it for the wire editor, who was due in around 8 a.m.
The wire editor was a diminuitive, arthritic old man with a bald head and hangdog jowls. His name was Charlie Grimes.
"Mr. Grimes," as the copypeople called him, would arrive punctually each day, shuffle over to the city room closet, exchange his coat for a raggedy sky blue sweater with patches on the elbows, then go to work. He spoke little, and smoked lots. His voice was withered as an old leaf, his hands shook like a vase in an earthquake. He had a face that went from bright pink in the morning to purplish crimson by afternoon as the day's pressures and cigarettes played havoc with his blood pressure. Once or twice during each shift, Mr. Grimes would have a coughing fit so violent that the old boys on the copy desk would pause nervously and listen, the way dogs do when they hear something troubling in the distance.
Mr. Grimes seemed to like me, probably because I always kept him supplied with fresh wire copy arranged in neat piles. The other copypeople were not always as attentive, and one of them actually delighted in hiding the old man's copy, then placing it surreptitiously on his desk while he got up to search for it.
One day, Mr. Grimes did not arrive punctually at work. Didn't exchange his coat for the raggedy sky blue sweater. Didn't light up perpetual cigarettes and have hacking fits. Seems he'd gone out into his front yard to pick up the paper that morning and died of a heart attack. His old, raggedy sweater hung in the city room closet for years afterward.
The copypeople were sorry to hear that the old man had passed on, but were not terribly moved. We didn't know him. We never knew where he came from, and as far as I remember, never bothered to ask. We just assumed he was a lifer newsman, like many of the other editors working at the Valley News in those days. Somebody said he had some grandchildren that he loved, and a well-kept rose garden. . .
A few months ago I went upstairs into the abandoned city room of the Herald-Examiner building. I had gone there to interview one Brian Brosnan, co-owner of the Hollywood Location Company, the outfit that leases the building for use in TV shows, motion pictures, and Jockey Underwear commercials.
I was told by this entrepreneurial fellow, whose spiffy office was housed in the old Her-Ex promotion department, that the leasing business had been very brisk. Clint Eastwood, Kenny Rogers, MacGyver, Columbo, Unsolved Mysteries---dozens of stars and TV shows had been using the place as a set. The Hearst Corporation, Brosnan said, was "very pleased" to be finally making a buck out of a property that had been financially troubled since the Herald & Express merged with the Los Angeles Examiner in 1961. Although Brosnan seemed a pleasant, friendly guy who was smartly capitalizing on a good business opportunity, I came away with an unsettled feeling. It was similar to a feeling I'd had once at Holy Cross Cemetery, when a pleasant, friendly guy handed me a map to the graves of dead celebrities.
Of course, this feeling was heightened by the fact that I was one of tens of thousands of people who had worked in the building at 11th and Broadway. I had been a reporter there in the late 70s and early 80s, when an editor named Jim Bellows turned a strike-ravaged disaster into as vivacious and provacatively written a paper as ever rolled off a press.
Brosnan invited me to wander around the former city room and take notes. Everything that had been left behind in the building, he advised, was now being used as "props." This caution did not adequately prepare me for the scene. Flies buzzed languidly about. The computer terminals where I'd cranked out many a story lay in jumbled piles in corners, some of them upside down and cracked. The ancient, metal reporters' desks were still there, endlessly rearranged as per the needs of whichever production company happened to be shooting. The old mechanical Royal and Olympia typewriters---in use since the late 40s or early 50s---still sat heavily on desktops. Financial receipts for the old Evening Herald & Express and the Los Angeles Examiner---dating to the 1930s!--- were inexplicably strewn about in fat, brown envelopes. The editor's office was disguised as a police department special investigations unit. The business editor's office bore the word, "Booking." What was once a spare room in the sports department---a place where editors took reporters to have "conferences"---was, not inappropriately, labelled "Interrogations."
A rejection letter from the Herald's last city editor, Larry Burrough, to a prospective applicant, sat half-finished in a typewriter--- abandoned at the very moment the paper went out of business. Mountains of mail awaited delivery to staffers who would never claim it. It was as though newspaperpeople had suddenly become extinct.
I opened a stray file cabinet. Inside was an empty booze bottle, and a printout of a half-finished article about the 1984 Olympics written by an amiable Herald reporter named Frank Candida, who died a couple years later from asthma.
I looked around, suddenly remembering other departed colleagues who had once helped make that eerie city room so effervescent. I could see Sarai Ribicoff laughing, taking a sassy puff on a cigarette in the weeks before she was murdered by a robber in Venice. I pictured an aging gent named Don Branning, a top-notch journeyman reporter, popping a nitro pill by the water cooler and griping about having been harrassed by editors just hours before his fatal heart attack. I saw an old copy editor named Irv Marder puffing on his pipe and complaining about a bad headline the day before he was struck and killed by a car. I saw smartly dressed fashion editor Gwen Jones, smiling as always, a couple years before losing out to breast cancer. I saw society editor Camilla Snyder suffering in quiet dignity with the leukemia no one knew she had.
I walked over to what had once been the city room in-boxes and scavenged through a hillock of assorted journalistic archeology. My eyes fell upon a thick stack of papers all clipped tightly together. Judging by the depth of the paper-clip depression, this material had lain inside a file cabinet for many, many years. I inspected it more closely. It was a series of tensely worded memos, going back and forth among an old L.A. Examiner wire editor, his supervisors, and the publisher. The first memo was dated 1952, the last 1958. I glanced through them to glean the jist. The wire editor, it seemed, felt he was being cheated out of his night differential, and that since his promotion from copy editor, had received no raise---even though he was now in a higher job classification. His memos were proud, blunt updates on the amount he felt he was owed as a result. His tone was urgent, but dignified---even when he noted he was supporting a four kids and a wife on his meager salary. Somewhere along the way, I noticed the signature of the wire editor.
It was Charlie Grimes.
I stood there, holding the poignant, "confidential" records of the palsied old man with the ruddy face and bad cough for whom I had once "ripped the wire" so carefully. The records of his struggle to support a family while he worked at the L.A. Examiner, years before I met him. A "prop." I read on.
Although Charlie's supervisors' memos endorsed him as a brass-tacks wire editor, and recommended that he be given the requested money, the publisher's memos indicated little interest in his plight, and denied the requests. The last memo was Mr. Grimes' terse, frustrated resignation.
The other day, when I read that the Hearst Corporation was exploring the possibility of taking the Herald Examiner building---that fine old Julia Morgan-designed half-Casbah, half-Kremlin; an edifice that in its youth loomed over surrounding beanfields like an Emperor's summer palace---and turning it into a parking lot, I thought about Charlie Grimes. I thought about Charlie Grimes trying to support his family of five without his night differential, and I thought of Sarai Ribicoff, and of Camilla Snyder, and of Don Branning, Gwen Jones, Irv Marder, and Frank Candida. And I thought about the tens of thousands of other reporters and editors, cartoonists and columnists, photographers and librarians, who struggled through as many dramas inside that building, and who sometimes died there.
And I somehow doubted that many, if any, of them would really want that old place to be turned into a parking lot. Better that it live on, even, as a memorial.
A war memorial.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.