- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003

CITY ROOM

By Arthur Gelb

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $29.95, 664 pages

REVIEWED BY WESLEY PRUDEN

Once upon a time, in a time and place now far away, there was a newspaper that set the standard for what every newspaper wanted to be when it grew up. Every young reporter in Peoria, Little Rock and Omaha dreamed of one day working there. The New York Times of that time and place is gone now, along with most of the artifacts and traditions of the era before television, when everybody in every town who could read invariably read the newspaper, and often two or even three.

The “gentlemen of the press” have been replaced by “the members of the media” (difficult even to say in mixed company). The rogues and rascals who made the city rooms fascinating places to obtain a higher education have been replaced by the young men and women that the rogues and rascals would have disdained as “college boys.” The “morgue,” the repository of a city’s history, has been replaced by the “library.” Lawyers and accountants, who wouldn’t have been allowed in city rooms in that bygone era, are now occasionally allowed to speak to editors.

Gone is the clatter of the typewriter, gruff editors in green eyeshades, the brass spittoons, cigaret smoke, the booze and the bookies. Old city editors used to say that the best newspapermen were the Jews, the Southerners and the Irish — the Jews were drawn to newsprint for the opportunity to do good, the Southerners for the love of the language and opportunity to spin stories, the Irish for the free booze that press agents, on the scout for a kind printed word for a client, slipped into the bottom drawer of a reporter’s desk.

Exciting times, robust and swashbuckling times, and probably unconstitutional now. Arthur Gelb, who was a reporter, critic and Metropolitan editor of the New York Times in the last of those glory days and who became the managing editor at the end of his career, has masterfully recreated that era when the men and women who produced newspapers and even the New York Times usually took their work and not themselves seriously. The priorities have been reversed in the modern era, and it shows. Neither the times nor the Times is quite what it used to be, but it was great fun while it lasted.

“City Room” is actually three stories, woven seamlessly together through 664 pages: the people that Arthur Gelb has known and written about over 45 years in Manhattan, and this includes everybody who was anybody — the likes of Joe Papp, John Lindsay, Owney Madden and enough movie stars to stock a studio commissary canteen. There are inside stories about the intramural intrigues that will intrigue a lot of newspaper folk in New York and Washington. And finally there’s the story of how a newspaper, particularly the New York Times, works and how it became a national institution, projecting power and influence far beyond Manhattan.

The author settles a few scores, and tells it all with verve and dispatch. He dishes the occasional dirt with a reporter’s bland eye, no pain intended. Even the intramural intrigues are sometimes interesting to the outside reader. The newspaper stories, which illuminate the era as only newspaper stories can, are the best.

Mr. Gelb went to work as a copy boy, the lowliest rank in the newsroom, when he was 20. He was drawn to newspapers by the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur comic play “The Front Page” (twice made into a movie) about the raffish, over-the-top life of scoops and scraps among the killers, politicians and other riffraff as the ‘20s roared through Chicago. Classified as 1A-L in early 1944, available only for “limited service,” he took jobs as an airplane washer at LaGuardia, a complaint clerk at Gimbel’s and even as a soda jerk in Brooklyn while waiting for his draft board to make up its mind (it never did). When his mother urged him to try for a job on one of the dozen or so daily newspapers in New York while he waited, he learned that the Times had an opening for night copy boy.

When he walked into the City Room he was “almost paralyzed with excitement,” like thousands of young men before and after him. “What I saw was a high-ceilinged room filled with clamor, clutter and cigaret smoke … fire and life: the clacking rhythm of typewriters, the throbbing of great machines in the composing room on the floor above, reporters shouting for copy boys to pick up their stories [to deliver to editors].

“Some of the editors wore green eyeshades while others relied on fedoras to block the glare of the suspended lamps as they worked feverishly with pencils, scissors, paste pots and copy paper. Solid brass spittoons were placed strategically around the room and a carpet of cigaret butts all but obscured the gray concrete floor … reporters who had finished their stories … were intent on a poker game … I knew instantly this was my element. It was where I wanted to stay forever … I would have happily worked for lunch money and carfare.”

The night copy boy stayed for 45 years, working his way up the chain to reporter, theater critic, Metropolitan editor and finally to managing editor under A.M. Rosenthal, who seems to hover over every page of “City Room.” The two worked so closely together, first as reporters and then as editors, that they sometimes seemed almost one presence, “Abe and Arthur.” Indeed, “City Room” whets the appetite for a Rosenthal memoir.

Mr. Gelb devotes considerable attention at the end of the volume to what happened to the Times, overtaken like everything else by the intellectual squalor of our age, the galloping egos and the political correctness and by the expanded competitiveness of the new technology. His newspaper had grown and changed, becoming bigger, richer and, some say, more arrogant. And it was not as much fun. “I never felt truly comfortable in the new world I helped create,” he writes. “As the newspaper prospered, its staff proliferated. The newsroom had become more efficient and businesslike.”

“It was quiet, even serene,” he writes of the city room he helped create. “Reporters were well educated, some flaunting two or more degrees. Rarely could an editor take a gamble on hiring an inexperienced youth without a college degree just because his instinct told him to. Some of the reporters I admired most who began their careers as copy boys — Mike Berger, Murray Schumach, McCandlish Phillips — might not be given the opportunity to start as cub reporters on the Times today.”

Arthur Gelb, along with Abe Rosenthal, will be remembered as among those who “tried to keep the Times straight.” He remembers his 45 years on West 43rd Street as “the happiest days of my life.” And why not? Newspapermen live in that best of all possible worlds, where they never have to grow up.

Wesley Pruden is the editor in chief of The Washington Times.


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