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Read the Peach!

By Rip Rense
(A different version of this article appeared in the L.A. Times Sunday Magazine, May 4, 2003)
"Oh, a newspaperman meets such interesting people
He knows the story, now it can be told
He'll tell you confidentially off the record
about the charming people he has known. . ."
---from a song by Daily News reporter Vern Partlow.
Daily News City Room
The Daily News City Room,  circa 1950. Reporter Paul Weeks is in the middle, partly obscured by electrical wire. City Editor Aaron Dudley and reporter John Beckler are at the right. Sportswriter George Wilson sits at front left (with large coffee mug on desk.) (Photo courtesy of Paul Weeks.)

           The old newspaperfolk climbed the swaybacked stairs up to the third floor. Reaching the top, they pushed open a pair of creaky swinging doors and stepped into a broad rectangular room. There were rows of desks, as there had been fifty impossible years ago, and plenty of bustle. But the bustle was no longer from a cocky crew of young reporters, editors, photographers. It was from sewing machines and fixed-stare garment workers, all stitching together the most godawful pair of plaid pants this side of Ringling Brothers.

The Los Angeles Daily News---the original Los Angeles Daily News, which went out of business Dec. 18, 1954---had become a garment factory.

"It's a sweatshop!" laughed one-time Daily News reporter Roy Ringer.

"Well," said retired L.A. Times reporter Jack Jones, who started out at the Daily News in 1949, "it was a sweatshop then!"

His former colleagues nodded, with chuckles muted by amazement to be back inside that funky building at 1257 S. Los Angeles St., where the "Only Democratic Newspaper West of the Rockies" once thrived. Where cantankerous reporter Lu Haas met his wife, Jan, a News artist. Where reporter Paul Weeks presided over steak fry-ups in the library (drinks were a quarter.) Where reporter Ringer triumphantly brought back proofs of stories stolen straight from the Examiner composing room, a block away. Where he flirted with his future wife, society writer Vivian Sharp. Where photographer Helen Brush climbed to the roof one morning, just before dawn, and scooped the city on an atomic mushroom cloud from a test blast in Nevada.

Where one of the most free-spirited staffs ever to work in a newsroom---possibly in any room---wrote the stories of a Los Angeles as gone as the Red Cars.

There in the haunted newsroom, surviving "Newsies" reunited for this article---Lu and Jan Haas, Weeks, Roy and Vivian Ringer, Jones, Brush (now Jenkins)---and the stories began to flow. Jan Haas "arted in" panties on Mussolini's mistress as she hung next to Il Duce. . .On hot nights, reporter Don Dwiggins took off his shirt and plinked beer bottles off the window sill with a BB gun, until publisher Manchester Boddy---making is weekly radio broadcast from his office---told him to knock it off. Weeks hid out at a hotel after threats over his crooked vice-cop expose. . .Sports editor Ned Cronin stole Ringer's racetrack tickets. . .Jones' first duty as a copyboy was to wake up rewrite man John Clark at 4 a.m. and sober him up. . . . Librarian Mary Kitano was hired straight out of Manzanar after World War II. . .Pat O'Hara never took notes, and dictated stories from the D.A.'s beat with the throat-clearer, "Well, let me see, now, dahling ". . .Lu Haas drove the lone Daily News "radio car"---a fire-engine red Studebaker Commander---to break the news of a child's death to her mother, then "stood there, just appalled at what I had done". . .The tough sob-sister and rewrite great, Sara Boynoff. . .The time they fried up horesemeat instead of steaks (because it was cheaper) and stunk photographer Garry Watson right out of the building. . .Graveyard shift reporter Tod LeBerthon set a record player on the windowsill on hot summer nights, filling the newsroom with hot jazz. . .The shameful "red-baiting" of reporters Darr Smith and Vern Partlow. . . How they shared "dupes" of stories with United Press's Hank Rieger, right across the hall. . .The teapots full of bourbon after booze bottles were banned. . .

For a newspaper with the blandest of names, the Daily News could not have been more rollicking, downright oddball, and by today's standards, progressive. Consider:

     *The paper employed many women and minorities at a time when this just did not happen---not merely to be trail-blazing, as staffers recalled, but because these people happened to be the best candidates for the job.

     *It was peach-colored---even the building was painted peach, in later years. After a wartime period of cost-cutting white paper, the News regained its blush with a "The Peach is Back!" parade through downtown, in which peaches were flung to waving passers-by.

     *It was a "bastard tabloid"---neither broadsheet nor tab-sized; at six columns, bigger than the L.A. Weekly, smaller than the L.A. Times.

     *It proudly touted its Democratic, liberal editorial perspective---smack dab in a city of Hearstian sensationalism and stolid Times Republicanism.

     *It was a union paper from the get-go, in a non-union town.

Why, then, is it so forgotten? One often hears tell of the conservative Examiner, the sensationalist Herald-Express (Diane Keaton assembled an exhibit of Her-Ex photos in the L.A. Public Library in 1999), the Mirror, and the eternal Times. But the News?

"Yeah, it's faded from everybody's memory," said 78-year-old Jones. "We're talking about fifty years, and that's just a long time."

There might be another, more political factor:

"The Daily News was very liberal-minded, and had a large black and latino readership," said Rob Wagner, grandson of News reporter Les Wagner and author of Red Ink White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962. "I think the liberal papers of the past have a tendency to get buried under the larger-circulating conservative papers. I can't think of too many liberal papers nationwide, or even publications, for that matter, that really stand the test of time."

Then there is the fact that the News building was hardly destined to become a landmark, like the Julia Morgan-designed half-mission, half-Casbah that is the cherished old Examiner building at 1111 S. Broadway---or even the granite Times monolith. (The Herald-Express, also an exercise in Hearstian architectural taste, was flattened to make way for the Santa Monica Freeway.) No, this feisty paper--ever third or fourth in circulation---was housed inside a former car dealership at Pico and Los Angeles Streets, a squat three-storey brick building about as pretentious as a pair of old sneakers (and about as fresh-smelling.) The un-air-conditioned News confines smoked and rattled to life every day like Jack Benny's old Maxwell. When the presses ran on the first floor---five times a day, once per edition---the place shook like an earthquake. They occasionally caught fire.

Yet the best writers and editors in town lined up to work there.

"There were five papers," said Joe Saltzman, professor of journalism at USC. "At that time, you would get drunk and screw up and get fired, but it wasn't a big deal because you would go to another newspaper. But to get to the Daily News was what everybody wanted to do. Everybody who wanted to be a hard-drinking tough newspaperman---and that included women---would go to the Daily News. It was a newspaperman's paper. These people were in the mold of the 'Front Page' kind of reporters. They drank a lot, they cursed a lot, they worked all kinds of hours. They didn't give a damn about any authority. They were out to screw the L.A. Times, which they considered the conservative enemy of newspapers."

Any paper of the era could have made the "Front Page" claim, but few were a self-styled champion of the downtrodden, advocate for the working class, irreverent enemy of blunderbuss authority.

"The Daily News loved to find ways to make fun of the Los Angeles elite; the power-brokers," said Wagner. "I don't mean bring down with investigative journalism or a big expose. It was almost as if there was a competition among reporters and staff, 'How can we embarrass so-and-so today? What can we do to humble this arrogant son-of-a-bitch?' So if they caught some city official picking his nose, I can assure you that that photograph would be in the paper."

Eighty-four-year-old News photographer Helen Brush Jenkins, now retired in San Marcos, CA., put things more colorfully:

"We were 'no bullshit' people! The other newspapers were just rancid."

Brush---who once photographed the birth of her own baby for Life Magazine---had her shining hour as a News photog Feb. 2, 1951. A very shining hour:

"I covered was the first atomic explosion in Nevada," she remembered. "I had it exclusive. It was 5 a.m., and it was still dark, and the city editor said 'They're going to shoot off an atomic blast at 5:25---get up on the roof and see if you can get it.'

"I was the only one up there. St. Joseph's Church was right next to us, so I framed the horizon with the steeple. I got my camera set up, pulled the slide from the back, and was holding it over the lens. And at about the right time, I took the slide off of the lens so it started to expose. I had it set at F-16, and I'm counting. And I get to ten, and I said, 'Oh, I've got to change the film! And boom, it went off! So I got the lights of the city, and the steeple of the church on the right hand side, shadowy, and here is this huge, huge light that came---kind of a half-moon, you know? It wasn't bright light, but it was like dawn. It was the most awesome thing I've ever seen in my life except for the birth of my kids. So I grabbed my camera, ran down, and I said, 'I think I got it!' I put it in the soup, and they put it on the entire front page!"

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Helen Brush Jenkins' "Atomic Dawn" photo from the home edition of the following day. For a better view, and more details, see the Q&A with Helen here.

Brush, Vivian Ringer, and Jan Haas---probably the lone surviving female News staffers---once had a lot of company. Women dotted the L.A. press population during WWII as men went off to battle, but the News employed them in droves well before the war---and after. Incredibly, in one city room staff photo from the late '40s, you can count more newswomen than newsmen. The egalitarian hiring attitude also extended to minorities---modestly, by today's standards, but far more, say its surviving veterans, than any other paper in town. Helmed at times by Latino night city editor Sparky Saldana (whose brother, Lupe, was a sportswriter), the News also boasted the largest minority readership, says Wagner, because they thought they would get more of a fair shake in a "Democratic" paper. DN reporter Weeks---who went on to cover race issues for the Times in the tumultuous '60s---wrote about racial problems in the News long before it became common practice.

"The gender gap closed at the Daily News from the very beginning, at least from the time I got there in 1946," said Weeks, now a freelance columnist in Oceanside, Calif. "Helen Brush was already a photog, Sara Boynoff was a chief rewrite person---one of the top---and Mary Kitano was our librarian. As usual, the paper had women in the society pages, but we had women in drama (critic Milded Norton) and elsewhere, where nobody else did. We had copyboys who were black and Mexican-American. . .You must say that it had an enlightened attitude about social issues, compared with the other papers."

When there were equal rights demonstrations at L.A. high schools in the late '40s, the News was there. There was a fear of violence, yet the paper quoted black students walking picket lines. Other papers never even covered the story, according to Wagner, and if they wrote about similar protests, "you'd have the white angle on it."

The liberal and flamboyant personality of the Daily News was entirely the doing of publisher Boddy, a whimsical, moustachioed itinerant bookseller from Washington state who rescued the Illustrated Daily News from receivership in 1926 (after founder Cornelius Vanderbilt's three-year-old "clean penny newspaper" failed), with $750 dollars in his pocket, and turned it into a gossipy, reader-friendly platform for his populist column, "Views of the News." It was Boddy---yes, the same Boddy who founded Descanso Gardens in Montrose (with Daily News profits)---who made the News a "writers' newspaper."

"Boddy cared about journalism," said Saltzman, "and he cared about giving writers's space, and letting them do what they wanted to do. That's what journalism was supposed to be! You write stories that move people. They had a lot of stylists, a lot of hard-writing journalists. The tradition would be Jimmy Breslin. There's only one Jimmy Breslin now, but there were an awful lot of them at the Daily News! It was the kind of journalism that I think (former Herald-Examiner editor) Jim Bellows would have loved."

Under Boddy's loose-reins, the pages of the News came alive with playful wordsmithery (in some cases, Jack Smith-ery---as the beloved L.A. Times columnist got his start as a top rewrite man at the Daily News.).

"They had some really salty guys on that staff," laughed Jones. "I remember a page one story about a TV personality who used to interview people or something, who got in a fight with his wife. They were hitting each other outside a nightclub. And the story that ran in the Daily News reported this, then went straight into, 'In other bouts last night, so-and-so scored a ten-round TKO over so-and-so at the Olympic, and listed all the fight results! Everything was irreverent."

Including the daily weather story:

"I remember writing it once," said Weeks, "and saying, this guy approached the house of the weatherman, and he was going to elope with his daughter, and he hollered up the back, 'Is the coast clear, honey?' And a deep voice from inside responded 'cloudy this morning, clearing this afternoon. . .'"

And there were small-town touches, like the practice of announcing Daily News sons and daughters when they first appeared---including this writer, son of sportswriter and L.A. Rams beat reporter Art Rense. "Members of the Daily News sports department," began an article right on the sports page, "had a smoking good time last night---thanks to staffer Art Rense, whose wife Madelon just presented him with a bouncing baby boy."

The paper certainly boasted the favorite columnists in town, according to Saltzman and Wagner---chiefly the beloved Matt Weinstock, who was L.A.'s answer to famed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen for decades and sports columnist Cronin, who for thirty years was a Jim Murray before there was a Jim Murray.

"Nobody had the freedom write with the humor and sparkle that we had at the Daily News," said Weeks. "And Matt, I tell you, he is one of the people I'll always remember. He didn't write long essays. He wrote just a series of little incidents that he'd pick up, from Skid Row to Beverly Hills. He had no class distinctions in his anecdotes." Added Jones: "He really zeroed in on the flavor of L.A.---a warm, wonderful guy.")

The final years of the News were less glorious. Boddy challenged Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1950, splitting the Democratic vote and allowing the election of Richard Nixon---disillusioning the staff. Profits fell (some insist they went for Descanso camelias---which Boddy denied) and the paper was sold to Robert Smith, and then to Clinton McKinnon. During the same period, the News was shaken by a Joseph McCarthy-esque red-baiting scandal that pitted management against union. Two reporters, Partlow and Darr Smith, were singled out as communists. Managing editor Phil Garrison, a former Air Force colonel, headed the effort to oust them, while Haas and make-up editor Larry Fowler defended them on behalf of the union. In the end, Smith was fired while Partlow as allowed to remain employed. "He managed to get changed from reporting to being the editor of the women's page, for Christ's sake!" grumbled Haas, who later became a   political advisor to Mayor Tom Bradley and other California Democrats. (Note: Partlow was fired, according to Roy Ringer, and went to work writing advertising copy. Ringer wrote editorials defending Smith and Partlow for the Guild Reporter.)

"It didn't serve the Daily News very well," said Wagner, "that this liberal newspaper tried to fire its two reporters for communist leanings, especially on scant evidence, and the fact that there was never any discussion between those two about communism at all, in the newsroom, or in the news columns! It's interesting to point out that it had nothing to do with Boddy, who had essentially retired at that time. It had everything to do with Robert Smith, who was a businessman. And who feared that if there's a communist taint at the Daily News, he would lose advertising. So purely on business principles, he wanted to see these guys fired."

From that point, the handwriting was on the wall (literally, as the newsroom was fairly covered with a graffiti of phone numbers and notes.) Despite new gimmicks like a weekend "recap" edition, the News was bought by The Times for a song---an ugly tune that found staffers locked out, with no severance pay, on a Saturday before Christmas. The Times merged its name, if not its liberalism, with its afternoon tabloid, the Mirror. Weeks, Weinstock and a few others joined the Mirror-News for its short lifespan (it closed in 1962), before moving to the Times.

Today, the names that made up that spunky paper---names like Harry Watson, Carol Tiegs, Chuck Genuit, Aaron Dudley, Les Claypool, Cleve Hermann, Chuck Chappell, Sara Boynoff---are L.A. journalism museum pieces, enshrined mostly in the minds of the old Newsies. To visit the old building, you'd never know that these and so many other "charming people," as Partlow's song went, worked there. That thirty years of L.A. journalism took place behind those rickety walls. And yet, if you scratch at the gray bricks a little, you'll find an older color underneath.


"We had a hell of a lot of fun," said Jones.

dnfirecrunch.jpg (56337 bytes)
Fire broke out from time to time in the presses, and July 1, 1954 was one such day. Perhaps it was an omen, as the News put out its last edition five months later. Click pic for larger view.
(photo courtesy of Paul Weeks.)


                                                                                                                               copyright 2003, 2012 Rip Rense