Noted Writer Introduces Himself

Westbrook Pegler

Quad City Times/December 11, 1933

 

OF ALL THE DUMB, wonderful luck that any newspaper man ever had I think mine has been the best, because, to begin, I was the son of a newspaper reporter and writer whose exploits around Chicago in the days which Ben Hecht and Maureen Watkins have written about have become standard classics of newspaper chop-talk.

He always talked newspaper around home and every story he ever covered seems to him, and naturally, to me, the greatest story that has ever happened. It still seems so to him, day by day on the New York Mirror, in which the name of Arthur James Pegler over a story signifies that that piece has been covered by a reporter who never was troubled by any wish to be an executive, a country publisher or a chicken-rancher, settled down somewhere.

He used to have a brass badge with red enamel letters, admitting one to the fire-lines in Chicago, but he was not covering many fires and the badge slewed around in the clutter of papers and busted lead-pencils in the drawer of a big mission table at home. I used to wear the badge sometimes, but it wasn’t mine, after all, and it was an important afternoon in 1910 when I went to work for the United Press in Chicago and Ed Conkle, the bureau manager, pinned a badge of my own on me. He told me to go out to the stock yards and cover the rest of the story of the big fire in which 23 firemen had been killed the night before. The firemen were cooling off the ruins by then and my assignment was to get the names of the dead men as they were mined out of an enormous mass of hams and phone them in.

Several men would lift a black lump onto a stretcher, cover it over with a waterproof sheet off the salvage truck and stumble through the mud to a light, where they would make the identification. A policeman would then announce that it was Dennis Hogan, pipeman, of Engine 26, or Jake Schultz of Ladder Truck 18. A woman’s voice would let go a cry, and I would tear off thru the mud to the phone. But they would shut me off when I came to the part about the woman’s cry. They just wanted the identification.

Good Luck With Bosses

It was my great luck, also, to maintain relations with none but solvent employers, of whom I have had only three since 1910. These were, consecutively, the United Press, the International News, which gave me two weeks’ work as a legman on the floor of the steamroller Republican convention of 1912, and the Chicago Tribune. It is very important to newspaper men that he ally himself to an employer who can meet his payrolls and can afford to spend money covering stories. Otherwise, though he may be the best newspaper man in the country, he may find himself arbitarily sold out to some Munsey or lopped off the staff. And even though he does stay hired, he may get few chances to work on big assignments which call for some expenditure of money on travel and tolls.

It is also important, and it has been my good luck, never to work for a publisher of the nut type, who naturally attracts nut executives who have brain-storms every now and then and, in such moments, roll the ball or shake the tree, and send good newspaper men and women out onto the curb with a few days’ pay, wondering what.

The sense of power which a nut newspaper publisher feels if his property is going well is likely to affect his reason. Some of them fancy themselves for emperors and take to issuing impossible orders in the imperative, imperial manner and are capable of some very harsh forms of tyranny when the assignments are not covered. They also like to lift men up with bigger pay than they are worth in the open market, and with delegated importance and authority, and then, suddenly, smash them down. They get this way, if they are nuts, from electing and bullying cheap judges, mayors, congressmen and the like.

New York Beckoned

I cannot make out just what is the ambition of the cub newspaper reporter now. In the middle-west when I began, almost all reporters, including the older ones, hoped to go to New York some day, where we understood that men working on the old space system got $150 a week. This may not have been so. New York reporters who came out our way probably liked to chuck their weight to us. Not many get $150 a week in New York now, anyway. So in coming to New York, a reporter from elsewhere may achieve nothing more than a change of scene, which may not be for the better, at that.

Long Hours, Low Pay

The United Press was a new and struggling concern when I began. We didn’t get much money and we worked long hours but they had an instinct for enthusiastic kids who would take it out in drama and train rides. On Saturdays, I reported at 7 a. m., finishing at Sunday morning, and then often would hang around the City Hall, playing poker and being worldly until 5. And listening to the firebox. If it struck in a second-alarm I went, because a two-alarm fire could be relied on to last until I got there, with my badge.

Jake Lingle was a cub around the City Hall, too. He was even then developing a mysterious, blasé familiarity with cops and thieves which later became a fixed sneer and his pose in life. He wasn’t a good reporter, he couldn’t write at all and he was too determinedly world-weary, even at the age of 20, ever to recognize a story. Although the hoodlums of Chicago did him the honor of killing him, I believe he was unimportant to the underworld and that they exaggerated him greatly when they had him shot.

Another cub in the same pressroom was Webb Miller, who has now been one of the great European correspondents for the last 15 years, Once, when I was working in London, he came over to work in the same shop and we held a reunion in the course of which he admitted that he and another fellow once had committed a holdup in Chicago. He and this friend had been buying beer all night and a stranger had joined them. But the stranger, though he drank his beers, did not buy any. At closing time, the stranger pulled out a wad of money and bought himself one cigar. This annoyed Webb Miller and his friend, so they followed him down Washington Street, shoved him into a doorway and were about to take his money when he pleaded with them not to rob him of the leg of lamb and bag of eggplant which he had been ordered to bring home for Sunday dinner. So Mr. Miller and his partner in crime disregarded his roll of money but took his leg of lamb and his eggplant.

The next morning there was a complaint on the squealbook at the detective bureau. The victim said he had been robbed of not only his roast and eggplant but his pay as well. This was a lie, as I can testify, for I was beginning to recollect the incident as Mr. Miller developed the story. We presently recognized ourselves, in London, as old pals in long forgotten crime done in Chicago

Copy Boy?

The little job with the International News was a stimulating experience to a cub who wished to go to New York, for the Hearst crew at the convention included Richard Harding Davis and Tad Dorgan, the cartoonist. Davis had an unpleasant reputation among newspapermen as a dude, a snob and a loner, but he was encouraging to me and Tad was a help, too. I brought some drawings to the convention to show them to Tad, hoping to be told they were fine. He took one glance and with a sour look asked, “Isn’t there anything else you can do?” I quit drawing and there must have been great rejoicing in heaven.

Mr. Brisbane, whom I did not know, was writing a running story in a big scrawl and he handed me a wad of copy.

“Run this down to the wire,” he said.

I was no copy boy. I was a reporter, with a badge. So I said, “Run it down yourself” and Mr. Brons, the local manager of the I. N. S., closed my fist over the copy, turned me around and threw me down the stairs.

Later on, when Roosevelt was shot by John Schrank, a nut, in Milwaukee, I went there with my father, who was on the story, to help him, and came near being thrown in jail for beating on the door of the courtroom like a brush salesman during the arraignment, instead of just walking in. The first time I knocked nobody came to let me in, so I knocked again and finally got down to kicking on the door. Because I had to get in there. I told the Judge I was just dumb, which was a good defense and purged me of contempt.

The United Press sent me to London in 1916 because they were short-handed. The shortage must have been very acute. I was terrible and in trouble all the time. Major General Sir Frederick F. B. Maurice, the British Chief of Operations, made them quit sending me to his conferences because I always asked questions. I thought a reporter was supposed to. And it wasn’t a bad idea, either, because all we ever got from him was propaganda in War Office handouts delivered by mouth instead of on flimsy. Most of our news out of London was propaganda, at that, but it was the only news we could get, under the censorship. In the end, Maj. Gen. Sir Frederick F. B. Maurice got into a jam himself and was canned, so I felt better.

Old Uncle Walter Page, the American Ambassador, got sore, too. When we all went to his office, once a week, I always sat down as soon as he did and lit a cigarette when he lit a cigar. He was rude in the cultured manner and would have liked to keep us standing and do all the smoking himself. I was accustomed to local politicians and police lieutenants.

Cap and a King

Once, when everybody else was busy, they sent me down to Buckingham Palace, where the king and queen were receiving some Americans. I had always worn a cap chasing fire engines and didn’t realize that it was wrong to wear a cap to the palace. When the king and queen came out on the terrace all the reporters uncovered. I was by this time aware of a social error and was glad of a chance to snatch off the cap. But the King said, “It is too hot to uncover, gentlemen. Please put your hats on.”

So we did and back went the cap.

When the king and queen came back up from the sunken garden to the terrace the boys all uncovered again except me. An-English man stabbed me from behind with his umbrella and whispered, “Uncover, you fool!”

I turned and said, “Put on your hat, you fool. He said so.”

In doing this I turned back on the king and queen. This was all reported to the boss and I was demoted. We had four men on our staff and I was made No. 9. He kept me in the office for months, but finally, when the destroyer flotilla came over and he had to cover, everyone else was needed in London, so he sent me to Queenstown. Within a week Admiral Sims repudiated an exclusive story, which I had received from Sims’ own aide, about the sinking of a submarine by the U.S.S. O’Brien. The A. P. carried the repudiation. This was charging the U. P. with fakery, and Roy W. Howard, who was president of the concern, boiled up. I had kept a stamped, signed duplicate of the dispatch. The admiral was surprised to hear teat his censor had not only approved the story, but given me documentary proof that it wasn’t faked.

I hauled out the duplicate.

“Let me see it,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “I will let you see it, but I am not going to let you get your hands on it, because l want Roy Howard to see it, and he wants Secretary Daniels to see it, too.”

The admiral put me under open arrest and sent me back to London, but Mr. Howard got the copy by mail and took it down to Daniels, who ordered Sims to send me back to Queenstown. But by this time the British admiral had moved in, relieving Sims, and he wasn’t under Daniels’ orders.

Last winter, in Washington, I met Mr. Daniels for the first time.

He said, “Once when I was secretary of the navy, President Wilson said to me about a certain man, ‘That man is the worst damned fool that ever represented the United States in a foreign country,’ and I said, ‘Mr. President, I should like to agree, but I am committed to Admiral Sims.'”

In dealing with an admiral or a general a correspondent ought always to get it in writing.

Met Gibbons

In London one evening I met a hero of the hour, Floyd Gibbons, who had just come ashore from the wreck of the Laconia and had written one of the greatest newspaper stories ever done. He said he had quit signing his middle initial “P” because it cluttered his by-line and added that with such a Pullman-car name as Westbrook I was foolish to sign my stuff “W. J. Pegler” as I was doing then. He also said a fellow ought to have an objective. He wanted to be a famous war correspondent and was determined about it. I said I wanted to be a newspaper man. No special kind. Just newspaper. He said that was foolish, as a man ought to specialize. Sports. Politics. Theatres Something, anyway.

Not many of us were getting any money to speak of. A big, big journalist, representing the New York Sun, or say, the Herald, would carry a cane and think profoundly all over Page One for $75 or $100 a week. I worked up to $45.

But in the sport departments, Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Bill McGeehan and others were getting along toward fabulous salaries. Up to $300 a week. So when the United Press was organized in 1919, remembering what Gibbons had said, I decided to use my Pullman car name of Westbrook instead of the initials and to write more sport than anything else.

Still it was hard to get any money, until I heard from the Chicago Tribune in 1925, and began a job which I believe was the best newspaper job that ever existed up to the establishment of my present job which is even better. They started me off on the Tribune at $250 a week, gave me raises every now and again and treated me with loving kindness at all times. Florida in the winter. Saratoga in the summer. Europe with Trudy Ederle for the Channel swim. Sick six weeks on full pay. Lay off and play golf if you feel tired. Swell story last night. Don’t overwork. (Signed) F. S. Beck, managing editor.

I hope they will treat me lovingly in my new job.

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