Still nothing like being in the newspaper

With the Red Sox comfortably ahead—10-1 or so—in the second game of that extremely satisfying series with the Yankees, I turned to the Turner Classic Movies channel during a commercial break at just the right time.

It was the final scene of “The Front Page,” the classic newspaper comedy by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur I first read at the impressionable age of 13.  Impressionable because the play, which opened 90 summers ago, convinced me I would like nothing more than being a reporter like the wise cracking denizens of that Criminal Court House press room in 1920s Chicago.  

The year was 1947 and I was a seventh-grader who had already become a newspaper addict thanks to the wartime reporting of Ernie Pyle and the baseball coverage in the New York papers, especially The World-Telegram, Daily News and Journal-American and writers like Joe Williams, Dan Daniel, Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon.

Actually, I had become attracted to journalism at a much earlier age—around 6 or so—when I wrote my first newspaper story for a mimeographed publication called The Fulton Flash.  It was named  for Robert Fulton, the steamboat inventor who had worked on the nearby Hudson River a few years earlier and gave his name to our elementary school.

The details are a little misty after nearly 80 years but my story went something like this:  “We went into the assembly today and saw a movie about shelter.  There were different kinds of shelters like igloos built of ice but I like American homes the best.”  Under the headline, was the best part:

“By Richard Ahles, Grade 1-A”

The clipping was still in a scrapbook my mother kept when I made my career decision seven years later and shared it—but not The Front Page part—with Sister Mary Estelle, the best grammar teacher I would ever have.  She told me writing for newspapers was a good choice for someone who wrote nicely and enjoyed diagramming sentences as much as I did. 

She would not, however, have approved of the low comedy that convinced me I would enjoy being like the reporter in Act 1 who begins a telephone interview by asking, “Is it true, Madame, that you were the victim of a Peeping Tom?”

The play takes place as a dozen reporters await the hanging of an anarchist wrongly convicted of murder.  The prisoner escapes and gets to the press room where he is hidden in a roll top desk by reporter Hildy Johnson to avoid detection by Johnson’s competitors.  Pandemonium follows as Hildy tries to hide the prisoner from the sheriff and his colleagues to get the scoop of his soon-to-end newspaper career.

The final scene has Johnson’s crusty editor, Walter Burns, giving Johnson his pocket watch as a wedding present after failing to convince him to stay at the paper.  The watch, inscribed to “The Best Newspaperman I know,” had been a gift to the editor from “the chief,” probably Col. Robert McCormick or William Randolph Hearst, and is presented to Johnson as the reporter departs with his bride-to-be for New York and an advertising job.

But as the couple leaves, the editor orders an underling to notify the police to stop the train at the first station outside Chicago and arrest Hildy Johnson because “the sonuvabitch stole my watch,” the funniest curtain line ever written.

These memories were stirred not only by seeing some of “The Front Page” again but also from reading about the career of Dave Anderson, the Pulitzer Prize winning sportswriter who died on Oct. 4 at 89.  

The thrill of newspaper work stayed with Anderson all his life.  His Times obituary included part of a 2014 interview about a night in 1958 when he had covered a hockey game in Montreal for the old Journal-American.  As the junior reporter on the train heading back to New York, Anderson had the job of tossing a packet of stories he and his colleagues had written to a Western Union telegrapher standing by the tracks as the train slowed to cross the Canadian border.  There was never a guarantee, but always the hope the stories would arrive in time for the next day’s papers.

Late the next morning, Anderson remembered nearly 60 years later, he picked up a copy of The Journal-American at Grand Central.

“There was the story,” he said.  “It was exciting.  Even now, when I’m writing, I wake up on a Sunday and still get excited if I’m in the paper.”

I do too.  


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.