Honor Thy Talese

042406 article talese Honor Thy TaleseThe top editor of the Times, the Mississippi-born Turner Catledge, had made it known that he hoped the newswriting would become livelier, saying that the era of just-the-facts journalism was insufficient now that television was the first to reach the public with the text and pictures of late-breaking news. I had been transferred at Catledge’s suggestion from sports to general news in 1958 to become part of his plan to emphasize writing as well as reporting in the main section. But changes occurred slowly at the Times, he once told me, adding that the paper often reminded him of an elephant. It was huge, reliable, and stubborn. It was slow to learn new tricks and was clumsy. If it was expected to dance, it had better dance well; otherwise, it could look mighty foolish in public. He therefore knew that a considerable amount of practice, patience, and time would be necessary to make an impression upon the tradition-bound mind-set existing within the paper’s nerve center, which was its sprawling block-long newsroom occupying the third floor of the fourteen-story Times building on West Forty-third Street. Catledge would sometimes survey the newsroom through the pair of binoculars he held while standing outside the door of his corner office, and what he saw in front of him were endless rows of gray metal desks and multitudes of people seated or strolling about—dozens of senior editors and mid-level editors, and battalions of copyreaders flanked by desk clerks and other supernumeraries, and hundreds of reporters of varying ages and specialties, some of them newly appointed to the staff, like myself, others being senior citizens adhering to the rather fusty, formulaic style of reporting that had been in vogue when the publisher had been Adolph Ochs, who died in 1935. Although the present publisher—Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was married to Ochs’s daughter and only child—was fond and supportive of Catledge, the old guard in the newsroom were stalwart shrine keepers who believed it might be perilous to tinker with the Ochsian formula (straight facts, no frills) and encourage instead a stylish flair that more properly belonged in the newsroom of the Times’s near-bankrupt rival, the New York Herald-Tribune.

The latter was long known as a writer’s paper, led in the early 1960s by such stars as Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin. The Times had always been a reporter’s paper, a recorder’s paper, one that each day published a record of every fire in New York, the arrival time of every mail ship, the names of every official visitor to the White House, the precise moment the sun set and the moon rose; in its long history, the Times had never hired journalistic stars with a marquee status that made them indispensable to the paper in a box-office sense or any other. The Times was an ensemble. It was a gigantic gray institution of subdued luminosity. And the aging traditionalists, sharing few of Catledge’s concerns about the future impact of television journalism upon the newspaper’s readership, were certain that the continued prosperity of the paper was secure as long as its top executives and its proprietors remained faithful to Mr. Ochs’s dictums. Allied with this conservative and cautious mode of thinking was my city editor, a stout, stern old-time reporter named Frank Adams, who did not welcome me to his staff with a handshake after Catledge had maneuvered my transfer, nor offer me a raise during the nearly four years I worked under him.

When I joined the newsroom in 1958, Catledge was operating slowly and patiently, as befitted the choreographer of an elephant. And young reporters like myself were meanwhile left to fend for ourselves, to complain at our own risk to the copydesk, knowing that our grousing would sooner or later come to the attention of Frank Adams and might result in our not getting an assignment for a few days, or perhaps an entire week. This had sometimes happened to me and to others among my more querulous young colleagues—we were “benched,” as athletes often were by their discontented coaches; in our cases it meant that we sat at our desks for prolonged periods without hearing our names announced over the city editor’s microphone, which was how we were summoned to learn the locale and the subject of our story if Adams had included us on the daily assignment sheet.

We who were not in his favor rarely reacted with inner feelings of gratitude on those occasions when we were called before him to receive an assignment; far more frequently than otherwise, we commiserated with one another in the back of the newsroom before dispersing ourselves to our appointed destinations, being collectively convinced that each of us had been assigned to cover a story that was uninteresting, inconsequential, and ultimately destined to be cut to shreds by the copydesk, if not killed entirely. When we were proved wrong—that is, when our assignments ended up as page-one stories, drawing letters of approval from readers—then, of course, we took full credit. It had been our writing skills and creative approaches to these assignments that had transformed what had been ordinary to something extraordinary. On the other hand, if our assignments had proved to be as pointless and unpublishable as we had predicted, then all the blame belonged to our superiors. How could any reporter write about something so bereft of substance, so ill-conceived and banal? Nothing published was more perishable than what we wrote. This bothered me when I first joined the newsroom. Once as I sat sweating over a story, fearing that I might miss the deadline, I heard a veteran reporter calling to me from across the room: “C’mon, young man, be done with it! You’re not writing for posterity, you know.” I did not know. I was habitually late in delivering stories because I constantly rewrote them, believing that what I wrote would be preserved eternally on microfilm in the archives of Ochs’s enduring paper of record. We journalists, in my view, were the preeminent chroniclers of contemporary happenings, the foot soldiers for the historians.

With time, however, I begrudgingly acknowledged my older colleague’s remark. We were not writing for posterity. We journalists seemed at times to be allied with the fast-food industry, being the short-order cooks for consumers of often half-baked information and ideas.

In recounting my days under the aegis of Frank Adams, I do not mean to represent myself as an insubordinate, know-it-all newcomer to the newsroom. It is true I wanted to see my work published pretty much as I had written it; and I believed that newswriting could be both literary and factually reliable; I understood that my being transferred from the sports section to the main section at Turner Catledge’s behest was rightly disturbing to Frank Adams, who had not been previously consulted. This I learned later from one of Adams’s clerks. Still, it was hardly unprecedented for the newspaper’s top editor to occasionally influence the placement and redeployment of personnel without always clearing it beforehand with mid-level management. What was the point in being at the top if it required getting permission from those below? Politesse had its place in maintaining harmonious intermanagement relationships, of course, and Catledge normally might have been expected to notify Frank Adams in advance about my transfer. But in this instance, he apparently had not. It might have been an oversight. Or maybe it was his way of indicating fatigue with Adams’s intransigence and hinting that the latter’s job was in jeopardy. Or perhaps Catledge was merely exercising his prerogative, as powerful people sometimes do to prove that they possess power, to shift an employee from one section of the paper to another. I was pleased by the move. I had been promoted from journalism’s “toy department,” which is how the New York Post columnist Jimmy Cannon referred to sports, to the Times main section, populated by full-fledged reporters. I hoped and believed that I was worthy of Catledge’s confidence.

Still, I knew that merit was not all that mattered. The issue of merit was taken into account, but because there were always more applicants of merit as well as qualified employees for every available opening or advancement within the organization, the final selection tended to be determined subjectively by those holding positions of influence.

The man at the very top of the Times, the publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, got his job because he was married to the late Adolph Ochs’s daughter, Iphigene. When I joined the newsroom, I believe there were at least a dozen jobholders on the paper who were family relatives of the Times’s first lady and her husband. Among the more prominent of these was Arthur Hays Sulzberger’s cousin, who was the Paris-based chief foreign correspondent of the Times, and Iphigene’s cousin, who headed the editorial page and presided over a staff of opinionated pontificators on the tenth floor. In other departments within the paper, and in the disjointed nooks and crannies of the Gothic building’s cavernous interior, or within offices owned or leased by the Times outside the city or abroad, there were sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, brothers-in-law, uncles, and cousins galore who were collateral descendants or intermarried kinsmen of the Ochs-Sulzberger alliance. Not all of these relatives held important executive positions. Most, in fact, were mid-level bureaucrats. I am alleging, however, using one of journalism’s favorite words, that all of these people—whether it was Iphigene Sulzberger’s nephew, who assisted the advertising manager, or her niece, who clerked for the drama editor, or her other niece, who was an associate editor in the Sunday department, or her son-in-law, who would eventually succeed her husband as the publisher and who, in turn, would be succeeded by her son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and eventually by her grandson, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. (the latter in 1992)—all of these were on the Times payroll in part (if not entirely) because of their consanguinity or their conjugal affiliation with the Ochs patrilineage.

The Times was a family enterprise. No major decisions regarding the paper’s policies and practices could be implemented without the imprimatur of the ruling faction of the Ochs-Sulzberger family. It alone decided which male heir would ascend to the title of publisher. And the publisher was thereafter open to the opinions and recommendations of the family, and to certain intimates of the family, and, more often than acknowledged, to the top public figures of the day. Ochs himself had been influenced in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover’s efforts to have a reportorial job on the Times offered to young Turner Catledge.

After the war, Catledge was appointed by Sulzberger to serve as an assistant in New York to the managing editor of the Times, Edwin L. James, and on James’s death in mid-December of 1951, Catledge took over as the managing editor. He brought with him some friends who had served with him on other newspapers. One of these individuals was a tall, broad-chested, gregarious native of Louisiana named John Randolph, who had briefly attended the University of Alabama, among other colleges, and who, because he had served effectively as Catledge’s picture editor at the Chicago Sun, became the picture editor at the Times in 1952, remaining in that job until he offended Iphigene Sulzberger by printing that picture in 1954 that showed Marilyn Monroe on her wedding day French-kissing her husband, Joe DiMaggio.

Catledge would have preferred overlooking the incident, and probably would have if the complaint had not come to him from the publisher’s office, prompting him to demote his old friend to a copydesk position for a couple of years until Randolph was transferred to sports in 1956 to write the hunting and fishing column. This allowed Randolph to travel around the country on a liberal expense account, writing about what he most liked to do: hunt, fish, relax on a boat, and escape the clamor of big-city life—a dream assignment, as Randolph saw it. For the next five years, until he died of lung cancer in 1961, his column was one of the most readable features in the paper. I got to know Randolph quite well while we were coworkers in the sports department, and it was he who had identified Iphigene Sulzberger as the one who had reacted negatively to the Monroe-DiMaggio photo. Mrs. Sulzberger, then in her early sixties, was rarely seen in the Times building except when walking through the lobby on days when the board of directors met on the top floor, but it was generally believed by veteran Times men that she stood constantly behind her husband with gloved hands, reenforcing her late father’s definition of what constituted good taste within the paper.

“I’m all for good old Victorian and French hypocrisy,” she later admitted in a book about the Ochses and Sulzbergers called The Trust, written by Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones with the cooperation of the families. What Iphigene did not exactly say in The Trust, but what its authors suggested, was that she was more protective of the propriety of the Times’s news columns than she was openly censorious of the infidelity of her husband, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was known for his extramarital affairs and most particularly the one with his longtime mistress, a movie star during the 1930s and 1940s named Madeleine Carroll. One evening when Carroll was on her way up to visit Sulzberger in his executive suite, a reporter from the drama department, who was surprised to see her riding in the elevator, posed the question: “What brings you to the Times, Miss Carroll?”

“Don’t ask,” she replied.

When Arthur Hays Sulzberger was close to sixty-five, in the middle 1950s, he was involved with an actress named Irene Manning, and he once saw to it that Turner Catledge got a photograph of her into the paper’s theater section. At around this time, the publisher’s thirty-year old son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger—who would take over as publisher in 1963—was being charged in a paternity suit with impregnating a staff reporter named Lillian Bellison, whom he would refuse to marry and who, in turn, would not accede to an abortion. “She was sleeping with other people in the news department,” he was quoted as saying in The Trust, but he went on to explain that since a blood test in connection with the paternity suit “couldn’t prove that it wasn’t mine,” he agreed to long-term financial assistance, although he would always avoid personal contact with Lillian Bellison’s son. “I’ve never seen him,” Sulzberger said in the book. “It’s a piece of history, it’s over, it’s done.” Many years later, when Lillian Bellison’s son was in his twenties, he would sue his presumed father and eventually settle for an undisclosed portion of the Ochs-Sulzberger inheritance. His mother kept her job on the Times despite her differences with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and she was never shy about bringing her boy into the newsroom, introducing him to her reportorial colleagues, including myself, as George Alexanderson, the surname being that of her onetime husband, who died two years prior to the birth. The prevailing view in the newsroom was that young George was a “spitting image” of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. And while most of the news personnel on the third floor seemed to be quite blasé about this unusual situation—quoting from the lyrics of a saloon song they attributed to the late Stanley Walker and other staffers on the Herald-Tribune: “Drink is the curse of the Tribune, and sex is the bane of the Times”—I had naïvely joined the Times in 1953 thinking that the private lives of the people who owned or worked for the organization would reflect the conventional standards and restraints that prevailed each day in the paper’s news and editorial pages. But after being on the paper for a while—and especially after the Sulzberger-Bellison revelations—I realized that I was working in a place of appearances. It was as if the walls of the Times building were made of one-way glass that gave us a view of the outside world and prevented those on the outside from looking in and judging us. As long as we journalists did not despoil the image of Ochsian propriety in the columns of the paper—which John Randolph had apparently done—then we could presumably deal with our dirty linen in private and cope as best we could with whatever problems we caused one another.

Still, recalling those long-ago years, it is noteworthy that during the supposedly dowdy days of the Eisenhower fifties there existed such a high tolerance for risqué behavior within the Times, and it was certainly not limited to the activities of Sulzberger père and fils. A married man who was a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter on the third floor had a mistress who worked on the eleventh floor in the promotion department. Seated near the Pulitzer winner’s desk was the best female general-assignment reporter on the Times, and she was having an affair with one of the senior editors. In the middle of the newsroom sat a male reporter who was married but was also privately involved with a young woman who wrote “Talk of the Town” pieces for The New Yorker. For some reason, he kept a diary during his free hours in the office, describing in vivid detail his extramarital activity; he updated the diary during his free hours in the office and kept it locked in the bottom drawer of his desk. But when he suddenly died due to an allergic reaction to a doctor-prescribed drug following minor surgery, one of the clerks cleaned out the reporter’s desk and mailed home to the widow all the contents, including the diary.

Shocked to learn that she had not only been betrayed by her husband but also by The New Yorker staffer, whom she had felt close to, the widow wrote a book about the episode and entitled it Such Good Friends. Although it was published as a work of fiction—no real names were used—it was nonetheless an accurate account of the adulterous life of her late husband, and yet neither the book nor the movie version of the book, which was directed by Otto Preminger, in fact, none of the sexual indiscretions of any of the other individuals affiliated with the Times, tarnished the reputation of the newspaper. The public posture of the Times was able to coexist contradictorily with the private lives of those who owned it and were employed by it.

Excerpted from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese. © 2006 by Gay Talese. To be published by Alfred A. Knopf on April 25.