Extra! Extra! Hard Copy From the City’s Front-Page Era
“Reporters: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman” by Will Fowler is the book every newspaper reporter of the late 1940s and early 1950s meant to write but didn’t. Now Fowler has.
It’s as boisterous, irreverent, virile, sentimental and vainglorious as all of us were who worked on newspapers in that last gasp of the Front Page era. Will and I worked together for three years on the Herald-Express, a paper that gloried in sex, crime and wrongdoing, and I can verify that most of his stories are true.
Will had begun his career some years earlier on William Randolph Hearst’s other Los Angeles paper, the Examiner. He confesses that he had wanted to work on the free-wheeling Daily News, where I then worked, but his father had named him William Randolph Fowler, and he had no choice.
Unfortunately, Will’s father was the flamboyant Gene Fowler, a knight among journalists. Though Will was probably a better street reporter than his father ever was, he always worked in the old man’s shadow, or light.
At the Examiner Will worked for the sadistic Jim Richardson, the worst kind of drunk--a reformed one. Richardson was humorless and tyrannical, but a good city editor.
There were no such things as “investigative reporters” in those days. Every reporter was an investigative reporter. Will once interviewed a young woman who was suicidal because her husband was two years overseas in the war and, though virtuous, she had turned up pregnant. Will kept probing and finally found out that the wife had had a tooth filled months before and the dentist had used gas to put her under. Police records showed that the dentist had previously been accused of rape but was acquitted. Under interrogation he admitted raping the soldier’s anesthetized wife in the dental chair. He went to prison.
Will was the first reporter on the scene when Elizabeth Short’s dismembered body was found in a grassy lot west of the Coliseum. He and a photographer had been returning from another story when they heard a police broadcast directing cops to the scene. Will and his photog got there first and had to explain themselves when the cops showed up.
As they neared the body, Will called to his photographer, “Jesus, Felix! This woman’s cut in half!”
“It is difficult to describe two parts of a body as being one,” he writes. “However, both halves were facing upward. Her arms were extended above her head. Her translucent blue eyes were only half-opened so I closed her eyelids.”
There are a few errors of fact in “Reporters,” which is not unexpected in a book so full of detail and so dependent on memory. Clara Phillips (the Tiger Woman) did not hammer her faithless lover to death; she hammered her faithless husband’s lover to death.
Only one other error is important. Will credits Bevo Means, the Herald Sheriff’s beat reporter, as the first in getting Elizabeth Short’s nickname, the Black Dahlia, into print. No, I was.
Elizabeth used to live in Long Beach and hung out at a drugstore soda fountain with her friends. The pharmacist told police that, because of her bouffant black hairdo and black clothes, they called her the Black Dahlia. Bevo probably called this electrifying piece of news to his desk about the same time our police reporter called it into mine. Recognizing the Black Dahlia for the dramatic sobriquet it was, I immediately wrote a new lead for the story and we went to press. The Daily News being a round-the-clock paper, we got it on the street first.
Since that is probably the only contribution I have made to history, I want the record straight.
Will was not above the tricks we used to get pictures. When the wealthy La Canada socialites Walter and Beulah Anne Overell were blown up in their yacht at Newport Beach, Will’s desk was screaming for a picture of Overell. Will and his photographer found him in the morgue, propped him up and took his picture. The paper’s artist opened his eyes and painted in a shirt, necktie and coat. No other paper had it.
Will notes that the birth of television as a spot-news medium was occasioned on April 18, 1949, by the Kathy Fiscus story. A pretty 3-year-old child had fallen into a pipe-like abandoned well in San Marino. A KTLA mobile unit was sent to the scene, and for two days, while millions watched, its indefatigable reporters, Stan Chambers and Bill Welsh, reported the heroic rescue efforts. Finally, when rescuers reached Kathy through a tunnel, they found her dead.
I was off that weekend, but I was watching TV at a bar near my home. Wanting to be part of the story, I phoned my desk to see if they needed me. They said no. It was the darkest moment of my career.