The Real L.A. Confidential

Miles Corwin is a Times staff writer

The first time I worked with Nieson Himmel was at a drive-by shooting on the edge of Watts on a misty winter night in the early 1990s. Nieson was almost 70 at the time and rarely left the newsroom to cover stories anymore. He usually wandered into The Times at dusk, monitored the three police and fire department scanners on his desk until dawn and left his chair only to make one of his many nightly trips to the cafeteria and the candy machines. But on this Friday night, Nieson heard on the scanner that five people were down in a drive-by, and the night editor decided the story was big enough to warrant sending him to the scene.

About 20 minutes later, Nieson called to report that the casualty toll had climbed to seven, with several in critical condition. The editor dispatched me to help. The scene was a crumbling neighborhood on the edge of Watts, on a street lined with dilapidated apartment houses and weathered bungalows with sagging wooden frames. I walked past a gauntlet of gangbangers, frightened neighbors and edgy patrol officers and spotted, under a street light in the distance, a squat, enormously wide figure bobbing along the edge of the yellow crime scene tape. I knew only one person who could cast a silhouette like that--the 5-foot-7, 300-pound Nieson. He was interviewing detectives and scribbling amoeba-like notes. As deadline approached, I was ready to call the city desk, but I did not have a mobile phone and did not have time to search for a phone booth.

Just then, a woman in a frayed housecoat and curlers wandered out of her apartment and called, "Oh, Nieson, would you like to use the phone again?" He nodded, and she shepherded us into her apartment as her two surly sons eyeballed us suspiciously. Nieson asked her a few questions about the boys who had been shot, she gave him a few quotes and we called in our notes.

I was mystified as to how Nieson had managed to ingratiate himself with this woman, how he won her over and had secured a phone in such menacing surroundings, particularly since I had been sent out to the scene to rescue him. As we were leaving, he thanked the woman, pulled a ball of detritus out of his pocket, which contained melted M&Ms;, lint, scraps of newspaper and greasy bills of various denominations. He searched through the bills, pulled one out, handed it to the woman and said, "Here's another twenty for you."

*

Nieson Himmel worked for the Times until shortly before his death on March 13 at the age of 77. He was the last link to the lively, lurid era of 1940s journalism, when five dailies in the city competed for crime stories. Nieson had covered every major crime in the city since World War II, including the Black Dahlia case, Bugsy Siegel's murder and Robert Kennedy's assassination. But in his last decade, Nieson had slowed down considerably, and his duties were limited to answering the phone and listening to the scanners. That first night we worked together he had been dispatched only to provide an initial report. When it became clear that the story could be a big one, the editor sent me. But there I was on the street, relying on Nieson. His methods, I knew, were not considered appropriate by today's corporate journalistic standards. Still, he never understood why he should not simply peel off $20 if he needed something from a street source.

Nieson had difficulty adjusting to modern journalism in countless other ways as well. During much of his career, newspapers covered not just every murder in the city, but every shooting. By the early 1990s, however, with the number of murders approaching 2,000 a year in Los Angeles County alone, it was impossible to cover even half of them. Yet night after night, Nieson trudged up to the city desk and passed on murder reports he had heard on the scanners. And almost every night he became despondent when his tips were ignored. Some nights, after a spate of murders never made the paper, he muttered, "We wouldn't even write a story about the Black Dahlia murder if it happened today."

Still, he never stopped listening to the scanners, never stopped trying to get stories in the paper. And he never stopped writing his "overnite notes" at the end of his shift. They were unedited, impressionistic reports of the mayhem and murder he had tracked on police scanners, all-news radio stations and television news shows, which he called "newsreels." When I covered crime for The Times during the early 1990s, I read his overnite notes every morning. Occasionally I picked up a tip that led to a story. But mostly I read them because they offered such a vivid, noir glimpse into Los Angeles at night. There was a raw, roughhewn poetry to the writing, and I stashed many of them in a file drawer. One of my favorites, from a busy Halloween a few years ago, provided an evocative view of the night's iniquities: "11-year-old trick-or-treater wounded with two-inch wound when gang of interlopers shot at him with pellet guns . . . . Man (or maybe woman) (could be child) found at the bottom of a deep ravine, but can't tell if bruises from hiking accident or beating-murder? . . . Woman, supposedly a judge's widow, found murdered in her back yard, but cops being very closed-mouthed about it. . . . Swastikas smeared on Huntington Beach firm by group of four or five bald, swastika-clad suspects who messed up physically a guy named Jesus . . . . Rampart vice cops critically wound suspects who pulled a gun on them when they tried to make arrest at end of a buy operation . . . . Newsreels say drive-by on Eastside with two shot in drive-by and two shooters on the lam . . . . "

*

Nieson's journalism skills were not what made him a legendary newsroom figure. It was the legendary stories that he covered. It was the longevity of his career. And it was his eccentricities, which could be divided into four categories: his car, his clothes, his apartment and his food.

His car was a traveling museum exhibit, and when it was parked in The Times lot, employees stopped and studied the interior in wonderment. In the back seat was a compost heap of newspapers, partly eaten hamburgers, magazines, chicken bones and fast-food wrappers. Nieson was once rear-ended, and he was convinced the newspaper padding saved his life, so he always made sure he had stacks of papers in the back seat. The car wasn't his, however. He rented white Pontiac Grand Ams from a rental agency, paying a daily rate, and whenever the newsprint and trash rose so high that it obscured the rear window, he simply turned the car in and rented another.

George Alexander, a former science writer for The Times, recalled an afternoon when Nieson handed him the car keys. Alexander reluctantly went out to retrieve a magazine Nieson had left for him on the front seat. When Alexander opened the door, he said, "the smell just about knocked me over. I asked Nieson about it, and he said it was probably the remains of a sandwich he had forgotten about." A few weeks later, Nieson told Alexander that he discovered the provenance of the odor. He had been to Tijuana a few months earlier and had bought a box of giant prawns from a street-side vendor. He threw the box in the back of the car, forgot about it, and the moldering prawns were quickly buried.

Nieson's Echo Park apartment, where he had lived since the 1950s, was a larger version of his car. He bought a half-dozen newspapers every day, subscribed to 56 magazines, and apparently never threw one away. Piles of tattered newspapers--some from the 1940s--stood in various spots like towering yellow obelisks. Magazines 30 years old were piled high and stuffed under the sofa, chairs, the bed and behind bookcases and end tables.

Nieson was never much interested in clothes, so when he found something comfortable, he bought in bulk. On a visit to Hawaii in the 1950s, he bought a few dozen colorful Hawaiian shirts. A few years later, George Hearst, the publisher of the Herald-Express, issued an edict that all reporters had to wear ties when covering stories, recalled Burt Folkart, a former Herald-Express and Times reporter. "Nieson was pretty absent-minded and didn't care much about clothes, so he just borrowed some of his girlfriend's scarves to use as ties," Folkart said. "One afternoon, when Hearst saw Nieson wearing an iridescent green-and-purple Hawaiian shirt, with a puce scarf, he shook his head and said: 'Let them wear what they want.' "

During Nieson's 23 years at The Times he only wore loose-fitting guayabera shirts, which he ordered by mail from a catalog. He always had a plastic penholder in the top pocket filled with leaking pens, perhaps a half-eaten candy bar and a plastic fork covered with a pollen of cake crumbs. Before every shift, he ate a hefty dinner. After work, as the sun was coming up, he often finished off the night at the Pacific Dining Car at the edge of downtown with a 14-ounce, $40 New York steak. For a man of Nieson's girth, eating like a trencherman every night is not considered seemly in today's health-conscious era. "But that was Nieson," said his sister, Razelle Yager. "He always did exactly what he wanted. That went for his eating, too. He ate what he wanted, when he wanted. He lived to 77, he enjoyed eating and he enjoyed life--on his own terms."

Nieson grew up in Faribault, Minn., a small town about 50 miles southeast of Minneapolis. There was a story among reporters that Nieson was the heir to a great fortune. The rumor began, perhaps, because Nieson was so cavalier about money. He often stuffed paychecks in his cluttered desk and then, when looking for a notebook or a box of cookies, found them--sometimes years later. But Nieson did not come from a wealthy family. His father owned a women and children's clothing store, and the family lived above the business.

He attended the University of Minnesota, majored in journalism and worked as a copy boy and part-time police reporter for the Minneapolis Journal. In 1944, he moved to Los Angeles and took a job as an $18-a-week crime reporter for City News Service. A few months later, when he heard the Herald-Express was paying $28 a week, he applied and was hired on the spot.

He stayed for two decades, spending the overnight shift in "the cruiser car" with a 500-pound photographer named Tiny. Nieson sat in the passenger seat, with a notebook and pen in his lap. Tiny drove. They cruised around Los Angeles, listening to police and fire radios and speeding to crime scenes, often ahead of detectives. Nieson loved the excitement of chasing murders and fires and gangster arrests and brothel raids. And he loved Los Angeles at night, particularly in the 1950s, when the Sunset Strip was lined with nightclubs and restaurants such as Cafe Trocadero, Ciro's, the Vendome and Restaurant La Rue, where movie stars and gangsters got the best tables, starlets filled the bar and the paparazzi lined up outside.

In those days, cops frequently gave reporters tips on stories and let them wander about crime scenes and interview suspects. In return, the reporters made sure they spelled the detectives' names right and did not write anything that embarrassed the department. Nieson recalled the time he and Tiny and other reporters and photographers showed up at a brothel raid at a West Hollywood apartment. A vice cop named O'Grady spotted the reporters and began cursing them. "O'Grady was irate," recalled Harry Watson, a photographer for the Daily News at the time. "He was shouting in front of the girls: 'You newspapermen can't come busting in here like this. These women have their rights. Get the hell out of here!' When O'Grady finished his tirade, he whispered to us: 'Come back in five minutes and I'll leave the door open for you.' "

When they returned, Watson photographed a hooker, and she became enraged. She grabbed a bottle of whiskey and was about to slam it over his head. "I intervened," Nieson wrote in a 1962 article. "But I made a great tactical error. I grabbed her arm . . . but it wasn't the one holding the bottle. So she lowered the boom." A photographer for the Mirror captured the scene. The next morning Nieson was featured in a large photograph, and the Mirror reporter wrote: "Himmel wilted to the floor in a shower of bourbon."

Nieson also described in the article--with characteristic hyperbole--the scene at the police station when prostitutes were brought in to be booked. "Now fully clothed, the ladies, who only an hour before had been stark naked--and then some . . . would usually add a towel over their face or a coat to their costume."

Cruiser car reporters were on a first-name basis with all the gangsters in town, including Mickey Cohen and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who occasionally bought them drinks. Nieson also was acquainted with Raymond Chandler and joined him for drinks several times at his Westside bungalow. "After the Black Dahlia murder, I called Chandler for some insight into the murder," Nieson said shortly before his death. "All he would say is: 'Just read my books.' When I pressed him, he was quite knowledgeable about the case, but in the end, he was just as mystified as everyone else."

Years later, after Nieson had written numerous stories about the 1947 case--which is still unsolved--he claimed to know who killed Elizabeth Short, the aspiring 22-year-old actress known as the Black Dahlia because of her tight-fitting black dresses and her dyed-black hair. Her body was found severed in half, drained of blood and her organs removed. "There was a guy who owned a big nightclub and he was a real sicko," Nieson said. "Short stayed over at his house a few times, and one night, I heard, she gave him some lip, and that's when he did her in. A homicide cop involved in the investigation was OK, but he had a brother who was a crooked cop. He owed $12,000 to the nightclub owner, who moonlighted as a bookie. The crooked cop went to his brother and told him, 'Lay off this guy if you don't want me killed.' "

On slow nights, cruiser car reporters gathered at the police station pressroom, played pinochle or passed around a bottle. Reporters felt so at home at the pressroom, Nieson recalled, that one even lived there. "This guy, Walt, slept on the pressroom sofa after his wife threw him out, and at night he'd wander around in his pajamas and bathrobe. One night he goes to shave in the public bathroom, and two young cops who don't know his routine ask him what the hell he's doing there. He's drunk as usual, so he gets real snotty. They grab him and take him to the lieutenant's office. The lieutenant's a crinkly-faced old-timer who looked like he was about 110. He asks the two cops what they're doing with Walt. They tell him they caught him wandering in his bathrobe. The lieutenant got indignant and said: 'Why shouldn't he wander around. He lives here.' "

While many of the crime reporters were fiercely competitive, Nieson was always a soft touch, recalled Charles Hillinger, a former Times staff writer. If a reporter showed up late at a crime scene, the others often shunned him, but Nieson always shared his notes. Occasionally he called a rewrite man at a competing paper when a fellow reporter passed out drunk. "That's the kind of guy Himmel was, always very generous and kind," Hillinger said. "That's why everyone loved him."

While the journalists in Nieson's day seemed to have more fun, the ethics and accuracy of some would fall well short of today's standards. During his Herald days, Nieson said, he and other reporters made up quotes on occasion and sometimes posed for staged "news" photographs. His journalistic ethics were put to the test in 1951 during the infamous "Bloody Christmas" beating--loosely portrayed in the movie "L.A. Confidential." At the Central Division police station, seven Latino prisoners were taken into custody after a barroom brawl with a few cops. A false rumor spread that the cops were seriously injured. A number of enraged officers filed into the cells and beat the prisoners. Nieson, who was at the station at the time, viewed the melee. When a grand jury investigated, Nieson was subpoenaed. He was terrified. The department had been extremely corrupt during the previous decade, and Nieson believed that if he testified honestly his life would be in danger, or at the very least, he would lose his livelihood because no cop would ever talk to him again. If he lied, he could face a perjury charge.

Nieson talked to his editor and asked what he should do. The editor stared at him for a moment and walked away.

When asked years later what he told the grand jury, Nieson replied:

"I lied through my teeth."

*

Nieson left the Herald during a bitter strike during the late 1960s. When strike-breaking reporters and editors put out the paper, he was so incensed that he waged a one-man campaign to deprive readers of the scab publication. Nieson drove around town, his pocket full of slugs, and removed papers from every news rack he spotted. He eventually was arrested, but he didn't bother trying to talk his way out of the jam. His car, of course, was stuffed with purloined papers. He was charged with a misdemeanor and fined.

During the next few years, he worked at City News Service and at an aviation magazine, but he missed newspapers. In 1975, after a Times police reporter was fired for a drunken escapade, Nieson was hired. He monitored the scanners every night and often appeared to be asleep, but if a dispatcher barked out an interesting report, Nieson's head jerked up, and he grabbed a pencil and furiously jotted some impenetrable notes. Those who viewed Nieson as the stereotypical hard-bitten crime reporter were surprised when they discovered he spent every Saturday night at a play, the opera or a ballet. He was always accompanied by his longtime girlfriend, Doris Fike. When she died in the early 1990s, he became increasingly depressed. "When Doris died," a friend of Nieson's said, "he stopped smiling." Occasionally, while distractedly listening to the dispatchers' staccato reports, he muttered: "Biggest regret I have in life is never marrying her." Soon his apartment became even messier, and he often forgot to bathe and change clothes before he came to work.

Work had always been extremely important to Nieson. Now it was all he had left. Many of his friends thought he would be happy to die in the newsroom. He did the next best thing. He became ill as he walked through the newsroom one night in late February, was taken to the emergency room and died a few weeks later from pneumonia-related complications.

Before he was buried, his sister bought a Los Angeles Times and placed it in his coffin.

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