The Ink-Stained Memoirs

Rip Rense last wrote for the magazine about his friendship with former Valley News reporter Joe Shinn.

The old newspaper folk climbed the swaybacked stairs to the third floor. Reaching the top, they pushed open a pair of creaky swinging doors and stepped into a broad, rectangular room. There were rows of desks, as there had been 50 years ago, and plenty of bustle. But the bustle was no longer from a cocky crew of young reporters, editors and photographers. It was from sewing machines and fixed-stare garment workers, all stitching together the most god-awful pair of plaid pants this side of Ringling Bros. The Los Angeles Daily News--the original Los Angeles Daily News, which went out of business Dec. 18, 1954--had become a garment factory.

"It's a sweatshop!" joked onetime Daily News reporter Roy Ringer. "Well," said retired Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Jones, who had started out at the Daily News in 1949, "it was a sweatshop then!"

His former colleagues nodded, with chuckles muted by amazement to be back inside that funky building at 1257 S. Los Angeles St. There the "Only Democratic Newspaper West of the Rockies" had thrived, as had one of the most free-spirited staffs ever to work in a city room, writing stories of a Los Angeles now as gone as the Red Cars. Surviving "Newsies" had reunited to reminisce: Jones, Lu and Jan Haas, Paul Weeks, Roy and Vivian Ringer, Helen Brush (now Brush Jenkins)--and the stories flowed . . . .

Haas met his wife, Jan, a News artist, at a desk near the window. Reporter Weeks presided over weekly steak fry-ups in the library (drinks were a quarter). Ringer triumphantly brought back proofs of stories stolen straight from the Examiner composing room, a couple blocks away, and flirted with his future wife, society writer Vivian Sharp. Photographer Brush climbed to the roof just before dawn and scooped the city on an atomic test blast in Nevada. Jan Haas drew panties on a photograph of Mussolini's mistress as she hung next to Il Duce in 1945. Weeks hid out at a hotel after receiving threats over his crooked vice-cop expose. Jones' first duty as a copy boy was to wake up rewrite man John Clark at 4 a.m. and get him sober.

Fr a newspaper with the blandest of names, the Daily News could not have been more rollicking, downright oddball and, by today's standards, progressive. Consider:

The paper employed women and minorities when this just did not happen, not merely to be trailblazing, as staffers recalled, but because these people happened to be the best candidates for the job.

It was a "bastard tabloid"--neither a broadsheet nor tabloid-sized at six columns--bigger than today's LA Weekly and smaller than The Times.

The pages were peach-colored; in later years, even the building was painted peach. After a wartime period of less-expensive white paper, the News regained its blush with a "The Peach is Back!" parade through downtown, in which the fruit was flung to spectators.

It proudly touted its liberal Democratic editorial perspective in a city of Hearstian sensationalism and stolid Times Republicanism. It was a union paper from the get-go in a nonunion town.

Why, then, is it so forgotten? One often hears tales of the conservative Examiner, which merged with the sensationalist Herald-Express in the early '60s (Diane Keaton assembled an exhibit of Her-Ex photos at the downtown Central Library in 1999). We know about the Mirror and the eternal Times. But the News?

"Yeah, it's faded from everybody's memory," says the 78-year-old Jones. "We're talking about 50 years, and that's just a long time."

There might be another reason.

"The Daily News was very liberal-minded and had a large black and Latino readership," says Rob Wagner, grandson of News reporter Les Wagner and author of "Red Ink, White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962." "I think the liberal papers of the past have a tendency to get buried under the larger-circulating conservative papers. I can't think of too many liberal papers nationwide that really stand the test of time."

Then there is the fact that the News building was hardly destined to become a landmark, like the Julia Morgan-designed half-mission, half-casbah that is the cherished old Examiner building at 1111 S. Broadway, or even the granite Times complex. The Herald-Express, also an exercise in Hearstian architecture, was flattened for the Santa Monica Freeway.

No, this feisty paper--ever third or fourth in circulation--was housed inside a former car dealership at Pico Boulevard and Los Angeles Street, a squat three-story brick building as pretentious as a pair of old sneakers (and about as fresh-smelling). The un-air-conditioned News confines smoked and rattled to life every day like Jack Benny's old Maxwell. When the presses ran on the first floor--10 times a day, once per edition--the place shook like an earthquake. The presses occasionally caught fire.

Yet the best writers and editors in town lined up to work there.

"There were five papers," says Joe Saltzman, a journalism professor at USC. "At that time, you would get drunk and screw up and get fired, but it wasn't a big deal because you would go to another newspaper. But to get to the Daily News was what everybody wanted to do. Everybody who wanted to be a hard-drinking, tough newspaperman--and that included women--would go to the Daily News. It was a newspaperman's paper. These people were in the mold of the 'Front Page' kind of reporters. They drank a lot, they cursed a lot, they worked all kinds of hours. They didn't care about any authority. They were out to get the L.A. Times, which they considered the conservative enemy of newspapers."

Any paper of the era could have made the "Front Page" claim, but few were a self-styled champion of the downtrodden, the irreverent enemy of blunderbuss authority.

"The Daily News loved to find ways to make fun of the Los Angeles elite, the power brokers," Wagner says. "I don't mean bring someone down with investigative journalism or a big expose. It was almost as if there was a competition among reporters and staff--'How can we embarrass so-and-so today? What can we do to humble this arrogant person?' So if they caught some city official picking his nose, I can assure you that that photograph would be in the paper."

Photographer Brush Jenkins, now 84 and retired in San Marcos, put it this way: "We were honest, truthful people! The other newspapers were just rancid." Brush Jenkins--whose photographs of the birth of her own baby were published in Life magazine--had her shining hour on Feb. 2, 1951. "I covered one of the first aboveground atomic [test] explosions in Nevada," she remembers. "I had it exclusive. It was 5 a.m. and it was still dark, and the city editor said, 'They're going to shoot off an atomic blast at 5:25--get up on the roof and see if you can get it.'

"I was the only one up there. St. Joseph's Church was right next to us, so I framed the horizon with the steeple. And at about the right time, I took the slide off of the lens so it started to expose. I had it set at F-16, and I'm counting. I get to 10 and I said, 'Oh, I've got to change the film! And boom, it went off! So I got the lights of the city and the steeple of the church on the right-hand side, shadowy, and here is this huge, huge light that came--kind of a half-moon, you know? It wasn't bright light, but it was like dawn. It was the most awesome thing I've ever seen in my life except for the birth of my kids. So I grabbed my camera and ran down, and I said, 'I think I got it!' . . . and they put it on the entire front page!"

Women dotted the L.A. press population during World War II as men went off to battle, but the News employed them in droves well before the war--and after. Incredibly, in one city room staff photo from the late '40s, you can count more newswomen than newsmen. The egalitarian hiring attitude extended to minorities--modestly, by today's standards, but far more, say the survivors, than any other paper in town. Helmed at times by Latino night city editor Sparky Saldana (whose brother, Lupe, was a sportswriter), the News also boasted the most minority readers, says Wagner, because they thought they would get more of a fair shake from a "Democratic" paper. Reporter Weeks--who went on to cover race issues for The Times in the tumultuous '60s--wrote about civil rights in the News long before it became common practice at newspapers.

"The gender gap closed at the Daily News from the very beginning, at least from the time I got there in 1946," says Weeks, now a freelance columnist in Oceanside. "Helen Brush was already a photog, Sara Boynoff was a chief rewrite person--one of the top--and Mary Kitano was a librarian. [Kitano was hired straight out of the Manzanar Japanese relocation camp.] As usual, the paper had women in the society pages, but we had women in drama [including critic Mildred Norton] and elsewhere, where nobody else did. We had copy boys who were black and Mexican American. It had an enlightened attitude about social issues, compared with other papers."

When there were equal rights demonstrations at L.A. high schools in the late '40s, the News was there. There was a fear of violence, yet the paper interviewed black students walking picket lines. When other papers covered such protests, says Wagner, "you'd have the white angle on it."

The Liberal and flamboyant personality of the Daily News was entirely the doing of publisher E. Manchester Boddy, a whimsical, mustachioed itinerant bookseller from Washington state who rescued the Illustrated Daily News from receivership in 1926 after founder Cornelius Vanderbilt's 3-year-old "clean penny newspaper" failed. With $750 in his pocket, he turned it into a gossipy, reader-friendly platform for his populist column, "Views of the News." It was Boddy--yes, the same Boddy who founded Descanso Gardens in La Canada (with Daily News profits)--who made the News a "writers' newspaper."

"Boddy cared about journalism," says Saltzman, "and he cared about giving writers space and letting them do what they wanted to do. That's what journalism was supposed to be! You write stories that move people. They had a lot of stylists, a lot of hard-writing journalists. The tradition would be Jimmy Breslin. There's only one Jimmy Breslin now, but there were an awful lot of them at the Daily News! It was the kind of journalism that I think [former Herald Examiner editor] Jim Bellows would have loved."

Under Boddy's loose reins, the pages of the News came alive with playful wordsmithery--in some cases, Jack Smith-ery, courtesy of a young rewrite man who went on to become the beloved Times columnist.

"They had some really salty guys on that staff," Jones says, laughing. "I remember a Page One story about a TV personality who got in a fight with his wife. They were hitting each other outside a nightclub. And the story that ran in the Daily News reported this, then went straight into, 'In other bouts last night, so-and-so scored a 10-round TKO over so-and-so at the Olympic,' and listed all the fight results! Everything was irreverent."

And everything was folksy, even familial. The paper printed birth announcements of staffers--as actual articles mixed in with the regular copy. When L.A. Rams beat reporter Art Rense became the (presumably) proud father of this writer, the news made the front page of sports under the headline, "STORK VISITS RENSE FAMILY FOR THIRD TIME." "The Daily News Sports Department had a smoking good time last night, thanks to . . . " the story began.

According to Saltzman and Wagner, the paper boasted the favorite columnists in town--chiefly the beloved Matt Weinstock, who for decades was L.A.'s answer to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen ("He really zeroed in on the flavor of L.A. and the winos on skid row and everything else," says Jones), and sports columnist Ned Cronin, who for 30 years was a Jim Murray before there was a Jim Murray.

The final years of the News were less glorious. Boddy challenged Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1950, splitting the Democratic vote and allowing the election of Richard M. Nixon--disillusioning the staff. Profits fell (some insist they went for Descanso camellias, which Boddy denied) and the paper was sold to Robert Smith, and then to Clinton McKinnon. During the same period, the News was shaken by a Joseph McCarthy-esque redbaiting scandal that pitted management against the American Newspaper Guild. Two reporters, Vern Partlow and Darr Smith, were singled out as Communists. Managing editor Phil Garrison, a former Air Force colonel, headed the effort to oust them, while Lu Haas and make-up editor Larry Fowler defended them on behalf of the union.

In the end, Smith was fired while Partlow was allowed to remain employed. "He managed to get changed from reporting to being the editor of the women's page, for Christ's sake!" grumbles Haas, who later became a heavyweight political advisor to Mayor Tom Bradley, Govs. Pat and Jerry Brown and Sen. Alan Cranston. From that point, the handwriting was on the wall (literally, as the newsroom was covered with a graffiti of phone numbers and notes). Despite gimmicks like a weekend "recap" edition, the News was bought by The Times for a song--and staffers found themselves locked out, with no severance pay, on a Saturday before Christmas 1954. The Times merged the Daily News name with its afternoon tabloid, the Mirror. Weeks, Weinstock and a few others joined the Mirror-News for its short lifespan (it closed in 1962), before moving to The Times.

Today the names that made up the spunky Daily News--Harry Watson, Carol Tiegs, Chuck Genuit, Aaron Dudley, Les Claypool, Cleve Hermann, Chuck Chappell, Art Rense--are L.A. journalism museum pieces, enshrined mostly in the minds of the former Newsies. To visit the old building, you'd never know that these and so many other ungovernable souls worked behind those rickety walls. And yet, if you scratch at the gray bricks a little, you'll find an older color underneath. Peach.

"We had a hell of a lot of fun," says Jones.

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For more information on the Los Angeles Daily News, visit www.riprense.com.

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