“Quitting the Paper”
On the Kansas City Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and will help him if he gets out of it in time.
Late one night in the fall of 1969, with the rain splattering against the front window and the gray light of a television set dancing across the bar, I sat in a booth at Emile’s French Café in downtown Atlanta with a feisty young newspaper reporter named Morris Shelton and methodically proceeded to get paralyzed on Beefeater martinis. By now this had become a daily ritual. I was thirty-three years old. I was the featured columnist for the Atlanta Journal, the largest daily newspaper between Miami and Washington. I had been one of a dozen journalists around the country to be selected to study at Harvard under a Nieman Fellowship the previous year. I fancied myself a sort of Jimmy Breslin of the South, cranking out daily one-thousand-word human dramas on everything from flophouse drunks to Lester Maddox, sufficiently loved and hated by enough people to have that sense of pop celebrity with which most newspapermen delude themselves. I had the most envied newspaper job in Atlanta, if not in the South, and now and then I would see a younger writer in a town like Greensboro or Savannah or Montgomery imitating my style just as I had once stolen from Hemingway and Breslin and too many others to talk about. I had been sloppy and inaccurate, from time to time, but I had also written some good stuff. I had hung around all-night eateries and gone to Vietnam, and hitchhiked and lain around with hookers and shot pool with Minnesota Fats and sat in cool suburban dens with frustrated housewives.
And yet, with the next column due by dawn, I had run out of gas. I don’t know why men make dramatic decisions at the age of thirty-three—change jobs, leave families, kill themselves—but they often do. “You have to remember,” I recalled a friend’s saying as he dumped a secure advertising job and ran off to Hollywood to write scripts, “we are no longer promising young men.” I figured I had written a total of two and a half million words for five newspapers in the previous ten years, at a time when you had to move to another paper and another town for a ten-dollar-a-week raise, and about all I could show for it was bad credit and a drinking problem. Working for the mill, as it were, I was earning from Atlanta Newspapers Inc. a net of $157.03 a week; I was drinking too much, staying out all night, fighting with my wife, and choking on the notion that perhaps it was as a “well-read local columnist” that I had reached my artistic peak.
“No ideas for tomorrow?” Morris Shelton said, once we had run out of fanciful ways to cuss the paper. Morris was about ten years younger than I, an aggressive young Texan who hadn’t yet chased enough ambulances and beat enough deadlines to be weary of it. He was one of the younger ones on the paper who defended me when the old-timers there called me a prima donna and, once I bailed out, much more vigorous stuff.
“Just a title,” I said.
“You always start with the title?”
“This time I do.”
“Something like ‘Quitting the Paper.’ ”
“‘Quitting’? You quitting?”
“You’re my star witness, Morris.”
And so we darted through the rain, up to the fourth floor of the old Atlanta Newspapers building, and while he dabbled around the newsroom I called my wife of the time to tell her the apocalypse had arrived (“Come on home and I’ll have a whole bottle ready”). I turned to my typewriter and rattled a stark memo—“Dear Mac … I’m quitting newspapers because I am sick”—and then we went off to get supremely drunk at Manuel’s Tavern. Manuel Maloof, counselor and padrone to scores of journalists over the years, was at first astounded and then fatherly. “You got a half-million people out there gonna be disappointed,” he said. I said, “Let ’em all chip in a penny a week.” When Shelton allowed as how maybe he ought to quit, too, I told him it wasn’t his turn yet.
Freelancing isn’t recommended for everybody, especially those with mortgages and kids and an attraction for whiskey.
The next morning broke cold and bleak but, somehow, refreshing. There was the feeling that an exorcism had taken place; that I had successfully negotiated the move from one plateau of my life to another; that after ten years of writing magazine pieces and dabbling in nonfiction books, I would then move on to something else, like writing films or novels or both. I heard from Jack Tarver, of Atlanta Newspapers Inc., around ten o’clock, “astonished,” wanting to know if there had been a personality clash—if so, he said, he could switch me over to the Constitution—but I told him the problem was bigger than that, and we quit as friends. By noon I had an agent in New York, by two o’clock I had a bank loan of $2,500, by five o’clock I had a modest office above a tire-recapping place, and by bedtime I had enough insurance—disability, hospitalization, life—to take care of a Marine platoon in combat. At some point during the day I drifted back to the paper to clean out my desk, while the old-timers glared tight-lipped at one with the audacity to quit (“Well,” one was later quoted as saying, “it takes a certain breed of man to be a newspaperman”), and one of the young ones blurted that it “takes a lot of guts to quit like that.” I said, “Christ, it takes a lot of guts to stay. I can steal the kind money they’re paying me.” I thought, filled with myself, it was a Line to Remember Hemphill By.
Freelancing isn’t recommended for everybody, especially those with mortgages and kids and an attraction for whiskey (“Make your wife lock up the liquor cabinet and take the key to work with her,” was the only advice I had for a friend who recently made the move). All of a sudden there is no Big Daddy to make you write, give you a paid vacation, pay your phone bill for business calls, make sure your typewriter is clean and working, let you take the day off, refund your business expenses, give you a Christmas bonus, deduct your taxes, cover your hospital bills, pay your postage, clean the office, or pay you every Friday at noon. You are out there, alone, you against the editors and publishers in New York, and newspapers and advertising agencies all over the country are stocked with people who had once hankered for the day they could “get away and write.” Making it as a free-lance writer requires many things—talent, energy, a financial cushion—but from my experience the most important quality is the motivation to go to the mines and write every day. It’s a pisser. “I can’t say I enjoy writing,” somebody once said. “I much prefer having written.” Your deadlines aren’t at the copy desk anymore. They are at the bank.
Upon making the plunge, I was in better shape than some. My first book was making the rounds in New York, beginning to show promise—meaning they knew me up there and I could wheedle more advance money from my publisher. During the first week my agent got me a snap assignment for a sports piece, which quickly led to an association with Sport magazine. One piece led to another, and in spite of the shrinking magazine market I found I always had a half-dozen pieces to work on. My book got rave reviews, mostly, and it led to other books and other connections. I wrote for Life and Cosmopolitan and Pageant and TV Guide (I once considered printing up calling cards saying I would do “Anything legal or halfway moral”), and the business, as we say, expanded. There are the hairy moments when the checks are slow, and I have been locked in combat with my old nemeses Johnnie Walker, and the old debts from those years of wandering and grubbing along on newspaper pay make it necessary for me to produce better than two thousand dollars a month to stay out of jail. But it occurred to me when I was offered a fat chance to go back to newspaper columnizing, in a big Eastern city, that I am doing precisely what I want to do: writing what I want to write, when and where I want to write it, which ought to be about all a serious writer should expect out of his life. Now and then you have to write a little tripe to pay the insurance premiums (one more piece about country music or one more about minor-league baseball and they will have to come and get me), but it is the price you pay for relative freedom. Marshall Frady, an Atlanta writer who really does talk as expansively as he writes, said it one time in Harper’s: “I think maybe writers ought to be scattered out over the land … [people who] just have this secret eccentricity to write … And all the time, covertly, you’re actually a kind of undercover agent stranded out in the cold, sending dispatches from the dark, brawling outback of life to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, all the others, letting them know what’s going on now.”
I am convinced that the newspaper is the writer’s boot camp. You learn how to use the language. You learn how to interview people. You learn how to work under pressure.
The temptation is to take out after the Journal and Constitution for their dedication to mediocrity over the years. God knows I’ve got a lot of good stories to tell. Atlanta and the South and the nation are teeming with talented ex-Atlanta newspapermen such as Jack Nelson, one of the country’s most respected investigative reporters (now, alas, with the Los Angeles Times), who would have stayed on with the Constitution in 1964 if he had only been shown a single sign of love. Earning ten thousand a year at the time, Nelson told Tarver he would turn down the Times for something like twenty dollars a week and was accused of using the job offer as a “wedge to get more money.” The paper made famous by Ralph McGill and his early-on pleas for racial moderation suddenly got a craw full of civil-rights coverage (i.e., “nigger news”) and was one of the few of any size in America not to staff the Selma-to-Montgomery march. A star editorial-page columnist there was a retired Marine officer, John Crown, who addressed the Vietnam War with all the compassion and neutrality of a Holmes Alexander. The paper’s best-loved columnist was old Hugh Park, waiting out retirement, who got a lot of laughs out of caricaturing the drunks and niggers and wife-beaters parading before Municipal Court every Monday morning. One of the most lyrical and sensitive writers they ever had was Harold Martin, but he was reduced to writing about squirrels and grandchildren before he quit in a huff when ANI wouldn’t increase his pay from the twenty-five dollars per column he was getting twenty-five years ago. (“Consequently,” he said, “I began writing columns worth twenty-five dollars.”) And there was the night my first wife and I had to break away early from a Christmas bash at the home of my managing editor Bill Fields, because I had to go and take phone calls until three a.m. on high-school football games so we could have some Christmas money. “Why, that’s terrible,” said the wife of the man who had made it all possible. “What a waste of talent.” Yes’m, that’s what me and the little woman was thinking. Bunch of dumb-asses. No wonder the newspaper business is in such a mess. They can’t make up their minds whether they want unionized robots or writers. There have been a lot of good people with the Atlanta newspapers—McGill, Martin, Nelson, Eugene Patterson—and there are good ones now. But seldom have the good ones worked in management. There were too many times, in my day there, when the motto should have been (rather than “Covers Dixie Like the Dew”) something like “No News Is Good News.” If it cost money, or might cause legal trouble, it was likely not to be covered.
But all of that is another story, and from what I hear from others who learned to write on other newspapers, the Atlanta Journal isn’t much different from the rest. A newspaper is (or was, before automation set in) a great place for a Linotype operator but a lousy place for a self-respecting writer to work. It is the first line of news gathering before the glamour boys move in for their glossy “in-depth” pieces and Dan Rather comes along flashing his teeth, and I have the greatest respect and gratitude for the grit and tenacity and dampered fury with which a great one like Jack Nelson firebombs the “public servants” hunkered down behind their stacks of press releases on Capitol Hill. But there aren’t many Jack Nelsons. Most of us are inviting suicide or alcoholism or early senility if we continue to labor for too long at a newspaper, thinking we are going to uncover corruption and change the system, because most newspapers themselves are tidy, model plantations. “Boys,” this beautiful old fellow on the Constitution copy desk would tell us summer interns as we waited for the last edition at one a.m., his voice broken from whiskey and his gnarled fingers yellow from cigarettes, “the newspaper is a monster. You fall in love with it, it’s so big and strong, and you promise you’re gonna feed it every day. But what you feed it is you. Every day you come in and feed it a little more, and then one day you’re out of food. There’s nothing left to feed the monster.” I don’t know whether he did it for emphasis, but he always then broke into a terrible coughing spell that was enough to scare the living hell out of a twenty-year-old journalism major.
What you do, then, is use the paper before it uses you—take what it has to offer about the craft of writing, which is almost everything—and then, as Hemingway learned, “get out in time.” I am convinced that the newspaper is the writer’s boot camp. You learn how to use the language. You learn how to interview people. You learn how to work under pressure. You refine what Hemingway once called a writer’s “built-in shit-detector.” You see things few others see, every day, for as long as you work at it. Unlike magazine writing, with its long time lag, you get an instant reaction to everything you write. But all of these are the fundamentals of good writing, and sooner or later many of us become restless with the discovery that there are the facts and then there is the truth. There isn’t time or space or enough perspective to rush the truth into a newspaper. And so you either stay with the paper and go crazy with that knowledge or you simply thank the paper for its help and move on to places where there is more time to do the job properly. It seems to be an altogether natural progression.
The first full-time boss I had in the newspaper business was Benny Marshall. Benny had grown up in the country outside of Birmingham in Alabama. He attended little Howard College and, during the 1950s, became sports editor and sports columnist for the Birmingham News. A witty gnome who could cry at the sight of a wino passed out in an alley, and then make you cry when he wrote about it, Benny was a one-man show when I joined him as a writer of high-school sports in 1958: absolutely committed to reading, writing, editing, and planning the sports section. He would be in the office making up the paper at six o’clock in the morning, up in the composing room to oversee the makeup, back down to remake the home edition, out to Alabama football practice seventy miles away in Tuscaloosa, and back at his typewriter turning out his daily column as the sun went down. He was like father to me. He boosted my ego and covered up my mistakes and gently showed me the way.
Benny was too good for the Birmingham News or any other newspaper. He was built more along the lines of a novelist, or at least a shimmering magazine writer; instead it was his lot to write two-column forty-two-point Bodoni Bold headlines and interview football players and fight cold wars with fat-bellied compositors. He never said it to me, but I suspect that a sense of dread began to fall over him around the early 1960s, when he turned forty and I left the News to wander. A terrible gambler, drinker, and womanizer—as prolific at each as he was at writing beautiful prose—he was strapped with debts and family obligations and a deteriorating body at a time when, perhaps, if he had gone on to the books and other things, he might have been doing great work. This was not the only cause of Benny Marshall’s demise, but it certainly contributed.
One day in the fall of 1969, just before I was to quit the Atlanta Journal, I went through Birmingham on a column-writing expedition through the South. I hadn’t seen Benny in some time, although I had heard from him now and then (“Fan letter,” he scribbled on the envelope of a note to me in Vietnam, and “To One Who Passed This Way But Wouldn’t Stop” on the flyleaf of a paperback collection of his columns), and I was irked when they said he was in New York accepting some kind of an award. I was sitting at his typewriter, rushing to finish a column on Birmingham before Western Union closed and I would have to drive on down the road to Montgomery, when someone answered a phone and turned to me. “You may have a chance to help out an friend,” I was told. Benny was at the airport, drunk, insisting on coming to the office. Maybe I could take him out for coffee in order to get him out of there. Thirty minutes later the elevator doors opened, and there he was, reeling drunk, waving a cup of coffee at me. “Hemp,” he said, and we embraced.
Suddenly the executive editor of the News, Vincent Townsend, glowered from across the newsroom. Townsend was very good at glowering. He also had a son who floundered through more than one college, flunked the Birmingham News aptitude test, stumbled as a reporter, and finally, as part of his education before ascending to upper management, was put in charge of the paper’s weekly pick-the-winner football contest. (Of course, Vincent Townsend intended to see that the football contest succeeded.)
“Mister Marshall,” Townsend boomed.
Benny weaved and spread his hands. “Chief,” he said.
“Have you ever been to Siluria, Mr. Marshall?”
“Shiluria. Sure I been to Shiluria.”
“How would you like to go back to Siluria?”
“Well, sir, I don’t like Shiluria very much.”
A fellow who ran a service station down the road in Siluria had won the week’s football contest, and Townsend wanted Benny and a photographer to drive down that afternoon for a picture and a story. One of the others talked Townsend out of it, saying Benny was tired from his trip and that he would do it instead, and tried to straighten Benny up before driving him home. “You want to go in and watch a real ass-chewing?” Benny said to him. He stumbled out of the car, negotiated the walk to his front door, went straight to the bathroom, shut the door, put a .38 to his head, and pulled the trigger. The News, under Vincent Townsend’s orders, said fine things about Benny in a front-page editorial the next day. I quit newspapering five weeks later.
This story originally appeared in Southern Voices Magazine. You can also find it in the collection, Too Old to Cry.
It is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s estate. His wife, Susan Percy, watched the election last night at Manuel’s Tavern, Paul’s favorite hangout even after he quit drinking. “It’s about the only classic old neighborhood bar around,” said Percy. “It’s a great place to watch the election returns, surrounded by writers, lawyers, journalists, cops, city workers, political junkies and other disreputables. They even let the occasional Republican in.”
For more Hemphill, check out his archive at The Stacks Reader.
[Photo Credit: portrait of the author by Louis Favorite for the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Postcards From Here; Jonathan Phillips; Elvishwisdom]