When I think back, I was not a very good reporter. Neverthe-less, in the early fifties, after nearly six months as a copyboy, I became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. I was proud as a chef who had been awarded his first Michelin star.
At first, for several days, I rewrote handouts — press releases — about this and that. A few of them turned up in the paper’s first edition but were dropped later.
Then one morning as I sat at my reporter’s desk in the Chronicle city room, as it was called, swilling down coffee (as all reporters are programmed to do), and staring at my old Royal typewriter, city editor Abe Mellinkoff called my name and said I would accompany photographer Joe Rosenthal on a story.
MY DOGGY ESSAY
Joe Rosenthal! The guy who shot the photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. To say that I (a former marine) was excited would be a ridiculous understatement.
Joe and I got into his beat-up car and drove out to the Sunset District. The story was that an Irish setter had given birth to 12 pups. Unusual? No, incredible, we were told! We found the house, were admitted, and met the proud mother. While I made page after page of notes, Joe lined up the pups in a low bureau drawer and posed mama off to one side. She smiled, thinking of her achievement, and Joe shot the photo. When we returned to the Chronicle, I wrote a 500-word story, turned it in and waited for the first edition and what I hoped would be a byline. When the paper arrived in the city room, I grabbed a copy. There it was on page one — three columns, above the fold — Joe’s photo of the smiling mother and the 12 pups peeking out of the drawer. Below was a photo caption. It told the story in about 20 words, distilled from my long doggy essay.
And that began my short but lustrous career as a San Francisco Chronicle reporter.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
The only byline I ever got at the Chronicle was on a story about a San Francisco flower show. It ran page one in the first edition then later disappeared inside the paper. Eventually, over the next year or two, I did get a few good stories to cover and write — numerous building fires, and one story, a mysterious death, later ruled a suicide. Those were the golden years for me.
The times I speak of here were the late forties and early fifties. There was a sense of adventure about working for the paper. We had great reporters, several of whom went on to big careers elsewhere, and great photographers, like Joe Rosenthal.
As Chronicle reporters, we felt we were an exclusive bunch, a tight fraternity of writers who were having fun doing what we were doing. Reporters having fun, what’s wrong with that?
BOILERMAKERS AND SMOOTHIES
In those days almost all reporters smoked. With cigarettes dangling from the corners of our mouths, we looked cool. We looked like reporters. And in those days, almost all of us drank. That’s what reporters did then. We drank beer, frequently with a bourbon chaser. And we drank scotch, maybe with a little water, but not too much and, on occasion, we drank boilermakers — a glass of beer with a shot glass of whiskey dropped into it. That is what we drank in those days.
These days qualified observers tell me things are a bit different. Reporters drink smoothies, or craft cocktails decorated with a sprig of kale. If I am wrong about this, someone should please advise me for the sake of historical perspective.
HANNO’S IN THE ALLEY
In my time, we Chronicle types had our own bar, Hanno’s, behind the Chronicle building in an alley called Minna Street. After deadline, Hanno’s in the Alley (its official name) was jammed with Chronicle reporters, photographers, composing room workers, and newspaper truck drivers.
Escaping to Hanno’s before deadline was another matter entirely. But it was possible. It was an art form, and only the brave among us engaged in it. From his or her city room desk (some female reporters were active in this sport as well), the reporter got up and walked down the hall to the restroom, made quick work of that visit, and then raced down a convenient staircase, out of the building and over to Hanno’s in the Alley. If accomplished with alacrity, it was possible to have a belt — maybe even two — and get back to your desk without city editor Mellinkoff or day editor Carl Latham even realizing you were out of sight.
I do remember a notable time when Latham wanted a certain reporter to take a telephone call to do a story from another reporter out on his beat. There was a direct line from the city desk to Hanno’s. Latham simply picked up the phone, got Hanno’s on the line and yelled at the bartender to send the reporter back to the paper immediately. The reporter rushed back, took the telephoned story, and wrote it in time for the first edition.
Hanno’s in the Alley closed in 1975. Apparently, that was when we newspaper types stopped drinking.
THE WAY IT WAS
There are many fine reporters working for the Chronicle now; that’s a Back Story for another time. But there were many great reporters during my time, and they deserve mention.
Kevin Wallace: A Chronicle feature writer who went on to work at The New Yorker.
Monte Waite: Chronicle rewrite man, the fastest typewriter in the West. Monte was adept at leaving the building and winding up at Hanno’s in the Alley.
Pierre Salinger (yes, that Pierre Salinger): He once got himself arrested and locked up in jail under the pseudonym Emil Glick, then wrote about the experience for the Chronicle.
Carolyn Anspacher: We used to call female reporters sob sisters. Carolyn was a sob sister and a great reporter. She covered the Patty Hearst trial and some of the other major news stories of our time.
Herb Caen: You remember him, or you should.
Stanton Delaplane: Stan was my all-time favorite reporter. He could write fewer words and say more than any reporter I can recall. I try to emulate him, but I can never get it right.
And that’s how it was when I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears reporter interviewing Irish setters