Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reporter John Clark and gangster Mickey Cohen a story from the "Front Page"

My father, no slouch in the writing department, sent along a newspaper related story from his past. His father and mother (my grandfather and grandmother) rented a small apartment in Los Angeles to John Clark, a newspaperman.

Most of what follows is in my father’s words. (photo at left is Mickey Cohen)

“John Clark and Mickey Cohen”

Location: A small downtown office at the Los Angeles Daily News.

The time: Early to middle 1950s.

John Clark: John was an excellent newspaper man who had at times, held positions of city editor, but his hard drinking would get him fired or demoted from time-to-time. He would dry out and get his job back. At the time of this incident John was a rewrite man at the Daily News and a feature writer. Don’t imagine newspapers hire rewrite men any more. A good rewrite man could take the basic five W’s from a reporter in the field calling from a public pay phone (are any of those left?) and create a major front page story continued on inside pages. As I already said, he was an excellent writer. John was assigned to create a week’s feature on local mobster, Mickey Cohen.

Mickey Cohen: Mickey was a well known mobster with close ties to the Mafia. As a front Cohen operated a men’s clothing store on the Sunset Strip just east of Beverly Hills. His office was in the back of the store (never heard of anyone actually buying men’s clothes there) where he took care of his business. At one time while leaving a Sunset Strip night club, a sniper from across the street took a shot at him with a rifle. The shot missed Cohen but blew away a body guard. Cohen always insisted he was simply a small business man selling men’s clothes. Right, a small businessman who needed a body guard. Another time his armored Cadillac had been ambushed and there were five or more bullet holes in the driver’s door. None of the projectiles got through the outer steel. Another question, why would a simple small business man need an armored car? Anyway, when asked about the holes in his car door, Cohen shrugged and speculated that the damage was the result of vandals with a drill.

OK, so now you know the players – or almost all of them in this saga. The series on Cohen began in the Daily News on a Monday and continued each day through Friday. In the articles that were anything but flattering to Cohen, John Clark made reference to Cohen’s age and almost each time there was a different age published as no one actually knew his real age.

After three installments, John received a personal call from Cohen who complimented John on the “excellent” feature, but complained about the incorrect references to his age. Cohen told John he would send a couple associates over to show the reporter his birth certificate to clear up the confusion.

That afternoon, two guys straight out of central casting, for gangsters and hit men entered John’s small office at the paper. These were the days when anyone could walk off the street and enter any office or department in a newspaper. Heck, when I was a young “tub thumper” (Note from Jim: A public relations person in the old days, it's meaning today is quite different) I would enter the offices and deliver my stories directly to the city editor.

Back to the story, the two men sat across the desk from John, said nothing for a long pause, then one leaned across the desk and with his face close to John’s said, and these are the actual words, “Mickey wants you should take a vacation to Bermuda!” At that they rose and walked out of his office and the newspaper. One of the two never said a word. Oh, by the way, John never did see a birth certificate.

John lived in a small apartment in Los Angeles owned by my mother and father (Note from Jim: My grandfather and grandmother) where my brother and sister-in-law, Bill and Mona, also lived. We had become friends with John and heard all this first hand from him. At the time he was divorced from his wife due to his drinking.

Epilogue: Not too long after this “event” John drowned in a fishing accident, falling from his boat in a lake up in the Sierras. It was considered simply a case of a drunken fisherman falling out of his boat and never connected to Mickey Cohen.

Jim’s Note: Found the following in a clip that I googled from another reporter at the Daily News who also interviewed Mickey Cohen:
“JONES: People used to cook stuff on a hotplate back there, their lunches and stuff like that. And there was always coffee going. When I was first there, I used to have to come in at 4 o'clock in the morning and start the coffee. Well, there one guy, a great rewrite man named John Clark, but he was a drinker. And you'd have to call him and wake him up, because you couldn't depend on is alarm clock to wake him up. You'd have to call him and be sure he was alert and on his feet so he could get to work. That was part of my job, to start the coffee and get a hold of John Clark, so he could come in on the early shift. He was due in at 5 on the early morning rewrite.”

There’s another long Los Angeles Times story that mentions the above and includes this great description of the Daily News. (Sounds like a place me and a lot of my friends in the business would have loved to work at):

"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."

On another search I found the following short segment in a story about the history of the Daily News:
RINGER: Have you heard of John Clark?
RINGER: He was a rewrite man, and absolutely wrote the cleanest copy you ever saw. He drowned himself in MacArthur Park, in about four feet of water, falling out of one of those little boats. He was a very strange guy. (A little different story than what my Dad recalled).
From another website on Mickey Cohen: Mickey Cohen, head of Los Angeles gambling rackets, maintained a host of powerful friends, including Frank Sinatra - who once appealed to him to get mobster Johnny Stompanato to stop dating Ava Gardner. Depicted by Harvey Keitel in the 1991 film "Bugsy" and by Paul Guilfoyle in 1997's "L.A. Confidential."


Anonymous said...

You're making me feel old, Jim.

I had a great rewrite man, Dan Shriner. He made me look good when I was not at my best, and turned bullet points into stories.

And I routinely used payphones on the north side of Flint to call in homicides as late as 10:30 a.m. or so.

I remember carrying a roll of quarters to use them, and always keeping in mind where the working ones were.

It was important also to get into the habit of wiping off the phone on your pants before sticking it onto your ear ... for reasons you don't want to know.


Jim of L-Town said...


Dan was a great reporter and rewrite guy. I loved doing rewrite and used to alternate with Barb, who was another great rewrite "man" during my five-year stint at the Oakland Press. Gotta watch all these sexist terms.

Rewrite is a lost art. Grabbing facts on the run and turning them into a compelling story without having been at a scene is, dare I say, an art. The best rewrite folks were the ones who had worn out a few shoe soles doing the same job, so it came easy to them.

I will always be grateful to the intro you gave me to the Flint police beat when I started in 1989 and you were on days. You were always a class act and an extremely able reporter. (Not a bad husband and dad either, which probably distinguishes you from me and guys like John Clark).

The first cell phone I ever had was the bag phone that we used at the Flint Journal. At the Oakland Press, we also had to carry loose change for pay phones and where there were no pay phones we had to beg, borrow of steal a phone to use.

I rememeber in many cases where I was on an early morning deadline going to a house on a block where a homicide or fatal accident had happened overnight and asking people in pajamas if I could use their phone to call the office, often long distance (remember when there was a long distance).

At the Oakland Press, I knew where the friendly detectives were at the Pontiac Police Department and who would let me use a desk phone to call in a late story there. Part of being a good beat reporter also involved working your way around obstacles and barricades.

My Uncle Bill Smith, also worked at the LA Daily News and talked fondly of the "old days" where tracking down a story was an exciting adventure.

Oh, I know the reasons for wiping off the phones.....

Anonymous said...

oh, and how about those old, gray, blocky, heavy, beep-only beepers?

talk about binary communication...



Lee Smith said...

(My father, who can't negotiate the comments buttons, sent this in by e-mail)

Dear Jim:

Yes, I was able to access and read the L.A. Times story on the Daily News. In it was mention of Matt Weinstock a feature writer on the order of Herb Caen in San Francisco. Matt and I became friends and I would feed little tid bits to him from time to time, some of which appeared in print. Matt wrote a book on the Los Angeles scene titled, "Muscatel at Noon." Wonder if there's any way to find and purchase a copy? Oh, Herb Caen also became a casual friend over the years; we kept running into each other, figuratively, at restaurants. Herb knew your Grandfather Smith very well.

One more thing about Tub Thumpers, I first learned this term from a former boss, Frank Howe. Frank had been a newspaper man for many years before joining the Los Angeles advertising agency as director of publicity and public relations. It was with his tutelage that I learned never to submit a story to media that wasn't real news. And, if at all possible, write it in the style of the media to which it is to be presented. Photos included had to be posed to fit a standard one or two column measure. It was because of him that I was able to get many of my stories used by the media. It was also because of Frank that I have a near impossible time writing any longer than one page.

Frank explained the meaning of "Tub Thumper;" it began during the days of traveling medicine shows when an advance man would enter a town literally thumping on a tub to attract attention.

Over the years I became acquainted with a number of Los Angeles City Editors. I still remember the names of two of them: Maggie Underwood at the Los Angeles Herald Express and Jim Richardson of the Examiner. Maggie would be at her desk at five in the morning, and if I had a story to present, I would always arrive at that time. She took a shine to me and my copy was, for the most part, well received. Jim Richardson was exactly the opposite: he was always standing surrounded by rewriters and he quite literally, scared the shit out of me whenever I came into his space. I was told he was the roll model for the editor in the movie, "Front Page."

Finally, there was a publicity man in Los Angeles named Herbert (Herb) Baus who had, for some reason, angered every editor within hundreds of miles. As a result he hired someone to place the stories under a different name knowing stories under his byline would hit the waste basket. Herb could be announcing the beginning of World War III, but if it carried his byline, it wouldn't get printed.

Wow, I'm running off at the mouth this morning. All your fault.

With much love,