My recent reading has revealed that there is nothing new about this. Way, way back nearer the turn of the last century, two former newspapermen turned their war stories and anecdotes about people they knew (and heard of) during their time on the beat into a play which critics have called one of, if not the, greatest American comedy of all time.
In his book, “The Front Page: From Theater To Reality,” (2002) George W. Hilton combed every word of the original text of the play and researched every name and incident mentioned. His meticulous annotations are a treasure of characters and events that flesh out an entire era – his 184 page book contains 222 footnotes. He was able to uncover many of the sources of the references in the play. In doing so, he managed to vividly sketch the entire colorful era of 1920's Chicago, an epoch which has become such a permanent touchstone of American popular culture.
In his youth, Charles MacArthur (b. 1895) had worked for the Chicago Herald & Examiner and Ben Hecht (b.1893) had written for the Chicago Journal. They had both been on the crime beat, Hecht from 1910 when he was 17, MacArthur from 1915, at 20 years old. By 1927 they each had come to New York to write plays. They got together there and it is not hard to imagine that they waxed nostalgic, sharing memories of their youth, until someone (maybe MacArthur’s bride, the actress Helen Hayes) suggested that the stories might make a pretty good play.
Hecht and MacArthur later asserted that they began by intending to expose the dark side of the journalism trade and instead wound up writing a loving but honest satire of the world they knew.
As they wrote in their epilogue to the published play,
“When we applied ourselves to write a newspaper play we had in mind a piece of work which would reflect our intellectual disdain of . . . the Newspaper. What we finally turned out . . . is a romantic and rather doting tale of our old friends — the reporters of Chicago.
“It developed in writing the play that our contempt for the institution of the Press was a bogus attitude; that we looked back on the Local Room where we had spent half our lives as a veritable fairyland — and that we were both full of a nostalgia for the bouncing days of our servitude.
“The same uncontrollable sentimentality operated in our treatment of Chicago which, as much as any of our characters, is the hero of the play. The iniquities, double dealings, chicaneries, and immoralities which as ex-Chicagoans we knew so well returned to us in a mist called the Good Old Days, and our delight in our memories would not be denied.
“As a result The Front Page, despite its oaths and realisms is a Valentine thrown to the past . . . .”The era they write about was known for the wildly competitive world of newspaper reporting, in which getting the scoop – with blatant disregard of ethics, legalities, or even the facts – was common. The beat reporters were crass, crude, cynical, mostly young men slaving long hours for low pay and receiving little recognition beyond that of their peers.
The play is in three acts but one scene, the pressroom in the Chicago Criminal Courts Building. In the beginning a gaggle of reporters are playing cards and waiting for news about a hanging they are there to cover. The authors describe the scene this way:
“It is a bare, disordered room, peopled by newspapermen in need of shaves, pants pressing, and small change. Hither reporters are drawn by an irresistible lure, the privilege of telephoning free.
“. . . An equally important lure is the continuous poker game that has been going on now for a generation, presumably with the same pack of cards. Here is the rendezvous of some of the most able and amiable bums in the newspaper business; here they meet to gossip, play cards, sleep off jags, and date up waitresses between such murders, fires, riots, and other public events as concern them. . . . .
“Four men are playing poker . . . four braves known to their kind as police reporters. Catatonic, seedy Paul Reveres, full of strange oaths and a touch of childhood. . . .”The playwrights used two events as the core of their story. One was the practical joke played on MacArthur by his managing editor, Walter Howey. MacArthur was to marry another reporter, Carol Frinck. Before they left for New York, Howey gave MacArthur a present of his prized gold watch. After they left, he wired Gary, Indiana police to arrest MacArthur for stealing his watch. (They used Howey’s legendary: “The son-of-a-bitch stole my watch!” as one of the most famous curtain lines in Broadway history.)
They based one central character, the managing editor “Walter Burns,” on the character traits which the incident suggested. “Burns” will stop at nothing to scoop competing newspapers, especially if the story ridicules or might even bring down corrupt politicians – especially the mayor and sheriff – members of the party supported by rival papers.
The personal lives of his employees – reporters included – must yield to the good of the newspaper. When told that his rewrite man, “Duffy,” is momentarily indisposed to treat his diabetes, Burns fumes: “It serves me right for hiring someone with a disease!”
For the character of the reporter who works for and is manipulated by Burns, they chose for a model a reporter they both knew well, who was considered one of the best of the leg men on the Chicago crime beat in their day, a man named John Hilding Johnson. They named their character “Hildebrand ‘Hildy’ Johnson.”
When “Hildy” enters, the authors note:
“. . . . Hildy is of a vanishing type — the lusty, hoodlumesque, half-drunken caballero that was the newspaperman or our youth. Schools of journalism and the advertising business have nearly extirpated the species. Now and then one of these boys still pops up in the profession and is hailed by his editor as a survivor of a golden age. The newspapermen who have already appeared in the pressroom are in reality similar survivors. Their presence under one roof is due to the fact that Chicago is a sort of journalistic Yellowstone Park offering haven to a last herd of fantastic braves that once roamed the newspaper offices of the country. . . .”Hecht and MacArthur must have had great fun naming their characters after the people they used as templates for them. They hardly bothered to disguise many of their choices, merely changing a few letters of names to avoid lawsuits. For example, Peter M. Hoffman was sheriff of Cook County. In the play, the sheriff is named “Peter B, Hartman.” A reporter named McHugh becomes a reporter named “McCue.” Roy Baenzinger becomes “Roy Bensinger.”
The second event that became central to the plot was the escape from the Chicago city jail by a cop killer named Tommy O’Connor four days before his date with the hangman in 1921. The plot of the play turns on the escape of “Earl Williams” the night before his execution. Instead of a petty gangster, they make Williams into a pathetic, insane, radical, who shot a policemen. As a complication, they made the murdered cop “colored” (in the accepted vernacular of the time - more about that later).
This beat was important because in the 1920's the African American community still remembered Lincoln and thus voted predominantly Republican. It would not be until FDR, after 1933, that the bloc vote would shift to the other side. In the play (as in Chicago at the time) the mayor and sheriff were Republicans and desperate to retain the “colored vote.” Thus, the rapid conviction and execution of a killer of a “colored cop” was politically correct (to use an anachronistic phrase).
Some of the satire in the play is still timely. For example, these days the L.A. sheriff is in trouble from a scandal involving the hiring of unqualified employees based on preference to so-called “friends of the sheriff.”
In this play set almost a century ago, the sheriff and mayor have this colloquy after the escape (The Front Page, Act II):
SHERIFF: Listen, Fred. Stop worrying, will you? Just do me a favor and stop worrying! I’m doing everything on God’s green earth! I’ve just sworn in four hundred deputies!
MAYOR: Four hundred! Do you want to bankrupt this administration?
SHERIFF: I’m getting them for twelve dollars a night.
MAYOR: Twelve dollars —! For those goddamn uncles of yours? What do you think this is—Christmas Eve?
SHERIFF: (With Dignity) If you are talking about my brother-in-law he has worked for the city for fifteen years.
MAYOR: . . . Pete, I’m scratching your name off the ticket.
MAYOR: Now, Pete! Please don’t appeal to my sentimental side . . .
SHERIFF: Fred, I don’t know what to say. A thing like this almost destroys a man’s faith in human nature . . .In the play, the mayor is named “Fred A. Busse.” A man of the same name was mayor of Chicago until 1911. I suspect the name was used because of its comic sound. Hecht was known for this playfulness, using “Dr. Egelhofer” as the name of the psychiatrist in this play and also in his screenplay for “Nothing Sacred” (1937).
The corruption of the era didn’t leave the newsmen untouched. A 2013 Chicago Tribune article reports the following event, from June 9, 1930:
“Alfred "Jake" Lingle . . . a Tribune police reporter, was heading for the [train station to go to the racetrack]. An ace at covering sensational crime stories, he was about to become one. A tall, blond man walked up behind him and put a bullet through his head. Lingle's killer paused over the body. Then he dropped the murder weapon, a .38-caliber revolver, and got away.
“Lingle epitomized the "Front Page" journalism of his day, cavorting with cops and robbers and working his sources in speakeasies. A street reporter, he never rolled paper through a typewriter. As in the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play about Chicago journalism, Lingle phoned in scoops to rewrite men. The popular play was a work of fiction, but it was based on fact. The world of Chicago newspapers was viciously competitive, frequently unscrupulous, and not too worried about the truth.
“But even in that era, Lingle turned out to be exceptional. In the aftermath of his shooting, Chicago newspapers decried the slaying as a mob attempt to silence the press. [ ] But as the reporter's mysterious private life came to light, a different picture developed. He was paid $65 a week but had an annual income of $60,000. When he was killed, he had $1,400 in his pocket.
“Lingle's friends ranged from politicians and city payrollers to the henchmen of crime boss Al Capone. ‘Big Al’ thought enough of Lingle to give him a diamond-studded belt buckle. Lingle, as the Tribune reported, had been a middleman for a variety of characters seeking favors from Capone and the police commissioner, who resigned after the story broke. ‘A newspaper,’ Tribune city editor Robert M. Lee wrote with an almost audible sigh, ‘is the least likely to hear bad news about its own.’
“As for Lingle's killer, police rounded up 664 minor hoodlums. Nothing but headlines came of it. Then in January 1931, Chicago detectives got a tip and arrested a St. Louis gunman, Leo V. Brothers. Seven witnesses fingered him as the shooter; seven others swore he was not the man. Brothers was convicted, but he received the minimum sentence for murder--14 years. He served eight of them, his mouth shut the whole time. The questions of who wanted Lingle killed and why were never answered.”In the play, Hildy and Burns hide the meekly pathetic condemned prisoner in a roll top desk of the pressroom, intending to break the story before turning him in.
Burns dictates the story’s lead in the purplest prose:
“The Chicago Examiner again rode to the rescue of the city last night in the darkest hour of her history! (Lowering his voice.) Earl Williams, the Bolshevik Tiger, who leaped snarling from the gallows upon the flanks of the city, was captured ...”
This event of course never happened in “real life” but was not too far removed from actual schemes used by the papers of the era to get scoops and circulation.
For instance, in one line, Hildy takes credit for “the Fitzgerald confession.” Hilton explains that a Herald & Examiner reporter, Harry Romanoff, in 1919 was able to persuade a child murderer to confess by a subterfuge. He bought a doll, told Fitzgerald it was the child’s and her dying mother’s last wish to see her death solved. Howey published the confession in the newspaper, trumpeting it as a great coup.
Hildy also claims to have written the “Ruth Randall diary.” This too was based on reality although “Hildy” didn’t write it. Hilton writes that managing editor Howey ordered that in cases involving attractive women, “first, get the story, second, get a picture, third, produce a diary.” The implication to “produce” included fabrication, if needed. In 1920, a Herald & Examiner editor named Frank Carson had somehow obtained from police custody a sensational diary written by Ms. Randall, who had killed her married lover and then committed suicide.
The male characters in the play are depicted as unapologetically misogynistic. Walter Burns expresses the prevailing attitude toward the “other sex” when he derides Hildy’s devotion to his fiancee, Peggy.
HILDY: You know a lot about women! You and your goddamn stable of tarts. . . .
WALTER: What do you think women are? Flowers? Take that dame that shot the dentist! And Mrs. Vermilyea! Husband comes home all worn out, hungry, takes a spoonful of soup and falls dead! Arsenic! And Mrs. Petras! Burning her husband up in a furnace! When you’ve been in this business as long as I have you’ll know what women are! Murderers! Borgias!Hilton traced the true sources referenced in this speech. There had been reporting about a dentist who was acquitted in the killing his wife’s father. Justice was nonetheless served — he was shot to death by his mother-in-law. “Mrs. Vermilyea” was a woman who took in boarders, including a policeman, who was one of nine which the press declared that she poisoned to death — three of whom she later claimed to have been men who were going to marry her. She had taken the arsenic herself, and was paralyzed as a result. Her trial resulted in a hung jury and apparently she was never retried.
The reference to “Mrs. Petras” seems to be an unfair slander. The real woman of that name was the wife of an accused murderer who had loyally stood by him even though he was accused of murdering his former fiancee who was possibly his current lover. He was acquitted and promptly abandoned Mrs. Petras.
In another near slander, Walter later mentions the “Clara Hamon murder.” Hilton traced this to the killing of Jacob Hamon, a prominent Republican in Oklahoma. Clara was his mistress and secretary, married to Jacob’s nephew to conceal the liaison. She was charged with the murder and the Hearst papers paid her legal fees. Walter Howey had sent a reporter to cover the trial in hopes of embarrassing the opposing Republicans, but she was acquitted.
Walter Burns’s thoughts about women fit in well with the general dialogue spoken by the male characters which is replete with sexist language as well as words that today’s audiences would cringe at because of their blatantly racist, homophobic, and xenophobic content. The “n” word is commonly bandied about by the reporters, as when Hildy asks Walter how far he may go in attacking the mayor in print and Walter answers with the worst slander he can think of: “Call him a n______ if you want to! . . .”
Slurs are tossed by others about “polacks,” “wops” and “bohunks.” The prissy reporter, “Bensinger,” who is a poet and germophobic, is widely understood to be less than masculine — compared to his testosterone charged colleagues.
The females in the play are relative stereotypes. “Peggy Grant,” Hildy’s betrothed, is bland, innocent, shrill. Her mother, “Mrs. Grant,” based on Helen Hayes’s mother, is quite properly appalled at the shenanigans by the “hooligans.” “Molly Malloy” is the standard prostitute with a heart of gold. All three women excoriate the men for their lack of morals, ethics, decency. The authors’ note before Peggy’s introduction gives us a clue to their view of women :
“PEGGY, despite her youth and simplicity, seems overwhelmingly mature in comparison to Hildy. As a matter of fact, Peggy belongs to that division of womanhood that dedicates itself to suppressing in its lovers or husbands the spirit of D’Artagnan, Roland, Captain Kidd, Cyrano, Don Quixote, King Arthur, or any other type of the male innocent and rampant. In her unconscious and highly noble efforts to make what the female world calls ‘a man’ out of Hildy, Peggy has neither the sympathy nor acclaim of the authors, yet regarded superficially, she is a very sweet and satisfying heroine.”As heroine, Peggy is determined to rescue Hildy from his awful job and his evil boss and deliver him into a suburban home and a respectable ad agency job.
At first, yielding to Peggy’s loving influence, Hildy seems anxious to escape from his miserable existence.
HILDY: Journalists! Peeking through keyholes! Running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs! . . . Stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that get raped in Oak Park. A lot of lousy, daffy, buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys! And for what! So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on. . . . I’ve been a newspaperman for fifteen years. A cross between a bootlegger and a whore. . . .”
But when the blockbuster story of the escape breaks, and Hildy falls back under Walter’s spell, Peggy can’t save him:
PEGGY: (to Walter): You’re doing this to him! He was going and you stopped him!
HILDY: Something terrific’s happened, Peggy! Wait till I tell you! I couldn’t —
WALTER: You’ll tell her nothing! She’s a woman, you damn fool!Despite her pleas, Hildy continues to type, begging her to let him work. Finally, exasperated, she accuses him of being “a heartless, selfish animal without any feelings! He answers:
HILDY: Shut up, will you? Yeah! That’s what I am! A bum! Without any feelings! And that’s all I want to be! . . . . If you want me you’ll have to take me as I am instead of trying to turn me into some lah de dah with a cane! I’m no stuffed shirt writing peanut ads. . . . Goddamn it — I’m a newspaper man. . . . (PEGGY exits, her sobs filling the room and corridor.)
Ben Hecht’s became the most important screenwriter of his time and perhaps the most successful of all time. In his biographical memoir, “A Child Of The Century” (1954) he wrote of his former profession:
“No other profession, even that of arms, produces as fine a version of the selfless hero as journalism does . . . What I write is no blanket description of newspapermen. It includes only the kind I once knew and admired . . . They were young, whatever their age. . . A good newspaperman, of my day, was to be known by the fact that he was ashamed of being anything else. He scorned offers of double wages in other fields. He sneered at all the honors life held other than the one to which he aspired, which was a simple one. He dreamed of dying in harness, a casual figure of anonymous power and free. . . Most harried . . . More bedeviled by duties than a country doctor . . . more blindly subservient . . . than a Marine private . . . [yet he] considered himself, somewhat loonily . . . To be without superiors and a creature always on his own. . . ‘Socially, a journalist fits in somewhere between a whore and a bartender but spiritually he stands beside Galileo. He knows the world is round.’”
I might be exercising my own sentimental soul, but the description seems to fit some of the better criminal defense lawyers I have known and admired — and whose war stories I have shared.