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Herald Leaves a Rollicking Legacy : Journalism: Romping, stomping tales of brash paper are recalled as staff members prepare to say "30."

November 02, 1989|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They record all variety of events unfolding in every sort of place, but inevitably newspapers leave behind their own stories too.

Beneath the smudges of ink and through the yellowing pages, newspapers make their own history.

And when a newspaper passes, journalists grieve. The community--their community--is unalterably changed. And in their minds, reduced. Something romantic is lost. The civic pulse grows weaker. And reporters are tempted to hoist a stein of beer, or a shot of whiskey, or today, perhaps, a Perrier and lime. They grow melancholy and lapse into folklore.

With the Los Angeles Herald Examiner there were many good memories--funny, sad, old-fashioned, whatever--making the rounds Wednesday on the eve of its demise.

There were the romping, stomping tales from the men who worked for one of America's most colorful and remarkable women journalists, the late Agness (Aggie) Underwood. There were stories of topless bathing suits, mystery murders, a bucket of money delivered each day out the window for the bookie, an agonizing strike, of underdog journalism.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 3, 1989 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Herald Examiner--A Times story Thursday on the legacy of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner incorrectly reported that a Herald editor sang the lyrics from the 1977 tune "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" to Louella Parsons after the Hollywood columnist once mixed up the eye color of an actress. The lyrics actually came from the 1925 song "Brown Eyes--Why Are You Blue?"

There was the sharp and indelible memory of a city room so authentic in its feel that Jack Webb created a carbon copy for the set of his hard-bitten 1959 movie, called "30." In the newsroom, "30" is typed at the bottom of a story to signify the end.

"Those were the happiest days of my life. They were rollicking, freebooting days right out of the play 'The Front Page.' Those were the last days of their kind, absolutely the last of that kind anywhere," said Frank Elmquist, 62, a star rewrite man for the Herald from 1957 to 1965.

The veterans of the Herald Express, which was combined under a single masthead in 1962 with the Examiner, recall foremost the era of a remarkable newsroom editor.

"The main story of this is Aggie Underwood," said Jack Smith, a Times columnist who worked for the Herald Express from 1949 to 1952. "She was a tough, Irish woman, sentimental. . . . She was a roughneck and loud. But she took pride in being a lady.

"She had a fantastic memory. Mickey Cohen was the big gangster of the day. She knew his home phone number. She knew the district attorney's phone number. She knew every bar in town."

Underwood was first among American women to be named the city editor of a major daily.

It's a tossup which is more remarkable--her entry into the business or her ultimate command of it.

She was the mother of two and wanted extra money for stockings, as the story is told. So Aggie became a telephone operator at a newspaper. She ended up working on a story one time when no one else was around to do the work.

From there she went on to become a celebrated crime reporter on one paper and then moved to become the crime-oriented editor of the Herald. Crime, after all, was what sold newspapers, along with sex and skulduggery.

"I remember once when she was covering the murder of a waitress," Smith said. "She dropped a carnation on the body so she could call it the 'Carnation Murder' and then had her photographer take the picture. A policeman moved in and questioned her, and she said, 'Don't you dare tell me how to make a picture!' "

Naming a crime still is important in journalism. And the Herald Examiner was involved in the naming a couple of doozies.

The Black Dahlia murder, the still unsolved 1947 slaying of a beautiful young woman named Elizabeth Short, got its name from a soda jerk who knew the victim. That is the recollection of Smith, who wrote the original story for a competing newspaper in what was then a multipaper market. The soda jerk said Short got the nickname because she wore her black hair in a bouffant, resembling a dahlia.

But in legend, the Herald and its writer Bevo Means get credit. They attributed the Black Dahlia to either the victim's black clothing or her lacy black underwear, depending on who is telling the story to what audience today.

More recently, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Times reported the savage crime spree of the "Valley Intruder." Herald Examiner editors sat in a round table until they found a more lasting name: "The Night Stalker."

Norman (Jake) Jacoby started as a police beat reporter in 1935 and still covers it from the LAPD's Parker Center. From 1952 to the infamous strike of December, 1967, he worked for the Herald.

"It was a great newspaper, and it was able to focus on the interesting aspects of stories," Jacoby remembered.

The style of the day was to send out two or three reporters to a story and then have a rewrite man or woman put their accounts together in one breathless dispatch. Sometimes, though, the journalists of the era tried individual initiative.

Elmquist recalled the year 1964, when fashion designer Rudi Gernreich "invented" the topless bathing suit.

"I knew sooner or later some gal would try to wear one," Elmquist said. "So I said, 'What happens if we make it happen?' So I got a stripper and got her in a topless bathing suit and took her down to Santa Monica beach and tried to get her arrested."

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