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JACK SMITH

Here's to the Sensible Lads (and Lassies) of the Press

April 05, 1990|JACK SMITH

Herb Krauch of Gilman Hot Springs confirms, with others, that during Prohibition distilled spirits could be obtained by prescription, "for medicinal purposes only," but throughout that noble experiment "most newspapermen drank bootleg gin."

Nobody would know more about the habits of newspapermen in the Prohibition era than Krauch. Herb is 93. He spent 50 years on the Herald-Express, starting in 1912 as an office boy at $4 a week and rising to editor.

I worked as a reporter under Krauch in the early 1950s and know something about the drinking habits of reporters myself.

Herb says reporters drank bootleg gin because it was easier to get than prescription booze and a lot cheaper. Since reporters probably made about $25 a week in those days, cheap was important.

"In 1930," he recalls, "we had a house of ill fame across from the Herald on Trenton Street, where one city editor occasionally spent his lunch time, and a bootleg bar at the corner of Trenton and Pico Boulevard.

"If you wanted a drink at the office you could go into the photographic department and Frank Bentley, head photographer, would sell you a shot of gin for 10 cents. In 1928 the city editor was drinking two fifths a day and eventually, in delirium tremens, was carried out of the office on a stretcher. Those were the days."

One wonders whether the quality of the paper was affected by the city editor's going into delirium tremens. We all worked in a sort of constant delirium.

When I worked at the Herald in the early 1950s our city editor was Agness Underwood, a tough, sentimental, competent newspaperwoman who had been a holy terror on the street as a reporter. As city editor Agness rarely drank, but sometimes she would pass out beer to her boys, as a reward for honest labor, from a case that had been delivered from the Continental Bar at Pico and Georgia Street by George Banker, the one-eyed bartender.

The Continental was the longest bar in town. George was gruff and burly, with an intimidating eyeless socket. But he was sweet; he ran the bar like a priest ministering to his flock. It was always clogged with muggers, hookers, bag ladies, used car salesmen from nearby Figueroa Street, and, of course, reporters and photographers. George also kept the permanent stew, food being required by law. No one ever knew what went into it.

We were a disreputable lot, but we kept the people informed, at least about the lower reaches of society. Stanley Walker had defined news as "wine, women and wampum," and we covered it. I have always wanted to print a poem about that breed. I do not know its author, but it was copyrighted in 1928 by the McNaught Syndicate Inc. With apologies to its author:

Here's to the gallant reporters,

Those boys with the pencils and pads,

Those calm, imperturbable, cool,

undisturbable,

Nervy, inquisitive lads.

Each time that we pick up a paper

Their marvelous deeds we should bless;

Those bold, reprehensible, brave,

indispensable

Sensible lads of the press.

Those lines are heavily sentimental and ironic, but they were probably written by one of those bold, reprehensible, brave, indispensable, sensible lads of the press himself.

Of course, there were lassies as well as lads, but not many. The women were often called sob sisters and were usually given tear jerkers to write--stories about young mothers who were in jail for sticking their boyfriends with an ice pick. But they were good reporters--tough, aggressive, resourceful, subtle and fearless.

Agness Underwood, as a reporter, once dropped a white carnation on the body of a waitress who had been stabbed to death in a bar, just to give the story a name--"The White Carnation Murder." Then she told her photographer to take a picture of her creation. A policeman interfered. Agness slapped him with her purse. As a city editor, Agness expected her reporters to be no less aggressive.

The press has now become the media, and its practitioners wear stylish clothes and drink fastidiously. City editors are rarely carried out in delirium tremens. Reporters are responsible family men and women and have degrees.

Or so I hear.

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