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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for August 15, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories
Chapter One

Chapter One—Beginnings
Jack Kent Cooke tells me to stay in Canada
Becoming a New Yorker
A new Village newspaper
The casual wisdom of Steve Allen

After spending two-thirds of my life in America, I still occasionally get asked where I’m from. I usually stall for a moment or two and ask if they mean currently or originally. But I realize that they’ve detected my British accent with all that that implies. An Outside-American.

So invariably what I do next is to identify myself as an ex-NewYorker and, if necessary, somebody who’d published a tabloid newspaper there for a while in the Sixties.

But it’s the ex-NewYorker tag that really gives one an identity, and one cherished by the fabulists who really believe that if you can survive the urban jungle there you can deal with just about anything anywhere. See how far those skills might get you in the real jungle.

Anyway, when I first arrived in the Big Apple I was fresh from a couple of years spent in Canada to which I had fled from a stuffy and stagnated England. I was an ambitious, young reporter eager for new opportunities.

In Toronto I had been working for the wire service British United Press (later, UPI) until I was hired by tycoon Jack Kent Cooke whose representative, novelist Hugh Garner, summoned me to a press conference to announce his acquisition of a group of Canadian magazines.

Working alone on the lobster shift at BUP, my job was to read the wire as it came in, then rewrite and send it out on the radio wire. It had to be written in such a manner that it could be snatched off the teletype by the news reader and read out. "Never start a sentence with a name or anything important" I was instructed, "because listeners never hear the first few words..."

What impressed Cooke, the junior tycoon, was my previous experience on Fleet Street papers, the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail.

Cooke, the boy wonder of Canadian media, had long ago achieved his ambition of becoming  a millionaire before he hit 30. The legend was that he'd persuaded publisher Roy Thompson of his considerable (but actually non-existent) skill at running radio stations and had turned Thompson's lowly CKEY into a money machine by the distinctly American method of utilizing every second of time, cutting out the leisurely pauses between commercials that had been the station's previous style.

Cooke, an avid sports fan, already owned the Toronto Maple Leafs and one of the perks of my new job was a seat in the press box at ice hockey games. Schooled as I had been in rugby and the snail's pace of cricket, it was a revelation that any game could move so fast. For a while I was a fan and to this day, it’s the only sport to which I  give more than passing attention.

At any rate, working for him at Saturday Night, a weekly cultural socio-political magazine, I learned to write profiles of  businessmen and turn out the kind of upfront Talk pieces that are characteristic of The New Yorker. After answering an ad for a paper at Nassau in the Bahamas I spent a miserable month or two there ("It's a place where Bay Street is lined with palms--all itching for payoffs" said a cynical friend) before finding myself back in Toronto jobless. Once again Cooke rescued me, meeting me accidentally in the street and directing me to seek a job at one of his other magazines, Liberty.

This was much more interesting. First I was dispatched to Ottawa to profile Canada's best-selling novelist Nicholas (The Cruel Sea) Monsarrrat, then to interview Billy Graham. My sarcastic piece in the Canadian Home Journal on this saintly figure prompted an unusual number of complaints. Liberty's crass new editor Frank Rasky reacted by anointing me "Screwball Editor" urging on me such stunts as feeding a lion in the cage at the zoo, spending the night in a haunted lighthouse, being hypnotized before a visit to the dentist, hanging from straps to assist the window cleaners on a 30-storey building and sending me out with a $1000 bill to see how much of the day I could survive with no other money.

But I was still restless. I had made a couple of overnight trips to New York to which I had already lost my heart. Oh, the magic of those balmy spring mornings in Manhattan! The air redolent with the promise of a shining future. Would that I could recall even a few seconds of it. Live for the moment, I know now, but I didn’t sufficiently appreciate it then.

When I announced my intention of leaving Toronto, Cooke summoned me to his office and asked: "Why are you always running away? Why don't you stay here and grow with the organization?' (Within a year or two he was himself in the U.S. having--with some never-explained influence--obtained for himself retroactive citizenship).

So at the beginningS of my new life, there I was, an innocent Brit journalist, excited by Manhattan which was so different from the stuffiness of a constipated England where progress seemed to have stalled. (Years later, my memories of Britain helped me understand why it failed to stand up to America over the savagery of the Vietnam War).

I loved New York from my first moment there. Living in a cheapo Greenwich Village apartment from Day Two, I spent my time in search of “the scene”, although it wasn’t a term in use at the time. I was a lonely, sloppily-dressed single, roaming the Village bars to drink beer and look at girls, soothed by an endless stream of Sinatra from the jukebox.

Knowing no other skills but that of a reporter, I felt that I could see the need for a new newspaper in the village, so five days into my new life, I put up a handwritten card in the Sheridan Square bookshop seeking anyone interested in such a publication. My meager income was still coming from writing features for the Canadian magazine.

But none of the people who answered the ad in the bookstore window had any money, and so this idea of starting a new paper went nowhere. And the idea of becoming a publisher myself, was far from my mind. I was a skilled reporter--that’s the job-training I’d had, at papers with seven-figure circulations--and with all the newspapers and magazines around, it seemed inevitable that I would find an outlet for my writings. I was a trained journalist, I thought, and proud of the profession as it was then and still is (occasionally).

The whole ideal of living to write about just what you saw, signs you interpreted (in every sense of the word); noting down what you’d heard, seen and read. That was the life that called to me.

Maybe it’s the origin of my belief that one’s destiny is what one makes it. “I don’t know why you are always complaining about money” my shrewd old mother said to me when I was 60, “you’ve never done anything you didn’t want to do. Ever”. I was stunned. She was right. How had I managed to get away with it?

My very first news editor glanced at a story I handed to him, started to ask questions and gave the piece back to me when I couldn't answer."

"If you can't answer questions", he said, "never raise them".

This was an important lesson that I have remembered (and taught to others) ever since and another early lesson came in my early time at the Daily Mail when I was assigned to cover a cooking event in some parish hall. "What happened?" he asked when I returned.

I said: "It was quite funny. There were seven housewives on stage with seven ovens and at a signal they all grabbed their plates from their table and shoved them in the ovens and slammed the doors...."

My boss interrupted: "Write it exactly the way you told me" , he instructed.

Two possible paths for a professional journalist:
 
(1) write what somebody offers you money for; or
(2) write/publish what you want and try to figure out how to pay for it.

Go for what makes you the happiest. Which isn’t always money.

BUT THE not-quite-pauper that I was in my early New York days still had a money anchor: editor Frank Rasky in Toronto. He asked me if I’d like to interview some famous stars and that sounded like a way to have fun and make money.

For some reason, I’ve always belonged to the Resist Authority faction and so I’ve never been subdued by the authority of big stars. I really admire some of them; you’ve got to give credit to anyone who’s able to transport you out of your everyday life even for a few moments. But my admiration has limits. I ‘m not much for hero worship, much as I might be grateful for the chance to talk to some of these idols.

That irascible Toronto editor dispatched me to the Carnegie Hall apartment of composer Leonard Bernstein, a charming and friendly man, about whom I remember nothing except the ease with which he handled my questions and the entrance of his strikingly beautiful wife who served food and drink.

Then it was out to the coast to interview Rock Hudson (towering a foot above me in the studio picture that MGM’s efficient pr department sent to all such visitors). What I recall most about my encounter with Milton Berle in his Hollywood office were the filing cabinets full of jokes which he’d collected for 30 years. He’d began his career as a child star, appearing in movies with Chaplin and Marie Dressler; wisecracked his way through a prodigious radio career and for some years now had been the biggest name in television.

He was friendly although business-like and appeared to be very proud of his collection of gags. He ran a sample off on me and although I can’t remember now which joke it was, you’ll get an idea of the ‘Thief of Badgags’ repartee from a typical rebuke to his audience:

“I don’t mind personal insults, but when you insult my jokes you insult Fred Allen, Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, Trevor McGee and Molly Picon”.    

Back in Manhattan I was deputed to write about the composer Steve Allen, then the host of NBC's Tonight Show. I met him again later when I went up to the NBC studio to hand him the first issue of the Village Voice, which he displayed to his audience.

Steve, a polymath who was once described jokingly by Andy Williams as “the only man I know who’s listed on every one of the yellow pages”, used to send his friends Xerox copies of what he felt to be significant clippings. When I got to know him better, he joked that a priest had once told him that he seemed to have never had an unpublished thought, and any thoughts he didn’t already have were reflected in his mailings, the clips always reflecting how deeply was his vision of a peaceful, one-world humanity. These printed stories, memos of things-in-the-news-we-ought-to know-about, were always appreciated by those of us who were on his mailing list. When I rented one of the very first answering machine for my home telephone I inveigled him into leaving a recorded message which delighted callers for months afterwards.

Years before Steve was killed in a traffic accident in October 2000, two months before what would have been his 80th birthday, I spent an entire day at his house in Sherman Oaks, talking about everything under the sun from economics to pollution, from the appeal of talk shows to the supposed efficacy of prayers, about which he was skeptical. “Aristotle once said they were of no avail”, he mused, “and another philosopher whose name escapes me for the moment, suggested that saying prayers is like saying that the universe is governed by a Being who changes his mind if you ask him to”.

Steve was so well read that quoting Aristotle, or any one of a hundred ancient sages, came to him by second nature. One of his early television programs, in fact, consisted of staged ‘conversations’ between some of these vintage savants.

How we talked! All morning and through lunchtime--a tray of sandwiches and salad, deftly prepared by him in the kitchen as we debated politics. “Once the American public looked for the best leader” he observed. “Now they look for the best follower”.

He had an interesting take on why even the most sophisticated of us seem to draw strength from a king or a president--“the mighty man who lives on the hill. He is more of a father to us than we realize”.

...

NEXT:
Chapter One—Beginnings
Chatting with Marilyn Monroe

...

Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.

...

comments? send an email to John Wilcock


also available on amazon.com...
Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World


National Weed (1974, issue #3)
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Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW

===========================

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