My last column in this space (July 16) began with sports writer and social commentator Jimmy Cannon’s famous [column] phrase, “Nobody Asked Me, But…” So who was this guy, Jimmy Cannon, my younger colleagues asked? And what were those newspapers you say he was writing for? Oh, my – time does fleetly-fly-by!
Writer Jimmy Cannon was a quintessential New Yorker (Noo Yawkerif you grew up around here). He covered sports (mostly) for a number of New York City-based newspapers in the days when there were eight (8) or more newspapers publishing from the wee hours of the morning and on into the evening. He devoted his life to writing and social commentary (as he saw it), and loved other newspapers guys, authors, big-name sports stars, entertainers, Broadway’s up-all-night characters, the Little People, horseplayers, and more. As journalist Jack Newfield wrote on his passing…”…he was the most influential journalists of his generation…”
He seemed to have his pick of newspaper platforms for his 600-word columns. And how important it was to get your hands on the papers, especially if an important story was known to be breaking overnight. For the sake of continuing my news-focused reminiscing, I clearly remember earlier in my career running to the news stands to get the next day’s NY Daily News as the “lobster shift” of editors and others filed into the all-night bar and hot counter eatery (the steam table pot roast was great) at one in the morning. (Louie’s, I seem to recall it was named, there on 41stStreet and Second Avenue; the News was steps away on 42ndStreet – you remember that building from that Superman movie – he climbed up the front.) The Daily News building housed United Press International – a great wire, in the good old days – and in the 1950s a little PR agency start-up, Harold Burson & Associates. Also, WPIX-TV, Channel 11 – NY, where a newspaper man – John Tillman — sat and coolly read the headlines and brief copy on air, jump-starting the TV anchor business.) (WPIX – “pixs” – get it?The Daily News was NY’s picture newspaper. Owned by the Tribune Company.)
And on my way home on the train I would read The New York Post, oh-so-liberal as it was, for its great business coverage and editorials – it was hitting the newsstands at 4 pm or so. When there was a newspaper strike (and more than anything, that regularly-occurring event was what helped to kill NY’s great papers), everyone read the night’s Post. (They hid it if they read it on the commuter train to Connecticut on other nights.)
The New York News had wonderful headlines, bold and slashing: When President Gerald Ford decided not go give financial aid of one kind or another to the City, the headline read: “Ford to City: Drop Dead!” (I’m sure that cost him many critical votes in his re-election campaign.) When Mayor John Lindsay decided that the February 1969 blizzard was so severe that Manhattan streets should be cleared first, and then “the outer boroughs”), which were the other four counties making up New York City, he seriously stumbled, said the News – the headline read: “Queens [Boro] Calls the Mayor a Schmoball!” Hey, how about this, for vertically-challenged actor Mickey Rooney’s marriage #5 (he was a serial marrying kind): “Rooney, A Pint, Bares Marriage to a Fifth!” Or hitting a competitor below the belt as a man sues for divorce: “Says Wife Made Time with a Newsweek Man!” (You can’t this stuff up!)
When I was a young writer we had a groaning table of lively dailies: the New York Herald-Tribune (owned by the wealthy Whitneys); The World-Telegram & Sun combining three earlier papers including the great New York Sun); the Journal-American(William Randolph Hearst’s big city flagship –it had great columnists and business coverage); the Daily News (written for “Sweeney,” the archetype labor union member or a worker with a middling schooling, and it had almost no business coverage); theDaily Mirror (also Hearst, a lousy knockoff tabloid of the Daily News); the Gray Lady, our familiar The New York Times, of course, and a smaller paper that a growing number of guys were reading in Corporate America — The Wall Street Journal. What a treasure house of morning and evening printed pages! (This stuff was in my blood: My cousin was city editor of The New York Post and wrote a book about news-gathering – “America Goes to Press.”)
While I was still getting going as a young writer some of the familiar newspapers were also beginning to collapse (not a very promising career path, to choose, I guess). The 1960s “Widget” published for eight months and then collapsed after the owners had put together the very different (and often war-like in editorial competition) World Telegram & Sun, Herald-Tribune and Journal-American). There was good news, too: The wonderful Sunday magazine-like insert of the The Herald-Tribune, then the Flagship Newspaper of Wasp-NY and the Elites, “New York,” quickly revived under editor Clay Felker to become the famous New York magazine. (He passed a few weeks ago. A book will be out later this year about the magazine and its cast of luminescent writers.) The Herald-Tribune (daily) always had great writers. As did the later New York magazine – Jimmy Breslin, Gaily Sheehy, Peter Maas, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Richard Reeves, and many more.
And when NYC newspapers were still king of the streets, one of the key voices was Jimmy Cannon’s. He dropped out of school in his teens and began as a copy boy at the largest circulation daily, The New York Daily News. By his mid-20s he was a national journalistic star, and rubbed elbows with the folks today’s People magazine would put on the cover: Heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis; Broadway; Middleweight Champ Sugar Ray Robinson; cranky coach and wizard-like manager, Casey Stengel; Broadway Joe Namath, dazzling quarterback of the NY Jets; thoroughbred racing champ jockey Eddie Arcaro; the immortal Yankee Slugger Joe DiMaggio, and others who had large followings of their own.
Jimmy Cannon would write his columns on ordinary folk as well, something that another former sports writer (Jimmy Breslin) would do to near-perfection over the years. And when things were slow Cannon would write, NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT…
Guys who address me as “friend” have a hard time making me one.
Nothing improves an actress’s diction like marrying money.
On post-war military Leadership: When I read a statement by[General of the Army] Douglas MacArthur I feel it was written in red ink with a quill pen (Gen. MacArthur was an imperious sort.)
On accountability of restaurant folk: Only two things make a nightclub waiter civil: A big tip…or bad business.
On accountability of airline flight crews (and this was in the great days of airline travel): Airline hostesses seem to be thinking about something else when they talk to me.
On “business guys” of the 1950s: Businessmen who tip big in nightclubs are odds-on to be stingy with their employees.
On standing your ground: I never trust anyone who surrenders an opinion after a mild argument – even when they agree with me! (Jimmy, you should be around today’s political candidates! Flip…flop…flip…hop…to the next subject. It’s called staying on message.)
He had a keen eye for the Little People: Homely waitresses give the best service.
Get his drift? For a great beach read, if you can find the collection of Jimmy Cannon columns on a variety of topics, do so – I think you’ll become a fan.
Finally, as I write this on a very hot Saturday afternoon, I think – hey, doesn’t all this reminiscing and the business about the great Noo Yawk dailies that died remind us of the current debate about the present and future status of newspapers? Yes – and no. The great dailies that passed on were in some ways replaced by other mediums of communication (hence, today’s “media”) – Investor’s Business Daily is a great read; The New York Times adapted and is both a daily paper and a series of magazine inserts focused on lifestyle. The News and Post are still very lively! We do see the same kinds of unkind cuts – en masse journalist layoffs, folks – as today’s Press Lord of the Kingdom (Rupert Murdoch, successor to the Patterson clan, Hearst et al) slashes away at his new trophy,The Wall Street Journal. But it still is a great read, yes? Let’s hope it continues to be – we need the Journal at its best!
Hey, New York is still a great newspaper town – I think the dailies will be with us for a long time to come. And we will see many more “media” coming on line, in cyberspace and in print. Think of this place for its uniqueness, which seems to signal success for tomorrow’s journalists and commentators: One city that is the capitals of finance, print journalism, book publishing, broadcasting, global trade, theater, news-gathering (hail the Bloomberg), and more. Lots to cover…and grist for tomorrow’sJimmy Cannons. Do Stay Tuned!
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Reading for more on this stuff:
“Nobody Asked Me, But…The World of Jimmy Cannon; published 1978 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston; edited by Jack and Tom Cannon. Collection of his best work.
“The Kingdom and the Power” – The New York Times; by Gay Talese.
“The Trust – The New York Times (family)” – Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones.
“The Paper – The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune” – Richard Kluger great read if you never read “The Trib”).
“The Paper’s Papers – A Journey Through The New York Times Archives” – Richard F. Shepard.
“The Powers That Be – Time, CBS, The Washington Post, The New York Times” – by David Halberstam.
“The New Journalism” – by Tom Wolfe (great anthology of stories by George Plimpton, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Garry Wills, Normal Mailer, Michael Herr, and many other former journalists of their day).
“The News – First 50 Years of New York’s Picture Newspaper” – by Leo E. McGivena…and “others” – including top News writers of the past.
“A Day in the Life of the New York Times” – Ruth Adler