By Stanley Walker
Johns Hopkins. 336 pp. Paperback, $17.95
THE NIGHT CLUB ERA
By Stanley Walker
Johns Hopkins. 327 pp. Paperback, $17.95
Precisely what it is that inspired the editors at the Johns Hopkins University Press to resuscitate these relics from New York City's past is a small but interesting mystery. Both The Night Club Era (1933) and City Editor (1934) have their rather considerable charms, not least as period pieces of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression, but when one considers how many other books of similar import have moldered on the shelves for lo these many years, it is difficult to figure how the light of Hopkins's rigorous editorial scrutiny happened to fall upon Stanley Walker.
As a devotee of old-time New York journalism I'm not complaining, just puzzled. When I was a pup, laboring in well-deserved obscurity in a remote corner of the New York Times, I was in the company of men old enough to have memories -- and tall tales -- of Stanley Walker, one of the legendary figures of the 1920s and '30s. He worked for the Herald Tribune from 1920 until 1935, serving for the last seven of those years as its city editor, acquiring in the process many admirers and proteges, some of whom were still at the Trib -- a wonderful newspaper, though not quite so wonderful as its most devoted employees imagined it to be -- and others of whom had made their way to the more secure if rather less interesting haven of the Times.
A colleague of mine was one of these, a congenial and witty if somewhat embittered man -- I no longer remember his name -- who talked nostalgically about the Trib even as he routinely bit the hand that was now feeding him. He aroused my curiosity about Stanley Walker, especially about his book City Editor, but I never made the effort to search for it in the used-book stores. So I was delighted to see these handsome new editions of it and its companion volume.
They turn out to be enjoyable, mildly informative, predictably dated and unexpectedly frustrating. Walker -- like so many who have succeeded in New York journalism, he was a small-town boy, in his case from Texas -- had a reputation as a man about town and raconteur, but the reader coming to these books in search of what in his day were called "yarns" will be sorely let down. There are so few that it seems necessary to quote the best of them, which involves another legendary city editor, the crusty Charles Chapin of the Evening World:
"Chapin was a good but cantankerous judge of writing. He once fired a man for using the word `questionnaire,' which at that time had not been admitted to the dictionary. On another occasion a reporter, writing of the finding of a dead body floating in the East River, referred to `the melancholy waters.' `Pretty good phrase, that,' said Chapin. He was overheard; thereafter, for days, the Harlem River, the Gowanus Canal and Spuyten Duyvil all developed `melancholy waters.' Chapin issued a warning that the next man who used the phrase would be fired. A young reporter, Dwight Perrin . . . had not heard of the warning, and the next day his first story was of a suicide whose body had been picked up in the Hudson. Perrin started his article, `The melancholy waters of the Hudson -- .' Chapin was furious. `You're fired,' he said.
` "Melancholy waters!" Now, look here, in all sense how could the waters of the Hudson be melancholy?'
" `Perhaps,' suggested Perrin, `it was because they had just gone past Yonkers.'
" `Not bad,' said Chapin. `You're hired.' "
Obviously an exchange such as that could take place in any newsroom in any era, but it certainly does have the flavor of its own time. "The Front Page" may have been inspired by the raucous, irreverent Chicago journalism of the 1920s, but New York's went down the same alley. What's more: "New York has everything. It affords the newspaper man an ever-changing spectacle. . . . Somehow, the city cannot be slandered, and anything that may be said of it in praise or abuse is more likely than not to be true." For young Stanley Walker -- he was barely into his twenties when he joined the Trib -- it was newspaper heaven, and he took transparent delight in it.
City Editor, though, is less about the peculiar joys of New York journalism than "an informal survey of present-day journalism in America, from the viewpoint of a man on the city desk of a metropolitan paper." Whether it was ever used as a journalism text I do not know, but in its day and time it would have been a good one, covering as it does everything from the city and copy desks to the sports and photography departments, and even now it would provide a sound introduction to the rudiments of good journalism. Technology and other influences may have altered and expanded the business, after all, but the rudiments remain the same.
Walker loved journalism -- and was more inclined to write in defense of those who practice it than his contemporary A.J. Liebling -- but he had no patience with its tendency to take itself too seriously. "There has long been, in the curious business of journalism, a pathetic hankering for righteousness," he wrote, a yen rarely more evident than in the "codes of ethics" periodically drawn up within the trade. "Mostly," he went on, "such attempts to codify journalistic practices seem like the musings of a shyster lawyer, with a trace of the old college spirit still left in him, who on his day off tells himself that after all there are such things as ethics, and that henceforth life must be a little cleaner."
Professional boosterism, uplift, self-congratulation and self-righteousness -- Walker despised them all, just as did another of his contemporaries, H.L. Mencken. As is abundantly evident in The Night Club Era, he was drawn to the flamboyant, the impious, even the illegal. The keepers of speakeasies during Prohibition, who "ministered to the thirsts of men who were born to drink," were "the patriots of the period"; bootleggers may have profited from Prohibition but "would much rather have done it legally"; Prohibition agents were "swinish," "corrupt," they "made themselves offensive beyond words, and their multifarious doings made them the pariahs of New York."
Walker liked people who swam against the tide of Babbitry and abstemiousness: Jimmy Walker, mayor of New York, who "typified its gaudiness, smartness and insouciance"; Walter Winchell, "the perfect flower of Broadway, the product of his period as surely as Prohibition and the night clubs and the tommy guns"; Texas Guinan, "Queen of the Night Clubs," whose "greeting `Hello, sucker!' became the watchword of boob-traps from Wall Street to Hollywood." He had a particular admiration for Owen Victor "Owney" Madden, a Liverpudlian who came to the States and enjoyed a successful life of crime, albeit a life interrupted a couple of times by visits to Sing Sing, to the extent that he became "the Elder Statesman, the Grand Old Man, of the rackets of New York"; he was a crook, yet "it would have been impossible for even the most strict moralist to have passed an afternoon listening to Owney without feeling that, according to his own lights, he was an honest man."
Owney Madden's name is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, that appear in these two books. One could hardly ask for more striking or poignant proof of human evanescence. All were names to conjure with in Walker's day, names he dropped into the book in full confidence that readers would not merely recognize them but also would pick up on all the associations they carried with them. Yet today even those that a few of us might still recognize -- Jimmy Walker, Fiorello LaGuardia, "Legs" Diamond, Herbert Bayard Swope, George Horace Lorimer, Florence Mills -- conjure up not living, breathing human beings but faded photographs or caricatures in a rotogravure section or a magazine. Nothing, not even these high-spirited and flavorful books, can bring them back to life.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.