Every Christmas Eve, I think about Joe Levitt, who kept Christmas in his own way.
He's an unlikely Christmas figure. He was certainly neither angel nor Santa Claus. But I think not a Scrooge either, though there were resemblances. Mr. Levitt, as all of us who worked for him still call him, is as dead as Marley and the door nail. But he rises like the Ghost of Christmas Past every year for me. Mr. Levitt understood that pleasure needs a measure of pain, celebration must have sorrow, and the Christmas edition must have a story that makes the city weep. I think of it as the twist of the knife in the heart of the fruitcake.
Christmas Eve at the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel had its traditions. One was the newspaper's annual Christmas bonus -- a two-pound box of candy open on the secretary's desk to be shared with all the other women, and a box of cigars to be shared by the men. The men tended to eat up all the candy and turn the air green with the cigar smoke, and blue with their curses at the stinginess of the management.
At midnight, the teletype machines would clack forth x's in the shape of the Virgin Mary and Christmas wreaths. At midnight, all the alarm bells on the teletypes would ring "Jingle Bells."
None of this destracted Joe Levitt.
Joe Levitt was, without dispute, the finest editor any of us had or ever will work for (present company excepted). He was also quite uncanny. It never failed that all the news events would happen to suit his scheduling. When the prisoners of war were being released from Korea, Mr. Levitt, early in the day, would be able to divine by some ESP which night a POW from our area would be released. Those nights he'd keep a reporter on late.
Mr. Levitt cultivated a proper city editor demeanor. He spoke in short sentences, always to the point, never an extra adjective. I was, and am, more afraid of him than anyone I ever met, because, like the gods, Joe Levitt could see within your innermost parts and know where you failed. He could tell instantly upon reading any piece of copy, what was true and what was false. His opinion of people was as accurate.
His rare praise was much cherished. On extraordinary occasions, he would paste your story to a piece of newsprint, and write "good story," on the top. Such accolades meant more than the Pulitzer Prize. I remember when one reporter went on to his reward, a better-paying job. The next reporter to move into the desk found a "good story" page and mailed it on to the departing one with a note that said, "I know you didn't mean to leave this precious piece behind."
Mr. Levitt loved to seem hard, unfeeling, and unimpressed. Once four children drowned in a stream near Knoxville. He's sent three reporters and two photographers out to cover the event. A columnist who'd just heard about the drownings came running up to the city desk yelling, "Four children. Drowned. At Three Mile Creek." And Mr. Levitt looked up slowly from his newspaper and said, "Only four? I wouldn't send anyone out for less than six."
He was very hard on reporters. He could be scornful, mean, and unrelenting. He wanted not your best, but the better you didn't know you could be. He expected you to care as much as he did for having the news first -- even if, as his police reporter, Maxine Cheshire, did you had to climb through a transom and go through bloody clothes of a murdered man to get a picture. I interviewed Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in the ladies' room of the Norris Tea Room rather than disappoint him.
He once sent me out to ask Mrs. Alban Barkley if she were pregnant -- Vice President Barkley was in his 70s when they were married. I was still a cub reporter. I went with fear and trembling, but I was far more afraid of Mr. Levitt than Mrs. Barkley. She looked appalled at my question. "Why do you ask?" she said. With perfect truth, I answered, "because my city editor told me to." Her eyes widened and she said softly, "Go back and tell him, I think he must be a horrid man to send a nice little girl like you out to ask a question like that." I delivered her message, but Joe Levitt wasn't in the least abashed.
But it was at holidays, especially Christmas, that Joe Levitt really came into his own. He always scheduled reporters without children to work on the late Christmas Eve shift, reporters with children worked late New Year's Eve. That's why I was married on Dec. 31. I was bold enough to ask for the whole day off. "Why?" he grumbled. "Because I want to get married, sir," I said in my smallest voice. "Good reason," he admitted, but added, "I was married between editions."
Thirty years before the current emphasis on the human interest story, now called "people" story, Levitt believed in it.Perhaps he even invented it. His aim was always to have such a three-column-wide story with a picture to match right in the middle of the holiday front page. After I'd been around for a while, he began to depend on me to provide it. I as honored, but I suspected he assigned the stories to me because I was the only one who'd cry when writing them. (Everybody in the newsroom used to circle my desk to watch.)
Most years, events accommodated him. There was the Christmas the train plowed into the mother with a car full of children caught on the railroad track. The mother was killed, but News-Sentinel readers poured out gifts for the children who survived. And the blind orphan child who wanted parents for Christmas -- we got her adopted before the next one. And the child who was playing in the house when his mother went next door to get a cup of sugar. The kerosene heater exploded, and I spent Christmas Eve watching the child die. And then there was the girl whose fiance was killed on his motorcycle on the way to the wedding.
But the worst one was the Christmas when a young mother of three was stricken by polio.She was put in an iron lung, just before the holiday. A photographer and I were sent out to see the children wish her a Merry Christmas. I was getting along fine, until the children, all below table height, one by one mounted steps to kiss her face, all that was left outside the iron lung. She died in time for the New Year's Day paper.
That was the Christmas that my husband came to pick me up at 1 a.m., and Joe Levitt, with unaccustomed Christmas sociability, came over to Richard, handed him the early edition of the paper, and said, "A murder, an earthquake, a home burned, homeless children, mother in iron lung, it's a fine Christmas paper."