Newspaper people don't often sing for their supper, but they do like to tell tales for their lunch. Twice a year for the past 25 years, the E Streeters--some 150 journalists, pressmen, electricians and business staffers who started their careers when The Washington Post was still keeping up with the world from a stone building on E Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW--have met to eat and remember. The late Robert Tate Allan founded the club in 1974. Earlier this month at The Post's "new" building, the E Street Club celebrated its 25th anniversary, with Al Manola, its president for the past 15 years or so, as events editor.
Chalmers M. Roberts, author of "The Washington Post: The First 100 Years," projected slides with a commentary. The E Street building looked old enough to have been built in the Gothic era, though it stood in company with liquor stores, saloons and small shops.
As usual, the guest of honor--and hostess--was The Washington Post's Katharine Graham. Linda Erdos of the paper's public relations department was, as always, the ring mistress.
At an earlier meeting, Mrs. Graham told of the summer of 1933 when she was 16 and vacationing at Mount Kisco, N.Y. Her mother casually remarked, "Oh, darling, didn't anyone tell you? Daddy bought The Post."
Hope Ridings Miller--who started her distinguished career at The Post before she became editor in chief of the late lamented Diplomat magazine--later told the Chronicler that one of her duties as a cub reporter was "to open my editor's desk and see if he had enough liquor to last the night. Otherwise, I had to run across the street and buy a bottle." Before long, she was choosing her own subjects, writing about the fabled Perle Mesta and the National Woman's Party.
One of the best E Street stories was told by Sam Stavisky in December 1966. As recounted in the official club minutes, he described a day at The Post in 1938: "We were sitting around the City Desk as usual, discussing world affairs. [Laughter.] Suddenly the phones began ringing like mad. It seems the aliens had landed in New York. No, they landed in New Jersey. No, they landed in Norfolk. No, it's down in Miami."
"John Riseling said, 'I don't know what it is,' he says, 'but write.' It wasn't until the late edition that we learned this was all just hysteria." Orson Welles had put on a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds," and the tale of the invasion from outer space panicked listeners.
"The next evening we were sitting around, talking about this thing," Stavisky said. "All of a sudden, four of the biggest Marines I've ever seen strolled into the room with a sergeant in command. 'Halt,' he says to his men. And he turns around and he says, 'Freeze!' The city desk froze. The copy desk froze. It was so quiet you could hear the fear running up and down the spines. And John, the only one who didn't freeze, rose to his 5-foot-5, reaching the chest of the sergeant. He says, 'Something I can do for you?'
"And the sergeant bellowed: 'Not much! Just want the guy who wrote that story about the Marines praying when the aliens landed.
"John says, 'Well there was such a story on the wires. And we had printed it along with all the other silly stuff. You mean that story?' The guy says 'Yes, we want the guy and we're going to kill him right here.'
"John says: 'This one came from the Associated Press. The guy who did it is up in New York and you ought to go up to New York and get that guy.' Well, the baffled sergeant looked at him and said . . . 'We can't go to New York.' John says, 'Tell you what, we'll write a retraction.' The sergeant says, 'If you don't have a retraction, we'll be back with 20 Marines tomorrow.'
"John turns around to Andrews and says, 'Marshall, start writing and put it in the box and make sure it's on Page 1.' He walks over to the sergeant, bangs him on the shoulder and says, 'How do you like that?' And the sergeant said, 'That's good, that's good.' And they all marched out.
"Now the epilogue: That's why I joined the Marine Corps later."
At another luncheon, Chalmers Roberts told how one early edition of the paper had a headline "Roosevelt in Bed With a Coed." When the error in reporting the president's head cold was discovered, all the papers were recovered and destroyed. "So when Roosevelt heard about the headline and wanted a hundred copies," Roberts said, "The Post was unable to oblige."
In 1950, The Post left the many-storied E Street behind and moved into new quarters on L Street NW. But that's another chronicle.