The Washington Star, the capital's oldest newspaper, ceased publication yesterday after more than 128 years of service, leaving Washington with only one daily paper. Until the very end The Star's presses rumbled and the people worked, as the paper went out with a resounding bang, selling out its final editions, totaling 640,000 copies, all over town.
Star reporters dashed over to the Algerian Embassy to cover one last story, and printers and photoengravers remade a final front page to accommodate the news. Columnists typed out reminiscences of what it was like and how it all began, while ink-stained machinists, tools in hand, kept a vigil near the thundering presses that stopped for good at 2:30 p.m. Mailers stacked hefty bundles of newpapers onto swiftloy moving conveyor belts and garage mechanics tuned-up the delivery trucks for one last hurrah.
Within minutes after the newspaper was delivered to local vending machines, the machines were emptied. The lobby of The Star building in Southeast was crammed wall-to-wall with customers clamoring for copies. From McPherson Square to Silver Spring newstands and delivery boys were beseiged by people hungering after multiple issues of the last day's editions, which by mid-day had become something akin to precious jewels.
Downtown and on Capitol Hill The Star was selling for $5 and $10 a copy, and by late afternoon legends and yarns were told of a man who walked into the Capital Hilton Hotel and paid $100 for a copy, and of another man wandering the Hill willing to pay $50. Hustlers, seeing quick profit in the streets, attempted to hoard copies, while Star truck drivers guarded their cargo closely, as though they worked for Brinks.
"It's history, it's nostalgia," said Paul K. Majo, one of more than 100 persons who stood in line to buy copies of The Star outside Robert A. Johnson's newsstands in front of the Veteran's Administration Building early yesterday. "I'm giving all five of these to my children so they'll remember."
"First come, first served, get in line!" shouted Johnson, who had hawked The Star for nearly 25 yerars there. His bright red apron stacked with bills and jingling with change, Johnson sold more than 500 copies of the paper within 20 minutes yesterday, and helped settle more than one dispute between eager customers over their places in the line.
"Not since the day Kennedy wass shot," Johnson said, sweating, "have I ever seen anything like this."
The 128-year history of an institution, whose last years of existence were marked by financial malaise, was thus concluded in dazzling irony.
The Star's last editions were mainly devoted to remembrances. Writers wrote about The Star's history, about the 60 offers to purchase the newspaper that the owner, Time-Life Inc., turned down, about the deluge of phone calls from citizens expressing their sympathy for the paper'sw end, about what life could be like in the year 2000 and memorable moments in the arts and sports.
Ear waxed poetic, the solution for the daily crossword puzzle was printed in the same paper and a poignant sketch of Morris Siegel was reproduced on the sports page showing the grand old man of Washington sportswriting contemplating a typewriter before him, his gray hair brushed rakishly to the side, his striped tie undone at the collar, wise creases lining his face.
And there were letters, scores of them from Washington and the suburbs including one from the White House, printed on the front page, in which President Reagan wrote, "There is a great silence today in Washington. A fine newspaper is gone and a noble tradition ended."
In the paper's final editorial, editory Murray J. Gart, writing about the death of The Star, said, "Our own best efforts are spent. We believe they will be of lasting value to the Washington community." He concluded the essay with one sad word: "Farewell."
More than 1,400 people worked at The Star, many of them for more than a quarter of a century, from the delivery boys on the streets, to the printers in the roaring pressrooms, to the editors and writers and advertising executives upstairs. Their last hours at The Star, which had been contemplated with uncertainty and sorrow ever since Time, Inc. announced two weeks ago it would cease publishing the paper yesterday, were finally spent amid a kaleidoscopic jumble of emotions -- sadness, regret, rage, jubliance, fanfare, celebration, emptiness, pity, relief.
They all made up the last scenes of a show and a service that passed.
In the Star newsroom this week a memo was posted on a bulletin board announcing a party to be held yesterday, and asking staffers to supply various forms of food and drink. Quickly, another memo was posted by associate editor Sidney Epstein, warning staffers that an old newsroom rule prohibiting alcoholic beverages, which was imposed after a particularly rowdy Christmas party several years ago, was still in effect.
Beneath this someone else had wryly written, "Anyone violating this rule will be dismissed."
Throughout the final days, while many reporters and editors were tied up on the phone with prospective employers, and traveling out of town for job interviews, events were still covered -- the air controllers' strike, the Redshins, Anwar Sadat's visit, the du Pont takeover of Conoco. "Everyone must be impressed by the professionalism," reporter Howie Kurtz said.
"Usually," he said, "I have a hard time getting a chair to sit in, the newsroom's so crowded. Now it's pretty abandoned, and I'm sitting here in a big leather chair."
Memos were posted early in the week all over the building announcing the formation of a Washingt6on Star Alumni Association, and asking employes to submit addresses and phone numbers. Workers sported white buttons with the years "1852-1981" printed over a black star. T-Shirtrs bearing the words, "Time Ran Ourt on the Washington Star" were quickly sold out.
On Wednesday, Star staffers were asked to submit personal reminiscences of their careers at the paper, but, said one writer who asked to remain unidentified, "We were allowed to go ahead with it only after it was agreeed that nothing harsh was written about Time, Inc."
A final Time, Inc. memo was posted saying that employes had until yesterday evening to clear out their personal belongings. No one would be admitted to the building after then without a special pass.
By late Thrusday, the anxiety and wit that had pervaded the newsroom had changed into something more closely resembling a wake. "It's knid of edgy," one reporter explained. "Sadness, gloom. People are bing warm and friendly to each other, but there's also a lot of tension between people who have new jobs and places to go to, and those who don't.
"Some," the reporter said, "are smiling irrepressibly, some are very bitter."
Without the promise of alcohol, few parties or get-togethers were held in the newsroom, where by yesterday several reporters were spoting black armbands. Instead, staffers retired to a favorite Star bar, the Jenkins Hill Saloon on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, where the proprietor was offering drinks at half price to return the favor of many years of patronage. Parties were also held at various reporters' and editors' homes. And a gathering of another sort was scheduled for tomorrow, when the D.C. unemployment office will stay open to take care of the bebnefit applications of Star employes.
Glossy copies of the last Star front page were handed out yesterday to staffers, who took then around like yearbooks to be signed by their compatriots. Meanwhile, as yet another television crew pulled up to broadcast yet another segment in front of the Star building, one employe sullenly called out, "Live, from the coffin."
News editor Bill Peeler, summing up The Star's last two weeks, said, "It's been the longest funeral since they hauled old Abe back to Springfield."
In the press room, where men wore railroad hats and sport names such as "Roy" and "Ted" and "Vito" over their ink-stained blue shirts, Pat Reid, 36, was preparing to travel soom with several other printers to Houston, where union officials said there were jobs. "Some deal, huh?" he said, with yellow ear plugs dangling around his neck. "We work and slave and end up having to sell our homes, move our families and try to start life somewhere else."
Jesse Fentress, meanwhile, was upstairs pasting up the front page of Wednesday's Star. The early edition headline read, "U.S. Turns Up Heat on Strikiers." Fro the final edition Fentress, a Star printer for 33 years, was pasting up a headline that read, "U.S. Eases Air Strike Deadline."
"That's the way it is on a P.M. paper," he drawled, "or, was." A Star photographer was taking pictures as Fentress pasted up the page. "I'm doing this for Channel 4," he said, shrugging. "Any port in a storm."
And in classified ads, where a merry party replete with baked ham, shrimp, potato salad and macaroni was held Monday by all the women, 36-year employe Mary Matthews was sitting before a computer terminal, wondering what she will do next. "My whole life's been here," she said. " started when The Star was on Pennsylvania Avenue. We could look out the windows and see every parade.
"I think I'll miss the people her most, and the excitement. Robert Redford came through the newsroom once and a lot of the girls went down to get their shirts autographed. Not me," she said, "I didn't even know who he was."
Despite the alcohol prohibition, advertising artist Ed Fath was determined to smuggle bourbon in yesterday. Fath has been at The Star for 24 years, and now leaves to become a deep sea diver in Florida. He sat beneath a partially nude poster of Bo Derek. "Every morning," he said, "the printers come in to see her to get inspired for the day. Now, I guess she goes with the rest of us."
A recorded voice on the telephone at the Washington Star library answers softly with the words, "The library will be closed . . . permanently." The library contains doens of files and drawers of clippings and photographs dating back to 1852. It was visited recently by representatives from various universities, including Georgetown and the University of Maryland.
"Sweety," Star livrarian Tricia Price said, "it's depressing around here. All this history. . . . How do you assess the worth of a Rembrandt? It's absolutely priceless, you know."
Of all The Washington Star's regular columnists, Elmo was the most mysterious. To the many people who read him faithfully he was a sorcerer, a magician, a con man and saint. In fact he was many people -- copyaides, printers and linotype workers, who all helped to put together his column day in, day out, ever since the end of World Wat II.
Elmo was the byline on a tiny column appearing every day on the agate page in The Star's sports section,l there amid all the ball scores and race results in tiny print. The column only took up a half-inch of column space, but judging by the hundreds of phone calls that have inundated The Star's sports staff since the end was announced from people asking about Elmo's future whereabouts, the column was probably the most widely read piece in the paper.
In constituted three rows of type. Each row contained three numeral digits beneath the byline, "Elmo." Numbers and lottery players, gamblers all over town, would look each morning at Elmo's numbers, hoping to get some clue from the digits, or some divine inspitation, on how to bet that day. "Elmo was always very popular among the poorer people in town, the common people, who are always looking for something better in life," Star writer Gene Mueller said. "He was magic, almost like a God. And sometimes, believe it or not, his numbers hit the money."
No one at The Star knows where Elmo got his name. The column was started at the Washington Daily News, and when the paper folded in 1972, Elmo began appearing in The Star, after thousands of Elmo readers called to beg the sports staff to pick up the column.
"There is a lot of irreverence and black humor in the sports department," editor Gary Hoeing said. "When the announcement was made that we were going to fold, someone wrote an acerbic goodbye to Elmo, but we aren't going to run it. We'll just let Elmo disappear."
For the record, the last Elmo, published yesterday, included the following digits: Top row, 8 7 1. Middle3 row, 9 5 2. Bottom row, 4 3 6. The top row, in an amazing coincidence, corresponded to yesterday's date, The Star's last, August 7, 1981. The final Elmo was a Star copyaide. Her name was Susanna Piepraszek.