Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'The Last Newspaperman'
The days of old-time tabloid journalism come to life in this novel set against the backdrop of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
With New Jersey's "trial of the century" as the novel's backdrop, author Mark DiIonno tells the story of Fred Haines, the Daily Mirror reporter covering the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby from his Hopewell home in 1932. DiIonno, a columnist for the Star-Ledger, starts this chapter as Haines 60 years later introduces a young reporter to the nation's early days of tabloid journalism and the media frenzy the kidnapping would release.
“Push me down to my room there, young fella. I got something I want to show you.” The wheels squeaked as we rolled down polished linoleum floors, Fred Haines directing me through the rights and lefts of the Oceanview’s halls. His veiny hands were lazy on the chair armrests, his thin shoulders relaxed against the vinyl chair back, just inches from my gut. I felt a care-taker’s affection for him in that moment. I was in his service.
He had me wheel him to his bedside cabinet where he yanked open the veneer walnut door with enough force to make the attached vanity mirror vibrate. “Here, do me a favor,” he said. “Reach in there. See those folders? I got my best clips in a manila—inamanila! Hah!—folder. Folders. Pull ’em out.”
“Any one in particular?” I asked.
“Hell, it don’t matter! They’re all good!”
There were three, overstuffed like paper tacos and held tight with thick, red rubber bands. “Take those rubber bands off for me,” Haines said. “My fingers don’t have the strength anymore. All those years punching the typewriter.”
I put the folders on his bed, a standard hospital electric model with a veneer headboard that matched the cabinet, and snapped off the rubber bands. Haines wheeled up and opened the folders. He peeled off the top few pages and held them up to scrutinize inches from his magnified eyes, like a jeweler looking for flaws in a diamond. He then waved them in front of my nose, chirping with glee.
“Here it is, the first few days of the Lindbergh baby story,” he said. “Oh, boy! This was history being made, and I was part of it!” The clips were brown and brittle, but straight as pressed leaves. There were hundreds of them. Full front pages of the Mirror, the stories from inside. Months and years worth, from LINDBERGH: THEY STOLE MY BABY to BRUNO GUILTY! and all the ones in between:
GONE WITHOUT A TRACE
PLEASE BRING OUR BABY BACK
NATIONWIDE DRAGNET LAST GOODBYE FOR LITTLE LUCKY
“That was my idea, to call the baby ‘Little Lucky,’” Haines said. “It added to the tragic irony, don’t you think?”
The headlines kept coming, blurting out names of people long forgotten, but known in all American households during the case: HOW NOW, BETTY GOW? ... a story about the Lindberghs’ Scottish nanny who was grilled by police.
DR. CONDON’S GRAVEYARD SHIFT ... a story about a ransom drop by one Dr. John F. Condon in a Bronx cemetery as Lindbergh waited in a nearby car.
And on and on.
Haines began laying them out on his bed, building a patchwork quilt of newspaper clips.
“There you go, my boy, all right in front you, the Crime of the Century. And all written by me, alias Frederick G. Haines.”
He pulled out a front page of the Daily Mirror Extra with a photo of a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd packed onto the street outside the courthouse after Hauptmann was convicted, a sea of gray suits and fedoras.
“Lookit there,’’ he said, pointing to a man on the courtroom steps, near the front door. “That’s me. And there’s Mrs. Hauptmann. The crowd drove her back inside, the poor thing.”
I looked close. Sure enough, it was Haines, captured by a photographer, his youth preserved for all time. His features were sharp, even in the gray, matted newsprint. He stood out, taller than most around him, a thin man in a double-breasted suit. His arm was reaching out toward Mrs. Hauptmann, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Yep, I was there, all right. Boy! Those were the days ...” he said, not at all wistful, but thrilled he had lived them. “Tell you what. Take ’em home—but be careful—and read ’em, then come back tomorrow and we’ll really talk.”
That night I read most of his clips, amused by his dramatic and occasionally mawkish writing style, but recognizing a rhythm and balance that allowed the stories to flow easily. There was voice in the writing. As I read, I imagined a young Fred Haines, fedora perched on an angle, cigarette dangling, clacking away on an Olivetti, keeping time with the sharp-edged words in his head. The voice was New York wise guy in the ’30s sense, a side-of-the-mouth voice of inside information. The voice was tough and abrupt and hurried, but very, very cool. The voice had swagger. Like it or hate it, it was a voice—something most papers no longer had.
My own place, the Shore Record, lost its voice after the founder died. For 70 years, it had been a family operation, begun by Benedict Smith, a wire factory worker who made a fortune by inventing the machine that forged narrow strips, then cut and twisted them into paper clips. He had a factory in Newark, a man- sion in East Orange, and a summer place in Long Branch called a cottage, but as large as his winter place. In the mid-1920s, Smith started the Shore Record, divesting himself of stocks to do so, a move he would describe as “dumb but lucky” for the rest of his life. Smith believed industry gave every American a chance to be an inventor; he deplored investors and stock market men who built their fortunes on other people’s initiative. The voice of his paper cheered on the middle class in its pursuit of the American Dream. Politically, it backed populists but would expose them as hypocrites if they failed the voters. It had a simple slogan: Fairness.
“Fairness is what we Americans strive for,” Benedict Smith once said. “Freedom is a byproduct of fairness.”