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

2.4 Last Newspaperman
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.”

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When he died, his son took over, changing the slogan to the Shore Record: A Sure Thing. The paper became more picture-oriented and big on sports. The weighty old stories bolstering economic growth and social enlightenment were tossed for a more “reader-friendly” approach. Shorter, lighter stories. And crime. And more crime. It stood for nothing. Certainly not fairness, as stories about politics became stories about politicians and not the people they supposedly served.

When I went to work there, circulation was 156,000 and sinking like shells through seawater—swirling, but steady in decline. The Smiths were now part of the market rich and sold the paper to Sinnott, a public company that began in billboard advertising and became one of the country’s biggest newspaper chains.
The company returned double-digit profits to shareholders by cutting, then cutting more. News space and staff shrunk. The surviving staff at the Shore Record had their own new motto: “The Sure Wreck: All the News That’s Fit to Print on a Billboard.”

Reading old Fred Haines’s articles gave me clarity on something I already knew: Old-style yellow journalism didn’t create the public appetite for prurient stories, it fed it. It made it acceptable. It made money by appealing to the masses. The American Free Press ideal guaranteed in the Bill of Rights—that the press had a fundamental role in protecting citizens against a tyrannical government—began its slow death, as Fred Haines would admit, “in Jersey in the ’30s.” My paper was just late to the game.

“Guilty as charged,” Haines said when I visited him the next day. “We gave the people what they wanted. Razzamatazz, and all that jazz. No apologies.”

He was shaved close, all pink and scrubbed clean, waiting to shine. His hair, white and waxy, was combed perfectly. He had gotten ready for me. I remembered a line from an old song:
You look like a still, from Cecil B. De Mille

So here was Frederick G. Haines, ready for his close-up. We spread the clips around the bed, and our photographer took a few pictures of him. In some he smiled; in some he was pensive. In some, he held up a clip near his face, in the unnatural way family members hold up pictures of murder victims for newspaper photographers and TV cameramen.

And then it was just me and him.

*

“Let me dispatch with the necessary details, son, so’s you don’t have to ask a lot of unnecessary questions.

“I was born in 1906, down on Vecsey Street in Lower Manhattan, back in the days of wood-frame apartment houses and piles of horse shit on the streets. You know, that was our big what-they-call ‘environmental problem’ nowadays. Back then we just called it horseshit and watched our step. Hah!
“I was born at the perfect time for a man of my talents—too young for World War I, a little too old for World War II, and just right for the New York tabloid newspaper wars of the 1920s and ’30s. We entertained readers through the high times and the Depression. Took their minds off things. I mean, what do you think people would rather read about? Government financial policies to tame greed on Wall Street, or a lust-driven love triangle murder involving some financier? Like any good newspaperman of my day, I knew how to manipulate the facts to satiate the public’s taste for lurid detail. People complain about the news being sensational today. Hell, I helped invent it!”

He wheeled over to his cabinet again and opened the top drawer.

“Let me show you my prized possession.”

He pulled out a newspaper page encased in plastic food wrap. “This was the most famous Daily News cover ever. Ever! Bigger than JFK getting shot. Bigger than Man on the Moon, or Son of Sam.”

The full cover was of a woman, with a hood over her head, strapped to the electric chair.
“That’s Ruth Snyder. Back in ’27, she took up with a corset salesman named Judd Gray and, well, I guess she liked the way he tightened her laces. Before you know it, they conspired to bump off Mr. Snyder. Then they got caught, squealed on each other, and next thing you know, Ruth Snyder is getting the chair. First woman, and last, fried in New York. Ever.”

Haines was just a kid then, barely 21, but he covered the case, trial, and execution as a “runner,” chasing neighbors, investigators, lawyers, and, finally, jurors for details and quotes. The paper sent him to Ossining to witness the execution, just after New Year’s in 1928.

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“My job was to phone in the details to the regular reporter back at the office, who would dash off a story for an Extra. And I made the best of it, I tell ya. Nobody ever heard of a metal detector, so I was able to strap on an ankle camera. The photographers back at the paper showed me how to use it, and sure enough, I got the shot of Mrs. Snyder getting the jolt. And here it is.”

He handed me the newspaper cover. It was fuzzy, with a blur of movement, almost like a modern freeze frame from a surveillance video. The woman’s head was tilted back, her body stiff. Haines let me see it for a couple of seconds, then snatched it back and put it away.

“Jesus Christ, you shoulda heard the noise! Everybody calling us sleazeballs, bloodthirsty even.”

Haines said the New York Times wrote an editorial calling the picture “offensive” and “vulgar.” So did the Herald Tribune and World. They all decried the “eroding standards of the high-minded practice of journalism,” he said.

“They weren’t offended—they were jealous of our sales! That edition of the Daily News with Mrs. Snyder getting zapped sold 2 million more copies than normal, and we couldn’t print enough. The presses ran all day, and the papers flew off the newsstands like a tornado hit town and got snatched out of the newsies’ hands before the ink was dry on their mitts. They sold like ice cold lemonade in hell.”

Haines stopped and wheeled himself to the window. It over- looked the west end of Fletcher Lake, where an old brick pump house and rusted pipe system, long defunct, were crumbling from neglect.

“There was another picture,” he said, with a sudden loss of altitude. “Another bad one. It was of Little Lucky. That one I didn’t keep. That one I never wanted to see again. That one ruined my life. When it was all over, I figured that was my comeuppance for Mrs. Snyder. Penance is more like it. What goes around comes around, like they say, and it came ’round and bit me, but good.”

He became silent, then closed his eyes. I let him sit for awhile, enough to wonder if he’d fallen asleep or was just deeply engaged in a conscious dream of some long-gone consequence.

A few minutes went by.

Finally I said, “Do you want to tell me about it?”

The question didn’t startle him. His eyes remained closed.

“Not yet.”
A moment later, he opened his eyes suddenly and spun his chair toward me. “What I want is a cup coffee. Let’s hit the dining hall—get a change of scenery.”

In the pastel-colored cafeteria, a woman brought us two cups and a metal coffee urn. “Great, darling,” he said to her, “’cause we’ll be here all day.”

His mood upturned with the caffeine.

“Best if I start at the beginning. See, I was born to be a newspaperman. Literally. My pop was a pressman at Pulitzer’s New York World—hah! Say that three times fast!—so, I had newspapering in my blood. When I was little, I’d sit on his knee, looking at the fresh paper he made every morning, the ink still damp and muddy on his fingers. It must be strange to hear an ancient-timer like me talking about my pop, but I remember him like it was just yesterday. His passion for news was contagious. He read me stories from all over the world, faraway places with names that don’t exist now. His reading opened up the world for me, and, as I got older, I fantasized about discovering that world in a tramp steamer—up the Nile, down the Amazon, across the China Sea—filing dispatches from exotic places. Funny, how, in the end, I found the biggest stories of my life right here in Jersey.”

The family lived in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Newspaper Row, where the city’s great old dailies lined the street like competing department stores; the Times, Sun, Tribune, and World were all there, cozied up against City Hall, the police plaza, and the courts. The newspaper businesses housed everything from offices to printing plants. When the presses ran, the streets vibrated under wagons and Model T trucks and newsboys who descended on the block to deliver and hawk the papers. Pulitzer’s building with its cupola tower threw a shadow over the rest. It was one of the tallest buildings in the world at the time.

“Believe me, it was Pulitzer’s way of saying, ‘I’m the big boy on this block!’” Haines said.

In those days, everything that mattered was downtown. The papers, the government, Wall Street, even the theater district. Downtown was the center of New York, and therefore the world.

“When you turned up Park Row, if you didn’t feel alive with energy, you were dead,” Haines said. “Everything was young and marvelous.”

He closed his eyes to recapture it.

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“The stone stanchions of the Brooklyn Bridge looked like castle turrets over Downtown,” he said. “Fulton Street took you down to the fish market, where Portuguese and Spanish fishermen argued with Jewish wholesalers in whatever passed for English. Nassau Street was the financial district, where you’d find the pocket- watch set. Broadway was two blocks away, where car backfires set horses to whinnying, and the smell of cloudy blue gas exhaust mingled with the stench from steaming piles of manure on the cobblestone. The Battery was a few blocks south, where you could see the green rises of Jersey and Staten Island, the far-off horizon of the harbor, and Lady Liberty, looking out for the immigrants. Canal Street, Chinatown, Little Italy—all less than a mile north. The world came to Lower Manhattan, and the Park Row newspapers ruled that world.”

Haines’s New York was a land of infinite energy and unlimited possibility.

“What a time that must have been,” I said, thinking how the country had lost its momentum.

“There was never a better time in America, you betcha,” he nodded. “Everything was happening and fast.”

“And you ran right along,” I offered.

“Damn right. Either that or get trampled.”

Haines said his father loved the news business and wanted him to get into the “clean hands side of it.”

“He figured that was the order of things over here. You know, the son doing better than the father. So he got me a job as a copy boy at the World after high school, and I did that for a year or so. His dream was for me to become a big deal columnist, the kind of guy who everybody that’s anybody reads in the paper—a talk-of-the-town kind of guy who gets recognized on the street, in the saloons, and in the swankiest restaurants.”

Haines began to sing, “East Side, West Side, all around the town …

“Before Pop died—a heart attack in the middle of a bulldog run—he’d talk about how it would be a Great American success story. The son of an ink-blackened mechanic growing up to be a feared and respected columnist, rubbing—and throwing—elbows with the white-glove set.

“From his view in the basement pressroom, my pop probably thought the starch-collared reporters and editors upstairs were intelligent, responsible, and honorable, and would give me a fair shake to make it in their world.

“Luckily, he died before he saw that the Pulitzer editors—mostly Ivy snobs—weren’t too keen on seeing a pressman’s son with his own byline. I hustled, and I could write, but I stalled as a copy boy at the World. Every time I asked the white-shirts for a promotion, they told me I could make more money in the pressroom or in paste-up.”

Haines got his break with the tabloids, the first of which had been started by Joseph Medill Patterson, grandson of Chicago Tribune founder Joseph Medill.

“Young Patterson had an eye for newspaper mischief—and money—so he started the Illustrated Daily News. They were hiring, I was going nowhere at the World, so I jumped ship and got hired as a reporter, and just like that, I was a tabloid guy. And once a tabloid guy, you couldn’t go back.”

“There was that much of a distinction?” I asked. “You know anything about ladies’ dresses?”

“No, I guess not. Why?”

“There’s three kinds of ladies’ dresses: designer, designer knock- offs, and budget. The guys who make and sell the middle and bottom shelves can make a fortune, but they can never ascend up. The guys at the top think they have the corner on taste and don’t let anybody else in. Well, that was the newspaper business in my day. Tabloid guys were the bottom rung. We made as much and sold more, and we were better street reporters, but we weren’t in the same league as the serious journalists, the way they saw it. No established broadsheet like the Times or Herald Tribune would ever hire a tabloid guy—hell, they thought we were lowlifes and street hustlers. We hustled, all right, all over town, all over stories.”

“The line is more blurry now,” I said.

“That’s because no paper stands for anything anymore. Back then, every paper had an identity. Today, they try to be all things to all people and end up doing nothing well. I took pride in being a tabloid guy. And I was a damn good one. There wasn’t a story I couldn’t sniff out or write with pizzazz. And it paid off.”

Patterson dropped Illustrated from the masthead a few months after Haines came on board, but it was the only thing that dropped. Daily News circulation started strong and kept climbing.

“We had a formula to satisfy the public’s blood-lust for crime and sex-lust for gorgeous girls,” Haines said. “We chased death, from mob rubouts to street crime to automobile crashes. We were always first to photograph gruesome scenes and best at writing lurid details to match. Those pictures usually ended up on Page 1. On Page 3, we ran our daily beauty contest and put half-bare girls in the paper almost every day.

“Crime and passion! Sometimes, if we got lucky, we’d get both: a beautiful girl murdered! Or better yet, a beautiful girl murderer in cahoots with her lover—a femme fatale, like Ruth Snyder.”

What came next, Haines said, was a flood of tabloid knock-offs.

“Other millionaire megalomaniacs, like William Randolph Hearst, got the idea to start tabloids, putting us tabloid guys in high demand. And when you’re in high demand, there’s money to be made. I ended up at the Daily Mirror, which Hearst started in ’24. It was filled with celebrity gossip, scandal, and true crime—all hued in deeper shades of yellow than his already-sensational New York Journal broadsheet.

“I called him ‘Wilhelm Adolf Hearst’ because he was a Nazi sympathizer, no matter what they say. I know it for a fact. A lot of American big shots, including Lindbergh, thought German industry and technology would rule the world and wanted to jump on board. Today, they call it globalization. Back then, we called it what it was. Greed. Greed first, America second. That’s the American way! Hearst ordered his editors to either ignore or doctor stories about Hitler. I know. Later on, I worked for the guy, and my story about the Hindenburg was one of them.”

Before Haines went to work for the Mirror, he had been lured to the Daily Graphic, a scandal sheet owned by a fitness guru named Bernarr Macfadden.

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“Nobody remembers him these days,” Haines said, “but what a character! Macfadden was an old-time muscleman, an exhibitionist who liked to pose in nothing but a grape leaf. His stomach was like a washboard, and he had biceps like bocce balls. He’d sworn off meat and spent hours a day doing calisthenics and isometrics, which he claimed to have invented. One thing he did invent was his own religion. What did he call it? Cosmo … Cosmo … Cosmotarianism. He believed only the musclebound would reach heaven. I guess he envisioned the Great Beyond as something like the Sistine Chapel. Who knows, maybe he was right—it’s as good a theory as any. The Bible says God made us in His image, but you can bet God is no scrawny string bean or fat slob.” He grinned. “At least not according to all those EYE-talian Renaissance painters!”

Haines told me how Macfadden started a magazine called Physical Culture in 1899. Articles about new diets and exercise regimens, and other miraculous reshaping techniques were wrapped around daring pictures of nearly nude men and women showing off their physiques. Basically, the fitness infomercial of the Victorian era.

“It was scandalous for the day,” Haines said, “but Macfadden defended it as a ‘human art form.’ Whatta bunch of baloney. It was a nudie magazine except for the leopard skin briefs on the men and skimpy bathing suits on the cuties. Sold like crazy.”

The next of Macfadden’s ventures was True Story, a confession magazine that was basically the daytime soap opera of the Victorian era. Then came Movie Mirror, the precursor to super- market “celebrity-sniffers,” as Haines called them.

“Up till then, the movie mags were all controlled by the studios. The studios handed out press releases they wanted printed, doctored photographs of their stars for publication, and kept the seamy side of showbiz—parties, sex, booze, and narcotics—out of the mags.

“Macfadden had other ideas. He went the scurrilous gossip route, and to hell with the studios! He had an army of ‘contributors’ in New York and Hollywood, running the streets and hiding in shadows like nocturnal rodents, chasing the ‘it girl’ or leading man of the moment to catch ’em in a compromising position. The photographers, especially, were star-stalkers. They prowled the speaks, camped out at club entrances and in hotel hallways, ready to pop some celebs’ privacy with a flash of the bulb. Macfadden’s Movie Mirror was the first mag to print these kinds of candid shots—and paid good money for them! As the Law of
Economics dictates, where there’s money to be made, people run over each other to make it. Macfadden’s willingness to buy these pictures started the industry of thug-photogs—bullies and hustlers who’d stomp your grandma to get a shot of some blonde starlet’s back- side. You call ’em paparazzi today, but they got their start with Bernarr Macfadden. Like Valentino said, we Americans build up stars only to tear them down. And Macfadden’s mag was the wrecking ball with the biggest swing.

“He was a nut-and-berry eater who abhorred booze, coffee, and tobacco. Some newspaperman! But while he preached clean living, he helped turn the minds of millions into mashed turnips with the garbage he printed.”

This was a history lesson for me. I thought of celebrity culture as a creation of the modern, desperate media. In the late ’80s, Sinnott began a flimsy Sunday insert magazine for their papers called Stars! It had a thrown-together, scrapbook look; a subliminal message to readers that they were getting the very latest in gossip, fashion, and celebrity lifestyle. It was almost all photos: snapshots of celebrities of every variety caught working, playing, vacationing, exercising, smiling, scowling, showing skin, dressed to the teeth, doing anything but looking ordinary. The captions all touted the subject’s latest movie, TV show, or recording, or gave some other tidbit about their personal life and couplings. There were no real stories, just lead-ins to thematic picture montages like “Shop Hopping on Rodeo Drive,” “Hot Jock Workouts,” and “Nightmoves at Sundance.”

The advertisers loved it. Stars! was a moneymaker, and Sinnott started up a separate brand, selling spinoffs at supermarket checkouts for a buck. KidStars! TeenStars! MovieStars! TVStars! PopStars! SportsStars! The only thing missing, we joked, was PornStars! But, in truth, those junky tabs kept papers like the Shore Record somewhat afloat. Without them, there would have been deeper cuts, if not extinction. That was 20-some years ago, long before the internet and 400-channel digital TV. The explosion of shock (or schlock) gossip since has been, well, nuclear.

I said to Haines, “Amazing how Macfadden’s name has been lost, considering.”

He nodded vigorously. “In the early ’20s, he started this big muscleman contest at the Garden, the winner claiming the title of ‘The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.’ It was vintage Macfadden, right down to the hyperbole. Well, the first year, a nobody named Charles Atlas wins. The second year, Atlas wins again! Macfadden was no dummy. He realized he was creating a monster, so he cancels the third year. But he was too late—Atlas had already knocked him off the block as the country’s most famous muscleman. He came up with his own version of isometrics, called Dynamic Tension, and started his own mail-order company. You know the ads I’m talking about—the 97-pound weakling getting sand kicked in his face by the beach bully.”

“Sounds like Macfadden was a casualty of the revolving-door celebrity culture he helped create,” I said. “Famous today, forgotten tomorrow.”

“Everybody credits Andy Warhol with the ‘15 minutes of fame’ line,” Haines said, “but guys like Macfadden and his henchman, that bastard Walt Winchell, started it back in the ’20s.”

“You knew Winchell?” I asked.

“Knew him, and hated him. And the feeling was mutual. But I’ll get to that. Let me tell the story …”