Monday’s With Murray: Goodbye to a Friend

   Fifty-six years ago, almost to the day, the Los Angeles Examiner printed its last edition. The Examiner was a place that Jim Murray once called home and it’s because of that we bring to you this week a column Jim wrote about the death of the Examiner. Given the state of newspapers today, it seems appropriate.

   But first an excerpt from Jim Murray’s autobiography about his time at the Examiner:

   Gawd, we had fun on the old L.A. Examiner. It was a Hearst paper and the literati looked down their noses on it, but we pulled all the stops on murders, suicides, public scandals and, particularly, on Hollywood stories. L.A. was exciting. The world was in flames. We told it all in dripping red headlines.

   The city editor, Jim Richardson, was a one-eyed, iron-lunged, prototypical Hearst city editor, a tyrant of the city room. But he liked the way I wrote and for a time I was the youngest rewrite man in the whole Hearst chain. 

   I can tell you all you need to know about Jim Richardson with one anecdote: In the Black Dahlia murder, in which a young army camp follower, Elizabeth Short, was found slain and cut in half on an empty lot in L.A., the Examiner was able to score a scoop in identifying her by means of wirephotoing (a fairly new process at the time) her fingerprints to the FBI in Washington. 

   Armed with her identity, Richardson instructed a reporter, Wain Sutton, to telephone her mother in Massachusetts. “Don’t tell her what happened,” he instructed. “Tell her that her daughter’s just won a beauty contest at Camp Roberts. Then get all the information on her.” 

   Sutton did as instructed. The mother happily confided her daughter’s life history. Then Sutton put his hand over the mouthpiece. “Now what do I do?” he wondered. Richardson looked at him wickedly. “Now tell her.” He purred. Sutton looked at him. “You miserable S-O-B!” he said. Richardson just smiled. 

   One slow day, Richardson handed me a routine suicide on Skid Row (Fifth and Main streets, in downtown L.A.).  A poor old wino had hanged himself in a hotel room. 

   I wrote it straight. “John Jefferson, 51, was found dead in his room at the Hotel Barclay yesterday. Police dubbed the death as suicide by handing.” 

   Richardson handed it back to me. “Try to get a little more oomph in it,” he ordered. He meant pathos. I rewrote it. He was dissatisfied. I rewrote it again. He shook his head. Finally, in desperation, I handed in a lead: “John Jefferson, 51, tired of it all, stepped off a chair into eternity.” 

  Richardson looked at it. He knew he had driven me too far. He dropped the story in the wastebasket. “Why don’t you just go get a cup of coffee, kid?” he asked with unaccustomed gentleness.”

— Excerpt from Jim Murray: The Autobiography of the Pulitzer Prize Winning Sports Columnist – Macmillan, Copyright © 1993





Goodbye to a Friend

   I don’t think I’d like to write about sports today, if you don’t mind. I don’t feel much like fun and games.

   You see, an old friend of mine died over the weekend — the Los Angeles Examiner.

   Startle you? It shouldn’t. The Examiner was competitive, sure. But no newspaperman rejoices in the death of another newspaper. A little of you dies with each one if you’ve mondaysmurray2loved this business and the people in it as much as we all have.

   Besides, I worked for the Examiner once. That was when I first came to town — 1944.

   Los Angeles was a wildly exciting place in those days. The shipyards were humming at the harbor, there were troop movements going to every point of the compass, there were so many murders the city was running neck-and-neck with the South Pacific. Life was the only thing the OPA couldn’t keep the lid on. Life and Los Angeles.

   There was seldom a dull moment. And if there were, the front page of the Examiner never admitted it. Its shrill calamitous presence was felt from Lincoln Heights jail to the hibiscus-studded mansions in Beverly Hills. As young reporters were in short supply that war year, we slept with our socks on like firefighters waiting for the next alarm in that kookie city out there that made my native Connecticut look like a monastery with a State House.

  I fell in love with Los Angeles then, an affair of the heart that I doubt I will ever outgrow and it was the Examiner that brought us together. I never wrote sports in those days, but I never missed a sporting event either. I used to jeer at the old Angels and bawl out a poor hardworking catcher named Mickey Kreitner (“Kreitner, you’re a bum!”). I cheered the old Hollywood Stars where my favorite player was a first baseman named ‘Butch’ Moran because I approved of ballplayers named ‘Butch’ automatically.

   But most of my fun was in the city room of the Examiner. There was no such thing as a small story to us. We lived at headlong apoplexy — from journalism school graduates to gold-bricking old-timers. Our leader, hardly beloved, was a city editor who was such a combination of literary light and Attila the Hun that his rewrite man, Hank Sutherland, once dubbed Jim Richardson “Half-Oaf, Half Elf.”

   The prose justified the dripping red headlines. When Tokyo fell, there was almost nothing left but to sell a front page actually in flames. Bodies were being delivered in trucks to Union Station so regularly that we were thinking of suggesting the railroad give special rates for them. Hollywood was alive with lurid stories. Louise Peete, who had murdered one man, went to prison for half a lifetime, got out and murdered again, sent the makeup editor trumpeting through the city room, cackling “Louise Peete is in a rut!”

   So, I guess were we. But we thought we were the luckiest guys on earth. New Year’s Eve 365 days a year. On a big story, the city room looked like a bust out in an insane asylum. Sob sisters turned out drivel by the ream, reporters dug up bloody angles by the edition. Murderers were on the phone every other midnight, it seemed. The torso of a young lady on an empty lot was enough to push the steel strike back in the want ads as we set about to helping the police solve the case. Neither of us ever did.

   We had campaigns and sacred cows. The ‘Chief’, Mr. Hearst himself, was alive in those days and called at midnight almost as often as the murderers. Usually he would just want something like a croup kettle or an out-of-manufacture cookie from his youth, but he would periodically discover our city was in the midst of a crime wave — usually when some acquaintance of the royal family got hit over the head coming out of a night club — and we would print a daily box score of crime, everything from spitting on the sidewalk to double-parking. It scared hell out of the tourists and we quit it.

   There were heartaches, too. I remember almost the first story I covered — a little girl on the north side got run over by a truck and lost a leg. The thought of her going through life that way made me shrink. It still does. She must be 21 years old now and I wonder how she has managed. I remember I had $8 left of my paycheck (which was only $38 to begin with in those days) and I bought her a whole armful of toys and brought them to the hospital and those silly nurses were embarrassed and told me I’d have to take them back, and I said, like hell I would, give them to that little girl or I’ll bring the power of the press (whatever that was) down on you.,

   I don’t know what they did with those toys any more than I know what life has done to that little girl.

   I suppose the Examiner really died when the Old Man did. Newspapers, like other institutions, are lengthened shadows of men who love them and drive them. All I know is it died in its sleep. And part of all of us did with it. I hope I haven’t bored you. But I just wanted to say goodbye to an old friend.

Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116


What is the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation? 

  The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established in 1999 to perpetuate the Jim Murray legacy, and his love for and dedication to his extraordinary career in journalism. Since 1999, JMMF has granted 104 $5,000 scholarships to outstanding journalism students. Success of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation’s efforts depends heavily on the contributions from generous individuals, organizations, corporations, and volunteers who align themselves with the mission and values of the JMMF.

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