10 NUMERALS, 26 LETTERS AND A MIRACLE EVERY DAY
CACOPHONY, CLOUT AND CLARITY: LIFE IN AN OLD-FASHIONED NEWSROOM.
Byline: Mort Sheinman
In the almost 40 years I put in at WWD, mostly as a reporter and an editor in a raffish, raucous newsroom that might have come right from The Front Page, the reach of the paper consistently managed to astonish me.
It didn’t take long for me to learn just how much clout WWD could exercise. I was still a rookie reporter, covering the lingerie industry, and as was customary in those days, I had to write a weekly column that combined “social notes from all over” with whatever other tidbits I managed to glean.
One week, the column was running a couple of inches short. I decided to fill it by pointing out that a bronze tablet mounted next to the entrance of a Madison Avenue showroom building — a plaque honoring the men of the lingerie industry who had served in World War II — was marred by an accumulation of New York City dust and dirt. Seeking to fill about as much space as this paragraph, I wrote that it would be nice if the memorial were brought back to its original luster.
The day after the item appeared, my phone rang.
“Nice going,” said the caller, who was head of the Lingerie Salesmen’s Association. “You’re gonna cost us a few bucks. Our group and the buyers’ association are going to chip in and get that thing cleaned up. Satisfied?”
Many years later, I interviewed Sue Hubbell, who had just written a remarkable book about her life raising honeybees in a remote corner of the Ozarks. Hubble, who lived two miles from the nearest neighbor and 25 miles from the nearest town, was shocked to subsequently see the article on a bulletin board in her feed store, which also sold work clothes. The buyer had been on a business trip to St. Louis, where he happened to see that particular copy of WWD.
From 1960 until 1991, when Fairchild moved to its present location — the former Ohrbach’s on 34th Street — I went to work on the third floor of 7 East 12th Street, in an L-shaped newsroom that looked, sounded and smelled little like today’s version. No computers, of course — not until 1986. No carpeting. No cubicles. Just a jumble of steel desks smack up against one another, their tops crowded with newspapers, press releases, scribbled notes, copy paper, steno pads, pencils, gum erasers, glue pots, scissors, rolls of tape and overflowing ashtrays, all of it seen through the filter of a blue-gray haze of cigarette smoke. In those days, almost every word was written on manual typewriters that seemed incapable of producing copy unless glowing cigarettes hovered over them.
Each issue of WWD was assembled in the sixth-floor composing room. Copy from the third floor was transported there by pneumatic tubes that snaked through the building’s innards. In the composing room — where two other Fairchild dailies and a slew of weeklies were also produced — Linotype operators would punch out lines of lead containing the words we had written and compositors would compile each page on great stone tables, editors looking over their shoulders to see that each story was properly placed. By 9:45 p.m., the scene had moved to the basement, where towering presses, tended by men in paper hats, waited to begin rolling. When they did, their rushing roar drowning out all other sounds, the whole building trembled. Within moments, the first copies of the next day’s WWD began to appear.
For a young reporter to be there when it happened — to feel the building shake, to hear the thunder of the presses and to see his story come rolling off the giant drums, then watch the newspaper be bundled and loaded onto trucks that would carry it on the first leg of its journey to readers — was a magic moment computers can never replicate.
There was no air-conditioning until 1970 or thereabouts, just open windows, so the wail of police sirens and whiff of garlic wafting in from Asti’s restaurant next door added to the charm in summer. (The reason there was no air-conditioning, or so the story went, was that the Fairchilds believed if the office was too comfortable, the reporters would never leave it, doing all their work over the phones instead of going where the news was. Money, of course, was said not to be a factor. Whatever.) The result was that the continual chatter of Underwoods, the nerve-jarring jangle of telephones and the throb of Teletype machines that kept us in touch with Fairchild bureaus here and abroad meant people often had to holler to be heard. Few were loath to do so.
One of the most impressive voices belonged to Paul Hanenberg, who covered sportswear, loved to ski and wore snappy suspenders. A man given to pronouncements rather than politesse, Hanenberg was taking a call one day from someone who, like most people who talked to us, didn’t want to tell him the whole story. As usual, Paul’s end of the conversation was available to the entire staff. After begging for more information, his voice rising in frustration, he finally delivered what came to be his signature line, declaiming, “I refuse to be party to an ambiguity!” before slamming down the phone to a burst of applause. Hanenberg also dismissed a caller once by telling him that what he was proposing as a story idea was “as obsolete as falconry.”
For those who needed privacy, there was a telephone booth next to the stairwell, a real old-fashioned booth, with a door that closed. Sandy Parker, our fur editor, would sometimes use it, a move that always caught my eye. Sandy, who was tall, dark-haired and had glasses, wore navy blue suits and white shirts. He looked like Clark Kent. When he entered the booth, we expected to see a guy in a red cape come out and head for the windows.
The counterpoint to the cacophony of the newsroom was right around the corner, in the WWD art department. In those days, the art department had real artists, men and women who worked with charcoal and ink and paint, people whose fashion illustrations set a standard many other publications tried to emulate. The most elegant of them was Kenneth Paul Block, who worked intently, silently and brilliantly, often in a navy double-breasted blazer and an ascot, his round-rimmed eyeglasses and long cigarette holder giving him the air of a Noel Coward character, a perfect complement to the sophisticated, soignee women he specialized in drawing.
The intimacy of the newsroom furnishings — sometimes it felt as though you were sharing your desk, your chair and the most intimate details of your life with the six nearest people — lent itself to an element of workplace life that seems to have all but disappeared: the office prank. To release the tension of ever-present deadlines, newspapers have never lacked mischief makers. WWD was no exception.
I remember a Christmas season in the 1960s, when the usual wave of liquor bottles and other expressions of holiday largess came rolling in from those who yearned to see their names in print and believed a fifth of Chivas Regal could help make it happen. Any gift worth more than $25 was to be returned. Not everyone seemed eager to comply, including one of WWD’s veteran reporters, a man whose fiscal eccentricities were notorious. This fellow, whom we’ll call The Landlord because he also owned several apartments in New York, was always grumbling about his “ungrateful” tenants, who he said kept hounding him for such amenities as heat and hot water.
A few days before Christmas, while The Landlord was out in the market, a huge carton packaged in exquisite gift wrap was placed next to his desk. It looked and felt as though it contained at least a big-screen TV. When The Landlord found it, he immediately shoved it under his desk. Later that day, he commandeered two copy boys and had them schlep it to his apartment, just a few blocks from the office. His reaction when he found it filled with stacks of copy paper has never been publicly recorded.
Office decor and behavior, of course, aren’t the only things that have changed over the years. The scope of WWD’s coverage has widened considerably, taking the newspaper into areas of commerce and culture it had never before investigated. Now WWD covers the waterfront metaphorically. When I joined the staff, it did so literally.
The man who covered it was Frank Engle, whose beat was the coat and suit industry. One of his regular assignments was to meet the cruise boats returning from Europe and interview Seventh Avenue manufacturers who had made the crossing after seeing the Paris collections. (In those days, travel was rarely by air; manufacturers traveled to the Concord, not on it.)
A ruddy-faced fellow who boasted a waxed mustache, a fedora cocked at a rakish angle and a jaunty demeanor sometimes sweetened by a sip or two of good malt whiskey, Engle couldn’t wait to talk to his people. Instead of simply waiting for them to disembark in Manhattan, he would wangle his way aboard the quarantine boat that met the luxury liners at dawn, before they even dropped anchor. Imagine how impressed you might have been if you were a Seventh Avenue “cloakie,” still half asleep and there was a knock on your stateroom door.
“Women’s Wear Daily, Mr. Zuckerman. Here to ask you about the collections.”
On the night of Tuesday, Nov. 9, 1965, at about 5:20 p.m. — just as we were starting to put the finishing touches on the next morning’s newspaper — the lights went out at WWD. They also went out all over the Northeast and part of Canada as the most widespread power failure in history left everyone in the dark until almost dawn the next day. Not having a clue as to when the power would be restored, however, we had to proceed as if we would be able to publish a paper that night. Almost immediately, reporters were dispatched to some of the city’s major shopping areas — Herald Square, Fifth Avenue and Union Square. Since our office was on 12th Street, everyone fought for the Union Square assignment. Rarely have so many reporters been so interested in what was happening at Mays, Woolworth’s, Lane’s and S. Klein.
We worked by the light of emergency lanterns and candles, giving thanks all the while for manual typewriters instead of electric ones. Reporters who could touch-type had an easier time than hunt-and-peckers. Early in the blackout, we got reports that Con Edison was promising power “very shortly,” giving credence to the “Con” in Con Edison. We never did get a paper out that night, but the issue of Thursday, Nov. 11, carried the full story — including a fascinating front-page report that the blackout might have been caused by the Pentagon.
According to sources in the electronics industry, the government had been working on “a highly classified project” called Fireball that would “draw all available electric power from New York or similar high-consumption area, divide it into two beams, and shoot them into space.” Where the two beams crossed, WWD confidently reported, there would be “a mammoth burst of artificial lightning [that would] presumably destroy any enemy missiles within range.”
It was the last time we depended on sources in the electronics industry for a front-page story in WWD.
Of all the stories I ever covered, none got quite the response that “Saturday Shopping” did in 1964. I was reporting on the dress industry then, and my colleague Bernie Groger wrote about coats and suits. We heard Seventh Avenue showrooms were doing a mammoth cash business on Saturday mornings, charging prices just a shade above wholesale, often neglecting to record sales taxes and selling to virtually anyone who walked through the door. Retailers were not happy about this. We decided to check it out.
Our “shopper” was a young secretary named Marie Masters who, fittingly, later launched a successful career as a soap opera actress. Bernie and I took turns posing as Marie’s boyfriend, out to buy her a dress or a coat. Completing the cast was legendary photographer Tony Palmieri, who was Marie’s “uncle.” Beneath his arm, Tony carried a candy box wrapped in paper patterned with huge polkadots, one of which was cut out to admit light to the lens of the 35-mm camera inside the box. The shutter was also accessible. Almost immediately, we found out that Saturday selling was as widespread as advertised. Even the elevator starters were in on it.
In one building, I told the starter I wanted to buy my girlfriend a raincoat.
“I don’t handle raincoats,” he said. “Raymond handles raincoats. He’s the starter on the other side of the lobby. He’ll take care of you.”
WWD got a page-one story, Tony got his pictures, the retailers got their evidence, Marie got a fake-fur coat and Bernie and I got a load of nasty notes, all unsigned, all accusing us in the most ungenerous language of taking the bread from the mouths of babes.
Bernie and I collaborated on another story, but this time the people we visited were thrilled to see us. It happened on the evening a giant outdoor air-conditioner on a building setback at 1407 Broadway burst into flames. The entire building was evacuated, and since it was already about 5:30 p.m., most of the workers simply went home. Two partners in one of the smaller showrooms, however, had already planned to do some paperwork that night, so they went across the street to Dubrow’s, then the most popular cafeteria in the garment center, had some dinner and returned to their showroom a few hours later, when fire officials permitted reentry. Bernie and I found them there when we went exploring to see what kind of damage might have occurred. After chatting with us for a few minutes, one of the men said, “Are you guys from the insurance company?”
No, we said, we’re from Women’s Wear Daily.
“Women’s Wear! My God, you know how long we’ve been waiting to see someone from your paper? Harry, show ’em the line!”
If there is any story that seems to galvanize a newsroom like no other and bring out the best in everyone, it is the death of a well-known personality — especially when the death is unexpected. In recent times, the murder of Gianni Versace and the automobile crash that claimed Princess Diana were two such stories.
And back in 1971, when word reached New York on a Sunday evening in January that Coco Chanel had succumbed at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at the age of 87, we found out just how late we could stretch a deadline.
WWD had recently switched from “hot type” to photo offset publishing, a development that meant earlier deadlines. Normally, the Monday paper would be “put to bed” at about 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday, but it was getting close to that hour and the first word of Chanel’s obituary had yet to be written. Or so we thought. June Weir, then WWD’s fashion editor, and I were each en route to the office to help work on the obit when we were struck by the same thought: Jim Brady, then the publisher, had written a long, loving piece about Chanel just a few months earlier, an article that eulogized her to such an extent, it could easily be the basis of her obituary.
Brady was already at the office when June and I arrived and broached the idea. He agreed. Brady dug out his article, rolled a fresh sheet of paper into a typewriter, lit one of his ever-present cigarillos and started banging out the new version, which was essentially the old version, but now in the past tense. The obit was ready in what seemed like record time, and although the paper went to press much later than it was scheduled to, it still got to our readers on time.
No reminiscence of life at WWD would be complete without mentioning the Fairchilds. When I was hired, Louis W. Fairchild was still the publisher and chairman, a silver-haired man of almost Victorian courtliness who wore black bowlers in winter and straw hats in summer, a decorous man not easily given to the banter that characterizes most newsrooms. It was his father, Edmund L. Fairchild, and uncle Louis E. Fairchild who had founded the company in 1891. It was Edmund who coined the slogan “Our salvation depends upon our printing the news,” words that were painted on wooden boards suspended from the ceilings of Fairchild news bureaus all over the world.
And it was L.W.’s son, John Fairchild, who took over the paper in 1960, changed its personality from formal to feisty and led it on one of the merriest rides in the history of newspapers. Shortly after he came back to New York after a five-year stint reporting from Paris, John — then in his early 30s, as brash and bold as his father was reserved and reticent — held his first meeting with the full editorial staff.
It was a memorable occasion.
We were still enjoying the afterglow of celebrating the 50 years since WWD had been born, a half-century that reflected a process L.W. Fairchild once described thusly: “This business takes imagination, brains and hard work. Every issue is a brand-new product built out of 10 numerals and 26 letters. It really is a miracle.”
That morning, his son put it a little differently.
“This paper,” said John, waving that morning’s edition over his head, “doesn’t have to be boring. Fashion is filled with colorful characters. Some of them are real loons. Fashion is fun and the paper should be fun. It should be colorful and visual and controversial and amusing and it should wake people up and keep them awake.”
Of course, they were both correct.
Mort Sheinman, former managing editor of WWD, retired in January 2000 and will teach journalism at the Fashion Institute of Technology this fall.