In 1960 daily journalism was still a competitive enterprise in San Francisco. The Chronicle and the Examiner were slugging it out for the city’s breakfast table readership and a good time was being had by all of us gladiators in the possession of a press pass. The perfume of blood was about us: The Chronicle was besting the Examiner’s time-immemorial circulation lead. The brainy Chronicle had traditionally been the weaker sister to the brawny Hearst Examiner. The Chronicle’s appellation of brainy stemmed from the years that editor Paul Smith used the daily to practice being a boy wonder before going off to Gotham in the fifties to save Collier’s, where he ended up going down with the ship. Smith had also contributed to the Chronicle’s reputation of being a liberal newspaper. Yet its liberalism was, as is most liberalism, schizophrenic. While the paper’s Republican ownership consistently endorsed GOP candidates for almost every office save dogcatcher (that position not being elective in San Francisco), the reporters, many of them refugees from the Eastern Establishment who would suffer anything short of hemophilia to live in San Francisco, were allowed relative freedom to attempt to write the other side in the news columns.
The Examiner, on the other hand, was paranoid. Still coasting on circulation gains achieved during Hearst’s promotion of what became the Spanish-American War, the paper generally read like the house organ of the fallout-shelter industry.
There were other telling differences, the women’s pages of the two dailies providing perhaps the sharpest contrast. The Examiner’s women’s pages ran helpful household hints, bulletins about parish bingo games (illegal but then sacrosanct in San Francisco), and formal photographs of Irish Catholic virgins in pageboy haircuts and junior prom décolletages who were about to commit the sacrament of matrimony. The Chronicle’s were filled with Paris and New York fashions, lengthy descriptions of the vacation plans of publisher Charles de Young Theriot’s friends and neighbors, and sycophantic reports on the high jinks of San Francisco society, which was almost entirely Protestant and Jewish.
The fact that a man presided over the Chronicle’s women’s section was slightly more than the monumental manifestation of male chauvinism it would appear. City-room legend had it that the chain-linkage of male women’s-page editors had originated some time back after Jane Maggard, one of the last female women’s editors, printed a society news headline in the first Sunday edition after VJ-Day that read: THE BACHELORS ARE BACK WITH THEIR WONDERFUL BALLS! (The Chronicle’s women’s section was later liberated and was run by women again, but the section’s name was changed to just plain “People.”)
An interesting myth has grown up that San Francisco is an “open” town. The truth is now more in the opposite direction. The city officialdom has reacted with Teutonic grimness to the heralded flourishing of free life-styles within the city limits. The cops busted the beatniks, hassled the hippies, and tried to harass the topless clubs out of business. In these enterprises they were egged on by the Examiner, which was the paper read by the long-dominant Irish Catholics whose stucco single-family dwellings anchored down the sand dunes; everybody on the block where I grew up, except for one family rumored to be Unitarian, took the Examiner. That paper’s last days of glory were in the 50s, when it applauded the city authorities for prosecuting Allen Ginsberg’s dirty poem, “Howl,” and for mopping up North Beach with the unsavory beatniks who were making the town an unsafe place for sailors to get laid.
The Examiner’s slow-motion fall from circulation grace was due in part to the fact that a good percentage of its long-standing Irish readership had died and been buried. The Chronicle, by virtue of its comparative sophistication and sheer deviltry, gradually became the San Francisco paper read by the burgeoning, freeform suburbs. More specifically, it was due to the P. T. Barnumship of Chronicle editor Scott Newhall, a crusading journalist with a magnificent sense of the bizarre, with whom I was to become friends for reasons other than the fact that he had only one leg and I had only one eye.
One of Scott Newhall’s most valuable columnists was “Count Marco,” a lad whom Newhall had perversely enthroned on the women’s page, amidst considerable ballyhoo about his royal blood, to provide a daily dose of male chauvinism; the Count gave the ladies bitchy advice on how to dress and undress, even unto connubial instructions on the ladylike way to climb into the bathtub with one’s submerged husband watching—that column was headlined: ‘HOW TO AVOID LOOKING LIKE A TORN BLIMP AS YOU ENTER THE TUB.’ This sort of copy had occasioned outcries of lust and horror among the Jesuits, and, while a vice-busting college editor, I had tracked down the sticky truth that the Count was really an itinerant hairdresser named Henry Spinelli, and I exposed him as phony royalty and a degenerate cur in the Catholic yellow pages of the Foghorn which I then-Edited. This occasioned some minor embarrassment at the Chronicle and whoops of glee at the rival media.
When I applied for a job at the Chronicle some months thereafter, that act of perfidy hung about me like a leper’s bell. The city editor, Abe Mellinkoff, usually did the hiring, but he sent me on to Newhall’s office for further X-ray examination of my head. Newhall was still a little pissed, but more puzzled; he asked what manner of demon nerve had brought me to darken the Chronicle’s doorway after what I had done to it. I couldn’t think of a good reason, so I said just what came into my head: It had been a good story; I didn’t hear him denying it; hell, he should be proud of me for exposing the Chronicle so artfully; he would have done the same thing if he’d been in my place… and, besides, if I were him I’d rather have a journalistic menace like me working for the Chronicle than for the opposition. Newhall smiled a buccaneer’s smile, and said he would think about it; I was hired the next day.
Westbrook Pegler, Sr., once likened the Hearst newspaper policies he helped formulate to “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Newhall ran the Chronicle somewhat along the lines of that logical imperative, only he substituted entertainment and the outrageous for the merely sensational. It wasn’t that the Chronicle completely disregarded facts—despite its pizzaz there was more news in it than in most duller papers; but Newhall’s operating assumption was that, since most readers got the news from television or other journals, they wanted something different to read over their Wheaties. He filled the Chronicle with the comments, social notes, and opinions of more than twenty signed columnists. Newhall bought syndicated columns the way independent television stations buy up reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies and Star Trek. But the syndicated types were only a minor act in a daily Disneyland of local features that included “Count Marco” and a Dear Abby-type column for pet owners, where one could write in confidence to ask the name of a good dog psychiatrist.
Much of the news that Newhall used to plug the remaining open space between the ads was of his own invention. The Chronicle’s front page was busy for a week with exclusive stories of a Southern California man’s efforts to start a society to clothe “naked animals.” Newhall once dispatched the Chronicle’s Art Hoppe to Africa to do a series of front-page articles on the efforts of some putative Zambian astronauts to launch a space rocket powered by a giant rubber band. Scott kept one-upping himself with fascinating story ideas about the Dark Continent. He sent George Draper, an urbane reporter with a drawl that defied description as either Border-Southern or Colonial British, to the Zanzibar area to attempt to purchase a slave girl in the thriving Mohammedan market. Newhall’s plan was for Draper to contrive somehow to bring his body servant to New York and dramatically free the faithful creature in the plaza of the United Nations. The plot aborted when George reached Djibouti and ran out of money.
One of Newhall’s grandest schemes backfired mightily. In June, 1960, the Chronicle started publishing a heavily promoted front-page series called “The Last Man on Earth,” consisting of dispatches from the middle of nowhere by the paper’s hunting and fishing columnist, a mild-mannered man named Bud Boyd. Boyd, his wife, and three children had been left in the rugged High Sierras with only the clothes on their backs, an ax, rope, twine, salt, and a pocketknife apiece (plus a rifle to be used only in direst emergency), to see if they could survive. The declared purpose of this expedition was to determine whether “a man of the 20th century [could] survive if civilization were suddenly wiped out” by a nuclear holocaust. To make official the experiment, the Chronicle brought in Rear Admiral A. G. Cook, head of the San Francisco disaster office, and then State Attorney General Stanley Mosk, to attest to the fact that the Boyds had indeed set out for the wilds.
Nobody thought to ask how Boyd’s dramatic stories of daily survival were getting back to civilization and in type—nobody, that is, but Ed Montgomery, an Examiner newshound of the old Front Page tradition. Smelling a rat, Montgomery backpacked into the Sierras, sniffing Boyd’s trail. His commitment to investigative journalism was such that, upon coming on two human turds near a cold campsite that Montgomery deduced (from other evidence) had been Boyd's, he scooped them up to take to the nearest town for scientific evaluation. Shortly thereafter Montgomery elatedly phoned his city desk to report that traces of canned corn had been discovered in the stools of the “last man on earth.” His scoop proved bigger still when he traced Boyd’s trail to his home just outside San Francisco, where the last man was comfortably grinding out the suspenseful tales of his fight for survival that were appearing daily under huge headlines in the Chronicle. Montgomery sat down at his typewriter. The next morning the Chronicle appeared with a banner-headlined account of the last man’s narrow escape from a killer bear, and the Examiner appeared with an identically bannered exposé of the last man as a fraud who was sending dispatches from the wilderness of his living room.
Newhall then did just about the only thing a nervy person can do under such circumstances: Ignoring the angry crowds, rumored to have been recruited by the Examiner, that milled in front of the Chronicle building, and paying no attention to the hoots and hollers of commentators throughout the country, he continued to run Boyd’s articles as if nothing untoward had occurred. A week after the truth was out, the series ended with the downcast admission by the last man on earth that the wilderness had defeated him and that he was retreating to civilization. Newhall told everyone who asked that he had planned it that way all along.