Friday, March 13, 2020

Supermen with Soiled Collars: Reporters in a Golden Age

In early April, a restored version of The Front Page was scheduled to open Global Roots 2020, a three-day festival in Burlington about reporting and film, organized by the Vermont International Film Festival. Due to the coronavirus, however, the films and panel discussions have been postponed until October, Meanwhile, the classic story is worth another look.

Today we call it breaking news, the story of the moment — before it changes again. A century ago it was what ran on the front page — the big story, the killer headline. But then as now, it is often tied up with ambitions, competition, and money.

The Front Page was also the name of a broadway play written more than 20 years before I was born. Yet I fell in love with its characters, stories and attitude by the time I was ten. Then it was called His Girl Friday, a Hollywood version often shown on early television, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as Walter Burns, a manipulative Chicago editor, and Hildy Johnson, an ace reporter trying to escape the grind. 

This was the second film version of the hit play about tabloid reporters on the Chicago police beat. Written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, it was first produced in 1928, and quickly bought by Howard Hughes for the film adaptation by Lewis Milestone.

Adophe Menjou and Pat O’Brien
in the first film version
In early April, a restored version of the film was scheduled to open Global Roots 2020, a three-day festival about reporting and film organized by the Vermont International Film Festival. Due to the coronavirus, however, the films and panel discussions were postponed, most to be shown instead in October. Meanwhile, it’s worth another look.

After all, the basic story has been retold on film, radio and television countless times. That includes four major films. The first, released in 1931, had a young Pat O’Brien as Hildy and Adolphe Menjou as Burns. In 1940, director Howard Hawkes updated the tale with His Girl Friday, featuring the fast-talking Grant and Russell, along with a gender switch. Then came a 1974 remake with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthew as a journalistic odd couple, and 1988’s Switching Channels, a return to the Russell-Grant model with Kathleen Turner as Hildy and Burt Reynolds as a cable TV Burns. There were also radio productions in the 1930s and 1940s, two television versions, a British musical called Windy City, and a 2016 revival of the play with Nathan Lane and John Slattery in the key roles.

In the 1950s, watching old movies on TV, I was fascinated by Grant and Russell, who seemed to both personify and hilariously exaggerate the struggle between newspaper editors and reporters, and also between men and women. The fast-talking repartee was like jousting, and the situational ethics used to get what they wanted was a revelation. 

Grant and Russell added comedy and chemistry
The society they inhabited was rough, lively and seductive; there were tough reporters barking into telephones, corrupt politicians and life-and-death cover ups, a ruthless editor racing deadlines and looking for angles, his defiant star reporter, a misunderstood outlaw on the run, and a good-hearted prostitute, plus other enduring types and tropes. But what really cemented the impressions was reading the play itself, one of the learning tools used by my junior high school English teacher to keep us interested. 

Since then, I’ve been a major fan of Ben Hecht. Journalist, screenwriter, novelist, and activist, Hecht was a literary phenomenon, a defiant, complicated, unapologetic Jewish-American writer. Jean-Luc Godard once said, “He invented 80 percent of what is used in Hollywood movies today.” Pauline Kael annointed him “the Greatest American screenwriter.” And then, with the rise of Hitler and World War II, he continued to evolve, gradually  becoming a Jewish radical and dedicating much of his last decades to the cause of Israel. At his funeral, Menachem Begin summed it up, “He wrote stories and he made history.” 

In addition to The Front Page, Hecht wrote or worked on scripts for classic films like Underworld (the 1929 silent film for which he won the first-ever Academy Award for best story), Scarface, Design for Living, Viva Villa!, Topaze, Twentieth Century, Barbary Coast, Nothing Sacred, Gunga Din, It’s a Wonderful Life, Angels Over Broadway, Comrade X, Lydia, SpellBound, Notorious, Kiss of Death, Monkey Business, and A Farewell to Arms. He also had a hand in Gone with the Wind, Foreign Correspondent, Gilda, and Roman Holiday. In all, Hecht worked on at least 140 films. What range! 

And what a life! Running away to Chicago at 16, he "haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls, and bookshops." By the 1920s Hecht was a noted journalist, foreign correspondent, and literary figure. And that was before Hollywood called.

In 1928, The Front Page became a hugely popular Broadway play, a sharp-edged valentine to the scruffy newsmen of an earlier era. At the time, though, many people thought Hecht and MacArthur had invented the characters and fabricated their stories. But Hecht later claimed that, in his youth, sometimes he and a photographer would actually stage shots at times to back up their made-up scoops — like a brave tugboat captain who fought off pirates on Lake Michigan, or digging a trench to  fake a severe earthquake photo. On the other hand, they met everyone and covered everything — floods, funerals, trials, and hangings.  

Later, Hecht described the times this way: “We were a tribe of assorted drunkards, poets, burglars, philosophers and boastful raggamuffins. Supermen with soiled collars and holes in our pants, stony broke and sneering at our betters in limousines and unmortgaged houses. Cynical of all things on earth including the tyrannical journal that underpaid and overworked us and for which, after a round of cursing, we were ready to die.”

The actress Helen Hayes said of their work on The Front Page, “They took the corset off American theater.” Tennessee Williams once acknowledged that the play made it possible for him to conceive his own work. British Critic Kenneth Tynan described it as “the best American comedy ever written.” And playwright Tom Stoppard called it “the only American comedy of the 1920s in the way that The Importance of Being Earnest is the only English comedy of the 1890s....I don’t know any play which sustains its verve so well.” 

John Slattery and Nathan Lane as
the cynical editor and his star reporter.
Nevertheless, the source material of this classic story describes a very different time, one in which objectivity and facts were the last thing on most reporters’ minds. 

Almost century ago, The Front Page revealed a hidden world, one based loosely on reality and filled with slippery politicians and hungry reporters, where getting the story first and boldest was considered more important than getting it right.

But their already-nostalgic vision also placed a high value on courage, community, and having a heart. In today’s white-hot media environment that unfortunately begins to sound like a romantic, and possibly obsolete notion.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Human Traffic in the Queen City: A Dons of Time Excerpt


The brick monolith had been out of service for decades. Various plans for the decommissioned coal plant came and went, most recently the former mayor’s idea of transforming it into a city-owned recreation and sailing center. But the future of the 90-foot high building on the waterfront remained unclear. The overgrown site was surrounded by a chain link fence to discourage vandalism and prevent injuries.

         The new mayor, an energetic housing developer, had convinced voters to finance a series of improvements for a central section of the shoreline on Lake Champlain. However, he also announced that the city would no longer try to re-purpose the hulky structure on its own. Before it was shut down, mainly due to pollution, the Moran generating station loomed over the shore for years providing 30-megawatts of power. In 1986, the same year it was shuttered, voters backed a waterfront plan with new zoning, a public park and a bike path. They also backed any legal actions that would be needed to extend public authority.

            Tonio arrived inside the building, then exited through a broken window and found a break in the fence. Except for a few die-hard skateboarders who used a rundown park on the opposite side of the building few people came to this part of the lakefront during the winter months. But only blocks away, despite a lead-colored sky, thousands of people lined the sidewalks along Main and the Church Street Marketplace to celebrate. Harry would be nearby.

The tradition, known as the Magic Hat Mardi Gras Parade, started after he left school and had continued for almost two decades.  The Vermont brewer had figured out how to win local backing and bring thousands of people out in the cold. It was an annual winter ritual with live performances, floats and good commercial cheer, as well as an effective fundraiser.

            The night before several bands performed in the heart of town to heat up the mood and launch the festivities. Right now they were cheering the new mayor, waving to the crowd in a gold lame jacket, silver boots and a feathered hat as the floats rolled through town.

            Tonio made his way across Waterfront Park, passing a row of condos and Main Street Landing, the arts center where he’d watched The Millennium a few months ago. When he attended school at the top of the hill most of this area was still undeveloped. But if Harry had come to town and was talking with Danny at this moment he wouldn’t be doing it on the waterfront or along the parade route. Most likely he would be in a spot where he felt at home.

            Cutting across Battery Street he walked up Pearl to South Winooski and checked the area that served as unofficial gateway to the Old North End and meeting spot for the alternative set. As he suspected, Harry was having coffee at the Radio Bean as he learned the truth about the Jump Room and Tonio’s disappearance.

When the call was over Tonio quickly entered the funky coffeehouse.

            “Jeez,” Harry shouted, “He wasn’t kidding.”

            “No. ” He sat down on the opposite side. “But things have gone even further south since you spoke with him.”

            “In ten seconds? And where did you come from?    

            “Next Wednesday,” said Tonio, “and so far it’s a very bad day.” He rapidly retraced recent events, as explained to him by Danny, including the fact that Angel had gone to see Shelley and may have been drugged.

            “Unwise,” Harry said, “given what we know, which is also why I was looking for you.”

            “Whatever it is, can we use it as a bargaining chip?”

            “Bargaining? I’m not so sure. He’s your blood. But yes, there’s more than enough to nail him.” Tonio demanded details. “Well, we began by digging into what we already knew and worked backward. For example, we know Wolfe Enterprises builds projects around the world, that it has a controlling stake in various casinos and is developing Jefferson Spaceport. We also know they have E-Global and its satellites.

“Now, the Feds could exercise what they call shutter control on the satellites with anything they considered off limits or a national security matter. But we haven’t seen any evidence of that, which suggests cooperation. What we know is that Shelley’s buying up land, in the US and elsewhere. But it’s hard to see the pattern; some of the parcels are in the middle of nowhere and have no apparent development potential.”

             There was more. Harry’s group also found evidence suggesting that Wolfe ran a blackmail operation targeting high rollers at the casinos and used Private Intelligence Associates (PIA), the security company it had purchased, to conduct corporate espionage.

            “I met two associates not long ago.” Tonio meant the guys tied up in the warehouse.

            “But the main thing,” Harry continued, “is the link back to the old country. Your grandfather came over from Croatia, right?” As Tonio recalled the family history, he had emigrated sometime after the Second World War. “This is the key. It’s how Wolfe went from being a construction front for prostitution and gambling to what it is today, a transnational holding company. Do you know what’s happened in the homeland in the last twenty years or so?”

            Tonio had no idea. He usually didn’t even keep up with the headlines, and when he visited Europe his destination was normally a Mediterranean island or a beach on the Italian Riviera.

            “After Yugoslavia collapsed, Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudman, started selling off state enterprises in a way that was, let’s just say, not legal. It was known over there as ‘Privatization Robbery.’ Basically, about 200 families got control over everything, and yours was one of them. It was an ‘everything must go’ deal, and it went at fire sale prices. Then the new owners sliced up the businesses and sold off the pieces, which was lucrative for them. But as a result some companies that were successful for years went bankrupt, and it also led to massive unemployment. So, basically you could say the Don participated in a post-Communist gang rape of his native land.”

            Tonio wasn’t completely shocked. But he was humbled and challenged by a growing realization that his education and most of his life had been financed by human misery.

            “We’ve also established his ties with Ivo Sanader, the former prime minister, who was recently sentenced to ten years for taking bribes. When Sanader was Deputy Foreign Minister – the fight for Independence was winding down at the time – he received payments through an Austrian bank. He called them fees. At least two foreign companies were involved. One suspect was Hungary’s oil and gas company, MOL. They categorically denied any involvement, which tends to suggest the opposite. The other was a front for Wolfe Enterprises.

“The judge called what Sanader did war profiteering. Until a few years ago this was the most powerful man in the country. However, in 2009 he resigned suddenly and designated his successor on the way out the door. But the new PM, Jadranka Kosor, launched an anti-corruption campaign that eventually led back to him.”

            “Why would Kosor turn on the man who made him?”

            “Kosor is a she, and we don’t know that she really turned on him. But we know that the Croatian elite badly wants into the European Union,” Harry explained, “and to do that they have to clean up their act on corruption, or at least look like it. The HDZ, the ruling party, is staking everything on EU entry. Unemployment is at least 20 percent, youth unemployment is double that. The country’s per-capita debt-to-GDP ratio is one of the highest in Europe.

            “From what we see, the EU agreement will mean disaster for the country’s remaining economic independence. Also say goodbye to fishing and agriculture. Fiscal policy will be decided by Euro-crats in Brussels. So will exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the Adriatic. The country will basically become another Greece, a dependent state. The US and EU have already provided a billion dollar bailout, supposedly for anti-corruption reforms. It won’t be the last. But most of the money has been misused or stolen.

“What the political class wants – and what Shelley wants – is access to about four billion Euros that Brussels will provide after EU entry this summer.

“There is an opposition, including a group called Croatia 21st Century with a female leader, Natasha Srdoc. She's one of the few politicians willing to take on corruption. She's pretty conservative on social issues -- she wants to make abortion illegal -- but wants to seize assets and prosecute any official who has amassed unexplained wealth while in office. This alone would smash organized crime in Croatia.
            “However, the party’s supporters are already being intimidated or framed. One candidate, an anti-corruption author, documented the crimes of the Interior Minister, a thug who uses the cops as henchmen. Result – the writer ends up in jail, a political prisoner.”

Tonio interrupted. “Danny mentioned something about the Balkan Route.”

Buy Dons of Time
            Harry hesitated and then warned, “This is rough stuff. Of course, it’s been a smuggling route for a long time – weapons, immigrants, heroin from Afghanistan. Originally, most of it went through Pakistan and Iran, now it mostly uses Balkan states. Cigarettes, oil, anything you don’t want seen or taxed. Almost 90 percent of the heroin in Europe gets in that way.”

            The smuggling route helped organize crime get a foothold in the country, Harry explained. After Yugoslavia’s collapse, social confusion made the whole region an easy mark. As the country moved toward democracy ties between the elite and the underworld flourished. Officials in the old regime saw a path to convert their waning political power into economic gain. Black market smuggling was already common, even encouraged.  The traditional economy had never matched consumer demands. But corrupt officials and security forces helped the black market run like a well-oiled machine. Once communism was gone and privatization began, ex-cops and other officials with connections in the underground were positioned to take smuggling to the next level.

“The Serbs claim that Croatian ports have become a primary conduit for cocaine entering the region,” he said. “It’s also believed to be the source of about a billion annually in illegal exports, everything from cars and trucks to ships, medicines, sugar and electronics. But the worst is transporting humans.”

Tonio stopped him. “You’re talking about human trafficking, basically slavery?”

“I’m afraid so, and Shelley has a hand in that too. It’s largely Bosnian woman who are brought in to service the tourist trade. The offer is usually a legitimate job, but then they take away the documents and force them into sex slavery. During the last decade underage Croatian girls have become part of the mix.”

It was even worse than he suspected. After months tracking down just one serial killer of women, he had been informed that his father was responsible for crimes as heinous and created even greater misery. What Harry described sounded like the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” William Stead’s expose on child prostitution in 1880s London. Little had changed.

“I need air,” he said, standing up.

Harry followed him outside to the sidewalk. “Let’s walk and talk. I also want to know what you’ve been doing. And we definitely need a plan.”

“Yeah, the first thing is to call Angel and stop her from going to Shelley.”

“Sure, she’ll listen to me.”

“Try anyway. Next, get out of sight and assemble everything you have. If Truthsquad wants to shake things up this ought to do it.”

Harry stopped. “Wait. You want me to expose your family?”

“I do. And you have to do it within two weeks, before the demo for Shelley. We need to turn up the heat, startle the snake, force a reaction, get him to deny some charges and then hit him with more. We need to escalate and isolate him, and expose him for the lying scum and hypocrite he is.”

“Harsh,” said Harry, “but doable.”

“Then do it with my blessings. Afterward, we meet with him and show him that, as bad as things are, they could get worse. We re-run his past. The only thing I’m not sure about is which parts of this new information we should actually use. What’s your call?”

“As much as security allows,” replied Harry, “our security I mean. People first I always say. We’re people too.”

            They were on the top block of the Marketplace, ducking between revelers in beaded necklaces, when Tonio noticed two men on the corner who looked out of place. Wearing identical parkas and matching sunglasses they were eyeballing the crowd while the taller of the two conferred with someone on a smart phone. The shorter one occasionally glanced down to check an image on his own device.

            “I think they’re here,” he said. “More associates.” He nodded across the street.

Harry noticed and cursed, “Frigging satellites.”

“I’ll draw them off. You get out of here. Now!”

Harry stepped away and turned. “It’s on,” he yelled, drifting into the crowd. “A week or less.”

            The short guy spotted Tonio and they moved to flanking positions. The order was clearly to wait for back up. Tonio walked casually down the center of the street, not acknowledging them until he reached the entrance to the underground mall that extended toward the lake. He froze in the pedestrian flow, waiting for a moment when the doors were wide open, then bolted inside and down the escalator, executing a quick U-turn to hide beneath.

            Seconds later the two men followed him down the escalator, scattering people as they headed into the underground structure. As soon as they rounded the first corner Tonio emerged, ran back up and outside. He turned the first corner and headed west toward the lake. Someone might be watching from above, but he had trump.

            “If you’re up there, I’m on my way,” he shouted to Danny, tracking his movements from four days ahead. At Battery Street he crossed against the light and jogged toward the nearest connection with Waterfront Park. The two who spotted him earlier were on the opposite side after ending up inside the Hilton. Two more pairs were stationed at Main and Pearl Streets with the intention of boxing him in. His only option was straight ahead, down a steep embankment that emptied into a parking lot. He made it halfway before tripping and tumbling to the bottom.

Ruffled but uninjured, he shot across the lot and leapt a fence. From there it was a long stretch of open land to another, higher fence around Moran. He could see them coming, just reaching the first fence, and behind them two police cars screeching along Lake Street, drawn by the complaints about men causing a disturbance around the mall.

All he needed was to get there. He ran faster, smashing into the fence, bounced off and kept going. The break was on the other side. They were still coming. One fired a warning shot, meant to get his attention. He ran until he was around the corner and saw the opening. Ducking inside, he made for the building, found the window, and crawled inside onto a catwalk.

Streams of pale light illuminated the dank interior. Below him were several floors submerged in murky water. He pulled out the pocket watch and checked. It had been less than an hour, as agreed, and he was back in the right spot.

“Hey,” he shouted. “You guys are ex-military, right? What’s it like? One day you’re defending your country. The next, you’re mob muscle. Can you hear me now?” The reply was several gunshots.

“Cold,” he said, moving along the catwalk, sticking to the darkest spots.

By now, he assumed, the cops outside had called for backup. These guys weren’t going anywhere and their actions would be hard to explain. It was time to get back to New Jersey and put things in motion.

  He held his breath and pressed recall. This time it worked.