He Risked All For the Thrill!

by Charles Somerville

Illustrated Detective | Sept. 1931 | Vol. IV, No. 3

Is the Great Reporter Detective Only a Memory? Where Are the Stars Today?

Is the Great Reporter Detective Only a Memory? Where Are the Stars Today?

He has gone. Or, at any rate, all but passed off the lively, vivid newspaper stage where once he played its most romantic and brilliant roles–the star reporter.

He would be as desirable as ever in an editorial room. But he is scarcely to be found in any of them any more.

The newly created schools and colleges of journalism do not, it would appear, breed him, nor does the modern newspaper develop him. There are some of the Old Guard left. But few — very. The ranks have grown exceedingly thin. And no replacements in sight.

The star reporter was a rare being. He was a ferret for facts and a poet for fancy — a de luxe combination for his craft. He could sit in the wild turmoil of a huge political convention, look into it with a cool, analytical eye and produce a crisp, colorful, historical classic of reporting before the roars around him subsided. Or he could step into a sordid police court and come out of it with a piece of literature.

Aside from the versatility of his writing gift, the vital characteristic of the star reporter was his intense curiosity regarding human life. He scorned to view it from a club window or a mount of philosophy or through a cold scientific lens. He wanted to be of it, with it, see and study it “close-up,” all phases of it, high, middle, and low. And then tell his fellow men about it accurately and picturesquely. And what made him a star reporter was that he always did–always delivered. Physical weariness following the gruelling pursuit for information amid disasters and vast public events, illness, personal worries and griefs couldn’t beat him down. He always “came through” and that brilliantly with his “yarn.” He played his health and safety recklessly in the high adventures his profession offered him.

His country might come first but certainly his “sheet”, his “rag”, his paper came closely next in his devotion and loyalty. He’d risk his neck any time for it. No command could be too bizarre, no “stunt” too hazardous. He was underpaid, knew it, and didn’t care. He loved the game, loved the epithet of “Staff Man” that carried him into the acquaintance of statesmen, kings, queens and princes, inventors, soldiers, generalissimos of industry, actors, artists, dramatists, poets, novelists, political bosses, cops, cabbies, newsboys, adventuresses, the great beauties of his time, the great criminals of his era of both sexes. He loved the game, loved the thrill of looking with his own eyes on the wonders of the earth — the magnificent, the beautiful, the strange, the queer, the brilliant and the drab. That was his pay and he deemed it rich. Unless he moved onward to become a successful novelist or playwright, he invariably died poor, hands stainless of the thousands of dollars of bribe money that could countless times have been his for the contemptible taking.

Every one of him I ever knew affected a tremendously cynical air. But what his editors knew and what he himself thoroughly well knew was that the diamond of his quality lay in that he was a sheer romantic, that to the end of his existence he was squarely gifted to look upon the spectacle of life with the keen, excited interest of youth! And convey what he heard and saw in buoyant, striking, sparkling words back to his fellow man.

The number of really great reporters to have been given the blazonry of public fame as star reporters — many afterwards attaining it in literature and politics — is scant. In days not very long past the accolade of having one’s name signed to his “story” was sparingly accorded — given only on the achievement of a superlatively momentous “scoop” or brilliantly written article. Men had to step high and fast to win it. All were sufficiently human to desire it. But above it they valued the honor they had earned among the men of their guild. And this they got openly from the cordiality of their editors to the mute hero worship in the eye of the office boy.

One thinks of Henry M. Stanley as the first of the star reporters brilliantly carrying through the assignment from the New York Herald to succor Dr. Livingston in the heart of the African jungles. Spick and span Richard Harding Davis, as romantic and handsome a figure as ever a moving-picture star could simulate. And a great reporter. Big Karl Decker rescuing Evangelina Cisneros from the Morro Castle, Sylvester Scovel taking a smack at General Shafter for getting in the way of his story at the triumphant raising of the flag of the United States on the surrender of Spain.

James Creelmen interviewing monarchs and premiers right and left and for whom even the doors of the Vatican, in his time closely shut against publicity, opened for his admittance to the Pope. Irvin Cobb taking rank as a national humorist by way of his despatches describing the RussoJapanese peace conference at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Will Irwin and his page story modestly signed at the bottom, of the San Francisco earthquake disaster — a story that was pasted up on every editorial room bulletin board in every city of the country. Isaac White of the World identifying by means of the single clue of a button the man who had tried to kill Russell with a bomb but blew himself to atoms in the attempt.

Mrs. Gilmer (Dorothy Dix) who in active days reported celebrated murder trials, small, all womanly, eschewing the reporters’ tables for an obscure seat among the spectators. O. K. Davis, Ralph D. Paine, Herbert Bayard Swope —

But I must put up the traffic signal against this procession of newspaper stars who became popular notables, in favor of some of the great star reporters of whom you never heard.

The last banquet ever held at historic Delmonico’s was tendered by New York newspapermen to Dr. Eliphalet Cohen on his seventieth birthday anniversary. He was the dean of the star reporters of three decades and active to within a few weeks of his death, writing into succinct, graceful English the cruder efforts of new reporters. The urbane Jack Slaight of the World before whom walls of secrecy always crumbled. Martin Green, George Buchanan Fyfe, Lindsay Denison, Edwin C. Hill, “Willie” Willis, the O’Brien brothers, Joe and Frank, “Deacon” Terry, all that shining company I knew and a host more — expert delvers for fact and information, discerning, deductive of mind, swift word painters in sharp and vivid colors. And Gus Roeder of the World! Told to find out the destination of a Navy cruiser just departing and refused the information, no sooner was the anchor chain hauled in than Gus went up with the anchor and found out where the cruiser was going by going with it! In irons.

I have mentioned only some of the “big shots” and only of the New York field. Every other large city, of course, had its brilliant coterie.

But he’s gone, has the star reporter. It certainly looks it. If he hasn’t, where was he hiding during the World War?

Not one of them showed in it or came out of it. I could mention Roy Howard — but he was no longer a reporter; he was head of a great newspaper chain when he pulled off the armistice scoop. And Frazier Hunt and George Pattulo — but they were writers.

If he still exists where the devil has he been during all the great air adventures of the decade? He has figured in only two. Payne of the Mirror who lost his life in a transAtlantic try, von Wiegand, the only reporter on the world ‘round trip of the Graf-Zeppelin. Both bred in the star reporter era, however. The “last leaf” would seem to be Russell Owen, once “baby member” of the Sun staff, who accompanied the Byrd arctic expeditions and wrote beautifully about them.

My flesh creeps at the thought that the once sturdy, heroic field of journalism is doomed to dwindle to a mere bed of blushing violets!