When I was the ghoulish gawker

princess-di people coverBy popular demand (well, one tweet), here’s the tale of my journalistic function during the last big royal wedding, of Chuck to Di.

At People magazine, I was assigned to write obits for the couple in case an IRA attack struck the wedding. Recall that London still fell victim to sporadic terror and there was no greater symbol of British rule than its crown. It also helped that People’s editor then, Pat Ryan, came from an Irish family and was ever aware of the great struggle.

It happened to be that the wedding occurred on the morning People went to press. So I wrote, as I remember, variations on the theme: Charles dead, Diana dead, both dead. The obits were set in type on pages with appropriately fond photos. The pages were made into plates that were set aside the presses. If the worst happened, the order could go out — “Stop the presses!” — so the plates could be installed quickly and deliveries to the newsstand would be hardly delayed.

All that was missing were the facts of the event, if it happened. So I had to be at work criminally early that morning, sitting in Pat’s office, watching the wedding, ready to write a tight lede with whatever horrific details ensued so that could be set in type (typesetters — how quaint — awaited) and a new black plate could be transmitted to the plant (where the other colors awaited).

Why me? I was a newspaper guy and thus the fastest writer in sight. Magazine people looked down their noses at us newspaper people. We weren’t up to their high gloss, rough-hewn tradesmen that we were. When I applied at People, they were dubious, having never hired the likes of me. They insisted on a tryout and, though insulted, the boyhood dream of conquering Gotham beckoned, and so I acquiesced. The first morning, I was given a reporters’ notes and turned them into 120 lines of trivialized type by lunch. I asked for the next; they had nothing. Next day, same routine and ditto for the rest of the week. At the end, they hired me. My boss at the San Francisco Examiner, Jim Willse, said at the news of my departure for New York: “What, tired of journalism?”

Upon my arrival at People, another grizzled vet, Cranston Jones (there were two Joneses at People, neither a Bob; the other was Landon — one Princeton, the other Yale) pulled me aside and roundly scolded me for my tryout. “Don’t you ever do that again!” he instructed. I was ignorant as to my sin — and afraid to ask more — until a writers’ meeting soon afterwards, where Pat told us all that we had to do be more efficient and get up to writing one story a week. Five a week was, you see, unheard of.

I was a newspaper guy. I’d learned to write fast. As a rewriteman (sorry, not a rewriteperson), I used to write on “half books” — half-sized sheets of paper and carbon paper. We’d write a graph at a time and then — ah, this was my very favorite part of newspapering — yell “COPY!” and the poor slob one year younger and one rung down from me would have to run over to tear the book apart and distribute copies around the newsroom so the process at the heart of newspapering — the sacred production timetable — could get a head start on editing and typesetting and composing my fine opus.

I remember working rewrite on an Indiana prison break at the Chicago Tribune when I turned to the news editor, Ralph Hallenstein, to ask how much more he wanted. Ralph never stopped smoking. He’d fill a large ashtray every night, and until their game was discovered, the editors on the next shift held a “ghoul’s pool” and counted Ralph’s butts. Ralph died of lung cancer. When I asked Ralph this night, he took a pneumatic drag of his cigarette, exhaled three-alarms’ worth of smoke, and rasped over at me, “Find the nearest period.”

That’s how I learned to be fast. When computers came in, that didn’t change. I was the first the newsroom to use them because, as I sat on the midnight shift in 1973 waiting for someone in Chicago to die a horrible death so I could write a story under the rotating slugs “slash,” “crash,” “slay,” or “burn,” I was bored and started using the strange green-eyed monsters that scared everyone else (that, you see, is how I came to like technology and that’s what got me here today). Even on computers and to this day I write fast so I know I can finish in time and so I have a structure and then I use all the time available to edit. I edit more than I write. (Except sometimes on this blog when I just hit “publish” because, what the hell, I can always edit later. That explains the abundance of typos you find — evidence of my fallible humanity.)

So anyway, I sat there that morning on the 29th floor of Time Inc.’s building, staring at Pat’s surprisingly small TV in her office, taking notes to have ready the kinds of specifics Time Inc. editors so loved to jam into sentences like falafels into a pita: Don’t just tell me the bomb exploded the carriage; tell me the color of the horseman’s bloodied hat. But nothing happened, thank goodness.

As soon as the wedding was over, as I recall, the plates were ordered destroyed so no one would see what pessimists we were. At a newspaper or wire service, writing obits in advance is good form. It’s an honor, even: Your impending demise is worthy of a timely report made ready and held for release — “HFR” is boldly written atop such copy. I wish I were important enough to have an HFR obit done of me. Indeed, I’ve long said that the only fringe benefit of working for a newspaper is getting your obit in it. Except now I may outlast papers. Obits are at the heart of what newspapers do.

But at a magazine — even People magazine — writing an HFR obit for HRH was seen as rather distasteful. Actually, for a long time, magazines weren’t fond of death. Time Inc.’s publications didn’t believe in death as a cover story until John Lennon made it into People’s cover and sold like mad. Soon, People was obsessed with that I’ve called bodily fluids journalism: the diseases, affairs, births, and deaths of the famous. I joked that we should have just changed the name to Dead People magazine.

Sixteen years and many, many People covers later, Diana did die. And now, 30 years after the wedding I didn’t cover, William and Kate are to be wed. That’s what led me to Twitter this morning to recall my macabre duty way back when. I was saying how little I care about this event — as, I think, is the case with most Americans. Still, networks and magazines will demand we give a shit and spend a fortune doing so. I dared disdain the royals in a tweet and — it took only a minute for Brits to fall into my trap — I was scolded by those who said they cherish the royals as symbols of endurance. I see them as symbols of privilege. I prefer symbols of change and opportunity.

But still, I wish William and Kate a happy and lovely marriage … and long lives.

  • JoAnn Kawell

    Wonderful memoir. But what kind of green-eyed computers did they have at the Trib in 1973? Seems a bit early to me…I was across the street at the Chicago Daily News starting a year later, writing obits on the graveyard shift, and all the CDN had was manual typewriters. Or could that be why it was RIP CDN in 1978?

    • As I found out later, it was a system bought as a contingency for and threat regarding a possible ITU strike. Yes, it was early.

    • Oh, and, the system was installed at Chicago Today, where I worked, to fool us into thinking that we wouldn’t be folded. Devious.

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  • Mike Lewis

    This is a great post. I love getting the behind-the-scenes look at the magazine and newspaper productions. As print becomes less important to publishing companies, I wonder if the practice of pre-writing an obit will continue. Bloggers are so quick to cover a scene, I can’t imagine that the 10-30 minutes saved by pre-writing would matter. Plus, you could always post the bare-bones details and then update it as younlearn and write more. Regardless, really enjoyed reading this – thanks.

  • janice

    Now I know why you laughed so hard when I coined “dead princess stories” to describe anything that would flail newsflash. LOL.

  • What a very insightful look back into a past which seems today so very distant. In a Skype chat with my student daughter your post inspired our speculation about the media world in which she might find herself another thirty years down the line.

    We agreed, however, that she in Holland and I in Munich will nevertheless watch the wedding coverage…

  • Feel like I know you better. Wonderful treatise; the ghost of media past.

  • “I was saying how little I care about this event — as, I think, is the case with most Americans.” Damn I thought we were doing it for you lot.

    There are two street parties in the same street here one to celebrate the wedding and the other to simply enjoy an extra bank holiday.

    At best there is ambivalence towards the wedding in the uk but not reflected by the media here who really want us to be interested in it; a whining pleading ‘please be interested in this stuff.’

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  • Lawrence Butts

    Thanks Jeff for that trip into the past!

  • I just touched by your the opinion which says that you really care about williams wedding..

  • Alan Ralph

    Hi Jeff,

    My dad worked as a station engineer at Independent Television News (ITN) here in the UK for nearly 20 years, and he often regales me with tales of how they used to do things back in the era of ‘steam-powered television’ (a mock-affectionate time coined by one of his colleagues towards the end of his time there). They had similar systems in place from the late 70s onwards – several in fact, different systems for the journalists, the engineers, line bookings, etc. Luckily for him, dad was able to get the hang of the engineering and line booking systems fairly quickly, which was probably a factor in his staying there so long. :)

    One story he told me was about the plans they had in place for the eventuality of a member of the royal family dying suddenly. Needless to say, the Queen Mother had a file already set up with library footage, etc. ready, but they had similar stuff for the rest of the Windsors. Thankfully, I don’t think they had to pre-write anything, but I do recall there were protocols as to the presentation and how ITV (and the BBC, who no doubt had similar plans ready) would broadcast in such an event.

    I think that some of the plans may have changed by the time of Diana’s death – the fact that it happened overnight probably meant that the interruption to the TV schedules wasn’t as intensive. My dad had retired by that time, although he did subsequently do freelance work for a few years.

    Personally, I wish William & Kate the best, but will not have either TV or radio on next friday – to be honest, the coverage here is already getting stomach-churning!

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  • Scott

    “I was saying how little I care about this event — as, I think, is the case with most Americans.”

    The extra bank holiday is nice, but as for the royal wedding itself who cares? I’m not sure who would win a “who cares least” competition between the US and the UK.

    Unfortunately though, the media cares (why bother with trivial things like next weeks vote on changing the voting system when the rich and privileged are getting married), so I’m off to France for the extra long weekend to try and get away from it.

  • Thanks Jeff for that trip into the past!

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  • Killing a Saturday morning playing on the Internet… I dropped my name into Google and was embarrassed, appalled, and delighted to find I popped up on eighteen to twenty consecutive pages chronicling a lifetime of involvement in scads of little things. “I did THAT?” Half of it I couldn’t even remember. Wouldn’t my dad have appreciated this toy, I kept thinking. I could picture him sitting up all night on the weekends, playing for hours. Google Earth–my God–he would have gone mad! But he missed all that, having died in 1977. Just for snicks, I put in his name. Something appeared about editing a World War II memoir–for a friend no doubt. Then your article popped up and my eyes popped out! There he was, my dad, Ralph Hallenstein, once again engaged at his desk in the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, conferring with a colleague, smoking up a storm, and putting things succinctly (“Head for the next period.”) with humor as always. Thirty years later his son is a writer with a heart filled with appreciation for all that I learned from him–with and without a blue pencil in his hand. Thanks, Jeff, for bringing him back to life, if only for a morning.

    • Wow, Craig, amazing to connect via Google. I admired your father and learned from him … and from your mother, Ruth, as well. No wonder you’re writer.

  • I tried to escape by diving into psychology but circled back years later. Couldn’t stop hitting the keys. Where are you based? I’d love to get together.

  • Alex

    Dear Jeff, I’m a French journalist and I’m writing an article about journalists who prepare the necrologies for people who didn’t die yet…
    I would love to talk to you about it.
    Please do send me an e-mail if you’re up to it !