Hardboiled Charlie Chapin

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:03

    In the golden age of American newspaper journalism, those 60 years between 1890 and 1950, New York had as many as 14 English-language dailies, with telegraphs and telephones to speed the newsgathering, even as high-speed presses printed tens of thousands of newspapers an hour. The radio was not a serious competitor and the television became a mass medium only after World War II.

    Some of the journalists of that day still survive in memory: publishers such as Hearst or Pulitzer or reporters such as Gene Fowler, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Editors, however, being behind the scenes, are more obscure.

    Some weeks ago, I picked up Johns Hopkins University's elegant reissue of City Editor, a minor classic by Stanley Walker. Walker discusses the great editors whom he admired. He calls one, Charles E. Chapin, city editor of the New York Evening World before 1918, "the ablest city editor who ever lived."

    He is an interesting choice. Chapin's autobiography, published in 1920, is on its face a splendid memoir, often amusing, and utterly sane. Until the closing chapter, one never realizes its writer was serving a sentence of 20 years to life for murdering his wife. The book is fascinating in context as a masterpiece of self-delusion. To read it, one might think Chapin was a nice guy who worried too much about money. However, nearly anyone who had ever worked for Hardboiled Charlie described him as a cruel, sadistic tyrant.

    Yet he was more than that. He instituted the legman/rewrite system of newsgathering, where a reporter gathered the facts and telephoned a rewrite man, who wrote the story. He envisioned reporting news as it happened, without prejudice, color or individual style, the reporters and rewrite men working as machines.

    As importantly, he forced his reporters to use the summary lead, which puts the important facts?who, what, when, where, why?into the first sentence, and the inverted pyramid story form, which works from the lead down to the less important facts. This meant that he forced his reporters to abandon lengthy and winding news articles structured by chronology and usually written in an ornate, self-consciously literary style of "fine writing." To be sure, Chapin alone did not change this. The expense of transmitting news by telegraph favored concision. Others argue that public education created a semiliterate reading public without the patience to decipher fine writing. However, Chapin's importance as city editor of one of the nation's most famous papers made his judgments stick.

    Charles Chapin was born to poverty in Watertown, NY, in 1858. He taught himself to set type and take shorthand. For a few years, he was an actor with a traveling theater company; his reporters rejoiced to learn he had played Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

    In 1879, he married Nellie Beebe, an actress: it was a love match that would endure for 39 years. He then almost immediately became a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. One of his first editors defined journalism as "the art of knowing where hell is going to break loose next and having a man there to cover it." He took it to heart: by his 25th birthday, he would be city editor of the Chicago Star.

    At 33, he visited New York with Nellie for the first time. On an impulse, he walked into the World Bldg. and introduced himself. They knew his work; they hired him immediately. Tall, slender and erect?he stood like a pouter pigeon, shoulders back and chest thrust out?Chapin dressed with an exaggerated elegance: wasp-waisted tweed or herringbone suits, always with a calendula or gardenia in his buttonhole; spats; and selections from his collections of pearl tie pins, watch fobs, studs and flamboyant ascot ties in such colors as "baby blue, pink, orange, purple, and red." His thin gray hair was trimmed daily and he exuded bay rum. He was grim-faced and square-jawed, with an ashen complexion and a military mustache. And his voice was a nasal blend of snarl and whine.

    Allen Churchill's admirable Park Row describes his response to the greatest single loss of life in the city's history before Sept. 11. The General Slocum, an excursion steamer, burned in the East River. The final death toll was 1021. Eyewitnesses saw "women on fire and holding children in their arms running about the deck...women and children going over the rail by the dozens..." Charred and mangled bodies lay in piles along the beach or floated in the blackened water.

    At the World, the rewrite men taking down the details burst into tears. Some vomited. However, Chapin strutted about the city room, humming a happy tune. "He would run up and down, peering over shoulders to read the nauseating details of the tragedy as they were typed out. Then, standing erect, he would shout, 'Women and children jumping overboard with clothing afire! Water full of charred bodies!'" The dead and bereaved were immaterial to his good fortune: he was editing a great paper that was covering a great story.

    Thus, when New York City Mayor William J. Gaynor was shot in 1910, a World photographer kept snapping pictures. When the photographs came out of the darkroom, Chapin rejoiced: "Blood all over him, and an exclusive, too!" A World story led to the arrest of a swindler for murder. Chapin rubbed his hands together. Walker wrote that someone "remarked that he seemed to be feeling his oats. 'Why shouldn't I be happy?' asked the spirit of sweetness and light. 'I've started a man on the way to his electric chair.'"

    He loved firing people: for being two minutes late, for staying home to minister to a sick family, for being knocked unconscious in pursuit of a story. He even fired Joseph Pulitzer Jr., his boss' son, for absenteeism and lateness. The father said not a word. Chapin once took a dislike to a particular piece of copy and fired its writer. As the reporter headed for the door, Chapin barked to the entire city room, "That is the 108th man I've fired." Perhaps this explains why Irvin Cobb, one of his best reporters, was present on the unusual day when Chapin telephoned the office to report sick. "Let us hope," Cobb said, "it's nothing trivial."

    Chapin wrote, "I was boss of the office for more than twenty years and...in all those twenty years I never saw or spoke to a member of the staff outside the office or talked to them in the office about anything except the business of the minute. I gave no confidences, I invited none. I was myself a machine, and the men I worked with were cogs. The human element never entered into the scheme of getting out the paper. It was my way of doing things."

    He expected his men to know what they were doing. If they did, he allowed them complete freedom to do their work. If they did not, he fired them. Once a reporter asked Chapin what to do next about covering a fire. Chapin snapped, "Go pick the hottest place and jump into it."

    Walker writes that a reporter, writing of the discovery of a body in the East River, referred to the "melancholy waters." "Pretty good phrase, that," said Chapin. He was overheard. For days, the Harlem River, the Gowanus Canal and the Spuyten Duyvil all developed melancholy waters. Chapin ordered that the next man who used the phrase would be fired. A new reporter had not heard the warning. The next day, his first story was of a suicide in the Hudson. The article began, "The melancholy waters of the Hudson..."

    Chapin called him over. "You're fired. 'Melancholy waters'! Now, look here, in all sense how could the waters of the Hudson be melancholy?"

    "Perhaps," the young man replied, "it was because they had just gone past Yonkers."

    "Not bad," Chapin said. "You're hired."

    He came to speak almost exclusively in newspaper terms. Churchill claims he couldn't say, "Hurry up with the story of the child who was killed." Rather, it was, "Hurry up with TINY TOT WITH PENNY CLUTCHED IN CHUBBY FIST DIES UNDER TRAIN BEFORE MOTHER'S EYES."

    Chapin's lavish lifestyle, complete with limousine and yacht (he had lived in the Plaza from before the day it opened to the public), concealed a morass of debt. He had been related by marriage to Russell Sage, the financier and usurer. After moving to New York, Chapin had cultivated the old miser, who had led the editor to believe he would inherit a fortune. Chapin anticipated his inheritance in luxurious living. When Sage died, he left Chapin almost nothing.

    By the summer of 1918, Chapin was wiped out and he began to go mad. There is literally nothing in the record to indicate anything other than mutual devotion in his marriage. However, he obsessively believed Nellie would be unable to bear his financial collapse, and so he resolved to kill her.

    Perhaps it was more a matter of the guilt being unbearable for him. (Interestingly, Eugene O'Neill, who had a copy of Chapin's autobiography in his library, has Hickey use a similar rationalization for murdering his wife in The Iceman Cometh.)

    Chapin spent the weekend of Sept. 15-16, 1918, at home with Nellie. He mailed a suicide note to the World's business manager, Don C. Seitz, on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16. Around 6 a.m. on Monday, as Nellie slept, Chapin drew a police special from under the bed, pointed it at a spot slightly above her right ear and pulled the trigger. For two hours, she moaned in agony. Chapin held her, weeping, speaking of nothing but love and beauty and joy. Then she died.

    Chapin breakfasted and dressed for the office. He hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door to his suite. Then he began traveling the subways and elevated railways to Central Park, Bronx Park and Prospect Park, where a police officer came along as he was raising the revolver to his head.

    Meanwhile, Seitz had received his letter. Mail was delivered much more quickly for three cents in 1918 than for 34 cents now. He telephoned Chapin's hotel. The hotel manager and a police officer entered Chapin's suite with a house key.

    Chapin left the subway at W. 66th St., where he bought a paper and saw his name staring up at him from the headline: CHARLES CHAPIN WANTED FOR MURDER.

    Then he became sane again. He surrendered at the nearest police station and never breathed again as a free man. In mid-January 1919, he pled guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life. He complained of how the newspapers handled the stories of his crime. "What's the newspaper business coming to?"

    Chapin adapted to prison life. In 1919, he was asked to edit the prison newspaper, The Star of Hope. According to James McGrath Morris' Jailhouse Journalism, Chapin transformed the paper into an advocate for inmates' rights. The prison authorities shut him down. Major Lewis E. Lawes, a new warden, who later wrote bestsellers such as Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, suggested that Chapin expand his autobiographical articles into a book, which he did.

    Chapin took up gardening. Lawes let him direct a Garden Squad, which transformed the bleak compound with flowers. Chapin would probably have been paroled in 1933. However, in the fall of 1930, Lawes told him Sing Sing was being renovated. The garden would be ploughed under.

    Chapin took to his bed. Lawes visited him. "Do you want anything?" "Yes," Chapin replied. "I want to die. I want to get it over with."

    On Dec. 16, 1930, Hardboiled Charlie turned his face to the wall. He had believed he would die in Sing Sing from the moment he had been assigned the number 69690. The individual digits totaled 30: the number a newspaper reporter types at the end of a story.