Gene Fowler, Scalawag Journalist

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Fowler was briefly city editor, under protest, and was eased into the sports department only after several incidents in which he disciplined tardy or drunk reporters by firing a revolver loaded with blanks at their feet. Then, as the paper's music critic was drunk in a whorehouse again on the night of a Paderewski concert, he had to review it. He wrote, "There was quite a battle at the Academy of Music last night. Pad, the champion, led with his right and then beat a tattoo on the opponent with his left. His footwork was something marvelous to see." He did not review concerts again. n Fowler then went to work for the Denver Post. It was run by two blackmailers and extortionists, Harry Tammen, an ex-bartender, and Frederick G. Bonfils, a professional gambler.

    On the facade of its offices appeared:


    Its headlines were in boxcar type, often in red ink. The paper was an unabashed pirate ship, a great place to learn the business, and many believed the first question in a reporter's job interview was whether he had his own set of burglar tools.

    On the editorial side, its leading light was the sports editor, Otto C. Floto, who loved three-dollar words, the longer the better. Some anonymous fool had introduced him to Roget's Thesaurus. When an old friend died, Otto began a column of eulogy with: "As we stand upon the threshold of grief this melancholy morn, there is an increased secretion of our lachrymal glands."

    Floto showed it to Fowler. Some say Fowler praised it and talked him out of it; others believe Fowler merely said, "Superb. Worthy of Edgar Allen Poe." Fowler immediately became assistant sports editor and Floto's fair-haired boy. His flashy leads repeatedly drew the attention of Mr. Hearst's talent scouts: "She laid her wanton red head upon her lover's breast, then plugged him through the heart," or "Dead. That's what she was when he found her."

    The 1918 trip was not Fowler's first trip to New York. That much is clear. Fowler's anecdotes, like a good single malt, improved with time, and the degree of improvement depended on the quality of his audience and of the liquor at hand; one ought not stake one's life or wallet on the exactitude of any particular version. Nonetheless, it seems that two years before, an undertaker friend, shipping a stiff to Gansevoort, NY, near Saratoga Springs, and needing an escort to ensure its arrival, had offered Fowler a ticket to New York. Fowler took refreshment before his departure with a friend, Denver fire chief John Healy. Healy drank martinis because the glasses in which they were served were "?fashioned by Divine Providence to fit his mouth exactly." Fowler wrote, "He would curl his practiced upper lip over the rim of the glass with a fine moose-like and prehensile grab, and then he'd execute a big suck, the entire operation matching the skill and technique of W.C. Fields in one of his better moments."

    Consequently, when Fowler regained consciousness while rolling through Nebraska, he desperately needed a drink. There was no booze on the train. He ordered the box unloaded at the next town and staggered to the platform to find he was in a dry county. He sat on the casket and wept.

    He later wrote, "Through my fingers, I saw a pair of leather boots. A stranger was...shaking his head sadly... 'Buck up, sonny. I know what you need. Here.'

    "He reached under his coattails and pulled out a full pint of whisky and handed it to me. Then he patted me on the head and told me to keep the whole thing. I said, 'Oh, thank you, sir.' Then he walked away. When the next train to Chicago pulled in they had to lift Nellie into one car and me into another."

    And they say there is no God.

    Somehow, Fowler was jailed in Chicago on suspicion of violating the Mann Act (transporting a female from one state to another for immoral purposes) and bailed out by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who later wrote The Front Page). While in jail, he lost the stiff; nonetheless, he wired the family of the deceased: "Nellie and I doing well. Expect to see you any day. Keep in touch."

    His second visit was more conventional. Fowler demanded $100 a week. Mr. Hearst's people told him they'd be in touch. A few days later, Fowler was invited to meet the chief.

    William Randolph Hearst did not usually interview applicants for reporting jobs. But someone demanding that kind of money was either demented or very good. In either event, he might be amusing. Tall, handsome, thickset, with a high, soft voice ("like the scent of violets made audible," Ambrose Bierce observed), Mr. Hearst was then in his mid-50s. He was impressed by Fowler, whom he always called "that young man from Denver." Fowler came to worship the publisher, named a son for him and to his dying day referred to him only as Mr. Hearst.

    Then Fowler reported to the city room: "Warehousey and fetid. Gloomy and harrowing. Ready to fall apart. The windows were opaque with grime, and an elevator that was as impotent as a veteran of the Mexican War rose with groggy lament up a shaft that would have disgraced a coal mine."

    The man and his era were met: the 1920s, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense. He covered the False Armistice on Nov. 7, 1918, when somehow the public just believed the war had ended (it would, four days later) and the Wall Street bombing of Sept. 16, 1920 (still unsolved, with 30 killed, 100 injured, and Morgan Guaranty Trust's Wall Street side still scarred by the explosion).

    Fowler also created news, a peculiarly Hearstian practice. His city editor, Victor Watson, a scowling tyrant known as The Hetman (a Cossack chieftain), ordered him to arrange New York's first monkey gland transplant. Dr. Serge Voronoff claimed that by transplanting the gonads of a male ape into a male human, he could rejuvenate the human's sex drive. As H. Allen Smith wrote, "millions of limp and flaccid men began to take hope that all was not over."

    Fowler doubted he could find "...a man who will permit a doctor with a knife in his hand to start fooling around with his swinging trinkets." He finally found an elderly Latin scholar who admitted to carnal thoughts perhaps "once a year, or not more than twice"; a surgeon who would do the job for $500 cash; and a monkey in a Penn Station pet shop. Fowler rented a hotel suite for the operation. The patient, who had been given a local, fainted as the surgeon sutured the monkey gland to his vas deferens. Fowler later recalled, "He was removed from the table and put in a bed above which there hung a picture of Catherine the Great reviewing her troops."

    Watson ordered an eight-column front-page headline for the story. The doctor was suspended by the county medical association. The patient was rid of carnal thoughts and retired to a monastery.

    Fowler liked women. As he was tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped and ruggedly handsome, large numbers of them liked him. He described himself as a battered polygamist, "too lazy to erect screens and too proud to pretend chastity when there was no chastity in his soul," and when asked why he never seemed to go dancing, replied, "I don't believe in preliminaries."

    He was an expense-account artist. In 1921, three U.S. Navy balloonists disappeared over northern Canada. After a month, they came out of the snows at Moose Factory. Fowler got there first, having hired a private railway car, filled it with fine Canadian whiskies and some food, and commissioned a special train.

    The real epic was the expense account. Even Mr. Hearst, a man who just wasn't comfortable with less than $10 million a year in pocket money, might frown on this kind of spending. Fowler labored for days on his account, a greater work of imaginative fiction than any of his four novels, listing parkas, mittens, sleeping bags, snowshoes, a dogsled and a rental team of Alaskan malamutes to haul it across the tundra. The auditor claimed he had not justified his expenses. Fowler added payments to the owner of an heroic rented lead dog dead in the line of duty ($80) and a headstone ($100). Once again, the accounting was bounced. Fowler added a final item: flowers for bereft bitch, $1.50.

    As one of Mr. Hearst's finest reporters, Fowler was assigned to cover the 1926 state visit of Marie, Queen of Romania. She was strikingly attractive, vivacious, multilingual, good-humored and susceptible. According to both Westbrook Pegler and Ben Hecht, Fowler covered the Queen, too.

    What is confirmed is his arrival with the royal train in Denver. A former colleague, Ryley Cooper, then managing editor of the Denver Post, was at Union Station. The crowd was jammed on the platforms. Fowler, tall, handsome, distinguished, elegantly tailored, emerged from the reporters' car. He gazed across the platform. He saw Cooper. There was a moment of silence. Then it was filled by Fowler's rich baritone.

    "Hey, Ryley! How's that dose of clap?"

    Only half of Colorado heard him.

    Less than a year later, Mr. Hearst asked Fowler to be managing editor of the American. He declined. Mr. Hearst invited him to his Riverside Dr. apartment. Fowler found Mr. Hearst fully dressed but barefoot. They strolled into the kitchen. On the tile floor lay bulldog editions of the Manhattan newspapers. Mr. Hearst stopped every now and then to turn the pages with his toes. "I am able to get a better perspective of typographical makeup and layout," Mr. Hearst said. Fowler finally accepted for $500 a week and no interference.

    Even Louella Parsons, among the chief's favorites, could not get around Fowler. Fowler personally edited one of her columns. She stormed into his office, claiming her contract forbade Fowler from changing even a comma.

    "I do it because you are totally and incurably illiterate," Fowler said. " don't need to be a bitch about this thing."

    She shrieked she would tell Mr. Hearst.

    Fowler replied, "Go right ahead. And...tell Mr. Hearst that I called him a son of a bitch for turning such a bitch as you loose on the town."

    She did tell Mr. Hearst. Nothing happened immediately.

    Then Mr. Hearst asked him to go on vacation, all expenses paid. On returning from one of Rome's finer whorehouses, Fowler learned he had been "promoted" to an executive post at King Features. He remained there for a year and then returned to the American to do special assignments until his contract ran out in 1928.

    After publishing two forgotten novels and The Great Mouthpiece, a bestselling biography of William Fallon, the flamboyant criminal defense attorney, Hollywood called him. His first film, a John Barrymore vehicle called State's Attorney, like most of his films, was a typical studio system product. He was a script doctor, organizing, structuring and rewriting, as in Call of the Wild, an original novel, screen treatment and several dud scenarios into a viable script. By 1939, he was on contract for $5000 a week. To the end of his life in 1960, he still called himself a reporter.