Whatever Happened to JIM COLEMAN?
ONE EVENING late in January I walked into the offices of the Toronto Globe and Mail, turned the key in the lock of my private alcove and peered into the semidarkness. The typewriter hadn’t been stolen. The typewriter barely was visible beneath the litter of letters, magazines, tired old newspapers and moribund copies of the Daily Racing Form. The sword was hanging from the ceiling, directly above the chair on which I must sit—the same sword that had been hanging there every hour during the eight years I had been writing a daily sports column. Cackling wildly I thumbed my nose at the sword, slammed the door and ran out. of the building as
fast as my bandy legs would carry me. I ran all the way home, jumped into bed and pulled the covers over my head.
And that, kiddies, is how I left the newspaper business.
Silly, eh? For no apparent reason a man quits a good job with a comfortable salary and a handsome expense account.. The newspaper business in general and the Globe and Mail in particular had been generous to me. They had given me complete freedom of expression and action and, within the limits of the Canadian libel laws, I had been my own boss.
Of course, there had been moments of extreme privation. The Globe and Mail occasionally had forced me to rough it in such hostelries as the Savoy in London, the Crillon in Paris, the Kras-
napolsky in Amsterdam, the Waldorf in New York and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. There had been times when the filet mignon was a trifle overdone or the caviar was lumpy. I had been forced to travel by strato-cruisers and luxury liners to distant ports of call. I had been compelled, in line of duty, to accept front-row seats at the outstanding prize fights, football games, horse races and other sporting events. It had been an exhausting life, traveling first class at the expense of George McCullagh who stayed home, watching the stock market fluctuations anxiously as he financed my expeditions.
I was writing, though, about the sword hanging from the ceiling in that office. Any daily columnist can tell you about the sword. As soon as one column is completed the scribe heaves a couple
On 10 minutes’ notice a celebrated columnist up agd left his comfortable niche in the newspaperman’s lotus land. How come? While he tells you, Jim Coleman draws a colorful cartoon of the days when the newspaper game was a game
of deep breaths and begins to worry about the next day’s chore. Like the simple but perilous business of staying alive, writing a daily column is a job that ends only once.
Column writing is alleged to be the lotus land of journalism. Certainly, it’s a great thing for the ego. Only an arrant liar would tell you he didn’t enjoy being clouted on the back and being told he was writing great stuff. Only a cynic would peek to see if the hand thumping his back clutched a stiletto. The compliments are accepted gratefully, even when the well-meaning reader is congratulating you on something which, actually, was written by Ted Reeve, of the Toronto Telegram, or Elmer Ferguson, of the Montreal Herald.
There are disadvantages to the job, too. There are the innumerable kooks who telephone your
house while you’re sleeping and want to know the round in which Max Schmeling kayoed Joe Louis. There are the friends, from whom you haven’t heard for 10 years, who telephone on the eve of a Stanley Cup hockey final and want you to get them four tickets. They don’t want the best tickets, of course—just any place in the first five or 10 rows.
There are your friends such as The Good Kid who, while the office clock hands move remorselessly toward the deadline, telephone to ask you for the results of the sixth and seventh races at Santa Anita. There are the sad-eyed strays who, somehow, find your office and, after several minutes of pointless chitchat, ask for the price of a meal.
You will understand, then, why there is nothing which maddens a columnist more than to be
approached by some dewy-eyed blonde who murmurs unbelievingly: “Do you mean to say that
ALL you do every day is write that little column?”
How long does it take to write a column? Well, that’s a good question. Consciously or unconsciously, a columnist spends every waking minute seeking a subject about which to write. He wastes countless hours in conversations, some of which don’t produce a single line of type. In moments of crisis he relies on his memory and his own experiences.
My own column which gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment was a simple little fantasy concerning a trainer and his horse. The actual writing didn’t take an hour. But, afterward, I realized that the small pieces of it had been balling together inside my head for 10 or 15 years.
In the light of subsequent events it is regrettable that I didn’t pause long enough before I quit the Globe and Mail to write a final farewell to my hardy readers. In the next few weeks I was to learn that personal friends and readers were prepared to believe almost anything except the simple truth—which was that I had resigned because I didn’t want to write a daily column any more. In bewilderment I denied that I had been fired; that I had told The Boss what he could do with his printing presses; that I was planning to start a paper of my own; that I was on strike holding out. for more money. When I inserted a “Situation Wanted” advertisement in the papers my acquaintances thought, that it was a gag.
But, come, come,
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Whatever Happened to Jim Coleman?
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Coleman, old boy—you sound bitter! Surely it wasn’t as bad as that?
That’s right. To tell the truth, I loved every minute of it. I loved the job unreasonably. Once I worked for a publisher who said that a newspaperman who loved his work knew satisfaction only when he ground his brains to powder working on a story. Well, I ground my brains to powder and then I ground the powder into powder.
It all started back in Winnipeg, your Honor. My newspaper trail led from Winnipeg to Brandon and back to Winnipeg; to Vancouver, to Edmonton,
back to Vancouver; and, finally, to Toronto.
The long-suffering city editor of the Winnipeg Tribune sent me down to work on the police beat at the Rupert Street Station in the afternoons and evenings. I had led a sheltered life and, influenced by the motion pictures, I was under the impression that newspapermen wore hats which were glued to the backs of their heads. Two months passed before someone managed to knock off my hat and I didn’t wear it again for years.
I was paired with a Free Press reporter to whom, for the reason that he is plying his trade until this day, I shall refer only as Cy. There was one of the great extroverts of the newspaper business. While writing a story in the cramped Press room of the police station Cy would leap to
his feet, throw up the window, lean into Rupert Street and bark like a dog. Being an impressionable youngster I used to bark in my sleep for several weeks after being exposed to these manifestations of bubbling genius. My puzzled mother and father thought that this would be an expeditious summer for them to spend a holiday in Spain.
I don’t want to give the impression that Cy was eccentric but there were times when his behavior defied the norm. There was a night while we were holidaying in Vancouver when he stopped the rush-hour traffic at the corner of Granville and Hastings by kneeling on the car tracks and singing “Sonny Boy” to a reasonably astonished motorman.
No More Than 100 Laughs a Day
There was the belligerent motion picture critic who settled all debates by beating himself on the chest and announcing that he was former welterweight champion of the Maritimes. Regrettably, there came a night when he chose an opponent who happened to be the current intercollegiate heavyweight champion.
There was the Tribune reporter who was an impeccably mannered graduate of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, England. Graciously, he accepted loans of 25 cents from the office boys. In a spell of temporary affluence he gave a dinner party for some staff members and their wives. The elegance of the occasion was marred slightly by the fact that, before carving the fowl, the host solemnly stripped himself to the waist.
I don’t wish to give the impression we weren’t serious in those years, though. There were times when I didn’t laugh more than 50 or 100 times per day.
The Tribune exiled me to Brandon as resident correspondent. Brandon saddened me a bit. I had to pass the Manitoba Mental Hospital on my way to work and too many former newspapermen waved to me from the barred windows. I was recalled to Winnipeg and then shipped to the Vancouver Province to work for Robert Truscott Elson, who now is the top editorial man in the Time-Life organization.
Elson was the sports editor of the Province and, in retrospect, I don’t want to blame him too much for what happened to me. Like Hitler, though, he was a paper chewer. When his mental gears were grinding Elson would munch mournfully on pieces of paper. I can say, without equivocation, that Elson ate some of the best stories I ever wrote.
The pattern was being traced then. I should have been warned if I had made a careful study of my companions.
Bob Bouchette, the columnist on a rival newspaper, decided to take a midnight swim at English Bay one night. He piled his clothes on the beach, struck out purposefully and never came back.
The columnist on our own paper was an erudite but improvident fellow who, once having been dispossessed by his landlord, spent several days sleeping on the floor of his office. When death finally caught up with him he left a will in which he bequeathed two bottles of rum—one bottle to his active pallbearers and the other to his honorary pallbearers. He gave explicit instructions that, if the active pallbearers should falter en route to the cemetery, the honorary pallbearers must fitep into the breach.
The night editor emeritus in Vancouver was a wonderful old man named Bert Greenwood. He cultivated a garden in the window boxes by his desk
and he hated whistling. One night he threw his entire window garden into Pender Street at an innocent Canadian Pacific telegraph messenger boy who was whistling as he rode by on his bicycle.
Every newspaperman has his private and favorite collection of kooks and characters. It was in Vancouver that I first met Deacon Jack Allen, the Sacramento expatriate who has contributed more than his share to the Canadian sporting folklore. If for no other reason I’d remember him because of his immortal observation: “If you
want to make a friend you have to close one eye; if you want to keep a friend you have to close both eyes.”
We had a sports reporter who was a bookmaker in his spare time. Once he went to the races in Victoria and successfully ran a parlay through six races. He had $2,400 going into the seventh race but he refused to save even his original $2 bet. He wagered the entire roll on a horse in the seventh and the horse finished fourth.
It was in Victoria during the races, too, that The Flea used to play the harmonica to woo his inamorata from the steam laundry. The Flea was known by that name for the simple reason that he got into every person’s hair. Ee was playing “Traviata” for the belle of a steam laundry when some sadist punched a hole in his ear, employing one of those metal punches with which streetcar conductors make holes in transfers. The Flea never muffed a note; gamely he finished his piece before he skulled his assailant with an empty bottle.
“That’ll learn you to interrupt a concert,” The Flea said sternly as he struck the man to the ground.
On the Spot Was Home Base
My next stop was Edmonton. Although the man had passed to his final reward, the Edmonton Bulletin still bore the unmistakable imprint of its founder, the late great Hon. Frank Oliver. Men such as Frank Oliver pioneered the West and gave it its vitality. He shipped the Bulletin’s first flat-bed press into Edmonton via the Saskatchewan River. He was a tremendous individualist. He slugged it out with his enemies; when his press wouldn’t function properly he kicked it and shouted mighty oaths; he was a master of invective; he was loved for his robust integrity.
It was Oliver who, when speaking privately of one of Canada’s statesmen whom he knew well, said: “He has
the face and manners of an honest man and the guts of a louse.”
The Bulletin had one ingenious reporter who would write bloodcurdling interviews with nonexistent travelers who were supposed to have escaped from cannibalistic Indians in the frozen wastes of the Nahanni land. To illustrate his stories this reporter would persuade some bum to leave his park bench and accompany him to Uncle Ben’s Exchange on 101st Street. There the co-operative bum would be photographed in parka, mukluks and other suitable habiliments.
In these nefarious schemes the reporter was aided, abetted and encouraged by our managing editor, the celebrated Billy deGraves. DeGraves forwarded the reporter’s stories and photographs to eastern papers, which invariably were willing to buy such sucker bait.
Bill was an Irish Australian with a charming personality, a quick mind and more than a touch of larceny in his soul. When an aerial expedition was lost in the sub-Arctic deGraves wrote exclusive dispatches for Lord Beaverbrook’s papers in England. He scooped
the world on the rescue of the expedition and his graphic, on-the-spot account was greatly admired by English readers. The truth was that Bill wrote his stories without ever leaving the offices of the Edmonton Bulletin.
The classic deGraves story concerns an occasion on which he was working for a Calgary paper. One day he accompanied policemen and firemen who were looking for the body of a young woman who had been seen to plunge into the Bow River. It appeared a routine suicide and deGraves was bored by the prospect of dismissing the story with a couple of paragraphs.
While the civic employees were dragging the Bow deGraves sidled over to a large board fence on the river bank and, in big letters, wrote: “John—I did this because I love you.”
He dropped the pencil in the grass. It was merely a coincidence that he brought the attention of a policeman to the pencil. It was merely a coincidence that the policeman noticed the death message on the fence.
Jubilantly deGraves returned to his office and wrote a very satisfactory account of the “love suicide.”
The story had a disturbing aftermath. At the inquest two days later the drowned girl’s parents testified that she had arrived from the Ukraine only two weeks earlier and had been unable to speak, read or write English.
DeGraves was unperturbed. He observed philosophically that there is nothing quite as dead as yesterday’s newspaper.
The spirit of Oliver and the presence of deGraves set the tone for the rest of the staff. The Edmonton Bulletin was the jumping-off point for the Arctic or oblivion and some strange birds of passage nested with us overnight. We had a succession of opinionated night editors, which included Tim Ching, the late Mike Shea, and Ernie Cowper who wore white tennis shoes to the office and who had survived the sinking of the Titanic.
Shea’s most notable contribution to the production of the daily newspaper was to arrive in the office about 5 a.m., pick up the entire night report of the Canadian Press and throw it into the nearest wastebasket. Despite the fact that he was getting along in years Michael still was a hardy fellow and none dared to stay his hand. Having performed this one task he would wrap his coat around him in dignity and depart to await the opening of the beer parlors at 7 a.m.
Jenks Had a Musical Bathroom
Some pretty grand stuff came out of that old office on the banks of the Saskatchewan River. Those pulsequickening stories about the hunt for Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper,” were written right in the Bulletin, 1,000 miles from the scene, by an imaginative reporter named Gilroy who, to get himself into the proper mood for his work, arrived at the office wearing parka and mukluks and carrying a loaded musket.
Our prize exhibit was a terribletempered little man named D. C. Jenkins. He was a reformed tosspot from the Hearst and Denver Post school of journalism and, as a technical production man, he was the best newspaperman with whom I ever was associated. He was about the size of a beer stein and he had a heart as large as a cantaloupe.
Jenks had been divorced somewhere along the trail and he kept a bachelor apartment in a building which rejoiced in the name of the Harmony Block. He had the place wired and, when unsuspecting guests used the plumbing appliances, they were likely to set off
musical recordings, small bombs or Roman candles. His one companion was a decrepit and evil parrot which perched atop the shower curtain in the bathtub. When guests were occupied in the bathroom the parrot would dive bomb them viciously and vilify them in shocking terms.
No one seemed to mind the constant struggle to make both ends meet. We had competent reporters who were being paid $75 per month. One of our top hands received $100 per month, covered all the activities of the Social Credit legislature, wrote chamber music and conducted a string orchestra. One reporter who was fired for mopery and gawk solved his housing problem temporarily by passing out each night in the gentlemen’s powder rooms of Jasper Avenue restaurants.
The Coleman Retirement Plan
By the time that I went back to the Province in Vancouver I was ready to take a flying broadjump into some other business, but fate stepped in and I was smashed to little pieces in an automobile accident. During the long months in hospital, and in bed at home, the paper treated me extremely well and the upshot of it was that I permitted another 11 years to disappear.
Do I regret those 11 years? I don’t regret a minute! Without those 11 years probably I never would have run into The Good Kid (whose blood pressure is so good that he wants to give away 100 points), or Johnny Needle-Nose, or Irish Davy, or Annah from Savannah. I never would have been bothered by those persistent touts, Doc Burns and Cock-Eyed Casey, and I wouldn’t have met Michael Lochinvar Levinsky, the little man who spends his life perched on the edge of a cloud bank. I wouldn’t have known the frustrated carnival stripteuse who would have given her G-string to become a snake charmer. Egad—I wouldn’t have known Sir Benjamin Stockley, who kept a wonderfully equipped gymnasium in an abandoned church.
Bill deGraves died in January and I went to Ottawa for his funeral. They had cold-shouldered him out of the newspaper after he returned from his second war, and he had languished in Ottawa, lonely with his memories. It was a tribute of some sort to him that, in that small Ottawa chapel, there were five of us who had worked for him on the Bulletin—five of us and the man in the box. The padre said some nice things about deGraves. He referred to his patriotism, his courage and his humanity. Strangely, the padre made no reference to his newspaper career.
As it was ending I wanted to stand up and say: “Just a minute, padre.
A friend of mine is lying there. He was the best damn newspaperman ever to come down the pike ...”
After the funeral we gathered for a few drinks and we talked about the old days. For once, Bill’s timing had been bad—he had picked a rotten day for his funeral. I went back to the Chateau Laurier and packed my bag quickly. Three days later I quit the newspaper business—for ever, I guess.
If ever I become a millionaire I’m going to spend my declining years sitting in a comfortable chair at my club smoking opium. I’m going to let my mind wander back over those precious years and I’m going to crack my knuckles and chuckle happily to myself. If my fellow club members ask me what is amusing me I will look at them coldly.
“Go away from me,” I will say. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Perhaps, at that, I would be doing the old fellows a grave injustice. ★