Going down swinging.

I have to say something about Henry Allen, a journalism story that’s mostly staying in journalism circles and probably that’s where it belongs, because it has no greater import or anything. I mention it mainly because I always wanted to work for or with Allen, a legendary writer and editor at the Washington Post, whose career ended abruptly last Friday when he scuffled with a writer who was chapping his ass. He literally went down swinging, and while I can’t condone punching one’s colleagues, I can certainly understand the urge to do so, and given that no one was hurt, let’s chalk it up to a final glimpse at a certain Front Page standard of newsroom behavior and leave it at that.

I first encountered Allen, then a superstar of the Style section, when I took a two-day writing workshop very early in my career. It was a strange trip — a hot weekend in late May. My salad-days starter car didn’t have air-conditioning, and I drove from Columbus to Champaign, Ill. with the windows down, wearing a pair of bib overalls with a bikini top for maximum air circulation. It was a long trip, and I arrived windblown and looking crazy, at least if I’m to judge from the looks the desk clerk at the hotel gave me. Things went further downhill when I realized I’d packed all my career clothes but not my career shoes, and had to attend the workshop and networking sessions in jeans and a T-shirt. A few of the young reporters stayed up late the first night, drinking wine in the courtyard of the hotel, asked by management several times to keep it down. (“It’s that girl with the overalls and bikini,” someone undoubtedly said.)

Allen’s seminar was the following day, and what I mainly remember about it was that I fell in love. He quoted a colleague at the Post: “I want to write stories people can dance to,” and I got it immediately. The guy next to me didn’t — I could tell by the look on his face — but I committed the phrase to memory, and use it from time to time when I’m teaching young writers. Prose, even journalistic prose, has rhythm and mood and recognizing it is very much like having an ear for music. It’s hard to teach that quality, but show me someone who understands the phrase — writing you can dance to — and I know I can work with him or her.

From then on, I mainly just sat there and made dreamy eyes at my new hero. He made fun of AP leads and talked about the drive in from the airport, and afterward, I came up to gush. He said he had a book coming out, and could he send me a copy? Who, me? Um, sure…. “Fool’s Mercy” arrived at my apartment a few weeks later, with a note, “Please, run to your library and demand it be taken off the shelves.”

(Recalling that note, I wonder who might be the source of this Amazon reader review, penned by A Customer: “This is a novel that has taken the art of shaping the reader’s worldview and raised it to the level of physical intervention. By that I mean that Mr. Allen has discovered techniques of using English syntax to alter synaptic relationships within the brain itself, possibly permanently. He may have gone deeper, as well, functioning as the analog of a computer hacker as he cracks the DNA code and blithely rearranges the human genome with untold consequences for generations to come. Were this novel some outre exercise in modernist befuddlement, the danger would be minimal, but Mr. Allen’s darkest motives are masked by a brisk yet poignant thriller populated with haunting personalities. As such, it may pose the severest test the First Amendment has faced since the founding of our republic — a book that is what the law calls ‘an attractive nuisance,’ but a nuisance on the level of Jacob-Kreutzfeld syndrome, the human equivalent of “mad cow” disease. It should not only be banned, but all of its known readers should be rounded up like cattle and incarcerated pending central-nervous-system biopsies. Meanwhile, it remains available to an unwary citizenry from Dryad Books, of 15 Sherman Ave., Takoma Park, Md. 20912.” I have a sneaking suspicion.)

I still take “Fool’s Mercy” off the shelf from time to time, to soak in his graceful prose style. Is it a great thriller? Probably not enough plot, and characters a bit too three-dimensional. But there are some wonderful descriptions, and, well, it was sent to me personally by the author. Those books are always special.

The story linked above said Allen, a 68-year-old former Marine and Vietnam vet, was moved to violence by the reaction of a reporter whose error-ridden “charticle” he was criticizing:

(Allen) gave pretty much the same sharp-elbowed spiel to both Hesse and Roig-Franzia. Hesse responded by asking for the story back so that she could iron out some of the wrinkles.

Roig-Franzia responded by saying, “Henry, don’t be such a cocksucker.”


Oh, well. As is noted in the story, this is a new era in journalism. Chicago Sun-Times writers don’t pee off the ledges into the river anymore, either. It doesn’t mean we can’t miss the good ol’ days, at least a little.

Enjoy retirement, Henry. Write another novel. I’ll buy it. And I’ll still pay any price to hear whatever writing advice you might give at another University of Illinois workshop.

So. Up until 2 a.m. last night, but with an E-day school holiday, got to sleep clear until 8. They say you can count the hours of sleep Roger Penske gets on one hand, and that he is master of the power nap. He’ll announce, “I’m going to grab 40 minutes,” put his head down, fall asleep immediately and awaken 39 minutes and 59 seconds later.

My role model.

My other role model is Elmore Leonard. What does it say about me when my role models are old men? Vigorous old men, but still. The next thing you know, I’ll be asking for a Viagra prescription.

As you can imagine, yesterday was in the crazy-busy, and today will be the same. With that heedless extra hour of sleep I had to cut something, and today it was: Gym. Haven’t done that in a while. (Where’s my medal?) But if I’m ever going to learn Russian I have to give my homework the respect it deserves, and today I have to write 10 sentences, using the genitive singular. I’m inspired because I watched a Russian-language movie Friday night, one of the few truly indolent me-times I get in the week, and I understood more of it than I thought I would. It’s like I’m trembling on the brink of another leap in understanding, and I want to nurture it along.

The film? “The Italian,” or, as imdb.com insists on transliteration, “Italianetz.” Worth your time, even with subtitles.

One of these days it’ll be you folks I cut loose. Don’t assume I’ve been kidnapped or anything.

One brief item of bloggage: Eric Zorn finds the new GOP in North Carolina. Cooze, is this one of your neighbors?

Posted at 12:35 pm in Media, Same ol' same ol' |

33 responses to “Going down swinging.”

  1. Sue said on November 3, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    “One of these days it’ll be you folks I cut loose. Don’t assume I’ve been kid­napped or anything.”
    What? What?

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  2. Nick said on November 3, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    He had me groovin’ until Jacob-Kreutzfeld – it’s Creutzfeldt-Jakob. Even with a skip in the record, it still has a good beat.

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  3. Scout said on November 3, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Sue, I had the exact same spit-take.

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  4. Jeff Borden said on November 3, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    “The Italian” is a fine little movie. We watched it last year, after my wife ordered it from Netflix in something of a mistake, but we both enjoyed it a great deal. There was a real sweetness to the film, but it certainly did not sugar-coat the life of an orphan in Russia these days. The young man who is the title character is a really empathetic and charismatic actor.

    I’m reading only textbooks until my graduate school semester ends in a few weeks, which has given me a severe case of brain cramps. Why must textbooks be rendered so impenetrable? A good ex-journalist working as an editor would make an enormous difference in conveying the facts and theories in these books. Instead, I find myself reading the passages two or three times before understanding dawns.

    Classes will be over and I’ll be at the in-laws in Florida for a long Thanksgiving holiday, so I have plenty of books lined up starting with Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side,” but also including Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” While not in the dire straits of the Joad clan, my five-plus years of being “underemployed” figures in this decision.

    One of my more adventurous public speaking students is reading “Atlas Shrugged,” because she wanted to learn what the term “going Galt” meant when she heard it from one of her conservative friends. She is having the same reaction I did when I was required to read it 30-plus years ago: It’s a mean-spirited celebration of arrogance and elitism poorly written and populated by cardboard characters.

    This is why I love my students.

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  5. John said on November 3, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    wear­ing a pair of bib over­alls with a bikini top

    Please find and post a photo of this outfit, enquiring minds and all that.

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  6. coozledad said on November 3, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Nancy: He’s running against David Price, whose district is Greater Chapel Hill and some Bantustans of “The City of Cunnilingus!©” Durham, NC. He’ll get a couple hundred or so votes from Ruritans, Hell’s Angels, his mama, and his sister/wife. After the election he’ll have to go back to work sweeping the driveway of the funeral home.

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  7. MichaelG said on November 3, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Mr. Roig-Franzia sounds like a prime jerk. I’m always leery of people who fiddle with names. Mr. Allen sounds like a man who has reached the end of his rope. Mr. Wemple has given us a very poorly written story. He needs Mr. Allen’s help.

    I’m with Sue and Scout. WTF?

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  8. KLG said on November 3, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    What John said. I think we are near-contemporaries and I saw more than one woman at my large Southern State University in that outfit! Sometimes even without the bikini top. Those were the days. And about Henry Allen, anyone who calls another person a c*cksucker deserves to be punched out. Period. Once and for all. Probably not as bad as the c-word, but almost.

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  9. Joe Kobiela said on November 3, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Bibs and a bikini top, went through your flicker page and couldn’t find THAT one. Please post.
    Pilot Joe

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  10. Jason T. said on November 3, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    That reporter needed punchin’. Every newsroom has at least one like that.

    And if the WaPo newsroom is like other newsrooms which I’ve contaminated, Mr. Allen was just doing what all of his cow-orkers have wanted to do for a long time.

    Mr. Allen will drink for free on that punch for years, wherever real reporters congregate, and I hope he has a long, pleasant retirement, away from the likes of primadonnas whose prose may not be edited, and who never let the “facts” get in the way of their copy.

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  11. LAMary said on November 3, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    “…I have plenty of books lined up start­ing with Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side…”
    I believe that is called The Dork Side in Louisiana.

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  12. beb said on November 3, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    ‘bibs and a bikini top…’ Was that your Bananarama or Dexie’s Midnight Raider’s period? Re Pilot Joe and John… somethings are best left to the imagination.

    I was disappointed to learn that Henry Allen punched a student rather that douche bag extraordinaire, Fred Hiatt. If WaPo ever goes down it will be Hiatt’s fault.

    My daughter also has a school holiday today. “Professional development” it says on the calendar. What’s up with that?

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  13. Jeff Borden said on November 3, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Well, I never saw a fist-fight in a newsroom, but one of my colleagues attended a holiday party in the newsroom one year in the late 1970s and had a few too many Scotches. He more or less passed out, then vomited all over his desk. Photos of him lying unconscious in a puddle of puke appeared for years after the event, just to keep him reminded of his folly.

    I try to not get very far into that “good old days” baloney, but it does seem like there are a lot of very prissy and entitled reporters out there. When I started at the Columbus Dispatch in 1974, only an editor could put a byline on a story, and they were fairly stingy with them, too. To the very end of my career, I always turned my stories in sans byline. (This was more out of habit than anything else.) These days, most reporters type their byline first, then ponder the lead.

    Times change. I get it. But when the largest and most prestigious newspapers continue to employ lunkheads –like the TV writer for the NYT who churned out multiple bone-headed errors in her obituary of Walter Cronkite and was rewarded by getting her very own copy editor– it still makes my stomach hurt.

    I will toast Mr. Allen with a 12-year-old Scotch tonight. And, no, I will not throw up on my desk.

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  14. Dorothy said on November 3, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Sheesh am I the only one who understood the kidnapping reference??

    I think what Nance meant was that she’s very busy, and recently has not been to the gym. That’s what she had to “cut loose” recently to make time for other things, like Russian homework. Then she mentioned that perhaps her blog/her loyal readers will be the thing she has to cut loose some other day. And we are not to think that perhaps she was kidnapped, but rather she was occupied elsewhere.

    Is this right, Nancy?

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  15. nancy said on November 3, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Yes, that’s right, Dorothy. Although I worded it poorly (hurrying, as usual), all I meant was, there may be a day from time to time when things don’t get updated here, and all it means is, I have something else to do.

    As for the other thing, Gene Weingarten discusses the Allen Affair here, far better than I ever could, and includes some excerpts of Allen’s journalism. I’m sorry I was hurrying today, or I would have looked up more of it, and not made this all about a schoolgirl crush on a writer with an out-of-print novel. Long-form narrative journalism is where Allen was truly at his finest. I used to have a paperback called “The Best of the Post,” which featured some wonderful pieces, and many of them were his. Like a fool, I loaned it to a writer I thought could benefit from it, and never saw it again.

    My Russian teacher gave me a matryoshka stamp on my homework!

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  16. Cynthia said on November 3, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    So it’s ok now to call your boss a “c*cks*cker” and keep your job? Unbelievable.

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  17. Jason T. said on November 3, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    At a newspaper, Cynthia? It’s practically a requirement.

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  18. whitebeard said on November 3, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    When I was night city editor, an obnoxious reporter and a copy editor had a nasty verbal dispute about some tiny fact and the reporter vanished. I did not smell blood so I figured he was safe … and alive. It turned out he had spent hours in the morgue looking up files of prose gone by instead of writing the story he was working on. He surfaced and challenged the same copy editor with a clipping that showed he was wrong and in a shrill, unpleasant-sounding voice chanted: “I was right and you were wrong, I was right and you were wrong, I was right and you were wrong. Say it, I was right and you were wrong, say it.” the copy editor decked him and the reporter hit the floor, got up slowly after a few minutes and called the police.
    When the police came, everyone in the newsroom said he or she had not seen a thing. As “The Boss” I testified that I had not seen what happened earlier but I saw the reporter on the floor beside the picture desk and ventured a guess that maybe a photographer had brought in a wet print and there was water on the floor and the reporter had slipped and fell. The officer grinned at me and said he would write in his report that there were no witnesses to the alleged “attack” and I had agreed, as the person in charge.
    This is the same obnoxious reporter I had told to go home months later or I would kick his fat ass down every stair after he pointed out a fellow reporter to rioters so they would chase him. He called the city editor to complain, who called me and said I could have fired said obnoxious reporter on the spot and he would have backed me 100 percent.
    I have been reluctant to Google his name in fear that he still is an unpleasant tack under the saddle of someone else’s horse. He once proposed a resolution to ban women from the press club and everyone disliked him so much, even the chauvinists, that they voted against his resolution, and admitted women to the sacred sanctum.
    Ah, the memory; the copy editor’s punch was spectacular, right to the chin and the obnoxious little twit was down for the count.
    I will buy a round in Allen’s name any time there is a congregation of newspaper people and I am present.

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  19. nancy said on November 3, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    What Jason said. A newsroom ain’t an insurance agency, although lately they certainly resemble them. Read what Weingarten wrote, linked above; he gets the vibe pretty perfectly.

    That’s a pretty good yarn, Whitebeard. Reminds me of the shootings that happen in dodgy bars in dodgier neighborhoods, when the cops walk out shaking their heads and say, “I counted 80 noses in that place. How could so many of them be in the bathroom at the same time?”

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  20. Jolene said on November 3, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Glad you found the Weingarten piece, Nancy. I saw it earlier in the day, but didn’t have time to comment. You (and others) might also be interested in this blog item by Joel Achenbach, another of the best writers at the Post.

    I came across this when I went looking for the “appreciation” of Hunter S. Thompson that Henry Allen wrote when Thompson died. Achenbach links to that, so I’m posting his piece, as it’s a nice statement re how admired Allen is among his colleagues.

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  21. Deborah said on November 3, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    There seem to be similarities in the world of design and writing. I loved your description of writing stories people can dance to. Design has rhythm and mood like music, it also has narrative. I read the piece by Gene Weingarten and that led me to read the piece by Sally Quinn. I’m not sure I get what was so horrible about the Quinn piece but then again I know that it must be hard for non-design oriented people to understand what I think is really awful about some design out there. Some of this is just stuff you have to live and breathe to get.

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  22. Jolene said on November 3, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Henry Allen is, apparently, an artist too. He has a blog where he’s posted a fairly large collection of pencil drawings, including a self-portrait. The drawings are very good, and the subject matter varies widely–still lifes, landscapes, and portraits, including an arresting image of Lincoln.

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  23. Deborah said on November 3, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    I just posted and noticed that the time came up as 8:38, I checked my clocks to make sure but it was 6:38 CST. You are EST so it should read 7:38?

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  24. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on November 3, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Hat tip and dittos to Jason T. re: Mr. Allen.

    Back to hitting refresh on the local Board of Elections website — i love not having to sit around the County Admin Bldg for hours in a tie on Tuesday nights.

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  25. del said on November 3, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Great story whitebeard. Reminds me of a career prosecutor I know, a gracious and dignified man who would complain bitterly that civility prevented him from acting like that copy editor. When he found himself in such situations he would, under his breath, cite scripture to the end that Justice ought be meted out swiftly, with a sword, or, in his words, a 2×4.

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  26. del said on November 3, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    A favorite movie scene of his was when Tommy Lee Jones slams an insolent barkeep’s face into the bar in Lonesome Dove.

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  27. brian stouder said on November 3, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Here’s an example of why I am perfectly happy to pay taxes so that police and others will approach the jobs that I’d find unapproachable; and why I’ll pay a subscription rate so that journalists can try and fathom stories I’d find unfathomable:


    CLEVELAND – The number of bodies found in and near a rapist’s home rose to at least 10 on Tuesday when authorities unearthed four corpses from the backyard and found a skull in a bucket in the basement.Cleveland police stopped searching for victims for the night and planned to continue on Wednesday. They have extended their efforts to boarded-up homes in the neighborhood where residents complained for years of a stench that one even said “smelled like a dead body.”
    Some in the community want an investigation into why it took so long to trace the grisly source.

    Sometimes one wonders just how crazy things really are, just beyond the window pane

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  28. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on November 4, 2009 at 12:31 am

    Why does the world keep challenging my level of commitment to oppose the death penalty? Eh, he’ll get “NG by reason of insanity” and work out his days in a secure facility, unless someone free-weights his sentence a bit shorter as happened to Jeff Dahmer. (This poor deranged fellow has to pass 17 to beat that level of evil lunacy.)

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  29. Jason T. said on November 4, 2009 at 12:48 am

    I would add one thing — the macho bravado that’s celebrated in newsrooms can also make them very hostile, discouraging environments.

    Not coincidentally, the last newsroom that I really enjoyed working in was a suburban office, dominated by women and with a female bureau chief. Everyone was competitive and fairly cynical, but there was also cooperation and people helped one another on big stories.

    Naturally, the-powers-that-be broke us up. We were having too much fun and showing up the reporters “downtown.”

    Most newspapers are run by people who have no management training, and they either stamp out any individuality or let the inmates run the asylum.

    There has to be a middle ground between bland, boring newsrooms and “Lord of the Flies.”

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  30. crazycatlady said on November 4, 2009 at 1:06 am

    Moe- Please update us on how you’re doing…

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  31. whitebeard said on November 4, 2009 at 1:19 am

    Del, the story continued many moons later when I received a call from the local police that said copy editor, then a columnist, was sleeping it off in a jail cell after an altercation in a bar and what did I want to do with him.
    I called his wife and explained the situation and asked if she wanted him home sooner than later and her reply was keep him there, which is what I did, also asking if I needed to post bail in the morning. “No, we will just let him go when he wakes up,” the officer said.
    Amazing the number of calls I received from the police about reporters, etc. One was about one of the police reporters who had been picked up because he matched the description of a kidnapper and would I confirm his identity, which I did.
    Another was about the aforementioned obnoxious reporter in No. 18. He had been picked up in another city on the island of Montreal because the police thought he was a kid (he was quite short) who had stolen one of the newspaper’s press cars. I hemmed and hawed and asked for a better description until he screeched: “Tell them it’s me, tell them to let me go.” I said that I guessed I could not suggest that the “little car thief” be locked up and the cell key thrown away and the police officer laughed. ” Don’t want him back, do you?”
    I obviously did not work in a bland, boring newsroom, Jason T., or maybe I made it less boring.

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  32. Dexter said on November 4, 2009 at 2:06 am

    Congratulations to Dave Bing, who finally has a full term now to save the city.

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  33. Dorothy said on November 4, 2009 at 10:26 am

    crazycatlady – moe can certainly speak for herself but I’ll use this opportunity to direct you to her blog. I think Nancy links to it as well, if memory serves correctly.


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