The Boston Evening Transcript: "Our Kind of People"

by Charles W. Morton

In some respects the best and in others the worst of its contemporaries, theBOSTON EVENING TRANSCRIPT was still making few concessions to the exigencies of the early thirties when CHARLES W. MORTON joined its news staff. Revenues and circulation were dwindling, but the paper held firmly to a peculiar standard all its own. This is the third article in a series by the associate editor of theATLANTIC.

OUR kind of people" was a phrase often heard in the city room of the Boston Evening Transcript. It was used by the city editor — the one we disliked — with an air of certitude, as if he and whoever was talking with him understood each other perfectly on who were our kind of people. It was like speaking of an organized and identifiable elite, with a secret grip and recognition signal of its own. To be included in the mutual acceptance of such a term as “our kind of people" and thereby become a party to the city editor’s petty snobbery was irritating to a news reporter, and the words were parroted by the staff with gusto. “Anything to do with our kind of people?" someone would ask as a reporter came in from a story.

The answer to this question was largely pantomime. The reporter would solemnly nod an affirmative and assume a glassy-eyed, mindless expression, beginning to hum an off-key air, at the same time rapidly flapping down his lower lip with a forefinger, like a man playing a jew’s-harp.

These actions were supposed to denote, and they did so most effectively, a slate of feeble-mindedness, with overtones ol nameless tendencies in almost any direction. The story would prove to be a bit of piffle, probably no more than supplying the l. to r. names, with a head and legend, for a photograph of some rummage sale chairman and her aides, but they had been our kind of people (bibble-bibble-bibble .. .).

The Transcript rarely sent out a photographer without a reporter to identify persons in the picture, and this created a fabulous sort of miseryloves-company day’s work with Frank Colby, our photographer. Frank’s son, Warren, was our only other photographer, but it was Frank whom the city editor sent on what he regarded as the best assignment; i. e., a small group of “our kind of people.”about to hold a meeting, or just havingheld one, in the interests of some queer charity or cultural pursuit. (Releases from the Browning Society were always published verbatim in the Transcript, and so were those from the Anti-Vivisection Society, for the latter always ended with the same two sentences, long favorites with the staff: “Tea was served. John Orth rendered several selections on the piano.”)

Colby was around sixty, corpulent but able to stay on the run with his competition. His blue suit was spotted with chemicals, and the old felt hat which he pulled down over his ears and his vast threadbare ulster made no concessions to appearances. He had never taken a drink in his life and he rarely used rough language, but such was his general effect, often aggravated by two or three days’ beard, that most strangers dealt timidly with him. An old-style Yankee individualist, whose forebears once farmed it on the bank of the Charles River in Cambridge, Frank was something of an expert on furniture and china. He detested the police and all in uniform; most of the bench, he felt, was corrupt; the only people he disliked more than police were the officious banquet and catering flunkies who, misled by Frank’s hat and ulster, failed to accord him the respect which he felt was due any representative of the Boston Evening Transcript. Frank once bumped a New York photographer, with a swing of his heavy Graflex, from a float into Marblehead Harbor for disparaging words about the Transcript.

A story Frank was fond of retelling, and which we were always glad to hear on account of its blowoff line, had to do with his triumph over an old enemy, a caterer’s headwaiter who removed, while Frank was out of the room for a moment, the camera and tripod Frank had set up at a wedding reception. The wedding in this case was what the Transcript’s male society editor used to call “an event of social consequence”; all concerned, but especially the bride’s mother, were distinctly “our kind of people,” and it was to her that Frank hastened to tell his troubles. Her reaction could scarcely have been more to Frank’s taste. Before his entire staff she led the caterer’s man — by the ear, one might have thought, to hear Frank tell it — to the corner where camera and tripod were relegated. “’She pointed to my camera leaned up there in the corner,” Frank’s story concluded, “and she says to this flunky so that everybody could hear: ‘Who, may I ask, done THAT?’ ”

As THE principal victim of the city editor’s wooing of the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, Colby had all sorts of ways of adding self-entertainment to an unworthy assignment. The people who strive to get pictures of themselves into a newspaper are much the same anywhere, and after a quarter century of dealing with them Frank could make them believe almost anything. The eagerness with which they accepted even his most nonsensical pronouncements about light and shadow and his purportedly sotto voce consultations with the reporter on that subject was almost embarrassing.

There were none of today’s cameras that “think for themselves” in Colby’s kit. The flash bulb was imminent, but a tray of magnesium powder, that ignited with a boom and tended to shower a fine ash dust over its vicinity, was still the ordinary way of lighting a shot in the absence of sufficient daylight. Photography of professional quality was an arcane pursuit; the nonprofessional, listening to learned discussions of the lighting, “the background,” distances, and such, was quickly made to feel that this particular project would prove to be a hard one, if not all but impossible. What blighting effect, for instance, might a reflection from that mirror, or the glass door of that desk, have on the picture? How could one be sure?

The arrival of Colby and the Transcript reporter in a Beacon Hill drawing room usually plunged into a state of tension what had been up to that point a harmless morning coffee. Madame Chairman, in whose house the ladies were meeting, might even be looking about her with some complacency: a well-waxecl, polished scene, the portraits, good mahogany, silver, the Rinnan that Uncle Fred had left them —some of these might appear to advantage in the photograph, or so she might reasonably think. But what was the big man with the camera saying? And why did he seem so worried?

What Frank was saying, after looking about the room and shaking his head despondently, was, in a low voice to the reporter, “What do you think?”

This was the reporter’s cue to reply, “Frank, I just don’t know. It’s certainly a tough one.”

“Never went up against anything quite like it.”

“What about the other end of the room?”

“Better, maybe, but see for yourself. . . .”

“Yeah.”

Any Madame Chairman, after overhearing enough of these gloomy exchanges, gained the impression that she had contrived a room to defy the camera, a room photographically unfit. But how had it happened? What was the trouble?

Colby’s explanation began with a statement of his own occupational obligations, his duty to the Transcript. It would not do for him to turn in a bad picture. Further, he assumed, the Madame Chairman and her committee would not like to appear in one. These suggestions always drew hearty amens from all the ladies, and Colby’s austere professionalism seemed to thaw.

The bull’s-eye mirror, Colby went on, was a handsome piece, an heirloom worth its pride of place, but did Madame Chairman realize what a reflection from it might do to the picture? The vases, the book ends, all the knickknacks in the bay window — here were fatally distractive details which would cause the “background” to overwhelm the subjects themselves; namely, the charming members of the Committee on Arrangements. Frank was, as I have said, an altogether convincing expositor, and the entire group was soon firmly in his thrall.

After more tense colloquy between Frank and the reporter, Frank would make what was obviously his last-ditch suggestion. It was a desperate remedy, he seemed to feel, but he would ask, anyhow: “Now, if you didn’t object to our moving some of this stuff. . . .”

The proposal was so moderate as to bring an immediate sense of relief to Madame Chairman and her committee. Object? Certainly not, and so once again there came into being what was known in the Transcript office as the Furniture Moving Act. The ladies themselves, bridling under Frank’s sledge-hammer compliments, were glad to join in, and if servants were available, they were summoned to help, although the Transcript’s people usually took on such heavy items as the piano or a big sofa. It is fair to say that we never shirked our own share of the moving. For our private and indefensible ends, the more we moved, the better.

The project amounted, roughly, to emptying one half of the room into the other. Anything at all movable or detachable was included in the shift. The ladies were then posed, photographed, rearranged, and photographed some more in that part of the room now so conscientiously protected from undesirable reflections and decorative detail. The finale came when Frank would look at his watch and announce, with an air of dismay, that we were now overdue at our next assignment — to make pictures, so his story went, of the governor or whatever earth-shaking celebrity might be in town — and that having to move so much furniture was why we had fallen so far behind. The ladies were all sympathy, impressed to be sharing our day with such distinguished competition and pleased, too, by the diligence and gravity we had shown in our dealings with them. This was no slapdash performance, and they all knew how perfectly dreadful people were made to look in ordinary news photography. As for the furniture, just leave it where it is. . . .

The Furniture Moving Act, so far as I could judge, made everybody happy: It flattered the ladies by the extra work so cheerfully carried out in their behalf; its fraudulent quality was entertaining to Colby and the reporter; and the disorder left in its wake was a vengeance, somehow, on the city editor for sending his staff on such worthless assignments.

Frank’s other solace, on a bad assignment, was less work than the Furniture Moving Act — indeed, it was hardly work at all — yet it proved equally satisfying to all concerned. It consisted of posing his subjects in various combinations and arrangements, once he had made the single picture he had come for, and then earnestly clacking his shutter at them without any plates in the camera. “I’m afraid the lady moved a little in that one,” Frank would say. “I’ll have to try it again,” and another plateless exposure was solemnly accomplished. A coded announcement by Frank to the reporter always preceded a sequence of dummy shots: “The rest of these are gonna be on the house.”

Colby’s plateless jocosities once carried us gaily through a long and sweltering July afternoon on the lawn of Craigie House, in Cambridge, where we had been sent to await the arrival of “General Washington,” traveling to his headquarters by coach, over the road from Sudbury. Some historical society was sponsoring this bit of pageantry, and a score or more of its members, in colonial costume— the reception committee—were lounging about the terrace when we arrived. The men had laid aside their tricorns and perukes, the women their much larger, and hotter, wigs. All were sweating at a great rate in their finery.

General Washington’s livery-stable horses were probably doing their best, but it was soon plain that we were not going to catch the last edition on that day and that we might be waiting some hours for a shot of his actual arrival. So, muttering to me his “on the house” line, Frank went bustling among the company, bidding them to get into full costume and to stand by for an important series of photographs. “They want a whole page of this,” Frank announced. He looked appraisingly at his subjects, purporting to seek some fine point of dress or personality or physique that would place the individual in one or another of the groups that he was lining up.

For the rest of the afternoon, until he finally made a bona fide picture of Washington alighting from his coach and we took our leave, Frank kept the whole assembly on the hop, arranging them in big groups, little groups, solos, and frequently reshuffling the combinations. It was necessary each time for me to write down the identifications, and 1 filled a sheaf of copy paper with the names of our subjects and the colonial officers and dignitaries they were impersonating. Anyone doffing a wig or garment was immediately ordered to get back into full regalia for the next picture. There must have been scores of the platelcss exposures, hot and tiring work, but, like the Furniture Moving Act, something thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.

ATYPICAL Colby collision with uniformed authority came one summer morning at the Navy Yard in Charlestown. Colby had made his pictures and set out for the Transcript, and I was heading for the gate, on the run, about a half hour behind him, when a Hearst photographer who was passing called to me. “Better get Colby out,” he said. “They’ve got him locked up in the brig.”

I hurried over to the office of the Yard’s Commander, an urbane four-striper. He accepted, affably, my suggestion that some misunderstanding had occurred, picked up the phone, and listened to a report from the Marine guard. “Well, bring him right over here,” he said. Frank, it transpired, had been trespassing in a zone forbidden to civilians, ignoring orders from the guard to halt. He was escorted into the office, plainly in a rage, a few minutes after the Commander laid down the phone. An elegantly turned-out Sergeant of Marines and two Privates, hard-bitten professionals all, were in charge of live prisoner.

“We are sorry to have delayed you, Mr. Colby,” said the Commander, “and I wish you would tell me just what happened.”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Frank replied, testily. “I was walking along and minding my own business, when this boy” —and Frank bent a gaze of contempt at the Sergeant — “this boy come up and begun hollering at me. Next thing I know. . . .”

The Commander, seeing that no great gains impended for either side in the dispute, dismissed the guard. We were about to take our own leave when the Commander ill-advisedly thought to deliver an appreciation of the Navy’s position in the case. “Put yourself in my place, Mr. Colby,” he began, soothingly. “Suppose that I was a guest in your house — ”

“Stop!” cried Frank, raising a palm in the manner of a traffic cop bringing everything to a halt. “Stop right there!”

I am sure that neither the Commander nor I had the slightest idea of what was coming next. His preamble had seemed reasonable, but Frank was boiling. “I’m not a guest here,” Frank went on. He paused dramatically. “I’m a TAXPAYER! I pay for this place!”

This was the last argument in the world that the Commander wished to pursue in those low-budget, Depression-ridden days. He began shuffling papers on his desk. I offered thanks and regrets, and all the way back to the office Frank continued to expound his rights and responsibilities as citizen and taxpayer.

Frank’s view of the courts and police was unfolded one day in the city room, after his son, Warren, had been fined twenty-five dollars for speeding. Such a penalty, Frank felt, showed a sad lack of judicial understanding. “Now, il I was that judge,” he said, “do you know what 1 would have done? I’d have said to that motorcop, ‘Now, you say here that the defendant was doing fortyfive miles an hour?’ “ Frank’s tone was silky, as he prepared to trap the miscreant motorcop. “ ’IIow fast was you going to overtake him? Fifty miles an hour, you say? Very well.'

At this point Frank seemed to gather judicial robes about himself as he looked first to the hypothetical motorcop and then to the defendant. “ ‘Very well. You, sir,’ ” — to the defendant, who was after all his own son—’you are discharged — with honor? I’d say. ‘And as lor you ” — turning to the luckless motorcop “ ' Thirty days in jail, you son of a bitch!' ”

The Transcript’s staff included some extremely odd-looking people; their effect on a stranger, especially when two or three of our more outstanding showpieces happened to come within his view at the same time, was numbing. Much as he might wish to take full note of the details, his mind seemed to falter and he was soon doubting his senses. Seasoned public relations men turned tongue-tied and dazed at the sudden appearance of H. H. Fletcher in idle conversation with Mrs. Abraham Lincoln Bowles; they were afraid to look and couldn’t bear not to.

Fletcher was the proprietor of the vast religious section of the Saturday Transcript called “The Churchman Afield” and “Notes from the Field.” Any clergyman could get a story about himself and his church into the Transcript’s department of religious intelligence simply by sending it in to Fletcher, who would put it into “Notes from the Field.” Not unnaturally, there were many who did so: a gratifying growth in Laymen’s League membership, a drive for a new carpet for the center aisle, repairs to a steeple, renovating an organ — any of these would find print. “The amount of correspondence involved in the conduct of this department of church news,” remarks Joseph Edgar Chamberlin in his book, The Boston Transcript: A History of Its First Hundred Tears, “and evoked by it, would be almost incredible to an outsider.”

Fletcher had been with the paper more than thirty years, and many believed him a former clergyman, although this was not the fact. He looked much like the bust of Homer which used to be a popular schoolroom decoration, with a white beard and mustache and a rather gloomy cast of countenance. He always wore black, and a ministerial black tie with his white shirt. His general effect was distinctly spectral. But all this might have seemed ordinary had it not been for his habit of inserting, on each side of his head behind the sidepieces of his spectacles, a long envelope. The envelopes projected forward and upward at an angle of some forty-five degrees, giving him a rakish and totally unexpected appearance. To look up and see, for the first time, this apparition in its blinders was a unique experience.

Mrs. Bowles was quite old and small, a study in gray: suit, stockings, hair, hat. She walked with the aid of an ebony cane with a silver knob, and her eyeglasses hung by a broad black ribbon. Her hats were Queen Mary peachbasket, and, although she was a kindly person, her expression was that of one about to lose patience altogether with the human race. Through some miracle of survival, a fern and a small rubber plant flourished greenly, despite the steam pipes and grime of the city room, on the top of her ancient roll-top desk.