An Homage To Girl Reporters — Part One
On a crisp and predictably sunny morning in November of 1989, I was having a coffee and perusing the Los Angeles Times before leaving for work. I’d come to L.A., like every wannabe, with dreams of writing stories that would be made into hit movies. I’d taken a job in advertising “just until”.
In the paper that morning I’d learned that the Lotto was up to $4.6 million, The Who was on its farewell tour, and Japan had just suffered a 7.1 quake. Pretty routine until I saw this story in the local news section:
Herald Leaves a Rollicking Legacy : Journalism: Romping, stomping tales of brash paper are recalled as staff members prepare to say “30.” Written by Times staff reporter JOHN BALZAR.
By the time I read the following I was hooked:
“…(Agness Underwood) was the mother of two and wanted extra money for stockings, as the story is told. So Aggie became a telephone operator at a newspaper. She ended up working on a story one time when no one else was around to do the work. From there she went on to become a celebrated crime reporter on one paper and then moved to become the crime-oriented editor of the Herald. Crime, after all, was what sold newspapers, along with sex and skulduggery..”
I was both excited and depressed. I could see myself stepping back into L.A. in the 40’s, Lana Turner, the scandals and grisly murders, and the stars and sensations, like “evangelist” Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. But I figured in this town, Aggie’s life story would be optioned before lunch. Reluctantly, I squirreled away the article in my hope chest of ideas and waited for the movie.
Two years later there was still nothing. Am I the only one who thought this was cool??
By 1991 I had a Mac II, which was great for word processing and hanging onto during a tremor, but the internet was still a mere seedling in Al Gore’s mind. So in order to really get my head into Aggie and this amazing newspaper world, I had to get out there and become a Girl Reporter. A native Angelina would never have started here, but I’d come from NYC so my first step was the Santa Monica Public Library.
The two-foot long wooden drawers holding Dewey Decimal sorted index cards yielded little help. I was able to scroll through microfilm of old editions of the Herald Examiner, resplendent with dramatically lit-from-below photos of villains of heinous crimes, but got no real insight into Aggie herself. The old library with its cozy carrels provided a pre-Starbuck’s respite for the local homeless. They’d grab a periodical and pretend just enough to be reading it to avoid being kicked out.
I made my way to the help desk which stood like a high wooden altar in the middle of the room. This is where they kept coveted items like the Kelly Blue Book, and where they could access the entire archive with a clunking IBM green screen. When it was my turn I put on my best Girl Reporter mien and announced, notebook and pencil in hand, that I wanted everything they had on Agness Underwood.
“Aggie?”, I heard and turned to see a disheveled fellow in a tan raincoat lift his head from slumber. “I used to work for her, best damn newshawk ever,” he said wide-eyed.
His name was Joe. I bought him a coffee and made him drink it outside. Upwind. His chain smoking helped with the stench. It turns out that he had been a cub reporter at the Herald in the fifties. Later I’d learn that these guys were adrenalin junkies. Their job was an early version of reality TV playing 24 hours a day. If they caught the right show they ended up on the front page, above the fold. When the work fizzled they turned their addiction to booze, drugs and cigarettes. Despite traces of a boyish face, Joe was close to typing “30”.*
“Aggie was the best boss I ever had, she didn’t need yelling to lead us. But don’t get me wrong, if someone fumble-fingered a story she didn’t pussyfoot. She kept a baseball bat on her desk for those situations.”
Suddenly he didn’t smell so bad.
“We had a rewrite man who sat in the pool with us. One of Hearst’s from Frisco. A chinaman. Every day at lunch he’d crack and peel a hard-boiled egg and eat it at his desk. Stunk up the place like you can’t believe. We’d complain and throw things at him, but that little guy was as stubborn as a lid on a pickle jar. Then one day he took a big crack to his egg and it was raw, got the junk all over himself. Next day, same thing. After a week he gave up. No one ever owned up to the prank, but rumor has it a half dozen hard-boiled eggs were seen in one of Aggie’s desk drawers.”
That pretty much exhausted Joe and he slipped back into a blank stare. Sad. I gave him a $20 and he headed back to the library. This time I went home. It was clear that stories like his were going to make this come alive. I needed to track down some of the names I’d gotten from my research.
I needed to find Frank Elmquist.
TO BE CONTINUED…
*In newspaper-speak, “30” is typed at the bottom of a story to signify the end.