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Best of 2009: Jean Godden recalls madcap days at 'The P-I'

The paper generated legendary tales and unforgettable characters. Here are some that Godden, who joined The P-I in 1974, deems suitable for public consumption.
<i>Seattle Post-Intelligencer</i> city room, 1934.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer city room, 1934. HistoryLink.org

Editor's note: This story, which first appeared on Jan. 15, 2009, is one of a year-end series of reprints of the "Best Crosscuts of 2009."

That February day in 1974 when I walked past the shadow of the globe and into the lobby of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was a different era. It was my first day of work at the daily paper that, more than any other, was the incarnation of Ben Hecht’s “Front Page.”

Imagine the scene: Reporters lounged at littered desks, some with dial phones glued to their ears, some pounding relentlessly on battered Royals. A copy editor was yelling at a kid just out of knee pants, and the city editor was filling up an overflowing ashtray. A dented silver urn belched crankcase-oil coffee. You could only see three women — one of them a receptionist. “Quick,” barked the assignment editor, newly arrived from Flatland USA. “What’s the name of the river that ends in mish?”

The Post-Intelligencer at the time employed a crew of journalistic misfits and literary geniuses, cigar-chomping, pipe-smoking, cigarette-addicted veterans who could turn out a mostly-accurate page-one story after a three martini lunch across the street at The Grove, known on the premises as “The Grave.”

Names still resonate: novelist Tom Robbins who sat on the rim and wrote memorable headlines; Frank Herbert, famed for The Dune series; columnist Emmett Watson, who invented Lesser Seattle; copy desk chief Darrell Bob Houston, who styled himself as “D.B.” after writing about D.B. Cooper, the guy who hijacked an airliner, extorted a ransom and parachuted into the unknown.

Marge “Mother” Cocker, The P-I’s legendary magazine editor, dubbed the 1970s “the era of incest.” It was a time of coupling and uncoupling: the sexual revolution was in full swing. It was the post-pill, pre-AIDS time of “if it feels good, do it.” You could hardly keep up with the latest city room gossip. When Marge went on vacation, reporter Don Tewksbury, who later married one of the Grave’s classiest waitresses, was assigned to keep “the list” of daily sightings, scandals, and office politics. Phony memos written on pilfered executive stationery appeared daily on the centrally located bulletin board, aka “bitch board.” Torn-out columns were tacked above the water cooler with unflattering editorial comments: “Sexist pig!” “Marxist twit!”

Friday evenings were devoted to “the seminar,” held weekly at The Grave. It was a time for rehashing the news of the week and a chance to reflect on The P-I’s storied past. Incredible tales were repeated for the benefit of new staffers. Veterans told about the days when the copy desk used to take its midnight “lunch” break up under the globe. (The rumor mill reported that it was a two-toke break.)

The 70s were also a time of travail: Nixon resigning, Iran in turmoil, civil rights strife, and Vietnam War protests. Reporters finally revolted when assigned to call grieving families to ask how they felt about losing a son, brother, or husband in some Vietnamese rice paddy. There were regular demonstrations in front of The P-I and frequent bomb threats (some phoned in by staffers who wanted an unscheduled work break). On the lighter side there was a drunken woman who shot up the lobby because her letter to the editor hadn’t yet appeared in print. When the elevator door opened, she narrowly missed Walter Wright, ace P-I investigative reporter who immediately wanted to write a personal perspective about being shot at and missed. The editor turned him down.

There are tales about The P-I yet to be told and, with luck, the paper will live on in some new form — perhaps an on-line site with professional journalists and, maybe, a print version once or twice a week. It’s like the hired pilot who said to reporters Eric Nalder and Tim Egan when they were covering the 1980 Mount St. Helens explosion: “I love to fly with you P-I guys; you’re not afraid to die.”

Jean Godden is a member of the Seattle City Council and chair of its Libraries, Utilities, and Center Committee. She was a columnist and chronicler of Seattle life for many years at both Seattle daily newspapers. She has endorsed state Sen. Ed Murray for mayor. You can follow her on Twitter: @jean_godden.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 19, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Jean wrote a beautiful memorial article on Darrell Bob Houston, too. I hope to read more of her writings, and others, too, about that remarkable time at the P-I. There was a magical window of time there in the late 60s and early 70s when a group of rare and stunningly talented personalities came together for a moment at the desks of the P-I. They were every bit as stellar as the New Journalists on the east coast--Breslin, Mailer, Thompson, Wolffe. Many stories of the P-I that should be told and people recognized. And it wasn't only the dazzling writers such as Tom Robbins, DB Houston, Rick Anderson, Frank Herbert, Emmett Watson and more that created that celestial spark--the art rooms held their own steller personalities and talents with the likes of Ray Collins, creator of Cecil C. Adle and Dipstick Duck. I hope someone will gather the stories and photographs into a book, a long overdue tribute and memorial to the greatest paper ever to have rolled off the presses.

MaryW

Posted Mon, Jan 19, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Just about everyone in the Puget Sound area has some personal memory of the P-I. I was born and raised in Bellingham at a time when the P-I's out-of-Seattle circulation surpassed the Times'. In fact, we were barely aware in Bellingham of the Times. As a Bellingham High School senior in 1950-51 I found myself writing a weekly Saturday column for the P-I on high school sports in the northern Puget Sound area. The column carried my photo. I never learned how I was selected to write the column. I was mailed a certificate of appreciation by the P-I and told that, when I entered the University of Washington the following fall, there would be a part-time job for me in the sports department. When I showed up, sports editor Royal Brougham told me to get lost. He had not been a party to any such promise.

While a UW student, I saw Emmett Watson walking through Lewis Hall, the journalism building, and asked him why he was there. Though the city's best known columnist, he was taking a writing class. Said it was time he learned to write.

When I returned home in semi-retirement to Seattle early in 2001, I took great pleasure in writing a regular edit. page column for the P-I, also with my photo (I noted that in my 1950-51 photo I had a crew cut whereas
in 2001 I was bald; not much had changed).

Daily print newspapers have been failing fast throughout the United States. Except in the largest markets, only one has been able to survive. The current crisis at the P-I should have come as no surprise to its readers and advertisers. Yet there nonetheless has been genuine anguish locally about its travails.

The P-I has gained affection, over many generations of editors and reporters, because it has reflected the populist and sometimes eccentric side of Seattle. (You think of the old description of such writer-oriented papers: "The great thing about the P-I is that you never know where you will find a front-page story"). Its columnists and star reporters sometimes have shifted to the Times but usually have been remembered best for their work at the P-I.

It is hard to imagine any corporation or individual stepping up to lose millions annually to keep the P-I print edition alive. But perhaps an online edition can survive, if one can be planned and put together in
the weeks before the print edition's projected shutdown. Sometime soon, one hopes, someone less genteel than Jean Godden will share P-I inside stories not heretofore told.

Posted Mon, Jan 19, 12:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Yeah, Ted ... ask a certain star investigative reporter at the P-I whether he's best known for his work at the Times (where he won two Pulitzers) or at the P-I.

Tony

Posted Thu, Jan 22, 8:01 p.m. Inappropriate

I worked in the P.I. Pressroom from 1961 until 1983. Lots of great stories came from the "Stein" or from the "Pressroom" at Danny's 4th and Wall.
Collins, et al were very entertaining.

Another great character was Ralph Rumlin, make-up editor. If you met him on the street you would have thought he was homeless. Great page one make-up editor.

It is hard to see a great asset to the community go under.I have to believe that missing the Internet boat is the fault of all of newspaperdom.
Steve

Posted Thu, Jan 29, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Love Crosscut. Yours is one of the best Internet news sources I've found. Excellent source of news about the Pacific Northwest.

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