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

Seattle Post-Intelligencer city room, 1934. Credit: 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.”

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