I’d routinely bolt down my afterschool sandwich and go outside to meet the bundle of Daily Newses that awaited me at the curb. My bike propped on its kickstand, I cut the papers loose from the rough twine that bound them, imagining them thanking me so they could breathe. I ran one copy back into the house for my father’s return that evening –knowing he’d go straight to Manchester Boddy’s frontpage provocation, then to Matt Weinstock’s lively chatter about Hollywood celebs. Lock-folding the rest of the papers to make them throwable, and loading them first into the front, then the back pocket of my Daily News apron, I’d scan quickly through the last remaining copy for the latest headline sensations and, whatever the season, yesterday’s sports results.
Once loaded up, I was quite talented at riding my bike up the middle of the street (such was residential traffic in 1947), tossing papers one by one with a whip of the hand—some thirty or forty feet, forehand or backhand—landing them on porches or doorsteps to either side of the street. My thighs may have ached with the heavy load (which thankfully lightened as I went), but I relished nonetheless the thud of a tightly-packed newspaper bouncing off a front door. It was double duty-- asserting my pitching skills, while at the same time alerting customers to their paper’s rrival. Oh sure, now and then I missed. Even the best hurlers couldn’t throw strikes every time. A paper or two would land in the bushes alongside the front step. And an irate woman would almost inevitably shout through her quickly opened front door that I was ruining her azaleas or her roses.
More than once it was the ancient Mrs. Gorcey, who seemed to me about a hundred. My father, who knew the dope about movie people, told me she was the mother of Leo and David, two of the Dead End Kids I’d seen in the movies. She waited by her window for the paper to show up. And because I knew she was lurking there, I’d get distracted and often missed the mark. With Mrs. Gorcey, it was roses. “Young man,” she popped out on the porch shouting, “can’t you be more careful! You’re ruining my roses! I’m reporting you !” I’d dismount, retrieve her newspaper for her, and apologize. And never saw a single damaged rose.
The whole operation took about two hours each day. I tossed newspapers from the front apron pocket till it was empty, then, without dismounting, turn the apron around so the load again was in front --a complicated maneuver I was proud of mastering. As I neared route’s end, with the apron almost empty, I almost felt I could fly. In truth, I never sufficiently appreciated the neighborhood that comprised my route, quiet residential streets for the most part, bordered by busy La Cienaga Blvd. on the east and Crescent Heights to the west. Santa Monica Blvd. was my northern limit, Beverly Blvd. its southern. With more mature eyes, I’d have been more respectful of the landmarks within that urban triangle. I did gawk at the gardens and the design of the Dodge house, Irving Gill’s early modernist masterpiece, later demolished and replaced with apartments; as well as at the home and studio of the Austrian immigrant architect, Rudolph Schindler, on King's Road. I learned later too that Theodore Dreiser had lived his last years on King's Road, and was often seen walking his wolfhounds there and lingering in the gardens of the Dodge house. Just north of my route, on Crescent Heights in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald had suffered his fatal heart attack --not far from Schwab's Drugstore, where Lana Turner had been "discovered."
I could have completed my afternoon route more quickly but, as I said, I was in the habit, while packing for it, of looking through a copy. What could I do? –I was a reader. I’d glance at headlines, sometimes read a frontpage story, then jump to the sports section, for scores, for Ned Cronin’s breezy column, and for the page that told me how my beloved team, the Hollywood Stars, had done the previous day or night. They were (for me at least) the pride of the Pacific Coast League, with mighty sluggers like Gus Zernial and Frankie Kelleher, guys who, it seemed, at every at-bat, would either hit a home run or strike out. And there were fastball pitchers like big Pinky Woods, new to the team in ‘47. Oddly enough, I got to know Pinky at the ballpark (not far from my paper route), arriving early to watch the team practice. Pinky saw me standing in the front row of the nearly empty stadium, and we got to waving at each other. After awhile he invited me onto the field to play catch with him, a thrill that lasted until he started tossing curve balls, throws that started in my direction but disappeared as they approached my waiting mitt. Curve balls, let me tell you, were real. Pinky would call out to me, laughing, “What’s the matter, kid. That was nice and easy.” I stopped playing catch with him.
The Stars, my Stars, played in Gilmore Field, a ten-thousand seat wooden structure near the intersection of Fairfax and Third --in the middle of the “Borsht Belt,” center of the city’s westward-moving Jewish population and close enough to both Hollywood and Beverly Hills to attract the movie crowd to games. As the slogan said, it was “the Hollywood Stars owned by the Hollywood stars,” many of whom attended the games. I’d either pay twenty cents for a bleacher seat or, if the coast was clear, climb the high chain-link fence and get in for nothing. Arriving before the ushers, I usually got away with it. But one day I didn’t. I was at the top of the fence when two of them appeared, one on each side, yelling for me to climb down. I was sure the police were next and that I –this good suburban Jewish boy-- would land in jail. Which way to descend? I clung tight, considering my options: drop down onto the field, make a run for it, and disappear in the stands, maybe hide under a seat, or jump down as I'd climbed, closer to the exits. I chose the latter. The usher, a big, burly guy, but surprisingly quick, grabbed me by the arm as I hit the ground. Then, surprisingly, he let go of me, chasing me on my way after growling a very stern warning.
Occasionally my father would take me to a night game. He would buy us box seats, close to the action, an early lesson for me in class distinctions. The seats were actually boxed off, in compartments separated by low walls from the neighboring boxes. Unlike the fans in the cheaper seats, who followed every pitch, cheering and booing, those in the box seats were often well-dressed men and women who talked about everything except the game. They brought their own food, in bags or baskets, rather than indulging in (more likely, taking a risk with) the twenty-cent hot dogs sold by the roving hawkers who ran up and down the stadium steps tossing the wrapped wieners at customers and artfully catching the coins tossed back at them in payment.
Some of the boxes were, as I mentioned, occupied by celebrities—movie people. My father recognized, even knew, some of them and waved or said hello. Many of the names he mentioned meant little to me. One night he pointed out Groucho Marx in a box down front near the field, sitting there with his signature cigar and big bold eyeglasses. My father said, “Go introduce yourself.” So I walked down to his box, leaned in, and asked, “Are you Groucho Marx?” “No,” he replied, “are you?” First Pinky, now Groucho, both having their way with me. I couldn’t win.
In early postwar Los Angeles, more than baseball was in the air, and the Daily News covered it all. More and more, the city discovered it was choking with smog. So, garbage-burning backyard incinerators were outlawed. Al Capone died that year, though not in Los Angeles; but the more newly notorious Bugsy Siegel, who’d murdered his way west to LA, was gunned down in his mistress’s house nearby in Beverly Hills. There were also the last of Tony Cornero Stralla’s lavish gambling ships, huge floating casinos, anchored three miles off the coast of Santa Monica, seized by the FBI with the backing of the Governor, Earl Warren. Warren had been harassing the “Admiral” (as he called him) for several years. The Admiral didn’t give up easily though. When the authorities boarded several Coast Guard cutters and reached his S.S. Rex, he turned the ship’s fire hoses on them, battling what he claimed was the government’s own piracy on the high seas. He held them off for three days before finally surrendering and closing the ships down.
And there were events even more grisly that kept me glued to the News. Two years past the war, with Ernie Pyle’s dispatches no longer coming in, Manchester Boddy’s Daily News was exposing society’s sordid underbelly closer to home—a woman named Mabel Terwilliger stabbed to death by her daughter. . . Winnie Ruth Judd, the notorious “trunk murderess,” judged insane in the 1930s, escaping yet again from the asylum in Phoenix. . . and the most grisly (hence most fascinating) of all, the Black Dahlia murder in January, about a week before Capone died. “Girl Victim of Sex-Fiend Found Slain” one headline screamed. The next day it was “Nude Mutilated Body Indicated Orgy of Torture Before Murder.” The unsolved murder stayed front-page material for months. Avidly, I followed the stories of the 20-year-old woman who'd been found on an empty lot near Leimart Park, surgically bisected at the waist. The two halves had lain several feet apart. The police were following every lead, and every lead was proving false. Dozens of arrests were made, and every arrestee soon released. Hundreds of people confessed to the murder (which seemed a story unto itself). Speculation about the victim, Elizabeth Short of Massachusetts, appeared regularly. Had she been some star-struck innocent trying to make it in Hollywood, a prostitute or porn performer, or just a gold-digger going from lover to lover till she met the wrong one?
Beyond a doubt, Black Dahlia was the most sensational L.A. story of 1947, and the Daily News was all over it. But a story of much more consequence unfolded simultaneously. The U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was aiming its guns at Communist subversion in the Hollywood film industry, my father’s industry. The Cold War had begun, with anti-Communist hysteria at full fever, and HUAC had trained its guns on alleged Communist subversion in the industry. While the story didn’t interest me nearly as much as the lurid Black Dahlia did, my father almost nightly regaled me with details of what he called “the Inquisition.”
Under the chairmanship of J. Parnell Thomas --a man so small, said my father, that he sat on a phone book to chair the hearings—the Committee questioned hundreds of people about their political affiliations. A freshman congressman named Nixon sat on the Committee. “Friendly witnesses” were invited to spill the beans, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Louis B. Mayer among them. The same questions were asked over and over again, names were named, and careers were ruined. Hundreds of writers and actors were blacklisted, barred from working in the film industry. “Unfriendly witnesses” like screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., and John Howard Lawson stood on their First and Fifth Amendment rights, defying the Committee and refusing to answer the accusatory questions thrown at them. (“Are you now, or have you ever been. . . .”) The Communist Party was not then, or had it ever been, illegal in America. But it was, defacto, in the new Un-America. Nineteen of the unfriendlies were subpoened that year, and ten went to jail on the questionable charge of contempt of Congress. Who could help but be contemptuous?
Only one foreign “witness” was called to testify –which made him, I guess, ipso facto, un-American. Bertolt Brecht, the esteemed German playwright, had been living and working, to some acclaim, in Hollywood since 1941, having spent the eight preceding years in Europe staying one step ahead of Hitler’s stormtroopers. By 1947, that fateful year, he had been preparing and rehearsing his newest play, Galileo, for its American premiere in Los Angeles. The Coronet Theater on La Cienega, where it opened, was on my paper route. Brecht at first refused to testify before the Committee, but decided, risking the wrath of many of his soulmates on the Left, to comply with the subpoena. The playwright, who had once said, “He who laughs last hasn’t heard the bad news yet,” was unintimidated. He testified, inconsequentially, smoking an acrid cigar, quipping in broken English and feigning an inability to understand the language adequately. As my father told me then, Brecht was only a visitor in America, so the Committee dismissed him.
The very next day, Galileo having completed its run, Brecht sailed back to Europe. But for me, personally, that gets ahead of the story.
(Part 3 of “Galileo and Me” will appear here in several weeks)
DAVID FINE is Emeritus Professor of English at the California State University, Long Beach, and former chairman of American Studies there. His book, Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (2000), won the Southern California Historical Society’s Pfleuger Award as the best regional book of the year.