THE SHIP NEWS REPORTER

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There was this great interview by Beth Whitehouse with E.L. Doctorow in Newsday the other day in which Ed Doctorow was talking about his latest book, "The Waterworks," set in the 1870s, and how New York has changed since then. And how it has in ways remained the same.

Ms. Whitehouse asked about New York's newspapers.

"Of course that was the great time when the modern newspaper as we know it came into being," Doctorow replied, "There were a dozen papers and the sense of competition was keen. Even to having what they called newsboats go out to meet the incoming liners to get the European news before the competition did ..."

My first grownup reporting job was covering the New York retail stores for Women's Wear Daily, then as now considered to be the retailers' daily newspaper. I was fresh out of the Marine Corps with a year of Macy's under my belt and here I was calling on powerful and fascinating figures like Walter Hoving at Tiffany and Adam Gimbel at Saks Fifth Avenue and Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor and Jack Straus of Macy's.

I was paid a hundred a week and on the strength of it promptly bought a new fire engine red Ford convertible.

At the same time that I was covering the retail beat, another Fairchild reporter, one Frank Engel, was our ship news reporter. They no longer had what Mr. Doctorow recalls as the "newsboats" of the 1870s, but the New York papers as a regular matter sent reporters to meet the great trans-Atlantic liners, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the France, the United States, to cover arriving personalities.

That was Mr. Engel's beat. He was an older gentleman with silver hair and a matching silver mustache and had once worked for Hearst or somebody like that and clearly considered himself far too good for the company he was now keeping. He was rather ashamed of having to work for a trade paper like WWD or its sister publications (Footwear News, Home Furnishings Daily, Super and the like), and had business cards made up that read, "Fairchild News Service."

These he would pass out, sort of suggesting FNS was something like Scripps-Howard. Or the AP. And not a bunch of lousy business papers.

Occasionally, when Engel was on vacation or ill, I drew the assignment of meeting the incoming liners. and he would draw me aside in advance to caution me against ever mentioning Women's Wear to either passengers or other reporters on the ground it would diminish me in their view. Instead, Engel said, I should shout, "Brady of Fairchild News Service!" and start taking notes.

I don't know that I ever took his advice on this or anything else and got along just fine.

We would board a customs boat somewhere downtown about dawn (the liners always arrived in early morning), a dozen or so reporters and photographers mingling with the customs and immigration officials, to meet the liner off what they called "quarantine," over there on the Staten Island shore, from where a health service boat would also set out, to meet the liner and board her, just to be sure there was no plague aboard.

Then the reporters were turned loose. The steamship company, Cunard or the French Lines or whatever, would hand over a roster of first-class passengers. I would immediately start seeking out the president of Marshall Field or some famous Seventh Avenue designer to ask about business in Europe and if any new deals had been cut and so on. The other reporters would pursue the politicians and playboys and, of course, the movie stars.

We all had about two hours before the ship, shepherded by a fleet of tugs, could make its way slowly up river and maneuver snugly up against its berth.

Occasionally these shipboard interviews generated a real story; usually not. I think most of us were out there just to be sure if anything happened that we wouldn't get scooped, a kind of negative mindset. But not the newspaper photographers. They had their own agenda. A staple back then of the daily paper was the so-called "cheesecake" shot, an attractive woman posed, usually perched on the ship's rail, showing a bit of leg and being toothy for the camera.

This was felt to be sufficiently exciting to arouse the masses.

But the photographers also functioned on a second level. Once they'd gotten the standard cheesecake shots at the rail, there were those among them who attempted to get the young woman back to her stateroom for other, let us say, "more intimate" photos. These would never see publication in the New York papers but would become part of the photographer's private "gallery" of work, to be passed about and savored by his fellows back at the city room or in the photo department.

Did Mr. Engel know any of this was going on? I doubt that he did. He was far too busy gladhandling customs agents and calling them "Commish" and helping himself, as we all did, to the canapes and sandwiches and champagne the steamship line PR people laid out as a matter of course.

Time passed. About 10 years later I came back to New York from Europe to become publisher of WWD. Engel was still around, still slightly embarrassed about working for a trade paper outfit. Hearst dailies were folding right and left; the Fairchild papers were booming, but old Engel still thought we didn't amount to much. By now, there were fewer of the great trans-Atlantic liners and the passenger jet was the big thing. So he was spending more time at JFK than at the piers meeting bigshots and doing interviews.

Whenever I flew in from Paris or wherever, Engel would hustle out to meet me, to grease my way. I didn't need this or want it but there he was. On my own, I usually slid effortlessly through customs. Whenever Frank Engel showed, shouting out, "Commish, Commish! This is my publisher. Get him through OK, will ya?" there was grief.

It was then, inevitably, that they squeezed my toothpaste tube empty, looking for the industrial diamonds, sniffing out the heroin, the purloined letter.

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