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The Front Page

I could think of nothing but the Cronin case. I slept with it. I ate with it. I drew on the cashier [the managing editor] of our struggling newspaper for what he considered enormous sums to pay the expenses of reporters lodging in the same houses with a score of persons under suspicion.11

In 1893, the policeman convicted in 1890 was granted a new trial, which was even longer than the first one and repeated the suspicions, expressed earlier, of jury tampering. By this time Dunne was no longer city editor but was writing his dialect column about Mr. Dooley’s bar. The need to hold the community together is expressed in Mr. Dooley’s deft swivelings:

Well sir, whin this here verdict was brought in ivry wan in th’ r-road asked me me opinion iv it. Schneider, the low Dutchman what keeps down below, he comes in an he says, says he, in his German brogue, he says: ‘Well, Mr. Dooley, what ye t’ink iv dis here Coughlin preezness,’ he says. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘Bisma-ark,’ I says (I allways calls him Bisma-ark). ‘Bisma-ark,’ I says, ‘I’m ashamed iv me race,’ I say. ‘Tis a low outrage,’ I says. ‘Tis time som wan stopped this here business,’ says I. ‘F’r,’ I says, ‘if ‘twas wan iv ye-er people he’d be hung,’ I says. He bought a dhrink or two an’ wint away.

Pretty soon I hears a r-roar an’ in bounds Maloney, th’ new sanyer guardjean iv the wolf Tone Timp’rance an’ Beniv’lent Sodality. ‘Huroo!’ he says. ‘Huroo!’ says I. ‘Who’s ilicted?’ ‘He’s acquitted,’ says he. ‘Huroo! huroo!’ says I. ‘Huroo!’ I says. “Tis a vindication iv us again th’ dips [informers?],’ says I. ‘Tis that,’ says he. An’ he bought an’ wint away. Well, sir, he’d got no further than th’ bridge whin in comes Hogan that’s wan iv th’ other side. ‘Give us a dhrink,’ he says. ‘What d’ye think iv it?’ ‘Tis a nice clear day,’ I says, duckin’. ‘I mean th’ verdict,’ he says, lukin’ at me ha-ard. ‘What verdict?” says I. ‘Haven’t ye hear-rd?’ he says, brightenin’ up. ‘They’ve acquitted him.’ ‘Acquitted him!’ says I. ‘Glory be to Gawd,’ I says, ‘How cud they do it?’ says I. ‘Tis a disgrace,’ I says, an’ he bought another wan an’ wint away.”12

In this case, Dunne used the language of an angry people to disarm anger. At other times, he expressed the community’s anger, as when he asked WASPs, who thought the Irish incapable of learning their own ways, how hard it can be to learn about burning witches.13 Only a person from within the fractious Irish neighborhoods could plead so eloquently for peace there: “Did ye iver have to wipe ye’er most intimate frinds off ye’er clothes, whin ye wint home at night?”14

To cover Chicago’s energetic enclaves took ingenuity and—often—duplicity. The tradition of journalistic trickery celebrated in The Front Page comes from a situation in which reporters had to penetrate different communities by acts of semi-espionage. To cover the secret church trial of a minister for misconduct, Tribune reporters ran a garden hose down the stovepipe of the room being used as a tribunal and listened at the upper level. 15

The Front Page tradition of Chicago journalism was picked up again by William Randolph Hearst’s Herald & Examiner, fondly (or not so) known as the “Her-Ex” (pronounced Hair-Ex), where the original of the play’s Walter Burns worked. This was Walter Howey, one of Hearst’s favorite trouble-shooters—and troublemakers. Howey had been an editor at the Tribune but he left that paper in 1917 when its management criticized his promotion of D.W. Griffith in the paper. He got his revenge by tricking the Tribune into a “scoop” that actually publicized an upcoming serial in the Herald & Examiner. He also hired the rebellious Eleanor Medill (“Cissy”) Patterson to write a series of articles on Chicago, and billed her as “Sister of Joseph Medill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune.”16

In 1930, when Hearst put “Cissy” in charge of his Washington Herald he sent Howey to the capital to offer her editorial guidance. They had an affair that eerily reflects The Front Page as it was amended by Howard Hawks. In the play, Howey’s character is teamed with a male reporter, Hildy Johnson—based on the Her-Ex reporter Hilding Johnson, a tough but laconic reporter, not at all like the word-rattling figure on the stage.17 Hawks changed Hildy’s gender and made the journalists lovers as well as professional colleagues. That reflects, no doubt accidentally, the real-life if brief liaison of the manipulative Howey and the fiery Patterson. Adela Rogers St. John, who was living with Howey in the Patterson mansion on Dupont Circle during the affair, said: “I’m sure Howey won her because she was completely sure that he would kick her right in the teeth and throw her out of the window if she crossed him. Here was another man she did not have to lie on her back to look up to.” 18 Bring on Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.


Chicago journalism was not all brashness and shenanigans. The paper that lasted longer than any but the Tribune was the Chicago Daily News (1875-1978), which had literary flair without the skullduggery that so often went with enterprise in Chicago reporting. Its editor was the pious son of Norwegian immigrants, Victor Lawson. His father, Iver Lawson, had prospered in the real estate business and turned to public service. As city marshall, he was in charge of policing the boisterous convention that nominated Lincoln in 1860. Later he was an alderman active in purifying the Chicago River (that perennial task of reformers) and a representative in the Springfield legislature.19 His son was sent to Phillips Andover; but he suspended his education when his father died to take over the Norwegian paper, Scandinaven, his father owned.

In 1876, Lawson bought the Chicago Daily News, founded the year before, and made Melville Stone its editor. Lawson and Stone meant to raise the moral and literary level of Chicago journalism. In that age of partisanship, they refused to let their paper be a party organ. Stone had been dismayed at the demands put on him as editor of the Republican daily, the Inter Ocean. Lawson’s religious scruples made him refuse liquor advertisements and sexually titillating stories. He later had grave reservations about publishing on Sunday.

But piety did not blunt the two men’s business acumen. Stone, during an earlier stint as a Washington correspondent, had learned of the success of penny newspapers in New York. The Daily News was launched as a penny paper at a time when Chicago’s established papers charged a nickel a copy. Price wars would be a favorite weapon of Lawson, one that several times threatened the Tribune‘s existence.

In 1883, the Daily News began the first daily signed column in American newspapers—“Sharps and Flats” by Eugene Field.20 Field is best known now for children’s verse like “Wyncken, Blynken, and Nod.” But he was known to fellow journalists as an impish prankster whose practical jokes got him expelled from three colleges. He sorely tried the staid Victor Lawson—as when his published jibes brought threats of libel against the paper, or when he protested supervision by coming into the office wearing a prison uniform and chained himself to his desk.21 The impact of Field’s column, which captured the rhythms of urban life, can be seen from Theodore Dreiser’s reaction to it as a teenager:

For two years and more I had been reading “Sharps and Flats,” a column which he wrote daily, and through this—the varied phases of life he suggested in a humorous, romantic way—I was beginning to understand that I wanted to write. Nothing else that I had read so far—books, plays, poems, histories—gave me quite the same feeling for constructive thought; for the subject of his daily notes, poems, and aphorisms was Chicago and America, whereas all the others dealt or concerned themselves with foreign lands.22

The writing standard set in the Daily News—by columnists like Field and George Ade, by literate editors like Henry Justin Smith, by its respected Wednesday book page—played into Chicago’s desire to be seen as a cultural capital as well as a place of roiling capitalist opportunity. Dreiser says that the regular advice of editors to reporters in Chicago was to imitate the journalism of Dickens—funny, humane, rich in detail.23 Ben Hecht says that the Daily News in particular had “a reportorial staff that was half daft with literary dreams.”24

The Daily News tradition continued into this century. Henry Justin Smith, who had risen in the Lawson era, hired Carl Sandburg as a labor reporter in 1917. Sandburg, whose earlier radicalism has been buried under later Lincolnian goo, came to Chicago to edit a socialist paper (after serving as a socialist organizer in Milwaukee). During World War I, the Daily News was investigated by the army’s Military Intelligence Division for suspected Bolshevism, partly because of Sandburg. The acting director of Military Intelligence warned superiors of the menace:

Carl Sandberg [sic], a poet and newspaper writer of Chicago, is of Swedish descent, highly educated, and speaks several languages fluently. He is known as a radical and is one of the original members of “The Dill Pickle,” a club composed of intellectual anarchists, radicals, freelovers and revolutionists. He has been connected with the Lithuanian radicals, the Stockyards I.W.W., and in 1918 was elected by the Lithuanian branch of the Stockyards I.W.W. to represent it in Russia on the proposed American Economic Mission.25

It was the ideal of reporters at that time to do as Sandburg did—“to listen to the sounds of many tongues, Swedes along Belmont Avenue, Irish in Bridgeport and Brighton Park, Bohemians along 26th Street, Jews on Roosevelt Road, Poles out along Milwaukee Avenue and, here and there, Germans, Italians, Austrians and Hungarians.”26 Lawson and Stone did not want Dickensian “color” at the price of accuracy, or of efficiency in news gathering. They set up a Daily News Foreign News Service, and championed the Associated Press, a non-profit and inclusive cooperative, against the competitive and exclusive United Press.27


In this century, no journalist has towered over Chicago journalism like Robert (“Bertie”) Rutherford McCormick, the scion of old enemies. He was the grandnephew of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaper, who came from Virginia. As a Southern sympathizer, McCormick had financed the Chicago Times to oppose Medill’s pro-Lincoln Tribune. Despite the family history, Medill’s willful daughter Kate married the son of Cyrus McCormick’s brother, William. Kate pushed her husband Robert (“Rob”) McCormick into a diplomatic career he was not fit for. Her son Bertie would grow up resenting a) the State Department that had been dissatisfied with his father, b) the foreign governments to which that father had been dispatched, and c) those who educated Bertie himself, as an insecure outsider at an English public school and at Groton and at Yale.

  1. 11

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, p. 153.

  2. 12

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, pp. 165-166.

  3. 13

    De Muth, Small Town Chicago, pp. 30-31.

  4. 14

    Charles Fanning, “Mr. Dooley Reconsidered,” in At the Crossroads: Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish, edited by Ellen Skerrett (Loyola Press, 1997), p. 77.

  5. 15

    Ellen Warren, “Scoops!” Chicago Tribune, Commemorative Edition, June 8, 1997, Section 2A, p. 7.

  6. 16

    Lloyd Wendt, Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper (Rand McNally, 1979), p. 462.

  7. 17

    For Hilding Johnson, see William T. Moore, Dateline Chicago (Taplinger, 1973), pp. 59-60.

  8. 18

    Ralph G. Martin, Cissy (Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 283.

  9. 19

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, pp. 20-23.

  10. 20

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, p. 116.

  11. 21

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, pp. 117-118, and Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, (Simon and Schuster, 1954), p. 250.

  12. 22

    Dreiser, Newspaper Days, p. 3.

  13. 23

    Dreiser, Newspaper Days, p. 77.

  14. 24

    Hecht, A Child of the Century, p. 341.

  15. 25

    Philip R. Yannella, The Other Carl Sandburg (University Press of Mississippi, 1996), p. 120. Among those who attended meetings of the ominous Dill Pickle Club were Ben Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, and Sinclair Lewis. Asked on an employee’s payroll form to identify his schooling for Daily News records, Sandburg listed: “Dill Pickle Club.” See North Callahan, Carl Sandburg (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987), p. 77.

  16. 26

    Callahan, Carl Sandburg, p. 76.

  17. 27

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, pp. 205, 26.

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