Here’s to the late Miriam Barr, who died last month at 99, with almost half of her long life spent as a journalist. May she now be writing stories for the ages on a celestial typewriter reserved for her exclusive use.
I met her when she was just a kid in her late forties, working out of The Idaho Statesman’s Caldwell bureau office. I was the new kid on the block, hired just out of college to help with the paper’s Canyon County coverage. A co-worker confided that Miriam was a bit of a character, an assertion she wasted no time confirming.
A woman with snow white hair and piercing eyes greeted me on my first day at the tiny bureau office.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Miriam. The file cabinets and the desk next to them are mine. The other desk is yours. The typewriter on that desk is yours, too. Don’t ever touch the typewriter on my desk.”
The last sentence was spoken with as much vehemence as if she’d been telling me not to rummage through her underwear drawer.
My successor in the bureau learned just how possessive she was of that typewriter, a gleaming, black Underwood with a touch as soft as a baby’s cheek. He thought he’d have the office all to himself one afternoon when she walked in and caught him using her typewriter.
“What did she do?” I asked him.
“She picked it up and threw it across the office.”
She was an old-school reporter who seldom strayed from her beat, but wasn’t afraid to take on those who offended her sense of propriety. The owner of pornographic book store learned that the hard way when she tracked him down in another state and grilled him mercilessly for an investigative story.
Barr was one of a legion of colorful characters once common in newsrooms. A few were famous for being colorful.
The late Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle was said to have had a desk in the paper’s newsroom – where no one had seen him in years.
One of his favored haunts for writing his columns – which could be about anything from the benefits of sleeping in to the difference between shower people and bath people – was a North Beach bar. If he didn’t finish a column by his fifth bottle of “the Green Death,” his name for Rainier Ale, he threw it away and started another one.
Statesman Sportswriter Jim Poore was locally famous as a larger-than-life character. Tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds, he was forever meaning to lose weight but unable to resist temptation.
“Hey, Woodward,” he would say. “Let’s get in that ugly little car of yours and go to the Fanci Freeze for a Boston Shake (a hot fudge sundae at the bottom of a milkshake).” When a waitress turned to leave after taking his order for a family sized combination pizza and a pitcher of Coke, his dinner companion memorably called after her, “Wait! I’d like something to eat, too.”
Hanging from a wall in my home is a framed poster for the Jim Poore Invitational Golf Tournament, illustrated with a photo of a pepperoni, olive and golf-ball pizza.
Jim divided his mail into two piles, bills and everything else. The bills he consigned to a trash compactor.
He didn’t file a tax return for several years year in a row, prompting an “invitation” to visit with IRS agents. He left them laughing – and the IRS owing him money. Impossible to refuse or dislike, he charmed a dour, tight-fisted editor into sending him and me to England to look for ghosts.
And he wrote beautifully and almost effortlessly.
Al Shayt was an old-school Statesman copy editor. He wore a green eyeshade, had the unusual hobby of fashioning model airplanes out of soda and beer cans, and was a gambler extraordinaire.
Returning from weekends in Jackpot, Nev., he elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from envious co-workers by pulling fat wads of hundred-dollars bills from his pockets. He had invented a winning system and even written a short book about it.
We were shocked the weekend he returned with no Benjamins in his pockets.
“They called me into the casino manager’s office the minute I walked in the door,” he explained. “He said they were not in the business of providing second incomes for their customers and that I was banned from setting foot in the place.”
He most likely responded with his trademark expression:
“Well, I’ll be a bruised peach.”
A few weeks of becoming a persona non grata in Jackpot, he quit his job at the paper and moved.
To Atlantic City, N.J.
Features editor Betty Penson traveled the world on press junkets, staying in five-star hotels and dining with the likes of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Like Barr, she was not a woman to be crossed, as I learned after a column of mine mentioned her with what she judged to be a lack of deference. Biting references to “young Woodward” appeared in her columns intermittently for the remainder of her career.
Copy editor Gordon Peterson wore a cowboy hat, shirt and boots – and occasionally chaps – to work. With his long white hair and beard, he could have passed for Wild Bill Hickok’s older brother.
He came by the look honestly, having previously worked as a cowboy and as an editor for the Tombstone Epitaph, the paper famed for its coverage of the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was rumored that he kept a bottle of whiskey in one of his desk drawers. Having alcohol on the premises was strictly forbidden, but he was so good at his job that he was allowed to get away with it.
They don’t make newspaper characters like that any more, and in some ways that may be a good thing. Journalists today look and act more professional.
But they sure aren’t as colorful.