Trump, and Tronc, to Daily News: Drop Dead

BY HARRY PINCUS | Did I just miss something? Has there just been, within the daily gyre of bad news swirling around our “favorite president” a death notice posted for the New York Daily News?

What a coincidence it is, that our president, who regards the free press as an enemy of the people, should preside over the loss of a beloved institution that is so crucial to the collective understanding of our era. A faraway entity with the menacing name of Tronc has dealt us a blow that will stain our city like the ghost of the missing towers upon our skyline. Whether it was something sinister, like the Justice Department’s opposition to the AT&T-Time Warner merger, or simply the price of ink and newsprint, the deed appears to be done. Trump or Tronc, what’s the difference?

Long before Trump told a rally, “Don’t believe what you’re reading or seeing,” there was another greatly admired figure who fought for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” out of an edifice that greatly resembled the old Daily News building on 42nd St. His name was Clark Kent, and he worked there.

It was also my good fortune to find work as a freelance illustrator at the New York Daily News, in the latter decades of the 20th century, just before the dawn of the digital age, and long past the great paper’s heyday.

It was thrilling to enter the imposing lobby of the Daily News for the first time, beneath the granite bas-relief of the workers of the world, and the inscription from Abraham Lincoln, “God must love the common people, because…HE MADE SO MANY OF THEM.” Here was a vehicle of expression that reached out to millions. At its postwar peak, 2.4 million readers daily, and 4.7 million on Sunday. It took a cast of thousands to produce and distribute such a thing, and the newsroom was as jam-packed as a World War I troopship.

This week’s announcement, that half of the editorial staff, a total of around 40 newsroom employees, was just laid off may delight our favorite president, but what a puny death trickle it was compared to the might of our old Daily News.

My Daily News was always fending off disaster. Strikes and rumors, and even an owner who ended up jumping off his yacht. Due to Robert Maxwell’s tragedy, I realized 11 cents on the dollar for my illustrations in bankruptcy court, and the paper barely survived.

As an artist, I tried to bring realism directly to the people, even if they were only buying the paper for the Lucky Bucks promotions.

Harry Pincus with a blowup of his “Ronaway!” front-page illustration that was displayed in the lobby of the old Daily News building on E. 42nd St.

The height of my own career might have occurred when the Daily News lured me away from the New York Times Week In Review, where I was busily engaged in depicting the American electorate for the 1984 presidential election. When I checked in on my Answerphone, (remember those?), a  familiar voice was barking, “Pincus get over here!” It could only be the Daily News, directly across town, and I excitedly asked for photos of “all your Mondales, and all your Reagans.”

“It’s for the day after the election,” said the art director, “Reagan Bush.” He assured me that the election was all but over, but that I was welcome to come by for drinks and sandwiches on election night. But it was Reagan Bush.

The resultant “Ronaway! Fritz gets Blitzed” front page was everywhere. After a nap of shame, I took a bus up to the Limelight that night, and everyone on the bus had my front page. Dave Winfield of the Yankees was standing outside the front door of the club, holding it. It was even blown up in the Daily News lobby, and hung in the newsroom. I used to take girls on dates to the lobby to look at that miserable front page.

When the News had a party for a new section it launched, former Mayor Lindsay, now a forgotten man, was lost in a corner. I’d worked for Lindsay, as a 16-year-old in Coney Island, and I brought the fallen mayor over to look at my Page One cover image.

John Lindsay glared at my drawing of the jubilant Reagan, and shook his head, “What a schmuck!” he said.

Still, the Daily News retained a redolence of past glories. The old wooden clock, seen over Humphrey Bogart’s shoulder in “Deadline, U.S.A.,” kept watch over the newsroom, and celebrities often came by to kibitz, and plant stories in the gossip column.

One sleepless morning, following an all-night deadline, I was asked if I’d like to meet Bob Hope. The art director thought I ought to present Bob Hope holding a copy of “Ronaway.”

In this same lobby, where Clark Kent had emerged as Superman, bronze markers emanated from the gigantic globe to indicate the precise distance of every world capital from the Daily News. On this particular morning, a white Christmas tree was set up on a platform, beside a frosty, gilded throne. There sat Bob Hope, with a Santa hat, and a young beauty contestant sitting on his lap, wearing a sash that said “Miss Florida.”

“How ya feelin’, Bob?” called out someone from the crowd.

“Quiet. I’m working,” said Bob Hope.

When he extricated himself from “Miss Florida” and came down off his throne, the ageless star was escorted to a photo exhibition, which featured a blowup of an exhausted looking Bing Crosby riding, unrecognized, in a New York City subway car. The ancient vaudevillian was shocked and saddened at the sight of his old friend, the late Bing, and a tear came to his eyes.

A Page One illustration for the Daily News featuring former Mayor Ed Koch by Harry Pincus.

An old retouch artist named Jimmy Delehanty told me that he used to write a travel column for William Randolph Hearst, down on Printers Row in the ’20s.

“Mr. Hearst was always very kind to me,” he said. And when I asked him how old he was, Jimmy Delehanty said he was 64.

“So you were 4 years old when you wrote the column, Jimmy?” I asked.

“Oh no. I’m 68.”

Back then, Jimmy used to run with his friend, the cartoonist Segar, who dressed him as his greatest creation, Popeye, and introduced him at the bar as “my son.”

He spoke of Damon Runyon in the present tense, as if the creator of “Guys and Dolls” was still with us.

“That was his desk, right over there,” said Jimmy Delehanty, with genuine reverence.

Some of the wags at the News didn’t appreciate the significance of Jimmy Delehanty, and they often hid his airbrush and tried to ridicule him into taking “the buyout.”

“The buyout” was tabloid heaven, retirement money that most Daily News workers could only dream of. Jimmy, however, was a widower, with no children. His life was the newspaper, and he confided to me that after so many decades of service, he could cash in on a tidy sum, nearly $200,000.

So Jimmy finally took the buyout, and before long, word came that he had married his housekeeper, and that she had absconded with all of his buyout money!

In a small office unto himself, was Bill Gallo, the sports cartoonist who invented Basement Bertha as a symbol of the last-place Mets, and Steingrabber, the imperious owner of the Yankees. I grew up with Gallo’s work, which defined the world of sports, whether it gravitated toward realism or off into the ethos of fancy. Now I was working just outside of his office, asking him about his friend Joe DiMaggio (“Don’t ever talk about Marilyn” to him, he said) or what it was like to hang out with Babe Ruth.

I once told Bill Gallo about how my mother had forestalled the eviction of her immigrant parents from their Brownsville apartment, by walking into Jack Dempsey’s Broadway restaurant and selling the Champ not one, but two Collier’s Encyclopedias, one for each daughter. This diamond of family lore had landed me an illustration gig at a fancy Madison Ave. clothier, but barely impressed Bill Gallo, who simply said that Dempsey was an easy touch, and a sucker for anyone who asked for a handout.

On Jan. 12, 1928, a Daily News photographer hid a tiny camera under his pants leg, and photographed the electric chair execution of Ruth Snyder, a Queens woman who had murdered her husband, in order to have an affair with a married corset salesman. The next day’s one-word, screaming front-page headline, “Murder!” marked the birth of what we now call tabloid journalism.

Imagine how much fun it was to draw wife beaters, prisoners, rock stars, cops snorting coke, racist umpires glaring at black home run hitters and presidents for the Daily News!

I stayed up for a week drawing “New York’s Lost Teenagers,” which included Times Square runaways and a drawing of a kid behind the bars of welfare office chairs called, “Locked Out by the System.” When I was nearly finished, Jimmy Breslin himself walked up to my table in the windowless room with food machines, where Chock Full o’Nuts instant coffee and Entenmann’s donuts were served, kicked my chair and grunted. I felt like I had just won the Pulitzer Prize.

One of Harry Pincus’s illustrations for the Daily News.

Whenever I brought in a pen-and-ink illustration, a photostat had to be made in the Coloroto Magazine studio, which had captured almost every midcentury celebrity in glowing color, reproduced on the finest photogravure presses.

The Coloroto Studio had since fallen on hard times, and was presided over by a balding red-haired gentleman, with a short-sleeved polyester shirt, plastic horn-rimmed glasses that were clear on the bottom, and very hairy arms. He wore a wristwatch from the 1950s, with a gold expansion band, and sat impassively beneath a laminated Coloroto photograph of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, which had, by now, faded to the color of sardines in the can.

This man was not the least bit sympathetic to my pursuit of perfection. He made the photostats and he made so many of them! He could kill me in a second or two of over- or underexposure. The poorly registered image was then sent on to the compositing room, where a union rep with a whistle might threaten to shut down the entire paper if “you don’t get yer ass outta here!”

By the ’80s, the paper was printed with plastic plates on something comparable to toilet paper. Nothing looked as good as it had back in the day of Speed Graphics, zinc plates and newsprint paper with rag content. Every congressman was in focus when F.D.R. declared war on Japan, and millions depended on the veracity of the image. Now things were blurry, but I was hired to make sharp illustrations that could be printed without the crude grid used for photographs.

I once naively asked an old editor why the recent photos were so inferior to the vintage prints of the ’40s and ’50s.

“That’s because in my day, professionals used professional equipment,” he said, gesturing with shaky, nicotine-stained fingers. “We didn’t use tourist cameras!”

I assumed he was referring to 35-millimeter photography, and its small negatives. Before the dailies invested hundreds of millions of dollars in offset lithography and color presses, retouch artists and pen-and-ink was all they had.

Indeed, for a publication that prided itself on being “New York’s Picture Newspaper,” the News didn’t take very good care of its pictures. When I needed a photo of General Omar Bradley, I was told the photo morgue had lost World War II. Someone else said it had recently been transported to a dumpster.

An editor deposited me in a locked office where I might find reference material for World War II. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I found an enormous pile of negatives that had been left out on a table, and when I picked up one of the loose negatives, I was truly amazed. It was Marilyn Monroe, with her skirt blowing up over the subway grate! I quickly handed it over to my boss, and fled.

The other day, one of the bummed-out reporters who had just been canned was interviewed outside of the current Daily News building.

“What are they going to do now,” he lamented, “hire freelancers?”

Doesn’t he know yet? We’re all just freelancers.

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