Fan Dancers on the Front Page; Readers Are Hungry for Engaging, Entertaining Stories

Article excerpt

Spare time? Please. Finding some these days is about as likely as finding Brigadoon. But when I do manage to steal a day or two, I'm enjoying a guilty pleasure--researching a book about the late and inimitably great writer Joseph Mitchell.

Journalists of a certain age commonly cite Mitchell as a major influence, and he is widely considered one of the most significant literary journalists of the 20th century. He was a champion of the uncelebrated and unwashed, a kind of prose descendent of Walt Whitman, although his truer inspiration was Joyce. Unfortunately, younger journalists are more apt to know Mitchell, if they have heard of him at all, for what he wasn't writing during all those last years at The New Yorker. (It wasn't really writer's block--he was actually quite creative well into his 80s--but that's another column.)

So some of you might be astonished to learn that at the beginning of his career, in the '30s, Joe Mitchell was a New York City newspaperman so prolific as to defy belief. His most prominent work appeared in the World-Telegram. As a page-one feature writer there, he cranked out what were basically 1,000-word spot short stories, virtually every day.

He gathered many of his favorites in a book titled "My Ears Are Bent," first published in 1938 and reissued in 2001 by Pantheon. Flip to almost any page and you will find passages that delight. Like this lead:

"Sally Rand, the lithe, hearty siren from a Missouri corn farm, who has faced prison sentences, horse-whippings, and a fate worse than death in her tumultuous career as the nation's original fan dancer, sat on a divan in her black and silver dressing room at Brooklyn's Paramount Theatre and slowly rolled the flesh-colored stockings off her celebrated legs."

That's a story I would read, as did hundreds of thousands of World-Telegram customers. So popular were Mitchell's dispatches that the paper plastered him on the billboards of its circulation trucks.

Mitchell seemed incapable of writing a dull sentence. Here he recalls the Kingfish, Huey Long: "The last time I saw him he was sitting up in bed in the Waldorf-Astoria with a hangover. ... There were three reporters in the room asking him questions. To every question he would say, 'It's a lie,' and laugh throatily."

All this came to mind as I was reading Carl Stepp's story, in the last issue of AJR, about the groundbreaking research on newspaper readership that is being conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America. …