Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Man Who Changed My Life

Gil, left, in1976 with another great editor, Don Murdaugh 
It was 1968.  I was 23 years old.  I had worked for a weekly paper, the Mount Holly (N.J.) Herald, for four months when I had a job interview with the editor of The Trentonian in Trenton, N.J.
 I was an hour late for the interview and figured,” boy, I’ve really blown it!”
But little did I know, the editor was one of those people who was oblivious to the passage of time and didn’t seem to notice that I was late.
“I can hire you,” he said, “at the same salary you are making now,” which was $90 a week.
“No,” I responded (since I was pretty sure the job interview was history in any case), l can’t come here for less than $110 a week.
He said, “Well, I have to think about that.”
A week later, he called and said, “Okay, I will hire you at $110 a week but you better be damned good.” (I wasn't.)
That was the nexus, the turning point, that determined how the rest of my life, and several other lives, would go. That’s how much I owe F. Gilman Spencer III—not the Delaware County Daily Times columnist but his father. 
Six months later Gil Also hired my later-to-be husband, Stuart Rose, who turned out to be a fine newspaper editor himself, and for the next eight years, Stu and I could not wait to get up in the morning and go to work for Gil.
Gil died last  Friday at age 85. He had a long life, a great life, a larger-than-life life. 
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of journalists who fell in love with Gil Spencer.  I am but one.
He was the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News (where he saved the career of novelist Pete Dexter), the New York Daily News (where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill) and the Denver Post. 
Early in his career, he worked for the Delaware County Daily Times, then the Chester Times.  He often told a story about being sent to court to cover the arraignment of a local madam in Chester. 
He was thrilled.  It was a huge story. The court testimony revealed the madam’s client list, including many local politicians and judges.  He breathlessly called in the names, but by the time he got back to the paper, the names had all been deleted!  Such were the conventions of journalism back then.
But Gil went on to become a legendary editor, He was fearless, beholden to no one and often at war with publishers and politicians alike.  At The Trentonian, he was hired by the legendary Ralph Ingersoll, fired by someone else in the chain of command and rehired by Ralph within days because he had the temerity to go to Ralph’s house and fight for his job.
And he was, at some point, an announcer for WCAU-TV.  He used to tell this story about when he started:  Every half hour, it was his job to go to the mike and say in a deep voice, ‘This is WCAU-TV.”  After a couple of days of that he asked his trainer, “Why don’t you just record that?” and the trainer replied. “Shhh.”
Gil was the greatest cheerleader I ever met.  Each day he’d saunter out into the newsroom:
‘That was a terrific piece you did,” he’d say to one reporter.
“You really socked it to them.’ He’d say to another.
“Give me a cigarette,” he’d say to a third.
He was always trying to quit smoking.  One time he came and sat on my desk and distracted me by talking about a story as his hand subtly snaked into my purse, extracted a cigarette and casually lighted it, pretending innocence the whole time.
He was fiercely loyal to his staff.  He’d defend you to the death if he thought you were right and he’d defend you pretty much the whole way even if he thought maybe you were at least partly wrong.
He was famous for starting wastebasket fires with his cigarettes, and when he was at The Trentonian, he had a corkboard behind his desk where he extinguished thousands of cigarettes until they finally took it down. 
But back then, we all smoked. 
Gil was an amazing writer and editor.  His editorials were luminous, entertaining, gripping.  I remember one editorial where he characterized some local politician as a lizard, crawling out from under a rock, loathsome and venomous, to wither in the light of day.  What editor writes like that today?
I am most proud of this: When Gil Spencer won the Pulitzer Prize, I was the reporter at the Trentonian  chosen to write the story.
Only three of us in the newsroom knew it was happening.  Gil was on the phone with U.S. District Judge Herbert J. Stern who had nominated him for the prize.   When the news came across the teletype, Gil whooped and threw the phone into the air where it landed in the nearest wastebasket.  We had to fish the judge out of the trash.
At his Pulitzer party, we strapped him into a straitjacket borrowed from Trenton State Hospital (for the criminally insane) and I squirted whipped cream all over his face.  He was then required to give his acceptance speech.  He was a good sport.
Thank you, Gil, for the rare privilege of having known you, having worked for you and having been one of your countless friends.  

1 comment:

  1. I would love to get a copy of that photo! Trentonian published it with his "death package," but I can't find it anywhere! Once we got beat on a story by the Rocky. Gil blew a gasket and employed his F. usage to work, modifying it for the first time ever: He slammed his hands on the table and the oxygen left the room, then he YELLED for all to hear in Editorial, "Rat Fuck!" ... about 15 seconds passed when I looked at Gil and said, "Gil! You learned a new work!" He looks at me serious, knowing I was about to crack him up. I replied, "RAT!" The room cracked up and he said, "You little fucker!" with a big smile. He promoted me, after 5 big-paper or mag editors flamed out over 9 months, to the Exec. Sports Editor role. I was the second youngest in the history of the paper ... youngest was a play-write named Damon Runyon.
    "It was clear early he didn't want to be there, but then it just got into his blood and the Post became his," said Michael Connelly, former executive sports editor at the Post. "He decided he was going to obsess on the Post like he did at every other paper he edited."
    In his obit at The Post for the first edition, of course they cut it to nine graphs for the final, then buried below the fold on the local shit cover ...

    Connelly recalled when Spencer, having endured a series of sports editors, suddenly called him over and gave him his long-awaited big break.

    "Without warning, Gil says, never looking up or even making eye contact, while fumbling through papers on his desk: 'OK, you little (expletive),'" Connelly recalled. "'You have 20 minutes with the publisher right now. Survive that, and you will be the sports editor at this paper. Fail, and you'll be delivering (expletive) papers."
    Would kill for that photo! Seriously!