Picayune Memories

I can not remember a day in my life without the morning Times-Picayune on the doorstep. Did that influence my decision to become a writer? I don’t know, but two years after I graduated from Newcomb College, I was hired as a city desk reporter at The Times-Picayune.

The Times-Picayune, in those days, was located on Lafayette Square, and it had been in that vicinity from the early 19th century. It was rather old-fashioned, to put it mildly. The press men actually wore caps – like folded boats made from newsprint – so they could keep ink out of their hair.

Reporters were paid in cash, in an envelope, every Friday. I was told that it was because reporters always wanted to go out and gamble on payday, a hobby I never acquired.

There was a large newsroom; on one side was the The Times-Picayune and on the other The States-Item (that was the afternoon paper). There were still editions throughout the day: I remember there were the Final, the Bulldog and something called the Bullpup. Times-Picayune editions ended with the one printed around midnight and delivered early in the morning. States-Item editions started around 9 a.m. and ended with one around 4:30 p.m., which people bought on their way home from work.

In The Times-Picayune ladies room, there was an older woman in a white uniform who was there on duty all day. I was told that she was the last lady-press man left of the women who had worked during World War II, and this was a job they created for her. There was one reporter, Albert Goldstein, who had been at a defunct paper, the New Orleans Item, and he was the only reporter who had ever belonged to a union. Albert (his name was pronounced al-BAIR, in the French way) had also worked on the Double Dealer literary magazine in the 1920s.

The art critic was Alberta “Rusty” Collier. It was said that once she got so mad at an editor she threw her typewriter out of the window. The medical affairs reporter was Podine Schoenberger. She was very bright and won a lot of awards, and she wore showy hats.

The big-time female political reporters were Iris Kelso and Rosemary James. They got the juicy political stories and knew all the politicians. The police reporter was Jack Dempsey, a jovial fellow I got to know better at the Press Club, which my husband and I joined.

One of my stories received an award in the annual Press Club contest: the one on the Krewe of Zulu’s Mardi Gras parade. As a city desk reporter, I covered almost anything: luncheon speeches; press conferences; interviews with visiting dignitaries (I interviewed both A. Philip Randolph and Coretta King); movie reviews; fish kills; and everything in between. Reporters always went out with photographers, because they had cars. One of the photographers moonlighted by selling crime photos, and he was always taking detours to crime scenes. You could invent topics for yourself: I did a three-part feature on high school guidance counseling and one on a decaying cemetery.

I didn’t really know the upper levels of the hierarchy at the paper. George Healey was the editor, but other than telling me “don’t be cute” when he hired me and refusing to pay me more than $15 for a magazine feature I thought was worth more, I had little to do with him. Arthur Felt was the managing editor and his daughter was a friend of mine, but I seldom saw him.

I worked on the city desk and the city editor was Fritz Harsdorff, a skinny Texan with a nice smile, and his assistant or maybe co-editor was Vince Randazzo, who was from New Orleans and had a gruff manner but a good sense of humor. Randazzo worked Saturdays; so did I and so did my fellow reporter Don Lee Keith. Keith was from Mississippi, was droll and was a very good writer. Another Saturday veteran was Jim Conaway, until he became a police reporter. Conaway was writing a novel at the time, and would go on to write more books.

Saturdays could be dull, so Randazzo would give us things to do. Memorize the 64 parishes of Louisiana. Learn the names of the New Orleans legislators. Write obituaries. At Christmas, we also had to write stories for the Doll and Toy Fund, about poor little children and their need for toys; we cheerfully made them up.

Every journalist longs for a great story. Mine came in September of 1965 with Hurricane Betsy. We lived Uptown in the lower apartment in a duplex.

For the night of the hurricane we had a full house of people for a dinner party. The wind raged, the roof blew off and the rain came in. In the morning, those of us who had to get downtown set out, dodging downed trees. I got to The Times-Picayune on time.

The presses had a generator, but the lights were out in the rest of the building. Since we had manual typewriters (and cigarette-strewn floors – smokers never had ashtrays) and we could open the windows, we just set to work. Some telephones worked, others didn’t. The Coke machine lost refrigeration and we drank hot Cokes. Keith and I eventually walked toward Canal Street for lunch, and Serio’s Delicatessen was making free sandwiches because their refrigerators were off. We dodged power lines and broken plate glass.

My first assignment that day was to cover the City Hall press conference. I walked there. When I came up the front steps I was greeted by Sunny Schiro, then-Mayor Vic Schiro’s wife. She was pushing an industrial-sized broom, and she recognized me. “Carolyn, the windows blew out. We have to get this glass out of the way,” she said, and pointed me to a broom. We cleaned the floor in time for the conference. The next morning, every reporter who had come in to work had a byline on the front page, so at least people would know we were safe.

In Betsy, The Times-Picayune could print and deliver papers. St. Bernard Parish, Gentilly, the 9th Ward and the Lakefront had flooded. New Orleans is a geographic bowl, and when water comes in the bowl fills. But in Betsy, the dry part of the city could still function and we had readers out there who needed their news, even if some of our reporting staff couldn’t get in to work because of flooding. Everyone who could come in worked. We went six weeks without a day off, and we arrived early and we stayed late.

It was an exhausting time, but it was one of those times when being a reporter really mattered. Power was out, television sets and radios might not work but we could still put out a newspaper. We filled a basic need, and there’s great pride in doing that.

Years later, Times-Picayune reporters managed to get through Hurricane Katrina; without a press, in a flood, headquartered in another town, they managed to report to their readers and they earned a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage.

Cutting The Times-Picayune to three days a week is a heart-breaking thing to do to New Orleans. I will never believe that this cruelty was necessary.

I regret it immensely.

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