Shouting for Justice
The Journey of a Jewish Journalist Across the Century of Hitler and Israel
by Herb Brin. Copyright © September 2002. All rights reserved.
Preface: In Commentary . . .
As a near century of life begins to close for me, it's inevitable that I'd be asked to write what I can in memory of the events through which I lived.
Nothing special, perhaps -- for I am but one among billions who emerged with memories of the fearful Twentieth Century, amazed that we survived.
Ah, but that "we" leaves out so many. And so many things are still unsaid, so many stories untold.
Here you'll find some that were witnessed by a roving reporter, hard-eyed and penetrating, and others noticed by a poet. In totality, my experiences emerge against a background of unspeakable inhumanities, indignities, Zyklon B and the Hitlerian mania that is still so staggering.
Mine was indeed a depraved century. It might have been the most beautiful.
The arts, the sciences, the probings of space, walking on the moon -- automobiles, jets, computers and networks of silicon intelligence never contemplated in previous centuries. The rising up of the oppressed. These were mine and thine.
Have you counted the children, the children, the children who died with satanic gas in their lungs and with eyes incapable of tears? Count the good people who should be with us, right now.
Can good outweigh evil? It can! I must believe it. If we learn from the past.
Only if we learn.
Chapter One: Days of Poverty and Hope
For warmth in winter, outside the Crane plumbing supplies company on Kedzie Avenue in Chicago, my father and I would start two huge fires in 55-gallon steel drums.
We'd feed the fires with yesterday's news -- than which, it was said, there was nothing deader. The news seemed to cover world events which one day would put to shame that old newspaper cliché.
The Hitler years were beginning to unfold in Europe. A world would soon be propelled into the most enormous, the most shattering events in human his-tory. We were burning the newspaper pages describing events that were beginning to rage. Events without parallel for mankind. The worst century.
As a young man, I was hoping to become part of the profession of journalists. This, I must do!
My father, Sol Brin, already was a regular contributor of articles to the Polish press in America. He put it directly on the line: These were the most dangerous of times in history and there seemed no way out of it. Certainly not by way of a dictatorial Soviet Union led by a murderous Josef Stalin.
With the fires roaring higher in the steel drums, my mother, Pia, would come along with a sack of woodscraps, a wizened woman of 40, her head protected from the subzero winds by a babushka. She brought along a few sandwiches, some soft drinks. Coffee for my father.
Back in Belarus, where she was born in a shtetl called Pietrikov, Pia and her four sisters would go into the woods to collect wood scraps for their father, Reuven Goroway, who earned a bare living in the village along the Dnieper River by going into forests seeking broken limbs of trees. These he chopped up and, by horse and wagon, transported them to town.
Not an easy living for a family of eight -- five sisters, a brother named Aaron and my grandmother, whose name I'll never know.
One Easter Sunday, to avenge Christendom's feelings against so-called Christ-killer Jews, one of the sisters was torn limb from limb in childbirth. Long before Hitler. Before Hitler, indeed.
Pia, a beautiful dark-haired child, was a total illiterate. She was my grandmother's helper. Pia and her 12 year old sister, Rose, came first to America, by steerage, of course. Children fleeing a czar's wrath. Pia and Rose were the first of my family to see the awesome Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Castle Garden was their point of entry to the New World.
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My father's father -- my grandfather -- was Julian (Israel) Dobrzhinsky, chess aficionado. His spirit revolved around the game. I understand that he was one of the greatest players in Poland. Poland had about three and a half million Jews, and maybe three million of them played chess.
The Dobrzhinskys were a Polish branch of a family quite prominent in Germany. My father's cousin, Maximilian Hardin, was a press attaché for Bismarck and a brilliant journalist. In fact, they had a statue to honor him, but I understand that it was destroyed during the time of Hitler.
My father was born in 1883, and brought up in Poland, in a town called Konin, northwest of Lodz. This is the same town the Goldwaters came from. Barry Goldwater's father was Moses Goldwater. I suspect my grandfather and Moses Goldwater were friends, in such a small town of 2000 people. Barry Goldwater, of course, ran for President of the United States as a Republican. But he didn't run as a Jew. Typically for the time, Solomon Brin was forced to join the Russian army, because Poland was occupied by the Russians.
During the Russian-Japanese war of 1905-1906, the Tsarists insisted that Sol join the war against Japan, so my father went to battle as a baker in the Russian Army. I think Sol got as far as Mukden when the war ended in one of the greatest and most horrible of all land battles -- humiliatingly for the Tsarists -- and he was sent back home.
Under the old regime, Jews were forbidden to live in Moscow, or even to visit, except under certain restricted situations. But since Sol had served in the army, he was allowed to go to Moscow. On arrival, he joined the Moscow Art Theater, where he worked several seasons as a supernumerary in the opera. Which meant that he carried spears in Aida and La Bohème, and in shows of that sort. He couldn't sing for beans. They used him as people to fill out the cast, and I guess Sol Brin was a people for the Russian Opera. So you see we don't come from a very artistically creative family. We are merely spearcarriers for the Russian opera. At least my father was.
Sol returned to his hometown of Konin, in Poland. His mother had died. (Her name was Chaya, for whom I was named Chaim.) Soon, my father's father, Julian, the chess player, had taken for himself a bride, and my father discovered that he couldn't go home again.
He decided to visit relatives in Germany, and they made it possible for him to travel to America on steerage. My father hoped to make it to the Alaskan gold fields that were entrancing young men to the Yukon -- the fields that then had enthralled Charlie Chaplin. He was supposed to go to Ellis Island, around 1910, but he was told aboard ship that he'd have to come to Galveston, Texas. The immigration authorities were trying to disperse new arrivals in America. They didn't want too many Jews coming to New York.
My father's ship arrived in the new land on the Fourth of July. At least that's what he told me, though maybe he put me on a little bit. Anyway, there was a big fireworks show going on, and my father understood why... that he had arrived, and all of America was celebrating! Nobody could ever tell Sol Brin that the celebration was really for the Fourth of July. With a wry smile he insisted it was for his arrival in the new world.
When my father came to America, he did as many immigrants, and dropped "Dobrzhinsky," taking in its place the name of a cousin of his, Solomon Brin, who was supposedly the "tobacco king" of Russia. He might just as easily have taken the name Abravanel, which I think I would have done. Isaac Abravanel was leader of the Jewish community in Spain, and represented the Jews in the court of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. His family fortune was turned over to Christopher Columbus to finance his first voyage. When the Abravanel family left Spain in 1492, during the expulsion, one branch settled in Holland. When problems arose in Holland, they went on to Metz, the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, and onward to parts of Germany. How do I know these things? My father told me stories. He said there exists a historical book of family records that was retained by the family in Konin, kept by Henry Glicenstein, the sculptor.
In a recent years, while researching my book, Ich bin ein Jude (I am a Jew), during a trip to Poland, I tried to locate this family record. Unfortunately, much of Konin had been destroyed in the war. The Jewish cemetery was demolished. All I found was a mass Jewish grave that contained five or six thousand people buried, nameless, alone.
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Sol found his first job as a section hand on the Union Pacific Railroad and made it all the way to Chicago when he chanced to meet Pia, a picture beauty at 18. Enchantments of the Yukon faded swiftly for Sol Brin.
Sol and Pia were married. Brother Robert arrived promptly -- and in due course, some 13 months and nine days later, Herb Brin was born in the kitchen bedroom of a cold water flat on Lincoln Street in Chicago. My parents called me Hymie. The birth certificate said I was Henry Brin. (I was later told that a few blocks away lived a young man by the name of Hymie Rickover. He later developed nuclear submarines for the United States Navy, one of the great admirals of a new kind of defense force, never before seen.)
At the time of my birth, my mother was 19 years old, and my father 34.
My father, a graduate of the gymnasium in Konin, Poland, stemmed from an important Jewish family. He spoke eleven languages, a number of which i could verify at least a little. His cousin, Maximillian Hardin, was an eminent writer and served as press secretary to Bismark, the celebrated German chancellor. His mother's brother would become governor of the great state of Idaho.
Sol Brin was early on fascinated by the writings of the Russian poet Pushkin. He would read Pushkin poems to me as a child in his arms.
"Come," he often said to me, "we have a secret..."
Russian poetry. I absorbed the Pushkin cadences. My father's secret.
For a living in Chicago, my father worked for the People's Gas Co. as a "gas engineer" -- selling water heaters to the natives: the Poles, the Germans, the Swedes -- an occasional Jewish family.
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While my mother's family was of the Jewish peasant stock of Russia, my father stemmed from prominent Jewish families of Europe. And this carried through in the New World, too. Gov. Moses Alexander of Idaho was my father's uncle on his mother's side. I actually met that great man, when I was a very small boy.
As World War I ended, Gov. Alexander wrote to my father to meet and visit with him at the Dearborn Street Railroad Station, as he passed through Chicago on a trip to Washington with other notables. Pa took me along with him and we took our first taxi ride to the Dearborn station. He explained how important a governor was and that I must act with great respect. It was a brief encounter, but Moses Alexander, resplendent in his brown woollen suit and happy smile, was now as important to me as the Moses who climbed a mountain for God.
The governor patted me on the head as he departed, saying: "A bright boy. A bright boy." I must have said something. My father embraced me.
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When I was about three years old, my parents decided to move to an English basement apartment on Claremont Avenue. This was an improvement, since the house on Lincoln Street was a hovel, but a rather shabby improvement. Although I was young, I remember that move with the horse and wagon of my Uncle Shalom, the carpenter. The furniture was piled high. It went clippity clop on down Claremont Avenue.
We moved into a small apartment building next to the synagogue, a Hungarian synagogue as I recall. Many times when I was playing baseball out on the street, the men would twist my arm to come in to complete a minyan, the ten men required by Jewish tradition for formal prayer. The other kids on the street would run away when the shamash came out looking for someone, but I must admit I felt honored they would take me as a minyaner, even before I was bar mitzvahed. So, I would complain all the time that I preferred baseball, but I went when they called.
The kids on the block were rather tough. Misty Reuben lived next door. Misty's Yiddish name, Misso, means nut, an appropriate name. His father had been killed in an accident. His mother took over a little trucking company, a moving van of some sort which they rented out. She lived on the first floor of the apartment building on 22 North Claremont Avenue, which she owned.
We moved into the apartment where Joey Rake used to live. Joey played piano at Julliard. Next door lived Benny Feinman, who instructed me on how babies were born. We were sitting at the curb one day when it was raining, and we were racing chips of wood down the sewers, our sailing vessels that went down to sea. Benny Feinman said to me, you know how babies are born? Your father heps your mother. I beat the hell out of Benny. I chased him up and down the street, and around the back of the synagogue. My father don't do that to my mother, you sumbitch. So that's what happened to Benny Feinman.
When we moved over to 1244 N. Claremont Avenue, we lived on the third floor of a three story apartment building. On the first floor lived a rabbi, H. N. Rosenblum, and his son, a medical doctor. When I became 13, Rabbi Rosenblum made me a stickholder for weddings that were conducted in his living room. I must have held the stick for more than a hundred weddings. Four men were required to hold the corners of the hupa, the wedding canopy. When he was a stickholder short, Rabbi Rosenblum with his full flowing beard, would point a finger at me, to indicate that I should come.
I wouldn't ever haggle with a rabbi. I was taught by my father to respect rabbis. I would never even call a rabbi by his first name, after he became a rabbi. Although I am extremely close to Rabbi Kramer, I've never once called him Rabbi Bill or William or Mordecai; I always refer to him as Rabbi. It's a matter of the way you must treat people. I know rabbis aren't perfect; when a man enters the rabbinate, alas, the rabbinate doesn't always enter the man. Many rabbis playing on the name shouldn't. But since I am hardly one to judge personalities, I've always accorded all rabbis the dignity of their office. Anyway, Rabbi Rosenblum had a delightful family who would serve meals, not real meals, but crackers, matzoh,and fruit, in order for us to say a prayer. It always felt good to be invited to attend dinner with Rabbi Rosenblum.
The apartment building was next to a vacant lot, which my father also purchased. When the Depression hit, we lost everything.
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At the age of four years, I was accepted into kindergarten at the Schley school, a block away from our apartment. Many famous people attended the Schley school, including writers such as Ben Heck, who wrote The Child of the Century, who I suppose influenced me to become a journalist more than anybody else. I have great respect for Ben Heck. My father knew his father. I met him when I was just a kindergarten student, and he was a high school graduate who visited the Schley School.
In my class was Saul Bellow, who much later won the Nobel Prize for literature. He had came from Canada. Saul Bellow kept to himself, and I didn't live on his block, but we did meet at the Schley School, where we were both students up to Junior High School. He then went on to Tule High School. I also took some classes at Tule, but most of my classes were at Crane Tech. Crane had more of a sports identity, and I was a sports aficionado. I loved basketball and football. Crane Tech was about three miles away, and I would usually walk there along Ofree Boulevard, if I couldn't hitch a ride. I was the greatest hitchhiker in Illinois, I guess. My thumb was constantly flying. In those days, it was quite safe to hitchhike, though I wouldn't recommend it today.
I remember coming home once from Crane Tech High on the streetcar, and seeing the big newspaper headlines: "Wall Street Collapses." It was 1929, the October Massacre on Wall Street, which resulted in the Great Depression. But I'm getting ahead of the story.
At the Schley school, we had a Miss Hoierman, a German woman who always wore high lace collars. None of her arms or legs could be seen, what with her floor-length dresses. She was stiff and austere, and wore those pince-nez glasses. Nobody haggled with Miss Hoyaman. Her assistant was Mrs. Larson, an Irish lady. (Of course, it seems to me now that Larson must have been Scandinavian). She too, was staunch, and had no entangling alliances. These were the two toughest teachers in my whole experience in school.
When I was six years old, we were visited by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The Temperance Union ladies came up on stage with one of those huge 10 gallon water bottles, which was empty. They had a ten foot long rubber tube, at the end of which was a lighted cigarette. Suddenly the inside of that tank became filled with smoke of the ugliest yellow color you ever saw. Just out of one cigarette. One of the Christian Temperance ladies got up and said "This is a warning to you children not to smoke. One cigarette can do this to your lungs. And if you smoke at all, you'll probably be smoking a pack or two a day. You can imagine how much of this dirty gas would fill your lungs in just a day's time." Then she passed out punch cards. I was so frightened by that demonstration, and I believed in its truthfulness, that I took a card, pledging never to smoke in my life. And I never did smoke. Others pledged not to smoke until they were eighteen, or twenty-one or older. I think that I was the only one in class to take the pledge for life.
I wish my brother had taken the same pledge. We were close, so close. Robert became a fine optometrist but I could never make him see the dangers of smoking, that robbed him so many years.
I went through classes very easily. Teachers would always say, "Herb, you're one of the smartest kids in class, why are you afraid to do arithmetic?" I was so fearful of doing arithmetic, that I flunked one whole semester in the fourth grade, because I couldn't do the math problems. If you asked me today to do the problems of the fourth grade, I'm sure that I wouldn't be able to do them.
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Sol was fired after working for the gas company for 29 years -- just before he became eligible for a pension. No longer a "gas engineer." The oncoming Depression became hungry days for the young Brin family. But my father's faith in the national system that spelled democracy never wavered. These things my mother could never quite understand. But her eyes reflected love for her learned husband.
My father's pursuit of the American spirit brought him in conflict with communism that had taken root in Russia, and he wrote numerous articles for Chicago's leading Polish newspapers, especially the Chicagoski, warning that dreadful consequences would be inevitable should Poland fall back on anti-Semitism as a way of life.
These things, he insisted, would never happen in Germany. Never mind that a German idiot with a Charlie Chaplin mustache had taken over the country.
I had A's in high school, but got turned down by every college I applied to, because I had no scholarship money. I was working evenings seven days a week in a grocery store, sleeping in the back, earning seven dollars a week. The job helped my parents, but it couldn't begin to pay tuition.
So I went to the YMCA, which operated a junior college, now Roosevelt University. I applied for admission at De Paul law school, a Catholic school, and was accepted. They said they'd help me get a job so I could pay tuition, and sent me to a head office of Montgomery Ward on the northside of Chicago, to work as a stockclerk. I was ecstatic and worked the entire morning, then the foreman asked me to fill out an application report. I listed Jewish for religion. Before the shift ended, the foreman came back and said that they couldn't hire me, because I was Jewish. I never found a job with wages comparable with those at Montgomery Ward, sufficient to cover tuition at De Paul. So I dropped out of school.
In 1935, I decided to heck with it all in Chicago. I obtained a cheap Chevrolet for around $200, and started driving west to California. On the way, I stopped at the Fort Worth World's Fair, then drove on to the Painted Desert. It was a delight, seeing the grand scenes of America, the rock formations, the petrified forests, the ever-changing purple beauty of open spaces. I continued on to San Diego, where they also had a world fair in 1935. The area wasn't much to my liking, so I decided to drive on to Los Angeles.
There I applied at Arden Farms for a job as a milkman. They hired me at the highest salary I'd ever seen, $25 a week. I sent some home to my parents. I applied at Loyola Law School, and they accepted me gladly, based on my record at De Paul. But I couldn't stay awake in class. The job as a milkman didn't permit much leeway. I'd wake up at 1:00 in the morning to start my delivery runs, near Beverly and Fairfax. I'd finish collections around 3:00 in the afternoon. This was a seven day a week job. I had no time off. There were no unions. I had nobody to help me. So it was only natural that I would fall asleep in class. Loyola kicked me out. Thus ended my law career.
I helped organize the milkdriver's union. Within six months, a strike was called. Before the strike took place, Arden Farms caved in, and allowed the men one day off each week. I wasn't too pleased about working there.
After a year, I had to leave Los Angeles for Chicago, because my father wasn't doing well. He suffered from Menier's disease, which affects the inner ear and equilibrium.
With a small bundle of nickels and dimes, saved from 29 years with the Gas Company, Sol and Pia bought the rights to the six newspaper stands outside the Crane Company. Now I hurried home by bus from California to join the family business.
I was 20 years old. Had gone West to see the country. Perhaps find a job as a reporter. Fat chance. Alas, etcetera, the nation had been taken over by the Depression. The Great Depression. And here I was kicking around my Pushkin cadences in English.
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When my father started to improve four or five months later, I took a bus to New York. I wanted to attend a play by William Saroyan, called "The Time of your Life." I had taken a fancy to his writing. Saroyan is a sensitive writer, and I wanted to see his first play on Broadway. I arrived in Times Square by bus in the early morning. I guess I was one of the homeless, so I sat on a bench, until the box office opened. For $3 I managed to buy a ticket for a matinee performance. I put the ticket in my pocket, and went looking for a room, which I found for $9 a week, near Columbia.
I was hired for a job with a collection agency, working out of Philadelphia. The United Mercantile Exchange. They made collections for the clothing trade, calling on merchants who hadn't paid their bills. Remember, this was 1937, during the Depression. I took the job on commission. They would pay me so much for every account I brought to them. Businesses with problems collecting bills, who needed a collection agency. I would sell them on the idea of using the United Mercantile Exchange to do the collections for them. I traveled on business to Philadelphia two or three times during my stay in New York. While in Philadelphia, I visited all the art museums. I was especially taken by the Rodin museum. Rodin did the sculpture of the Thinker, and other well-known pieces. There was a lady in the museum office who took a fancy to me, and I took a fancy to her, but I guess it wasn't to be. I found out that my father had had a lapse, so I decided to return to Chicago, living with my parents.
At that point, Sylvia, Robert's wife, suggested that she knew a beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed girl. An exquisitely beautiful intelligent girl, who played the violin. Sylvia had told her about me, and she wanted us to meet. That happened to be Selma Stone. There was a party at the home of one of Sylvia's relatives in Illinois. I was invited to the party, and I saw this exquisite young woman of about twenty-one. We talked, and she told me that she had graduated from Northwestern University. I told her that I had met one of the lecturers at Northwestern, William Saroyan. She asked how that had happened. I replied that he was a writer to whom I had taken a special liking. I had attended his play, "The Time of Your Life," when I was in New York. Backstage, I had the opportunity to meet him.
Chapter Two: The Bund
Meanwhile, I had gotten a job at Sears, Roebuck and Co., at one of their northwest stores, in a Germanic neighborhood. My job was to sell these new record players, which would play eight or ten records in a row. This was the first big step away from the hand gramophone. I did very well; I was selling quite a bit, and making $35 a week. Selma liked the fact that I was creative, so we agreed to get married. We were married Christmas Day, 1940.
At Sears Roebuck, was another young man who loved music -- Frederick Schrieber. He used to play the violin with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. During his off-moments away from meeting customers on the floor, he would play records. He especially loved Jewish violinists, and his big hero was Jascha Heifitz. There was one problem with this Frederick Schrieber. Not only was he German, but he was a Nazi, and he despised the Jews. I asked him how he could work with me. "Oh, you're special. You're a white Jew."
Frederick didn't know that at that time I was working with the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai Brith, as a spy within the German American Bund in Chicago. Friday evenings, I would go to the Haus Vaterland. I never told Selma about these trips, I would tell her that I had to work late at the store. I would attend meetings of the Bund. Also on Friday and Saturday nights when the store was open late, I would manage to leave early, so I could attend rallies. I got to meet all the German leaders, listening while they planned their next escapades. They loved marching through Harms Park in Skokie, unfurling Nazi banners. They always wondered how the Jewish gangs knew to be there, ready to confront them. I told them someone in the organization must be tipping them off. Of course that was Yours Truly.
These guys were real tough characters, some of the roughest hatemongers I've ever encountered, equal to the Aryan Nations gang. So, on Sunday afternoons, I would attend parades, marches and talks at Harms Park. It pains me greatly to know that many of these Nazis were beaten up by the young Jewish fighters. (Irony, irony, son!) I didn't hesitate to do that myself once. Your mother was sitting next to me on a bus, when a Nazi spouted off about the Jews. I took him by the collar, and said, one more word and I'm going to knock you to kingdom come. He sat down, but kept spouting off. I slammed my fist into his jaw. The driver stopped in front of a church in Garfield Park. I grabbed this guy and tossed him off the bus, then followed and beat him from one end of the lawn to the other, and finally dashed back to the bus, which was waiting for me. Everyone on the bus applauded. So there were a lot more good Americans, than these Nazi bums. God bless this country.
More about my fight with Chicago Nazis in Chapter Five.
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Not long after that, I gathered up my courage and went to see Sterling North, the book editor at the Chicago Daily News, asking if he needed an assistant reader and reviewer. I must have talked a good line because he gave me a few books on trial. Later he told me he was impressed by the quality of my writing, and would I please come every week to get books from him?
Doggone if he didn't give me by-lines for my work. Oh, no money. He himself was paid a pittance by the newspaper that spawned an array of literary lions, including Carl Sandberg.
University life was closed to a Herb Brin in those days. I had tried a number of colleges, only to be kicked out when tuition time came along. Them were the days, my friends . . .
With a fistful of Daily News by-lines in hand, I shuffled through a windblown snowstorm to a small office on Dearborn Street occupied by the historic City News Bureau of Chicago "City Press," as the service was known on the police beats.
Tremulous, surrounded by clattering typewriters and mimeo machines and young men shouting into the old stick telephones that "you bastards better get the facts right," I soon discovered that covering news in Chicago was a bitch.
A guy I later knew as Cecil Jensen put it blandly to a beat reporter: "Yeah, Yeah, if your mother says she loves you, check it out!"
I was pointed toward a cubicle where the general manager officed. A bespeckled guy named Ira Gershman held power of life or death over one's dreams of a career in journalism.
I was shaking, as I spoke, of my hopes for a career in poetry, and handed the boss a small resume. That, along with a few book reviews printed by Sterling North. With by-lines.
Gershman looked at me over the rim of his glasses.
"This is a tough job. If you can't make it past those guys on the phones in the other room, they'll mark you as being too soft. You'll be out on your ass faster than a kick could land there. Not that we wouldn't love you. But our obligation is to the press of Chicago -- not to anyone's feelings."
Looked through me and said:
"Twenty five bucks a week. Pay your own car fare. Southside police beat tomorrow night. See Larry Mulay . . ."
That's how I became a reporter in the most wide-open news city in America.
Chapter Three: If your mother says she loves you -- check it out!
Two days after Gershman hired me, Larry Mulay fired me.
According to Chet Opal, I was too god-damned soft for a reporter's job in Chicago.
Seems the police were told of a poor woman living alone in a tiny upstairs room who had decided in desperation to chuck it all. Couldn't pay her rent. Nothing to eat. Needing some minor medical attention. Typical depression agonies. Nowhere to turn.
I got her on the telephone and she sobbed bitterly, then pleaded with me not to use the story. "Oh, please!"
I explained to Chet Opal that it was a terribly "cheap" story. The woman was of no consequence. No redeeming qualities to the story -- for so it seemed.
"How did she plan to commit suicide?" Opal asked.
"Told me she was gonna steal some pills for an overdose."
"What kind of pills? How many?"
"You mean a woman in our day and age wants to kill herself and a City Press reporter gotta find out what the pills are?"
"Yeah!" yelled Chet Opal. "and the color of the pills. Get the story, for criminey sake."
Reporters covering beats in Chicago would be allowed to use the police sergeant's telephone by leaning over his desk.
The sergeants didn't mind, providing the reporter used the officer's name in a police story from time to time.
The "monicker" was a powerful tool of a reporter in Chicago. Editors in the news rooms of the city understood and allowed the monickers to remain intact. That's the way it went down to the press rooms.
Chet Opal and I went round and round on that one.
On one of my phone calls, the woman broke down bitterly.
I decided to take a street car to her apartment. Brought a hot dog and some coffee for her. Her hands shook as she took the hot dog from me. I guess it was a Flooky's dog. But never mind. Chet didn't want to know the brand of hot dog, nor coffee.
I snatched out some of my notes and called for a rewrite guy. Chet Opal had gone home for the day. He had left word with Larry Mulay that I was too soft as a reporter and could never make it in Chicago.
I dictated my story to a new rewrite guy, who then turned me over to Larry Mulay.
Larry said: "Sorry to tell you this but you'll have to find another job. Opal said you're too soft and we can't have this at City Press."
The phone went silent for a few intense minutes. He was reading my story. "You wrote this story about a poor woman munching a hot dog?"
"Yeah, that was me."
"It's not bad. Not bad . . . tell you what, finish out the week to Friday which is payday. Then you're fired."
Too soft in a tough town.
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I was learning swiftly what the City News Bureau was.
It was a nationally celebrated news service owned by the Chicago daily newspapers. Very much like the Associated Press, which serves independently around the world.
In Chicago, news items covered by young reporters would be dispatched to the various newspapers by means of a network of underground pneumatic tubes connecting the City Press main office with editorial offices of each of the daily papers. That gave each paper an even break on a story. Most of the items covered were of little value. The big papers sent their own reporters to cover the sensational headline stuff. But bread and butter local news was another matter. With reporters on hand around the clock on the various beats, City News proved to be a great protection for each of the newspapers. Scoop insurance.
City Press copy was typed out on green wax sheets to enable them to be run off on mimeograph machines. Before the days of e-mail and whatever "dot com" means.
Each item was dispatched to the various papers in presure tubes that created their own clatter and hiss in the press room.
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City Press had an unusual way of checking how the Chicago newspapers used its services. Clippings were cut out of the daily papers and reporters learned whether the dailies ran their own versions of the stories or simply the City Press copy. Two parallel lines drawn inside a news clipping meant that the paper had used a "verbatim" story from City Press.
Turned out that my story about the woman eating my hot dog had made it "verbatim" in all the papers. Two of the papers gave my story different by-lines.
"Damn good piece," Chet Opal told me the next day.
"But I'm still fired . . ."
Opal reversed his assessment of Herb Brin as a reporter.
We became close friends. In time, Chet Opal moved on to assume his role as U.S. consul in Amman, Jordan.
Anyway, this is how a young reporter made it in Chicago as a "soft" journalist.
And when I joined my parents selling newspapers outside the Crane Co., I felt doggone proud to see my front-page "verbatims" go up in flames with the rest of yesterday's news.
One of the papers even gave me a personal by-line from time to time. No extra pay, of course. Twenty five bucks a week in those Depression days were high class bucks -- for me.
Chapter Four: Chicago Gangland
Neither Ira Gershman nor Larry Mulay could make me out. I was writing the kind of copy that City Press never encouraged. But there was hardly a day that I didn't come through with a "verbatim."
Were they missing something at City Press -- or was I?
They assigned me to cover some of the toughest police and bootleg gang stories that came along in Chicago. I interviewed a guy named Moran in jail. The celebrated gangster took me quite seriously. He wanted to know how a kid like me figured to make it in gangland journalism.
Same with Jake the Barber.
John "Jake" Factor -- all right Jake - once was a barber. Never mind that Jake became the greatest con man in the Midwest. Con man -- like when a guy schemes to separate you from your money and does just that. And of course not just a little bit of currency was involved.
All I know was that the fires in the steel drums at my parents news stands were burning hot. With yesterday's news. Than which nothing was more alive for Herb Brin.
Here's the story about the Terrible Touhys -- and Jake.
A feller named Roger Touhy figured that Jake's son was a prime target for kidnapping. Which Touhy and his cohorts skillfully accomplished. The boy, a student at Northwestern University was dutifully grabbed and tortured and released only after Jake paid off a $100,000 ransom. A huge amount as prewar kidnappings went.
Then, to add insult, they kidnapped Jake himself. Same ransom.
The Touhys were arrested on Jake's evidence and sentenced to life imprisonment at Statesville Penitentiary, just west of Chicago.
Jake may have thought he was home safe on the gang's conviction -- but strange things happen in Chicago prisons. Escapes occur.
The Terrible Touhys burst out of prison with, one must presume, full-blown internal connivance.
Clarence Jensen, a top City Press editor, sent me to hunt down Jake the Barber. Thus I was staking out the Belden-Stradford Hotel -- an address of elegance on the city's Gold Coast. Here, I was soon to learn, Jake lived in elegance.
One, of course, had to presume that there was bad blood between the rough-assed Touhy Gang and Jake.
The news editor cautioned me to duck at appropriate moments of confrontation, should they come about. Jake the Barber and the Touhy gang played hard ball.
My upcoming relationship with Jake was an improbable affair. Got to know him well all through his personal rise in status that later took him from the Belden-Stradford to an exquisite home in Beverly Hills, where Mr. John Factor was always, but always, referred to as "Mister Factor."
John Factor, philanthropist.
Forget the "barber."
Oddly, he delighted every time I called him Jake. Remembrances of things past, one must presume.
But then, the con games aside, I got to know Jake the Barber as a brave, brave guy.
Never mind that he had been one of the nation's great confidence men, a fast-buck artist who had the guts to take on the Terrible Touhy gang in Chicago. And survive.
As I said, I met Jake the most hunted man alive, soon after the gang broke out of prison in the early 1940s.
I found a Tribune reporter already waiting in the Belden-Stradford hotel lobby for something to happen. I phoned Jensen to tell him that sitting in the hotel lobby was not my idea of a pleasurable passage of time. So I went up to the Factor apartment, presuming Jake would come out and talk to me. I told Jensen that "that's where the story really is -- or ought to be."
"Think he'll talk to you?"
"Why not? No harm in trying . . ."
The celebrated con artist opened the door on my first knock. Invited me in -- his right hand thrust into a pants pocket. Wore a clean white shirt and a refreshing smile when I told him I was from the City Press.
"You're the first newsman to come up here," he said. "Are the others afraid?"
"Of what? You look like a nice man."
"I see you're not afraid," Jake said. "Nor am I."
Jake pulled his hand out of his pocket to show me a small handgun.
"This is all I need..."
We both laughed.
"That's going to defend the two of us?"
"No, three. My wife is in the kitchen."
We schmoozed and that's how I got to really know Jake the Barber. Max Factor's brother. Max made his pile in Hollywood -- a straight shooter.
§ § § § § § § § § §
The the next several weeks I banged out a host of stories about Jake at the City Press until one fateful day, during a visit to the North Avenue police station on a routine call to check the station's log, all hell broke loose.
A dark-complexioned reporter for the Chicago Sun -- now the Sun-Times -- shoved me aside to grab the desk telephone to call his office.
Bill Block, the brother of Herblock, the nation's great cartoonist, yelled into the phone: "A shooting? Where? On Leland Avenue . . ."
Block pushed past me, headed for the door -- the old fart (some 15 or 20 years older than I was!) was the only beat reporter who had a car. and I could see myself being scooped and blooped on a shooting story. And any shooting story in Chicago is big-time stuff.
And there I stood at the police desk with a finger in my ear. What the hell to do?
A shooting on Leland Avenue. Where the hell was Leland Avenue and how to get there? City Press police reporters, on the munificence of $25 a week, found it challenging merely to be transported by street cars. And somehow to pay rent and to eat.
A police sergeant pulled me aside: "Did I hear you says Leland Avenue? Just got a call to send a paddy wagon to Leland Avenue. There was a shooting . . ."
Leo Batt, a second Sun reporter, burst into the station. His editor sent him as backup for Block.
This time I grabbed for the telephone and dialed my city desk: "D'ja hear of a shooting on Leland Avenue?" I blurted out.
"Yep," said Jensen, my assignment editor.
"Might be the Touhy Gang . . ." I said, trying to hold it in. (Would he give me the assignment?)
"You're new on the beat. Think you can handle..."
"How'll you get there" I don't even have an address."
"So long . . ."
And I dashed out just as the station's paddy wagon was cranking up. Opened the rear door of the wagon and there sat Leo Batt, grinning Cheshire at me.
I promised myself never to ride in the rear of a Chicago paddy wagon again. But it was one way of getting to the scene of a shooting -- the address of which I knew not "of."
And I wanted so much to prove to Jensen that I was a full-blown reporter in a city made famous for me by a guy named Ben Hecht. Who attended the Schley School on Oakley Boulevard near Division Street some 20 years or so before I did. Indeed, 20 years before a guy named Saul Bellow also attended.
The paddy wagon rolled forth. Leo Batt and I said nothing to each other. The driver of the wagon and his helper were talking about a machine-gun shooting. Wh-at?
The rickety vehicle leaped behind a siren and in time weaved to a sudden stop. I got out first. The driver pointed to a brick building nearby and I ran to it. There was no sign of police activity around the building. Leo Batt was sauntering behind me. The day was darkening.
Suddenly Bill Block drove up with his car, an old clunker, of course, and called out: "Where's the shooting?"
Leo shrugged. "How the hell do I know?"
I pushed open a doorway leading to a flight of stairs that faded in the enveloping darkness. A single small bulb offered feeble light on a landing about 20 steps above, rising sharply.
Bill and I pushed up the steps, shoulder to shoulder.
Leo mumbled: "I'm not going in."
I yelled out: "Reporter!" Bill called out: "We're the press!"
At the top of the stairs, a man emerged from the shadows with a submachine gun in his hands, measuring us.
Two dead men on the landing.
I see a face of a guy I somehow recognize.
"Who are you?" Bill asked the guy with the gun.
That's all he'd say.
The paddy wagon guys were following us with stretchers.
"Turn around and get the hell out," the FBI man ordered. "All the action's on Kenmore Avenue."
"Where the hell on Kenmore Avenue?" I shouted.
Bill Block was already halfway down the steps. Me following.
The two Sun reporters raced for Bill's car.
They wouldn't take me along. City Press is the enemy of established beat reporters. I might scoop them. Wouldn't look good.
After all, they're the pros who've made it to the daily papers.
So they leave me at the North Avenue station, sweating it out.
I called Jensen at the City Press desk and dictated a bulletin that said I recognized one of the two dead men on the landing to be St. Clair McInerny. Sonavabitch was part of the Touhy Gang. The FBI had gotten two of the escaped desperados. What about the rest?
Jensen couldn't give me an address on Kenmore Avenue and even if he did, I didn't have the taxi fare to get there.
In time, perhaps half an hour, the paddy wagon was loaded and began moving out.
"Get in," the driver tells me.
Me? I'm not going in with two two stiffs in the back.
His associate pushes over inside the driver's compartment and makes room for me.
"Where the hell're we going?" I call out. Scared, as one would say, defecation-less.
"We're taking you to Kenmore Avenue. It's almost on our way to the morgue..."
Which they, God bless them, did. Dropped me off a couple of blocks from a building in front of which half a dozen reporters were milling. Including Bill Block, Batt and the city's toughest police reporter, "Wingey" (that's all I knew him as) of the Trib.
One of the City Press guys had warned me: Stay out of the way when Wingey's around. He can kill you.
What the hell.
As I came up to the building, the reporters began pushing on a front door to the apartment building's vestibule. Two FBI agents made it clear that nobody would be allowed upstairs. The press may stand in the vestibule.
"Nobody is getting past this door . . ." Meaning the vestibule's inside door. "Don't try nothing."
"What happened?" Wingey called out to the agent.
"You'll find out later."
A Herald-Examiner reporter who sold furniture on the side -- what the hell, it's a living -- yelled out: "You can't do this to us. We're the press."
"F--- the press."
The agents went inside a hallway leading to a staircase. I looked around. It was my first stakeout. Is this what Chicago journalism was all about?
What would Ben Hecht do?
What I was about to do.
Because at the that moment, a boy of about 9 or 10 came down the inside stairs and an FBI agent pushed open the inner door of the vestibule for him.
The boy was carrying an empty milk bottle with an note inside. His mission, obviously, to buy some milk at one of the after-hour food stores on nearby Foster Avenue.
While more and more back-up reporters began converging on the Kenmore Avenue apartment building, I followed the boy through the front door and joined with him as he made his way toward a late-hour delicatessen.
"We ran out of milk," the boy said.
We walked a few feet. I asked: "What happened here?"
"We were all scared. There was lots of commotion and police . . ."
"Hey, I'll tell you what. Can you give your mother a note from me?"
"I'll have it ready when you come back..."
And I waited for him. Some 10 minutes. Twelve minutes ... and the boy came walking back carrying a quart of milk -- the old glass bottle variety. I handed him a note for his mother, which he crumbled into his pants pocket.
The boy walked back to the vestibule with me following. He knocked on the inside glass door, which was opened for him by the FBI agent, and he leaped up the inside staircase.
Bill Block was muttering to Leo Batt that "they can't do this to us."
Wingey's face was storming in anger.
"Open up!" he yelled out. "This is the Tribune!"
The FBI guy inside said something that came through like: "I don't give a sh--!"
Then a strange thing happened. A woman came down the stairs following the young boy. The FBI agent stepped aside and the boy pointed at me to his mother: "That's him..."
The agent opened the inside door and motioned for me to come inside. "The lady asked for you. But you've got to go to her apartment."
Which I did, the inner door closing behind me to a hushed, milling group of Chicago's top reporters.
As I climbed up the stairs following the mother, I could hear Wingey's rasping voice: "Hey, he's a reporter!"
"She's a tenant and she asked for him," the agent called back.
"Not fair!" exclaimed Block.
For the next 15 hours I telephoned an array of personal reports to the City Press on how the Roger Touhy and Basil (The Owl) Banghart gang was captured by the FBI in a sensational action.
The boy and the very cordial young mother lived on the second floor of the apartment building. They set up a small desk and phone for me at the front window of the apartment and one by one the other tenants joined me at my "newsdesk."
Ben Hecht would have loved it.
What happened? Simple. The FBI had been tipped off that part of the gang was holed up in a ground-floor apartment in the building on Kenmore Avenue.
Agents earlier had made it quietly to the Leland Avenue building and bullet-holed two of the gang.
A large contingent of the agents then surrounded the middle-class apartment building on Kenmore Avenue.
Tenants were quietly removed to the top floor of the three-story building.
"It was one family at a time," the young mother told me. "We were all excited -- and frightened at the same time."
As the evening wore on, searchlights came on, and with the brilliant lights loudspeakers exclaimed: "Roger Touhy and all you guys, come out now, as you are -- your hands in the air."
A moment later: "Do it! Or we're coming in to get you. Come out now!"
Roger Touhy and Banghart, wearing pajamas, came out along with two or three gang members -- don't remember their names. Hands in the air.
FBI agents poured into the vacated apartment looking for background evidence on how the gang had been holed up to evade capture.
The City Press editors were ecstatic. We'd beaten the entire city on the Touhy Gang capture, cranking out story after story while the daily reporters were packed solidly by now in the building's vestibule.
§ § § § § § § § § §
At one point I asked Jensen to phone Jake the Barber at his Belden-Stradford apartment. "Give him my phone number here at the Kenmore Avenue building. I want to talk to him about how it feels not being the most hunted man alive. Again."
A minute or two later, Jake's call came in.
"Hi, Herb. They tell me you've got this wrapped up."
"Not entirely," I said. "How are you handling it?"
"They never got to me. You know I was never afraid of them."
And he read a prepared statement, ending with: "Herb, I won't forget you. Thanks!"
Tenants hovered about. I munched on fruit, rye bread and cottage cheese. The young mother offered milk and I was forced to tell her that I hated milk. From delivering so much of it in LA.
For some 15 hours.
The vestibule by this time had been thinned out of reporters. Wingey and Bill Block were gone. I walked out to the elevated station on Foster Avenue, got on a train and conked out. Woke up as the train made the Loop to Lake Street.
As I walked to the City Press offices, not having been to bed for well over 35 hours, everything that happened -- from the North Avenue police paddy wagon to the Leland Avenue episode and to the events in the vestibule on Kenmore Avenue -- all blurred for me into a kaleidoscope of people and events.
Larry Mulay, the City Press editor, said I was to get a $35 bonus this week. "You did great!" he said.
In a tolerably little voice, I told him: "Yeah . . ."
§ § § § § § § § § §
Ran into Jake the Barber a number of time in my later work as a feature writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Jake was pulling out all the stops to re-invent his public image. Forget his years of con artistry in Chicago and St. Louis. That was for making money. And he made it big time. Now, he became president of a Hollywood synagogue, was active with homes for the aging, took leading roles in community affairs. Insisted to everybody that they call him "John Factor."
That could create strange happenings. At one event that was held in a prominent hotel, his wife was being honored by the Jewish community for her devotion to Jewish causes. The master of ceremonies, an aide to Mayor Sam Yorty, was expansive in his praise of the lady.
"And now," he said, "I give you -- Mrs. Barber!"
The silence was awesome.