Monday, June 27, 2016

EXCERPT 7 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — COURTING THE HERALD


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
Inexperienced, under-confident, if well-traveled twenty-four-year-old that I was at the time, I don’t know, to this day, how I plucked up the courage and audacity to unmercifully pester an editor and writer of the international standing of Robert J. Cox for months on end until he gave me a job, but somehow, I managed it. Maybe it was just the brashness of youth and the fact that I had a personal vision of my future as a writer laid out neatly in my mind. That, and the fact that back then, in 1974, the only show in town for an English-language 'wannabe' writer with a hankering for some experience in the trenches was the Buenos Aires Herald.
Cox looking very much as he did when I
met him, in a portrait on the cover of
son David's 2009 memoir, "Dirty Secrets,
Dirty War".
Born and reared in England, Cox had started working in provincial newspapers while still in his teens. By the time he was recruited to the ranks of the Buenos Aires Herald in 1959, he was already a street-tested twenty-six year old reporter for the Hull Daily Mail. He was brought into the Herald on a three-year contract and was promised that after his first three years in Buenos Aires, he would be granted three months of vacation and passage on a steamer to return home to England for a visit. He was hired as a copy-editor, but it wasn’t long before his writing ability and news sense moved him up the ladder to general news editor.
Founded in 1876, the Herald was one of Argentina's three oldest surviving newspapers out of about a dozen dailies that the city boasted. Originally created as a single-sheet maritime shipping paper, but later having grown into a full-fledged news daily, at a time of all but sovereign British power over Argentina's trade and transport interests, the Herald had since entered into a state of gradual decay, following the days of rekindled nationalist fervor that emerged in the 1940s and '50s, with the rise to power of autocratic popular nationalist leader General Juan Domingo Perón. Despite the best efforts of its latest two editors—both respected international newsmen—it had settled into being a rather pokey little daily that served the interests of what was left of an aging and shrinking English-language community. But its editorial and international pages belied that destiny, reflecting the professionalism and higher interests of Bob’s predecessor, Norman Ingrey, and then of Cox himself.
In Buenos Aires, Cox would meet and marry Maud Daverio, a young lady of considerable connections in Buenos Aires society, with whom he would have five Argentine children while rising to the post of Editor-in-Chief and, eventually, Chairman of the Board at the Herald. Such strong ties to Argentina had already made the English-language daily his most viable source of full-time news work. He would, however, also gain international prestige as an honored stringer for such renowned news organizations as Newsweek, the BBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others.  So it was that, by the time Ingrey retired in 1970, Cox was pretty much ensconced as a credible, savvy, foreign observer of political and social life in Argentina. His professional presence, in turn, was what kept the Herald from sinking further and further into oblivion and dying what could only have been considered a natural death. As natural, surely, as the one the 'old school tie' Anglo-Argentine community was dying as its youth decided that they were less Anglo than Argentine and began wanting to “mingle with the natives” in what clearly seemed to be shaping up as a post-colonialist age.
Bob Cox with wife Maud Daverio. (Photo published in Perfil.com)
Cox was aided in this task by the fact that, at around this same time, the Charleston Evening Post Publishing Company (Charleston, South Carolina) acquired a controlling share of the Herald, which, since the 1920s, had been an (Anglo) Argentine family-owned concern. There must surely have been some speculation at the time as to why on earth the Charleston group would want a foreign white elephant like the Herald, but if so, it was only among observers who had never met Peter Manigault, then President of that expanding media group and son of the wealthy family that controlled it. A true Southern gentleman and former naval officer of urbane tastes and education, Manigault was also a bit whimsical and off-beat. Add that to the fact that he dabbled in Spanish-language studies and loved South America, and this was enough to provide him with all of the justification he needed to purchase a quaint, colonial-style 'gem' like the Herald, even if cynics must surely have asked themselves if it wasn't, perhaps, a tax write-off.
Although when Bob first heard about the sale he worried that he might be fired and replaced by someone Charleston would choose as editor,  when Manigault and Cox met, they hit it off almost immediately—since if Manigault was an truly uncommon businessman, Cox was genuinely iconic in the world of old-school journalism. And he would very shortly evolve into the stuff movie-hero journalists are made of: the editor of a small paper fighting major battles in defense of authentic justice, human rights and the rule of law. And the bond between him and Manigault would clearly come in handy in the future when his authority was called into question by one of the local owners of the other forty percent interest.
When I first met him in early 1974, Cox was the clearly over-extended managing editor of a paper with plummeting advertising revenues and a shrinking readership. It could barely afford its skeletal staff and the third floor offices it rented in a shabby building (that also housed the down-at-heel English Club) in what was then, as I mentioned earlier, the red-light district near the old port. As such, Cox could ill-afford the time or money to make any major changes in the paper itself. The result was a rather quirky, provincial, outdated, ill-proofed little twelve to sixteen-page tabloid with an international wire-copy front page and translated local-wire news page, a sports section that featured international cricket and soccer—as well as rugby, bowling on the green, equestrian sports and field hockey—a few really good columns and stories provided by good-willed, ill-paid contributors and staffers, and an extraordinarily high-quality editorial page that made the rest of the paper look like a mere frame in which to publish it. And that, in fact, was what it was fast becoming.
Not that Cox wouldn't have liked to have professionalized the Herald. He tried as often as he could to impress on his tiny staff the importance of dedication to objectivity and professional care, but he was obviously overworked and just as obviously much more of a writer and investigator than a hands-on editor, so he dedicated more and more time to chronicling the nightmare that was unfolding in Argentina on his editorial page and less and less to trying to extricate the rest of the paper from the malaise of routine mediocrity into which it had slumped and now wallowed.
After struggling with myself for some time regarding how to go about getting an introduction to Cox, I one day simply decided to call the Herald and ask for an interview and, somewhat to my surprise, was given one for the following evening. When I arrived at 6 p.m., the advertising and administrative employees were bidding each other good night and leaving, as the editorial staffers were just arriving. There was no waiting room to speak of, just a worn green leather armchair wedged in at the end of the classified ads counter partially blocking the door to the editor's office and just a few feet from two big metal and translucent glass swinging doors that bore lettering reading Editorial Department. I was asked to take a seat and wait. When the last of the clerks and advertising staff had said good night and taken the elevator, a very prim, very English-looking middle-aged woman with whom I had spoken on my arrival shut off all of the lights except for one just over my head and said, “I’ve let him know you’re here. He'll be with you in a moment.” And then she added, “Good night,” and followed her fellow workers down on the elevator.
I sat there alone for quite a long time with just the buzzing drone of the neon light to keep me company. Eventually, however, the double doors to the editorial department swung open and a pleasant-faced, rotund woman bustled through on her way to the restroom at the end of the hall past the elevators. When she saw me, she stopped and said, “Hello, I'm Maggie,” and extended her hand. I stood, shook it and said, “Hi, I'm Dan Newland.”
“Are you waiting for Bob?” she asked. I nodded. “Does he know you're here?”
“I think so,” I said a little dubiously. “He's been told.”
“Have you been here long?”
I checked my watch. “About half an hour,” I said.
She said, “Just a minute,” and went back the way she had come, through the editorial department. I could hear the teletypes and manual typewriters chattering away in her wake, before the heavy doors swung shut again behind her and wanted nothing more than to be in there already doing a job I just knew I was made for.
I sat back down to wait, but within an instant after Maggie had gone, the editor's door burst open and through it rushed a man with an almost wild look about him. His brow was furrowed in an expression of genuine worry, His quality white dress shirt was wrinkled and perspired. He wore brown loafers that were in dire need of a shine and one was split along a seam so that you could see a glimpse of bright red stocking through it, in sharp contrast to his pricey conservative pinstriped trousers. He was slender and tallish and his thinning dark-brown hair swirled in erratic tentacles around his head as if he were in the habit of running his fingers through it repeatedly—or had just been in a gale-force wind. All in all, it was a look that combined an aristocratic air with the devil-may-care nonchalance of a talent too busy to be concerned with outward appearances. 
Cox at his desk in the Herald. (Photo published in Perfil.com)
“So sorry, so sorry...must be Dan...Dan, isn't it? Yes...lost track of time, please come in...Terribly sorry.” he muttered almost under his breath as we shook hands.
His uneasiness was somewhat contagious and I nervously launched into my pitch as soon as we were seated, telling him my life story in five minutes or less: former professional musician, just out of the Army, three years with the US Army bands, a little over one in Europe, married to an Argentine, always been a writer, what I want to do with my life, need a chance in journalism, fast learner, hard worker, etc., etc.
My uneasiness was hardly quelled by the surroundings. Cox's office was a truly extraordinary, but almost horrifying place. The room was cramped, hardly executive dimensions, perhaps twelve feet by seven feet, if that. The only light came from the bluish neon ceiling tubes, one of which had a bad starter and hummed nerve-rackingly. Every square inch of counter, desk and table space was trembling under mountains of books, papers, magazines, wire copy, radio-photos and files. Stacks of them, piles of them, heaps of them, in no apparent order, almost as if a dump truck had simply avalanched it all into the room. There were heaps of papers on the floor against the wall, a stack on the chair in front of his desk that he had cleared away for me to sit down, a mound on top of the radiator by the Venetian-blinded window, a veritable landslide on the overstuffed green leather couch along one wall, which, I noted, was the other part of the suit the armchair I’d just been sitting in outside belonged to. These lopsided heaps that leaned against one another for support dominated the tiny office and made Cox, at his desk behind chin-high bales of paperwork, look rather as if he had been bulldozed into a corner along with a load of wastepaper. The office bore no personal touches, no mementos, no hint of residence or proprietorship, except for the predominant influence of paper of just about every kind. En lieu of wall decorations, too, there was paper: rough drafts, printed articles, syndicated columns, notes, messages, invitation cards, scribbled reminders, underscored phone numbers and names, all scotch-taped to the plaster and all obviously pieces of information that were somehow more important to the editor than the general mounds of miscellany that were heaped all over the rest of the room, and thus deserved a place of privilege on the wall, where he was sure to see them and perhaps recall whatever action it was that they merited.
Finally, there was his “workstation”—a weighty, battered Olivetti Lexicon manual typewriter. Parts of the machine's housing had been stripped away, obviously so that the user could tinker with it and make it work whenever it decided to pack up on him. It sat atop a ramshackle wooden typing table on wheels that had probably once been a fine piece of office furniture but that now listed in two directions, slightly west and dangerously north, so that it had to be propped against the only tiny piece of empty wall in the room in order to prevent it from simply keeling over and dying, taking the moribund Olivetti with it. 
Cox had a polite and humble manner, not at all the kind of hard-nosed, disdainful cynic I had rather expected to meet. He listened patiently to my plea for a chance to “come in on the ground level” and “learn the trade”. I added that he wouldn't be sorry, that I wanted to be a writer more than anything on earth and that I would be as dedicated as a monk. But while he was cordial and sympathetic, I noticed that sweat was beading on his brow, that he was almost compulsively scratching both of his forearms beneath the rolled cuffs of his shirt. He kept glancing furtively over at the piece of letter-size, yellowed newsprint rolled into the Lexicon, where he had obviously been working on something when I arrived. It was calling him even now and he had to get back to it.
“Okay,” I said, at last, “I've taken enough of your time. Please, just tell me you'll give me a chance and I’ll be on my way.”
“Perhaps you could contribute...” he tried.
“No, Mr. Cox...”
“Bob, call me Bob.”
“Or rather, yes, I will contribute, Bob, but what I want is a full-time job. I want to be a newsman. I want to write for a living.”
He looked a little pained, shook his head and said, “Look, Dan, this is a slave job. Nothing like what you'd expect. We do a little of everything here. And we all have to do other things outside the Herald to survive. We write for papers abroad to make ends meet. This is very hard...a lot of sacrifice, and frankly, I simply don't have anything for you—for anyone—right now.”
“Can I stop by now and then to see if something has opened up?”
He looked doubtful but said, “Yes, of course. Perhaps next time we can have a coffee at the bar around the corner. I'm just a little, uh, busy at the moment and um...”
Back then the Herald was a ramshackle frame for Cox's
extraordinary investigations and editorials and was upheld by his 
growing international reputation. Here Cox (center) talks with 
then-US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Argentine political 
commentator Mariano Grondona.  (Photo published in Perfil.com)
That was enough for me. I had his permission to come back. And come back I did—once every week or ten days for several months. Even though he sometimes had trouble restraining his irritation at my simply showing up unannounced, he seemed to admire my persistence. I would camp outside his office door for as long as it took. Sometimes he would stick his head out and say, “Sorry Dan, but I'm just too busy today,” and I would smile and say, “No problem, see you in a few days,” and leave, only to return as promised. It seemed to make him feel guilty when he rejected me and the next time he would be extra polite and we would nip out for a cup espresso at one of the bars nearby and talk for a while about journalism and what was going on in Buenos Aires, how Perón's return was affecting the country and about our favorite authors, among other varied topics. I told him that it was reading Hemingway and reading about Hemingway’s life that had made me want to be a newsman as well as a fiction writer, since Hemingway claimed he had learned everything he knew about succinct writing and economy of words when he was a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. At this, Cox lit up and said, “Back when I first started, we all wanted to write like Hemingway: ‘He sat by the window. The light streamed in.’ Wonderful stuff!”
Suddenly, I felt we were kindred spirits.  
I eventually contributed a couple of very lightweight vignettes to a weekend editorial page section called Saturday Sidelight, where just about anything went—although that was also where Bob, under the guise of light weekend reading, often got in some of his meatiest investigative work. Despite the frivolity of my first contributions, Cox liked them, liked the writing and tone, and assigned me a research article on the quagmire of identity documents, work visas and travel permits—government-invented bureaucratic stumbling blocks to foreigners, about which I was accumulating abundant personal experience. Still, alas, no fulltime job.
This went on for about five or six months, and although I felt that, to a certain degree, he and I had become friends, I eventually lost all hope that Robert Cox was ever going to give me a job. So I quit going to visit him at the Herald, simply resigned myself to having to continue to issue car rental contracts for Avis Rent-a-Car while working on my writing, contributing where and what I could, and hoping for a future break.
It wasn't three weeks after I quit visiting Cox, however, before the phone rang one evening at my mother-in-law’s home, where we were staying until we could afford a place of our own.  My wife answered, and told me with no little excitement in her voice that it was Robert Cox on the line.
“Hello, Bob,” I said when I picked up the receiver. “What a surprise!”
“Yes, uh, Dan, um, just calling to see if you're all right.”
“Well, of course I'm all right. Why wouldn't I be?”
“Yes, well, bad times and all, so dangerous for foreigners, you know, and you haven't been by lately, I thought perhaps something...” he trailed off.
“Listen, Bob,” I said. “I really like visiting you but, pleasant though it was for me, I wasn’t just dropping by for coffee and a chat every week?”
“Yes, of course, Dan, I uh....understand, but um...”
“I want a job in your newspaper,” I interrupted. “I want to be a journalist.”
There was a pause. I could almost hear him thinking, deciding. I held my breath.
“Uh, yes, well,” he said finally, “Pop by next Monday, then...may have something for you. Cheers.”
And there I stood still holding the receiver and thinking, “Hey! Was this a dream, or did I just land a newspaper job?”


4 comments:

Gina Malke Schmiedeberg said...

This is superb! Thank you, Dan. I remember you writing for the Herald.....

Dan Newland said...

Many thanks, Gina! So kind of you to remember me. Thanks so much for reading my blog.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting...love the era, the background, the characters, the story. Thanks,
Nancy Brown Supler

Dan Newland said...

Many thanks for reading it, Nancy and for your kind comment.