The Mail's man in America saw it all for Press Gazette too

I first heard of Press Gazette, a new magazine for Fleet Street, aboard a Thames riverboat. Colin Valdar, former editor at the Sunday Pictorial, invited me for lunch on one of the two floating clubs moored alongside The Embankment. In those days I was the Daily Mail’s New York correspondent, working alongside the then famous columnist Don Iddon.

Would I be interested, Valdar asked me, in writing a weekly column from America? I was but there was one possible snag. Would the Mail approve? We solved that by agreeing that I would write the column, but it would carry the byline of my American journalist wife Myrna (who was then working for the magazine Family Circle, and then edited Ladies’ Home Journal for 20 years).

When UK Press Gazette, as it was originally titled, was launched, the column was given a whole page under the title Dateline New York. Copy was sent to London by mail, updated by Telex. Wherever my travels for the Mail took me, Thursday was the day I wrote the column and posted it.

After a few weeks I learned Associated Newspapers had no objection to my writing for Press Gazette – as long as I didn’t reveal any company secrets. So started a more than 40-year association with Press Gazette – with my own byline.

In the early days we wrote mostly about new developments, papers being launched, papers folding, in America. Yes, they were even closing in those days.

Before the internet it was easier to be ahead on such stories, before they landed as they do now in The Telegraph or The Guardian. But we also reported on the gossip from such New York journalistic hangouts as Costello’s, PJ Clarks’ and Toot Shor’s – the doings and misdoings.

We also reported the successes of former Fleet Street colleagues working in the US, such as former Express photographer Harry Benson, who came over with The Beatles and stayed on. How he got his famous picture of Bobby Kennedy, dying from his assassin’s bullets, on the kitchen floor of a Los Angeles hotel, cradled in the arms of his wife.

Other tales I told included how Express man Iain Aitken and I rode into Havana with Fidel Castro (a story I recounted only recently on Castro’s relinquishing power), and how the rebel leader wanted to talk more about baseball than the success of his revolution. How I was standing just a few paces behind Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin, when he was shot by Dallas night-club owner Jack Ruby in the basement garage of the Dallas Police headquarters.

At the time I thought it was flash bulbs popping, until they carried Oswald’s body past me and laid it on a desk top. Even then I had to watch a replay of the shooting on TV before I really understood what had happened.

How we got to Dallas after the JFK shooting is another tale from that distant era… It happened on a Friday. Early afternoon in New York. To my dismay there were no planes from New York to Dallas that afternoon. It was a TWA clerk who suggested ‘Why not hire a plane?’ How much? $15,000, he replied. First reaction: No way! On reflection maybe that might be an idea.

There were at least a dozen British journalists, including David English, then working for the Express, also trying to get to Dallas I started calling them up. Soon we had at least 15 ready to divvy up the cost at a $1,000 apiece.

The pilot had radioed ahead and there were a dozen taxis waiting for us at Dallas airport. First stop Police HQ. We arrived just as Oswald, his face bruised, was being paraded for the cameras, and denying he had shot anyone.

A new lead for the story, but more important it enabled London to change the dateline to ‘Jeffrey Blyth, Dallas’– and also to justify that old Daily Mail slogan ‘Wherever there is a story there’s a Daily Mail reporter.’

When we were not reporting shootings and riots (sometimes it seemed that was our main occupation) I did find time to report for PG the rising fortunes of other former Fleet Street colleagues now working in the US, such as Anthea Disney, Harry Evans and Tina Brown and, of course, Anna Wintour, whose father Charles briefly edited PG after he left the Evening Standard.

One of the most bizarre stories we reported was the ghoulish gang of thieves who stole and sold body parts for medical purposes, among them the body of Alistair Cooke.

The gang was recently sentenced to long jail terms, but of course the Cooke family didn’t know about the desecration before the cremation of what remained of his body. That was an after-tale.

For years as The Guardian correspondent in America and then for the BBC, Alistair had written his columns and Letters from America from his apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park.

After his cremation the family wanted to scatter his ashes in the park. But officially that’s forbidden. What did they do? I discovered they had popped into a nearby Starbucks, bought three cups of coffee which they drank and then poured the ashes into the paper cups. Walking into the park, when no-one was looking, they scattered the ashes, as I reported, under the bushes and trees

For a short while, a few years back, my American column for PG was dropped. Then Phillipa Kennedy was appointed editor and decided to revive it. I like to think it was because of popular demand, but she renamed it American Pie, a title which I never really liked, but felt it would churlish in the circumstances to complain.

Then came the internet age which, as an old ink-and-paper journalist, I did not welcome at first. That was until I saw how quickly our stories – and the occasional exclusive – made it to PG readers, not just in the UK but around the world.

One of them has been how much Fleet Street-style journalism has taken over in the USA. And it is not just the Rupert Murdoch effect.  Though the Wall Street Journal is beginning to take on the look of a British upmarket daily, British-style editing is also apparent in the celebrity magazines and Brit editors now head several top publications .

Then there is the paparazzi, notably in Los Angeles, where Kevin Smith – the son of People journalist John Smith –runs Splash News, one of the more aggressive and successful photo agencies.

The only clouds in recent years had been the increasing number of obits I have had to write  about old Fleet Street colleagues who have died either while working, or in retirement, in the USA. Also somewhat disturbing is the   decline in the size of the British press contingent here. 

At one time it was the biggest, when papers like the Telegraph, the Mirror and the Express each had as many as five or six reporters in New York alone. Today the British press corps would be hard pressed to field a cricket team.

The biggest foreign press contingents in New York today? If membership of the Foreign Press Association is any indication it’s Germany (57 members) and Italy (45).The UK has 16.

And my happiest memory? Apart from my 20 years covering news in Europe, Asia and America for the Daily Mail, I am happy to have been associated with Press Gazette since day one.

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