The Great American Saloon Series

Confessions of a Soft-Drinking Newspaperman

Hard-drinking and reporting haven't always mixed.

By From the June 2013 issue

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Over a 50-year career, I’ve neatly managed to fake my way through five newspapers in New York and San Francisco as a teetotaler, but I’m not proud of it. I wanted desperately to hang out with reporters at places called (inevitably) Page One and the Press Box, not to mention Bleek’s, Costello’s, the Lion’s Head, the White Horse Tavern, Hanno’s in the Alley, the M&M, and the Washington Square Bar & Grill: hallowed newsroom annexes where I did my sorry best to fit in. 

I had serious doubts and worried that I might not make it as a hard-news reporter when a veteran rewrite man at the New York Post asked me to join him for a drink after work one day during my 1965 summer tryout. I had just won a Page One award, so his invitation was a newsroom rite of passage that I flunked shamefully. When I ordered a ginger ale, his face fell and our rendezvous quickly ended. 

Time and again, I would sidle into a place like the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village, where I then lived, and scan the bar for signs of the legends: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, who were said to spend half their lives there. In half a dozen visits, I never saw either of them and was forced to settle for a cheeseburger before leaving. I failed to realize that reporters are willing to log long hours at saloons. If I’d waited at the Lion’s Head another two hours I just might have met Breslin or Hamill. But then what—another prissy ginger ale?

I didn’t realize that newspaper people figure if you’re drinking ginger ale or tomato juice, you must be on the wagon, which can engender both sympathy and respect. But I didn’t look like a barroom habitué and always felt shamefully out of my depth for reasons other than just drink. To be accepted, you also needed to play liar’s dice or something called the Match Game, which I never understood. It was made famous at Bleek’s (i.e., “Blake’s”), the fabled old New York Herald-Tribune saloon. 

When I later went to work as a critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, I had lunch at the Washington Square Bar & Grill with the paper’s iconic columnist Herb Caen, who suggested we play the Match Game to see who paid for drinks. I looked at him blankly and meekly confessed I didn’t know how to play. He was faintly appalled. Later, I went to lunch at Enrico’s with another of the paper’s great columnists, apple-nosed Charles McCabe, famous for his love of booze (he got his mail at a North Beach bar). After I ordered a Coke and he called for his favorite Rainier ale (“green death”), McCabe muttered, resignedly, “Well, the Irish drink and the Jews eat.” Our first and final lunch.

The Chronicle was then famous for its hard-drinking city room reporters (Warren Hinckle included), guys who would repair to Hanno’s or the M&M for “a quick one” between assignments. I dearly wished to be one of them because I loved their “Front Page” personas, mordant wit, and reportorial swagger. A few of them overdid it, like the reporter who fell over at his desk in front of me one day in a fit of delirium tremens. But many could handle their liquor—guys like Ron Fimrite, the Sports Illustrated writer I came to know (despite my teetotaler handicap). Ron was rarely without a glass in his hand, yet I never saw him drunk; he just got funnier and more sardonic, quoting old Bob & Ray routines in rising notes of hilarity.

Years before, at the Oakland Tribune, my editor Ted Manning did most of his editing from the staff’s saloon of choice, the wonderfully named Hollow Leg, before tottering back to work around 3 p.m. He must have been under the influence the day he hired one of two colleagues he had interviewed for the job of my assistant. Ted, likely in a fog, confused their names and hired the wrong guy. 

My editor at the New York Daily News once took me to Costello’s, which James Thurber had helped make legendary with his cartoon mural in the bar. After that, I dropped in a few times on the way home from work, but, again, never spotted any of the mythic drinkers from The News like Breslin and Hamill. 

My only real contact with Breslin was when I shared an office at The News with him and Hamill, a glassed-in room that attracted Breslin’s cronies and drinking pals. It was hard to get any work done when they were gabbing with Breslin as he had his shoes shined. So I asked the office manager to put curtains around the windows. The next day, Breslin came in and instantly ripped down the curtains, crying, “Who the f--k put up these f---kin’ curtains?!” “Darned if I know, Jim.” 

THE BEST I'VE been able to do (in the romantic line of duty, wooing a Time editor) was to choke down a few gin and tonics while she belted back scotch and waters before I poured her into a cab. Even female journalists made me look like an Amish elder. I was much more at home with a chocolate soda at Schraff’s amongst the proper, well-turned-out ladies, though even they might have a glass of wine. I did finally learn to imbibe little old lady drinks like pina coladas, gin fizzes, virgin Marys, and strawberry daiquiris. More Walter Mitty than Hildy Parks, I must admit I’ve always preferred tea rooms to saloons. 

My dilemma is that, much as I love the aura of old-time newspaper types, I never fully belonged. These guys loved working on deadline, as I did not, before heading for a saloon to unwind. They caroused, they cursed, they stayed up late, they had mistresses, they told great stories—none of which I was fit to participate in. I could only listen, eyes popping, like a city-room tourist. 

Once in a while I’d be invited to join a few reporters for an after-hours round, but I always begged off, afraid of being found out and losing my press credentials. If I did go to lunch with a newsroom colleague, I knew I’d have to wait an hour to eat while he drank two or three martinis, flirted with the waitress, and stopped by a couple of tables to chat with cronies. Once lunch finally arrived, it was always an afterthought, barely edible. “Ya know,” some semi-sozzled reporter would say, “the food’s not half-bad here.” If the pasta had been made of shredded newsprint, he wouldn’t have noticed, or cared. 

When I wrote a singles column for the Chronicle in the mid-1980s, I was duty-bound to visit a few singles bars, where I would nurse a ginger ale for maybe 45 minutes before departing, always alone. I never learned the rudiments of sidling up to a female and delivering a cool line (or any line at all) to spark a bantering encounter. Again, you need to put in long hours at this sort of thing for it to pay off, and I found the singles bar environment both daunting and dulling. I would window shop and head quietly home. 

The most time I ever spent in a saloon was the night of the 1965 New York City blackout, which occurred at 5:15 p.m. as I was on my way down the back stairs at the New York Post headed for home. Any decent red-blooded newsman would have reported to the city desk to knock out stories by candlelight. Me, I took refuge in a nearby bar, as no taxis were available, and hid there for six hours, knocking back Diet Cokes. 

When I worked there in the 1970s, the Daily News was a battalion of battered, old-time, hard-drinking newsmen (few women), mostly Irish and Italian. Not many there like me, a square Jewish kid from Oakland. I was assigned to the arts department, where one of the mainstays, Freddy Dolan, actually kept a bottle in his desk for occasional medicinal swigs. Freddy was not alone. I preferred the rice pudding at the Automat next door. 

Now that wine has replaced hard liquor among most newsmen, I’ve made a few tentative efforts to drink either wine or beer. Beer drinkers always appear to be having such a jolly good lip-smacking time, but I can’t choke it down. I’m even more of a social misfit amid wine drinkers, who have turned their beverage choice into a major religion. Beer drinkers are content to sip and let it go at that, but wine fanciers won’t shut up. I used to feel like a yokel, but now I happily turn my goblet over and order iced tea. Nothing quite like the nose on a vintage Earl Grey with seductive fruity notes. 

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.