Ever since I saw Ben Hecht’s ‘Front Page’ with Lee Tracey back in 1933 I have realized, of course, that newspapermen were an eccentric lot, brash, uninhibited, vocal, and guided by none of the bourgeois conceptions of respectability….”
by moritz thomsen
Just in case anyone saw me at the Fireside Inn the other evening I want to explain about that right now. I was at that table for nine over in the far corner, remember, the one where the waitress kept coming over and asking us to lower our voices, the table where the waitress kept saying, “you’ll have to leave if you can’t act like ladies and gentlemen”?
The way it all began was innocent enough. Mr. Murphy, the publisher of the Sun, insisted that I join him at dinner with a group of newspaper publishers for one of their more or less regular meetings. Ever since I saw Ben Hecht’s “Front Page” with Lee Tracey back in 1933 I have realized, of course, that newspapermen were an eccentric lot, brash, uninhibited, vocal, and guided by none of the bourgeois conceptions of respectability.
I went then, not expecting to enjoy myself particularly, nor to fit into the group, but like an interested person will watch a brain operation, to enlarge the foundation of my experience, however unpleasant the experience might prove to be.
Well, one nice thing about newspapermen, they don’t waste time in idle chitchat. Before our chair seats were even warm someone had asked someone else that most profound of all questions, “Why hath God put us on this earth?” The whole evening exploded into a chaos of the deepest philosophic investigation.
Everyone wanted to talk; nobody wanted to listen. It was a night straight out of Turgenev or Dostoyevski, let me tell you. Within three minutes, with everyone yelling at once, it became apparent, even to the members of the press, that some sort of order would have to be maintained.
A chairman was appointed, but unfortunately he was completely ignored, and in fact right after the soup course, spent most of his time in the bar.
What gave the evening its surrealistic overtones was the fact that all the publishers were in complete agreement on almost everything, mainly that each of them wanted to leave the world in a little better shape than they had found it. Why they were all screaming like that escapes me.
Those of you who were there may remember a strange hiatus about midway through the murky meal. Thinking of it now reminds me of the eye of the cyclone, that unreal time as the center of the storm moves over you and momentarily the sound and the fury dies.
You may remember that just about then a woman near the end of the table began screaming at me. I believe she was one of the party. What she said, as well as I can recall was, “Hey, you, you stupid-looking jerk, you haven’t opened your stupid mouth all night; what are your ideas, if any, about all this?”
What I said, and I certainly didn’t mean to precipitate a crisis, simply was that Hitler and Stalin both wanted, in their own ways, to leave the world a little better than they found it, and that unless the newspapermen could be a little more explicit I found the conversation meaningless.
The cyclone moved on.
I want to deny those rumors about that grey-haired gentleman and me fighting out on the gravel; they are completely false.
Later, to be completely honest, I did invite that woman to step outside and wrestle, but I smiled when I said it, and I guess she thought I wasn’t serious. Lucky for me, come to think of it; she’d have beaten me to a pulp.
Well, I had my experience, and what I learned was this: Newspaper publishers, without exception, have much nicer wives than they deserve.
After his discharge from the Eighth Air Force after World War II and before joining the Peace Corps in 1964, Moritz Thomsen spent 20 years as a farmer in Los Molinos, California, a small agricultural town near Chico and Red Bluff, in Tehama County. His first book, “Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle” was not published until 1969, but in 1959 and 1960 he wrote a column for his local weekly, the Los Molinos Sun. The paper was short-lived, but Thomsen saved clippings of his “Mill Run” column, as well as the notebook he used to write out his columns each week in longhand. The clippings and notebook, now in the possession of his niece, Rashani Rea, provide a fascinating glimpse into the life and thoughts of Moritz Thomsen, eleven years after his death in Ecuador in 1991. Smokebox has been granted permission by Rashani Rea to reprint selected “Mill Run” columns, seen here for the first time since they were published some 41 years ago. For more on Thomsen you can read Marc Covert’s excellent analysis of his published output in the 3 part Smokebox feature Howls From A Hungry Place.