That was one thing they never wrote about in books on journalism or those comradely blind bulldagger boots-upon-the-brass-rail swill-bar speakeasy memoirs about newspaper days and children of the century . . . namely, the little curlicues of newspaper status competition . . . For example, at the desk behind mine in the Herald Tribune city room sat Charles Portis. Portis was the original laconic cutup. At one point he was asked onto a kind of Meet the Press show with Malcolm X, and Malcolm X made the mistake of giving the reporters a little lecture before they went on about how he didn't want to hear anybody calling him "Malcolm," because he was not a dining-car waiter—his name happened to be "Malcolm X." By the end of the show Malcolm X was furious. He was climbing the goddamned acoustical tiles. The original laconic cutup, Portis, had invariably and continually addressed him as "Mr. X" . . . "Now, Mr. X, let me ask you this . . ." Anyway, Portis had the desk behind mine. Down in a bullpen at the far end of the room was Jimmy Breslin. Over to one side sat Dick Schaap. We were all engaged in a form of newspaper competition that I have never known anybody to even talk about in public. Yet Schaap had quit as city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, which was one of the legendary jobs in journalism—moved down the organizational chart, in other words—just to get in this secret game.
Everybody knows about one form of competition among newspaper reporters, the so-called scoop competition. Scoop reporters competed with their counterparts on other newspapers, or wire services, to see who could get a story first and write it fastest; the bigger the story—i.e., the more it had to do with matters of power or catastrophe—the better. In short, they were concerned with the main business of the newspaper. But there was this other lot of reporters as well . . . They tended to be what is known as "feature writers." What they had in common was that they all regarded the newspaper as a motel you checked into overnight on the road to the final triumph. The idea was to get a job on a newspaper, keep body and soul together, pay the rent, get to know "the world," accumulate "experience," perhaps work some of the fat off your style—then, at some point, quit cold, say goodbye to journalism, move into a shack somewhere, work night and day for six months, and light up the sky with the final triumph. The final triumph was known as The Novel.
". . . Feature writers regarded newspapers as a motel stop on the road to final triumph . . ."
That was Someday, you understand . . . Meanwhile, these dreamboaters were in there banging away, in every place in America that had a newspaper, competing for a tiny crown the rest of the world wasn't even aware of: Best Feature Writer in Town. The "feature" was the newspaper term for a story that fell outside the category of hard news. It included everything from "brights," chuckly little items, often from the police beat . . . There was this out-of-towner who checked into a hotel in San Francisco last night, bent upon suicide, and he threw himself out of his fifth-story window—and fell nine feet and sprained his ankle. What he didn't know was—the hotel was on a steep hill! . . . to "human interest stories," long and often hideously sentimental accounts of hitherto unknown souls beset by tragedy or unusual hobbies within the sheet's circulation area . . . In any case, feature stories gave a man a certain amount of room in which to write.
Unlike the scoop reporters, the feature writers did not openly acknowledge the existence of their competition, not even to one another. Nor was there any sort of scorecard. And yet everyone in the game knew precisely what was going on and went through the most mortifying sieges of envy, even resentment, or else surges of euphoria, depending on how the game was going. No one would ever admit to such a thing, and yet all felt it, almost daily. The feature writers' arena differed from the scoop reporters' in another way. Your competition was not necessarily working for another publication. You were just as likely to be competing with people on your own paper, which meant you were even less likely to talk about it.
So here was half the feature competition in New York, right in the same city room with me, because the Herald Tribune was like the main Tijuana bullring for feature writers . . . Portis, Breslin, Schaap . . . Schaap and Breslin had columns, which gave them more freedom, but I figured I could take the both of them. You had to be brave. Over at the Times there was Gay Talese and Robert Lipsyte. At the Daily News there was Michael Mok. (There were other contenders, too, on all the newspapers, including the Herald Tribune. I am only mentioning those I remember most clearly.) Mok I had been up against before, when I worked on the Washington Post and he worked on the Washington Star. Mok was tough competition, because, for one thing, he was willing to risk his hide on a feature story with the same wild courage he later showed in covering Vietnam and the Arab-Israel war for Life. Mok would do . . . eerie things. For example, the News sends Mok and a photographer out to do a feature on a fat man who is trying to lose weight by marooning himself on a sailboat anchored out in Long Island Sound ("I'm one of those guys, I walk past a delicatessen and breathe deep, and I gain ten pounds"). The motorboat they hire conks out about a mile from the fat man's sloop, with only four or five hours to go before the deadline. This is March, but Mok dives in and starts swimming. The water is about 42 degrees. He swims until he's half dead, and the fat man has to fish him out with an oar. So Mok gets the story. He makes the deadline. There are pictures in the News of Mok swimming furiously through Long Island Sound in order to retrieve this great blob's diet saga for two million readers If, instead, he had drowned, if he had ended up down with the oysters in the hepatitic muck of the Sound, nobody would have put up a plaque for him. Editors save their tears for war correspondents. As for feature writers—the less said, the better. (Just the other day I saw one of the New York Times's grand panjandrums react with amazement to superlative praise for one of his paper's most popular writers, Israel Shenker, as follows: "But he's a feature writer!") No, if Mok had bought the oyster farm that afternoon, he wouldn't even have rated the quietest award in journalism, which is 30 seconds of silence at the Overseas Press Club dinner. Nevertheless, he dove into Long Island Sound in March! Such was the raging competition within our odd and tiny grotto!