paul sann journalism, letters, writing

  pete hamill on paul sann

            New York Post Saturday, September 6, 1986

the legacy of paul sann THE word came late in the day: Paul Sann was dead.

  I know otherwise. For me and hundreds of other newspapermen, Paul Sann is still walking into the city room of The Post, dressed in cowboy boots and a black shirt. It is 6 in the morning and the newspaper is still at 75 West St., with the windows open to the morning heat.

  Paul is the executive editor and he sits at his desk and lights a Camel and reaches for the coffee.

 "Copy boy!" he shouts, and the day's business has begun. Typewriters are hammering against the deadline through the large dirty room and you can hear the Linotype machines grinding in the composing room. Paul Sann is reading the dupes, the carbon copies of the night's stories, with their familiar toll of mayhem, tragedy and disaster. He is writing the "wood," the large type used on Page One. Then he looks up. He calls a reporter to the desk.

 "You can't write that, pal," he says. "This is a blur. Pure rewritese. What color was the dead guy's socks? Where did the bullets hit him? Where are the goddamned details?"

  He never did this within the hearing of others, because behind a wonderfully cynical facade, Paul Sann was a deeply sensitive man. He was there to make us better, not to exert his power, or score cheap knockouts over kids. He wanted us to be better writers and better reporters and, if it was at all possible, better men. He did this in a hard, urban, 1938 style, the face often rigid, the manner gruff, the demand for excellence always at the core of the style. He loved the slam-bang engine of a tabloid, but he also thought you could do the job with style.

  "If you've got the story, tell it," he used to say. "If you don't have the story, write it."

  Above all, he wanted his students (for that's what so many of us were) to be boxer-punchers, to write for this newspaper as if we were each a Sugar Ray Robinson at the typewriter. We could dazzle people with the moves of style, but that was never enough; we could only score knockouts with reporting. We often failed, but not through any fault of Paul Sann.

  He was the editor of this paper during difficult times; there was never enough money for staff or foreign assignments; overtime was often rewarded with days off. But within the limits Paul produced a tough, intelligent tabloid, and when the great newspaper wars were over, the Hearst giant was gone, and so was Scripps-Howard, and so was the Whitney family. The New York Post survived, a great welterweight of a tabloid that had beaten out the giants.

  Paul Sann was as responsible as anyone for that extraordinary act of survival. Much of the accomplishment was the result of good writing, which is to say, superior editing. Paul Sann gave columns to Jimmy Cannon and Murray Kempton, men whose sensibilities were almost polar; each honored journalism by his presence. Paul Sann supervised a long string of wonderfully reported Post series. He helped shape a brilliant sports section that included Lennie Shecter, Milton Gross, Maury Allen, Larry Merchant, Leonard Koppett and a dozen others.

  He defended his people against the powerful who wanted them fired. He hired and nurtured such men as Edward Kosner, now the editor of New York magazine, Don Forst, editor of New York Newsday, Warren Hoge, foreign editor of the New York Times. Vic Ziegel, sports editor of the Daily News, and such writers as Nora Ephron, Gene Grove, Alfred G. Aronowitz, Jerry Tallmer, among many others.

  When Paul Sann was editor, Ted Poston became the first black reporter hired by a mainstream New York newspaper; Jose Torres be- came the first Puerto Rican to write a column.

  Paul didn't care much for politics, but he knew Joe McCarthy was a bum. Paul was part of the team (with Jimmy Wechsler) that made The Post one of the few newspapers in this country to stand up to McCarthy at the height of his power.

  "Keep it short," he would moan, while examining copy. "Give me active verbs. Don't use the same verbs all the time or the copy gets dull. The verbs are the Teamsters; they get the nouns to the market." He'd read some piece of copy and shake his head and peer over his glasses and light another cigarette and say: "What's the point? Why should anyone care? You gotta make us care, boy."

 And then there were those rare days when he would come by the desk and tap the typewriter and say: "That was a dandy today..." A Pulitzer could not have brought more elation.

  Outside the newspaper, he was a city man, a son of The Bronx, but always a newspaperman. He loved Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics; beautiful women; great fighters; good saloons; Las Vegas and the American West; some gangsters; home run hitters; Broadway; Rodgers and Hart; Fitzgerald and Hemingway; Sandy Koufax; Italian food; coffee and cigarettes; his children and his wife Birdye.

  The day his wife died he came to the office and walked past us all to his desk and sat down at the typewriter and wrote a lovely farewell to the woman he'd loved for so long. He didn't say a word. And when the piece was finished, he walked back out of the city room to go to drink whiskey. That day, I knew what it meant to be a newspaperman.

  Now the word has come that Paul is dead in his sleep. Working on a novel, which he'd been writing for a year. But Paul Sann isn't dead and never will be. Not while we're alive; not even when we're gone. What he taught me and all the others already has been passed on to the next generation of newspapermen. And one morning in the 21st Century an editor will call a kid to his desk and say, "Keep it short. If you've got the story, tell it. If you don't have the story, write it..."

  And neither editor nor reporter will know it, but at that newspaper, and in a hundred others all over this country, Paul Sann will live.



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