Caroline Figured Out Tabloids A Long Time Ago

Being a Copyboy,
In Caroline's Words

In a 1995 story about "The Right to Privacy," a book she'd just written with Ellen Alderman, Caroline Kennedy reminisced with Daily News writer Jane Furse about her days as a copyboy:

Her pursuit of an ordinary life began even while she was in college, when one summer she worked as what she called "the usual copy boy" for the Daily News. She spent her days running copy from desk to desk, getting coffee for the editors and soaking up the atmosphere.

"It was a great summer. . . . There was a big blackout. I think the Son of Sam thing was going on. Just to see how a newspaper operates made it an interesting summer.

"Do they still have that bench? I'd wait there until somebody would snap their fingers," she said, referring to the cherished copyboy bench, still at The News. 

It was a front-page story in the New York Times yesterday: "As Privacy Ends for Kennedy, a Rough Path Awaits." Adam Nagourney and Nicholas Confessore say that Caroline has had it pretty easy up to now — particularly with the media — but the gloves are sure to come off. They write:

"After years of being largely given a pass by New York’s notoriously rambunctious tabloid press, which have yielded to her desire for privacy, Ms. Kennedy is almost certainly about to get a working over by reporters who may not be as enchanted with, or intimidated by, the Kennedy presence as reporters of an earlier generation were."

Maybe. But my brief encounter with Caroline Kennedy over a few months 31 years ago tells me that she understands the tabloid mentality perhaps even better than those in its employ. I've seen her worked over, face-to-face, by tabloid deskmen thrice her age who needed to prove something to themselves by trying to get her to break. She handled it with dignity. She never broke. And I'd bet that whatever comes her way this time, she'll do just fine.

I was Caroline's boss, in the summer of 1977, when she came to work for the summer as a copyboy at the New York Daily News. I was Head of Copyboys at the time, a Group V Newspaper Guild job on the scale of Group I (copyboy) to Group X (reporter/photographer). That's me, looking busy, in a canned photograph that was taken to feed the beast. It went out over 

City Room, 1977, CK, TF 

the wires, but I don't know if it ran anywhere.

At a level far above me, there was much gnashing of strategy and tactics about how to deal with our celebrity hire. Knowing eyes have already spotted the Sunday comics next to Caroline on the "cherished" copyboy's bench (see sidebar above right; actually, three benches were strategically located around the city room). My bosses decided that Caroline should report for her first day of work on the slowest day of the week at a time when most reporters and photographers were still sleeping it off. I see that the hands on the also-cherished, four-sided clock read 10:20, but she'd already been there for a while The starting time for most reporters was 10 a.m., but I only see one of them, Cass Vanzi, among the deskmen and clerks in the picture above. I usually had weekends off, but I was told to come in that day to execute the game plan. No problem. It would be time-and-a-half pay (or was it double time?) and it wasn't going to be a full shift, either, if everything went according to schedule. 

I don't remember any special arrangements to cover Caroline's arrival. I do know that she was told to ignore any press that might be gathered the lobby. I don't remember if there were any. But once she arrived in the city room, I do remember Caroline, who was all of 19, suggesting that perhaps the easiest way to deal with any reporters who showed up in the course of the day — and UPI's national headquarters were a few floors above us — would be to talk to them for a few minutes.

Of course it was. They'd get a quote or two, grab a picture, and go away happy that they'd make the inane editor who sent them on the story happy that he was making the public happy with a picture of Caroline at work. She was used to the routine, obviously. But I was under strict orders to not let that happen. A press release lost to history, or at least to me, was issued. And pictures like the one above were taken.

The second part of the grand scheme was to sneak Caroline out early through the garage across 41st St. from the backside of the News Building. There was a glass-enclosed overpass that ran from the garage to the press room on the third floor that was used to convey huge rolls of newsprint. I had special permission to park my car — actually it was my fiancee, Deirdre's, car — in the garage for the day. Sometime early in the afternoon, Caroline and I took the freight elevator down to the third floor, stealthily moved through the press room where a few journeymen would be cleaning up from the previous night, and used the overpass to cross into the garage. Our pleasant, easygoing conversation on the way to her home on Fifth Ave. was interrupted by a quick stop at a changing light on a cross street near the Metropolitan Museum. The car lurched a bit, and an empty Schmidt's beer bottle (mine, not Deirdre's) came rolling out from under her seat. It was a low-rent embarrassment to me, but as far as she was concerned, nothing had happened. 

Anyway, that was that. We tried to make Caroline's schedule, and experience, as normal as any other copyboy's throughout the summer. And she tried to be as normal as any other copyboy, too. I think we settled on a primarily 2-10 shift for her — half day shift, half night — as a Solomon-like way to show no favor but not have her heading home in the very wee hours. 

You may wonder why I call her a copyboy and not a copygirl or a copyperson. Well, those latter two words were used on occasion, but probably more ironically than anything else. There were only a few female copyboys on staff before Caroline, actually, since the end of World War II. The first two joined the paper in the summer of 1975. One of them was Leslie Topping, whose father, Seymour, was the managing editor of the New York Times. I married the other, Deirdre Drohan, later in 1977. A photojournalism major at the University of Missouri, she was an apprentice in the photo studio at the time, on her way to becoming a staff photographer.

When Deirdre heard about the plan that had been hatched to drive Caroline home, she came up with a way to finance our wedding. She would, she said, sell a story to The National Inquirer, the leading supermarket tabloid of the era, with a headline such as, "Driven Away: I Lost My Husband to Caroline Kennedy." I didn't get to know Caroline well enough to repeat the line to her, but I have the feeling she would have laughed. Or at least smiled tolerantly. Not much seemed to get under her skin.

As I mentioned, Caroline was tested by a few of the crusty deskman at the News. These were the same guys who insisted on barking "boy!" when they had a piece of paper to move, even though their more attuned colleagues were more discreetly yelling "copy." More than one went out of his way to demand that Caroline, in particular, go on a coffee run.

All coffee requests were supposed to go through the copyboy's desk so we could consolidate orders and allocate personnel efficiently and do all those things that they pay Group V bureaucrats to do. The deskmen knew that, but they chose to ignore it. And Caroline, I observed, would just humor them and slip off to get the coffee. One time, though, I thought a senior editor got out of hand. Caroline was working the early shift that day, 8 to 4, as was I, and this fellow tried to send her on a coffee run before she'd distributed the day's papers to various desks and offices (a sacred rite). I intervened. I could tell the editor was upset, but he knew he was wrong.

Many months later, towards the end of the annual Copyboy's Christmas Party — which was a much more, um, festive occasion than the official office party ever was — the senior editor started to berate me for having intercepted his Caroline Kennedy coffee order over the summer. It boiled down to the fact that he was a distinguished journalist and I was a piece-of-shit copyboy, and he would always be distinguished and I would always be a piece of shit. Very sad.

The Kennedy name obviously is a lightening rod. Here I am dredging up minor anecdotes from three decades ago, and you've read all the way through them to here. Amazing, isn't it? 

I do believe that Caroline, far better than most of us who observe her, knows how that works, and how best to work it. She'll have to do something pretty inane to lose my vote in 2010. The Senate could use a little class and, from what I've seen, she no doubt has it.

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