The Family Trade

I first started working in interactive media in 1983 as a newswriter for a small market test that later became Prodigy Interactive Services. I was on leave from the New York Daily News. I didn't go back to the News when my leave was over, and I've not written for a newspaper since then. I've worked for magazines, websites, newsletters, book publishers, and corporate clients, among other income-producing entities. But in my heart, I'm still a newspaperman. It's the family trade.

For roughly a century, from the 1830s (when the high-speed press was invented) to the 1930s (when multimedia conglomerates took root) newspapering was a bare-knuckle trade that just about anyone with an idea,  gumption, and a willingness to fail could get into.

Just like the Internet, circa today. 

The locus of my family's newspapering was New Rochelle, N.Y., where my grandfather, my father, and I were born and the other two are buried, but it includes several other communities. Most of them are fairly close to New York City. Fittingly, New Rochelle was Norman Rockwell's hometown when he was in his prime as a magazine illustrator. Rockwell's appeal, even back in the Roaring Twenties, was rooted in his portrayal of values that people felt all the more attached to because they seemed to be slipping away. It was an idealization. It was not the way life really was, but the way Americans wished it to be, or pretended it had been.

Family-owned newspapers, for all their limits and deficiencies, often crystallized a community's ideals in much the same way. That's not a bad thing. And if a community was of any size at all, it had several newspapers doing so, speaking out for a number of constituencies and fanning debate over what those ideals should be. It was a large part of what made America America.

Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, stunned a panel of British Parliament in 1851 with a report on the nature of newspapers in the United States. He told them that there was no requirement for a publisher to register with authorities, and that a publisher was not held to any higher standard of libel than, say, a blacksmith. But what was most astonishing to the Members of Parliament, based on the questions they asked, was the multitude of papers that were published and the number of people who read them. 

"A county containing 50,000 has five journals, which are generally weekly papers," Greeley told them. "And when a town grows to have as many as 15,000 inhabitants, or thereabouts, then it has a daily paper. . . At 20,000 they have two, and so on." 

Because these papers were inexpensive and carried local news, they were widely read. Greeley estimated that seventy-five percent of families took in a daily paper in 1851. He told Parliament that even mechanics and field hands read them. 

One incredulous MP asked: "After he has finished his breakfast or dinner, he may be found reading the daily newspaper, just as the people of the upper classes do in England?"

"Yes," Greeley answered.

Just like the Internet today, newspapers of the 19th century were the great equalizers of information. And, lord knows, you took what you read with a skeptical eye.

George M. Cohan was the theatrical equivalent of Norman Rockwell. Critics said that he was shallow, maudlin and jingoistic; the public found him rousing, entertaining and engaging. Cohan's musical comedy "Forty Five Minutes from Broadway" made its Broadway premiere on New Year's Day, 1906. The title song still has some currency — most people of a certain age who hear it can at least hum along — but the plot itself was a forgettable melodrama in which true love triumphs over greed. The setting was New Rochelle, a place presumably so backward that Kid Burns, a city sharpy, sings:

If you want to find a real hick delegation
The place where the real rubens dwell
Just hop on a train at the Grand Central Station
Get off when they shout "New Rochelle"

The burghers of New Rochelle were appalled over this dipiction of their city, according to a theatrical history I once read. On the morning of the premier, the book said, the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce called an emergency session. It purportedly passed resolutions to institute a boycott and to send out press releases denouncing the play as "libelous to their community and its inhabitants."

For starters, there was no Chamber of Commerce in New Rochelle at the time, as far as I can determine. And neither of the two (of four) newspapers that have survived on microfilm mention the alleged uproar. 

A late January edition of the Pioneer does contain a short report that Cohan "says in last Saturday's edition of The Spot Light that the editor of the New Rochelle Bee is angry because he dramatized his town." The Spot Light was a theatrical newsletter that Cohan himself published, largely to promote his own plays. There never was a New Rochelle Bee. In all likelihood, Cohan was, in the spirit if P.T. Barnum, trying to drum up a little controversy to sell tickets. The Pioneer does mention that "some New Rochelle people are interested to know just what part of this 'ere 'town,' as he calls it, George Cohan has been visiting in."

If Cohan did visit New Rochelle, it was likely at the Forbes residence on Fairview Place, where all six children — four boys and two younger girls — still lived with their mother, Mary Connor Forbes. (Their father, newspaperman George Morris Forbes, had been booted out of the house for his drinking years before, and was run over by a trolley car in New Jersey in 1904.)

The fourth son was my grandfather, Thomas Harold. He was a member of Cohan's company. The reason the play was set in New Rochelle, according to two Cohan biographies, was because the young member of the chorus was constantly chirping about it. Ward Morehouse wrote in "George M. Cohan: Prince of the American Theater":

For a year or so, Cohan had notions of a play with near-to-New York locale, such a locale, say, as New Rochelle, N.Y., which, as of 1905, was a placid, uneventful, law-abiding, home-owning, God-fearing community of some 20,000 people. "What would be the matter with New Rochelle?" Cohan asked, sounding out a young man of the 'Little Johnny Jones' company, one T. Harold Forbes, who lived there, and who returned home on the 11:40 every night. "Why-why nothing,'" spluttered T. Harold. '"I think it would be great-great.'"

Yes, chuckled Cohan, and he wondered if he could convince Broadway that  there really was such a place and that he hadn't just made it up. As he worked on his songs and story he went frequently to Forbes to check on details of suburban life and finally gave Forbes the chorus of a song he called "Forty Five Minutes From Broadway."

T. Harold, wide eyed and somewhat aghast, read it over and over again as Cohan watched him.

"'Well,' said Cohan challengingly, "what's the matter with it?"

"Why nothing. It's fine-fine.'"

"Do you think any of the town boosters will get sore?'"

"No-o, I don't think so.'"And quickly, '"It will certainly put New Rochelle on the map."

"No doubt about that," said Cohan.

"And it's true, too," said T. Harold, warming up to the whole idea. '"here are a lot of rubes there, particularly up North Ave. way, and they're still pitching a lot of hay.'"

"All right, kid, but don't let them hear you say that; they might run you out of town."

When the new Cohan musical play, "Forty-five Minutes from Broadway," went into rehearsal in the late summer of 1905 Cohan's local color authority, T. Harold Forbes, who was later to become a prosperous suburban newspaper publisher, was in the cast along with such famous folk as Fay Templeton, Victor Moore and Donald Brian. ..." 

Actually, T. Harold apparently wasn't in the opening night cast, but that may be the least of Mr. Morehouse's casual regard for accuracy, entertaining as his dialogue might be.

Before he got into newspapering full time, Harold, or "Spider," as he was known in theatrical circles, formed a song-and-dance duet with his wife-to-be, Carrie Bowman. They stayed on the vaudeville circuit until a respirtory problem forced him to retreat to the mountain air in 1914. He ran a local weekly in Livingstone Manor, N.Y., for a few years before returning to New Rochelle in 1919. He then bought the Paragraph and the Daily Star, which his brother Bert had launched in 1911. The Paragraph was shut down in June 1920; the Pioneer's 60-year run ended in October. The Press had died the year before.

"I started right out putting George M. Cohan methods into the old Star — not so much jazzing it up as making it really alive and up to date with what people in the community were doing and thinking," T. Harold told a reporter a few years later. Circulation grew. In 1923, he bought out the city's other daily, the Evening Standard. The Standard had begun publication as the Daily Times in 1908, superceding the weekly i.

New Rochelle had become a one-newspaper town.

The lead editorial of the merged Standard-Star — with the headline "New Rochelle, First and Forever" — left no doubt that local issues would be of paramount concern to T. Harold. After establishing his credentials as a native son, T. Harold wrote: "The Standard Star will be ready to serve that which is for the welfare of all; to support that which is right; unafraid to expose evil and jobbery and condemn that which is wrong. It will be an independent newspaper. It will be The People's Forum."

The paper's vision, however, did extend further than the arteries running off Main St. The second editorial — which observed that "there is too much talk on so-called popular subjects which at best are of minor moment" — was a plea for world peace.

T. Harold had formed a partnership with the owners of the nearby Mount Vernon Daily Argus in order to buy out the Evening Standard. A few years later, local tennis star Francis T. Hunter — whose doubles victory at Wimbleton was coincidentially the lead story in the first edition of the merged Standard-Star — bought out one of the Mount Vernon partners. Westchester Newspapers Securities Corp. became known as the Forbes-Hunter Group. In 1925, it launched a daily, the Times, in Mamaroneck. Harold's brother, George Plowden Forbes was publisher and 49 percent owner. Another brother, Charles Banks Forbes, ran the Building & Realty News in White Plains. The Mount Vernon paper, and the six other community weeklies that the group acquired, remained under the operational control of the previous owners.

In 1928, T. Harold explained what Frank Hunter and he had accomplished in Westchester County to the New York Sun's Edwin C. Hill, a newroom legend for his handling of the Titanic disaster story. 

"We saw a pile of potentially good newspaper properties here in Westchester that were suffering from dry rot. . . ," T. Harold told Hill. "Some were doing well, but not nearly as well as they should have done because their plants were as antiquated as their journalism. We started out by borrowing a lot of money. That was Frank's job. They knew him on Wall Street. Then we picked and chose."

Hill commented: "Some veteran editors with mice in their whiskers, who had been sort of uprooted by the nervous energies of the youths, looked on while Westchester dailies and weeklies that hadn't changed a headline or put on a new comma since the days of President Arthur were suddenly and amazingly transformed into bright and sparkling newspapers radiating the very spirit of the new day. . . ."

The partner's success came from recognizing the changing economic ground rules. "Standardization has saved us a lot," T. Harold said. "One staff of reporters and photographers can operate for a string of papers." They merged, they acquired, they launched and they went into hock with Wall St. money. But T. Harold was ever the local boy, even when he was directing the transformation of one of the sleepy weeklies.

"We made it a sixteen-page standard size instead of the old-fashioned, eight-page country style. We put fine, glazed paper on the presses. We used plenty of cuts, almost all of local appeal and significance. We threw out all 'boiler plate' stuff — stale news and features — and used instead up-to-date live news of the locality about people and things — nothing too trivial. There wasn't a strawberry festival, a woman's club meeting or a local happening that we overlooked," said T. Harold. 

Newspapers all over the country were discovering that an "independent" editorial stance was helpful in attracting and maintaining advertising accounts handed out by gentlemen of all political stripes. T. Harold was a Democrat in a county that had voted Republican since the election of 1896, when William McKinley defeated the Free Silver candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. His father had been a Republican in a Democratic county; his brothers had been Republicans who were often at odds with their party. 

"We cut out politics," T. Harold said. "Our papers are not Democratic or Republican." Instead, he said, the papers were "solely devoted to the welfare and upbuilding of the communities that support them. We try to lead in all demands for local improvements and betterment."

The two partners owned all of the common stock of their newspaper group. In the Sun interview, T. Harold said that they would not accept less than a million dollars for the Mount Vernon paper alone. He had prospered to a degree that his father and brothers would have thought unimaginable. He built a mansion on Long Island Sound down the block from the prestigious Larchmont Yacht Club, which was one of many club memberships that he held. He was also active in the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and the Knights of Columbus, the New York Athletic Club, the Wykagyl Country Club, the Bonnie Briar County Club, and the Milton Point Beach club. He was a certified big shot in the town that his father had wandered into as a lad 60 years before. His fortune was about to reverse, however, like that of many another who had grown successful in the speculative fever of the '20s.

Within months of the Sun interview, the Forbes-Hunter Group announced that it was merging with the Macy newspapers, which published four other dailies in Westchester county. For all intents and purposes, though, the transaction was a sale to Macy. New Rochelle was now without a newspaper that was published by a resident of the city for the first time since the Civil War. 

T. Harold's efforts then centered on launching a new daily in White Plains, the county seat, with his brother Charles as the editor. The Daily Press, which was launched a few months before Wall Street's Black Monday in 1929, lost its struggle against the established paper — The Reporter  — in 1934. George Plowden Forbes continued as publisher of the Mamaroneck Times until 1943, when he sold his 49 percent stake to the Macy chain.

Two banks where T. Harold served as a director collapsed following the Wall Street crash of October 1929. He not only lost his own money, but shared responsibility for making good on depositors' accounts. He also took a 52 percent interest in a film production company at a time when the industry was well along in its exodus from New York to Hollywood. Beecroft Films initially intended to produce a life of Rembrandt and to make "talkie" adaptations of Broadway plays. The only acutal production, however, was a costly but undistinguished campus comedy starring a young Olive (later, Gloria) Shay that never got past a showing or two at the local theater. I have it on good authority — an heir of his partner, Chester Beecroft — was his squeeze at the time. Hanky-panky on the side, like the drink, was a predilection (but that's another another story). 

His capital evaporating, the grand house in Larchmont was sold to his good friend Rudy Schaeffer, heir to a beer fortune, later commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club and nemesis of my Uncle Kip, who took a shining to his wife (yet another story).

In 1931, T. Harold became minority owner and publisher of the Flushing Daily Journal, a small, dying paper located in the heart of what had once been a rustic area of the New York City borough of Queens. Though it was now a middle-class commuter's enclave, its streets lined with the shops and small businesses that would have made Charles R. Lincoln, its abolitionist founder, proud of his business prescience in 1842, The Flushing Journal was being slowly strangled by the same cosmopolitanism than was priming the incredible growth of the New York  Daily News

Notices of barn burnings and meetings of the Queens County Agricultural Association made the Journal essential reading to19th-century farmers;  the claims adjuster who took the subway to the Met Life Tower on 23rd St. in 1934 was more interested in the rubouts of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson (it was a bad year for gangsters and bank robbers), the arrest of Lindbergh kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann and the organization of the Works Progress Administration in the Capital. And the claims adjuster's wife was as likely to shop at Bloomingdale's or Gimbels or Macy's in Manhattan as at the local dry goods store, by then a quaint institution of her mother's generation. 

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