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The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer

Chapter 11

I WAS ASSIGNED to Police Headquarters during my first year at The Press. I saw much there, as I now know, that shaped my attitudes for the future. I began to realize what I would like to do, if given the opportunity, to help improve and strengthen the processes of law and administration.

At "Police" I reported to George Tratzmiller. He and my old friend, Bob Larkin of The Leader, were mortal journalistic enemies, ceaselessly engaged, not only in a newspaper fight, but in a personal vendetta. They were both good, they both worked hard, and I learned a lot by watching both of them. Hours were nothing to me. Assignments I took in stride, no matter where they were, or how rough. Always I reached out for more to do. I was not going to be set back again if hard work could prevent it.

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The Police Court was then still in an antiquated building above a stable on the long-since obliterated Champlain Avenue. On a hot day the court smelled. It was hard to know whether it smelled from the stables below -- or the corruption within the courtroom.

I saw there raw, grim, slick, ruthless, debauching influences at work -- influences to circumvent justice, to pollute and corrupt at the very source of law enforcement.

"Louie," a big, tall lawyer said to me one day, "I would like to talk to you." He took me aside, lowering his voice as he continued, "You get the information on cases, tell me which policemen are working on what matters, and act as my ears and eyes -- and I will see to it that you make more money than your paper pays you."

He was rich. He owned a huge house, where he wined and dined many people. There were reporters, I knew, who were more than good friends, and the Police Chief visited his house regularly. Judges stopped there likewise.

I wasn't interested in his offer. When I told George Tratzmiller about it, he said, "I expected it. He has made himself a power around here. He gets most of the business. He pays off most of the people."

"Why doesn't someone do something about it?" I asked.

"Nobody will talk," George explained. "Too many are in on it."

Gradually I learned about a number of such subsurface arrangements which, at the time, prevailed

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around Police Court and Police Headquarters. Slowly my anger was aroused. With George Tratzmiller's permission, I talked with the Editor, Victor Morgan, and told him what I had seen.

"It's bad," said Morgan. "It's getting worse. Somehow we've got to find a way to break it up."

He sent men to Police Headquarters, ostensibly on other assignments. They worked carefully and unobtrusively. They checked records and cases. The more we unearthed the surer we were that the stench came from the Police Court rather than from the stables. And yet, after months of effort, we were no nearer to breaking it up than when we started. The covering of tracks was accomplished effectively. No one would talk, and no break could come without someone talking.

I watched and studied and talked to people, learning from George Tratzmiller, and others, all it was possible to know about the techniques, the methods, the nature of the chain forged by the manipulators of Police Court and Police Headquarters.

I also learned that the majority of policemen, the majority of judges and court attaches, were honest and honorable -- but helpless against the intricate and tight machine that time and trickery had created.

The time came when I was transferred. The Press was waging a fierce campaign against Harry L. Davis, who was three times Mayor of Cleveland, later to be Governor of Ohio, and considered politically impregnable. In the heat of this campaign I was assigned to cover City Hall.

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The Press was poison ivy at City Hall, and all doors were shut against Press reporters. It was my job, nonetheless, to "cover" it. I was not responsible for the paper's policy. I was responsible for getting news out of City Hall.

On my first day on the job I was instructed by my City Desk to ask the Mayor certain questions. I stepped into his reception room. Big Nate Cook, the Mayor's secretary, saw me, and he knew I was from The Press.

"See that line," he said, belligerently, pointing to the floor where a doorway separated the outer reception room, where I stood, and the Mayor's office, in which he stood.

"That line says no reporter for The Press crosses it," he said. "If they do they'll get thrown out on their rump; and I am the fellow who will do it."

I looked at Nate Cook, and I decided he meant it, but I was a reporter for The Press. I had a job to do, and I was going to do it. I walked toward him.

'I'm going to see the Mayor, Nate, and I don't want any trouble," I said.

"Cross that line, and you'll get trouble," Cook threatened.

"Nate, I am here for a story," I said. "I'm going to get it. You may get me a better one. The better one will be if you do throw me out. I'm coming in, Nate. It's up to you."

I started coming. I kept right on. Within a step of Nate Cook I saw him clench his fists. I thought that would probably be the end of me, but I kept walking.

Nate stepped aside.

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"You little --" he said. But I saw the Mayor.

Nate Cook became my good friend eventually. No matter how hard The Press fought against Davis, it was always possible after that for a Press reporter to cross, unharmed and unchallenged, the line Nate Cook had one day drawn there.

The story got around, and helped me in other circles as well. And I had learned a lesson from the incident: When a newspaperman has a job to do, and does it, he is respected for it.

City Hall was my beat for a year, during the most vicious battle between a city administration and a newspaper Cleveland had ever seen -- up to that time. At the end of the year I was called into The Press office. I went on general assignment -- an assignment which presumes that a reporter associated with a newspaper in that capacity is automatically endowed with an infinite variety of skills.

One morning in 1915, I had to tear myself away from home to go to work, and for a very good reason. My son had been born the night before.

Mr. Morgan shook my hand and said, very seriously, "Good morning, Father." I was embarrassed when he added, "Where are the cigars?"

The truth was I couldn't afford to buy any. He knew that.

We couldn't afford the hospital, either, and our son was born at home, in part of a two-family house on West Boulevard, where we lived with Marion's parents. We had no car or telephone, and in the middle of the night

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I had run down Madison Avenue to fetch Dr. Hartzell, running faster even than the night I had fetched Dr. Medlin for Father -- and feeling just as terrified.

Mr. Morgan pulled a box of cigars out from behind his back and handed it to me.

"This is on condition that you tell me what this new young man's name is," the Editor stipulated.

I hesitated. "Maybe you won't like this, Mr. Morgan," I said, "but we named him after another editor."

"You still haven't told me his name."

"It's Chester -- after Mr. Chester Hope, who was Sunday Editor of The Leader," I said. "He was my special friend when I needed one most."

Mr. Morgan said, "A good name, for a good man."

My desk was now up front near Mr. Morgan's office. Each day, in addition to my general assignments, I was writing editorials. They began to appear regularly on the editorial page, some of them signed by Mr. Morgan. I felt that I was making steady progress.

It wasn't long before I began to feel I had made too much progress.

When Chester, our son, was three months old, Mr. Morgan called me in, and said he was appointing me City Editor of The Press, effective the following day. I couldn't believe him.

"What's the matter, Louie?" he asked. "Don't you want the job?"

"I do, Mr. Morgan," I said. "But I am surprised. I didn't dream it would happen."

Naturally I had thought about some day being City Editor -- but not so soon. At little more than nineteen,

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I was six years out of grade school -- married -- had a son -- and was now City Editor of the paper for which I had the greatest love. Things had happened fast.

The next morning I reported to work in a state of almost complete shock. In general I knew what the job was. I had watched it operate as a reporter taking assignments from the City Editor. Beyond that, I knew only that it was one of the toughest jobs on any newspaper. To make matters even worse, the City Editor whose place I was taking had already left, so there was no one around to "break me in."

Well, I thought, I had a job to do. I had better get at it.

It was tough. I got down to the paper early and I stayed late. I had never worked as hard before at any job. Fortunately for me, the whole staff worked with me, and we had some tremendous stories. But the fact remained that I still looked a lot like the "Luee" of my first column. People visiting the office sometimes mistook me for one of the office boys, and two of them, actually, were older than I.

An elderly man one day stopped at the City Desk and asked to talk to the City Editor. When I explained that I was the City Editor he insisted on seeing the Editor and demanded acidly of Mr. Morgan, "Are you running a kindergarten out there?"

My trouble was not only that I looked young -- I was young, and I lacked experience. Situations were too intricate for me, too complicated in many instances. This worried me, and the more I worried, the harder I worked.

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Strangely enough, Mr. Morgan, with a City Editor who had no formal education, tended to hire reporters who had been to college. Practically every new man came direct from a university, and while they were generally very cooperative, this added to my anxiety. They were older than I, and they knew more than I.

I received a substantial increase in pay after three months, and Mr. Morgan complimented me on the job I was doing. But I knew I was not really qualified by experience or maturity, or knowledge -- either of our own business or of the many complicated kinds of information we had to deal with -- to handle the job as it should be handled.

I had to force the issue. I went to Mr. Morgan and asked to be relieved of the City Editorship, quickly adding, "I would like to tell you why."

I stated my doubts and misgivings frankly, and told him that it would be better, I believed, for both the paper and myself if I were returned to the staff in some reportorial capacity -- until I was more adequately seasoned with the required experience.

He thought I was making a mistake, but he agreed.

"I never heard of anybody firing himself from a job like this before," he said. "I have to admire you for it. What about becoming Political Editor of the paper?"

This was the field in which I had been most interested ever since I started to work, and a week later I made the change. Mr. Morgan saw to it that I also wrote at least two editorials a day; most of the time I initiated the subjects for them, and many of them began to appear on Page One.

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It was up to me now to equip myself for any future responsibility that might come my way. I knew my decision had jeopardized my chance for a future executive job on the paper, that the chance might not come again. I was sure, however, that for the paper, as well as for myself, I had done the right thing. The future would take care of itself, if I worked hard.