The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer
THANKS TO the accident to Burns & Bowie's pies, I was moved into the Sunday Department of The Leader, to write a weekly column for the Metropolitan Section under a by-line thought up by my new boss, Chester Hope. The by-line, which was also the name of the column, was: By Louie, The Office Boy. It was generally printed "Luee, The Offis Boy," since the column featured as many misspellings as I could manage to invent. That sort of thing seemed funnier in 1911 than it does today.
"Luee" was to take me to many interesting places during the next few months. I covered dance halls, circuses and carnivals, symphony orchestras, police stations, hospitals, and many other places, some unsavory, but not many.
My problem now was to get people to take me seriously. I was going on fourteen. I felt grown up; I no longer thought about school. But I looked as young as I was, and nothing I tried seemed to make me look any older. Sometimes it was hard to get into the places I was supposed to go.
Most boys my age wore knickers and stockings. I wore long pants. In a picture I had seen of Kipling he had on a big, black bow tie. I bought one for eight cents at May's on the Public Square, thinking it would make me look older. It didn't. I even tried growing a mustache. Nothing happened. The fuzz was the same color as my hair, which was so blond that some people called me Whitey.
My problem wasn't helped by the sketches they printed to illustrate my column, which showed me with a big batch of hair flying in all directions, the big, black bow tie (which I began to wear all the time), and a Buster Brown collar which made me look like Little Lord Fauntleroy -- the one character in the world I most abhorred. I was always sketched in some kind of action. If I was writing about a dance hall, I was shown skidding desperately across the floor; if at a circus, hanging on for dear life with one hand, a frightened look on my face.
I hated the sketches sometimes, because they made me look so young and, I thought, so much like a sissy. I knew I wasn't very big. I was only five feet, five inches tall, and rather skinny -- and that made it all the worse. However, I dared not say anything about it to my boss, Chester Hope. He might, I was afraid -- a chill going
"I want the column and the sketches to make you look like a wide-eyed boy to whom all the experiences you write about are new and wonderful and exciting," he said.
That was not hard because they were. I enjoyed my work, and I was proud of the reporter's badge in my pants pocket. It was in the form of a five-pointed star, made of very light metal, with an inscription in big black letters: "Reporter for The Leader," with my number -- No. 26. The badges were changed each year, because they sometimes got lost and fell into the wrong hands. Once a robber talked his way into a downtown store and got away with $500 from a cash register by flashing a reporter's badge. I felt a personal sense of relief when he was caught.
When I had trouble getting into a place, I showed my badge, but it didn't always help.
"Nobody's sending a kid like you over here," a big hard-jawed doorman told me one day. I was trying to get backstage at the Hippodrome Theater to see Sarah Bernhardt, who was in Cleveland on one of her "final" American tours.
"But I am a reporter," I insisted stubbornly.
"Out!" he said, sharply.
I tried to argue with him, but he wouldn't listen.
"Please have someone call my office," I said finally. "They'll tell you. I'm doing a story for The Sunday Leader. My name is Louie Seltzer. I write the Luee, The Offis Boy column."
He looked down at me from well above six feet. "You Louie?" he demanded, a sarcastic tinge in his tone.
"Yes," I said, sounding tougher than I was because I was both angry and worried.
"Well, why didn't you tell me? How was I to know? You a reporter!" he added, unbelieving. "Well, they sure pick 'em young, don't they? Yep, there's that tie. All right, go on in."
I went backstage, where Sarah Bernhardt was rehearsing with Lou Tellegen. He was a tall, nice-looking man, then very young and, at this moment, impatient. He even spoke sharply to Miss Bernhardt, but she silenced him by simply looking at him.
Miss Bernhardt turned the tables on me. She interviewed me instead of the other way around, asking me many questions, about myself, about Cleveland, about our paper.
When I got back to the office, I reported to Howard Denby, the assistant Sunday Editor, under whom I worked directly. He was a small man who disappeared behind big glasses, and was handicapped by a limp and a little stutter. But he was lively, very lively. He always had ideas, and everybody seemed to come to him looking for them.
"Wonderful," Howard Denby said, when I told him that Miss Bernhardt had asked most of the questions. "Write it that way, Louie -- Sarah Bernhardt Interviews Luee, The Offis Boy."
I did, and that's the way it ran. It had a sketch of
"But what will Miss Bernhardt say?" I asked.
Howard Denby said, "She'll be more pleased with that than a dozen other pieces or pictures."
If I had a copy of that Bernhardt column, I would reprint it here, but somehow in the clutter of forty years of clippings, it has failed to survive. She was pleased. From Detroit she wrote asking for the original of Van Orsdale's sketch, and in her note she complimented me for the unusual way the story was handled. Howard Denby was really responsible and, while I had always admired him, after that my respect for him was unlimited. I tried to follow his every suggestion.
Sometimes his assignments had a touch of inspired fantasy. One day I remember I was told to go over to see the mayor and find out --not something about city politics -- but how to skin the cat. The interview ended up that day with me flat on the floor and the mayor doing acrobatics between two office chairs. This is the way my column ran.
Miss Bernhardt was the most wonderful theater personage I met that year -- or ever -- but there were others. I wrote up Donald Brian one night under the headline:
The accompanying sketch showed me in complete cowboy regalia, and I had plenty to say about the inaccuracies of the costume Donald wore. Various bits of imaginary horseplay with members of the cast rounded out the story.
One morning, not long after the Bernhardt "interview," I arrived at the office and pitched my cap neatly over the hall tree from a dozen paces away. I liked that trick, which I had acquired by long practice. But my cap didn't stay there long that morning.
Howard Denby saw me and called out, "Got a job for you, Louie. Put the cap back on, and come on over."
That assignment led to the most important personal event in my whole life.
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