Saturday Evening Post

The Noisy Newsboy of Cleveland
By JOE ALEX MORRIS

Boss buster, kingmaker and self-appointed city conscience, Louis Seltzer, editor of the Cleveland Press, once turned down a U.S. Senate seat. Why? He can't leave the town he's been in love with for 40 years.

THE most widely known, and perhaps the most paradoxical character among a million residents in the city of Cleveland is Louis Benson Seltzer, a slight and balding man who has spent the last forty years studying, criticizing, praising, harassing, nagging, encouraging and loving his home town. The people of Cleveland have reacted in similar fashion toward Seltzer. He has been praised as a tireless civic leader and denounced as an ambitious "little Caesar," eager to boss everything. He has been honored at half a dozen public luncheons and banquets in a single day; and, in a spirit -- more or less -- of good, clean fun, he has been awarded the Order of the Double Cross by members of a lawyers' luncheon club.

He has been credited with an important role breaking down the political-boss system and with "making" some of Ohio's most distinguished public officeholders. He has openly defied and sometimes derided various judges of the local courts of justice. He has turned down an appointment to the United States Senate. He has been tossed into jail and convicted of libel. He has broken up racketeering rings that were robbing guileless citizens and has sparked drives that raised many hundreds of thousands dollars for veterans' hospitals and disaster relief. He has been fired for incompetence and once fired himself for lack of experience. He has been, for the last quarter century, a successful executive in the upper income-tax brackets and the recipient of offers of bigger jobs in bigger cities, including New York.

Seltzer, who likes to think of himself as a frustrated author, is editor of the Cleveland Press. Every weekday at least seven out of ten families Cuyahoga County buy his paper, and Seltzer has boosted circulation to 311,800, which is the largest in Ohio and is exceeded by only a dozen evening newspapers in the nation. But Seltzer -- a restless and tightly wound man who sometimes runs the vacuum cleaner all over the house late at night to get himself tired enough to sleep -- is not an editor in the ordinary sense. He is a unique mixture of sentimentality and toughness; of reformer and shrewd businessman; of ribald practical joker and prayerful home-town evangelist.

Although a practitioner of self-disparagement, Seltzer enjoys most being in the middle of every decision made on everything from today's headlines to tomorrow's major civic problems. Under his direction, the Press advises the community on such subjects as how to develop the Lake Erie water front, how to feed the baby and care for the lawn, warns city judges to work harder, tells the city council where to build downtown auto parks and highway bridges, and explains, patiently but firmly, to the Cleveland major-league baseball team why it is playing the wrong man at first base.

This system is not recommended as the best way to make friends among politicians and baseball managers. But for the city's population in general, especially those with babies or lawns, it has work out well. Over the years, the newspaper has played a part in bringing Cleveland such things as a handsome municipal zoo, broad highways and parks along what was once a junk-littered lake front, a high rating for honesty in government, colored oleomargarine, and the prospect of a $105,000 War II memorial fountain. Although the Press collected the money in a public subscription eight years ago, the fountain hasn't yet been started because of a fantastically complicated muddle involving plans for a new parkway, objections to sculptured nudity and a shortage of bronze.

In his own writings, Seltzer has described himself as "a bald-pated, dried-up little dude at whom nobody might be apt to look a second time." Actually, he is not an easy man to ignore even in a crowd. At fifty-seven, he stands five feet six inches, weighs just over 130 pounds and dresses with incredible neatness in a manner that verges on the flamboyant. The chromatic scale of his suits -- he had sixty-one at last count -- ranges through most of the colors of the rainbow and he is likely to switch from one shade to another once or twice each day. He is also likely to give his suits away regularly to elevator boys, gas-pump attendants and others who happen to be the right size. Once, as a young reporter working on a story about down-and-out bums, he gave his overcoat to a tramp at a time when he couldn't afford to buy a new one. The necktie Seltzer chooses from among 2000 in his wardrobe is usually brightly patterned; it is held carefully in place by a gold monogrammed pin. A silk handkerchief to complement his color scheme of the moment always flares from his breast pocket. His round face radiates a kind of friendly, intensely interested seriousness, except on those occasions when, with elfin delight, he perpetrates a successful practical joke -- or when somebody makes him the butt of such a prank.

Practical jokes and uninhibited self-expression are customary in the offices of the Press. Seltzer believes that such an atmosphere is partially responsible for the high morale and intense loyalty of his employees. On numerous daily jaunts through the editorial room, the editor himself sets the pace by rumpling the hair of a busy rewrite man, by ripping a sheet of paper from a reporter's typewriter and dropping it on the floor, by doing anything to jar employees out of the idea that they can get in a rut and keep on working for the Press. On one occasion, a firecracker exploded under the seat of a reporter who was talking on the telephone with a prominent clubwoman.

"Gracious! What was that noise?" the woman exclaimed.

"Oh, that was just a firecracker under my chair," the reporter said.

"Well, how rude! I'll certainly tell Mr. Seltzer about it."

"I wouldn't bother, madam," the reporter replied wearily. "It was Mr. Seltzer who lit it."

Fortunately, Seltzer can take it as well as hand it out. One day when he joggled the elbow of a man hard at work on the copy desk, the victim threw down his pencil, pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired at his editor -- with a blank cartridge. Not long afterward Seltzer stopped a tall, brawny reporter in the middle of the city room and began kidding him about something that had happened the day before. The reporter took it silently for about a minute, then grabbed Seltzer and deposited him neatly in a wastebasket, after which he went on about his business. Seltzer reacted good-humoredly to both incidents.

Seltzer, who at one time played tennis and rode horseback, likes spectator sports, especially prize fights. He occasionally putters among the flower beds in his yard, but he's not very handy around the house. His working day is long. After about five hours of sleep, he awakens, without benefit of alarm clock, at exactly a quarter of six each morning, except Sunday. He calls his office, and, if the news front is calm, he may take a brief workout on a stationary exercise bicycle. "Why," he asked recently, "should I deteriorate at the age when I can do the most?" He never has any breakfast, not even a cup of coffee. By seven o'clock he is usually on his way to work. "Every morning," he once wrote, "I look forward to getting to the office. I never tire of the thrill."

For years he liked to walk a couple of miles each morning from his handsome Tudor home near the lake front; after which Mrs. Seltzer would cruise along in the family automobile, pick him up and take him on to the office. Now he usually, drives himself and is at his desk by seven-thirty.

The most important event on Seltzer's morning schedule is the daily editorial conference. Most people in Cleveland use the words "Seltzer" and the "Press" interchangeably; they regard the newspaper as a direct extension of the editor's personality. This is far from accurate. The editorial conference is always attended by the top editors as well as staff members drawn in rotation, including office boys, who are encouraged to speak their mind on anything from editorial policy to headlines. Seltzer is frequently outvoted and he seldom overrides majority opinion. He writes comparatively few editorials, but, for the most part, acts as a catalytic agent to spur his staff to new ideas.

"Any time I can think as fast and as well as my staff, which is tops, then I know there's something wrong and I start kicking things around," he once remarked. "People here have to think better than I do or I'm not comfortable. The Press is no assembly line for syndicated material or routine news. We want to break the pattern and get into the roots of our town."

One way Seltzer gets at the roots of the town is to urge readers to telephone or come to the Press office at any time or for any purpose, including news tips. Nobody ever gets a brush-off. During the depression years the lobby outside Seltzer's office was often an early-morning gathering place for half a dozen down-and-out characters who could be pretty sure the editor would slip them a little breakfast money if they didn't have liquor on their breath. In return, they often phoned in good news tips.

In the city room, Seltzer once paused beside an office boy who was answering a telephone call from a subscriber who wanted to know whether it would rain that day. The boy started to suggest a call to the Weather Bureau when Seltzer snatched the telephone from his hand and not only read the day's forecast to the subscriber but urged him to call at any time, day or night, no matter what he wanted to know.

Unlike most editors, Seltzer spends little time at his own desk. In fact, there is a standard dialogue among his employees that goes: "Where's Lou?" "Did you look in his office?" "No, of course not. Do you think I'm crazy?" He likes to watch his editorial staff of 170 in action; most of his important conferences are conducted at the water fountain or with his feet propped up on a reporter's desk. In between, he wanders restlessly all over the place. He stops occasionally to explore the desks of several top editors who keep sacks of hard candy or jelly beans handy because they know that the breakfast-less editor will be looking for something to nibble on about eleven o'clock.

Seltzer contends that his newspaper's heart "has to beat every day with the hearts of our readers," and he seldom misses a chance to check the pulse of anybody or everybody in Cleveland. He does most of this checking by accepting countless invitations to speak from church pulpits, at club meetings, banquets, luncheons and civic get-togethers. He is especially attentive to activities sponsored by any of the forty-seven minority groups and nationalities that make up approximately half of the city's population. During a typical evening recently, Seltzer attended the opening of a new suburban store, a dinner of industrialists at a downtown hotel, a dinner at a Catholic academy, a celebration for employees of a department store, and a meeting of officials of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, of which he is a national director.

A daily schedule of several luncheons and dinners, especially where the hosts are proud of their peppery Hungarian goulash or their potent Scandinavian schnapps, would soon destroy any man's stomach. In self-defense, Seltzer long ago declared himself a vegetarian when in public. At banquets, regardless of the fare, the editor of the Press takes only a few vegetables. Actually, Seltzer usually eats dinner with his wife late in the afternoon before he starts the banquet circuit, and at that time he frequently goes for a good steak. He doesn't drink, however, and he hasn't smoked since the age of nineteen.

There is a tough and unyielding streak in Seltzer in regard to newspaper affairs and the integrity of the Press. But at heart he is a sentimental man who hates to say no to any request and often turns disagreeable disciplinary tasks over to his assistants.

He has a jocular habit of addressing his friends with a rough-and-ready flow of insulting language. One day when he was extremely busy his secretary told him -- or so he thought -- that a man named Price, an old newspaper friend, was on the telephone.

Seltzer snatched up the phone and barked, "Listen, you big baboon! I'm busy as hell and got no time to jabber with you. O.K.? ... Hey! Are you there, pal?"

There was a moment of silence, and then a dignified voice replied, "Mr. Seltzer, this is Bishop Rice."

Most of Seltzer's sentimentality oozes out in a column he writes occasionally for the editorial page and signs "L.B.S." It is a melange of philosophical comment and personal reminiscence; it may include anything from an ancient anecdote about a leading citizen to a rapturous account of how cute Seltzer's granddaughter was this morning when she dumped her bowl of oatmeal on granddaddy's head. At first, Seltzer's staff was inclined to look down its collective nose at the "L.B.S." columns as small-town stuff, but this skepticism proved difficult to maintain after surveys showed that the boss's literary output was one of the more popular features in the newspaper.

Seltzer enjoys flattering people, especially when his extravagant praise may be helpful. "I listened with awe when he told my boss how wonderful I am," a businesswoman said recently. "With anybody else I would know it was mostly soft soap, but with Louie I was convinced that, while his judgment might be a bit off, he meant every word of it." Both Seltzer and his wife, who is a tireless civic worker, have made countless friends. By deliberate planning, though, they have no "special" friends either on the Press or among outsiders. When Seltzer was made editor, one of his first acts was to inform a long-time friend on the paper that he could no longer keep a standing date for Sunday-morning tennis because it might look like favoritism. Although he gives annual parties at a hotel for the entire office, and over the years has done something helpful for virtually every family connected with the newspaper, no member of the staff has ever been invited to Seltzer's home nor has he ever accepted an invitation to an employee's home.

Seltzer also avoids identification with any single local group or clique and tries to spread himself as thin as a coat of paint over every geographic and social facet of Cleveland. He belongs to many clubs. He is a leader of the Boy Scout organization, has served as head of the Welfare Federation, as chairman of the United Community Defense Services, as president of the Convention and Trade Show Bureau and as a director of the Y.M.C.A. He believes that the solid, small businessmen of the Rotary Club are the backbone of the community and he admires them "for the same reasons that Sinclair Lewis disliked them."

Seltzer's eagerness to know all sides of his home town and his ardent belief that "people are more important than things" may be due largely to the fact that he was born on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, or, more specifically on the wrong side of the river. His birthplace, on September 19, 1897, was a three-room house behind a fire station on the unfashionable western bank of the Cuyahoga River. He still lives, incidentally, west of the river rather than in any of the more socially approved residential areas east of the Cuyahoga.

His father, Charles Alden Seltzer, was a frequently unemployed carpenter and a totally unsuccessful writer of romantic short stories. As Louis, the eldest of five children, grew up, the family moved to rooms over a neighborhood grocery store and, still later, to a small house. Louis' mother, a woman of incredible faith in her husband, kept the family going mostly on will power, made over old suits and shirts for her son to wear and thumbed through a well-worn dictionary whenever Father Seltzer found himself at a loss for the proper word to describe a love scene. It wasn't an easy life; one Christmas Eve Louis trudged a couple of miles through a snowstorm to borrow a dollar from relatives so there would be food for the next day.

When Louis was twelve, he left the sixth-grade classroom and got a job as office boy on the now-extinct Cleveland Leader. About a year later his mother persuaded her husband to start writing stories of the Wild West, and Mr. Seltzer almost immediately became successful. Eventually he wrote more than fifty novels and sold some as movies in which W.S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Harry Carey were starred. By the time his father started to make money, though, Louis was writing an "office-boy" column about neighborhood social functions, and he could not be persuaded to go back to the humdrum of a schoolroom.

Young Louis continued his education by reading everything he could get his hands on; he carried a dictionary in his pocket for many years and developed a remarkable vocabulary. He also fell in love at the age of fourteen with Marion Elizabeth Champlin, a brown-eyed girl who played the piano in a neighborhood theater. When they were both eighteen and when -- if Seltzer's memory is correct - he was earning $7.50 a week, they were married. Shortly thereafter Louis switched to the Cleveland News as a reporter. He was soon fired for incompetence by a city editor who advised him to get out of the newspaper business. He enlisted briefly in the Army at the time of the Mexican border trouble and, upon his release, got a job as police reporter on the Press, the first newspaper in the Scripps-Howard organization.

Up to this point, young Seltzer had made his way on a kind of boyish bravado, but now he took stock. He was inexperienced, undersized and uneducated. He decided that the only way he could get anywhere was to work twice as hard as anybody else. "Like Alice in Wonderland," he once said, "I felt I had to run my best to stay in one place and twice as fast if I wanted to move ahead." This notion almost brought him to disaster one day. Running headlong down the office stairs, Seltzer bumped violently into a huge, bearded man who angrily lifted him off the floor.

"Leave me down, dammit, sir!" the boy shouted. "I'm going to a fire!"

The man put him down. Seltzer later learned that he had collided with E.W. Scripps, founder of the Press and one of the nation's journalistic giants, who was then in retirement. When he was abruptly summoned to the editor's office to confront Scripps, Seltzer was sure he was going to be fired, but the famous man merely laughed and apologized for "getting in the way." That was the only time Seltzer ever saw Scripps. A year later Seltzer's hard work paid off; he was made city editor of the Press. He held the job for six months; then ousted himself because he wanted more reportorial experience.

In 1924, Seltzer was acquiring a reputation as a political reporter and a hustling newspaperman. He might have moved on to broader fields -- Washington was the goal of most political writers -- but for the fact that his seat in the Press box at the Democratic National Convention in New York City happened to be next to that of the noted Kansas editor, William Allen White. The Kansan took a liking to both of the Seltzers and preached to them the philosophy that "you get the most satisfaction out of living with and growing with your home town -- where your heart is anyway." The Seltzers decided it was a philosophy they liked. Back in Cleveland, Seltzer was soon promoted to an associate editorship. Four years later he again attended the Democratic National Convention, this time in Texas. On the final confused night in the convention hall Seltzer saw Roy W. Howard, then editorial director of the Scripps-Howard papers, picking his way precariously along the top of a rough board table on which reporters had recently been at work. Howard leaned down to whisper in Seltzer's ear, "Go back home by way of New York. You are now editor of the Press, and I want to talk to you."

Seltzer took over a powerful and prosperous newspaper, and in the next quarter century he made his own indelible imprint on both the Press and the conglomerate industrial community. He knew Cleveland better, perhaps, than anybody else, and he set out to make the Press synonymous with the interests, the worries, the needs and the pleasures of the city. "Newspapering," he said later, "has become such a complex big business that most editors don't have time to know their readers. My idea has been to get back to the ways of the old country editor who spent most of his time learning about his home town. If you don't get the flavor of the town into your paper, you've missed the boat."

So ardently did Seltzer pursue his quest for home-town flavor that any housewife who canceled her subscription for the Press was more than likely to get a personal telephone call from the editor; he didn't ask her to change her mind, but inquired earnestly what she did or didn't like about the newspaper. He ran contests in which readers told what they would do if they were the editor. He established departments to deal with almost every major and minor interest of readers and a public service bureau that now supervises more than 100 annual projects for the benefit or entertainment of readers.

These projects range from booklets on homemaking to a children's book fair and an annual golden-wedding party which was attended last year by 700 couples who had been married for half a century.

Most important, however, Seltzer vigorously developed the notion that his reporters were watchdogs for the public over political and governmental affairs. This attitude has resulted in sporadic but spirited clashes between the Press and the courts, the police, the political organizations and prominent members of the bar throughout the last twenty-five years. Not long after Seltzer became editor, for example, he and editorial writer Carlton K. Matson were plunged into a nationally publicized fight over freedom of the Press as a result of their conviction on charges of contempt for criticizing an injunction issued by Common Pleas Judge Frederick P. Walther. The conviction was later reversed by the District Court of Appeals, but only after it had created many blazing headlines and considerable ill feeling. Since then the Press at various times has defied court orders against taking photographs, suggested that the Bar Association was not always alert to malpractice in the legal profession, gathered photographic proof of payoffs to crooked policemen and criticized various judges for such alleged shortcomings as loafing or insufficient investigation of divorce petitions. In these crusades, Seltzer has been caught off base a couple of times. Once, to make a case proving judicial carelessness, a married couple on the staff signed their names to a divorce petition and a reporter surreptitiously slipped it into a stack of documents awaiting signature on a judge's desk. Although the petition had not been properly filed, the judge signed it along with other previously approved documents. The Press promptly charged that this was an example of careless court practice. The charge backfired sharply. Seltzer not only had to explain why his reporter had taken unfair advantage of his privileged position as a newspaperman to trick the court but, at company expense, he had to send the now-divorced couple to a neighboring state to be reunited in matrimony and to take a second honeymoon.

Such overstepping of the bounds, however, has been rare in the history of the Press. Only last year the newspaper startled and angered practically the entire local legal profession by criticizing the financial affairs of one of the most popular and highly respected judges in Cleveland. The fact that the judge eventually resigned and promised the Bar Association to withdraw from practice for life -- he was acquitted of charges of embezzlement -- only partly alleviated the resentment felt toward Seltzer by a considerable faction of attorneys. Some of them fumed privately that "Looie is just trying to sell papers" and some of them thought he had developed a prejudice against the legal profession. Most of them acknowledged, however, that they had no specific complaint.

"The truth is that Seltzer has done the legal profession more good than harm," remarked one prominent lawyer who has good reason to be cool toward the Press. "He has constantly irritated us and made us more alert to evils inside the profession. As a result, the Bar Association officials are doing a better job and there are a number of instances in which the Press has co-operated in cleaning up a bad situation."

Seltzer himself has frequently expressed admiration for the legal profession, but says "much has happened about which both bench and bar have been derelict. My prejudice, if any, is against those who permit obviously bad conditions to continue without doing something to correct them."

This was all summed up after a fashion at a fun-making meeting of a lawyers' luncheon club which awarded the Grand Order of the Double Cross to Louis ("Baloney") Seltzer in these words: "It may be true that in matters of cozenage and duplicity you have generally been less sinned against than sinning. Still you have had your effusive and loquacious neck out time and again -- a neck that had been scrubbed so vigorously that it glowed a rosy pink. We have wallowed with you in bathos and sentimentality, and affectionately thought of you as our underdog editor. But in your representation of the underdog and in your sniffing about for news, you have never overlooked the fact that a newspaper might make money. So, as we welcome you into our illustrious order, we assure you that you will find companionship within its ranks, for most of your fellow members are also greedy capitalists or at least aspire to be."

In recent years, Seltzer has been a considerable political power in Ohio and has naturally made more than a few political enemies. As an independent newspaper, the Press has had an important role in disrupting both the Republican and Democratic political machines, especially in Cleveland, and Seltzer has acquired a reputation as an amateur kingmaker as well as a boss-buster. Ambitious politicians assiduously court Seltzer's support; some complain bitterly that a "blunderbuss" attack by the Press represents an unconstitutional hazard to political life in Ohio, but few dare to antagonize its editor. One mayor who did denounce the Press some years ago when he was running for re-election was promptly asked by Seltzer to write a daily column for the newspaper. He accepted and used the column to belabor the Press in such exaggerated terms and with such monotony throughout the campaign that the editor received hundreds of letters of protest. Partially as a result of the column, the man didn't win the election.

Most prominent among the political figures Seltzer has boomed into office are his close friend, Gov. Frank J. Lausche, who sometimes bobs up as a 1956 presidential possibility; United States Sen. Thomas A. Burke, former mayor of Cleveland; and Mayor Anthony Celebrezze, who was totally unknown locally until the Press selected him and single handedly carried him to victory over veteran Democratic and Republican candidates. In a more limited sense, the backing of the Press was helpful in the rise of Harold H. Burton, now an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, but formerly mayor and a United States Senator. It is interesting to note that Seltzer has never asked a political favor of these officeholders and that he refused an appointment to succeed Robert A. Taft in the Senate. He has not hesitated to criticize Lausche in editorials, and Burke, as mayor, once threatened to resign because of a cartoon in the Press showing him wearing horse blinders and ignoring certain problems of city government.

It is also reassuring to note that Seltzer and the Press cannot really exercise dictatorial political power in Cleveland. For some years the newspaper has been carrying on a bitter, all-out war against the city councilman from the 16th Ward, Jack P. Russell, whom it has ridiculed, scorned and denounced as "arrogant, ruthless, greedy and the pal of hoodlums." Russell, a big and hearty man who gives free movie parties for kids and watches over his constituents like a mother hen, takes everything the Press can throw at him and still piles up a handsome majority on Election Day -- much to Seltzer's chagrin.

Seltzer has long been a vigorous foe of racial and religious discrimination; one of the proud moments of his life was when he received the 1951 national award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He has devoted much time and thousands of columns of newspaper space to the task of making the many foreign-nationality groups of Cleveland feel they are a vital and important part of the city. The Press faithfully reports the activities of the various nationality groups; it sends a staff member -- informally known as the "broken-English editor" -- to Europe each year to write about areas from which Cleveland families migrated. It sponsors a gigantic annual folk festival and otherwise contributes heavily to activities that have made the community a nationalities cultural center.

A headline writer with a penchant for cliches might well summarize Seltzer's career as "hometown boy makes good in home town." Most experienced newspapermen regard him as one of the ablest executives in the country, although they might disagree radically as to where time will rank him among the editorial giants of the era. His horizons are deliberately limited. He does not thunder about the great national issues of the day in the same penetrating voice that he raises against a political payoff at City Hall. His philosophical flights seldom soar beyond the familiar boundaries of his neighbors' back yards and can usually be summed up in a fervent "God bless you all." But, come what may, he is secure in his niche as editor of one of the biggest home-town newspapers in the country, and to him that is the most important thing in life.

Not long ago, after a completely uneventful hour's flight from Toronto, Seltzer explained it all in one of his columns: "You breathe that sense of comfort that can come from only one thing in the world -- the unequaled sense of coming home. Of being among people, in surroundings and mixed into the traditions and life of the city you love -- of that place upon earth most important of all -- home, address, Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A."

 

Copyright 1954 by The Curtis Publishing Company -- Reprinted with permission of the Saturday Evening Post


We thank the Saturday Evening Post for granting permission to mount this digital edition and Mr. Richard Hine, for creating the digital edition.


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