When I got to the fourth floor, cheerfully noting that it was the home of the Fourth Estate, the Gazette's editorial department spread out before me much as it would have in my grandfather's day 50 years earlier. Not that that would have occurred to me at the time, in spring of 1963, because nothing much had differed year to year except the style of cars.
If little changed for newspapers in the half century before 1963, little remained the same in the next 50 years to 2013. From manual to electric typewriters in the 1970s, then computers in the 1980s, and from the smoke-filled rooms to a prissy smoke-free environment in the 1990s, as women took over the once all-male newsrooms.
Back in 1963, men in shirts, ties and jackets sat at desks before clacking typewriters. True, the police radio squawked unintelligibly in coded French in one corner, a product of the 1930s, and pneumatic pipes snaked across the ceiling, conveying leather and rubber cylinders containing copy, that is, headlines and stories, to the backshop, or composing room.
While new to me, this technology was well established by 1913. There was also a constant clattering from the wire room, where teletype machines fed us news from all over the world and had done since the 1920s. There was little plastic in 1963 and telephones were still made of steel. Linotype machines from the 19th century clanked away in the darkened backshop beside molten pools created by dangling lead-zinc ingots, from which the lines of metal type were forged and cooled, and then fell into long narrow trays called galleys.
There were three copyboys paid C$35 a week, a jump up from the $30 a week I got from the printing firm. We hung out in the wire room, under the head copyboy, Dave Comar, who had his heart set on becoming a sports writer. He was 19 and I was 18. There was another fellow, Larry McDermott, who was 26 and, in the opinion of most, too old to be copyboy. But someone in authority, perhaps Alan Randal, the ex-copyboy managing editor, took pity on him and expected he would take the next opening as a cub reporter, typically on the police desk. Larry would prove to be my biggest problem through no fault of his own, but simply because I could not become a reporter before he did. This was clearly understood. All thought Dave was deluded in thinking that his expertise in sports would win him a spot on the sports desk. Copyboys never got jobs there unless they had first established themselves elsewhere as journalists. Oblivious to such warnings, Dave dreamt on and posed no threat to me, as I posed none to him.
Soon I suggested that Larry move in with me, partly because he was a good guy, partly to help him save money so he could marry his out-of-town girl, but mostly to help him get a reporter's job so I could get the next one - even if that opportunity were not to come for more than a year.
Not that I was impatient. There was much to learn. Still enamoured with the military, I saw newspapers as akin to famous regiments, each with its own traditions and personalities - the Gazette more than most. Its first editor was Benjamin Franklin, who in 1778 edited the paper in French, although it was owned by Fleury Mesplet, who I suspect was a Huguenot Protestant, given his passion for Voltaire: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." My sort of guy. I suspected he was a Protestant because the American Revolution was nondenominational, that is, non-Catholic.
The Americans had hoped the newly acquired British Canadian colonies they occupied would join the United States as the other 13 colonies had. But there was little chance of that, with the 13 colonies being mostly Protestant and Canada resolutely Catholic. Having the Gazette appear in French meant little to the hostile priests, who were nearly the only ones who could read it at the time. The bulk of literate readership, the French civil and military officer corps, had left for France nearly 20 years before, after the British conquest in 1759.
The Americans, having rung up No Sale with the French and the now governing Church hierarchy who stayed behind to tend their flocks, retreated to Vermont 60 miles to the south. But it happened too fast for Fleury Mesplet to get his press out. British forces arrived in Montreal and put Mesplet in jail before making a deal with him, and the Gazette resumed publication in English.
Fast forward to 1963. At the Gazette, operations were conducted from two horseshoe desks. One was for sports, the other for news. There was the rarely seen general manager Harry Larkin. "Harry the Lark," as the sourpuss GM was called, hardly entered our lives and seemed to be there to hire and fire managing editors, just as managing editors hired and fired everybody else except copyboys, that being left to city editor Bruce Croll.
Manning the far horseshoe desk in the northeast corner of the building was the sports department with its dozen journalists. The elegant, if elderly, sports columnist Dink Carroll, who was so soft-spoken they said he "invented the huddle," was about the only one I got to know. He was a former lawyer whose passion for baseball in the 1930s diverted him into journalism, and his writing was widely acknowledged as the best in the business. The only thing interesting about the sports department from the perspective of a non-sports fan was its division of labour. In summer, winter sports writers, principally hockey reporters, became the editors; in winter, summer sports writers took over the editing.
Next to it was the other horseshoe desk. It was the same size, but more crowded with sub-editors slumped over copy scribbling or rewriting at typewriters. The city editor sat at one end, the news editor at the other, and the slot man inside the horseshoe.
The city editor supervised the dozen reporters on the floor. The news editor supervised eight subeditors, or deskmen, and the outside correspondents. More important, he decided what went in or stayed out of the newspaper. The slot man started his day as copy taster, quickly looking at incoming material and deciding whether it was fit to run, impaling rejects on a spike. As copy began to flow from the staff to the subs and then to the composing room, he looked at outgoing material to be published to ensure that the same story did not get into the paper twice. When all that was done, he took his place as the last-minute man in the composing room, fixing stories than ran short or over the space allotted. I likened him to a regimental sergeant major, cursing and shouting at all who impeded progress to deadline. He was one Jack Marsters, who famously said, his voice rising in tones of menace: "Under this hard exterior beats a heart of pure shit!"
Which brings us to the other copy-producing departments. Finance, the brainy guys who wrote about buying money and selling debt. The women's department, who wrote tastefully about sex, recipes and disease. Entertainments was called the Pansy Patch, social was Snob Hill, and marine was a page run by a news sub who reported to the news editor. The editorial page was supervised by the paper's proprietor, Charles Peters, only seen on the elevator or at a nearby bus stop where he came and went from work.
The editor of the Gazette was Edgar Andrew Collard, a short mustachioed man in his 50s, seldom out of sight of his nondescript wife, his devoted servant. Mr. Collard (one simply does not think of him without a Mr.) was a noted antiquarian and famous for his weekly column, All Our Yesterdays, about oddities in Montreal history. It was compiled annually in book form in time for Christmas sales.
He ran the daily editorial page with a protégé named Drummond Burgess, a conservative young man a year or two older than me who later became a committed Marxist, after which he said goodbye to all that and ended up running the Ontario Legislature's Hansard.
Beyond the dozen general and beat reporters, there were six journalists in finance, five in women's, five in entertainments, three in social, one in marine. There were also two in the library, which was not a publishing department yet still under the aegis of editorial.
Then there were off-site reporters, two in courts and one in the provincial capital, Quebec City. The latter was Robert MacKenzie, a Scottish immigrant (and probably a Red, because my mother liked him) who later became a committed Quebec separatist, known to falsify statistics in the service of La Patrie.
And in Canada's capital, Ottawa, there was Arthur Blakely, about whom I remember little. In Montreal, we cared little about Canada. To take a step off the island of Montreal was to take a step down in the world, which we seldom did except to go to a country cottage, London or New York.
To this can be added 10 regular freelance contributors, who added up to three full-timers. So 50 all hands. The evening paper, The Montreal Star with its 180,000 circulation (versus our 140,000), would have double that number with full-time correspondents in New York, Washington, London, Paris and Bonn.
Copyboys, like battlefield messengers and artillery spotters, see more of the entire operation firsthand than their superiors. They read the messages they carry so knew long before anyone else that the Herald-Tribune News Service would be dropped. Or saw firsthand the impact a decision taken in one department had on another. In those days we cashed paycheques at the local watering hole, Mother Martins, for reporters who were chained to their desks before deadline, so we knew how much almost everyone was paid. Bruce Garvey was the highest paid floor reporter at $100 a week take-home. In later years, a leftist copyboy would even tear up news in the wire room that his leftist cronies would not like so it would never see print.
The first copyboy would arrive at 2 p.m. By the early shift, cleaners had already removed the sea of paper and cigarette butts littering the floor and emptied the ashtrays. After 2 a.m,. when the final edition had gone to the trucks, the wire machines kept spewing stories from all over the world. We sorted the reports and put them into their respective departments’ "in" baskets. Most would go to news and sports. Some would go to women's and finance, who were already at work by 10 a.m., as theirs was a nine-to-five world. There would be think pieces for editorial, mounds of entertainment news for the Pansy Patch and shipping news for the marine editor, the ever cheerful and friendly Red Sinclair, who would not be in yet.
By 2:30, the paste pots would be refilled for the subeditors to cut and paste with scissors and real paste, the acrid smell of which lingers in my mind more than a half century later.
The usual order for a general reporter on a day without assignment was "In at 2 p.m." Others would be sent on the "rubber chicken beat" - that is, service club luncheons, at which the Israeli ambassador might speak or a famous doctor tell of the success of a new children's treatment or a big retailer describe the evils of shoplifting. These reporters would arrive about 2:30, when the room was beginning to take on the first rumblings of a newspaper moving towards the 7 p.m. deadline.
The iconoclastic social department lived in its own world, needing copyboys only to kill spiders and take away dirty things. Though technically reporters, they were really haughty sub-debutantes aiming to use their slight powers to get names in or keep them out of the paper in the hope of advancing their Alpine interests - to climb the only mountains that mattered, Mount Royal and Westmount.
By 3 p.m., court reporters had finished their day and written their stories. Russell (Tiger) Gilliece was a working-class ex-copyboy who knew his way around the courts and could get stories few others could. His colleague Leon Levinson was different in every way. He was truly learned in the law and his copy was sacrosanct.
Levinson had a strange history. He was an elegant gentleman, handsomely set off in summer in a light expensive suit and a Panama hat. In the late 1930s, he got a job at the Gazette covering courts. But shortly after that, the family patriarch died, and Leon had to take over the family garment business. He ran it for the better part of 40 years, disposed of it to his family's satisfaction and then reappeared at the Gazette to ask for his job back. Perhaps because of his earlier Gazette experience he had made a hobby of the law in the intervening years. By the time he returned, he was a virtual lawyer and soon found judges consulting him on rulings. He ended up befriending Lord Dennings, England's Master of the Rolls, one judge down from the Lord Chief Justice.
At the police desk, the radio squawked in coded French. Knowledge of French wouldn't help much, because the police spoke in numerical codes. The way one discovered what was going on was to listen when they started to shout at each other, at which point the reporter would call in to find out what was afoot.
There were also fire bells chiming in now and then. One alarm meant that one station could handle it, and no one paid attention. A two-alarm blaze called for help from another station, which had us perk up. Anything more would have a reporter and photographer sent if it happened west of the Main, where most of our readers lived.
Manning the police desk was Eddie Collister, a tough little guy from the French east end. He was a decent, friendly fellow, always willing to help and explain. He was just the sort to get on the right side of cops, French or English. Except for his five-foot stature, he looked like a natty detective. The other staffer was Gary McCarthy, a boastful roly-poly 22-year-old who seemed to have reached his rank ceiling. He could draft brief police and fire reports, get the rudiments right, but anything beyond 250 words was too much. But then such short reports represented 80 per cent of the police desk output.
I soon turned my attention to self-improvement. Having heard that I could submit stories to the church and marine pages, I asked the sub who handled the Saturday church page if there was anything I could do. I proposed a story on the influence of religion on youth, but he thought that too grand a project to start with. Instead, he handed me a press release from a Catholic organisation called the Genesians, who had started a babysitting training service on Mount Royal Place across the street from the Sheraton-Mount Royal Hotel, which as a jurisdictional oddity, played a crucial role in keeping me out of jail 10 years later.
There were no student babysitters when I arrived. It appeared that the Genesians had just moved in. The floors were littered with telephones and connecting wires. The three men who met me didn't looked more like gangsters than babysitter trainers. They explained the odd condition of the place by saying it was a former bookie joint hastily vacated.
I took notes of what they said and ended up suggesting what they might have said had they thought of saying it when they had little to say. This situation, I later learned, was called "pulling teeth" in the trade, in this case prompting them to say that theirs was a noble mission to train young people to care for one's most precious possessions - our children.
Having grown up in a home where such sentiments were rare, if not absent, I still knew that the kinder, gentler narrative would be more acceptable for the church page and focused on developing themes in that direction. I was less interested in the truth of the matter, as the whole thing looked very odd if not downright shady. All I wanted was a publishable story to launch my embryonic career. I recalled my mother saying that one got "paid for stories - not excuses." Also that if you could get a source to agree to a statement, you could quote him as making that statement, but it was important not to have one's interview subject sound out of character - so a doctor didn't sound like a docker and vice versa. It was also important to ensure that the source wouldn't mind being quoted that way. And, if they said something damaging to their own reputation, make sure the quote was accurate and supported by similar quotes that one kept well noted in a record. But those lessons came later.
After my copyboy shift that day, I stayed late into the night to complete my first story, using one of the reporter's typewriters. But try as I might, I could not get anything that worked. I slaved through the night, trying and re-trying, and on through the morning when the cleaners had come and gone. Karl Gerhardt, the office manager, appeared about 9.30 a.m. He was a man who never made it as a journalist and ended up as the quartermaster sergeant of the department, the issuer of taxi slips and office supplies.
He asked what I was doing, and in this state of near tearful collapse, I told him about my frustration. He gave me my first practical lesson in news writing: "Start off with something general and then say what everyone said about it. After that, put the most important stuff first until you get to the end."
I was thus introduced to what was universally known as the inverted pyramid - putting the important summary conclusion at the start in a 30- to 50-word paragraph, with everything else following in same-size paragraphs in descending order of importance.
Karl described it as well as anyone since. I did what he said, and at last, the long agony was over. I was soon on my way with everything falling in place. I showed Karl the result. He advised moving a couple of paragraphs higher in the story, which I did, then he gave it a pass. As indeed did the church page subeditor, and I waited anxiously for the story to appear. It was no prizewinner, but it was publishable.
I would learn in the coming weeks that the process was not always so simple. What Karl had told me was good enough for the opening of a babysitting training centre, with a few quotes about how children's care should not be left in the hands of unskilled labour, but it wouldn’t suffice for other, more complex work. Such was the difference between straight news or hard news vis-a-vis features, situationals, time copy or evergreens, which called for different treatments.
When I eventually got around to writing my story about the influence of religion on youth, it called for these new techniques. After a similar struggle at the typewriter, my new Karl Gerhardt was Bob McKenzie, not the impatient man of the same name in the Quebec City bureau. No, this Bob McKenzie was cheerful and patient as he imparted his wisdom, and as I tried and tried again to marshal my quotes gathered from ministers, priests and rabbis into what could barely be called an article.
What is important here is the structure. There is the atmospheric introduction and then, not long after, and I repeat NOT LONG AFTER!! - the contextual paragraph, after which the chronology unfolds. Apply that to most features and you will be motoring along with everything falling into place, or the story writing itself, as countless others have described it. Then comes the memory paragraph the last paragraph that refers to the first paragraph to round out the story.
There are other techniques for writing think pieces or op-eds or columns, but it would be years before those tasks would fall to me. Over the eight months I was there, I placed more than a dozen bylined stories in a small hardcover scrapbook.
One of the duties of copyboys was to bring up to the fourth floor “the bulldog,” as the first editions of morning newspapers are called. How I looked forward to that Friday night at 9:45, carrying up 60 Saturday morning papers with my story in it, bylined "Christie McCormick"- my misspelt name something that would happen throughout my career. I later took it to be a good omen when it happened, having found that I liked working for the paper that did it incorrectly more than for the one that never got it wrong.
That mistake did not affect my joy - my first story in the Gazette with my name on it! The 60 papers, usually a heavy load in my arms, floated up to the fourth floor. I joyfully and speedily gave each department its allotment so they could check for errors and replace old stories with new ones, as the night wore on and fresh material came in from reporters and the wire room. By the time I went to the photo engraving department upstairs, I was at last free to gaze at my story and more importantly my misspelt name. I wondered how many of my friends would see it and how many other people would see it, and how many would remember it.
Such joys were to be repeated in diluted form with each successive byline. But at the same time, I was creating a growing problem for the department, because they were determined to give Larry first crack at a reporter's job when it came up. They could hardly do that when I was obviously more deserving, a fact widely known throughout the office.
By that summer I was occupying a room at a fraternity house, Lambda Chi Alpha, and had no trouble getting Larry to move into an adjoining room. But try as I might, I could not get him to write a story. We worked on rewriting and re-angling existing stories in the rival Montreal Star - a common job, as one paper would invariably get a story the other paper didn't, and that would have to be rewritten to appear fresh. A real skill was finding material in the story that had been under-emphasised and thus could produce a more interesting headline than the original.
Trouble was, I was learning more than Larry from these lessons, and plainly nothing was getting him closer to being able to write a newspaper story. No longer were my spare-time efforts looked upon with encouragement, as my every success seemed to be adding to the problem.
As that summer of 1963 drew to a close, and my tenure at the fraternity house was coming to an end, I was given to understand that it would be better if I left the paper "for a few months." It was pointed out that with my thickening clipping book and a strong letter of recommendation from Alan Randal, the managing editor, I could get a job as a reporter on a provincial daily and return to the Gazette next year. By that time, Larry would either have been successful on the police desk or would not. Either way, he would cease to be a problem.
When I agreed, a truly glowing letter of recommendation, was presented to me. It provided my reason for leaving - that I was seeking a broader Canadian experience than could be found in Montreal - and stated that there should be no hesitation in hiring me.
So I quit on good terms and with money saved set out on my next adventure.