In August 1918, Damon Runyon, a leading light of the Hearst newspapers, wired Gene Fowler, a reporter he’d known in Denver, about an opening on the New York American. Runyon, a sportswriter, was going overseas. The World Series was nigh. Fowler was the man.
He was a native Coloradoan. His grandfather had survived the wagon trip west despite a Potawatomi arrowshot in his naked right buttock while “in a squatting position.” Unlike most turn-of-the-century reporters, Fowler took a year of journalism school at the University of Colorado. He composed a memorable article as a class assignment on the theme: “Dog bites man is not news. Man bites dog is news.” It was entitled, “Hydrant Leaks on Dog.”
He started as a reporter for the Denver Republican at $6 a week. When the paper folded in 1913, he helped put out the final issue, marched down to the Press Club for the wake, and awoke two days later before a typewriter at the Rocky Mountain News. Fowler was hired while passed out in the bar. He was briefly city editor, under protest. He was eased into the sports department only after several incidents in which he disciplined tardy or drunk reporters by firing a revolver loaded with blanks at their feet. Then, as the paper’s music critic was drunk in a whorehouse, again, on the night of a Paderewski concert, he had to review it. He wrote, “There was quite a battle at the Academy of Music last night. Pad, the champion, led with his right and then beat a tattoo on the opponent with his left. His footwork was something marvelous to see.” He didn’t review concerts again.
Then, he went to work for the Denver Post. It was run by two blackmailing extortionists, Harry Tammen, an ex-bartender, and Frederick G. Bonfils, a professional gambler. Some said Tammen had won the paper in a fixed card game. On the Post building’s facade appeared:
O Justice, when expelled from other habitations,
make this Thy dwelling place!
Its headlines were in boxcar type, often in red ink, and one commentator described its front page (on a slow day) as looking like “a confused and bloody railway accident.” It was an unabashed blackmailer’s pirate ship and thus a great place to learn the business. Some said the first question asked during a reporter’s job interview was whether he had his own set of burglar tools.
On the editorial side, its leading light was the sports editor, Otto C. Floto, who was a lousy writer with a gift for finding talent in others. Otto loved $3 words, the longer the better, and some fool had introduced him to Roget’s Thesaurus. Upon the death of an old friend, Otto began a column of eulogy with:
As we stand upon the threshold of grief this melancholy morn, there is an increased secretion of our lachrymal glands.
Floto showed it to Fowler. Some say Fowler praised it and talked him out of it; others say Fowler said, “Superb. Worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.” He immediately became assistant sports editor and Floto’s fair-haired boy.
He came to the attention of Mr. Hearst’s minions with some flashy opening lines: “She laid her wanton red head upon her lover’s breast, then plugged him through the heart.” Later, when criticized for verbosity, he began a story with: “Dead. That’s what she was when he found her.”
The 1918 excursion was not Fowler’s first trip to New York. That much is clear. Fowler’s anecdotes, like a good single malt, improved with time. The degree of improvement, not to say embellishment, depended on the quality of his audience and of the liquor at hand. One ought not to stake one’s life or wallet on the exactitude of any particular version.
Nonetheless, it seems that in 1916, an undertaker friend, shipping a stiff to Gansevoort, New York, near Saratoga Springs, and needing an escort to ensure its arrival, had offered Fowler a ticket to New York. Fowler took refreshment before his departure with a friend, Denver fire chief John Healy. Healy drank martinis because the glasses in which they were served “...was fashioned by Divine Providence to fit his mouth exactly.” Fowler wrote, “He would curl his practiced upper lip over the rim of the glass with a fine moose-like and prehensile grab, and then he’d execute a big suck, the entire operation matching the skill and technique of W. C. Fields in one of his better moments.”
Consequently, when Fowler regained consciousness while rolling through Nebraska, he desperately needed a drink. There was no booze on the train. He ordered the box unloaded at the next town and staggered to the platform to find he was in a dry county. He sat on the casket and wept.
He later wrote, “Through my fingers, I saw a pair of leather boots. A stranger was... shaking his head sadly.
“‘...Buck up, sonny. I know what you need. Here.’
“He reached under his coattails and pulled out a full pint of whisky and handed it to me. Then he patted me on the head and told me to keep the whole thing. I said, “Oh, thank you, sir.’ Then he walked away. When the next train to Chicago pulled in they had to lift Nellie into one car and me into another.”
And they say there’s no God.
Somehow, he was jailed in Chicago on suspicion of violating the Mann Act (transporting a female from one state to another for immoral purposes) and bailed out by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who later wrote The Front Page). While in jail, the stiff was mislaid. Nonetheless, he wired the family of the deceased: Nellie and I doing well. Expect to see you any day. Keep in touch.
The railroad helped him recover his baggage. He went on to Albany, where he sent another wire: Mother is well. Will be with you soon.
He may have stopped for refreshment along the way. Once, maybe twice. Then Nellie and Fowler boarded the Hudson River Day Line steamer Hendrick Hudson, and landed at the foot of Desbrosses St. in Manhattan.
His 1918 visit was more conventional. Fowler demanded $100 a week. In 2021 dollars, that’s roughly $2000 a week. Mr. Hearst’s people told him they’d be in touch. A few days later, Fowler was invited to meet the Chief.
William Randolph Hearst didn’t usually interview applicants for reporting jobs. But someone demanding that kind of money was either demented or very good. In either event, he might be amusing. Tall, handsome, thick-set, with a high, soft voice (“like the scent of violets made audible,” Ambrose Bierce observed), Mr. Hearst was then in his mid-50s. It seems to have been a fairly commonplace interview.
Yet Mr. Hearst was impressed by Fowler, whom he’d always call “that young man from Denver.” Fowler worked for him until 1928, rising from reporter to managing editor of the New York American to executive editor at King Features Syndicate. He came to worship the publisher, named a son for him, and to his dying day referred to him only as Mr. Hearst.
Then Fowler reported to the city room: “Warehousey and fetid. Gloomy and harrowing. Ready to fall apart. The windows were opaque with grime, and an elevator that was as impotent as a veteran of the Mexican War rose with groggy lament up a shaft that would have disgraced a coal mine.”
The man and his era were met: the Roaring Twenties, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense. He covered the False Armistice on November 7, 1918, when somehow the public celebrated in the unfounded belief the war had ended (it would, four days later) and the Wall Street bombing of September 16, 1920 (still unsolved, 30 killed, 100 injured, and Morgan Guaranty Trust’s Wall Street side still scarred by the explosion); Lindbergh’s departure from Roosevelt Field, the colorful administration of Mayor James J. Walker; Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, and Jack Dempsey.
Fowler also created news, a peculiarly Hearstian practice. His city editor, Victor Watson, was a scowling tyrant, known as The Hetman (a Cossack chieftain). The classic Watson story involved monkey glands. Dr. Serge Voronoff claimed that by transplanting the gonads of a male ape into a male human, he could rejuvenate the human’s sex drive. As H. Allen Smith wrote, “millions of limp and flaccid men began to take hope that all was not over.”
Watson organized New York’s first gland job by ordering Fowler to arrange it. Fowler expressed doubts about finding “...a man who will permit a doctor with a knife in his hand to start fooling around with his swinging trinkets.”
He finally found an elderly Latin scholar who admitted to carnal thoughts perhaps “once a year, or not more than twice;” a surgeon who’d do the job for $500 cash; and a monkey in a Penn Station pet shop. Fowler rented a hotel suite for the operation. The patient, who’d been given a local, fainted as the surgeon sutured the monkey gland to his vas deferens. Fowler later recalled, “He was removed from the table and put in a bed above which there hung a picture of Catherine the Great reviewing her troops.”
Watson ordered an eight-column front-page headline for the story. The doctor was suspended by the county medical association. The patient was rid of carnal thoughts and retired to a monastery.
Fowler liked women. As he was tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, ruggedly handsome, funny, and good-natured, large numbers of them liked him. He was as celibate as a rooster. He described himself as a battered polygamist, “too lazy to erect screens and too proud to pretend chastity when there was no chastity in his soul,” and when asked why he never seemed to go dancing, replied, “I don’t believe in preliminaries.”
He had an amazingly bad memory for names. H. Allen Smith, one of Fowler’s biographers, wrote that in his youth he’d appeared at Fowler’s office with one of Fowler’s books and asked for an autograph. Fowler “began a chummy inscription on the flyleaf.” Then he realized he had forgotten his admirer’s name. He kept on writing sentence after sentence of adulation and gratitude while desperately ransacking his memory. Having filled the page, Fowler finally asked, “Just how do you spell your last name?”
“S-M-I-T-H, you faking son-of-a bitch!”
For the record, Smith himself wrote that he didn’t think he’d said that, “Because I would never refer to Gene Fowler as a son-of-a-bitch, the lying bastard.”
He was an expense account artist of the first water. In 1921, three U.S. Navy balloonists disappeared over northern Canada. After a month, they came out of the snows at Moose Factory. Fowler got there first, having hired a private railway car, filled it with select Canadian whiskeys and some food, and commissioned a special train.
While he got his story, the real epic was the expense account. Even Mr. Hearst, a man who just wasn’t comfortable with less than $10 million a year in pocket money, might frown on this kind of spending. Fowler labored for days on his account, a greater work of imaginative fiction than any of his four novels, listing parkas, mittens, sleeping bags, snowshoes, a dogsled, and a rental team of Alaskan malamutes to haul it across the tundra. The auditor claimed it was off. Fowler added payments to the owner of a heroic rented lead dog dead in the line of duty ($80) and a headstone ($100). Once again, the accounting was bounced.
Fowler added a final item: Flowers for bereft bitch, $1.50.
At the height of his drinking career, he frequently telephoned Dr. J. Darwin Nagel, the Hotel Pennsylvania’s house physician, to “get ready for another exploration of the Cave of the Winds—put on the coffee pot.” Dr. Nagel frequently treated drunks with high colonics with coffee, followed by vitamin injections, steam baths, and bed rest.
Fowler once arrived for treatment arm-in-arm with Ring Lardner. They were singing loud enough, according to H. Allen Smith, to be heard at the General Post Office two blocks away. As Dr. Nagel prepared to administer a coffee enema, Lardner learned the physician was using Maxwell House. He expressed a preference for Arbuckle’s coffee. The substitution was made.
As one of Mr. Hearst’s finest reporters, Fowler was assigned to cover the 1926 state visit of Marie, Queen of Romania. She was strikingly attractive, vivacious, multi-lingual, good-humored, and susceptible. According to both Westbrook Pegler and Ben Hecht, Fowler covered the Queen, too.
What is confirmed is his arrival with the royal train in Denver. A former colleague, Riley Cooper, then managing editor of the Denver Post, was at Union Station. The crowd was jammed on the platforms. The train pulled in with the solemn majesty only a steam locomotive can summon. Fowler, tall, handsome, distinguished, elegantly tailored, emerged from the reporters’ car. He gazed across the platform. He saw Cooper. There was a moment of silence. Then it was filled by Fowler’s bass baritone.
“Hey, Riley! How’s that dose of clap?”
Only half of Colorado heard him.
Less than a year later, Mr. Hearst asked Fowler to become managing editor of the American. He refused. Mr. Hearst invited him to his Riverside Drive apartment.
Fowler found Mr. Hearst fully dressed but barefoot. As they talked, they went into the kitchen. On the tile floor laid the bulldog editions of the Manhattan newspapers. As they talked, Mr. Hearst stopped every now and then to turn the pages with his toes.
“It gives me a better perspective of typographical makeup and layout,” Mr. Hearst said. They talked for several hours. Fowler finally accepted for $500 a week and no interference.
Even gossip columnist Louella Parsons, one of the Chief’s favorites, couldn’t get around Fowler. Fowler believed her copy illiterate, inaccurate, and slovenly. He personally edited one of her columns. She stormed into his office, claiming her contract forbade Fowler from changing even a comma.
“I do it because you are totally and incurably illiterate,” Fowler said. “You don’t need to be a bitch about this thing.”
She shrieked she would tell Mr. Hearst. Fowler replied, “Go right ahead. And tell Mr. Hearst that I called him a son of a bitch for turning such a bitch as you loose on the town.”
She did tell Mr. Hearst. Nothing happened immediately.
Then Mr. Hearst asked him to go on vacation, all expenses paid, and on his return from staying in one of the finer Roman whorehouses, Fowler learned of his “promotion” to an executive post at King Features. He remained there for a year and then returned to the American to do special assignments until his contract ran out in 1928.
His last newspaper job was editing The Morning Telegraph (later merged into the Daily Racing Form), one of the city's oldest papers, a breezy daily focusing on sports, racing, and the theater, published from a former streetcar barn at 8th Ave. and 50th St. His tenure was brief and marked by heroic extravagance—he hired Lardner for $50,000 a year to write four columns a week.
After publishing two forgotten novels and The Great Mouthpiece, a best-selling biography of flamboyant criminal defense lawyer William Fallon, he succumbed to Hollywood’s siren call. His professional skills served him well: he met deadlines, had a knack for colorful dialogue, and knew how to humor oddball bosses. Yet Fowler banged out few scripts under his own name. Rather, he was a script doctor, organizing, structuring, and rewriting other writers’ work. For example, in working on Twentieth Century’s 1935 Call of the Wild, he transformed an original novel, a screen treatment, and several dud scenarios into a viable script. By 1939, he was on contract at Twentieth Century-Fox for $5000 a week.
To the end of his life in 1961, he still called himself a reporter.