Joseph Mitchell's First Book

In 1938, Joseph Mitchell reluctantly published his first book entitled "My Ears Are Bent," a compilation of newspaper articles previously published in the New York World-Telegram and the New York Herald-Tribune. This article is an attempted interview of Mitchell and his reaction to the interview. The quotes from Mitchell were pulled from articles in the book. The interview was oriiginally published in the Raleigh News and Observer and was republished in The Robesonian where I found it.

(The following article from the Raleigh News and Observer gives high praise to a Robeson County man, son of Mr. and Mrs. A. N. Mitchell of Fairmont, who has "made good" as newspaper reporter and author in the "Big City." When Mr. Mitchell was a student under O. J. Coffin, head of the department of journalism at UNC, Mr. Coffin remarked once to the editor of The Robesonian that Mitchell was a student of outstanding ability and "could write anything." Mr. Mitchell has more than justified Mr. Coffin's high estimate. --Editor)

By Anthony Buttitta

Few native writers have "covered" New York in the brilliant and distinguished manner of Joseph Mitchell, young North Carolina newspaper man who has been on the reportorial staff of The New York World-Telegram for the past six years, and his story of its miscellaneous haunts and dives, rackets and tabloid murders, burlesque queens and politicians, appears in his first book, "My Ears are Bent," published this week by Sheridan House.

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Mitchell originally wrote the bulk of these stories in the form of an interview for the World-Telegram. He got the material for the remainder of them while he was assigned to cover the Harlem beat for The New York Herald-Tribune. A few of them have appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, but he had no idea that they eventually would appear between the covers of a book.

It wasn't his idea that they ever would. Tom Davin, editor of Sheridan House, confided at his office recently. Davin had to "cajole, compel and entreat" Mitchell to collect and edit them for the book. However, in editing them for "My Ears Are Bent," Mitchell not only reproduced the original stories, but added certain unprintable, but choicest, bits and expressions which make it a thoroughly original book of adventures in interviewing.

Except for a brief spell in 1931, when Mitchell got sick of newspaper work and went to sea, working on a freighter that carried heavy machinery to the Soviet Union, he has been for the last eight years a reporter on New York City Newspapers. At the University of North Carolina, Mitchell was one of the editors of The Carolina Magazine, the campus literary sheet; and a member of its outstanding literary fraternity which annually published The Yellow Journal. This sensational sheet was outlawed by the authorities shortly after Mitchell left the university.

Prior to coming to New York, Mitchell's professional newspaper career was limited to the writing of feature stories for The News and Observer, The Charlotte Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun. He wrote them during his last term at the University. It is interesting to note that Mitchell had planned to be, not a newspaper man, but a surgeon and registered for science courses throughout his four years at Chapel Hill.

Little is known of his early life, except that he was brought up on a tobacco and cotton farm in Robeson County. He was born in Fairmont and still in his twenties, which makes him quite a young man for the sort of work he is doing in the big city. Questioned for some facts about his work and life, Mitchell replied that a reporter has no business being interviewed.

"It's the business of a reporter to keep himself out of the news," Mitchell said. "I don't believe a reporter has a right to be news -- even when a book of his is published. That's the way I feel about it, and I hope you don't think my request not to be interviewed is unreasonable. You have my permission, however, to use whatever you want from my book for The News and Observer."

From the foreword in "My Ears Are Bent" and the incomplete data in Editor Davin's files, a few significant facts concerning Mitchell's life and work have been brought together. The photograph which appears on this page has been released by Mitchell exclusively to this paper. He said: "It is the only photograph I have."

After leaving the University in 1929, Mitchell had an appendix operation. While getting over it , he read James Bryce's masterpiece, "American Commonwealth," a book which made him want to become a political reporter. He came to New York the same year with that thought in mind, but the first story he covered for the Herald Tribune, where he landed his first job, was a Jack the Ripper murder in a Brooklyn Apartment house, in which an old woman had been strangled to death in her bedroom.

As a "district man" for this newspaper, he sat many nights in a flea-infested easy chair in an old tenement house across the street from Brooklyn Police Headquarters, waiting for something violent to happen. He covered three districts for four months and liked Harlem the best. In these days he did no writing: he would telephone news of murders, stick-ups, wrecks, brawls, fires, etc., to the rewrite man who did the actual writing.

"In the Harlem district, the reporter has a shack on the ground floor of the Hotel Theresa, the biggest hotel in Harlem," he says in his foreword. "My colleagues were veterans. The thing they disliked most in a reporter was enthusiasm, and I was always excited. When I got on the telephone to give my office a story, they would stand outside and point at their foreheads and make circles in the air, indicating that I didn't have any sense.

"When I worked in Harlem, many wealthy men and women from down-town got drunk up there every night. I used to see one well-heeled woman who was in the habit of having negro men, mostly tap dancers . . . Until I came to New York City I had never lived in a town with a population of more than 2,699 and I was alternately delighted and frightened out of my wits by what I saw at night in Harlem, and I was so frightened by the melodrama of the metropolis at night that I forgot my ambition to become a political reporter."

Harlem was the last district Mitchell covered in New York City. He was brought into the city room and allowed to write his own stories. He says: "I worked under Stanley Walker, a slight, calm but unpredictable Texan, who was the most celebrated city editor of the time. I did general assignments, mostly crime. The only kind of crime I liked was gangster funerals and they threw a lot of them that year . . . Crime, especially murder, was difficult to cover on the Herald_Tribune because we were under orders to avoid the word "blood" in a story. One of the owners didn't like the word.

I got tired of hoofing after a dime-a-dozen murders, and one morning I went downtown to get a job as deck boy on a worn-out Hog Island freighter. We tied up in Leningrad and the flat, swampy country reminded me of eastern North Carolina. We swam each day in the Neva, under the gentle Russian sun. One afternoon we got together, the seamen from all the American ships in the harbor, and marched against imperialist war."

Mitchell left the freighter when it docked in New York and a few weeks later he got a job on the World-Telegram. Most of the time he was assigned to write feature stories and interviews. In the course of his assignments, he says quite frankly that "I have been tortured by some of the fanciest 'ear-benders,' including George Bernard Shaw and Nicholas Murray Butler, in the world, and have long since lost the ability to detect insanity.

"Do not get the idea, however, that I am outraged by ear-benders. The only people I do not care to listen to are society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors (except W. C. Fields and Stepin Fetchit), and any actress under the age of thirty-five. I believe the most interesting human beings as far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender . . . Their talk is artless and unpremeditated."

Most interviews have to be done in a hurry and, in Mitchell's case, it is the same, but he manages to turn out a literary story, instead of the usual piece of journalism found in daily papers. The best way to start an interview with a well-known person, he says, is to recall the worst thing you ever heard about him and ask him if it is true. "You have to make a person angry but not too angry."

But there are some people who make good talk and do it artlessly to. Gertrude Stein, Gilda Gray, Emma Goldman and a few others unload enough quotes, according to Mitchell, for a story at any hour of the day or night. "Two classes of humans whose quotes are always amusing are frustrated, spiteful old actresses on the downgrade and people with phobias, usually who predict the end of the world.:

Mitchell has a lot to say about copy-readers in New York, and those elsewhere, who trim everything hearty and honest that a reporter tries to get into his stories. "There are scores of admirable copy-readers on New York newspapers, but most of them seem to be too bored to give much of a damn about anything. They don't have to be censored: they willingly censor themselves. The appear to prefer the nasty genteelism to the exact word; they will cut the word 'belly' out of your copy and write the word 'tummy.'

On my newspaper the reporters write 'raped' and it always comes out criminally attacked.' Once I covered a political rally at which a tipsy politician cursed his opponent for 15 violent moments. His profanity was so vigorous I expected it to leave cavities in his teeth. I used some of milder remarks in my story, but the copy reader cut it out and wrote "Commissioner Etcetera declared that his opponent was not aware of the issues.:

"There is no fury which can equal the black fury which bubbles up in a reporter" --the conscientious type of reporter which Mitchell represents-- "when he sees his name signed to a story which has been castrated by a copy-reader or one of the officials on the city desk.: And since Mitchell is the sort of writer who hakes his work seriously and honestly, he declares that no reporter can work on interviews constantly without going "a little batty."

As chairman of the World Telegram unit of the American Newspaper Guild of New York, he is considering a recommendation dealing with the problem of rotation of jobs in the newspaper business. ""When it gets through with more important matters I think that rotation of jobs should be one of the points taken up by the American Newspaper guild. When a city editor catches you looking cross-eyed at your notes and wishing black plagues on the head of the inarticulate lulu you just have interviewed, he is sometime nice enough to put you on the street for a while, or on a rewrite, or maybe a big break comes and saves your sanity."

Sometimes the change comes in a different way, he said. "Just when you are about to collapse with one of the occupational diseases of the reporter--indigestion, alcoholism, cynicism and Nicholas Murray Butler are a few of them--a big story, a blood-hunt that takes you out of the office usually breaks . . . I was once saved by the Hauptmann trial." After a series of interviews on a trapeze performer, the operator of a lonely heart bureau, a manufacturer of fans for fan-dancers, a champion blood doner, and the movie mogul, Samuel Goldwyn, Mitchell was sent to Flemington, N. J. to write court room features during the trial. It was a rest cure for him, he says.

There are eight chapters in "My Ears Are Bent," each describing some important phases of New York City life. The chapter headings are: Drunks, which covers bard, grills and speakeasies; Cheese-Cake, covering burlesque queens, fan and bubble dancers, many of whom Mitchell interviews in the nude; Come to Jesus, which tells the story behind Father Divine and his peace movement; The Biggest City in the World, in which he writes about marijuana smokers, voodoo and black mass rites, Coney Island and other native items; It's a Living, describing various unusual trades from sex to blood; Our Leaders, in which he pictures unusual politicians with the stamp of Tammany; and Sports Section.

"We have no doubt that Mitchell is one of the great coming writers of American letters,' Editor Davin of Sheridan House, said, "During his early twenties, two distinguished stories of his appeared in the 'American Caravan' series, a vanguard of coming American writers. His first book "My Ears Are Bent" gives more of the heart of new York than any piece of writing that has yet appeared. There is probably not a newspaper man in the city who does not read, study and envy Mitchell's style. Of all the fine-writing journalists, Mitchell is a cynosure."


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