Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big City Byline

            It was with great pride, and even greater trepidation, that I walked into the newsroom of the New York Post a few minutes before 10 o’clock on the morning of Monday, January 8, 1968, as an employee. I was assigned to the rewrite bank, the youngest of about eight people who would take street reporters’ phoned-in notes and turn them into stories for the country’s largest circulation afternoon newspaper.
It was Big City journalism as I always had imagined – loud, profane, chaotic, challenging. And it was incredible fun.
            But just 39 days earlier, I had come within five minutes of none of this happening. My last day of work at the one-room office of the Associated Press, located in the newsroom of the Portland Press Herald/Evening Express newspaper in Maine, was on Friday, December 22, 1967.
My shift normally ended at 2 p.m., but I decided to hang around the office for a while, to talk with people I probably never would see again. I had no idea what I would do the following week; I had heard nothing from the New York Post, where I had interviewed a month earlier, and where I very much wanted to work.
            Shortly before 3 p.m., as I was leaving, a Press Herald editor stopped me to say goodbye, and, in those few minutes, Bill Langzetelle, the head of the AP bureau, called out, “Sandy. Phone call from New York.”
            It was John Bott, the Post city editor. “When can you start?” he asked. We agreed on – actually, he suggested – the first Monday after New Year’s Day.
            Twenty-two days later, I received my first Post byline. Looking back now, I realize it wasn't particularly good. But at the time I thought it was great, a story written on deadline, two paragraphs at a time, with a copy boy running my words to editors as fast as I could type. In those days, the Post had seven editions, with deadlines at various times from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and for each deadline the copy had to be edited, set in type, and put on the press. 
Vince Austin, the Post’s police reporter in the Borough of Queens, had read me his notes – rough facts, a few quotes, bare details, no time for anything else. But it was a story with tabloid written all over it, about how a woman’s body was found that morning near her home, and how none of her neighbors had responded to her screams for help, and I milked it for all it was worth. Under the headline “Woman Slain As Her Cries Go Unheeded,” the story began:
       Petite, red-haired May Lang screamed for help last night, but no one came.
   This morning, her battered, partly nude body was found in an alley, at 35-30 34th St., in the Astoria section of Queens.
   Another three doorways and May Lang would have been home.
            Back then, someone still in the 90-day probationary period wouldn’t receive a byline, but Fred McMurrow, then in charge of the copy desk, kept shouting “I’m loving this” as he pushed through my copy, and, when I completed the story, John Bott, the city editor, asked how I wanted my name spelled. I was so nervous that I wrote it out for him on a piece of copy paper, and even included the “By.”
             And thus began my six years with the Post, working with some of the legends of New York journalism (introductions in a subsequent Blog posting), first on rewrite’s back row, then with the first string, then reporting various beats – community services, labor, City Hall – but always returning to rewrite, the heart of an afternoon newspaper, the only job where the pace is so fast that you don’t have time to second guess.
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Here is my first byline story, as it appeared, including a typo, at the top left of Page 2 in the New York Post on January 30, 1968:

Woman Slain

As Her Cries

Go Unheeded


     Petite, red-haired May Lang screamed for help last night, but no one came.
      This morning, her  battered,  partly  nude body was  found  in an  alley, at 35-30 
34th  St., in the Astoria section of Queens.
     Another three doorways and May Lang would have been home.

      Neighbors told police they had heard screams, but thought it was just cats fighting.
   Other neighbors said they heard garbage cans rattling but assumed the noise was caused by dogs.
   Miss Lang, a telephone operator at Manhattan’s Beverly Hotel at 51st St. and Lexington Av., was 59. She lived alone in a 2 1/2-room apartment at 35-16 34th St. Police believe she may have been raped.
     “Between 12:30 and 1 o’clock this morning I heard three screams, one right after the other,” said a woman neighbor of Miss Lang’s. “I was waiting for the fourth.”
     “It was definitely a woman’s scream,” she said. “I had no impulse to call the police because we hear that quite often in their neighborhood now, and it’s usually a family fight, and nobody wants to get involved in a family fight.”
      The woman said that she feels “badly now that I didn’t call the police.”
    Other neighbors had told her they had heard screams early this morning she said, but no one called the police.
    “This neighborhood is changing, and now we’re getting more afraid every day,” she said.
     May Lang apparently wasn’t afraid of the neighborhood.
    She worked from 4 p.m. until midnight, and always walked the 3 1/2 blocks from the elevated train at 31st St. and 36th Av. to her apartment.
   Miss Lang’s best friend, Florence Limitone, who lives in the same apartment building, criticized those who heard her cries for help but failed to respond.
    “It must be terrible for people to hear her scream and not do anything about it. They could have done something. After all, they wer in the security of their own homes.”
    Miss Lang’s body was discovered at about 7:30 a.m. Her undergarments were found in a backyard nearby, her dress was pulled over her head.
     A fur coat, red shoes, red handbag and a shopping bag containing beer and soap were found nearby.


  1. For those wondering what happened:
    See fifth graf:
    "Palmieri and Michael Blake, 31, both narcotics addicts, were convicted of the murder in January, 1968, of May Lang of Astoria, a hotel telephone operator, who was slain in the early morning while returning home from work."

  2. Sandy -- Those were the days when journalism reigned. Great writing, especially on deadline.

    John Dancy