Monday, April 9, 2012
At CBS London: Mike Wallace, Telexes and "Gitanes"
I was a grad student at the London School of Economics, looking for a bit of extra money. I was hired by the late Phil Lewis, bureau chief and a crusty New Yorker, straight out of central casting. In my interview for the job, he said he'd only hire me if I took out his visiting niece from the States and "show her a good time...but not too good a time, if you get my meaning...," he growled ominously. I apparently did both, because the morning after the date, he told me I could start the following week. Did I land my first journalism gig through sexual harassment?
That bureau was a magical place: The correspondents included Charles Collingwood, one of the last of the Murrow boys, John "Jack" Laurence who has sustained injuries while reporting from Viet Nam, Bob Simon, then a young reporter and still today an active CBS correspondent. I got to know the radio stringer quite well - Bob Dyk - a very talented man, but with a drinking problem that, I'm told, eventually killed him.
The bureau was managed by an amazing group of women who I now realize, were pioneers in the business: Pat Bernie, a tough Rhodesian, Ann "Micky" Rooney, a Londoner who adored anything and everything about the royal family. Jeanne Solomon was the "60 Minutes" bureau chief at a time when the newsmagazine was just getting an international reputation.
It was where I first "met" Mike Wallace. His reputation in that bureau preceded him and he was known as a very tough, no-nonsense broadcast journalist.
The day he came into the bureau, I was working the telex machine, typing out a paper ribbon that had code on it.
In those pre-email days, this was a preferred method of sending messages, scripts and travel requests. In an emergency I was allowed to send a live message on the telex. But I was told that was VERY expensive. Non-emergency messages were cheaper to send and required more time to compose. Each message on the ribbon was addressed to a different manager, journalist, department back at CBS News headquarters in New York.
Once composed, the ribbon would be threaded through a "leased line" machine that was rented from the British Post Office and would be patched directly to West 57th Street. It would type one letter per second. We would run it overnight when the incoming London bureau traffic slowed down.
As I was composing the ribbon that evening, I was smoking. We all did. A lot. My preference since I was studying French history, was a brand of unusually pungent French cigarettes called "Gitanes." I always had one going and the almost full pack was sitting right beside me, on the telex machine.
Mike Wallace was speaking to Phil Lewis in the newsroom. He looked in my direction and headed straight for me. I thought I was going to meet him. But he just came over, pocketed my Gitanes then headed out with Phil for dinner.
Years later, I was told he became a vocal opponent of smoking and smokers, and was known for snatching the cigarettes out of the mouths of people he was interviewing. I assume he was perfecting that technique on me.