Colorado History

The Truth About Ten Colorful Colorado Journalists, in Black and White

The glory days of daily newspapers are receding in the rearview mirror, leaving behind legendary tales of the writers who honed their craft as reporters and editors. There are many modern examples of Colorado journalism greats – sportswriter Rick Reilly, network broadcaster Harry Smith, award-winning cartoonists Paul Conrad, Pat Oliphant and Mike Keefe — but their careers pale when compared to the colorful days at the turn of the last century, when yellow journalism was at its height and Denver had many daily newspapers, and sex, crime, corruption and scandal blared from banner headlines.

Reporters in those days were thought of as low-life guttersnipes: hard-bitten, hung-over, chain-smoking, wisecracking, typewriter-battering glory hounds, always looking for (or manufacturing) the big scoop. Here are ten of the toilers during the glory days of Denver's dailies, who all went on to bigger and better things:

1. Bat Masterson

The dapper gunfighter, gambler and lawman moved to Denver in 1889 after his days in the Wild West were done — and the Wild West was about done, too. He soon became a major figure in Denver prizefighting, and began writing a sports column for the city’s George’s Weekly. Masterson became a national expert on boxing, though he consistently backed the loser in every major bout from the mid-1880s to 1920. He was also fighting a losing battle with alcohol; Masterson’s bouts of public drunkenness became so extreme that he was asked to leave Denver in 1902. He moved to New York and promptly became the top boxing writer of the age.

2. Eugene Field

Known best for his sentimental children’s poetry (Wynken, Blynken, and Nod), Eugene Field began his career as a renowned wit. He served as editor of the Denver Tribune from 1881 through 1883, spending much of his time playing practical jokes — including stealing Oscar Wilde’s thunder by impersonating the infamous English dandy the day before he arrived in Denver. The night before Field left Denver for Chicago, he rented out a theater and performed on stage, making fun of all the prominent people in town whom he disliked. He sold out the house.

3. Damon Runyon

A writer with a style so distinctive and popular that it was deemed “Runyonesque,” Alfred Runyan grew up in Pueblo, working at an early age for the Pueblo Evening News and Star and moving on as a sports reporter for the Denver Daily News and Denver Post, his byline morphing gradually into that of Damon Runyon. His stellar baseball and boxing coverage, along with his growing prowess in political and crime writing, as well as verse and fiction, drew him to New York in 1910. There Runyon developed his immensely popular stories of Big Apple gamblers, hoodlums and wiseacres that would later be adapted into the musical Guys and Dolls.

4. Katherine Anne Porter

The stellar novelist and short-story writer (Ship of Fools, Noon Wine, "Flowering Judas") lived in Denver for a year beginning in May 1918, working as a journalist for the Rocky Mountain News (a job she hated). She nearly died during the great influenza pandemic in early October of that year; in fact, they wrote up her obituary at work. She survived, losing all of her hair for a time until it grew back, dead white. Her first big success, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," is a fictionalized version of that event, one that she said gave her a “beatific vision” and changed her forever.

5. Gene Fowler

If ever there was an emblematic, rip-roaring, larger-than-life figure in Denver journalism, it was Gene Fowler. The poor kid from the west side tore through the University of Colorado in a year and promptly leaped onto the staff of the Denver Post in 1914. He soon became known for his enthusiasm, impudence and imaginative disregard for facts. His gripping narratives entranced the public, though, and by 1918 he was off to New York. (Fowler details his journalism career in the engaging trilogy Timber Line, A Solo in Tom-Toms and Skyline.) Fowler was then lured from the East Coast to Hollywood, where he worked through the 1930s and 1940s on screenplays for screwball classic Twentieth Century, as well as Call of the Wild and Jesse James. (Son Gene Fowler Jr. became a prominent film editor and director.) Novels, biographies and script-doctoring fill out his oeuvre.  Of all the writers listed here, Fowler continued to write in the stilted, florid style he'd learned through journalism, a robust, rococo kind of braggadocio that sweeps the reader along.

Keep reading for five more characters in Denver journalism.

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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.