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.
6. H. Allen Smith
The funniest writer you’ve never read loved Denver. A high-school dropout who stumbled into journalism, H. Allen Smith worked at the Denver Post from 1929 to 1934, during which time he discovered a real talent for feature writing, especially reporting encounters with oddballs and various humorous musings. Smith was soon pulled to New York by UPI, and his 1941 collection of anecdotes, Low Man on a Totem Pole, sold more than a million copies. A prolific, popular writer, he churned out hundreds of magazine and newspaper pieces, as well as 36 books ranging from novels (his Rhubarb, about a cat that inherits a baseball team, actually rated a 1951 film adaptation) to parodies, biographies, a dirty-joke compendium, a scholarly examination of the practical joke, and travel diaries. His persona – a skeptical, self-doubting but genial Everyman – inhabits his work with hilarious effectiveness.
7. Lowell Thomas
The globe-trotting broadcaster made the reputation of Lawrence of Arabia and dominated the airwaves during the first half of the twentieth century. Lowell Thomas was the voice of Fox’s Movietone News, a newsreel seen weekly at movie theaters across the land, for 23 years; he had his own network radio shows from 1930 to 1976. But he got his start in Colorado, where his family had moved to the gold camps of Victor when he was eight; he became the editor of the Victor Daily Record at the age of nineteen, then of the Victor News. A remarkable intellect and a gift for oratory (and self-promotion) combined to make Thomas a formidable early media presence. He invented the travelogue film; his quest for exploitable WWI footage led him to British officer T.E. Lawrence in the Arabian desert. Thomas’s spectacular and romanticized reporting on Lawrence turned him into an exotic, swashbuckling national hero, and gave Thomas carte blanche for the rest of his career. He wound up as an ever-present early “voice of God”-like editorialist.
8. Harold Ross
Before he founded the New Yorker in 1925, Ross had many adventures as a journeyman journalist. Born in Aspen in 1892, he was the son of a prospector; as a kid, he lived in Red Cliff and Silverton. When he was thirteen, he ran away to Denver and got a job on the Post. After stints at several papers across the country, Ross joined the staff of the Army’s Stars and Stripes during World War I, making connections that would help him launch one of the most successful feature magazines ever.
9. Mary Chase
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945 lived her whole life in Denver, a feature writer nicknamed locally as “our li'l Mary.” Chase went to West High School, passed through the University of Colorado and University of Denver without graduating, and went to work at the Rocky Mountain News as a reporter in 1924. Her first play was performed at the Federal Theater at 3830 Federal Boulevard in 1937. She wrote more than a dozen, but it was Harvey — a whimsical, comic tale about the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend was an imaginary, six-foot-three rabbit-like being called a pooka — that made her reputation. It ran for four and a half years on Broadway, reviving comic Frank Fay’s career, and later earned Jimmy Stewart an Oscar nomination for his performance as Dowd in the film version.
10. Burns Mantle
Theater enthusiasts and professionals have found the annual Best Plays series an invaluable record of the times, a detailed resource chronicling the mainstream theater season. The founder of this long-running reference/anthology wrote his first drama review for the Denver Post in 1892, when he was nineteen. After stints at the Denver Times and the Denver Republican, he moved to Chicago in 1901 and eventually to (where else?) New York, when he became the “dean of drama critics” until his death in 1948. He compiled Best Plays for 26 years beginning in 1909, seeing as many as 270 shows a year. The series continues uninterrupted to this day.
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