Columbia Journalism Review
24 May 2016
By Gerald Eskenazi
When you work for The New York Times, you become immersed in its history and its fabled writing and writers. You connect to the Pulitzer Prizes, to the war correspondents, to the drama critics. And, of course, to the urban legends.
In my 44 years at the Times, I discovered a host of newsroom myths, virtually all of them riffing off the paper’s perceived pomposity.
There was the story from the ’60s of a particular fellow in the paper’s sports department who clearly wasn’t like everyone else. He had a certain savoir faire, a mustache reminiscent of a 1930s movie dandy, and he used expressions like “What the deuce!” and “Gracious!” What the heck was he doing in the down-and-dirty sports department?
Here’s what I was told. He had been one of the editors on the “picture desk”—the spot where captions were written. One day he wrote the following under a photo:
“Mrs. John Jacob Astor, left, and her prize geranium.”
Well, since there were no other humans in the photo, who else would that be but Mrs. A? Identifying her as being on the left….So, he got demoted to sports.
I mentioned this story recently to a former colleague and I was told, no, it was not Mrs. Astor. It wasn’t even a geranium. My colleague insisted the mustachioed fellow had written “Mrs. Roosevelt, left, and her prize ginkgo.”
And then still another old-timer chimed in: It wasn’t a flower. But it was a society matron, left, and her horse.
I checked the files. No, nothing like that, for any lady, had ever been published in the Times, as far as I could find. I also couldn’t find anyone who claimed to have actually seen the offending caption. The story is probably baloney. […]