The life and death of the chain-smoking editor

How could I have written a newspaper novel like The Solomon Scandals without a chain-smoking editor?

Kamikaze levels of tobacco and booze use helped certify newsroom denizens as manly risk-takers several decades ago, the time period of Scandals. Women were part of the scene by the 1970s, but they tended not to partake with such joyous abandon. The late Molly Ivins, whose columns inspired the Red Hot Patriot play now at Arena Stage, stood out as a proud colossus among the exceptions.

The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee was, of course, among the most famous smokers and risk-takers. In Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman writes of Bradlee “striding through the newsroom, dragging on a cigarette and scaring the shit out of the young reporters (and some of the old ones).” But the Post’s Smoker in Chief sensibly quit The Weed in 1974.

Bradlee the nonsmoker—I’ll assume he hasn’t relapsed—survives at 91 with a whole different side we didn’t see during Watergate. Newsroom cigars and cigarette don’t for the most part, either among editors or reporters.

Good riddance.

I love anti-smoking laws and am rooting, too, for anti-junk-food legislation. Call me a “health fascist,” Molly—I don’t care. Our side has a built-in advantage, of course. We generally outlive y’all.

Cigars and cigarettes were bad for me back in my newspaper days even if my exposure was just second-hand and even if I share my last name with the unrelated tobacco dynasty. One heart attack and quad bypass later, they would be worse now. But oh the era when news factories at times seemed to come with as much smoke as steel mills! At the Lorain (Ohio) Journal, my old daily in a lakeside steel-and-automobile town west of Cleveland, the top editor smoked cigars and even looked like Pierre Salinger, the famous cigar aficionado and journalist who was the press secretary to yet another cigar man, JFK.

Irving “Leibo” Leibowitz died in 1979 of cancer (tobacco-related to some extent?). I miss him just as much as I miss the clickety-clack of Underwoods and the clattering of wire service machines regardless of my love of iPads, Kindles and other crushers of antique technology. More, in fact. Had Ben Bradlee known what was happening in Lorain, he would have relished the way Leibo was playing up the early Watergate stories before the topic was safely in the mainstream. So goes my recollection, at least, of the Journal’s coverage.

If true, that would have been yet another manifestation of the guts of so many within the old fraternity of chain-smoking editors—well, the better ones like Leibo and Bradlee.

The Journal’s Watergate-related items weren’t flawless; at least one editorial cut Tricky far too much slack. But I still remember us as many miles ahead of the pack thanks to Leibo, with ample help from one of our wire guys, a bright young Oberlin grad and nonsmoker named Rich Petrick.

Not long ago, Florence York Ellis, a fellow Journal alum, shared Leibo’s musings on the Leibowitz-Salinger resemblance. Click on the image for a more detailed look at the clip from the Journal, now known as The Morning Journal. Flo smoked for pleasure, not show, and finally quit her pack-a-day indulgence. No puffs since ’75. She can recall Leibo taking her and another reporter, Michele Killean Rice, out to lunch at the local Brown Derby to celebrate an anniversary of the two women’s health-related withdrawal from tobacco.

But what’s the word from the real authority on this topic, at the Journal, anyway—Tom Skoch, the editor, today’s Leibo equivalent? “The Morning Journal has been a mandatory smoke-free building for several years. If Leibo were still here, I’m guessing he would probably just go around with an unlit cigar in his mouth.”

Update, July 17, 2014, from “Bo” Leibowitz: “My father’s cancer was of the bone marrow variety, unrelated to smoking. Also, he rarely smoked for real. It was usually unlit.” I’ll trust Bo as an authority on this. Thanks for the correction.

Further Update, July 14, 2020: Yes, the cigar was lit far lot more often than Bo remembers. That’s the recollection of Florence York and another ex-Journal reporter, Rick Zarbaugh, in a Facebook forum, and it jibes with my own memories.

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David Rothman

2 thoughts on “The life and death of the chain-smoking editor

  1. Nice article…now I’ll have to read your book. One correction: My father’s cancer was of the bone marrow variety, unrelated to smoking. Also, he rarely smoked for real. It was usually unlit.

  2. Thanks for taking the trouble to write in, Bo, and if I have my Leibowitzes right, congratulations on your jazz program on KCRW in LA. As one of Leibo’s kids, you’re an authority. I’ll add your note to the end of the article. After all these years, I still think of your father—except now I’ll have to remember that the cigars normally lacked the fire that their owner possessed on issues dear to him.

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