Monday, November 24, 2008

A Lament for the Soon-To-Be-Late DNR

November 24, 2008
Daily News Record was one of the many trade publications under the Fairchild banner--a small, family-owned trade publisher whose flagship was Women’s Wear Daily. Begun at roughly the same time, DNR and WWD covered the apparel industry, the former being the bible for the men’s wear trade and the latter for women’s wear.

I started my New York career as a secretary to the two editors of DNR in mid-1960s. They were drinking buddies as well as industry scribes—as different as two Jewish writers could be. Mort Gordon was tall, smart and sexy while Herb Blueweiss was short, balding, hyper and sometimes enigmatic. Herb liked to read and attend the theater with Martin Gottfried, Fairchild’s critic, and Mort, a bachelor, was content to attend industry functions and do as much skirt-chasing as time allowed. The two worked so well in tandem that they were referred to by staff as The Bobbsey Twins. It was, all in all, a fun place to work.

At one point Gottfried commented to Pat, my forerunner as assistant to the duo, that it must be great fun to have Herbie as a boss. Pat responded, “You’d think that, but Mort’s better to work for.” Mort was a good editor and a gentle guy with people; he was the one we’d take our stories to if we had a problem.

Fairchild was housed in two buildings, back to back. The front door was at 7 East 12th Street, an entrance into a modern if characterless building where the sleeker publications were produced. A plain lobby housed a front desk and a bank of three elevators. If you took this elevator to the third floor you were in the world of Women’s Wear Daily, full of chicly dressed young women at desks with typewriters, reporting on the future of hemlines, and a few hapless males writing about the business side of the women’s fashion industry.

If you were going to the Daily News Record office, you had to make a trek through these desks on past the fey characters of the art department on the right and through a passageway to the back building. This structure was decidedly old, housing some geezers who wrote columns called “Words at Random,” and “Cotton Grey Goods,” as well as some serious guys discussing such topics as the necktie market, textile machinery, the staying power of the “mod” fashion in the youth market. You would also see a passel of merry pranksters looking for their next big journalism break. As a secretary, I fit cozily into that latter category.

You could also enter DNR the back way, up the stairs or in the creaky old elevator in the shabby 13th Street building. At that end of the room were the financial desk, the legal reporters, and a smattering of other market desks.

I worked at DNR off and on for some six years from the mid-60’s until the early 70’s when I left for good for the greener pastures of public relations, but I left having made the acquaintance of some of the most interesting characters of my life, and having made some friends I still see today. There is a surreal quality to my memories of the place. Every reporter, every editor, even the copy kids—all were distinct in his or her view of their employment. They took their work with a grain of salt, but basically performed it well. It took some doing for an incipient novelist to call on the little knitting mills producing men’s sweaters and report the company’s financial and marketing plans.

We all weren’t incipient novelists, of course, but I think most of us thought of ourselves as writers. Some went on to become well-known as television personalities, drama critics, columnists for New York Magazine or denizens of city’s night life. This was a stopping off place on the way to a big break, and the hilarity of the lunch hours and after-hours imbibing had little to do with the markets we covered. We liked the company, we even liked our jobs, but we approached everything with irreverence and attempts—sometimes quite successful—at wit. We impressed ourselves and each other. We traded quips with members of the art department and Chauncey Howell, who already had a column with his name on it in WWD.

One of our number got promoted to a management position, the ultimate betrayal. He became in our minds—as put by one left behind—a toady for the Establishment, admonishing us to shape up and keep the noise down, that sort of thing. Once when he gave us a dire warning that there would soon be a salary review, we decided this would be a great opportunity to put on an all-company show, “The Salary Revue,” with songs and sketches from all departments. We were occupied for several weeks dreaming up musical numbers for the non-event to come. For George Washington’s Birthday, we thought a historical pageant would be in order. Who would play George? John Pareti wanted to be Cornwallis “because he made out pretty well after the war.” We fulminated on possible casting until that fantasy project faded away only to be replaced by another.

There was an older lady with a personality column who took her job very seriously. She was really interested in the men’s wear industry, and counted many of its executives as her friends and contacts. She was on the phone all day long, usually talking rather animatedly, and once when she was not at her desk someone answered her ringing phone for her and was immediately sorry. This was before the days of the cleaning staff wiping down such instruments, and the mouthpiece of her phone was green with dried slime.

Maybe it was because we were all young and optimistic that it seemed like such fun to work in an atmosphere of controlled chaos and actually produce a daily newspaper just like in the movies. It was a profound experience in a decidely frivolous setting, and those of us who reflect on it now have mostly happy memories. You had great hours, for one thing, arriving at 10 (or later if you had arranged an appointment in the market), went to lunch at noon; and, because your business of learning everybody’s business was so often facilitated at lunch you might not get back to the office until 2:30. To improve your focus you could take a half-hour coffee break and leave the office at 5.

Talk about a great neighborhood to work in! Around the corner, there was a Schrafft’s on Fifth and 13th Streets, and a Longchamps in the middle of the block. I used to spend some lunch hours trying on hats at May’s on Union Square, I can’t imagine why. David Platt, who later went left the company for a long stint as fashion editor of Playboy, used to fret that I wasn’t checking out the chapeaux for little animals that might have been left there by other customers. Usually the office crowd would eat at a place called The Terrace, or one of the many coffee shops surrounding the building, but for a treat we’d try the sweet little Italian joint called Il Bambino at 12th and University Place. None of those places still exists—Scrafft’s became a western-themed hangout, and the other places were gutted and replaced many years ago. Fairchild Publications moved to the old Ohrbach’s building sometime in the last century. Daily News Record kept the name (or initials, anyway), but hadn’t been a daily for years.

A friend from those days now writes a blog on being retired in New Jersey. He sent me a link to a news article that DNR will cease publication with today's issue and the men’s wear market will be covered by WWD in a special section once a week. I’m sure its time had come, but for many years it was a solid little news outlet for an often overlooked industry. And, like Fairhope and Hoboken, it was a great place come from.


Benedict S. said...

Ah, just when I was on the verge of being "cured" of you, you publish that picture. Woman! Thy name is affliction!

Pat D said...

Beautiful description of the building and the atmosphere. I was right back there! Taking my smoking breaks many times each day in that passageway since our building was a fire hazard! And that damned freight elevator on the 13th St. side. What a danger. Got stuck in there at least twice between floors. And the camaraderie. Great blog.

Mary Lois said...

And the management refused to air condition the new building out of consideration for those of us who worked in the old one (which would have been prohibitively expensive to rewire). A rather strange administrative decision, but sweet in retrospect.

As to that picture, Benedict, (sigh), it was a looo--ong time ago.

Anonymous said...

A few neurons just fired and I got a sudden vision of Dick Kagan, who had just gotten a bag full of colorful yarn balls attached to magnets from Dupont (God knows why) roaming about the office flinging them up against the air conditioning (heating) ducts on the ceiling. Herb and Sandy just sat there an watched him. The yarn balls stayed there for months.

Benedict S. said...

There are roughly six-billion places in the known universe where time stands still.

Mary Lois said...

And 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling?

Mary Lois said...

Okay, folks, one more memory: Anybody ever think of Harry Jenkins? A somber old guy creeping around the press room and reporting on something called cotton grey goods. He moaned about "the mills," and the headline over his work was often "Mill Men Fear Specter of Imports." I said he seemed to regard the mills as some kind of amorphous Zeus ready to lower the psychic or sonic boom on the us underlings on earth. I expected his columns to include an apostrophe to the mills -- O mills! Thy power and thy glory admonish me!

When he found out I was an aspiring actress, Harry confessed to me that he hated show business because he grew up in it. His parents had been music-hall performers in England! Who ever knew???

Jerry Andersen said...

How naive we all were. I am sure the real reason they didn't AC the new building was because the Fairchild's were cheap. 7 E. 12th was like a steam bath in the summer and they would put signs up urging us to "be responsible" in using the fans.

Anonymous said...

Sure I remember Jenkins. He wrote the gray goods column long after he retired. I think he made up the spot prices. Mill men feared HIM.

One afternoon a week we greenhorns would have sit over in the textile department with Al Pighini, Jenkins, Sig Sheier, and Frank Stuart and make up the textile page. I hated it.

Now Stuart......there was a character.

Anonymous said...

A picture is worth a thousand words! What a lovely asset you must have been around the office in them days.

I too worked in the same area at that time, driving a truck in the garment center and lower Manhattan. Hot summer lunch hours brought out a parade of models...eye feast upon.

You moving from LA (Lower Alabama) to NY must have been fun for you ...SO MUCH you have returned for the second act and finally.

Hope i did not run over your toes ...sometimes trucks do that...enjoy Hoboken as I did...GOOD CHOICE.

Mary Lois said...

The Fly reminded me of Frank Stuart. Frank was tall and skinny, with a whiney drawl that sounded vaguely southern but wasn't. He fancied himself a raconteur but talked so slowly that no one had the patience to listen to his stories. He lived a remarkably adventurous life, however; skiing in remote locations and exploring such places as the Andes on vacation.

He returned from one trip with his leg in a cast and walking on crutches. Jerry Kriska, an elderly columnist on men's wear topics and never known for being quick with a quip, took one look at the cast and crutches and said, "Wonder if it slows him down any."

Anonymous said...

I now understand why the men's wear industry promoted men's double knit suits in the 70's--you guys had a great sense of humor!

The amazing part is how retailers actually convinced men to wear the things.

Me included.

Anonymous said...

I worked at DNR during the mid 60s as a reporter, and wow, did your post back memories, especially of the back stairs in the old building and of the steamy summer days, and also of the comraderie of all of us junior staff people. I was the first female reporter to work on the financial/legal desk, and one of the editors, I won't mention his name, made a bet with various older reporters that I wouldn't last a month. The joke was on him. since I spent two years there and then moved on to other things. It was my first job out of grad school and great training for a writer. I've been a professional writer ever since, and am grateful for DNR for giving me my start.

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Mary Lois, and because I'm back at WWD now, as financial editor, I suppose I'm fated to keep covering men's wear, as I did in three separate stints at DNR. Your recollections really captured well the newspaper I walked into in 1976 -- I will never forget the many ways in which Bill Taffin could craft a "Mill Men Mull..." headline for Harry Jenkins' grey goods stories. Or when Frank Stuart ignited his entire desk by using the solvent/thinner for his glue jar as a substitute for lighter fluid -- he went for a cigarette and nearly blew up the entire newsroom. Carolyn Miller will be happy, although probably not surprised, to learn that the financial department is now fully integrated gender-wise and that the reporter with the greatest seniority is a woman with over 10 years on the job. Great reading! Thanks!

Raanan Geberer said...

I worked at Fairchild (originally as a freelance copy editor for DNR, then as a full-timer for Energy User NEws) in the mid and late 1980s. WWD was still on the 3rd floor, but DNR was on the 4th floor.

The former Schraffts by now was the Lone Star, home of country music and hot chile. And the artists were still clad in bizarre outfits--black shirts, safety pins, pink hair, stuff that would have never have been tolerated on the actual editorial staff!

The stores around there were great, and many of us used to go to the Cinema Village across the street. We also had a cafeteria somewhere in the building--it might have been on the 6th floor. I also remember Stromboli Pizza.

My magazine, EUN (which wasn't even around until 1976) was transferred to another publishing group within the ABC umbrella around 1990, when Fairchild decided to divest itself of its tech publications. I stayed until 1991, by which time we had moved out of the building. I tried to get another job with Fairchild, but it's just as well that I didn't. Today, they've even sold HFD (or whatever it became after it was no longer a daily) and Supermarket News and are only hard-core fashion.

I didn't really know many people--Fairchild was organized in such a way that you only knew people on your own mag. And since mine was one of the very smallest, with an editorial staff of about 12, I was sort of out of luck.

ONe last thing--we were printed off-site, at a plant in NJ. Using 1980s computer technology, we forwarded articles from our "dumb" mainframe-connected terminals to devices over there, where they unloaded cartridges of film, them cut them into strips and pasted them onto a paste-up board!

Raanan G

Mary Lois said...

Raanan Geberer, you could be talking about a different organization altogether! We have none of the same points of reference, but share an attachment to a company that could only exist in memory now. Yours was so much more recent as to have been transformed by time, as everything has been.

It was a unique life at Fairchild in the 1960s and 70s, but there was a stress there that made us all wish we were somewhere else. It's only in recollection that we realize how much fun we we were having.

Raanan Geberer said...

To Mary Lois:

However, I'm willing to bet the Cedar Tavern was also there in your day. It's also now gone.

By the way, since you're from Hoboken, it might interest you that immediately before Fairchild (we're talking 1983-85) I worked for the Hudson Dispatch, also now defunct. My farewell party was at the (also gone!) Hoboken Clam House.--RG

Ron said...

It's like we went
to different schools together.
I had nothing to do with DNR.
(but knew Fairchild and WWD in various ways)

Your reflections of Manhattan and the agencies and publishers all around town bring back lots of memories.

Ron said...

Electronic News and Metalworking News were the trade magazines that I knew. Never worked there but have been in to see their editors and bought ads from their space salesmen.

Here is what Wikepedia says about DNR <>

So what's the latest ??

Ron said...

Ha, I put brackets around the quote and I see that means "delete".

Here it is again from Wikepedia:

The Daily News Record was closed in 2008, leaving Fairchild with two publications, Women's Wear Daily and Footwear News.

Mary Lois said...

Think DNR was absorbed into some men's fashion magazine or other, Ron. Nobody from the old days is around, except maybe Arnie Karr who comments here. Arnie was the son of my boss at the former Men's Fashion Assn., and went to work at Fairchild after college. I was long gone from the scene by the time he got there, but I gave him an earful about what to expect!

Arnie Karr said...

I CERTAINLY remember DNR, having spent a decade of my life with it (both daily and weekly incarnations).

Industry critics sometimes called it the Daily News Wrecker.

anne said...

Just learned of Mort Gordon's death and through Google found link to your blog. Mort was a legend in the men's industry though by the time I got there he was publisher of Men's Wear magazine. I was at Fairchild in the 70s, my first job, and it was an adventure. The food unfriendly cafeteria was on the 12th floor and known to one and all as 'Top of the John," in tribute to its owner. It had just been acquired by Cap Cities and had a new head honcho, John Sias who provided endless amusement in the newsroom.

Mary Lois said...

Mort was kind of a hero of mine. He was my first boss in NYC, and a charismatic, knowledgeable guy. Wish I had seen him again since those days, but he did contact me after this blog post appeared and said he appreciated my description of him. He was truly one of a kind--a force in the industry and a great guy to work with. So sad that he's no longer with us.

Patty said...

I just saw this .. 12 years later. I was art director at DNR from 1984 to 2008! I remember 7 east 12th fondly, great times. I remember Frank Stuart , he set fire to his desk with a cigarette!!!!