April 16, 2005
Lucien Carr: A newsman's newsman and a muse of the Beats
FORMER UNITED PRESS International reporters and editors gathered at the National Press Club, in Washington, recently to raise a glass and swap a racy story or two in honor of one of the most influential and colorful news editors of our time, Lucien Carr.
Carr, who died Jan. 28 at 79, guided UPI's coverage in much of the second half of the 20th Century, handling major stories from Vietnam to the moon landing, as well as the lesser stories that affected people's lives every day. He also guided two generations of reporters as they climbed the ranks of UPI in its heyday: the hard-core wire service that competed with fewer reporters and less money against The Associated Press and very often won.
Major newspapers carried Carr's obituary. Most led with his role as one of the founders of the Beat Generation of poets and writers who redefined American literature in the 1950s. Some papers slipped in the story of how he killed a man for making sexual advances and dumped the body in the Hudson River. Publicly, Carr was probably best known for "borrowing" the scroll of UPI teletype paper that Jack Kerouac used to write the landmark novel "On the Road" so as not to break his stream of consciousness by changing sheets of paper.
If the lead paragraphs of the obits written about him had been brief, Carr would have been satisfied. He was known to lop off the first two or three paragraphs until he reached the core of a story. But during his 47 years at UPI Carr also knew the value of catching a reader's attention -- and he likely would have fired up his own obit's lead with the Beats, the sex stalker and murder. There's an old joke about a winning Lou Carr lead paragraph, which you can hear him growl today: "Make 'em horny or make 'em cry -- but don't make 'em throw up in their breakfast eggs."
As general news editor for UPI, first in New York and later in Washington, it was Lou Carr who put together the "skedline," the list of the day's most important news stories, and sent it to newspaper editors worldwide. And it was Lou Carr who monitored stories filed to him all day by UPI reporters across the globe before sending them on to clients or spiking them.
And so it was that news editors every morning, everywhere, knew what UPI judged most important and what UPI would send them over the newswire. The newsman with the "slouchy physique and sardonic grin hidden under his riverboat gambler mustache," so aptly described by The New York Times, thus hugely influenced the news and those who read it for decades.
He was a newsman's newsman.
Lucien Carr was born in New York, raised in St. Louis and educated at Phillips Academy (Andover, Md.). It was at Columbia University in the 1940s that he brought together poet Allen Ginsberg and novelists William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. With Lucien, the four formed the core of the anti-authoritarian Beats. While Lucien himself never wrote a book, he was a muse to the Beats. In 1946, Carr signed on as a copy boy with UPI.
Carr soon had a foot in two camps: literature and straight news. By his own account, Carr was a close friend of Kerouac, and Kerouac wrote "On the Road" in Carr's loft. While Kerouac died young, Carr over the years remained close to Burroughs, and to Ginsberg, who would appear in the newsroom to lobby for coverage of whatever political cause he was touting at the time.
Kerouac biographer Dennis McNally told UPI: "It's very hard, even for me and I'm the biographer, to put in words the influence a person like Lucien had on Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but they would not be who they were without Lucien . . . Lucien stimulated them intellectually in ways that were simply critical and that they both acknowledged."
In UPI's Carr obituary, former "Unipresser" Jon Frandsen shed some light: "Carr really had an insistence that Kerouac and Ginsberg be sharp, short and to the point. He carried that same sort of thinking over to news. He felt news was the closest a human being could come to getting at the truth -- as a tool for people being able to change their lives. He brought that poetic sense of truth to the news business, in a way. He had a respect for the truth whether it was literal like news, or something more elusive and ethereal."
And there was, too, the question of the 1944 stabbing death (with a Boy Scout knife) of Carr's former Scoutmaster, an incident that was only a whisper in the newsroom. Biographer McNally described victim David Kammerer as a "stalker." "There was an incident, determined by the DA that Lucien was defending his honor, where he stabbed David and David died."
Carr pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served two years in prison. When he got out, while he had talked about becoming a foreign correspondent, he decided instead to become an editor, behind the scenes. Notorious for his hard drinking, every four or five years, when a new book about the Beats came out -- reminding the world of the homicide -- Carr would disappear on a bender, according to a colleague. (Later in life he quit the booze altogether.)
In the 1970s and early '80s, Lucien's rewrite man, Donald Mullen, sat across from him on the general desk at UPI's world headquarters, in the Daily News Building, in Manhattan. Both men were above all focused on beating AP with speed and accuracy. Newspapers subscribing to both wire services would have to choose one story over the other, and the two men wanted UPI stories in print. But the friends also had an irreverent sense of humor.
"Those were the days before the politically correct era, and we sure stepped on a lot of toes in the bureau," Mullen recalled. "We liked to tease women libbers, the stuffy macho staffers on the Latin American desk, bigoted photographers, and anyone else who got too puffed up in the bureau. Today we would probably be fired."
Mullen described Lou as a favorite among client news editors who loved his salty talk and his ability to deliver copy when their papers were on deadline. "As far as I'm concerned, Lou Carr was UPI's best news editor. Lou knew how to keep a story focused on what UPI clients wanted -- tight, well written, with that little extra bite in the lead to grab readers' attention," Mullen said. "He passed on praise to the winners. But he had no patience with suck-ups, foot draggers, whiners, and ego trippers. That voice on the phone -- it's been described as one 'you could grind keys on' -- carved up more than one goldbricking phony.
"A few years ago," said Mullen, "I asked Lou about the worst bonehead lead paragraph he remembered."
"My favorite," responded Carr, "was an HC (Los Angeles) lead, which said: 'Ward Bond missed the Rose Bowl today. He was dead.' "
Best story? "My favorite story, both before and after computers, was the Apollo 11 moon landing, which seemed to me to be entirely above and beyond the usual coverage of that moiling mass of humanity that usually preoccupied us."
At the National Press Club, Mullen spread pictures of Lou on a table. Here was the guy who'd taken up sailing late in life, and insulted the elements with an annual New Year's sail on Chesapeake Bay; the man who'd hit some throttle on a motorcycle in his time and enjoyed the flow of a country road; who'd savored jazz riffs into the night at the Village Vanguard, thrown back his fair share of liquor, and overall lived his life to the hilt. He took up space in a room; his presence swelled with life experience. And when he walked into the bureau with that bow-legged swagger, you knew he was absolutely the best newsman going.
One eager Radcliffe graduate, who'd clawed her way from receptionist into the New York newsroom as copy girl, would study Carr's screen as he edited, peering over his shoulder while changing his teletype ribbon. "Gidget," he'd bellow -- one foot propped on the desk, chewing on a straw -- "tell those morons in Rome to come up with something better than 'The pope prayed for world peace again today.' "
If you sent him drivel, Carr's gravelly baritone voice would fire across the newsroom to the New York metro desk ("NXL," in UPI shorthand). Gidget, who had climbed to the rank of NXL's day slot editor, would rapid-fire a rewrite. Sometimes Carr would message her back in the old cablese, signing off "73s" for "best regards."
Lou Carr probably didn't know his influence on two generations of reporters. His was a brusque manner of confidence building: an off-color comment if your story was good, a jab if it lacked, a sarcastic suggestion on how to fix it. But once you'd proven yourself to him, you knew he had your back, and the confidence this gave to young reporters trying to make it in the wire-service trenches carried through into the rest of their lives. He was a mentor. And when he wasn't being brusque, he had the kindest twinkling eyes, as though he were about to say something slightly wicked.
"Write what you know," he said in his last letter, and signed it "Uncle Lou."
I knew Lou Carr a little; he influenced me a lot. 73s, Lou. I don't know what road you're on, but I hope you'll file a story sometime soon. Love, Gidget (Comegys, NXL). -- Lee Comegys Chafee, of Providence, reported and edited for UPI in New York during the 1980s and is now a freelance writer.