By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2023 – As my wife Mary Riche has reported elsewhere, we recently spent five days in New York City – an experience that was my gift for her 75th birthday. It was as fabulous as you might imagine. We saw “Music Man” and “Funny Girl” on Broadway. We toured inspiring museums. We had exceptional meals at grand restaurants. We even enjoyed learning and riding the subways!
You can read Mary’s column about it all on our website Offenburger.com by clicking on this link.
Now, for the rest of my own column here, I want to put you in the Way Back Machine, as the cartoon character Mr. Peabody used to refer to flashbacks on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” That was popular on TV back in the era which I’m taking you to here: 1978.
Back then, one of my bosses was Jim Gannon, the editor of the Des Moines Register, where I was in my second year of writing the “Iowa Boy” column. He called me into his office and asked, “Ever been to New York City?”
“I didn’t think so. I want you to go in there, spend a week doing whatever you want, then come home and write about it.”
He mentioned my whining in a mid-October column about how the previous weekend, the Register had flown five sportswriters to college football games of interest from coast to coast and nearly from border to border. In that same week, I wrote, I’d traveled by car for columns in What Cheer, Milford, Protivin and Audubon, or such places around the state.
“So let’s see what you can do in the Big Apple,” Gannon said.
Views of the skyline moved Mary Riche and me as much in 2023 as they first did for me in 1978.
I spent a few days making arrangements, and off I flew to New York City.
In my first column in the series we named “Iowa Boy: Taking A Bite Of The Big Apple,” I wrote how on my most recent trip in Iowa, I’d stayed at the Wise Owl Motel outside Atlantic, where the overnight rate was $16. Now here I was staying in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the heart of Manhattan. (If you’re wondering, the overnight rate for the Waldorf’s cheapest-in-the-house room I booked was $63. Yes, it was a long time ago.)
It was a dream assignment, probably the most fun one of my career. The Register didn’t even wince at the total, week-long tab I rang up: Just over $1,100. (Ditto on the it-was-a-long-time-ago.)
But it almost makes me sad now writing about it. Sending a feature columnist out on a lark like that today would not, could not, happen at the Des Moines Register, given how economically embattled the newspaper industry is. But back then, the bosses had the luxury of authorizing just that kind of thing. They trusted that there’d be value in producing a week’s worth of entertaining columns for the readers of Iowa, and in what the experience might do for me.
Here’s how the first column began: “NEW YORK, N.Y. – Oh, Momma!
“Fifteen minutes west of here by air – somewhere over New Jersey – I looked down from the jet window. And doggoned if an old country ‘Wow!’ didn’t slip out before I could collar it. It was my first wow of my first trip to this Big Apple, this Gotham, this incredible New York – and I wasn’t even here yet… But the population density that was building below as the jet moved east was hitting me harder. The point was being delivered with the force of a haymaker on a glass jaw: This was not just another trip to Omaha.
“I began bracing as best I could, not for landing, but for an assault on the senses,” I continued. “I should have started sooner. The plane swept around the south end of Manhattan Island, giving a stunning view of downtown and the Statue of Liberty. It’s a sight described accurately by Jack Cafferty, a former TV newsman in Des Moines who’s moved on to success here, as one that ‘makes the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up when you see it for the first time.’
“We landed at La Guardia Airport. Within an hour, my gee-whizzer was suck wide-open, and it remained that way during the rest of the most eye-opening week of my life.”
I was 31 then. I’m 75 now and have been to New York a half-dozen times. It still hits me just that way: Wow!
But the ’78 trip was certainly one I’ll never forget.
In that week, I:
–Spent a morning and early afternoon walking and talking The City with the legendary Mayor Ed Koch, which I had help arranging from Tom Harkin, then a U.S. Congressman from Iowa who in his first term in the House had become pals with Koch.
–Visited longshoreman Joey Calabria on the docks of Manhattan, just because I’d never met a longshoreman before, and then spent the evening with Joey and his family on Staten Island to find out how average folks coped with living and working in New York.
–Spent a day hanging out with students and teachers at Jamaica High School in the borough of Queens to experience what life is like in a huge public high school in New York.
–Saw my first-ever opera performance – it was “Rigoletto” – at the Metropolitan Opera, where the PR staff had finagled me a center-row seat. Of special note, I sat next to a Prussian diplomat, who attended wearing a tuxedo complete with cape. And he turned out to be a helluva good guy!
–Visited one afternoon with the aforementioned Jack Cafferty, who’d quickly become a star anchor of the local news on WNBC, the flagship station of the NBC-TV network, after moving from WHO-TV in Des Moines seven months earlier. When I asked him if his big move into the bright lights had challenged him. “Hell yes, I was scared!” he said.
–Walked out of the Waldorf-Astoria one late morning to see U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young walking right toward me, surrounded by aides and security guards. Some of you may remember that my late brother Tom Offenburger was Young’s press secretary for years – during Young’s positions as a Congressman, Ambassador and Mayor of Atlanta. Alas, Tom was traveling elsewhere on that morning in New York. Without thinking, I stepped right toward the ambassador, reached my hand out and yelled, “Andy!” Before I could say anything else, the security guards jumped toward me. Thank goodness Young recognized me when he looked up. “He’s O.K.!” he yelled to the guards, then adding: “He’s Tom’s little brother.” Then he shook hands with me, smirked and said, “So, what are you doing here, Offenburger? Are you still working for that fish wrapper in Des Moines?” We had a good quick visit before his entourage swept him into the hotel to speak at a luncheon.
–Shook hands with football legend Joe Namath when the two of us wound up in an elevator together in the Waldorf. He was just-retired then from pro football but doing game commentary on TV. He was still living the glow as “Broadway Joe,” a nickname he earned after leading the New York Jets to a Super Bowl championship. He was wearing a long fur coat over a pair of Bermuda shorts as we rode the elevator down. I remember one of his knees being about twice normal size, from all the battering he’d taken. We shook hands and he asked where I was from. I told him we were both “SEC guys” – he an Alabama alumnus and I a Vanderbilt guy – and that I was now writing for the Des Moines Register. “Well, I know a little about Iowa,” he said with a smile. He’d recently had a five-year relationship with Randi Oakes, a super model then in the New York fashion scene, a native of Randalia in northeast Iowa. Right then the elevator door opened and Namath walked away. The potential interview ended before I could start it.
–And in what was probably the highlight of my trip, had a surreal evening with New York’s reigning “Beautiful People” – or “BPs” as they were often called then in the local gossip columns – at a lavish “book launching” party.
I had read that the pre-Christmas promotion and sales season was critical for book publishers, and that many would be celebrating new books with splashy parties, inviting a crowd of celebrities and hoping to get some media attention for their authors. So before I went to New York, I called some press reps at the publishing companies, asked if they had any notable book launchings scheduled during my time in the city, and boldly asked if I could attend to see what such parties were really like.
I lucked into publicist Suzanne DeVito at Doubleday & Co. “If someone calls me up and says he writes an ‘Iowa Boy’ column in The Des Moines Register,” she said, “well, I want him at my party!”
DeVito said Doubleday was having a launching for a new book “James Jones: A Friendship,” by then well-known Mississippi writer and journalist Willie Morris. Jones was the author who had written “From Here to Eternity,” “The Thin Red Line” and other hits. Morris and Jones, who had recently died, had been great friends.
Morris, then 43, turned out to be another genuinely nice person – I seemed to be a magnet for them on my New York adventure. When we were introduced and started talking, he scanned the crowd of people arriving and said, “I’m usually not a big one for these literary things. But this one is okay because most of these people are my friends. Sometimes, though, you’ve got to come to these deals with your built-in B.S. detector activated.”
A few minutes later, when the fancy reception room located a couple floors above a Doubleday-owned Manhattan bookstore was filling up, Morris told me: “Well, the first team is here tonight.”
Indeed they were.
In my follow-up column in the Register, I reported that the crowd of about 50 included novelists Norman Mailer, William Styron, Irwin Shaw, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Wilfred Sheed; lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden and Green’s wife actress Phyllis Newman; CBS sports commentator Jack Whitaker; publishing boss Nelson Doubleday; renowned book editors Stewart Richardson and Burroughs Mitchell; acclaimed historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his wife Alexandra, whom I wrote was “a frosted-blonde who is a head taller than he is”; CBS-TV news commentator Shana Alexander, and – my fave – actress Lauren Bacall.
Bacall was 58 then, and I wrote that she “is still awfully easy on a fellow’s eyes.” I didn’t stop there. “She’s the first woman ever to make me think, ‘If only I was a few years older…’ ” Oh my.
Lauren Bacall, from early in her career — an image of her that many of us still remember. (Pinterest photo)
Of course, I made sure to get around the room and talk to almost all of them. And it surprised me how open and welcoming they were, and curious about me, the Des Moines Register and what was happening then out in Iowa.
The BPs, it seemed to me, had earned their stardom.
That whole Big Apple adventure, so long ago, probably was important to my development as a writer and columnist, as I think about it now.
It gave me a good measure of confidence about going to places and events I’d never been before, hobnobbing with accomplished people I did not know, and somehow getting them to open up and share their stories.
And for that I’ll always be grateful to my ol’ bosses Michael Gartner, Jim Gannon, Randy Evans and a few others, and to the Des Moines Register.
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