Aug. 13, 2001
They told me Ted Thackrey was dead, and I said yeah, sure, right. They said he had written his last 1,000 words with the kind of blazing speed that characterized his kamikaze style, and when he'd finished, he just closed his eyes and died. I said tell me another one and went back to work.
But then, as it happened, I discovered this Thackrey story was true. There was an obit in the small weekly newspaper where he once worked and then a memorial service. Even Thackrey wouldn't have gone that far, pretending to be dead, then popping up somewhere after all the tears and rituals were over.
It would be hard even for Ted to fake his own cremation. He was dead all right.
When I became convinced of it, I began thinking back to the guy who, if you'll forgive the arrogance of my conclusion, was newspapering's last great rewrite man. A hard drinker, a storyteller of the Baron Munchausen school and a man who wrote faster than a hurricane in hell, he defined a breed of journalists that no longer exists.
They were the ones who rarely left the office and whose bylines you didn't often see. They took notes over the phone from reporters in the field, shaped them into tight, readable stories in the chaotic final seconds before deadline, then went back to smoking and complaining until the phone rang again.
They were right out of "Front Page."
Thack worked here for a lot of years, terrifying young reporters even as he tutored them, demanding no less from himself than he did from them. He was known to simply hang up on lazy beginners who came to him with incomplete information and quietly praise those he couldn't intimidate. He was part of a rewrite row that included guys like Jack Jones, Dick West, Jerry Cohen and acid-tongued Jerry Belcher, the quickest wit south of San Francisco. I was part of the crew until I drifted off to other pursuits, leaving the frantic last-minute stuff to the guys who loved it.
"They wrote with grace and language," a former editor says of them. "They were fast, but they were literate. A Ted Thackrey doesn't exist anymore."
Thack and I shared the same desk for years. I'd use it during the day and he'd take over at night. We wrote, in those pre-computer days, on Remingtons that were old when I got there in '72 and broke down when you needed them most. After everyone had gone home at night, Ted would cannibalize other typewriters in the office and steal their parts in order to make ours the fastest, loosest and most efficient machine of all.
Stories about the man, a big, bald, wry kind of guy, are the stuff of make-believe. One has Ted contributing to the creation of a fictitious character they named Victor Frisbee in the old L.A. Examiner. An inside joke, Frisbee would pop up in stories as the eternal bystander, sometimes a sportsman, sometimes a philanthropist. When the Ex folded, a brief, front-page piece said simply, "Victor Frisbee, sportsman and philanthropist, died today."
Rewrite guys were a different breed. They yelled a lot and drank a lot and had bursts of temper that were legendary. Thackrey could slam-dunk a typewriter into a wastebasket in a fight with an editor and roar at slow or clumsy reporters in a voice that rattled windows. West, built like a bull, could, and occasionally did, express himself by knocking someone on his can when the mood took him, as fast with his fists as he was with a typewriter. Belcher could attack editors with the fury of a tiger shark, leaving them emotionally dead, then go back to writing the cleanest stories I've ever read in a newspaper.
When he wasn't setting a Remington afire with his awesome writing speed or teaching lessons in newspaper prose, Thack was a storyteller with a soaring imagination. According to him, he'd been a pilot with the Royal Air Force in World War II, a soldier in both the Korean and Biafran wars, a government agent in Vienna and an airline pilot in Southeast Asia.
In between, or so he always said, he'd been Ernest Hemingway's secretary and sparring partner, a phone psychic, a kind of ghost-buster and a pastor. He also wrote novels, short stories and may, or may not, have written one of the best science-fiction pieces ever, called "Arena." He churned out 1,000 words a day on his own, right up until two days before he died of cancer at age 82. Or maybe 84.
We never knew which of his many lives were real, concluding somewhere along the way that no one person could have lived them all. His widow, Diana, says she knew that most of his stories were true but wasn't sure about some of the others.
We'll have to settle for that, I guess. Sometimes his penchant for fiction crept into his news stuff, and it was ultimately the reason for his leaving The Times. He tried to create another Victor Frisbee at the wrong time, in the wrong place. As we said goodbye, this giant of rewrite row, humbled by his own deed, said simply, "It's a lousy way to end a career."
The program at Thack's memorial service listed his name as Thedor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Thackera Olwyn von Refrau und zu Holsten. Maybe there were two Thackreys, one of them Ted, who loved newspapering and reigned over rewrite as its once and future king, and the long-named guy who, like Baron Munchausen, told one story too many. It doesn't matter. Not really. The Thack I knew was unique to an era of journalism that exists only in the memories of those of us who were there.
Ted Thackrey is truly dead, but the legend lives. He is survived by us all.