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Voices--Eric Malnic

June 5, 2008 |  6:00 am

Above, one of the more curious aspects of the Robert F. Kennedy shooting: The search for the "Girl in the Polka Dot Dress."

By Eric Malnic
Special to The Times

1968_0608_polkadot02 Things were busy in the Times newsroom on primary election night in June 1968, and a lot of people were shuffled around to fill in the gaps.

Bud Lembke, from the San Francisco bureau, was down in Los Angeles to cover the anticipated victory of Robert F. Kennedy.   Bill Drummond, a cityside reporter who normally worked general assignment, was on night rewrite.

They needed someone to work the night city desk.  Nothing ever happens on primary election night.  Why not try some kid who had never worked the desk before?  I was that kid.

Shortly before midnight, Drummond was catching the last notes from Lembke, who was at the Ambassador, where Kennedy had just finished his victory speech.   All the top brass --  City Editor Bill Thomas, Managing Editor Frank Haven and their cohorts -- were in Haven's corner office, already enjoying the bourbon that was always broken out after election night was in the bag.

Drummond, who was seated opposite and facing me, suddenly looked up, straight at me, and shouted, "Kennedy's been shot!"

It was less than five years after JFK had been assassinated, and Drummond's shout sounded like a pathetic and totally inappropriate attempt at humor.

"Kennedy's been shot!" Drummond shouted again, his voice cracking and choked with emotion that made it clear he wasn't kidding.

I jumped up and dashed into Haven's office.

"Kennedy's been shot!" I yelled.

They looked at me as though I was clearly nuts.

"Kennedy's been shot!" I yelled again, and they knew it was true.

There was a silence that lasted a long second or two, and then Haven spoke.   "Tell them to stop the presses," he said quietly.

In my 47 years at the paper, it was the only time I ever heard anyone utter that phrase.

Haven strolled calmly out into the city room and started barking orders. Grabbing a pencil from the totally overwhelmed overnight editor, Bob Hoenig, who was supposed to be drafting plans for the normally scheduled "9 a.m. Final" edition, Haven deftly sketched out a dummy for a new version of the main "Home" edition, which was now on hold.  "Right here is where we'll put the picture, if we get one," Haven said.

Ten minutes later, someone dashed in with film that Boris Yaro had shot in the pantry at the Ambassador. "Boris said to tell you that he didn't have a flash," someone else said.

The film was given to Bill Murphy, a photographer who was a master craftsman at the arts of developing and printing.  Murphy came out of the lab moments later with a negative that looked like a plate of window glass.  Haven groaned.

Mumbling incantations and reaching into a bag of tricks that dated back to medieval witchcraft, Murphy returned to the lab.  Ten minutes later, he emerged with the print that marked Yaro's career.

In the turmoil that followed, a lot of people changed jobs.  I ended up working the city desk for the next 12 years.
Note: In response to my question about how long he worked at The Times, Eric writes:

That simple question results in a complex answer:

I started working for The Times as a copyboy in the summer of 1957.  I was considered a part-time employee.

I returned as a copyboy in the summer of 1958, being made a full-time employee in August 1958.  That is the date they used to compute my pension.

I was drafted into the Army in January 1959, and -- thanks to Kennedy -- my military service was extended until June 1962. The law then required The Times to give me my old job back, complete with any raises that I might have accrued during my military service.

In late June 1962, I returned to The Times as a copyboy.  In July 1962, I was made a reporter.  I worked both as a reporter and an editor until January 2006, when I retired.

You figger it out.