As thankless jobs went, writing for the Santa Rosa newspapers must have ranked high. Reporters and columnists rarely had bylines in the early 20th century; only the names of the editor/publisher (Ernest L. Finley at the Press Democrat, and Allen B. Lemmon at the Santa Rosa Republican) appeared on editorial mastheads, along with their city editors (Herb Slater and J. Elmer Mobley, respectively). Those who harbored ambitions of being the next Mark Twain or Finley Peter Dunne or Upton Sinclair had the bitter solace of a small paycheck and the satisfaction of reading their precious prose in print, albeit after it was thoroughly mangled by that semi-literate oaf of a copy editor.
Aside from editorial cartoonists, only gossip columnists had some measure of recognition and freedom. Long a staple in the big city papers, the Republican introduced a gossip column in 1905 and was ridiculed by the Press Democrat for what it called, “Sussiety news,” although the PD followed suit a year later with its own “Society Gossip” column. Written under the pseudonym of “Dorothy Anne” (real name now lost, but her identity surely was well known at the time), she was an insufferable snoot who fawned over Luther Burbank and wrote catty remarks about those in her own social circle. If Dorothy Anne were alive today, she would be blasting out snarky tweets complaining that the other residents of the nursing home just bored her to tears.
By 1908 the “women’s section” in both papers settled down to mundane reviews of mundane lodge dances, weddings, and card parties. At the Republican, however, the column still flashed occasional sparks. Now dubbed “Pencil Gatherings Among the Social And Other People” (it would later be called the even more irreverent “Unclassified News of the Social and Other Things”), the author(s) sometimes took a good-natured swipe at the rival PD, Santa Rosa’s morning newspaper:
A lady correspondent asks: “A morning paper, speaking of a dancing party, mentions ‘the lady patronesses.’ Why the modifying adjective to the noun?”
I don’t know.
In “Pencil Gatherings” that year appeared the funniest item (well, intentionally funny) I’ve yet found in these papers: An account of an “up-town citizen” dropping by the newsroom for a “nice, long, social visit” with a harried editor. Likely it was a composite portrait of many such annoying visitors, and I couldn’t read this without thinking of Major Hoople, a pompous blowhard who was the central character in the popular “Our Boarding House” newspaper comic after WWI. Hoople was a bit like the characters played by W. C. Fields, minus the likability. He was always boasting of some great achievement in his past or a get-rich-quick scheme underway, and rarely without a lit cigar in his hand; the Major’s trademark was distressing throat-clearing sounds (probably caused by his cheap stogies) such as “faugh”, “awp”, and “fuf-f-ff-f-s-s-sputt-t”. I can easily imagine Hoople perched there on the end of a desk fully believing that he’s holding court, while heads were bent low over the typewriters and fingers furiously banged on the keys, hoping against hope that he’d take the hint and walk across the street to bother the guys at the Press Democrat instead.
(RIGHT: A 1927 panel from “Our Boarding House” reprinted in a fine paperback edition from Algrove Publishing.)
“Mr. Society Man,” said an up-town citizen the other day, as he settled himself on the edge of my desk for a nice, long, social visit. “I hear they are a-goin’ to have a bench show.” I continued writing and he continued talking.
“Now, I like a good dog,” said he, “though I never had one; and would like to see a string of fine bow-wows line up for prizes. If I had a decent dog I’d put him in and win all the blue ribbons, by jimminy, I would. Say, if any of the ladies who are gittin’ up this fair want any help. I’ll be on hand. Awful fine dog up our way, on King street. Great Dane–bigger’n a mule, and he has a chum, a stubby little English pug–nose smashed all over his face–thoroughbred–his father was kenneled at Windsor Castle–Queen Victoria brought him up by hand. Haven’t got a cigar about you, have you?”
I hadn’t, and kept on writing and he went on talking.
“Them two dogs is a team. One big, ‘tother little. Society would just go wild over them. ‘Nother feller up on College avenue has a Spitz–long white whiskers all over him; famous breed, too. His sire help haul a sled clear through the northwest passage from Baffins Bay to Bering Sea. I, I’m some on dogs. Got a match?”
I had no match and went on with my work without a break, and he did the same with his statements.
“I would like to take the contract to round up the stray ki-yis for the pound man,” said he, putting the unlighted cigar stub in his pocket. “Up our way I have registered about 4000 cur dogs running untagged and untaxed. If a man in this town has a good dog, he is taxed for the privilege of keeping the canine. If the dog is worthless, it doesn’t cost him a bean. So you see, it pays to have a durned mangy cur slinking around nightly, raiding the neighbor’s slop cans. A feller over other side of the College park has three half-starved dogs and I have been keepin them alive for months. By jinks, they just live in my back yard. This ain’t a nature fake story. I’m going up to the council some night and set in banc with the city attorney, and we’ll get out the doggondest dog ordinance–one that no superior judge’ll knock out, durned if we don’t. We’ll just load the treasury with dog tax money. We’ll patch the holes in all the streets, have a public park for every ward and provide Frank Muther with plate glass fire boxes so the lightning won’t get in ’em stormy nights and blow the corks–I mean plugs out. Got a Kansas City paper ‘mong that pile of exchanges over there?”
Nobody went to see, and the citizen resumed: “By George, I’m awful glad to see they’re goin’ to have a bench show and encourage good dogs in the town and pay license on them. A place that can get up such thoroughbreds as Anteeo, Lou Dillon and Sonoma Girl should raise better bow-wows. Say give me a paper. I don’t know whether I got mine last night or not.”– Santa Rosa Republican, January 18, 1908