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Ink in Their Blood

New books consider two famous Americans and their newspaper roots.

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There was a time when reporters went by the handle "newspapermen." And although the gender bias may offend modern standards, at least the term is free of the self-aggrandized bloat that today's preferred moniker--"journalist"--carries.

But that was a long time ago, back when America's urban readers could turn to as many as a half-dozen local dailies. It made for cutthroat competition, and some of the nastiest players elbowed their way to the front of the line by applying a fast-paced, not-for-the-squeamish reporting style that turned up the notch on fact-gathering and lurid details. It may irritate our sensibilities now--when it is commonplace to look down on the more tawdry aspects of yellow journalism--but the tabloids of the early 20th century breathed new life into a slumbering newspaper industry and made a good proving ground for a lot of talented people.

Although they were born a generation apart, essayist, editor and national irritant H.L. Mencken and pulp novelist and populist filmmaker Sam Fuller were both products of that jaundice-tinted era in the news game.

They were worlds apart in their sensibilities, but two recent books suggest that both men did share some common ground. They both bucked their parents' wishes and became copyboys in their teens and crime reporters before their 20th birthdays. Mencken covered Baltimore, while Fuller worked for the New York Graphic. They hustled for scoops and rubbed shoulders with cops, criminals and other unsavory types and their hard-knocks training overshadowed the rest of their celebrated lives.

According to Terry Teachout's entertaining The Skeptic, Mencken loved the news game, but he wanted more than to be merely a reporter within the boundaries of Baltimore (although he had no interest in moving away from his hometown; he lived most of his life in the same house where he spent his boyhood). By 1903--at age 23--the hard working Mencken bypassed his veteran colleagues and was named city editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun. While working that desk, he also wrote regular columns and co-founded his own aristocratic magazine.

And it was his snooty and oftentimes unpleasant opinions that brought Mencken fame. By the mid-1920s, his scathing, erudite essays, which zeroed-in on hypocrisy and fakery in the arts and politics, helped shape the national agenda.

(Mencken was not above a little hypocrisy himself. Teachout suggests, for instance, that Mencken wildly championed novelist Theodore Dreiser not because he was so impressed with the writer, but rather because Mencken needed a literary lion to hitch his wagon to. Indeed, one of the funniest segments in the book is when Teachout considers just what a dreadful hack Dreiser truly was.)

Meanwhile, Sam Fuller's newspaper roots also put him on the path to fame as well, but in a much different arena.

Fuller gave up the news game to write pulp novels in the late 1930s and later served overseas during World War II, where he was decorated. He then found work in Hollywood as a screenwriter and eventually began directing a solid string of tough action movies that carried his own unique brand of tabloid-influenced storylines.

And like Mencken, his best work confronted hypocrisy head-on.

The Naked Kiss, from 1964, may be Fuller's finest movie as well as a good example of his sensationalist training applied to celluloid. The movie tells the story of a former prostitute snubbed by society. She tries to go straight, only to discover that her Ward Cleaver-like husband is really a pedophile. She reacts to this discovery by beating him to death.

It's the sort of movie that the old Hollywood pushed onto the back burner, but future filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, later discovered and celebrated.

A Third Face is Fuller's autobiography, full of breezy writing, funny anecdotes and wild tales, some too tall to believe. Fuller's work on the book prior was cut short by his 1997 demise. It was his widow who finished the project on his behalf.

Like the Mencken biography, A Third Face reveals a subject who can be hard to take at times, but who operates with a bulldog-like ferocity that can no doubt be traced back to his roots as a newspaperman.

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