Cover image for The last city room
The last city room
Martínez, Al.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.
Physical Description:
259 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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It's almost a tradition in the city room of The Herald for journalists to collapse at their desks, having worked, imbibed, and smoked themselves into the grave. On these occasions the behavior required by the dead man's erstwhile colleagues -- a group of cynical old news hounds with skin the color of faded newsprint-- is to applaud, simultaneously hailing their fallen comrade and signaling an opening in the city room. It is in this manner that William Colfax, an ambitious young reporter, earns a coveted position as a staff member of this long respected newspaper. Colfax accepts the offer mere minutes after his predecessor's body has been carted away.

The Last City Room depicts the decline of an influential newspaper in San Francisco during the turbulent early 60s. As the conservatism of the old guard, led by The Herald 's publisher and his bylined minions, clashes with the radical leaders ascending to power in the city, Colfax quickly realizes that the golden days of The Herald are long over. With his past threatening to ensnare him between the two warring factions, Colfax's struggle quickly becomes one of not simply proving himself as a reporter, but of maintaining his independence and integrity as a journalist.

The Last City Room is a provocative evocation of a time when the carefully modulated social fabric of the country was just beginning to show signs of uncertainty. It is a tribute to the end of a newspaper and the beginning of a new era.

Author Notes

Al Martinez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times , as well as a screenwriter and an author of books and national magazine articles. He shared a gold-medal Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in 1984 and was member of a staff that won Pulitzers in 1993 and 1995. He was honored two years ago by the Society of Professional Journalists as Journalist of the Year. He has also won two National Headliner Awards and a National Ernie Pyle Award. His work has been compared at various times both to that of Pyle and Mark Twain. The Last City Room is his first novel, he is currently at work on a second. His last book, City of Angles , was on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list for several weeks. Martinez lives with his wife, Joanne Cinelli, two dogs, two cats and several fish in the Santa Monica Mountains community of Topanga Canyon. He has three grown children and four grandchildren, all of whom he adores.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

As The Last City Room opens, in 1965, the once-great San Francisco Herald is a newspaper in serious decline. Aspiring reporter William Colfax joins the paper after a tour in Vietnam. He lands an "above the fold" byline on his first day covering the bombing of an FBI office by antiwar radicals. The ensuing public outrage dovetails with the extremely conservative beliefs of the newspaper's slightly unhinged publisher, Jeremy Stafford. As Stafford veers farther to the racist and anti-Semitic right, he loses both readers and advertisers, leading to budget cuts, layoffs, and labor unrest and sealing the newspaper's fate. Martinez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has an excellent ear for dialogue and an insider's knowledge of the workings of a major metropolitan newspaper. In true journalistic fashion, neither the right-nor the left-wingers come off particularly well. His characters, though, are too familiar, some of them seemingly transported directly from The Front Page and Lou Grant. Even so, there is much to enjoy in this novel, which will have its strongest appeal among journalism junkies and students of the 1960s. --George Needham

Publisher's Weekly Review

The turbulent politics of the 1960s hasten the demise of an old-fashioned San Francisco newspaper in this entertaining but hollow fiction debut from Los Angeles Times columnist Al Martinez (Dancing Under the Moon; City of Angles). Twenty-four-year-old Vietnam veteran William Colfax leaves a smalltown paper to join the staff of the San Francisco Herald just as the Herald begins its precipitous decline, ravaged by the clash between radical community leaders and the paper's reactionary publisher, Jeremy Lincoln Stafford III. His first night on the job, Colfax covers a bombing at the Federal Building. He goes on to make his reputation by following the career of Vito Minelli, a charismatic campus radical who masterminded the crime, finally winning a Pulitzer for his coverage of Berkeley activism. While Stafford attempts to recruit Colfax as a lieutenant in his personal crusade against moral decay, Minelli casts the stodgy Herald as a fascistic foil to aggrandize his own revolutionary rantings. Stafford only fuels the fire with the bombastic editorials he runs on the front page. Soon Colfax's colleagues begin to fall victim to the paper's dwindling circulation, as Colfax finds himself caught in the middle, groping for some balance of personal loyalty, integrity and professionalism. Martinez paints all of this with a broad brush, fashioning a lively melodrama. But the novel is peopled more with types than characters. If Colfax fails to take on much depth, despite rote recollections of a failed romance and his dysfunctional relationship with his father, the others remain mere cartoons. Nor is the well-worn '60s milieu seen from a fresh perspective in this largely forgettable drama of remembrance, likely to be of most interest to West Coast readers and journalism junkies. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



CHAPTER ONEWilliam Colfax, limping slightly, entered the city room of the Herald with the wariness of a cat, hesitating long enough to assure himself that something on the other side of the doorway wasn't going to get him. For a cat caution is instinctive, for Colfax it was a response conditioned by combat that would leave him eternally suspicious of whatever lay ahead. But there was something of a cat in him too. Despite the limp, he moved with a feline's canny grace and with an intensity that made him all the more noticeable as he passed by the rows of ancient wooden desks that lined a pathway from a back elevator to the interior of the newsroom, prowling slowly through the intermingling sounds of typewriters and telephones as though he were stalking a ghost. It was that quality you noticed first about the man. One looked up as he passed, aware of his presence alone among all the others who came and went, an intriguing stranger among the familiar. Trager noticed him too. The old copy chief, a perpetual scowl etched into his face, had a limp of his own, and as he passed Colfax limping in the opposite direction he studied him carefully, wondering if the stranger had somehow heard of his deformity and was mimicking him or if instead they shared a common malady. That wasn't the case. Colfax's was more a hesitation, while Trager's polio-induced stomp was an obvious limp-drag, a clump that gave his withered frame an angry forward thrust. Moving past the edge of rewrite, Colfax spotted the city desk just about the moment Gerald Burns, telephone in hand, noticed him and gestured for Colfax to come forward. Colfax tried a smile in response, but it didn't work and he scolded himself silently for even attempting it. He was not a smiling man, but rather somber for someone so young, and it gave him the kind of serious, important appearance women were especially attracted to, as though he bore an infinite responsibility no one else could possibly understand. On his mind at the moment, however, was not responsibility but a sense of shabbiness. He felt awkward in the outfit he'd bought specifically for this interview. The dark jacket and light slacks were wrong. Hadn't he worn something like this at his junior high graduation? His tassled loafers reminded him of a tap dancer's. For a moment Colfax thought of turning away quickly and returning to the safety of Edenville, where he had hidden himself for the past months among the trees and the mountains and a small daily newspaper only very few gave a rat's ass about. Two years in the Marines had deadened any sense of style he might have had and dulled his ability to survive in an urban society. Laura would have helped him once, laughing at his color-clashing outfits and loving him for it, but now she was gone and he was left with a junior high graduation suit, a tap dancer's shoes, and an emptiness he couldn't fill. Turning away, however, was out of the question. This was what his whole life was destined for, where he had always wanted to be. A fifth-grade teacher, a woman with short dark hair, a poet hiding in the mountains of Edenville, had ordained it. Colfax remembered her even to the faint, rosy glow of her face, leaning over him in a classroom that smelled faintly of pine and saying, "You will write someday." She had read his essays written in pencil on lined paper and she knew. She saw. And from that moment, he knew too. The city room wasn't what he'd expected of a newspaper that towered in his imagination. It smelled old and its dark wood paneling had been painted over a hundred times, adding a dull luster to its veneer. Bare fluorescent tubes hung from a high ceiling, adding a dimension of flatness to the sunlight that filtered into the room from a row of dusty windows looking onto Mission Street. Outside, the city's skies were heavy with dark clouds. Rain tapped at the windows. It was September in San Francisco. "Mr. Burns?" Colfax tried to make his voice sound even and his manner confident, but night patrols in the Mekong Delta had involved less strain. Burns was studying him curiously over the top of rimless glasses, smiling like a man about to play a huge trick on an unsuspecting victim. He was in his mid-fifties and slightly built. His white nylon shirt was buttoned at the top and his muted blue tie straight and even. Not a strand of his thinning sandy hair was out of place, in contrast to the dissarray that seemed to surround him. "Hi," Burns said in a voice that was disarmingly soft. "I'm William Colfax." Burns took his hand and shook it. There was an air of concentration about the city editor. It made Colfax uncharacteristically nervous, as though he were something very small and wiggly under a microscope. Adding to his discomfort was a knowledge of Burns's reputation. Henry Dustin had stood in absolute awe of the man, and when Colfax decided it was time to abandon the Edenville Messenger for something better, the Messenger's editor had urged him to go to the Herald, if only because that's where the legendary Gerald Burns presided. "I have some clips and a résumé," Colfax was saying, opening a manila folder he carried and looking around for a place to sit or be interviewed. None existed. Burns took the material and set it aside after glancing through it in a perfunctory manner. "Dustin says you're a good man," Burns said. "He vouches for you a thousand percent. That's a good vouch. Henry and I worked together on the old Bulletin. He doesn't belong in Podunkville. How old are you, William Colfax?" "Twenty-four," Colfax said. He was about to elaborate on his limited experience in newspapering--high school, some college, part-time at a throwaway, six months at the Messenger--when a commotion from the far side of the room caught his attention. Both men turned in time to see the approach of two medics pushing a gurney with someone on it. They wheeled toward double doors that led to the front lobby, and as they passed, Colfax could see it was a man on the gurney and instantly knew, by his gray skin and blue lips, that he was dead. Across the city room, reporters were standing, more out of respect than curiosity, and the noise that had filled the room was suddenly muted. Then one of them, a woman with a cigarette in her hand, began clapping, scattering ashes on the wooden floors and sending up a puff of smoke with each clap. Soon she was joined by others until the whole room was applauding in a slow, rhythmic cadence until the doors to the lobby swung shut and the gurney was out of sight. Only then did they resume their work and the pace of the room continue. Colfax, unnerved by the sudden appearance of death, turned questioningly to Burns. "That was Jonathan Blair," the city editor said. "This was his fifth heart attack and, as we have observed, his last." "Does the clapping mean something?" "It began a long time before I came. You clap for someone you like who dies at his desk. Later, they'll drink to him across the street and buy him a snort whenever they order a round." "What happens to the drink?" "Someone throws it down in his honor, then the glass is placed upside down on the bar. It's a tradition, you know? A drinker's last rites." "Jesus," Colfax said, still thinking about the face of the dead man. He couldn't remember ever having suffered a flashback to the war, but the thick, sweet smell of death was never far away. He could summon it with only the slightest concentration and it was filling his head now, taking him back to fields of bodies that lay in the humid sunshine. "He had a good life," Burns said, sensing Colfax's unease. "He knew he was going to die. And he'd have admired your timing, William Colfax. Thanks to Jonathan Blair's sudden departure, we have an opening on cityside. He covered chaos for us. Any kind of chaos. Are you good at chaos, William Colfax?" There was neither mockery nor false sympathy in Burns's voice. Only a trace of weariness hinted at the feelings he might have been experiencing. "We didn't have a lot of chaos in Edenville," Colfax said, drifting back from the aroma of the killing fields and trying to focus again on the business at hand. As he did, he suddenly realized that Burns was telling him he had the job. "You'll need a car," the city editor said. "You have a place to stay?" Without waiting for an answer or even expecting one, Burns rose, came around his desk, and said, "You've got to meet Stafford first." "Am I hired?" Colfax asked, trying to conceal his surprise at the speed with which it had occurred. It was a question he hadn't intended to ask, ringing with childlike anticipation. The moment demanded cooler tones. "If the man says you are, you are. He likes to think he's the one who builds the staff. He isn't." Burns led the way toward a half-glassed door next to the line of windows that eased in a mottled gray light. The woman who had led the applause for Jonathan Blair, a new cigarette in her mouth, looked up from her desk in annoyance as they passed, as though their mere proximity had dislodged a blossoming idea now lost forever. Burns returned a mock scowl. "That's Sally Bell," he said loud enough for her to hear. "Avoid her. She's carnivorous." Burns pushed the door open into a small inner office where a middle-aged secretary worked at a typewriter that was only slightly newer than the ones Colfax had observed on rewrite. "You getting any?" Burns said as he passed. "Never enough," she replied without looking up. Burns led Colfax across the room and into a larger office of rich oak paneling and thick dark carpeting. There were vertical blinds on the windows, books in cabinets that lined the walls, and a large, polished-wood desk in a half circle that filled a whole corner of the room. The American and a California flags flanked the desk, adding an air of officialdom to the office. There was also an aura of quiet intimacy in marked contrast to the city room's noisy disorganization. It took Colfax back to a glade in the woods he had often visited outside of Edenville to remind himself of who he had been before the war. On the desk an ornate gold and crystal nameplate announced that this was the domain of Jeremy Lincoln Stafford III. Above him, the mounted head of a lion, its teeth bared, looked down. Its expression was almost a smile. "This is William Colfax," Burns said. "He has no body odors and speaks adequately good English. Unless you find him otherwise offensive, I would like to hire him." Burns laid Colfax's clips-laden manila envelope on the desk. "He writes good too. I know his work." Stafford laughed loudly at Burns's introduction and strode around the desk like Teddy Roosevelt on a campaign trail. Colfax wondered briefly if Stafford had killed the lion himself. He was a large, red-faced man with the imposing bulk of a grizzly bear and the handshake of a wood clamp. As Burns left the room, Stafford motioned for Colfax to sit and returned to the high-backed leather swivel chair behind the desk. Colfax had done his homework and knew that Stafford was the third family publisher of the Herald from a genealogy that dated back to the city's gold-rush days. The newspaper was stolen by his antecedents from an elderly widow who made the mistake of trusting them to sell it for her. There was no sale. They took it the way a bully grabs crutches from a cripple, but they transformed it from a small waterfront journal into what it was today, an imposing champion of family values and a trustworthy disseminator of the day's news. "I like to meet those who wish to work for my family's newspaper," Stafford was saying in the formal stentorian voice of a man addressing a high school graduation. He was leaning forward across the large and meticulously organized desk and looking directly into Colfax's eyes. Having said that, he withdrew the résumé from the manila folder and studied it in silence. Much of the giddiness Colfax had felt entering the city room had vanished. Like a man committed to battle, he felt oddly at ease, his fate in the hands of a power beyond his control. There was no turning back. The lion's head over the desk seemed to nod. "I like the United States Marine Corps," Stafford finally said, isolating each word of the title. "I would sentence every rabble-rouser off the street to a term in the United States Marine Corps if I could. It would teach them discipline and loyalty to our country." "It would teach discipline, all right," Colfax said for lack of anything more profound, thinking of a drill instructor in boot camp who had beaten bloody a recruit, a Jew, he accused of being a Communist. The man had lain in a fetal position on the floor of the barracks during the beating, but no one would lift a hand to help him because they had been ordered to attention and the Corps had drilled them well in the conduct of obedience. The D.I. was court-martialed and transferred. The recruit was given a medical discharge. Aware that Stafford was waiting for him to continue, Colfax felt he ought to say something positive about his brief experience at war or, at the very least, sing a verse of "God Bless America." Instead, he nodded somberly and sat a little straighter in the hard-backed leather chair he occupied. There was something about straightness that implied sound values. His father never slumped and Colfax could see the angry old man standing as unbending as an I-beam on their porch in Edenville, hardened by prison, silenced by the emptiness of his life, looking toward the woods that sheltered the last memory of his wife. "We expect loyalty from our staff," the publisher was saying. "We're a family here. What affects one, affects all. We work together and sometimes play together. Our Christmas parties and Independence Day picnics are solid traditions. World Communism would take all that away from us, son." His voice dropped. "We've got to cling to it with all of our might!" A vision of Red Army troops parachuting into a company picnic flashed briefly through Colfax's mind, but he squelched it. This was no time for whimsy. His future was at stake. "You've done your part and I'm proud of that," Stafford said, his voice choking with genuine emotion, reaching across to shake Colfax's hand again, half pulling him out of the chair. Colfax felt the man would drag him across the desk, so deep and sudden was the outpouring of his gratitude. "Thank you, sir," Colfax said, finally sliding free of his grip. He felt the "sir" suddenly necessary. "There's a war going on out there, Mr...."--glancing again at the résumé--"Colfax." He paused suddenly. "Colfax. What is that?" Stafford's tone was intended to be matter-of-fact curiosity, but Colfax sensed something he couldn't quite put his finger on. "It's a mix. English, French, and Irish, I think. I'm Episcopalian." "Good, good," Stafford replied, glowing with relief. "Fine people, the Episcopalians." Colfax resisted the urge to say he considered himself an agnostic and hadn't been in a church in twenty years. Instead, he only nodded, suddenly experiencing the same kind of intense dislike for Stafford that he'd felt for the local preacher when he was a kid, keeping his distance from the man for reasons emerging from instinct rather than reason. "You know," the publisher said, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial tone, "there's a war going on out there, Mr. Colfax. Not across the ocean. Here, in our own backyard. The Communists can't beat us on the battlefield so they're finding different methods." He let that sink in. "Methods we've all got to be aware of or we'll perish, Mr. Colfax. We'll die like dogs in the street, and newspaper people will be the first to go." Colfax caught himself staring at the publisher in open disbelief, but changed his expression quickly to one of intense interest. "I understand." "Good! Well, we're proud of what you've done to help your country and we expect good things from you here, Mr. Colfax!" As suddenly as Stafford's emotional gratitude appeared, it vanished. "Mr. Burns will handle the rest," he said, abruptly turning to paperwork. "Thank you," Colfax said. "I appreciate that." He felt he ought to end the conversation with a salute or a bow, but instead watched for a microsecond as Stafford lowered his head to concentrate on a story he appeared to be editing. The lion's head on the wall seemed similarly preoccupied. Colfax had turned to leave when Stafford's voice, still stentorian, rose from the man at the desk, who continued hunched over his work. The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. "Do you have a suit?" "Well... yes." "We require our reporters to wear suits." "All right." "Good." Nothing else was said. Colfax returned to the city room, where Burns waited, still wearing the amused smile. "Do you love America?" Burns asked. Colfax nodded. "I love it even more now," he said, grateful for the man's sense of humor. "You find him a little strange?" Colfax shrugged noncommittally. "He's always been... different," Burns said, "but he's gotten even more... different... since his wife died. She was his balance." "How'd she die?" "Her heart stopped." Burns smiled as he said it, the same kind of secret, muted smile he wore when he first met Colfax. It said he knew something. It said he'd keep it to himself. Colfax received it with a nod that accepted its ambiguity without further question. "We have a deal with the hotel across the street," the city editor said. "You can stay there for two weeks free until you get a check and can rent your own place." "That's fine with me." "Did he tell you to wear a suit?" "He did." "You don't have to. But shower regularly. Stafford likes his people clean. Start tomorrow. Six A.M." Burns extended a hand. "Welcome to the ruins. By the way," he added, "you're going to be handling some student demonstrations in Berkeley. They've got antiwar rallies going on, and they're raising noisier hell every day." Pause. "You were wounded?" "Some shrapnel. I can handle it." "Yes... I'm sure you can." Burns turned away to say something to a scowling Trager, who had walked up behind him. Colfax, thus dismissed, headed for the door. As he did, he noticed a woman near Stafford's office watching him limp across the room. She was young, strikingly beautiful, and had the straight, flaxen-blond hair that illuminated the era. The interest in her expression was obvious. Colfax smiled slightly, but in the moment it took her to appear, she was gone into Stafford's office. He felt light-headed as he left the Herald Building, absorbing the elation as though it were some kind of odd and compelling energy filling him to the point of flight. It had been a strange and unsettling morning, from the body on the gurney to the meeting with the George Patton of newspapering, a test of both his wit and his tenacity. He felt a surge of pride for having endured, the way he'd felt when he stepped on American soil again for the first time in eight months. He had come through it, by God. He had weathered the war... or in this case the interviews. Now it was on with his life. This was where he wanted to be. As he crossed the street toward the Mission Hotel, ducking against a light rain, he turned to look back at the high brick tower of the Herald, thrust arrogantly upward from the main portion of the building. For a moment, Colfax had the strange impression that the tower was giving him the finger. It was a sign he wasn't taking lightly.Across the bay in Berkeley, Vito Minelli was mounting a platform at U.C.'s Sather Gate before a small crowd of students bearing antiwar signs. It was late afternoon on a day softened by gentle rain. Minelli's voice, amplified to the limit of its decibels by a public address system, stabbed into the softness with the intensity of a bayonet. "No more war!" he cried. "No more fucking war!" The year was 1965. Excerpted from Last City Room by Al Martinez All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.