“At its best,” wrote Mike Johnson’s friend on the Sun, Robert Wilder, during the war, “ship news reporting was something of an anachronism, but it flourished, expanding into daily features in the New York press for the same reason that Hollywood film magazines clutter the bureau drawers of housemaids.”
It was news of the liners and their glamorous passengers that sold the maritime columns. As Wilder described his work routine, “[O]n almost any morning, a little knot of men gathered at seven o’clock on the Coast Guard pier of South Ferry, waiting for the cutter which took them to their jobs down the bay where incoming ships dropped anchor off the Quarantine Station of Rosebank, Staten Island.” There the corps of reporters and photographers would climb aboard the “transatlantic expresses,” the Mauretania, the Bremen, the Ile de France, and wait in lush press rooms for first crack at disembarking celebrities. But the waterfront reporter’s daily experience had at least as much to do with lesser known characters of the docks, the bargemen, cargo handlers, canal folk or tugboat pilots whose lives and pronouncements were often more interesting. Between boardings, Robert Wilder sharpened his writer’s chops profiling the members of the East River Chowder Club, ‘Battery Bill’ the Whitehall Boatman, or a canal veteran called Pookey, who’d once seen a snorting, cow-headed sea serpent swim the East River.
Wilder was not much longer for the reporter’s life when he published his splendid collection of pieces from his waterfront years, Out of the Blue: The Informal Diary of a Reporter (G.P. Putnam’s, 1943). (He would escape the Sun when Hollywood bought his second novel Flamingo Road, which became a vehicle for Joan Crawford to play a small-town Southern dancer.) His waterfront pieces veer between the well-wrought character studies perfected by his contemporary river men, Joe Mitchell and Meyer Berger, and a harder, more cinematic style: Describing the lack of fresh stories reaching his city room during the pre-dawn hours, he tolls off the enviable ones he’s missed that night, “Long since has a drunken dock walloper staggered up the carpetless steps to a flat on the West Side and kicked the teeth down the throat of his blowsy wife. Hours ago a pasty-faced, feverish-eyed punk walked into an uptown bar and grill and, with his fingers twitching on the butt of a cheap revolver, blasted the life out of three men before they had the chance to get their hands up.” Wilder’s prose sometimes soars into heaving metaphor, but for its author’s appreciation of both the low and the fancy, the sea stories of Battery Bill or the Scotch served neat aboard the Queen Mary, his is my favorite of the waterfront accounts.
Nearly eighty years after it first appeared, the most famous work of dock reportage is still Max Miller’s account of the ship reporter’s life in San Diego, I Cover the Waterfront (Dutton, 1932). Unlike Robert Wilder’s work, it remains in print. Miller begins with a self-deprecating portrait of himself as an old man of 28 who has so far failed to make a novel from the garbage boat skippers, tug pilots, sardine fishermen, and Navy divers he regularly turns into newspaper features in his studio above the tugboat office.
If Miller’s work were in fact a novel, you’d wonder why nothing sinister ever happens on his Western waterfront, where he’s known and liked by all, and the worst threat to his raffish paradise seems to be the discovery of his favorite swimming cove by outsiders. Miller has no explanation for hanging on so long in his scruffy job, still making the same waterfront rounds after six years (“I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me.”). But the charms of his work are obvious, whether going along on expeditions to Guadalupe Island to trap new elephant seals for the San Diego zoo or boarding liners from New York to stalk Jack Dempsey or Charlie Chaplin. Of the celebrity part of his job, Miller claims, “They are but shadows to me, shadows which arrive and disappear, shadows which would mean utterly nothing to me except for the aura of publicity given them elsewhere by others.”
Miller’s book of waterfront adventures became a Depression bestseller and inspired impressionable readers such as W.C. Heinz to seek a life in newspapers. Whether or not they’ve ever held a copy in their hands, most people still know the title I Cover the Waterfront and the song that followed (added to the movie version the next year). But when Billie Holliday sings about watching the dark horizon from “the desolate docks,” it isn’t a lament about marine reporting.