How the Maharaja disrobed New York media

E.R. RAMACHANDRAN forwards a fine example of how thoroughbred news hounds checked facts and did background checks in the era of before Google.


Publisher Whitlaw Reid had just lost a power struggle to his brother, Brownie Reid–later to become a New York congressman–and the Tribune staff was mourning the switch from what it considered class to what it almost universally regarded as low class. But advertising and circulation were falling and the effort was clearly a last ditch attempt to increase both.

The first day of Brownie’s reign—at the very last moment with no time for planning or checking or thought—he decided to test a brand new fish-eye camera lens by using it to shoot the opening of the first Cinemascope movie: “The Robe.”

The lens, a technical marvel at the time, could capture the image of the empire state building spire from its base, unheard of at that time.

A public relations firm had called The Trib and asked if it was interested in covering the maharaja of a famous Indian province who was attending the opening of “The Robe” wearing a white turban and tuxedo with his trademark red beard. He would, the PR man said, be accompanied by his harem of 11 beautiful Indian women wearing see-through veils, among other delectables.

Brownie bit. He ordered one of his photographers, Mel Thomas, to shoot the assignment and for the first time in Trib history, also ordered editors to run the photos in a two-page double truck picture spread.

That’s old-time journalese for a two-page spread in which some of the same pictures run from one page to the other, across “the gutter” usually dividing them. The old Journal American, a Hearst newspaper, ran one every day. The Tribune had never done so; its editors considered it the worst kind of over-the- top, tabloid journalism.

But the last minute assignment was put into motion. Thomas shot a number of appealing photos of the maharaja and his wives getting out of two Rolls Royces and strolling up a shiny red carpet to the Broadway theater where “The Robe” was opening amidst zigzagging, overhead searchlights and scores of celebrities.

It was felt the fish-eye lens would be a good meld with the cinemascope debut.

The early bird edition of the Trib captured the moment for the ages. The presses rolled. There was the Maharaja of Barata and his harem, in all their glory.

Now, one of the Tribune’s most meticulous–and feared–editors was John Kalgren, a man all the copy girls and boys called “The Count.”

He would glance at a story and write a headline in seconds that would fit perfectly every time, to the amazement of everyone. He was a great editor but despised by almost everyone for his rudeness and brusqueness.

If he screamed “copy” and you, a lowly copy boy – I was one of them — were not instantly at his side, you were in trouble.

It was supposedly his day off, but the Count lived and died with the Trib every day and this day was no exception. He was sitting behind his u-shaped copy desk with the other copy editors as usual.

“Copy” he screamed and I almost fell over myself scrambling to his side.

“Bob, go to the morgue and find out where the Indian province of Barata is,” he said in his usual rasp. I hurried to the reference room and raced back.

“There is no such province,” I told him.

“Of course not,” he snarled. “Do you know what barata is?”

“No,” I mumbled.

“It is the Portuguese word for cockroach,” he said. “We’ve been taken.”

It turned out the “maharaja” was a famous Brooklyn con man and prankster named Jim Moran, who loved tweaking the nose of the staid establishment and had never been closer to India than the Bronx. And the 11 members of his harem? All hookers.

There were 11 New York City dailies at the time. Would you believe the other 10 all had the Maharaja of Cockroach and the Trib gaffe all over their editions the next day?

That night, the photographer who shot the ill-fated, badly-rushed assignment–Mel Thomas–opened the right hand door to the football field sized city room at 41st Street just as the deadline for the early bird edition was about to expire. Row after row of reporters sat at their typewriters, pounding away, as editors poured copy into various pneumatic tubes and copy boys ran from one to the other.

Thomas strolled down the long right hand aisle in the Trib city room with stately elegance. He was wearing a white turban, a red beard, and a tuxedo.

A river of laughter followed him as he walked, his face expressionless, looking neither right nor left.

As each row of reporters saw him, the laughter grew in volume. Brownie Red laughed harder than the rest and so did the late Art Buchwald, who rarely visited the city room but was there that night.

The laugher was raucous, out of control. People laughed until their stomachs hurt.

And then Thomas opened the door at the other side of the city room – bowed to the assembled throng – and shut it behind him.

As if someone had thrown a switch, the laughter stopped and everyone went back to pounding on their typewriters.
None of this could have happened now, of course, in this age of Googling and the Internet. But it happened then because there was not enough time to check, to investigate.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen to the Shore Line Times election night. Our only mistake was to falsely report that Democrats had won the majority in the Board of Finance and Board of Education when despite the huge upset victory of Democrat Al Goldberg, they did not.

I am proud of our election edition and the decision made by our executive editor and general manager to come out a day late so it could happen.

But in remembering the Maharaja of Cockroach, I also was very much aware of the obvious dangers of rushing without leaving time to check what we were rushing with – though our success with that approach this year makes me hope we can do it again.

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