John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog

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During the 1940s and 1950s, one name, John Bartlow Martin, dominated the pages of the "big slicks," the Saturday Evening Post, LIFE, Harper's, Look, and Collier's. A former reporter for the Indianapolis Times, Martin was one of a handful of freelance writers able to survive solely on this writing. Over a career that spanned nearly fifty years, his peers lauded him as "the best living reporter," the "ablest crime reporter in America," and "one of America's premier seekers of fact." His deep and abiding concern for the working class, perhaps a result of his upbringing, set him apart from other reporters. Martin was a key speechwriter and adviser to the presidential campaigns of many prominent Democrats from 1950 into the 1970s, including those of Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic during the Kennedy administration and earned a small measure of fame when FCC Chairman Newton Minow introduced his description of television as "a vast wasteland" into the nation's vocabulary.

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1 The Responsible Reporter

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THE BODIES BEGAN COMING UP FROM DEEP WITHIN THE BOWELS of the earth days after the first explosion at the Centralia coal mine on March 25, 1947. Members of the Illinois prairie community of Centralia began hearing about how an explosive charge meant to dislodge coal had ignited the unstable coal dust permeating the air more than five hundred feet below ground at the mine south of town in Wamac. The wives of the miners whose fate was not yet known gathered at the washhouse – the place where during the workweek their husbands changed out of their grimy, coal-streaked clothes at the end of their shifts. Avoiding the rescue teams wearing their oxygen tanks and “other awkward paraphernalia of disaster,” the women gravitated toward sitting beneath their loved ones’ clothing, settling in for the long wait to learn about their men’s fate.1

Friends and relatives of the trapped men gathered outside in the cold near the mouth of the mine hoping to hear any news. One was a young Illinois college student named Bill Niepoetter, who worried about his father, Henry, and three other relatives. “One rescue worker would come up and say, ‘It’s bad, there are not going to be any survivors,’” Niepoetter said. “The next one would come up and say, ‘It’s not going to be as bad.’ We had no notion.” Helplessness set in as Niepoetter viewed rescue workers emerging from the mine without any survivors. “They’d come up and you could see from their faces that this was not going to be a good week,” he said. Those miners not killed outright by the blast were poisoned by the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide left behind in the atmosphere. Ambulances from Centralia and nearby towns idled their engines in the cold night air in an attempt by the men inside to keep warm as they waited to be called upon to transport the deceased to the local Greyhound bus station, which officials had converted into a temporary morgue. As a shiny limousine drove away from the mine, taking with it one of the 111 men killed in the disaster, a friend of the deceased, standing with others in the crowd, remarked, “I bet it’s the only time he ever rode in a Cadillac.” Four days after the blast, Niepoetter, who had gone to his grandmother’s house, learned that his father had been one of the victims. He had already made arrangements for a funeral. “Good thing I did – they sold a lot of caskets,” he said, recalling that for several days funeral processions made their solemn way down the road leading to the cemetery.2

 

2 A Mean Street in a Mean City

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FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, AS THEY STRODE ALONG THE sidewalks on the Circle, the center of Indianapolis’s original Mile Square plat, people craned their necks to peer over a high wooden fence plastered with posters advertising theater offerings, hoping to catch a glimpse of a structure destined to dominate the city’s skyline for years to come. On May 15, 1902, the city’s citizens, along with visitors from all over the state and nation, crammed downtown streets for the formal dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Built of gray oolitic limestone from Owen County, Indiana, at a cost of approximately $600,000 and standing 284 feet tall, the edifice honored “Indiana’s Silent Victors,” the average Hoosier soldiers who had given their lives in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. “They are my best beloved,” intoned Civil War veteran Lew Wallace, presiding officer for the dedication ceremonies, “who, in every instance of danger to the nation, discover a glorious chance to serve their fellow-men and dare the chance, though in so doing they suffer and sometimes die.”1

 

3 Two Cents a Word

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AT THE NORTHWEST CORNER OF RUSH STREET AND GRAND Avenue in Chicago, the 217-room Milner Hotel, part of the coast-to-coast empire of 130 units in twenty-six states owned by company founder Earle Milner, offered the tired traveling businessman and tourist basic lodging at a reasonable price – “A Room and a Bath for a Dollar-and-a-Half,” boasted the chain’s motto. It was at the Milner that John Bartlow Martin resided when he returned to Chicago from Indianapolis in the fall of 1938. In addition to the Milner’s inexpensive rates (five dollars a week on a monthly basis), its management paid the cab fare from the railroad station for guests and also provided them free laundry service. “It suited me fine,” said Martin. “I had nothing but one suitcase and a portable typewriter. I had a room with a bed and through the dirty window a view of the fire escape.”1

After escaping from his depressing Indianapolis childhood, Martin was thrilled to be in a vibrant and colorful city and delighted in its “freewheeling, go-getting” spirit. While a high school student, he had wandered with a friend though Indianapolis’s scanty slums, disappointed they were so small, while in Chicago “there were acres and acres of them, all mine.” Martin even enjoyed the noisy traffic on Outer Drive and Western Avenue, the sound of the elevated trains as they “roared by overhead on the wondrous El, reared against the sky,” and the bright lights of Randolph Street’s theater district. “There was nothing like this in Indiana,” he said. As he had while a young student at DePauw University, Martin, suddenly single, behaved foolishly for a time, sleeping most of the day, writing at night, and drinking beer while he worked. He soon discovered, however, that he could not keep up such a lifestyle and make a living, and he fell into a regular routine he followed for years to come, writing from nine in the morning to five in the evening and avoiding alcohol during those hours.2

 

4 The Big Slicks

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FOR MILLIONS OF VETERANS FOLLOWING THE END OF WORLD War II, their return home resembled what they had gone through upon their induction into military service: long waits in long lines. On Friday, February 16, 1946, after filling out the necessary paperwork at an army separation center at Camp Ulysses S. Grant near Rockford, Illinois, John Bartlow Martin achieved what he had been seeking for many months: discharge from the U.S. Army status as a civilian. He took a train to Chicago and by 8:00 PM was back home in Winnetka with his wife, Fran, and daughter, Cindy. Upon walking through the front door, Martin hugged his wife and turned to hug his daughter, and then the three of them embraced one another.1

Before returning home, Martin had written to Fran outlining his plans for the future. Someone had asked him what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, and Martin had responded, “I told him – and meant it and rather surprised him and perhaps myself – I wanted to be happy with you, then wanted to write well, then wanted to make a lot of money. In that order. (The order of the last two isn’t quite as simple as it appears; it just means that I think I can make a very comfortable living AND write well, and if so I’d rather do it than write lousy and make a whole lot of money).” Martin added that he would take care of the final two items, but they were meaningless unless “you make me happy. And the best way to ensure that is for me to work a bit on making you happy. So that’s what I’m going to [do].”2

 

5 All the Way with Adlai

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ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 3, 1952, JOHN BARTLOW MARTIN AND his wife, Fran, took their daughter, Cindy, to dinner in downtown Chicago at the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel to celebrate her tenth birthday, which fell on February 5. Later that evening the family adjourned to the apartment of a friend, well-to-do Chicago attorney Louis A. Kohn, whom Martin had met through his friendship with two other lawyers, John Voelker and Raymond Friend. Kohn had been an important part of the team that had elected Adlai Stevenson to the Illinois governorship in 1948 and had been encouraging Martin to edit a book of speeches Stevenson had made as governor that would also include a long biographical introduction about the Democratic Party’s rising star. “I presumed he [Kohn] hoped to use the book in Stevenson’s forthcoming campaign for reelection as governor,” Martin recalled.1

During that winter, however, there were many political pundits who believed that Stevenson might run for the presidency, as President Harry Truman, beset by abysmal ratings in public opinion polls (only 32 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing), seemed unlikely to run for re-election. Although Stevenson had used Martin’s story about the Centralia mine disaster to attack his opponent, incumbent Dwight H. Green, in the 1948 gubernatorial campaign, Martin had never before met Stevenson, whose fifty-second birthday was also on February 5. Stevenson joined the gathering at Kohn’s apartment and he and Cindy together cut a birthday cake made by Kohn’s wife. “I remember feeling awed by him,” said Cindy Martin Coleman years later. “He was, after all, the governor of the state of Illinois.” She still remembered how happy he seemed and his “smiling eyes.”2

 

6 The New America

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ADLAI STEVENSONS LANDSLIDE DEFEAT IN THE 1952 PRESIDENTIAL contest to Dwight D. Eisenhower had a demoralizing effect on John Bartlow Martin for months after the election. Martin tried to get back to his freelance writing career, traveling to Cleveland, Ohio, to do his usual heavy-fact legwork for a McCall’s magazine assignment, but he had “no heart” for the story and abandoned the effort, returning home to Highland Park. “It was the only time I ever did that,” said Martin. “I felt ill. I had not realized fully how emotionally involved I’d been in the Stevenson campaign.” Eisenhower’s elevation to the presidency, said Martin, had been a “repudiation of everything I believe in. All my life I have believed and tried to write certain ideas; Stevenson articulated them as a candidate; the people rejected them.” He felt nothing but contempt for the advertising business that had helped to elect Eisenhower and the “implication you can sell a president precisely the same way you sell soap.” Although he had always loved the United States and its people, his feelings after the election were so negative that he felt like “a stranger in my own country.”1

 

7 The Honorable Ambassador

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NAMED FOR THE COUNT OF PEÑALVA, EL CONDE STREET IN Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic is a cobblestone pedestrian road that stretches from the Parque Colón to the Parque Independencia. On the morning of March 8, 1962, young demonstrators, angry that two alleged enemies of the people had been allowed refuge on American soil, ranged up and down this popular shopping district, smashing windows, wrecking storefronts, and looting merchandise. Spying a car belonging to the new U.S. ambassador, whose driver had gone to a Spanish tailor’s shop to pick up a white linen suit for the diplomat to wear when he officially presented his credentials the following day at the National Palace, the mob pulled the driver from his seat, then smashed and burned the automobile. They went on to torch two other vehicles belonging to the U.S. government and attacked the school the ambassador’s two sons attended. The boys watched from their upstairs classroom window as the demonstrators, brandishing chains and manhole covers, tore down the American flag and wrecked the school’s first floor before finally being driven away by two truckloads of Dominican soldiers armed with machine guns. Realizing the danger, adults at the school quickly hustled the boys away from the scene, and they escaped unscathed.1

 

8 LBJ and Adlai

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DURING HIS SERVICE AS U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE DOMINICAN Republic, John Bartlow Martin had shunned the usual trappings of power that came with his high diplomatic post and had concentrated instead on his work. Martin had some trouble, however, transitioning from public office to private life and admitted that he missed “some of the perquisites of power.” Instead of being driven to his office in a chauffeured limousine, he had to endure Chicago-area winters with other commuters, and there were no U.S. Marine Corps guards on duty to snap to attention when he arrived every day at his office. Martin now faced the ultimate question: What would he do with the rest of his life? Martin could write – it was, as he said, “all I knew how to do” – but he could not return to his old freelance trade, producing heavy-fact stories for magazines, as the industry had fallen on hard times as television began to draw away its advertisers. His interests had also shifted away from writing about crime and its effect on society to such issues as national politics and foreign policy. “One doesn’t go back,” he noted.1

 

9 The Return of the Native

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IN THE 1960S THE MAROTT HOTEL, LOCATED ON THE NEAR north side of Indianapolis at 2625 North Meridian Street, had faded from its original glory days of the 1920s and 1930s, when it had hosted key political and social events for the community and welcomed such famous guests as Winston Churchill, Clark Gable, and Herbert Hoover. On the evening of April 4, 1968, however, the hotel hummed once again with activity as staffers for U.S. senator Robert F. Kennedy strolled up and down its hallways. They were staying there after the end of a long first day in Kennedy’s quest to win Indiana’s Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy’s senate speechwriters Adam Walinsky and Jeff Greenfield, along with a new member of the team, John Bartlow Martin, were busy discussing the details of a foreign policy speech their candidate was slated to deliver later at Louisiana State University when they were interrupted by a secretary, who told them that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee. Later, while at dinner, they heard that King had died.1

 

10 As Time Goes By

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AS A GRADUATE STUDENT AT NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITYS Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois, Jim Borg took an independent writing class in the fall of 1975 that required him to research and write an article that might be suitable for publication in such national periodicals as Esquire or The New Yorker. A few months earlier, Chicago newspapers had been full of reports about the death of Steven Stawnychy, a recruit at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center who had been abused by his instructors. On the evening of June 3, 1975, Stawnychy had committed suicide by letting himself be struck by a Chicago and North Western train. “He walked over and laid his head down on the tracks,” said the engineer of the train that hit Stawnychy. “When I realized what he was up to, I just went into ‘emergency’ and tried to stop – but, of course, it was too short a distance.” For his article, Borg wanted to “put all the pieces together into a comprehensive story that also looked at Stawnychy’s background” in an attempt to unravel why the recruit had taken his own life.1

 

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