The Story Of The Century

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A newcomer to the Post , I was the youngest member of a staff of ten that our legendary city editor, the late Walter Lister, selected to take with him to Flemington. A brilliant newspaperman and an incidental playwright who coauthored one of America’s first expressionist plays, Spread Eagle , Lister was a severe taskmaster. At the time he was earnestly trying to model himself on that great archetype of the sadistic city editor, Charles Chapin of the old New York World , who not only tormented his staff fiendishly but murdered his wife and wound up editing the Sing Sing Prison house organ. Lister fell short of uxoricide but, as next best, created legend by firing his favorite drinking companion, whose wife was very pregnant, one blizzardy Christmas Eve.

How I came to be tapped for the assignment was that, first, I had developed a knack of writing fast and could compose up to sixty words a minute of a news story under deadline, a valued skill on evening newspapers, where edition after edition is chasing the news as it is happening.

Further, in a series of flukes my life had become oddly linked to Hauptmann’s from the day of his arrest to the day of his execution. Again and again I was consistently lucky on the Hauptmann story as on no other story before or after.

 
 
 
 

For instance, on the day of his arrest I was sent to get an interview with Hauptmann’s wife, Anna, at the friend’s apartment where she had taken shelter with her infant son. I arrived to find I had been preceded by some two dozen reporters who had exhausted every possible dodge to get Mrs. Hauptmann to open the apartment door and submit to an interview. They had posed as telegraph messengers, lawyers, delivery boys, even policemen. They had climbed a rickety back-alley fire escape and banged on the shaded and locked windows in vain. One had even yelled “Fire!” Among the crestfallen crowd were A. J. Liebling, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Joseph Mitchell, all of later fame.

Within sixty seconds of my arrival on the scene I became the only reporter Mrs. Hauptmann admitted, on that day and for two weeks thereafter (until a Hearst paper, the New York Journal , bought her away from me with money and put her on their payroll as an exclusive property). What did the trick for me was a completely fortuitous decision the year before, while I was working in Baltimore, to fill out the long provincial evenings by taking a six-month Berlitz course in German.

Now I had but to shout through the door of Mrs. Hauptmann’s hide-out in German: “Journalist. Wish to interview you about your husband’s innocence!” At once the door opened, and Mrs. Hauptmann asked, in German: “Who spoke German?” I stepped forward, and she let me in.

It was the most taxing interview I held in ten years as a newspaperman. Though I could understand Mrs. Hauptmann well enough, my own spoken German began to flag. But Mrs. Hauptmann soon began to accept questions from me in English; more serious was the fact that whenever I reached for my pencil and wad of copy paper to take notes, Mrs. Hauptmann froze in her tracks. So I put away pencil and paper altogether and as best I could committed the entire two-hour interview to memory.

Among the things she told me was that her Richard could not possibly have kidnapped and killed a child, because he was much too gentle and concerned about all living things. Once, she said, he had nearly wrecked their car to avoid hitting a squirrel. Often he had scolded people who picked flowers in the park instead of letting them live for all the public to enjoy.

A plain, stocky woman who looked exactly like what she had been before her marriage, a hardworking waitress in a bakery-restaurant, she was yet able to evoke a touching, even romantic, moment in her life with Hauptmann. A few months after they had met, in German circles in the Bronx, she said, he took her to a park bench for a talk. There, she said, he asked her to marry him but said that there was something he had to tell her before she gave her answer—that he was in the United States illegally. Because of some “trouble” as a youth in Germany he had been unable to obtain a visa but had smuggled himself into the United States as a stowaway on a ship. She had taken his hand in hers, she said, and kissed him and joined her life to his.

The same day as that first interview with Mrs. Hauptmann, I went to the little garage behind their home and poked through the mounds of debris left by FBI men who had torn the interior apart in finding the $14,600 of ransom bills. For no reason except the mild irony involved I picked up and took away with me a German detective novel entitled Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs (“The Finances of the Grand Duke”). At the time I had no reason to pay particular attention to the name inscribed on the flyleaf, Isidor Fisch.