H(arry) C(harles) Witwer was an author of sports stories in the Popular Magazine. His writing style was simple and direct, similar in his use of slang to Damon Runyon. I’ve enjoyed the stories i read by him, and went looking for some information on him. I found this autobiographical article in The American Magazine, October 1918.
I was born March 11th,1890, in Athens, Pennsylvania, but I’ve never been there since. Until I was sixteen years of age I lived in Philadelphia with my grandmother, who is responsible for my knowing that twice two is four, that murder and burglary are wrong, and that there is a God and a hereafter. This dear old lady, with her rigid principles of right and wrong and her heart as big as all outdoors, was always a pal as well as a guardian.
I emigrated to New York from Philadelphia at the age of sixteen and was successful in obtaining a portfolio as soda dispenser in a Broadway drug store. I worked from twelve noon until twelve at night and was paid seven dollars every Saturday. To this day, I yield to no “soda jerk” in my ability to tell good chocolate syrup from bad. Also, I can make an egg phosphate that would bring ecstatic sighs and twenty-five cents from the most blase soda fiend.
I obtained parking space for myself and toothbrush in a lodging house on Forty-second Street, for a dollar and a half a week. In size and comfort my room was a flagrant infringement on the patent held by the inventor of the sardine can. I had descended on helpless New York in the dead of winter and my boudoir was as cold as ten dollars’ worth of ice, so I bought an alcohol heater. Within forty-eight hours I discovered that several of the less ostentatious foodstuffs could be cooked on that heater, and one night I brought in a destitute friend for “dinner.” The next day the heater had been confiscated by my landlady, who informed me that I could not “take in boarders!”
At this time in Philadelphia it was the custom for the youth and chivalry of sixteen or thereabouts to camouflage themselves as “college boys.” The outfit consisted of a soft felt hat, turned up in front and with the colors of any given college worn as a band. The fact that the wearer had never been to college and never expected to go had nothing whatever to do with it. The colors of all the colleges in captivity were on sale in the department stores, and if one got tired of Yale blue, or the rain had treated Harvard crimson unkindly, one could become a student of Princeton for a quarter. The rest of the set was a paddock overcoat and a pair of gray riding gauntlets.
I was garbed in this manner when I entered Manhattan and I attracted not a little of what I thought was admiring attention. But alas, there is more difference between New York and Philadelphia than a few electric lights. Tradition to the contrary, New York is not the stamping ground of the four-flusher. Gothamites are, for the most part, late of Missouri; and when they call you, you’ve got to have aces at least!
TWO days after I went behind the counter my illusions were hurled into the Hudson by the “head soda man” at the drug store. I had observed him watching me curiously as I changed my white coat and apron for citizens’ clothes, and finally this overlord of the fountain spoke to me substantially as follows:
“Hey—listen! You ain’t a bad guy, and I wanna give you a tip. Can that there layout you have staked yourself to! That trick hat and the waltz-me-around-again coat is raw enough, but them cowboy gloves has got to go! You might of been a knockout in Philadelphia with that outfit, but it don’t go here. They is another thing, also. I hear you make a crack every now and then about dear old Princeton or sweet old Pennsy. Lay off that stuff too! If you been to college, I been to Don’t try to kid this burg—it can’t be done. Be on the level, ’tend to your knittin’ and let the other guy four-flush, and you and New York ’ll get along like ham and eggs!”
I was stunned and indignant at the time, but later I found he had done me a real favor and that his advice was excellent. Although I’ve done a lot of foolish things, being young, I’ve let “the other guy four-flush” since then!
I went out that same day and bought a derby, locked the gauntlets in my suit case, and traded the “waltz-me-around-again” coat for a cravenette. My troubles, however, were at the top of their game and I was called into the syrup-room the next day for another conference.
“Hey—listen!” said the chief of the soda distillery, “Where did you ever jerk soda before you come here?’
As a matter of fact, I had never committed “soda jerking” before in my life. This was my first offense. I needed this job as much as a jockey needs arms and I had memorized a long list to reel off as places which had employed me, should the question ever arise. But now, having forsworn four-flushing, I told the truth.
“I thought so!” he said. “The first time you picked up a glass I seen you didn’t know whether a chocolate malted milk was a drink or a vaudeville act. What are you draggin’ down here?”
I told him seven dollars, and created a sensation.
“Seven berries, hey?” he shouted. “What are you tryin’ to do—rune the soda-jerkin’ game ? No wonder a good man can’t get no job for real dough like sixteen and eighteen bucks a week, when you guys is willin’ to work for seven! You go to the boss this afternoon and demand twelve bucks, or I’ll fire you.”
Up to this time it had been my belief that seven dollars a week was all anybody got for doing anything. I had no desire to “rune” the soda business and I certainly did not want to lose that job. So I went to the boss that afternoon and requested an immediate advance to twelve dollars.
“Ha, ha!” said the boss. “Twelve bucks a week is all you wish, hey ? I thought you was a nut the minute I laid eyes on you. Drop that apron. You’re fired!”
QJEVERAL days later, crushed and disheartened after tramping all over New York in a fruitless effort to sell my services as anything at all for anything a week, I developed a streak of yellow and decided to go back to Philadelphia and permit my grandmother to support me. I paid two dollars and twenty-five cents for a ticket and the Pennsylvania railroad still owes me the difference between that and the fare to Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The moment the train began to pull out, I began to revile myself as a quitter. At Newark I was having a perfect orgy of self-abasement, and at Elizabeth I got off and took the next train back to New York. I had about enough money to obtain food and lodging for one consecutive day, but that was the only thing that didn’t worry me. The thing that caused me the most speculation was not whether I would make good or not, but how long it would take me to “get over.”
I thought that about a year of application and hustle would see me a success at something, but my calculations were slightly out of true. It took me approximately five years of the hardest kind of work, discouragements and rebuffs. I wouldn’t have missed my experiences for millions— and I would hesitate to go through them again for the same amount!
The first thing I did upon my arrival in New York this time was to start up Broadway from Twenty-third Street, stopping in every likely looking store on both sides of the street and asking for a job. I played no favorites in the matter of trades or professions. I offered my services to confectioners, druggists, cigar dealers, tailors, bakers and what-not. At One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, I had accumulated a couple of promising leads and had left my name and address at so many places that I was beginning to develop writer’s cramp. But I got no job!
This went on for a week, at the end of which time I was broke, tired and discouraged again. I went into a saloon at Thirty-fourth Street and Eleventh Avenue one afternoon, bought a glass of sarsaparilla for a nickel and ate enough “free lunch” to arouse the ire’ of the eagle-eyed bartender. In the course of the debate that followed I adroitly got in the fact that I was a long way from home, broke, and wildly desirous of going to work. The bartender relented and said there might be an opening for a porter when the boss came in. He also raised the embargo on the lunch, with a wave of his hand and the admonition to “go to it!” This place was featuring pickled herring, and as I had not eaten in forty-eight hours I think I devoured several tons of it. I know that the sight of pickled herring since then rouses no enthusiasm in me.
Well, when the boss came in and heard my tale of woe, he hired me as a porter for six dollars a week, one dollar less than my last engagement. My professional duties consisted of sweeping the floor, polishing the brass work and waiting on tables during the lunch hour rush of assorted foreigners from the docks near by. My hours were from six in the morning until six at night.
I held this job for four weeks. Having no money to spend, I was confined to my hall room at night and during that time I first began to do the thing which was afterward to become my profession. I ruined page after page of perfectly good white paper with what, in my opinion, was literature. The yams I laboriously turned out at that time were weird and terrible things.
At the end of a month, I could no longer stand my job, so I resigned, although the boss said I had the makings of a first-class porter in me. He even held out the dazzling hope that in two years I might become a bartender. The prospect was alluring, but I had made up my mind to seek pastures new, and I quit.
This time within a few days I got a job as a “soda jerker” for ten dollars a week. For the two years following I stood behind a counter, garbed in immaculate white, making chocolate ice cream sodas and maple nut sundaes. I grew quite proficient at the trade, profession or gift, whatever it might be, and rose to the point where I could command fourteen dollars a week for my services. Always of a restless disposition, I flirted from pay roll to pay roll with joyous abandon, and during those two years I must have worked in a dozen places. I learned all the intricacies of the soda art, and I also found that being behind a counter every day afforded me a wonderful chance to study people and things. Later, when I began to write in earnest, this experience proved invaluable.
AT VARIOUS periods during this time, I spent weeks trying to write, and then gave it up for months. When the fever was on me I wrote night and day, even making notes behind the soda fountain, to the disgust of my associates. I never disposed of any of this stuff. In fact, I never tried to. After I had finished a story. I’d read it over and become convinced that it wouldn’t do. Just what was wrong with it, I didn’t quite know, but I did know it lacked something. My rather sparse education made it impossible for me to better it, so I’d hurl it away and start another.
During these two years I became acquainted with a newspaper man and this acquaintance, which later developed into a strong friendship, was perhaps the first big turning point in my life. I became so interested in the newspaper game that I determined to get into it and to renounce the soda industry forever. Whenever I get interested in anything, I cannot strike a happy medium and wish I had it; I’ve got to get it. I drop everything else and devote all my time, energy and ambition to securing the thing I want. Rebuffs or discouragements only spur me on, if I notice them at all. I talk the thing, dream it and think it until I get it. I believe this faculty has had a great deal to do with whatever success I’ve had—although my wife says it’s extremely irritating at times.
THIS may strike many as being egotistical. It isn’t meant to be. The only things I’m proud of are my wife and boy.
I merely want to put on record the fact that anything I got that was worth while, I got because I never let up trying until I had it. I am neither the inventor nor the sole possessor of this process, and anyone who uses it will get the same results that I did, or better. In this connection. I remember part of a popular poem, which goes like this:
The man worth while
Is the man who can smile
When everything goes dead wrong.
That line always irritated me! It gives me a picture of a poor dub who lets everybody sit on him—and grins! It’s admirable to be known as a man who can take a lot of beating, but the fellow they pay off is the one who can not only take it, but also give it! Never mind how many wallops you can take without flinching: how many can you deliver?
I kept after my newspaper friend until he finally got me a job as a society reporter on one of the big New York dailies. I was almost delirious with joy and hurled my white coat and apron aside for what I hoped was the last time. My salary was to be twelve dollars a week with three dollars extra for expenses. At last I was writing for a living! The most sensational item I ever produced while I was on that job ran something like this;
“Mrs. Simpson-Brown has closed her town house and gone to Palm Beach for the winter.”
I put in almost a year at this, supplementing my earnings by working behind a soda fountain two or three nights a week for a dollar a night. Then, as usual, I sought a change. I had, however, absorbed enough of the newspaper atmosphere to decide that my Future activities- would be confined to that profession. To me, the newspaper game is the most fascinating on earth. It’s a thankless job. The hours are long and the pay is poor; yet there is an insidious something about it which, once inoculated into your system, defies all efforts to throw it off. It is a fine thing for any young man of average intelligence and no particular trade or profession to get into— and a fine thing to get out of!
Having decided to change, I began a drive on the city editor of the paper for a job on the news staff and I pestered the life out of him until he succumbed to my persistence and I became a full-fledged reporter, with a police card, fire line badge and all! Before I would have parted with either of these, I would cheerfully have handed over my right eye. I displayed both badge and card on every opportunity; and if none arose I displayed ’em anyhow.
I served a long and hard apprenticeship learning the intricacies of the game and developing a “news sense.” If John Brown falls on the Brooklyn Bridge it is interesting only to his family. But if John D. Rockefeller stumbles over a match, it’s interesting to the whole world. Thus to a newspaper man, half the world is composed of John Browns and the other half of John D. Rockefellers. He must instantly and instinctively know which is which. It sounds easy, but I assure you it isn’t!
A couple of years of this, and my restlessness drove me to Florida, where I edited a weekly paper in a town of fifteen hundred inhabitants. The town and the paper were owned by a New York company which had bought and reclaimed the land and was using the newspaper as a medium to sell it. Within six months the population of the town had grown to five thousand and the paper grew in proportion. So did I. At twenty I was editor of a newspaper, a figure in the community and my future seemed as bright as a four-carat diamond. Out of my experiences there, I later got my first novel, “The Skyrocket.”
INTO this beautiful vista came a professional muckraker who ferreted out the fact that the company was crooked—a thing I was blissfully ignorant of. He deduced as much, and told me confidentially the data he had collected as to the dishonesty of my employers. His arguments were so convincing that I immediately threw myself into the work of helping the people the company had mulcted get back their money. I spent a lot of time helping him collect evidence, and we were so successful that counsel for the company’s victims closed down the land office and the newspaper plant. Once again I was broke and out of a job!
I drifted down to Tampa, where there was a race meeting, and for several weeks eked out a precarious existence as a “runner” for a bookmaker. To earn my salary, I dashed madly about from one “book” to another, noted the fluctuations of the prices on each horse entered in a race, and came back with the figures to my boss. I was paid every day, and kept permanently broke by betting my salary the moment I got it.
I soon sickened of this and determined to win back to New York and make a fresh start. In order to do this, I took the agency for a portable bathtub and started to work my way back by selling this luxury from town to town. I sold only one— and I bought that myself!
Arriving in Jacksonville, via freight, I talked the managing editor of the “Times-Union” into giving me a job, and I also got a room free at the biggest hotel by acting as press agent. My total income being around eighteen dollars a week, I figured that it would take me almost a month to save the fare back to New York. Having arrived at this conclusion, I took my first week’s salary, bought a ticket to Manhattan on a boat sailing the same day, and arrived in the Big Town again in much the same condition as when I had first invaded it. My capital consisted of ambition, health, “pep” and about three dollars.
There were no openings on the newspapers at that time, so I took a job as collector for a furniture instalment house. I was a terrible flivver at this. If delinquent customers gave me tales of woe instead of money when I called, I found it impossible to rail at them and to threaten to have their dining-room table whisked away by the sheriff. Instead, I sympathized with them over their troubles and frequently wound up by loaning them part of whatever cash I had with me. In order to make a showing with the boss, I made a couple of payments on bad accounts out of my own pocket, but even this did not avail and I was “canned.”
ON ONE of my collecting trips I had to go to Yonkers, New York, and before I came back I had met the most wonderful girl in the world. This was the second big turning point in my life, and if I ever get a dollar a word for my stuff I’ll endow the city of Yonkers with more libraries than Carnegie ever saw! The first remark I made to the future Mrs. Witwer after we had been introduced was a request that she marry me forthwith. I knew instantly that I wanted her more than anything else on earth and I saw no reason for delay. For some reason, she refused. I made daily trips to Yonkers for weeks afterward and persisted in my request, and was just as persistently denied. At length I won her to the point where she was willing to discuss the subject—but her answer never varied.
By this time I was absolutely fanatical in my desire to marry her. I cast every other thought from my mind and all my efforts were directed to this end.
I had lost my job as collector and failed to replace it with another one, but a small detail like that didn’t prevent me from proposing marriage to a girl who had a suitor for every hair in my head. While she didn’t fall on my neck and shriek, “I’m yours!” she didn’t complain to the authorities about my attentions, and this fact encouraged me to demand from her a list of the things it would be necessary for me to accomplish before she would gamble her future life with me. I felt that the labors of Hercules would be a mere trifle if by duplicating them I could win her. I braced myself to hear her name scores of things impossible for anyone less than a god to accomplish, but this in effect is what she said:
“Get a job!”
I hadn’t thought of that!
I got one. This time as salesman in a cigar store for twelve dollars a week. It failed to cause a sensation with my future wife, so I hurled it aside and battle-axed my way into the press department of a circus. I was “ahead” of this attraction for three months, when I left it to take a job as advance agent for a one-night-stand repertoire company. I think this show played every town in the United States where the total vote for President didn’t exceed .006. We played one town a day—sometimes several. In the metropolis of Green Bay, the manager left for Australia and points south and I had some new territory to add to the growing list of places I’d been broke in.
I answered an advertisement in the New York “Clipper” that I’ll never forget. It ran like this:
Advance Agent Wanted. Must be live wire, bandy with brush and paste, nobby dresser and nifty talker. Want a man who could make a contract with Shylock and get the best of it. This show pays off every week and hasn’t missed a salary day since Grant took Richmond. No cigarette fiends, ale hounds, or mashers need apply. Ticket ? Yes, if for security you deposit your right eye. Wire or write, Abe Housman’s Blonde Beauties, Elgin, Ill., week of 23rd.
This letter got me the job:
Dear Sir: Ask no further for an advance man. I’ll be in Elgin right after this letter. I have the goods and can deliver them. Can’t stay in the same room with a cigarette, and for all I know, booze is played with nets. Call twenty-four hours a day’s work and could boot a prohibition lecturer at a bartenders’ outing. Want $25 per to start and much more when me bulk think I’m worth it.
I got as far as Honesdale, Pennsylvania, with this show and then resigned to jump to Yonkers. One of the first things I did after my arrival there was to contract pneumonia. For three weeks I hovered between life and death, while my future wife stayed at my bedside until she collapsed, drilling into my fever-racked brain that I had to live for her sake. This was such a revelation to me that pneumonia became a mere detail, and I rallied myself to beat it. We were successful. I say we, because the doctors agreed with me that Mrs. Witwer had more to do with my recovery than they had.
AFTER my convalescence, we had many long and serious discussions on the subject of marriage, and it was finally agreed that when I had secured a permanent job that paid a living wage and had saved enough money to start a home we’d become partners in the greatest enterprise on earth. Another stipulation was that I had to cease jumping from job to job and settle down at something for a life work. I considered I had won a great victory by this concession and started out again to dumfound the world.
As a result of my illness, my nervous condition was such that a newspaper job was impossible, so I became night clerk in a Newark, New Jersey, hotel. There was neither present nor future in this portfolio and I went along for months without getting anywhere. One day I reached a decision and presented it to the girl I was going to marry. I told her I had become convinced that I would never be a success until she was my wife, because that wish obsessed my mind to the exclusion of everything else. But, on the other hand, if she’d marry me at once I had not the slightest doubt that within a year my success would startle Europe.
This characteristic logic of mine failed to impress her. I stormed, pleaded and made several highly dramatic speeches to no avail. She remained adamant and I finally left, all gloomed up—but not discouraged!
When I got back to Newark I found a slip of paper with a note to call up a Yonkers number. I did so, and five minutes later reeled away from the phone, a dazed and prospective bridegroom! For some reason, known only to Mrs. Witwer. and which she has thus far refused to disclose, she had decided that in union there is strength. This automatically made her the world’s greatest gambler.
I persuaded her to meet me in New York within the hour, and rode over from Newark on the slowest train in the United States. The fear that she would change her mind tempered my joy somewhat, and when she appeared at the appointed place I heaved a sigh of relief that must have shaken the Singer Building. I had forgotten the slight detail of having any money with me, so while she waited I dashed over to one of the newspaper offices and borrowed five dollars from a friend. Then I literally rushed her to the marriage license bureau and we were married before she had a chance to voice an objection to my unseemly haste.
That was almost six years ago, and we are still on our honeymoon!
I NOW realized that it was up to me to make good with a vengeance, and I jumped from hotel clerk to reporter on a Newark paper. I got twenty dollars a week. We lived in a ample of rooms with a kitchenette, and I was positive that I had cornered all the happiness in the world. I became expert at drying dishes and learned the secret of having the water so hot that it only requires a touch of the towel.
Then came the time when my wife developed a strange, new shyness, and began sewing on mysterious and absurdly small garments. This revelation raised me to the seventh heaven of joy and spurred me to do something I’d never before attempted —save money. After our weekly expenses had been paid, there was not enough left out of my twenty to cause Rockefeller to gnash his teeth, but I stretched it a bit by denying myself a lot of little things, since for me my wife had denied herself everything.
On Christmas Eve of that year, Fate dealt me a staggering blow and at the same time occurred an incident that changed forever the hitherto irresponsible course of my life, steadied me, and made it possible for me to make good. There was the customary shake-up on the newspaper and it was decided to cut the staff down to the smallest possible number. Being the last man to join it, I was fired! Now I have no doubt that had I been a first-class newspaperman in the eyes of the city editor, he would have stretched a point and retained me. But of all the days in the year he might have fired me, to select Christmas Eve seemed to me to be the height of wanton brutality. I’ll never forget my feelings as I trudged up Market Street in a driving snowstorm on the most joyous day of the year, a prospective father at twenty-three, to tell my wife, as a Christmas present, that I had lost my job!
I blurted it out instantly; I wanted it over with. I was a failure! Undoubtedly I always would be and she had been insane to marry me. I reviewed my life up to that time, railing at myself for an irresponsible incompetent, and wound up with the statement that I might as well quit trying, since evidently the very gods were arrayed against me.
My wife remained silent during my bitter arraignment of myself, but when I announced my intention of quitting she came over and put her arms around me.
“Listen, dear,’’ she said. “You seem to forget the one really big and wonderful thing we have. We still have each other. Isn’t that enough for you? It is for me!”
Oh, boy! Who couldn’t make good for a girl like that?
No recriminations, no regrets! Simply, “We still have each other!’’ I don’t see how I possibly could have fallen down after that, do you?
The first job I got after that was on a newspaper in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Sixteen dollars a week. I got hold of a newspaper guide and every night wrote from six to a dozen letters to the managing editors of papers all over the country. I tried to get away from the stereotyped application for a job and opened my letters like this:
“Can you use another live one on your staff?”
Then I went on to tell my experience, salary, and so on. Pretty soon I began to receive answers, and finally I got a job as assistant sporting editor in Newark, on the opposition paper to the one that had fired me. This paid twenty-five dollars a week. It wasn’t enough and I started my letter writing campaign again. Within six months I had landed on one of the biggest papers in New York. In the interim, I became the bouncing father of the greatest baby in the world. He’s almost five years old and—say!—you ought to hear him—but, pardon me, I’m getting away from my story!
I STUCK pretty close to the grindstone for the next two years and rose rapidly on the paper until I reached the point where, on account of my youth, I could hope for nothing higher for a long time. I was making about forty dollars a week, and it cost about forty-nine to live in New York. I began to get restless and discontented again, and one day, in the course of a discussion on our future, my wife interrupted me.
“Listen!” she said. “There must be some one thing you can do better than anything else. Now the thing for us is to take an inventory of you and find out what it is. Everybody bas a peculiar gift at something, and the ones who take the trouble to find out what that something is are the winners. Now, let’s see what yours is!”
Well, that set me to thinking, and in a flash it came to me! I began to write again. I wrote every night and all day Sundays, turning out bales of stuff. It all came back as fast as I sent it out. But every time I grew discouraged and showed the least sign of weakening, my wife kept me up with encouragement, pats on the back, and her unwavering confidence in my ability to make good ultimately. Still my stories were returned with disheartening regularity. Even my best friends told me I was working myself into a nervous breakdown and advised me to give it up. However, aided by my wife, I stuck to it with grim determination. I frequently had a dozen stories in the mails at once. My greatest drawback was my meager education. The editors told me my plots were good, but my English was stilted and crude. Finally, it was my wife who hit on the solution.
“Harry,” she said, “I think I’ve found the thing you do best. You have a sense of humor, and your slang, while embarrassing at times, is funny. Stop writing English and write slang. Write some of those stories you tell me, just the way you tell them, and I know they’ll get over!”
Well, I did. Almost from the start, when I got five dollars for my first accepted yarn, until the time I could get one thousand dollars, they were successful. I’ve been wo ting slang ever since, and in three years more than a hundred of my yarns have been published and some have been brought out in book form.
To you who read my stuff and have made me possible, I give heartfelt thanks. Your letters of encouragement help a whole lot and I appreciate them deeply. I’d like to meet you all and to thank you personally; but since that’s impossible, I’ll do it this way.
There is not the slightest doubt that getting married “put me over!” To you who are hesitating, let me say this again: “Ask her right now; pick out the thing you do best and go to it! She’ll do the rest. ”