Mark Twain once said the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Another man narrowly missed out on the opportunity to make that same remarkable claim.
For this we can thank (or blame) one of the greatest ink-aholics in the history of tabloid journalism, Mike Pearl, who toiled for the Daily Mirror, the Journal American, the World Journal Tribune and the New York Post before hanging up his well-worn press card.
Mike never became one of those cynical old reporters who only care about seeing their names on their paychecks. The sight of the words "By MIKE PEARL" on the page were always a thrill for Mike. He'd take a byline over a pay hike any day. His thirst for ink could not be quenched.
That's a good thing, most of the time. But it wasn't so good on one slow news day about twenty years ago.
On that day Mike was the courthouse reporter at 100 Centre Street. Since nothing much was happening, he did what he always did on days like that -- he phoned his fellow courthouse reporters to see what was going on.
(Translation: to see if he could piggyback his byline onto anything they had cooking.)
He rang Hal Davis, the Post's man at Supreme Court.
"Nothing much going on," Davis told Pearl. "Oh -- Al Aronowitz just dropped dead."
Pearl couldn't believe his ears. "When?" he asked.
"Just now," Davis replied matter-of-factly.
Al Aronowitz had been a pioneering rock 'n' roll journalist for the New York Post. Both Pearl and Davis had hung out with Aronowitz, attended parties with the man -- and just like that, he was gone.
Pearl was shocked on two levels. For one thing, how could Davis react so calmly to the death of a friend? And on the professional side, Davis was dropping the ball on a big story!
"Did you tell the office?" Pearl ventured.
"No," said Davis. "Why should I?"
What the hell had happened to Hal's news judgment? The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh, but the key commandment of Pearl's life remained in force: Thou shalt not loseth a byline.
He forced himself to remain calm. "Listen, Hal, I'll call you back!" he said.
Breathless with excitement, he hung up and rang the city desk.
"Al Aronowitz just dropped dead!"
"Jeez, that's unbelievable!" said the city editor. "What'd he die of?"
Pearl gulped. "I'll call you right back!" he promised.
Meanwhile, a rewriteman began pounding out an obituary, with minutes to go until deadline: "Al Aronowitz, the legendary godfather of rock 'n' roll journalism who introduced the Beatles to Bob Dylan and befriended everyone from Ray Charles to the Rolling Stones, died suddenly today..."
Oddly, the story hadn't hit the wire services. This was the time when an editor either trusted his reporter, or he didn't.
When Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan died in 1981, the New York Post was the first newspaper to break the story, because our Middle East correspondent found out about it before anyone else in the media.
It was a glorious moment for him, but not a perfect one for the newspaper. That's because the Post's front-page photo of Dayan showed him with the eyepatch over the wrong eye -- the art department had accidentally "flopped" the picture and published it in reverse. (Tough to get those things right if the guy isn't wearing a t-shirt with writing on it.)
Anyway, Mike Pearl needed more details on the Aronowitz death, so he had to go back to his source. He phoned Hal Davis.
"Hey, Hal, what did Al Aronowitz die of?"
Davis was stunned. "Al died? He was just here!"
"You told me he dropped dead!"
"Mike, I told you he dropped in. As in, for a visit."
"I'll call you right back!"
Now Pearl had to ring the city editor and tell him he'd bungled it. On top of that, he was losing a byline, and maybe even his job.
Fortunately for Pearl, it all worked out. The city editor called him a few names, but the story was killed before anyone had to yell "Stop the presses!" and everybody could laugh it off.
But had Pearl made that call five minutes later Al Aronowitz, like Mark Twain, would have been reading about his own death in the afternoon newspaper.
For the record, Al Aronowitz died on August 1, 2005 at age 77. Mike Pearl, bless his ink-stained soul, is still around. He gave me the green light to tell this story, with one small request:
"Could you put my byline on it?"
Some things never change.
Charlie Carillo's latest novel is One Hit Wonder. His website is www.charliecarillo.com. He's a producer for the TV show Inside Edition.