Mollie Malloy: They're not human!
Hildy Johnson: They're newspapermen, Mollie. They can't help themselves.
--From His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
One entire wall of the press room at Manhattan Criminal Court is papered with headlines from the New York Post. Scores of stories, all reported by Mike Pearl. Produced by Mike Pearl is more accurate. Nick Pileggi, his former colleague, says what Pearl was really doing was making mini-movies.
Pearl could have been the archetype for Hildy Johnson except that Hildy came first and she was much better-looking. But Pearl shared her ink-stained DNA. He was a tabloid warrior when there were eight newspapers fighting for your nickel in this city. It was a blood sport. Survival belonged to the species that best flaunted moxie, a flair for the cinematic, shall we say. Behold Pearl's moxie:
A giraffe on its way from Africa to the circus in Manhattan fell off a ship in the East river and drowned. The Mirror assigned Pearl. It was just a terrible accident, but Pearl saw more.
"The giraffe was lovesick for its mate back in Africa," Pearl wrote, "so it jumped off the ship in an attempt to swim home." Then he turned up the juice: "The giraffe's mournful cries for its mate had been keeping everybody on the ship awake all night..."
Fade-in! A love story! Page 3. Photos of two giraffes with a heart between them. A Mike Pearl Production.
Next day, the city editor called Pearl to his office. Mike expecting a bonus, maybe even a raise.
"Quite a story," the editor said. "The giraffe kept everybody awake with his cries?"
The editor pointed to a dozen telegrams on his desk. "They all say the same thing, Pearl," he bellowed. "Giraffes are mute!"
Pearl had to think fast to save his job.
"All of a sudden," he sighed, "everybody's a zoologist."
Like many cub reporters before him, Pearl apprenticed in the "shack" at police headquarters trading elbows with the men - always men - from seven other papers and three wire services. Weegee, chewing a cigar and flashing his Speed Graphic, was there too. The stories were ripe and Pearl picked them, polished them and premiered them on the silver screen of The Daily Mirror. When the Mirror folded he moved to the Journal American. It folded. Then the World Journal Tribune. Folded. Finally, the New York Post. When he retired, his colleagues gave him a framed front page of the Post with the headline, "The Only Paper Pearl Couldn't Kill."
For thirty-one years Pearl was the Post's lens on Criminal Court. He orchestrated stories of the city's high-born and low-down, Park Avenue socialites and Tenth Avenue prostitutes, CEO's and con artists, murderers, politicians and pimps.
A startling number of the female defendants Pearl covered were buxom blondes. Blondes sell papers, Pearl reasoned. Whenever the DA announced the indictment of a woman, Pearl's first question was always, "What color is her hair?" No matter the answer, in Pearl's stories, they were always blondes.
One evening, after Pearl had filed a piece on the conviction of a female shoplifter, he called the editor to find out where the story was slotted.
Buried with the want ads! Pearl was stewing. "But she's a buxom blonde."
The editor, disbelieving: "Get me art and I'll play the story high."
Half an hour before deadline, a photograph was found. Pearl was right. She was a buxom blonde. But she weighed three-hundred pounds. The story stayed on page 17.
If he could outdo Mr. Kenneth styling ladies' hair, Pearl wasn't exactly chopped liver coining phrases to punch up his reporting. Charlie Carillo - a first-rate rewrite man - recalls Pearl came up with this gem: "Fighting back tears."
"Mike told me that anybody who isn't crying is fighting back tears," says Carillo. "Beautiful!"
There's no mystery why Pearl's reporting pulsed with theatrics. He is passionate about movies, encyclopedic on the subject. It led to one of his finer scoops.
John Huston was directing Richard Burton in The Night of The Iguana. Filming in Mexico, it was a toss-up which was hotter: Burton's on-screen craving for Ava Gardner or his off-screen lust for Liz Taylor. Taylor was never far from the set. She and Burton were impossible together; either steamy trysts or colossal donnybrooks. When tempers boiled over, the production shut down for a week. Huston flew to New York to cool off. The Journal American got a tip Huston would be holed up at the St. Regis Hotel. They sent Pearl to get the story.
John Huston tried newspapering before becoming a director. Pearl knew that. He also knew that Huston did a cameo in his own The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as a well-to-do American pan-handled by Humphrey Bogart: "Excuse me, sir, could you spare some change for a fellow American down on his luck?"
Hours later, John Huston strode into the St. Regis lobby. Pearl approached him at the reception desk.
"Excuse me, Mr. Huston, could you spare a story for a fellow newspaperman down on his luck?"
Huston threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"Come on up to my room, kid."
Half a bottle of tequila later, Pearl phoned his desk with exquisite details of the Taylor/Burton eruptions in Acapulco. Then, they finished off the booze - John Huston and Mike Pearl - talking movies until the small hours.
They threw a party for Pearl's 80th birthday the other night at Elaine's. The place was thick with writers, reporters, TV people and court officials past and present.
"Pretty nice turnout for a cash bar," Pearl observed.
As he worked the room, Pearl beamed. So many friends. So many buxom blondes.