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Of `Star Style' and a reporter named Hemingway

By Jim Fisher, Star columnist

In 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania received exceptional play in The Star. A two-column headline announced the tragedy, the first of many in the next few years. The European powers plunged deeper into war, drawing the United States inexorably toward the trenches, which already snaked across the fields of eastern France.

Yet the war, in its first years, seemed distant in Kansas City. The Star supplied readers twice a day with details of the expanding conflict, but, on the whole, it still emphasized local news. Reporters, as they would for the next 60 years, bent over their typewriters, which then were attached to oaken tables in the cavernous city room. The staff rotated as The Star finished its run and the night staff of ``The Morning Kansas City Star,'' The Times, came to work. Almost to a man, the reporters wore caps and hats. Celluloid collars pinched their necks.

But change was in the air. And into the midst of The Star staff, in late 1917, came a youth who, when he could get away with it, wore a red and black checkered hunting shirt to work. Old timers frowned on such dress.

But the young reporter worked outside the office most of the time. His name was Ernest Hemingway.

Years later scholars would come to Kansas City to investigate Hemingway's tenure at The Star, which lasted from October 1917 to April 1918. This period fascinated Hemingway students because his lean, spare writing style, basically ``Star Style,'' led him to become one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature and a legend as a man, warrior, womanizer and drinker.

The scholars would ask for the library's clippings on Hemingway and C.G. ``Pete'' Wellington, the assistant city editor of The Star in 1917. Hemingway credited Wellington with changing his verbose high school writing style into clear, provocative English. The scholars also requested ``The Star Copy Style'' sheet, a single, galley-sized page, which contained the 110 rules governing Star prose. Hemingway later would recall the sheet as something ``they gave you to study when you went to work and after that you were just as responsible for having learned it as after you've had the articles of war read to you.''

Hemingway would always remember the style sheet and its core admonition: ``Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.''

``Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,'' Hemingway said in 1940. ``I've never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.''

The ``Copy Style'' sheet was a bible, containing eminently practical rules. Some others:

  • Never use old slang. Such words as stunt, cut out, got his goat, come across, sit up and take notice, put one over, have no use after their use has become common. Slang to be enjoyable must be fresh.
  • Eliminate every superfluous word as Funeral services will be at 2 o'clock Tuesday, not The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o'clock Tuesday. Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.
  • Don't say, He had his leg cut off in an accident. He wouldn't have had it done for anything.
  • He was eager to go, not anxious to go. You are anxious about a friend who is ill.
  • He died of heart disease, not heart failure -- everybody dies of heart failure.''

The rules ``made extremely good sense,'' Hemingway recalled in 1952. Yet Wellington had another quality. With his honest thoroughness and love of the language, Wellington's attitude instilled a sense of greatness into a group of young men eager to believe themselves great.

The Star encouraged its reporters to write with absolute freedom, unhampered save by the truth as they saw it. The result was exceptional newspaper writing in a day when some reporters on other papers made up stories with small regard to truth, caring little for the craft of writing. The freedom had an added bonus -- staff loyalty. Despite their meager wages, a Star man cherished his creative freedom. It is little wonder so many of them would develop into smooth storytellers later at other papers across the nation, in the writers' wings of Hollywood studios and at the major magazines. One Star man, long before journalists would be called the ``new elite,'' described working for The Star:

``It made us feverish. It sent us along the street, day after day, and year after year...hoping that streetcars might crash, that murder would rise out of the gutter...so that I could be on hand to cover the story. It made eternal cubs of us with interest never lagging. We had honor to maintain, prestige to defend, we had constant competition, not from other papers but from our fellow reporters. We had contests among ourselves for the honor of getting more news into the paper than other men...Reporters must be horror-stricken at any failure in civic pride. They must cheer new development, applaud the man who built his own house, revere the Chamber of Commerce, invoke eternal wrath upon him who doubted the Kansas City spirit. We must think of The Star in off hours and show up for work whenever necessary, without extra pay. After all, what was money? Something transitory. But the fame of being a Star man would last forever. And we believed it.''

Some researchers would pore over The Star of those times on microfilm, failing to turn up what they wanted badly, a story bearing Hemingway's byline or initials. Such stories did not exist. Stories were not identified with bylines; initials were only rarely used. The microfilm signaled the last stop for the scholars. But they usually found where Hemingway lived when he worked at the paper, a rooming house at 3526 Agnes.

Ernest Hemingway came to The Star as a big, round-faced boy of 18 with limitless energy, and a desire to be in the thick of the action whether a shooting scrape or chasing ambulances. Hemingway worked at the paper for seven months. In late April 1918, he and Ted Brumback, another Star reporter, joined an ambulance unit in Italy. Except for the first two weeks of his employment, when he was mistaken by the rest of the staff for the extremely youthful but brilliant drama critic occupying a rear desk, an error even the city editor seemed to share, Hemingway was on the run.

Twenty years later Hemingway remembered those days in Kansas City, ``how Southwest boulevard slanted and how I lay under a Ford while detectives shot two internal revenue agents and how you could sleep in the pressroom bathtub if your legs articulated properly and how when the fog came up in the fall, you could see Hospital hill pushing up, almost smelling its antiseptic concord of odors.''

Of all the men Hemingway met in his brief stint at The Star, it was Lionel Calhoun Moise who influenced him most. Moise might have served as a prototype for the Hemingway tough guy. A big, broad-shouldered man, Moise had become a legend in the city room by the time he was 28 and Hemingway met him, a drinker, nomad reporter and a man who liked to beat up his women.

``He was a big, brutal son-of-a-bitch,'' recalled Emmet Crozier, the playwright who was on The Star's sports staff at the time. Hemingway dogged Moise's steps, listening to his theories about tying paragraphs together so they couldn't be cut; that pure objective writing is the only form of story telling; and lamenting ``the regrettable indication of a great nation's literary taste when it chooses a national anthem beginning with the words, `Oh, say.' ''

Moise set attitudes in Hemingway which later became vital to the man: the need to experience what he wrote about and the use of a minimum of description. Action and dialogue would be Hemingway's strength, his genius.

Hemingway remained kind to The Star in his appreciation of what he had learned at the paper. But The Star was not always kind to him. The Aug. 7, 1926, Star reviewed Hemingway's newest book. The review, in part, said: ``Young Ernest Hemingway, who left the staff of The Star in the early days of the World War, volunteered for the Italian army, and got himself gloriously shot up, has, in spite of it all, not lost his love for shooting. That is proved by his audacious little volume, ``Torrents of Spring''...which is really a machine gun nest peppering...the literary style of Sherwood Anderson and the Chicago school of fiction.''

The review, which bore no initials, referred to Hemingway's first book, In Our Time, as mordant, and described Torrents of Spring as ``dreary,'' ``interminable,'' and ``boring.'' The reviewer admitted he couldn't finish it.

In the years following, hundreds of thousands of others would view the work of Hemingway quite differently.

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