The drunk journalist is a well-worn stereotype. The mere mention of an alcoholic news reporter conjures images of old newsrooms, typewriters, cigarettes and bottles hidden in bottom desk drawers.
Those were the good old days some might say. Today, newspapers are on the financial ropes. Cigarette smoke in the newsroom is as rare as a typewriter. And in this age of lawsuits and enforced workplace decorum, showing up drunk at the office is frowned upon more than it once was. People just don’t consider it cute anymore.
No, today, the drunk journalist — they do still exist — takes the form of every other celebrity rehab visitor. The most obvious example is that of Elizabeth Vargas, who admitted to Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos earlier this year that she is an alcoholic. After two stints in rehab — one lasting two weeks — Vargas recently returned to her position as anchor of ABC’s televised news magazine 20/20.
Well. Being the host of a television news show and drinking oneself to sleep every night with a bottle of wine hardly lives up to the image of a booze swilling hack. But in this day and age it will have to do.
For the real thing, a look back in time is required. History does provide plenty of examples. Most of the lovable boozers are no longer with us. Some actually got sober and went on to have fairly normal and very successful careers. Others maintained their fame throughout their battle with the sauce. Indeed, in the journalism of days gone by, it seemed that boozing was really not a handicap, or at least it was not something that required on-air admissions and stays in rehab. While not a job requirement, it was, more or less, an ornament of a distinguished career for some.
Here’s a look at five confirmed boozers who made a living bringing us the news. At least one kicked the habit, while some had what can be referred to as a “storied” relationship with sprits. But none of them can be pictured in the minds’ eye tearfully admitting to their trials.
Most don’t know that famed film critic Roger Ebert was once a sauce hound. That’s because he never gave in to the image of the hardened, drinking journalist. No, Ebert kicked the habit in 1979 and lived for 30 years as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in near silence on the subject.
After a cancer diagnosis and related surgeries rendered it impossible for him to ever take a drink again, he broke A.A.’s rule of public acknowledgment of membership in his blog. He told his story. He told readers of his experiences and the characters he met in the program. He didn’t glorify it, and he maintained that his admission of sobriety after 30 years was not at all similar to those celebrities who tearfully proclaim their new found commitment on television. He was right. His admission was a measured one. It amounted to an outstretched hand to fellow drunks. Ebert basically said to them, “Here is how I kicked a problem that could have killed me. If you are having trouble you might try it.”
There is no doubt that the romantic vision of the liquor-swilling, cigarette smoking writer can be smiled upon, but Ebert’s story offers the counterpoint — that a booze-filled life is not always fun, and finding a way out can be empowering.
Ebert died in 2013, sober.
Few outside of Chicago know the name of Mike Royko, but more should. He was the journalist’s journalist. Hard working and hard drinking. The only explanation Studs Terkel could offer for Royko’s amazing output was, “He is possessed by a demon.”
He was a brash, in-your-face type of reporter and took on the infamous Richard J. Daley machine in Chicago with the unauthorized biography of the city’s mayor, titled “Boss.”
Like Ebert he was a Pulitzer Prize winner. But he could have won an award for his drinking as well. He was a well-known imbiber in Chicago. But it didn’t matter. It was considered charming in his day. In 1974 he wrote a column titled “How to Cure a Hangover.” But it was really more about how to deal with a hangover since those pesky tokens of drunkenness can not truly be cured. One piece of Royko’s advice:
“Blot from your mind all memories of what you did later to your host’s rug, what you said to that lady with the prominent cleavage that made her scream, and whether you or her husband threw the first punch. Don’t dredge up those vague recollections of being asleep in your host’s bathtub while everybody pleaded with you to unlock the bathroom door.”
It was cute while it lasted. By 1994, though, Royko started losing control. He was arrested for DUI and resisting arrest in December of that year. He got some bad press for saying some homophobic things to the arresting officers.
He died, still a reporter, in 1997.
Hunter S. Thompson
“Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish — a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow — to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested…
Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.”
That’s Hunter S. Thompson writing in the 1980’s, a period of, as he said, “shame and degradation.” Thompson wasn’t the classic boozy, beat-reporter. He was the creator of Gonzo journalism and worked, primarily, from his ranch in Colorado. He made no secret of his love for booze and other hard drugs. He loved Wild Turkey and Chivas Regal, but a careful read of his works will reveal that he loved all forms of alcohol as well.
His sole fictional work, The Rum Diary, is a depiction of a drunk reporter trying to make it at a dying newspaper in Puerto Rico. Rum is its own character in the short novel that proves Thompson was no stranger to the life of the newspaperman.
Thompson had tremendous stamina. He lived for 67 years, killing himself in 2005. But his suicide was no dreary decline into depression. As in all things, Thompson dictated his own terms, even with death. He committed suicide because he wanted to go out on top.
“He feels at the peak of his life right now, has a very successful career, has a network of perfect friends,” his wife said after he was found dead of a gunshot to the head. “If he quit now, he would feel he was a champion.”
Another recent example of the hard-drinking scribe is Christopher Hitchens. He was a British-American writer who cut his journalistic teeth on London’s Fleet Street — the home of many of the city’s newspapers.
Hitchens was no stranger to the image of journalist as “piss artist” he described his youthful impression of journalists in a 2005 piece for the Guardian when, in the early ‘60s, he saw a vehicle driven “by a man of impossibly fly-blown and lugubrious appearance; his skin sallow and wrinkled, an unfiltered cigarette in his mouth; his eyes like piss-holes in the snow. Only one detail was required to complete the scene, and at first my disordered senses almost refused to register it. Stuck in the corner of his windscreen was a faint and tattered card that read “PRESS”. It was yellow all right. It might as well have been stuck in the band of his hat.”
That sums up the stereotypical image nicely. And while Hitchens would deny to the end that he ever let himself sink quite as low as the man he described in that article he was no stranger to liquor. His favorite drink was Johnnie Walker Black Label, he drank it nearly every day starting at noon. It hardly seems worth mentioning that he was also a smoker, but it does complete the image.
In a passage written as a denial that he drinks too much he describes his typical day in his memoirs:
“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”— most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before.”
Hitchens died in 2011 of esophageal cancer.
The Australian-born retired New York Post columnist, Steve Dunleavy may well be the Ketih Richards of journalism. Despite a long, long career of drunk reporting, Dunleavy is the the only writer on this list who is still living. But that’s not because of any sort of moderation. Like Richards, Dunleavy has inexplicably outlived his hard (bottle) hitting colleagues.
He retired in 2008 after months of declining output. A piece from Forbes earlier that year retells many of his exploits including the infamous “snow plow” incident. That happened sometime mid-career during a blizzard in New York, when his foot was run over by a city snowplow while he was frolicking with a female companion in a snowdrift outside of his favorite watering holes.
The incident prompted Pete Hamill of the Daily News to pen, “I hope it was his writing foot.”
While not writing anymore, he lives on, evasive in answering questions about his current drinking habits. He might just be the last of the old boozy journalists. And while alcoholism is decidedly uncool these days, its hard to deny that we might just miss them when they are all gone.
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