Aug. 13, 2001
They told me Ted Thackrey was dead, and I said yeah, sure, right.
They said he had written his last 1,000 words with the kind of blazing
speed that characterized his kamikaze style, and when he’d finished, he
just closed his eyes and died. I said tell me another one and went back
But then, as it happened, I discovered this Thackrey story was true.
There was an obit in the small weekly newspaper where he once worked and
then a memorial service. Even Thackrey wouldn’t have gone that far,
pretending to be dead, then popping up somewhere after all the tears and
rituals were over.
It would be hard even for Ted to fake his own cremation. He was dead
When I became convinced of it, I began thinking back to the guy who,
if you’ll forgive the arrogance of my conclusion, was newspapering’s last
great rewrite man. A hard drinker, a storyteller of the Baron Munchausen
school and a man who wrote faster than a hurricane in hell, he defined a
breed of journalists that no longer exists.
They were the ones who rarely left the office and whose bylines you
didn’t often see. They took notes over the phone from reporters in the
field, shaped them into tight, readable stories in the chaotic final
seconds before deadline, then went back to smoking and complaining until
the phone rang again.
They were right out of "Front Page."
Thack worked here for a lot of years, terrifying young reporters even
as he tutored them, demanding no less from himself than he did from them.
He was known to simply hang up on lazy beginners who came to him with
incomplete information and quietly praise those he couldn’t intimidate.
He was part of a rewrite row that included guys like Jack Jones, Dick
West, Jerry Cohen and acid-tongued Jerry Belcher, the quickest wit south
of San Francisco. I was part of the crew until I drifted off to other
pursuits, leaving the frantic last-minute stuff to the guys who loved it.
"They wrote with grace and language," a former editor says of them.
"They were fast, but they were literate. A Ted Thackrey doesn’t exist
Thack and I shared the same desk for years. I’d use it during the day
and he’d take over at night. We wrote, in those pre-computer days, on
Remingtons that were old when I got there in ’72 and broke down when you
needed them most. After everyone had gone home at night, Ted would
cannibalize other typewriters in the office and steal their parts in
order to make ours the fastest, loosest and most efficient machine of
Stories about the man, a big, bald, wry kind of guy, are the stuff of
make-believe. One has Ted contributing to the creation of a fictitious
character they named Victor Frisbee in the old L.A. Examiner. An inside
joke, Frisbee would pop up in stories as the eternal bystander, sometimes
a sportsman, sometimes a philanthropist. When the Ex folded, a brief,
front-page piece said simply, "Victor Frisbee, sportsman and
philanthropist, died today."
Rewrite guys were a different breed. They yelled a lot and drank a lot
and had bursts of temper that were legendary. Thackrey could slam-dunk a
typewriter into a wastebasket in a fight with an editor and roar at slow
or clumsy reporters in a voice that rattled windows. West, built like a
bull, could, and occasionally did, express himself by knocking someone on
his can when the mood took him, as fast with his fists as he was with a
typewriter. Belcher could attack editors with the fury of a tiger shark,
leaving them emotionally dead, then go back to writing the cleanest
stories I’ve ever read in a newspaper.
When he wasn’t setting a Remington afire with his awesome writing
speed or teaching lessons in newspaper prose, Thack was a storyteller
with a soaring imagination. According to him, he’d been a pilot with the
Royal Air Force in World War II, a soldier in both the Korean and Biafran
wars, a government agent in Vienna and an airline pilot in Southeast
In between, or so he always said, he’d been Ernest Hemingway’s
secretary and sparring partner, a phone psychic, a kind of ghost-buster
and a pastor. He also wrote novels, short stories and may, or may not,
have written one of the best science-fiction pieces ever, called "Arena."
He churned out 1,000 words a day on his own, right up until two days
before he died of cancer at age 82. Or maybe 84.
We never knew which of his many lives were real, concluding somewhere
along the way that no one person could have lived them all. His widow,
Diana, says she knew that most of his stories were true but wasn’t sure
about some of the others.
We’ll have to settle for that, I guess. Sometimes his penchant for
fiction crept into his news stuff, and it was ultimately the reason for
his leaving The Times. He tried to create another Victor Frisbee at the
wrong time, in the wrong place. As we said goodbye, this giant of rewrite
row, humbled by his own deed, said simply, "It’s a lousy way to end a
The program at Thack’s memorial service listed his name as Thedor
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Thackera Olwyn von Refrau und zu Holsten. Maybe
there were two Thackreys, one of them Ted, who loved newspapering and
reigned over rewrite as its once and future king, and the long-named guy
who, like Baron Munchausen, told one story too many. It doesn’t matter.
Not really. The Thack I knew was unique to an era of journalism that
exists only in the memories of those of us who were there.
Ted Thackrey is truly dead, but the legend lives. He is survived by us