The Joyful Sage of Windsor
R. M. Harrison writes 2,500 expert words a night under three by-lines. He also plays the piano with his big toe
SOMETHING of a legend in his own time Richard Moorsom Harrison is one of the most prolific newspapermen in the country, and, the testimony of his contemporaries records, one of the most remarkable in a remarkable business.
Harrison is known variously to readers of the Windsor Daily Star, for which he toils six nights a week, as R.M.H., Annie Oakley and plain R. M. Harrison. He is the paper’s columnist, t heatre and music critic, book reviewer and editorial paragraphes While no one ever has sat down to count his nightly output it is estimated that he subjects his typewriter to roughly 2,500 more or less hardwon words per nightly sitting.
His most widely read endeavor is a doublecolumn, page-length feature called “Now,” which appears under his own by-line on the first page of the second section. For the editorial page he turns out a potpourri of nonsense called “Starbeams” which is signed with his initials. "R.M.H.” also trademarks his theatre and music criticism, his territory ranging across the river into Detroit for first nights and other highlights of that city’s cult ural gropings. Annie Oakley is Harrison’s pseudonym for movie reviews and theatrical promotion roundups.
He contributes anywhere from eight to 11 editorial paragraphs every day, including his day off. These are the twoand three-line observations on a newspaper editorial page or in a separate column; pithy, succinct, often barbed, frequently
subtle comments on controversial subjects.
Personally Harrison is one of those interesting people about whom the man must have been thinking who observed that in the newspaper business you meet all sorts of interesting people, and they’re all in the newspaper business.
He works at night by choice, a choice he chooses to call the Fifth Freedom. Although he turns out a prodigious amount of work, and therefore spends a considerable amount of time in his littered office, it is virtually impossible to contact him by telephone, or, for that matter, even to contact him. Telephonic pursuit of Harrison invariably uncovers countless places that he has just left. A rough schedule of his office hours, if they might he called that, is 1 a.m. to 7 a.m.—with no guarantee that he will be available at any given hour.
Dick, in his latter forties now, is a slender, medium-sized man, with twinkling blue eyes, grey
curling hair which he keeps short-trimmed at the sides, and a greying mustache. He is an excellent listener, leaning easily back in a chair, turning his head with attentive, birdlike gestures. His lower lip tends to protrude when he talks, which is not often, seldom at great length, and invariably past his cigar. Quick-paced and sprightly, Harrison never wea. s a hat, always manages to hike up his coat collar. It is a rare spot in Windsor at which he doesn’t greet at least half the people he encounters, t he majority of those by their first names.
Harrison’s office, like its occupant, knows no routine, is unconventional and could not be described as orderly. It is small and densely populated with newspapers piled three and four feet high in jumbled bundles. A green-shaded light is suspended on a long cord from the ceiling and hangs directly over Harrison’s typewriter. No one has ever been known to uncover any particular object he might be seeking in the office, and, indeed, there is reason to ponder whether there might not be somebody in there who went hunting, say, a copy of Variety and never was seen again.
Signs are Harrison’s fetish. A large enamel sign on the door proclaims, Washing Wanted. Others, collected at the risk of limb, and, quite possibly, life, hang around the walls or are propped against a pile of papers on the floor. One mentions These Premises Are Quarantined on Account of Measles. Another says, somewhat incongruously, The Drink Problem in the Economic Setup. One, which fascinates him but which he has not yet acquired from its Detroit locale, says, Do Not Remove Candies From Toilet. Continued on page 54
Continued on page 54
The Joyful Sage of Windsor
Continued from page 22
Near his door is this poem,
Of all the evils under the sun
Cigarette smoking is surely one;
It queers the heart and dulls the brain
And gives the fingers an ugly stain.
No cigarettes for me.
Harrison is not one to interpret his signs too literally, of course, although it is true that he holds cigarettes in small regard. Harrison smokes cigars; in fact, it might be said that Harrison absorbs cigars. He invariably has one clamped firmly in the centre of his mouth and there is some question whether fire or the Harrison dentures overwhelm the greater amount.
When he is working he glowers past his cigar at his typewriter, completely absorbed. With his shirt sleeves rolled up a couple of turns he sits patiently awaiting his thoughts and when he gets them he attacks the machine viciously, rapidly and in short spurts. The protesting keys throw up a clatter not unlike that of a machine gun and they seem to take their worst beating when Harrison is thumping out, with two fingers, his “Now” column.
“Now,” a poll of readers discovered, is the most widely read feature in the paper next to the comic strips and cartoons. It skips from international to local issues and makes the Star the only newspaper in Canada in which a reader can, as Harrison puts it, “read what’s what on the front page and, turning to “Now” on the same day, read what’s not.”
By this he means that he comments on the news when it’s news; not, as in the case of other papers, 24 hours later when the editorial writers, Dick points out, “have had a day to decide whether to climb aboard or keep off.”
His War on Rats
Harrison is able to do this because of an arrangement with the Star’s night (>dit;>r who, when he comes across a piece of important news, sets a carbon copy of it aside for Harrison. Dick reads it, explores its significance and starts hammering his typewriter.
“Now” obsessions this winter have been millions of rats which live on the city dump near his home in Sandwich. Under persistent Harrison prodding the City Council finally gave its blessing to the Essex County Sportsmen’s Association, permitting members to clamp shells into their shotguns and go shooting. And Windsor’s thousands of war veterans swear by R. M. Harrison who, during the war, and now in the peace, goes overboard on their behalf
when he feels they are being done an injustice.
His pet hates are Communists whom, he says, “I never mention less than eight or nine days a week.” The column is provocative and does not necessarily reflect the popular point of view or the paper’s editorial policy.
Harrison’s imagination is alive and colorful and gets its best workout in his “Starbeams” column which is often a daffy satirization of a city council windbag or some other public figure, national or international, who has set himself up nicely for a verbal caricature.
Some of the characters who play the title roles in “Starbeams” are Hon. Hoop N. Koff, the fiery member for Tecumseh Road and Minister of Alibis and Bottlenecks in the Mackenzie King Cabinet; Joe Bungstarter, the raffish, rum-running rajah of Turkey Creek; the naughty but nice Miss Sadie Shortskirts; Dr. T. Vesuvius Oil, the great globe-trotter, world traveller and circumnavigator; Randolph Q. Schnoozlegoozle, alderman for Ward Six; that hardy pioneer of the prairies, Uncle Henry, and his three wives, Aunt Xanthippe, Aunt Millie and Aunt Hernia; and sundry others.
Harrison formerly illustrated “Starbeams” himself with a two-column caricature of sorts; now, however, he supplies a Star artist with his idea for the daily cartoon. Frequently Dick gets something to write about when he is glancing through magazines or newspapers and comes across a cartoon that sets his imagination in motion. A drawer in his desk is jammed with cartoons and cuts of cartoons and if he is stuck for an idea he often rummages through the drawer, studying its contents carefully, probing the possibilities of each.
As a critic of the legitimate stage he catches between 30 and 45 first nights a season in Detroit. He insists, however, that his attendance at symphony concerts and recitals bears no more relation to his musical knowledge than the fact that he is fond of anything that goes tum-tee-tum, although, under given circumstances, he has proven that he is a pianoforte virtuoso beyond comparison—with two thumbs and his great toe.
Harrison was a protege of the late discriminating publisher, W. F. Herman, who liberally populated eastern Canada with western newspapermen when he sold his Saskatoon Star and purchased the old Windsor Record in 1918. He renamed it the Border Cities Star and immediately began to surround himself with his Saskatoon hirelings. Dick Harrison made the jump in 1925 when Mr. Herman imported him to write the “Starbeams” column he had been authoring in Saskatoon.
Since then he has eschewed many a glittering offer to forsake Windsor for
\the twin reasons that he dislikes the idea of residence in the United States and regards the Star as the best paper in Canada. Windsor’s propinquity to Detroit, he points out, offers its citizens all of the advantages of living in a big American city without subjecting them to any of the disadvantages. At various times the News, the Free Press and the Times across the river have beckoned vainly, a point which pleases Harrison but does not overawe him. “In my time I have been invited to play the piano in a poorhouse, too,” he relates, “but I have declined.”
How Legends Grow
Dick is one of those newspapermen whom legends so frequently depict, but newspaper offices so seldom see, uninhibited yet conscientious, blasé yet loyal, independent yet devoted.
For instance, his office doesn’t know it but Harrison spent a week in New York in May, 1945, making the jaunt with one of his old friends who dropped into Windsor en route to a business conference in Manhattan. For a reason that now escapes him, Dick decided to go along. While he was away the Star printed his “Now” column daily, “Starbeams” appeared in their regular place at the top, righthand corner of the editorial page, the editorial paragraphs saw each edition and a book review adorned the Saturday supplement.
Dick, before he departed, sweated out a week’s work in two days, took a printer from the composing room into his confidence, turned the pages of copy over to him and instructed him to release the required amount of copy each night.
Mischievous, improvident perhaps, Harrison is discussed with great affection by those who have worked with him. Gillis Purcell, now general manager of The Canadian Press, once was a sports writer on the Windsor Star. He worked nights, and, occasionally, after covering a hockey game or a ball game, he would catch a catnap on a table in the Star’s library before finishing up the night’s string of copy for the 7 a.m. dead line.
One morning around 5 o’clock he awakened and would have leaped to his feet to rush to the sports department to clean up the night rewrites except for the fairly important fact that he was unable to move. Somewhat to his dismay he discovered he was bound hand and foot to the table, secured by a long rope which was wound many times over his body and under the table top. He struggled to no avail for a time, finally started to shout for assistance. Nobody answered. The minutes ticked closer to dead line and Purcell started to sweat earnestly. At length the door opened a crack and Harrison, grinning fiendishly, poked his head into the library. For five minutes he stood there while Purcell pleaded to be released. “Why, of course, Gillis, old fellow,” he said finally, coming into the room. “Didn’t realize you were awake.”
Peter MacRitchie, now city editor of The Montreal Gazette, worked with Dick on the Star in the mid-1930’s. He has occasionally regaled friends with a story of the time when Dick was missing from the office for three days. After he had failed to report on the fourth day Old Man Herman, as the publisher was generally called, ordered MacRitchie, as city editor, to send all of his staff out on a search.
“I tipped off the staff, all 20 of them, to go across to the Chinaman’s and drink coffee until such time as I would summon them back,” laughs MacRitchie as he unfolds the story. “This was 9 a.m. and for the ensuing two hours not a line of local copy was
written. Meantime I canvassed all the joints by phone, realizing of course how futile it was.
“Dick was still missing that evening.
*1 was living in room 325 at the Norton Palmer hotel at the time. I lay down for 40 winks after dinner and, while musing, thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be
funny if that bird was registered here.’
I went down to the desk and enquired casually if Dick Harrison was registered. The clerk denied it but gave me a funny look which convinced me he was there I finally broke him down with the threat I would inform Herman that he was concealing Harrison and, Herman being the power that he was in Windsor, the very name struck fear into the clerk. He admitted Harrison was in 425, directly above me, and had been there for three days.
“I bounded into the elevator but the clerk, out of duty to Dick, called him on the phone and warned him I was on my way up. I got there just in time to see Dick creep out of his room in his bare feet, shoes in hand. I ordered him back to his room where, after much cajoling, he agreed to accompany me to the office. He then sat at his desk as if nothing had happened and turned out all of his four regular columns.”
It’s Not Marmaduke
Few people know that the “M” in Harrison’s name is for Moorsom, most of those who hail him as he is going to church or coming from a beverage room calling him Marmaduke. Dick points out with some dignity that one of Lord Nelson’s admirals was Sir Richard Moorsom, and states further that there have been ships of the line named Moorsom through the years, including a destroyer at Jutland. As a matter of fact he claims to be Richard Moorsom Harrison VIII and his son, now attending Assumption High School, is the ninth. Dick, in fact, can get downright verbose on the subject of the Harrison family tree and it is his boast that his mother was descended from the first white child born in what is now the city of Montreal. Maissoneuve, first French governor of Montreal, was the boy’s godfather.
Dick’s father was a banker in Carberry, Man., 106 miles west of Winnipeg, and Dick recalls that the bank was located next to the town opera house. After the show his father invariably invited the actors into the Harrison domicile for a spot of tea. The profession, then as now, was precarious and a whole Mikado troupe moved out of town one dark night without paying hotel bills. The Harrison kids, by virtue of their residence near the town’s temple of the arts, inherited costumes and props. Never to be forgotten in Carberry was the subsequent parade down the main street, with half the community’s urchins decked out in the cherry-blossomed regalia of Pooh-Bah and Pitti-Sing. Young Richard, the local Ko-Ko, swung the Lord High Executioner’s sword directly behind the Brown twins’ toy police patrol wagon drawn by two goats.
After a couple of grades in the Carberry public school Dick was shipped off to St. Boniface College, across the Red River from Winnipeg, where the Jesuits, he recalls, were enraptured by his prose and appalled by his mathematics. In June, 1914, on a visit to his brother in Saskatoon, he propped his bicycle against the curb in front of the Saskatoon Star office, hitched up his knickerbockers and confronted W. F. Herman. After a brief interview Mr. Herman handed down the opinion that Harrison never would make a newspaperman.
Returning to Winnipeg young Dick
harpooned his first newspaper job with a weekly, the Northwest Review, and with it he inherited several thousand “subscription arrears” statements. In pursuit of these delinquent subscribers he says he cycled up and down every street in Winnipeg and over footpaths which, at that time, weren’t yet streets.
Being, even in those days, a champion of free enterprise, he managed to catch every Monday matinee at the Orpheum on Fort Street, Winnipeg’s de luxe vaudeville house, and, later in the week, he seldom missed the Pantages, another vaudeville temple near City Hall. In April, 1915, came a summons to Saskatoon. Clippings of various parochial notes, which Dick had authored for the old Northwest Review and mailed to Saskatoon, had apparently attracted Mr. Herman.
“He knew a good newspaperman when he read one,” reflects Harrison stoutly, “even if he didn’t know one when he saw one.” He launched his daily journalistic career at $12.50 a week after the Saskatoon Light Infantry noted that his downy cheeks contrasted too markedly with the prairietanned jowls of the old Imperial vets and irrepressible plainsmen who were rushing to join the famed regiment. Near the end of the war he got in as a military staff clerk at MD 12 headquarters.
He served on the Star for 10 years and relates that he probably never would have advanced beyond the cub stage except for the help of such great friends as the late Percy Armstrong, who died, as Dick puts it, with his boots on the rim of the London Free Press years later; Bill Darling, the city hall reporter, and, above all, George F. Wright, whom he describes as “that shock-eyebrowed genius who could write an editorial with a broken wrist—as long as Harrison, with an attuned ear, sat at the typewriter.”
When, in 1925, Dick was summoned to Windsor by Mr. Herman, the Saskatoon staff sprung for a goingaway party. Vern DeGeer, then the paper’s sports editor, later the sports editor of the Windsor Star and the Toronto Globe and Mail, recalls that he and Jerry Brown, later the city editor of the Toronto Star, were in charge of the refreshment table. When most of the food and all of the drink had been consumed, a gold watch and chain were presented to the guest of honor. Dick, in his acceptance speech, began to whirl the watch around his head. The chain broke, the watch thundered across the room and plunked into a bowl of mashed potatoes. Harrison cherished the ticker for 12 years at the end of which time, he relates sadly, it was swiped.
Dick Goes for a Snack
The day after the presentation Dick decided to say farewell personally to his many Saskatoon friends. Although the temperature was 90 degrees he encased himself in a coon coat owned by a friend who was six-foot-four. He slung a set of snowshoes across his back, adorned his head with a straw hat, swung a tennis racket in his right hand and made his way down Second Avenue, bowing sadly and waving forlornly to his friends.
Soon after he reached Windsor he established his imperturbability in his new home city. He was driving a touring car down Ouelette Avenue a few hours past midnight when his car, in a fit of pique which still dismays and bewilders him, leaped from the road and piled into the front window of the Maple Leaf café. Noting that the car would not run again that night, or for many more to come, Harrison calmly climbed out, sat down at the restaur-
ant’s counter and ordered a plate of bacon and eggs. One of the more distressing aspects of the incident was that two policemen had interrupted their beats to partake of a cup of coffee and they were sitting in the café when Harrison arrived so ceremoniously. “It cost me around 300 bucks,” Dick recalls, somewhat testily, “and a night in the pokey.”
To augment a memory, already retentive, Harrison generally carries a small, leather-bound notebook in which he jots notes as he makes his daily and nightly rounds in search for ideas. Often in the middle of a conversation, he will scramble quickly into his inside coat pocket, either to record something he has just heard or to jot a thought that suddenly has appeared. As often as not, though, the book is retained as an album of limericks, of which he has more than a hundred.
No Angel, He
Harrison’s joie de vivre has long been the scourge of publishers, general managers, managing editors and city editors. One time Freddie Laubach, then general manager of the Saskatoon Star, called him into his office and warned him that there had been complaints about the behavior of the Star staff. After a short but sharp reprimand Laubach placed his hat on his head and walked down the street. There, not 100 yards from him, was Harrison, climbing a telephone pole and singing, “Oh, See the Little Angels Ascend Up.”
He has probably never entered a newspaper office in his life in which he hasn’t fired at least one milk bottle up (or down) the pneumatic tubes which lead from the editorial floor to the composing room. Always, of course, he has an accomplice situated at the other, or explosive, end of the prank so that the resulting havoc can be duly reported to its perpetrator.
Dick once was the recipient of a box of oysters and after trying vainly to crack open the shells he finally solved his dilemma by hurling the briny delicacies the length of the editorial room against the wall where, if he had been persistent enough, they either cracked or broke open.
Harrison’s safaris with the Windsor Chamber of Commerce are famous. He has been all over North America with the Chamber, to Tia Juana, Skagway, Galveston, Seattle, Halifax, and once he outraged the thousands in attendance at a big bull fight in Mexico by hurling his hat into the ring as encouragement to the bull. The Chamber generally made movies of its junkets and those who have seen them claim that Harrison has starred in them all, although he was never aware that he was being “shot.”
“He’s funnier than Ben Turpin,” one of them reflected.
And yet, for all of that, Harrison is regarded as one of Canada’s best allround newspapermen, and one of the most brilliant writers. Gillis Purcell calls him “a real student of the technique of newspaper work.” He can handle and has handled any assignment or job in the business from head writing to copyreading to slot man to sports editor to feature writing to straight reporting. Mr. Herman frequently had him on the carpet but he recognized his genius and, his contemporaries insist, regarded him as a favorite son.
Dick has no hobbies, unless they are his work and his reunions with old Star men, either Saskatoon or Windsor. His main interests are his four children— three daughters and a son—and his three grandchildren, none of whom, he says, will ever be rich. “They’re too much like me,” he grins past his cigar, “the dopes.” ic