John K. Hutchens: Of Time and the River


 By Eve Berliner




The great John K. Hutchens.






Johnny, age 12.



By Eve Berliner



Like a fragile little bird, he departed this earth gently, John Kennedy Hutchens, a poetic essence, a ray of light, a grace. He was as if from another age, an age of gentility and deep personal honor, a fineness of spirit to this quiet mischievous soul whose heart belonged to history and language.


He saw through the eyes of his childhood until his dying day, 18 days before his 90th birthday, the wondrous adventure of it all. Born Chicago, turn of the century, August 9, 1905, his father a tough and unregenerate newspaperman (managing editor, Chicago Journal, reporter, Charles A. Dana's New York Sun, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, William Randolph Hearst's Journal).


The boy, seven or eight years of age, sitting impatiently on the office boy's bench on Saturday morning, his heart racing, waiting for his father to take him to lunch and on to Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox!


And the roar of the ballpark exploded in his mind as the White Sox took the field against the Detroit Tigers that hot summer day in July,1913, his first major league baseball game, his father by his side.


"That man there," said his father, "is as great as any player you'll ever see. His name's Ty Cobb."


His father, the most profound influence of his life who lived on vividly in his mind and spirit to the day he died, the dream of being a newspaperman born with his father.


* * *


The Great Move from Chicago to the Wilds of Montana came in the year 1917, John eleven years of age, and thus began his life-long romance with the Old West, its history, its characters, its lore forever ingrained in his secret rogue's heart, the breathtaking beauty of the American landscape indelible in his mind.


His father had made his first journey to the lawless terrain of Lewis and Clark's expeditions in November, 1889, having landed a job at the Helena Independent, arriving in Helena, Montana on the day before the Territory became a state, thus marking him officially, a pioneer, a fact young Johnny spoke of with special pride.


Missoula, Montana, what a place for a child with the fertile imagination of Johnny Hutchens to grow up in, the ghosts of Blackfoot warriors in his dreams at night. By day he would listen, listen to the voices, the voices of the old men, men who had crossed the plains by covered wagon and stagecoach, watched the open range come and go, seen the railroads arrive, men who'd fought under General George Armstrong Custer -- the endless recapitulation of his finale at the Battle of Little Big Horn River, Montana, on Bloody Sunday, June 25, 1876.


The voices, the voices that lived on in his mind, the boy at a respectful distance as the old men gathered on the old courthouse lawn, men in their 90's some of whom fought in the great Civil War, the old Northern Union Army men and Southern Confederates.


"I fought at Shiloh," cried out one old timer thick with emotion.


"I fought at Shiloh," cried another.


"I fought for the North," said the first.


"I fought for the South!"


Suddenly two old fierce men were rushing at one another, lunging with old fury, only at the last moment throwing their arms around each other embracing and weeping.


*   *   *


He was eminent in the world of books, John K. Hutchens, a man of the word, a man of literature, a man of history -- editor of the New York Times Book Review, daily book reviewer for the venerable New York Herald Tribune, Judge of the Book of the Month Club in its glory days. "By John K. Hutchens", a byline of distinction, revered.


But above all, he was a newspaperman. It was in his blood.


His 70 year career began auspiciously in the small offices of The Daily Missoulian and Sentinel in Missoula, Montana, where his father was the combative executive editor. Johnny paid his dues during summer vacations from high school and later, college.


His first byline at age 17 came on July 4, 1923, the world heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons in a tiny oil town named Shelby, Montana, John covering the story for The Missoulian-Sentinel, the fight attended, among others, by 100 Blackfoot Indians and the former Mrs. Vanderbilt.


("Oh, were you there too?" Mr. Dempsey commented in his New York restaurant years later when John respectfully introduced himself.)


In 1926, at age 21, he joined the staff as a reporter.


But it was the East that was to lure him away, New York City the Mecca, John landing a job in 1927 at the old New York Evening Post published by Syrus H.M. Curtis, beautifully printed in its old classical style, a fine journal, rising from reporter to film critic to assistant drama editor, and living the romantic life of an aspiring young newspaperman in Gramercy Park. The notoriously meager wage paid by Mr. Curtis prompted his departure from the Post to join the staff of Theatre Arts Magazine (1927-28), where he became assistant editor. In 1929, the year of the crash, he moved to the New York Times as drama critic and member of the drama staff, leaving in 1938 to become drama critic for the literate and prestigious Boston Evening Transcript (1938-41) where he had the good fortune of working with the esteemed Brooks Atkinson.


Returning to the New York Times in 1941 as radio editor, he was appointed assistant editor of the New York Times Book Review, rising to become its editor in 1946 until his profound misery with Lester Markel, Sunday Editor, drove him to the beloved arms of the great New York Herald Tribune (l948) where he became columnist, reviewer and finally daily book reviewer. In 1962, he left to become a member of the board of the Book of the Month Club for the ensuing 25 years, John one of five Judges to make selections for the Club that would propel a book to acclaim and instant best sellerdom.


John K. Hutchens was himself the author of "One Man's Montana: An Informal Portrait of a State" (1964), an affectionate and colorful portrait of frontier Montana, a labor of love. With George Oppenheimer, he edited "The Best in The World", (1973), a selection of news, features, editorials, poetry, bringing the great writers of The World back to literary life. He was also editor of the anthology "The American Twenties, a Literary Panorama" (1952), as well as "The Gambler's Bedside book" (1977), fact and fiction from the world of gambling. ("Care to make a small wager on Clinton's chances in the next election?" he would smile.)


* * *


A remarkable array of characters that passed through the life of John Hutchens, so many memorable events and encounters:


The young man working furiously on a review of a Broadway theatre opening, the hour late, deadline drawing near, the Times drama department deserted, suddenly sensing a presence standing behind him, hovering over him, watching.


"What do you want?" he barked. "Why are you standing there?"


And he turned. It was old man Ochs, the publisher!


He gasped!


"You're perfectly right," replied Mr. Ochs. "I'm terribly sorry," and quickly walked away.


The hanging -- it remained with him to the end -- his father compelling him against the wishes of his mother to witness a public hanging in the town square, the poor wretch struggling at the end of the rope for several long minutes before the end came, a recurring nightmare for John throughout his life.


The confrontation of the 10-year old with the Great Grizzly Bear of Glacier National Park, John stealthily stealing away from the dangerous mom and her cubs, never turning to look back.


And the interview he cherished with special delight -- his fascinating talk with the great and miserable Ty Cobb, the nemesis of the Chicago White Sox whom he loathed and loved (Cobb still holds the highest lifetime batting average of all time at .367). Cobb's own personal All-Star team notable for Shoeless Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, but failing to include himself, Cobb unusually gentle with John Hutchens -- John brought out the best of him.


The imposing presence of William Jennings Bryan was a familiar figure in young John's life. Bryan, a friend of his father's would stop off for dinner with the Hutchens' family in Illinois en route from Nebraska to Washington, D.C. where he was Secretary of State for Woodrow Wilson, Bryan with two struggles against McKinley for the Presidency (1896 and 1900), his fiery "Cross of Gold" speech and oratorical power renowned.


"Shouldn't I be getting 16 of these?" young Johnny inquired demurely upon receiving a silver dollar from Mr. Bryan. He received "a dozen of the best ones" from his father for that impudent remark.


And then there was Grandma Hutch, born upstate New York in the mid-1840's when old timers would still recall the river visits of Thomas Jefferson. How she would remember so many of her young male friends who were sent off to fight and die in the Civil War.


"I thought Mr. Lincoln was great," she told her grandson who'd come down to visit with her from Hamilton College on Christmas and Spring holiday, "but I can't think of any Republican since then I've had much use for."


She was a devout Democrat, as was John, his first Presidential ballot cast for Alfred E. Smith in 1928.


* * *


So many he loved, so much, his beloved wife Ruth and his Mistress Quickley (his Shakespearean cat), little Hamilton College (four generations of Hutchens got off the train in upstate Clinton, New York), Brooks Atkinson, "one of the four or five rare people I've ever known"; American politics, the grand old game of baseball (disillusionment at the end), the old New York World with its astonishing array of writers (Heywood Broun, H.L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, etc. etc.), the New York Herald Tribune ("Where else could you have had so much fun for so little money?"), and the venerable New York Times.


He was a voracious reader to the end, re-reading the old classics that he loved -- Mark Twain his favorite, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Shakespeare, Boswells' Johnson, Joseph Conrad, Herman Wouk. The old classics sustained him, 34 books around his bed when he died in the early evening of July 22, 1995.


He is a part of history now.


I see him still in his little bow tie and walking stick, frail but hardy, his conversation full of wit and urbanity, deep human sympathy, (the intermittent joke about Millard Filmore, Chester A. Arthur or Grover Cleveland notwithstanding), great human curiosity, affection, a man of immense and tender kindness, a noble beautiful man, a rare one in this life, a gift.



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