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Mark Hellinger: Journalist
by Peter Cauvel
Mark Hellinger was an icon of his time. No matter what the medium – newspapers, books, Broadway plays or Hollywood movies – he could craft a captivating story.
Hellinger fell in love with print journalism. In 1917, he got a job as a reporter for The Stadium, the student publication at his prep school, Townsend Harris Hall. The newspaper kept sophomore student Hellinger in school because it held an opportunity – a future as a reporter. He wrote news stories with no byline, but the anonymity bothered him. He spent hours making notes for future stories and took any opportunity to write in the publication. He always filled his section of the paper but also offered fillers for other sections.
The next year, he was rewarded with his own column. He signed each one with the initials M.E.H., even though his middle name was John. The reason for this is unknown, but perhaps he felt these initials looked better under his column. He took great pride in revealing himself as the writer but wanted to expand his prestige even more. He began regularly sending contributions – many of which were published – to major columnists. Hellinger spent a short time at Clark School after he was expelled from Townsend Harris Hall for organizing a student strike campaigning for vaction time. He submitted writing to both of the school’s publications, The Spectator and The Jester, before quitting school in 1920.
Hellinger was fed up with journalism and sought a new creative outlet: the stage. He wrote, produced and starred in plays, but no one recognized his talent as an actor or a playwright. He held a few odd jobs before writing drew him back in.
Broadway fascinated Hellinger. He started writing about the wild crowd of actors and celebrities at well-known speakeasies. His work at the Greenwich Village Weekly and Zit’s earned him a place at The New York Daily News as the first Broadway reporter in 1923. By 1925, he was writing his own column – “About Town.”
By this time, Hellinger had developed his signature style – terse stories with punch line endings. His bosses wanted celebrity gossip – in imitation of his close friend, Walter Winchell of The Daily Mirror. Hellinger wanted to leave the gossip to Winchell, but compromised by adding a few items at the end of his stories.
In 1929, he proposed to Gladys Glad, a Broadway showgirl once chosen as the most beautiful girl in the world. He married her the next day, then quickly went back to The Daily News with exclusive coverage of the latest prominent marriage – his own.
Hellinger became a prominent newspaper personality. A mention in one of his columns was worth more to an actor than a second curtain call. After he took on more responsibilities at The Daily News – a daily column, a Sunday page and a comic strip acted out by Broadway stars – he began to feel he had conquered the newspaper world. Although he stayed in the business for a few more years, he was subconsciously searching for something more.
He continued writing short stories – many of which he used in his columns, but he saved his best for his books. He had two collections of short stories published – The Moon Over Broadway in 1931 and The Ten Million in 1934.
A constant battle raged between Hellinger and his editors. His original stories were well received, but his bosses still wanted more itemized gossip. When they demanded a return to his earlier style, he spread word that he had become “available.”
He took a job with The Daily Mirror, a rival paper. The switch brought new readers through syndication and a bigger salary. But most importantly, it secured his creative freedom. Under his contract, he could write whatever he wanted.
Soon, Hellinger’s face was everywhere. The Mirror promoted his new column, “All in a Day” on delivery trucks and fences. They sent postcards informing readers of his new publication. He was a guest on a radio show and was even asked to act in a movie short. Hellinger had become a celebrity – respected in New York and anywhere his column was printed.
Initially, Hellinger hated Hollywood. It was everything that New York was not. But when the end of prohibition stripped the excitement from Broadway, his gaze turned westward. He had no new goals in New York. Hollywood was a new world, and film was a new medium; Hellinger was intrigued.
He sold his story “Broadway Bill” to be made into a movie. He received constant job offers from agents, but Hellinger refused to go as a writer. He hated to give up creative control. His strength wasn’t his writing; it was the ideas behind the stories.
He began to comment on movies in his Sunday page. Soon, he wielded the same influence over Hollywood he once held over Broadway. When he moved to the west coast, he got a job as a writer-producer at Warner Bros. He kept writing his Sunday page, though. Now there were two Hellingers in Hollywood: Hellinger the producer and Hellinger the columnist.
His final daily column was published on Nov. 13, 1937. Thousands of readers saved it. They felt they had known Hellinger, and the column was a personal goodbye to each of them. He brought great stories to the screen in his Hollywood years, but he was just a name on the credits. He had shared a personal connection with his readers – people who looked forward to the stories he had shared.
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Page created by Peter Cauvel 5 May 2010 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last updated: 05 May 2010