By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
So. I've returned to Thomas Jefferson St. after taking a few months off for a book leave. Why does it take such effort to write a book? Consider this cautionary tale: the story of The Greatest Newspaper Lead Ever Written.
When I embarked on the task of writing a biography of Clarence Darrow a few years back, I looked forward to passing on a story about the death of Richard Loeb. Along with his gay lover, Nathan Leopold, Loeb killed a 14-year-old boy in Chicago in 1924 for the thrill of it. The public clamored for the death penalty, but with an eloquent plea for mercy, Darrow saved the two teen-aged killers from the gallows.
The "boys," as Darrow called them, were geniuses from wealthy Chicago families. Loeb was, at the time, the youngest student to ever graduate from the University of Michigan.
Leopold lived to a ripe old age in prison, and won parole. But Loeb died one day in 1936. Folks who spent time in the newspaper racket in the late 20th century, as I did, heard how Edwin Lahey of the Chicago Daily News had hammered out, on deadline that afternoon, what must have been the greatest lead ever written.
In the late-night newsrooms or newspaper row bars, grizzled veterans liked to tell how Loeb approached the wrong man for sex in a prison shower room and was subsequently knifed to death. Then, reverently, grinning, they would recite Lahey's lead from memory: Richard Loeb, a brilliant college student and master of the English language, today ended a sentence with a proposition.
Sometimes the story was told with a flourish. A numb skulled editor had objected to Lahey's creation, the storyteller would insist, until other reporters threatened to quit if it was not published.
But when the time came to track down Lahey's lead I ran into difficulty. I discovered there were different versions in various books about the Leopold and Loeb case, in memoirs about Chicago newspaper days, and on Wikipedia and other web sites. All had the famous pun, but with different set-ups.
Richard Loeb, who graduated with honors from college at the age of 15 and who was a master of the English language, today ended his sentence with a proposition.
Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition.
Richard Loeb, the well known student of English, yesterday ended his sentence with a proposition.
The discrepancies planted doubt: Might Lahey's lead be an urban legend? Since I was already spending a lot of time at the Library of Congress, reading old Chicago newspapers on microfilm, I knew where I could find the Daily News. And here is the lead from that day in January, 1936:
Richard Loeb, one of the slayers of 14-year-old Bobby Franks nearly 12 years ago, was slashed to death this afternoon by another convict in a fight at Statesville prison.
In fact, research reveals that Loeb's alleged sexual "proposition" was a matter of considerable controversy. He may well have been murdered because he spurned the other inmate's advances, or in a quarrel over money.
See for yourself. A blogger named Dr. Atlantis has posted a link to the images of the relevant Daily News stories on his blog. There you can read this second-day lead from Ed Lahey:
James Day, 23-year-old Chicago thief, who is otherwise normal, told today how and why he cut Richard Loeb, brilliant young moral anarchist, to a fringe in the Statesville penitentiary yesterday.
Not bad. But not the best lead ever.
Which leaves us with two possibilities. The first is that the story of the "proposition" lead was concocted by Lahey and his pals, and subsequent generations of journalists simply loved it too much to check out.
The other possibility, suggested by a book I found with a Google search, is that Lahey did write the lead, but that it only made it into one of the several editions of the Daily News that day, before his editors killed it. Even the book's authors, however, gave this theory half-hearted support. "The edition in which it ran has not survived, but according to legend it went like this," they wrote, and then opted for the "Richard Loeb, despite his erudition..." version of the phantom lead.
So, maybe a journalism junkie somewhere in America has a copy of that singular edition in their files. Or perhaps there's a front page from the famous copy of the Daily News, varnished and hanging on the wall of a tavern in downtown Chicago. If so, call me. Until then, it's not going in the book.