I was a 10-bucks-a-night office boy at the old Boston Herald, then published downtown on Mason Street, when a copy editor named Bill Stewart patted me on the back and proclaimed, “My boy, tonight you are Bob Dunbar!”
Stewart did not imagine himself as some sort of evangelist welcoming me to a new life. He was anointing me as a reasonably famous Bostonian with a widely read newspaper column: Bob Dunbar. By the time I slipped into his skin, Dunbar, as far as I could later determine, had been acidly opinionating for Boston papers since 1915, beginning at the long-since-vanished Boston Journal. Even though he did not exist.
On that night in 1954, I would enter a realm of slippery journalism that Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Rick Bragg could never have imagined. My turn masquerading as Dunbar and other fictitious bylined personages may be well in the past, but it's time for me to come clean. I wish I could say, as Dan Rather did, that my transgression was in good faith. But, no, even as a rookie, working my way through grad school at Boston University, it appeared unprincipled. Confession, though, is supposed to be good for the soul. If a newspaperman has one.
The Herald, then a broadsheet, was comfortably profitable, probably the best of an undistinguished lineup of eight local dailies: the morning Globe, Herald, Record, Post, and Monitor and the evening Globe, Traveler, and American. But it was operated by old-line Yankees who could squeeze the copper from a penny.
Holding the line on salaries and travel expenses was the basis of the editorial budget. The managing editor, crusty George Minot, wore the same bow tie and polyester drip-dry shirt day after day and claimed he could further economize by making do with fewer editors and reporters. Herald refugee Ed O'Connor, in his best-selling novel The Last Hurrah, used Minot as the prototype for the parsimonious editor who goes around the office switching off lights.
Minot kept a close watch on the sports department where, he figured, one legitimate columnist — the aging Bill Cunningham — was sufficient as long as Dunbar was on the pages, too. This way, the editor, the sports editor, and others also could anonymously fling bricks at whoever they chose without reaping the wrath of those they hit. Dunbar took the blame.
“Why doesn't that bastard have the guts to show up here?” Ted Williams complained in the clubhouse one day, having suffered a Dunbar barb.
“Well, he's pretty old and not too well,” I replied. “But you're in good company. Bob's knocked everybody, even Babe Ruth.”
Dunbar had tremendous range, commenting on events across the world while castigating (and, on rare occasions, commending) the Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots. The column was a mix of notes devoted to various subjects, a grab bag of news that came from the Associated Press and United Press wires, plus gossip, unattributed comments, and handouts from press agents. Its approach depended on who Dunbar was that day.
The kindly sports editor , Ed Costello, kept me employed six nights a week doing assorted things around the office — including writing Dunbar's column — and even offered me a byline with my own genuine name plus five bucks extra if I covered a high school game. When my term at BU ended, he hired me as a regular.
Early on, I had prided myself on getting to know virtually all the bylined writers. Imposing Bill Cunningham, with walking stick and diamond stickpin, was the grand pooh-bah who also had his own radio show. A tireless flailer at typewriter keys, he wrote 312 columns a year on sports and politics. Arthur Sampson did baseball and football; Henry McKenna, baseball and hockey; Joe Looney, golf and basketball; Tim Horgan, boxing. For me, though, Vic Johnson made the most indelible impression with his delightful sports cartoons.
On the fateful night of my rechristening, sometime during my first month on the job, I said to Michael Vickers on the copy desk, “I've met everybody on the staff except Mr. Dunbar. Is he a recluse?”
“You might say that,” said Vickers. Bill Stewart, who, as slot man, designed the pages and parceled out the work, smiled, got up from his chair, handed me a sheaf of written material, and pointed toward a Royal Standard typewriter, informing me that I was now Bob Dunbar.
Was he kidding? Was Dunbar sick? Was I just filling in? Nope. I had joined the ranks of countless Dunbars who had preceded and would follow me. Columnizing was my journalistic ambition, all right, realized a few years later, after Cunningham's death. But ghosting for a ghost wasn't quite what I'd envisioned.
Still, that was the assignment. I started sorting through the stack of wire stories, news releases, contributions from higher-ups, and items stamped “BOM” — business office musts. Putting it together — a sort of Bob-and-weave — I hacked out my Dunbar debut. It must have been okay, because many more were crafted in the same way.
Bob got mail. And he was the subject of name-dropping. More than once somebody at an event, hoping to make an impression on his companions, would say to me, “Give my regards to Bob when you see him.”
“Yeah, Dunbar. Old pal of mine.”
Once, I turned in an expense account for Dunbar. That did not go over well. Occasionally I branched out beneath other bylines. I became the mysterious Mel Potter and Chester Hill, covering road games of the Boston College and BU football teams by “remote control,” as Costello put it. No air ticket or hotel room necessary, just a good seat with a view — of the office radio. I listened to the games and did the stories.
Another time, I pulled the spectral act in drag for the Herald 's sister paper, the Traveler, subbing for fictitious gossip columnist Chartreuse Gallagher. I linked Chartreuse romantically with Dunbar in that column, a throwaway line that got thrown away. Bob and Chartreuse would have made a beautiful couple with no need to practice safe sex.
Of course, Dunbar and Gallagher eventually died, victims of a plague called higher standards. Dunbar was put down by Cliff Sundberg, a new sports editor at the Herald, in 1967. Having escaped to the Globe by then, I encountered Sundberg at the World Series and inquired whether Dunbar was ill. I hadn't seen his column for a few weeks.
“Haven't you heard?” he responded. “Bob's dead.”
A pang shot through me. We had been close. Was I feeling Dunbar's pain? Not enough to prevent my writing, straight-faced, the obituary of this phantom of the press box as my next column.
“His style was constantly changing — one day Tolstoy, the next Grantland Rice,” I wrote. “Because, Bob said, 'It was too boring to stay in one groove.'”
Sundberg described his act as a mercy killing, and I had to accept that. Bob was at least 90 by then and had a booze problem. The epitaph on the tombstone I imagined at Mount Auburn Cemetery reads:
My Career So Quixotic
Ends With Liver Cirrhotic.
Didn't the man who never was deserve a stylish nonresting place?