Memories of an Editor

by Bernard McCormick Monday, June 27, 2011 No Comment(s)

Pete Dexter, today an award-winning novelist, once worked in South Florida. But nobody knew it. Dexter put in time with both the Fort Lauderdale News and The Palm Beach Post. Mary Kloubec, an associate editor of Gold Coast magazine in the 1970s, knew Dexter in Fort Lauderdale.

“He was a terrific writer,” she said years ago, “but nobody saw it.”

Eventually somebody saw it and that somebody was Gil Spencer, former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. He gave Dexter a column, a break that Dexter says changed his life. He quickly became recognized as one of the best in the business and the rest is history. Dexter was just one of many newspaper people who were influenced by Spencer, who died Friday in Manhattan at age 85.

Spencer was a semi-blue blood by birth. His full name was Frederick Gilman Spencer III, which smacks of the Philadelphia Main Line, but nobody ever called him anything but Gil. A colleague once described him as that rare delight, “a fallen aristocrat.” He went to good high schools, but never went to college. Instead, after serving in the Navy in World War II, he started his career at the Delaware County Daily Times, at the time in Chester, Pa. You will never mix up Chester with Bryn Mawr. He left that paper shortly before I started there as a sports writer. But I did get to know the girl he married, who sat next to me in the newsroom.

Before my time in Chester, Spencer had worked with Gaeton Fonzi, who later got me into the magazine business in Philadelphia and was a partner in our company when we came to Florida in 1970. Gil Spencer moved up to editor of an influential Philadelphia suburban weekly, the Main Line Times, which is where I first met him. There he turned a sedate paper into a lively read. He worked briefly in TV, and then, in 1974, won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at The Trentonian. That was for exposing New Jersey political corruption, something he specialized in throughout his 50-year career.

His success led to the editor’s job at the Philadelphia Daily News, where he made Pete Dexter the star of a star-studded staff. The Daily News always had a great sports page, and Spencer extended that free-swinging style to the whole paper. From there it was on to editorship of the New York Daily News, where he inherited a columnist named Jimmy Breslin.

This was in the mid-1980s and back in Florida Gaeton Fonzi was working on an interesting story that began with Gold Coast in the 1970s. Margaret Walker, an editor here, was upset her friend Adelaide Stiles, a former Fort Lauderdale News staffer, had disappeared after having been romanced by a fellow who turned out to be a notorious con man. He used the names Michael Raymond and Michael Burnett. At Maggie’s urging, I included Mike Raymond and the Stiles disappearance in a piece on Florida con artists.

Stiles disappearance was never solved, although there was strong evidence that Raymond had murdered her after posing as a financial advisor to steal her modest savings. The poor woman made the mistake of acting as if she had more money than she really had. Raymond was also connected to two other Florida murders, both involving financial scams in which he was adept. In 1985, Gaeton Fonzi, at the time freelancing for Miami magazine, decided to look into Raymond, who was supposed to be in jail on fraud charges. He wasn’t. Fonzi, fresh off five years working for the government in which he connected President Kennedy’s death to highly placed CIA officials, learned that Raymond had a history of avoiding jail by helping the feds catch other crooks. Fonzi discovered that the Department of Justice was using Raymond in Chicago in an attempt to sting public figures in a parking collections scandal. The gig was bribing highly placed officials to get lucrative contracts to collect delinquent parking tickets.

Although the story was breaking in Florida, Fonzi wanted to export it to the Chicago market. He called Gil Spencer at the New York Daily News to see if he could recommend a good Chicago media contact. It was a mark of Spencer’s respect for Fonzi’s investigative record, as well as his own highly competitive nose for a good story, that he asked Fonzi what it was about.

“I didn’t know that Gil and Jimmy Breslin already had some background on the same thing going on in New York,” Fonzi said this weekend. “But they didn’t have anything on Raymond’s involvement with the U.S. attorney in Illinois. When I told Gil what I had and why I wanted a contact in Chicago, he said, ‘The hell with them; we’ll do it ourselves.’”

Gil Spencer broke the story big in New York. Jimmy Breslin jumped all over it. Soon important public figures were implicated, and one of them, Donald Manes, the powerful borough president of Queens, committed suicide. Jimmy Breslin later called it one of the biggest scandals to hit New York during his long career as a columnist.

Gil Spencer left the New York Daily News in 1989 when he disagreed with his publisher over an endorsement for the city’s mayor. But he wasn’t finished. Just a kid at nearly 64, he moved to Denver to become editor of The Denver Post which was in a ferocious battle with a rival paper. Initially suspected as an effete Easterner, Spencer’s profane humor and support for talented writers quickly earned the trust and respect of his younger staffers. Memorial tributes over the weekend on the internet bore datelines from all over the country.

I last spoke to Gil Spencer a few months ago. Although he never worked for a magazine, he was close to us at Philadelphia Magazine. He visited the office often, and everybody enjoyed his humor and advice. He even sent us a few good writers. With that background, I hoped he might write something for the book I am doing on the history of regional magazines. His son, also Gil Spencer and a columnist for the same Delaware County Daily Times where his father started, warned me that the man’s memory was poor. He was right. Gil knew who I was and remembered Fonzi as a great reporter, but quickly added, “I just can’t remember details of those days. I wish I could help, but I can’t.”

At the end he probably did not recall the extraordinary career which influenced so many people. No matter. Those people will remember him as long as their faculties are intact.


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