I have never made a habit of reading the personal ads, so I missed the original publication. I learned of it quickly enough, of course, what with the entire city buzzing about it within hours of the Herald’s hitting the streets.“WANTED: Partner for suicide pact. Serious inquiries only. Respond to Box H3419.”
My husband, Murray, was the Herald’s editor then, and he was obliged to assign a reporter to tell the outraged world why the Herald accepted the advertisement.
Like all newspaper editors, Murray was peeved about having to run a story about the Herald that didn’t include the word “Pulitzer.” There are good and simple and only moderately hypocritical reasons for this.
His peevishness was magnified when the little piece became the best-read story in the Herald that morning — despite his careful burying of it at the bottom of page C-12.
In the story, Advertising Director O’Connor said the ad had come in the mail, as so many classified ads did. It was handled according to routine, although he referred to the Herald’s having accepted the ad as “a woeful and mystifying lack of judgment” on the part of two or three people who remained nameless and would be “dealt with internally.”
I impishly asked Murray, “Does that mean they’re being forced to take enemas?”
He said, “If so, I hope it’s with a fire hose, because they’ve obviously got shit for brains.”
Nearly four decades in the company of other journalists had almost ruined Murray for polite conversation. I was always subject to little frissons of horror whenever he would open his mouth to speak during a social gathering. I knew just how Bess Truman was feeling about her husband during state dinners.
Parties have become so dull since Murray died, though. The White House became dull after Mr. Truman’s term ended, too.
The evening of the C-12 story, Murray came home in a lather. “You would not believe the circus the Herald has been today!” he shouted by way of greeting. There was whiskey on his breath, and I moved quickly to get him some more.
“Every Meddlesome Minnie and do-gooder and harp polisher —” Murray’s gentle way of referring to members of the clergy — “in the city was out in force and in the building at one time or another today.” He slugged down his drink and held the glass out for a refill. “They were badgering O’Connor, of course, and that was his problem, but the fools kept invading my newsroom, demanding — demanding, mind you! — that the Herald reveal the name of the person who placed that stupid ad.”
I poured him another double. “I trust that the Herald is standing on its reputation for protecting the anonymity of its personal advertisers.”
“Of course we are. And that makes the nutsos stack the soapboxes three high. They’re determined to save that guy if it kills him.”
I was curious about whether the alcohol was having an effect on him yet. “Surely you agree that that is the proper feeling to have. These people are only trying to do the square and Christian thing by saving his life and his immortal soul.”
Murray looked at me as though wondering who I was and how I had gotten into his living room. “You think you’re funny, Ruth, but you’re not.”
“OK, you’re not tight yet. But along those lines…” I hesitated, not wanting to remind him.
“Tonight is the quarterly drinks and dinner at the country club.”
Murray collapsed into a chair and his head fell into his hands. His bellow of wounded rage must have been an echo of George Washington’s upon learning what a rat Benedict Arnold had been.
“I’ll just go get ready. I’ll need help with my zipper in about twenty minutes.”
Needless to say, I was on the edge of my seat the rest of the evening as Murray defended his newspaper. I realize now how invigorating it all was; at the time, it just felt draining.
* * *
The real circus began the next day. Murray described it as being straight out of the old monster movies; the only thing the crowds outside the Herald lacked were torches.
An ecumenical round-the-clock prayer vigil began on the sidewalk outside the newspaper offices. Picketers held signs bearing such messages as “Save H3419” and “Where There is Life There is Hope” and “Repent: Your End is Not Near,” which I thought a clever twist on the old canard.
Murray refused to give any more space to the story, and the publisher backed him fully. The Herald’s competitors saw the situation differently, especially when the police were called in to safeguard the outgoing mail; there was reasonable concern that it would be stolen by fanatics hoping to find correspondence between the Herald and the holder of Box H3419.
Worse, from Murray’s hands-off perspective, were the sacks of mail being delivered for H3419. “Either a lot of people in this city are ready to die, or they’re not all ‘serious inquiries.’ That poor schlep is getting a lot more than he bargained for.”
That was the crux of the issue, and it was being lost in the noise. What had the person known only as Boxholder H3419 bargained for? If taken at face value, he or she wanted to die but didn’t want to die alone and had no one to die with.
“How lonely can one person be?” I asked my friend Marla when we had coffee later that week.
She shrugged. “That personal ad might just answer your question. But it’s not necessarily a case of loneliness.”
“Take us for example. We’re good friends.”
“And we have other friends and our families. But do you know anyone who would enter a suicide pact with you?”
I thought about that. “Not at present, unless you’re volunteering.”
“I’m not. Our advertiser may have company for a lifetime but none for death.”
* * *
Over the course of the next few days, the throng outside the Herald office remained large. They were peaceful folk, as befitted their stated intent of saving someone’s life, but after heated accusations about turf being invaded the police were called in to break up fights between rival hot dog vendors.
As far as Murray was concerned, his turf was being invaded. Herald employees, including Murray’s reporters and photographers, had to sneak in and out of the building. Some of them began working from home, which annoyed Murray, but he understood and coped with it.
The issue was settled abruptly as it headed into the third full week, and Murray was accidentally part of it.
That Monday, Murray brassed his way out of the building, barking things that shouldn’t be said to women and clergymen. He crossed the street to the north and then to the west to stand kitty-corner from the newspaper office. He lit a cigar and leaned against a building to stare miserably at the assembly.
A young man approached him.
“You’re the editor of the Herald, aren’t you?”
Murray confessed that he was and braced himself for almost any sort of comment, but the man said nothing more for a little while. He stood with Murray and watched the protestors.
“A simple ad,” the man finally said in a soft voice. “A simple request. Maybe an unusual one, but a simple enough request nevertheless. And this is the city showing its great heart, its great concern for another human being.”
He was addressing Murray, but he never took his eyes from the crowd. His voice took on an edge but didn’t change in volume.
“How many murders will your newspaper report on today, Mr. Editor? How many wars are the wire services keeping up with? How many people live in poverty? How many children will cry themselves to sleep tonight, battered or hungry, or both? But never mind all that; one person intends to quit this obscene game early, and he mustn’t be allowed to. Polite, civilized society demands it.”
Murray told me that he regarded the man for a moment before speaking.
“You’re our advertiser, aren’t you?” he asked quietly. The man nodded. “You have my deepest sympathies, sir.”
Now the young man looked at Murray. “Thank you.”
“So what are you going to do?”
The man’s face hardened. “I’m going to explain it to them, as Mr. Jefferson said, ‘in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.’” Before Murray could respond, the man crossed the street on the diagonal, utterly ignoring the traffic.
Murray watched as the man pushed his way into the crowd. There were screams and people rapidly vacated a space immediately in front of the entrance to the Herald. A handgun often has that effect on people. Murray had a perfectly clear line of sight for every second of the little drama.
You may have read what the man – later identified as Louis … Something. I forget. I never thought I’d forget his name; I feel badly about that. Anyway, you have probably read the short little address he gave at the top of his voice to his determined saviors. Much of it he had practiced quietly on Murray. Then he added his famous final words.
“I don’t want to live anymore. I just wanted to find a kindred spirit to go into the dark with so neither of us had to go alone. You bastards have stolen from me the peaceful death I wanted, but at least I’m not alone.”
He quickly put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Murray’s long-honed reporter’s instincts took over. He wrote down what Louis – oh, good grief, I still can’t remember his last name – had said and used it for his first-person account that led the front page of the next morning’s edition. He put the paper to bed as always, and then he came home.
He didn’t say much beyond telling me the story. Oh, he complained about being part of the news rather than just reporting it, but his heart wasn’t in his grumbling. He was as contemplative as ever I had seen him. He poured himself a double whiskey and sat in his favorite chair and stared at his drink for an hour until dinner. And then, he just set the full glass on the tray next to the bottle and left it there.
The crowds outside the Herald dispersed, never to return. And Murray never spoke of that day, but I’m certain it was on his mind a few years later when the cancer began to take its toll, and he decided to put us both out of that misery by taking his own life.
And without Murray to keep me on tenterhooks about what he would say next and to whom, my own life acquired a dull glaze. I hadn’t realized to what degree I had relied upon him for excitement.
I’ll just bet that Bess Truman has felt the same way since Harry died.