The Press: The Pope of Fleet Street

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H. G. Wells called him "the most dangerous man in London." Madame Tussaud modeled him in wax. "Hannen Swaffer," said Press Lord Beaverbrook, "is the greatest personality that has walked down Fleet Street in our time." London's World's Press News called him "more abused praised, hated and feared than any journalist living."

Last week, still walking down Fleet Street at 73, abused and hated Hannen Swaffer stalked over to the Savoy for more concentrated praise than he had ever heard at one time. A Who's Who of British press and theater had gathered to toast his 50th year in Fleet Street. The Daily Express s Frank Owen, who years ago dubbed Swaffer "the Pope of Fleet Street," recalled the first sentence of Swaffer's verbal autobiography: "I was born in 1879, as was Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Camrose, Lady Astor, Joseph Stalin. What a vintage year!" Replied Hannen Swaffer: "You may wonder why I still persist in going to the office every day. Without that I should die."

Whetted Knife. Thousands have often wished him dead long since. In his 50 newspaper years, acid-penned Swaffer made so many enemies that he once thought it unsafe to enter the Savoy. He often headed his column: "People Who Are Not Speaking to Me." He started out as a reporter at 16 on the Folkestone Express in his native Kent, joined Lord Northchffe's Daily Mail in 1903 and started a chit-chat column. He quickly learned that vinegar will catch more flies than honey.

"I invented the gossip column," he says, and adds: "I was the real creator of daily illustrated journalism." He doesn't overstate it much. In 1905, as news and art editor of Northcliffe's Mirror, London's first picture tabloid, he helped it to pass the Daily Mail's circulation, which had been the world's biggest. But he really came into his own in 1926, after Northcliffe's death, when Beaverbrook hired him as drama critic of the Express.

Since he felt that "an artist must also be a personality," he fashioned a personality of his own. He let his hair grow down over his ears, wore a gates-ajar collar, a flowing tie, funereal black hat, and dropped cigarette ashes all over himself. Aspiring journalists began copying his curt prose and his garb. Said the Manchester Guardian: "He taught Fleet Street that a gossip column should be written . . . with more candor than charity. He got up on stilts to teach reporters how to get off their knees in the presence of the powerful."

If admirers copied him, actors and managers feared him. At one time he was barred from twelve theaters. In 1929, he "sloshed" American Actress Lillian Foster so hard ("a voice like a ventriloquist's doll") that she cornered him at his table in the Savoy and slapped him. "Throw this woman out!" cried Swaffer. The headwaiter did. Three years ago, when Miss Foster died, Swaffer's lead on his story was: "This is the obituary of a very clever actress who ruined herself by slapping my face."

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