The Press: Dead Sparrow

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Dead last week in Paris was the most remarkable columnist of them all—the Paris Herald's cocky, antique, legend-crusted, peewee William Harrison Robertson, universally known as the Sparrow. Uncountable and worldwide are his surviving "old pals," for his acquaintances became "my old pals" on sight.

His headquarters were the "thirst emporiums" on the Right Bank, and rare was the visiting fireman in Paris who missed him. Night in & out the indestructible little columnist organized his "death watch" for visiting Americans due to catch the boat train from the Gare St. Lazare for Cherbourg. The Sparrow saw his pal to the station, bounced off in the full dawn to do his chipper column on the night's adventures. It was a unique column —a syntax-slaughtering chronicle which editors were carefully warned not to unscramble. Said Playwright Eugene O'Neill of its author: "Why, he's the greatest writer in the world."

The champion drink-cadger of Paris, the Sparrow, after a whole night's expensive buying by his pals, would say: "No, pals, this one's on me," and order up a round of demi-blondes. He almost never ate any food except the hard-boiled eggs he would swipe from bars.

Despite his 20 years in Paris, the Sparrow knew only one word of French—ici—but with it he could make any want known, get out of any jam. His personal freedom challenged, he would draw himself up to his full 5 ft. 2 in., wither authority with: "Where do you get that stuff?"

Dim were his antecedents. Manhattan-reared (though allegedly born in Edinburgh, Scotland), he sold newspapers, ran a sporting-goods store, became a go-as-you-please foot racer, a timekeeper at track and field meets, a bottleholder at prize fights, ran a gymnasium in Brooklyn and a saloon called "The Sparrow Nest" on Park Row, was once made "athletic editor of the New York Sun." A Y.M.C.A. athletic director in France during A.E.F. days, he was hired by James Gordon Bennett as sportswriter on the Paris Herald.

Obituaries gave his age as "around 82." But "old pals" suspected he must be nearer 95. At least 15 years ago his boss sent him to a Paris kidney specialist. Never, said the specialist, whistling in admiration, had he beheld such a perfectly preserved set of rognons in a man over 80.

Aging noticeably after the German occupation and the closing of the Paris Herald office, the Sparrow nevertheless refused to budge. One evening a Nazi guard stopped him at the gate, told him curfew had long since rung. Said the Sparrow: "Where do you get that stuff?" and kept going. The guard called a Nazi officer. But the officer, too, was an "old pal"—they had met at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. So together he and the Sparrow toured what was left of the old "thirst emporiums."