by MIKE MALAK
The following contribution was sent to us by Daily Variety’s former ad manager, Mike Malak. No one else we contacted seemed to know much about Williams, when exactly he was hired, when he passed away nor anything else about him. He is mentioned in relatiion to an anecdote on three of the pages of “Inside Variety” and was a member of the staff at the Daily during the editorship of Arthur Ungar, the first editor-in-chief of the Daily who was appointed by Sime in 1933.
Mike has promised to submit a number of other “portraits” of some of the muggs at the old Daily on Cahuenga Blvd. We look forward to seeing these, especially since the emphasis so far on Simesite has tended to be the New York and overseas operations of the paper, partly because few, with the notable exception of Morrie Gelman, have sent contributions to us. So Mike’s forthcoming copy will somewhat offset that lack.
The phones had been ringing since 8:00a.m., Maggie said, and hadn’t stopped since. I arrived uncharacteristically early that day and there was nary a soul at Daily which rarely woke up for business, except circulation, until sometime around 10:30 to 11:00 a.m.
When I asked her what the fuss was about, she said the producers, the network, the publicists, the writers, and who knows who else, were upset by something Whitney Williams had said in that morning’s paper. “Be a dear and watch the board for me, I have to go to the ladies room,” she whispered and briskly walked off, her red tresses a-bob.
I could answer two, maybe three lines at a time, but not the thirty or forty that Maggie handled with the ease of a concert pianist. Overwhelmed by lights and the jangling noises emanating from Maggie’s domain, I shut them all out, reached for a copy of that day’s Daily and scanned the TV reviews for Whit’s sig.
Certain that I must have missed something important when I read the paper at home at 5:00a.m., I re-read Whit’s review of a relatively undistinguished TV drama. Though I forget the name of the show, I seem to recall it as being the sort of pedestrian fare that third place contenders showcased in the hope that lightning might strike. Nor do I recall any star power attached to the project, either above or below the line. The review was short, and not altogether unfavorable, causing me to ponder what the fuss was all about and why the vultures were circling.
Whitney Williams had been one of the leading lights of the Daily long before I joined the staff in 1973. Older staffers spoke reverentially about Williams and his importance in the earlier days of television coverage. I knew him as a gentleman who never swore, nor raised his voice in anger, drank, or betrayed annoyance even when pandemonium reigned.
Williams was a frequent visitor to Tom Pryor’s office. With those staffers closest to him, Tom spoke in a type of shorthand that consisted, variously, of gestures, various eye movements, and non-verbal audibles, punctuated with key words. I imagine, to some observers, these communications were about as baffling as the Navajo language was to the Japanese during World War II. Over nearly twenty years, and thousands of hours in his office, I managed to break, on my own, most of Tom’s “codes” and came to understand nearly all the sub-texts used when he spoke to others.
One of the codes I was, however, unable to break was the one Tom used to communicate with Whitney. On most occasions, when I observed their interactions, neither man used more than a half dozen words and, sometimes, none before they reached an understanding, smiled at one another, and retired, each to his own pursuits.
When I huddled with Tom, Whitney was one of the few staff members who was allowed to interrupt our conversations, though he sometimes signaled Tom that he would wait until I had finished my business with Tom. Whenever we were both in Tom’s office at the same time, which was frequent, and I left before he did, Whitney would flash a warm, almost shy smile, utterly free of artifice, and in a split second indicate that he understood perfectly what Tom and I had been discussing. I soon learned to read the corners of his mouth and the twinkle in his eyes. They were a tipoff of immense value as I assessed, in my own mind, what Tom had told me, in so many words, or less.
A three-quarter smile, with corners halfway up indicated that I’d made a nice try but that it would be best to return later to amplify or amend. A straight across smile with slightly elevated corners meant that I had scored a bulls-eye. A smile with the bottom lip partially obscured by its upper partner indicated that he felt for me.
For my first ten years at the Daily, Whit’s desk was less than a quarter of the way into the City Room and, after Army Archerd’s, the one closest to Tom’s office. In my early days, before I’d read the contents of the “morgue,” or fathomed Woody Wilson’s indexing system, Tom would refer me to Whitney when I couldn’t find something pertaining to television. Though he had a deep, lovely-sounding voice, Whitney rarely commented about any of my requests. Instead, he’d give me one of his “you’re going to learn something new” smiles and lead me to the file saying only, “You might look in here.”
Whitney, in many respects, was very much like Tom, without the fire that every editor must have to be effective. Both were extremely protective of their private lives and neither was accustomed to putting on airs. Unlike Tom, however, who walked like Jimmy Cagney, Whit’s gait was more like a subdued Gene Kelly soft shoe at one-quarter time. No matter how tight the deadline, Whitney always exuded an air of being at peace. Though short, like Tom, Whitney carried himself in an elegant manner, one that was accentuated by his general mien, a distinctive shock of white hair, an almost neat wardrobe, and impeccable grooming.
Being a natural mimic, there were occasions when I thought it would lead to self-improvement if I conducted myself more like Whitney. These interludes were brief, generally, because I do not possess a sanguine nature, but my reversions in no way diminished my respect for Whitney.
Having surrendered the board to Maggie, on what was effectively Whit’s last day, I sat down at my desk and began to re-read the review that, seemingly, had triggered the entire hubbub. I was startled when I heard my own phone ring. Though I rarely answered my own phone before 10:30 a.m., unless a festival was in progress or an awards show took place the previous night, I was curious and picked up the receiver to hear the voice of late publicist Peter Simone’s high pitched voice, even more excited than normal, which was saying a lot.
“Malak, thank God you’re in! WOW! Did you see Whit’s review this morning? Oh my God, can you just believe it?; what show did he watch because it wasn’t the one that aired? I mean, like, is he losing it; or did he just make the ending up?”
Simone, generally, was unable to control his enthusiasm, for good news, or bad, on either of which he put sardonic spins making him, alternatively, one of the most annoying, or funniest, PR agents in town depending on your view. His spin was humorous that day, and he averred that the ending Whit claimed to have seen was far better than the one that actually aired and that the producers should send flowers instead of brickbats. It was a sentiment shared by many of those who had actually seen the show. I was able to lose Simone who, doubtlessly, had a thousand other calls to make before lunch, by promising to read the review.
Late in his career there were times when Whit would close his eyes as he sat upright at his desk. In these moments he assumed an almost meditative, or prayerful, posture. The interludes were brief, lasting no more than a few minutes and compared to the behavior of others of our fraternity, were completely benign. Whit knew the meaning of a power nap long before it became common parlance, and took them with the same quiet panache with which he conducted the rest of his public life.
As I pondered what, if anything, I ought to do about the brewing storm, I recalled a line of Scripture that read “young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams.” I didn’t normally think of Scripture at the Daily, but the words seemed apt under the circumstances. Whitney had been watching a show, I surmised, correctly, fallen asleep before it ended, and dreamt the ending before awakening to write the review.
Tom generally arrived at the paper around 10:00a.m. and it was against my religion to bring him bad news before 11:00a.m., lest it color his entire day, something that could be bad news for all of black rock. That day, however, I decided to make an exception and set off to warn the boss before he picked up a call that he might have wished to avoid until he elected a course of action. Though he could react as fast as a sports car rounding a curve, Tom’s preferred modus operandi was to think before he acted.
Wanting to choose my words carefully, I took the long way around and when I entered the empty City Room I observed Whitney, that day’s paper in hand, just a few steps from the short, pale green, corridor that led from his desk to Tom’s office. Whitney acknowledged me with a serene nod. I became self-conscious by his equipoise and looked down as I kept walking. I kept looking down and walking until I was within a few feet away from Tom’s office, at which time I looked up and made eye contact again with Whit.
To my surprise, he gave me a warm and understanding smile, though he could have had no doubt about my destination and the nature of my mission. In an instant, I knew he wanted to be the first person to speak to Tom who, obviously, hadn’t arrived yet.
At a loss for words, I muttered, almost soto voce, “Is he in yet?”
“No, not yet,” Whit replied.
What followed was a non-verbal conversation between the two of us. It lasted for a fraction of a second and, like so many of our “talks”, took place with the eyes only.
What Whitney told me in a glance, standing unbowed and erect, as always — though this was surely the worst day of his career — was that no matter how painful or public our mistakes, they are inevitable and that the greatest tragedy in making them is to lose one’s pride and esteem in pity or fear.
Before I walked back to my office, I nodded, as respectfully as I could, and said, “Thank you Whitney, it wasn’t that important.”
Though the Daily in those days normally never published letters, the next day Tom did run a letter from an outraged producer, or such, who excoriated Whitney. In an editorial comment below the letter Tom wrote something along these lines: “While the review may not have reflected the contents the producer intended, if that’s what Whit said he saw, that’s what he saw. He has a long and distinguished history and the paper stands by his review.” Signed: Ed.
When I saw Tom on the day of the correction I told him I thought what he did for Whit was kind and classy. He responded that Whitney had once been a very important man in town and then he nodded solemnly at me, gave a characteristic wink and smiled a shy grin.
Whitney remained at his desk the whole day that the letter ran and worked as if nothing had happened. Whenever I passed his desk, he’d look up warmly and smile, knowingly, as I cantered by, hell bent on one errand or another. He chose to ignore the wags and gossips who gathered at the coffee machine at the back of the office in greater numbers than usual to discuss the review in whispered and intense klatch consistories.
Despite the notoriety generated by the review, Whitney never lost his composure and chose to greet all with whom he came in contact with characteristically soft and understated pleasantries. He braved smiles at even his harshest critics, many of whom had a history of open hostility to a perceived gerontocracy that some felt blocked putative opportunities for faster advancement.
The last time I saw Whitney he had a tattered Balan Graphics box on top of his desk. It was filled, barely halfway, with copies of various old papers, a story, or two, some pencils, pens, and the sort of journalistic detritus that filled all our desks. I asked him if I could carry it for him and he smiled, shook his head, and said, “No, I can manage, thank you.”
Throughout the day he said little to anyone, though some of the more gentle souls, like Tony Scott, visited him and spent some time talking quietly about this, or that, show, or TV personality. I think I came by, too, once, before asking Whit if I could help him out. I did so because on an informational pretext but the message was clear, to those who might have relished Whitney’s predicament, that they should take any glee elsewhere.
Though many years later, in a post-Cahners world, I thought of Whitney’s departure when it came time for me to carry my own Balan boxes out of the Daily. I sincerely hope I did so with at least half the dignity and grace with which Whit made his exit.
The Daily taught me many things, one of the most important of which was how to make a graceful exit, even under fire. For that I thank the gentleman who is the subject of this short tribute. He was a distinguished human being who spoke far greater truths to me with his smile and twinkling eyes than many others with whom I exchanged hundreds of thousands of words over the years.
To go Scriptural, again, for which I beg one more indulgence, when I think of Whitney today I’m reminded of Psalm 90 which reads “a thousand years shall be as the twinkling of an eye,” a reminder that what matters more than anything else is what we pass on. Whitney William’s legacy, though humble, is nonetheless eloquent.
We queried Mike Malak and several other people to find out more about Whitney Williams, but didn’t get much additional info. The event described by Mike must have occurred in 1977, since he was replaced by Dale Pollock who was hired that year.
Malak added: Tom did defend Whit in a courageous and dignified manner. Because Tom was so powerful no one said a word after that. My speculation is that Whitney resigned. Because of his professionalism, it would have been a surprise to me if he hadn’t resigned. He did, in fact, dream up an ending, though he never admitted it.