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Issue Date: July 2005 Issue


Scooped at Sea

From the Plain Dealer's circus-like '60s era newsroom emerged Robert Manry, pilot of the sailboat, Tinkerbelle, whose unlikely Trans-Atlantic journey led to one of his newspaper's darkest, most entertaining days.
Michael D. Roberts
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com

Today the little sailboat Tinkerbelle sits forlornly in the Western Reserve Historical Society, far from the ocean's heaves and swells. Forty years ago this summer, she and her master made the world pause to acclaim their adventure of sailing alone across the Atlantic in 78 days.

For many of us who worked at The Plain Dealer then, the story of our co-worker Robert Manry and his 13-and-a-half-foot Tinker-belle has always teetered on the emotional precipice between laughter and tears. I still don't know which.

Manry was a copy editor at the newspaper, and in those days it was a place that defied creation. To-day the human resources people would describe it as a nightmare.

For the most part, it was staffed by a cast of personalities whose iconoclastic behavior, idiosyncratic manner and imbibing nature created an atmosphere of lunacy that came to be regarded as normal dysfunction.

When The Cleveland Press reported that our theater critic had a heart attack at noon on East Ninth Street, I exclaimed with concern to an editor, who shook his head.

"They got it wrong," he said. "He just passed out after a long lunch."

There were fistfights in the men's room, the copy desk drank after midnight, the printers always drank, and the business editor once wrote a front-page story announcing a cancer cure. After the Food and Drug Administration banned the drug, it was revealed that the editor was an investor in the scheme.

One day the film editor had a gunfight with his son. There were no casualties. The dwarf in the sports department sometimes dressed in a Superman costume.

And then there was Superman himself. One of the editors had gone to Glenville High School and worked on the school paper with the two creators of the Man of Steel. The editor was the model on which the fictional hero was based. While he could not leap tall buildings, he did fight evil by sending us off each day with the admonishment that all politicians lied.

The obituary writer advised funeral directors that their clients were forbidden to die on his lunch hour.

And Dennis Kucinich was a copy boy, who warned us he intended to be mayor someday.

Amid this was a copy editor, a ghostly creature, who sometimes stalked the city room late at night, striding through wearing a pair of wastebaskets for boots, claiming a curse had been cast upon the newspaper the day the Civil War ended in 1865 because the paper missed news of the surrender.

Apocryphal or not, a hundred summers later, in 1965, the thought of missing a big story was a bad omen for what was to come.

Perhaps the editors, caught in this mad microcosm, thought it only natural that someone on the staff would want to sail the Atlantic Ocean alone in a vessel not much larger than a surfboard. For they showed no interest when Manry offered to write a Sunday Magazine story about his journey.

News of Manry's departure in June passed through the city room a day or two after he left. Most of us regarded it as yet another act in the circus.

As I recall, a few days passed without any word or mention of Manry. And then one day the newspaper received a message from a ship in the middle of the Atlantic, stating that it had seen Manry and that he was well and sent his best to those at home.

I'm not sure who seized the moment, an editor or the promotion director. My vote goes to the promotion director, who could clearly see value in Manry's odyssey. You could sell newspapers with it.

With that, Bob Manry was sanctified as page-one news, relegating Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and every-thing else to secondary consideration.

With Manry at sea with no means of communication, the paper resorted to writing about his life and family. It got so bad that one day they sent me out to see why the family dog was not eating.

"The dog refused to talk," I told an editor upon my return.

There were more reported sightings of Man-ry at sea, and soon the story was no longer local. It took on legs and began to run on its own, creating worldwide interest.

Savoring an endless run of exclusive stories and unbridled promotion, The Plain Dealer dispatched a writer, a photographer and its promotion director to England to prepare to cover Manry's arrival.

It then sent Manry's wife and two children to England. A Royal Air Force plane dropped a message to the Tinkerbelle announcing their arrival in England. Poor Manry would later write of concerns that he was being exploited.

But the real exploitation came about in an astonishing turn of events that saw The Plain Dealer scooped on its own story.

No one anticipated the aggressiveness of Channel 5 anchorman Bill Jorgensen, who flew to England with a cameraman, chartered a trawler and set out to intercept Manry at sea while the PD staffers casually awaited his arrival in England.

Jorgensen found Manry and interviewed him in his boat for 3 hours. It only occurred to Manry afterward that he had given the competition the story that The Plain Dealer was planning on as an exclusive.

It was too late.

Channel 5 is a Scripps-Howard property, as was The Cleveland Press. Still, when Jorgensen returned to town, the television station manager graciously offered The Plain Dealer the opportunity to preview the film and write a story.

Philip W. Porter was the executive editor of The Plain Dealer. He wore bow ties, had a bad eye, sometimes talked through his cigar and was stubborn. You never wanted to get on his bad side. Jorgensen was on that dark side. He had once reported unkindly on one of Porter's several divorces.

In a move that made the Manry story go from a bad dream to a total disaster, Porter refused Channel 5's offer. What followed was one of the darkest weeks in the history of The Plain Dealer.

The Cleveland Press took the Jorgensen interview and ran a series of articles across the top of Page One for a week. In the competitive environment between the newspapers, the humiliation of being beaten on our own story was so bad that some of us ignored our beats that week to avoid meeting a laughing opposition.

The Plain Dealer and The London Daily Mirror attempted to recoup from the scoop by taking Manry's wife, Virgina, out to sea in a rented vessel to see her husband. It was a nice story, but the magnitude of what took place at home had paled its impact.

To me, things were never the same at the paper after that. It seemed as if the fiasco had sucked the spirit from our very souls.

Manry landed in England to a huge celebration and was given a parade when he arrived in Cleveland. He never returned to the newspaper, but went on to write a book, travel and give talks about his experience.

Tragically, Virginia was killed in an auto accident a few years later and then, in February of 1971, at age 52, Bob Manry died of a heart attack.

But the story would not die.

Several years afterward, I was on assignment in the Middle East. One evening in Jerusalem I was with a group of correspondents at the Knesset. When a short fellow from the London Daily Mirror overheard that I was from The Plain Dealer, he became agitated. His face flushed red and he cursed the newspaper and all who read it.

He had been the photo editor of the London Daily Mirror, which had published what it advertised were exclusive pictures of Manry's meeting at sea with his wife. He had not known that the vessel the two newspapers hired also carried a wire service photographer invited by one of the Plain Dealer staffers. Much to the embarrassment of the Mirror, every newspaper in London duplicated its "exclusive" that day.

Laugh or cry? You tell me.


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