Saturday, July 02, 2005

RIP Ben Thomas

Ben Thomas whirls to an end
Founder of crime sheet dies at 94

Ben Thomas, for 57 years the publisher, editor and writer of the Evening Whirl, "a weekly newspaper dedicated to the exposure of crime and civic improvement," died last week in California at the age of 94.

Thomas chronicled his adopted hometown of St. Louis in a way that defied characterization, stirring controversy and attracting loyal, even fanatical, readers of his lyrically rewritten rap sheet. Thomas was called a blues lyricist and an ancestor of hip hop. In his own eyes, he was a crusader against crime.

Thomas was born in 1910 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the youngest of seven children. His father, a cook on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was rarely at home, and the children were raised by their paternal grandparents, who were born into slavery.

Thomas' grandfather was a preacher. Although young Ben preferred juke joints to prayer meetings, he recalled vociferous preaching from the pulpit until late in his life, and those memories may have influenced his calling as a writer.

Thomas matriculated at Ohio State University in 1930, though he never completed a degree. He sprinted for the Buckeye track team, a perpetual second-place finisher (as he liked to explain) to Jesse Owens. He studied English literature and became the campus correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, writing fiction, poems and news.

Before college, Thomas spent a year in St. Louis with one of his sisters, attending Sumner High School. When he left Ohio, he returned to St. Louis and worked for the Argus, rising from reporter to entertainment editor, columnist and gossip writer.

In an era when Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong made stops in St. Louis, Thomas said he "got a chance to meet all those big-time guys." A man who reportedly dated Billie Holiday and knew Duke Ellington became known around town as "The Baron."

In 1939, he married a young socialite named Juanita Clardy. In 1965, she succumbed to a heart condition, and Thomas never remarried.

In 1938, when Thomas was 28, he started his own newspaper, the Night Whirl, covering music, entertainment and gossip for the black community. Printed on green six-by-nine inch paper, the Night Whirl was known around town as the "Green Sheet." His wife helped Thomas in almost every facet of the paper’s production, but he also had a shoestring, mostly unpaid staff.

In May 1939, two high school teachers at Sumner escorted a group of boys on a picnic to the country. Pedophilia was alleged. Thomas read the case file at the circuit attorney's office. "That was the biggest thing, like a scandal, that ever happened in St. Louis," Thomas said.

Thomas changed the paper's name to the Evening Whirl to accommodate the story. "I went back to the press for the third time before I could satisfy St. Louis," Thomas said. "It's been a crime sheet ever since." In the 1940s, Thomas made his first contact with the St. Louis Police Department, beginning a relationship that would span the next fifty years.

Thomas solicited advertisements, delivered papers from the back of his station wagon and visited police headquarters daily. He remained hunched over his typewriter deep into the night, police reports and mug shots stacked all around him.

His subjects were lovers' quarrels gone homicidal, preachers who sought trim on the St. Louis stroll, the 1970s heroine dealers who ruled over housing projects and any person who got on the editor's bad side.

Civil-rights editorials sat side-by-side with catchpenny verse and the most graphic prose. He rejoiced in sex scandals and shouted his crazy headlines three inches high.

Perhaps his favorite genre was the prominent citizen busted with a hooker, and this led to libel suits by the dozens, amounting to millions of dollars. He spent his entire career in court.

In the 1950s, the city's street gangs first came on the scene. "Crimes were happening, and reports of them appeared in the dailies in about 3 inches of space, unless a white person was involved," Thomas said. His paper filled
the gap.

Thomas endangered himself by exposing criminals. At the paper's offices, Molotov cocktails exploded in the wee hours on three occasions. Bullets rang through the Evening Whirl's windows.

The apex of drug-world violence in St. Louis, and the apex of the Evening Whirl's popularity, came during the 1970s. To carry the escalating quantity of crime news, in 1972 Thomas enlarged his newspaper to broadsheet from tabloid. Around this time, the circulation of the Evening Whirl reached its peak, estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000.

Also in the 1970s, Thomas began competing in Senior Olympics track meets, eventually accumulating a dozen gold medals.

In 1970, Thomas ran for Missouri state representative, with crime curtailment and gun control as his platform. He rode around the neighborhoods of his district in his convertible Jaguar, perched up on the backseat, but lost in the Democratic primary by a large margin.

The outrageousness of the Whirl increased over the final decade of his career. In 1983, the Whirl hit the streets with possibly its most famous articles, the Dogman Edwards stories. In April of that year, Thomas broke the news that police had apprehended a man in Forest Park fornicating with a canine. "MAN WHO HAD INTERCOURSE AND ORAL SEX WITH DOG IN PARK PREFERS DOG TO 300-LB. WIFE" read one of many headlines.

Thomas appeared as a guest on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, and later was hosted by Peter Jennings on ABC Nightly News. The Wall Street Journal profiled him on its front page in 1990. Eddie Murphy, Robert Townsend, Bob Costas, John Waters and Bill Murray purchased subscriptions. Murray, visiting St. Louis for a film shoot in 1995, stopped by the Evening Whirl to pay his regards.

In local journalism, Thomas had many supporters, including Howard Woods, founder of the St. Louis Sentinel, and Benny Rogers, former editor of the St. Louis American, who occasionally filled in for Thomas when he was on vacation, writing lead stories for the Whirl.

Thomas left the paper in 1995, when symptoms of Alzheimer's began to afflict him. In that year, his sons, Barry and Kevin Thomas, moved their father to the Los Angeles area. Just before he left St. Louis, in July 1995, the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists inducted Thomas into its Hall of Fame.

In one of many defenses of his life work, Thomas wrote, "The Whirl has preached PURITY and condemned CRIME. Those who don't like it can kiss our behind."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a very old friend from the early 1950's I valued knowing Mr. Thomas and I admired his keen wisdom and his sense of fair play. He as a great man and he knew how to survive.
Ride on Ben in your Fine Mchine, (as he always loved beautiful cars.) You earned it!
An old friend from our youger days

10:44 PM  

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