15 Minutes: Columnist lands at Lake Tahoe
Al Morch, 76, was a society columnist for 44 years, 29 of them at the San Francisco Examiner, when Hearst Corp. owned it. He retired to Tahoe nine years ago. The people he’s interviewed or met over the years include four presidents, Shirley Temple and a Manson murderer.
Q: Why did you move to Tahoe?
A: I had skied here for 25 years, and the Examiner gave me $50,000 to retire. There were 10 people they wanted to get rid of since they thought we were over the hill. I resisted. I was making $1,200 bucks a week, because of the union. That was the first union paper I worked for.
Q: Where were you before that?
A: Women’s Wear Daily. I was a reporter and a photographer. I was there 12 years and I got fired. I don’t think you can be newspaper person unless you get fired at some point.
Q: Why were you fired?
A: I got into a big hassle with my editor over who would cover Levi Strauss, so he canned me and soon enough he was the PR director for Levi Strauss. I was unemployed for a week and the Examiner said we need a society writer.
I said I didn’t know anything about society. I mean, come on, I was a kid from Brooklyn. Born during the depression, slept in the same bed as my parents. It ruined their sex life.
Q: Why did you want to do this story?
A: I’m looking for a female companion that wants to dine out, go to the movies, and travel around the world. I’m a great kisser.
Q: How did you get into the newspaper business?
A: How it all began: When I was in the Navy, I was studying with the U.S. Armed Forces Institute classes, and I sent my assignments to someplace in Tokyo and I got a letter back one day from somebody and he said you’ve got a flair for writing, you might consider journalism.
So I went to journalism school at University of Southern California. I was offered a job at the Beverly Hills Newslife, and I dropped out of school and took it. My first story was that the calla lilies had been stolen in the local park.
Q: Did you ever find out who stole the calla lilies?
A: No. It was probably a drunk.
Q: How did you meet all these people?
A: I was the society columnist, I wrote six columns a week, and the sixth column had to be with a local personality, mainly men because my editor thought women wanted to read about men.
I met all of them when they visited San Francisco.
I once met the Shah of Iran, he was married to the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life, she was from Egypt, but she couldn’t bear children, so he divorced her.
Q: Who else?
A: Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, King of Sweden, Mayor Alioto.
The story I liked the most was Willie Messerschmidt, who designed the war planes that shot down a lot of our planes in World War II. He wasn’t tried as a war criminal, but he had been relegated to making sewing machines. He designed a three-wheel car. I shot a picture of him sitting on the curb.
I also interviewed one of the Manson killers. I liked him, he was nice.
Q: How could he be a nice guy?
A: He had turned over evidence to the state, and he said he’d gotten caught into it. I can’t remember the guy’s name.
Q: What was it like to interview a murderer?
A: Just like interviewing anybody.
Q: What’s your feeling on journalism today?
A: My advice to young people who are seeking a career is to become a computer programmer. Don’t go into journalism unless you are willing to take a lot of bumps along the way.
I went into journalism because I had a flair for it.
I drank a lot, like any reporter. I got drunk with Norman Mailer, and I don’t know who was drunker when we finished the interview.
Q: But why journalism?
A: I grew up a curious kid. I was a latchkey kid, both of my parents worked, we slept in the same bed and fought off cockroaches and bed bugs.
I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read a lot. I was curious: how do people succeed? I’m interested in speaking with people about anything.
Stripping away the tinsel to get to the real. PR people put up smoke screens and they are trying to sell you a bill of goods. Sometimes they are OK, they are honest, but very few would I have liked to take home and meet my kids.
I can’t be with anyone longer than five minutes without asking them what their philosophy is, what they do for a living and their sex life.
Q: What’s the hardest part of being a journalist?
A: Being honest. Not taking gifts.
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