In the spring of 1932, Ernie Pyle took over as the new managing editor of The Washington Daily News, an afternoon tabloid whose rackety little newsroom occupied the third floor of a narrow building a few blocks from the White House. His desk was near the city editor and the telegraph editor, and among the headaches he inherited was to referee their competing demands for space in the paper. He was thirty-one years old, and it was a job he thought he was supposed to want: a top editor for a big paper in the newspaper chain he had joined soon after leaving Indiana University, at the start of what promised to be a vivid presidential campaign between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. He was miserable.
Indoors was not his natural habitat. Pyle preferred to be out chasing stories, not inside shaping them, but he was such a swift, deft hand with copy—a deadline poet who could make lesser writers sing in voices they didn’t know they had—that his bosses at Scripps-Howard kept calling him off the hunt and lashing him to a desk. His frustration in his latest desk job only grew as he watched his reporters come back to the newsroom without the kinds of stories he wanted to put in the paper.
“Keep your eyes open,” he wrote in a memo to his staff. “There are swell stories floating around your beats every day that you either don’t see or don’t bother to do anything about when you do see them.”
He continued encouraging them in a tone that was almost wistful, as if he were addressing himself. “You can hardly walk down the street, or chat with a bunch of friends, without running into the germ of something that may turn up an interesting story if you’re on the lookout for it. News doesn’t have to be important, but it has to be interesting. You can’t find interesting things, if you’re not interested.”
Pyle himself was about as interested as a man could be, and he knew those interesting stories were out there because he had proved adept at getting them himself. To become managing editor he had left a job he loved as an aviation columnist, which was, in the era of Lindbergh and Earhart, something like being a technology columnist at the dawn of Jobs and Gates. He regretted that decision now.
“Routine and deadening,” is how he described the managing editor’s job in a letter to a friend. “It is hard and fatiguing work, and I get no chance to do any writing.”
Then, in December of 1934, a bit of luck came his way: a lingering dose of flu. Pyle weighed 108 pounds (“small, frail … bashful and unimpressive,” as his first editor described him), and when sickness got in him it tended to stay awhile. Head someplace warm, the doctor told him. Pyle loved to drive—not fast, but far—so he and his wife, Jerry, pointed their new Ford coupé south.
They had fallen in love with the Southwest on an earlier journey, but this time as they passed through Arizona, New Mexico, even California, all they found was an unsettling dampness. They gave up their search for the sun in Los Angeles, where, in the rain, they loaded themselves and their car onto a slow freighter for a three-week cruise that eased them through the tropics before delivering them back to the East Coast. There was a hole in the paper when they returned: the spot reserved for the syndicated columnist Heywood Broun, who was on vacation. Pyle filled it himself with an eleven-part series of the kind he had always dreamed of writing.
“You know, my idea of a good newspaper job would be just to travel around wherever you’d want without any assignment except to write a story every day about what you’d seen,” he had told a friend soon after first joining the News. Now, a decade later, that was just what he had done.