The Don Hewitt Saga
By Joseph Wershba
Photo Courtesy of Don Hewitt
Twenty year old Cadet Don Hewitt covering U.S. Merchant Marine deadly skirmishes with German submarines in the North Atlantic, 1943.
Photo Courtesy of Don Hewitt
John F. Kennedy, receiving last minute instructions from Don Hewitt, producer of the first Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Debate in 1960.
Photo Courtesy of Don Hewitt
Don, Bill and Hillary, after a near hit by a falling studio light during the taping of the infamous Gennifer Flowers interview, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Boston, 1992.
Photo Courtesy of Don Hewitt
Frank Sinatra, Ed Pucci, bodyguard, and Don Hewitt during the taping of the CBS broadcast, "Sinatra," 1965.
By Joseph Wershba
Don Hewitt likes to boast that he has a short attention span. Short? Fifty five years with the same company? Thirty five years producing 60 Minutes, the longest running "news magazine" program in TV history twenty three consecutive seasons in the Top Ten...the only broadcast to finish Number One in three different decades. Add to the mix: director of evening news with Doug Edwards, producer of first half-hour evening news with Walter Cronkite, director-producer of space shots, coronations, conventions, elections, the Nixon-Kennedy Presidential debate, full length portraits, such as the one-hour special on Frank Sinatra...ah, yes: Sinatra. Measure these words for attention span. Background: Sinatra accuses Hewitt of going back on a supposed promise not to ask any questions about Mafia ties. Hewitt denies he ever made any such promise to Sinatra’s go-between.
The scene is Sinatra’s Palm Springs house. Walter Cronkite has just asked the ominous question. According to Hewitt, Sinatra goes ballistic. He points to Hewitt.
SINATRA: Come inside, I want to talk to you. (They go into Sinatra’s bedroom.) You broke all the rules.
HEWITT: No. Frank. We never agreed to those rules.
SINATRA: I ought to kill you.
HEWITT: With anyone else, that’s a figure of speech. But you probably mean it.
SINATRA: I mean it.
HEWITT: If I have a choice, I’d rather you didn’t.
Whereupon Hewitt remembers he scurried out of Sinatra’s house and back to his hotel. Sinatra never talked to him again. The broadcast may be the best ever done on Sinatra.
It happened in 1965. Hewitt remembers it as if were just a few minutes ago, coming out of a nightmare sleep. No sign of any attention deficit. Never mind Dr. Johnson’s maxim that when a man knows he’s going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. Hewitt’s memory box has worked exceedingly well across the years. From September l968 to the beginning of 2003, CBS reports there have been 3,339 separate original stories on "60 Minutes." Almost every one of those stories had to pass Hewitt’s muster--and many of his colleagues are convinced that he still remembers what was in each one of those segments. He has almost total recall. "I don’t know how he does it," says Mike Wallace. So, What do you make of this guy, still in his prime as he rounds third and heads for his 81st birthday in December? He’s been called a legend, a dazzler, an overarching talent, canny, a man with an eye on the main chance, comfortable with the rich and famous, mercurial, inventive, a record-setter in TV longevity who will probably never be surpassed in years at the helm of a "magazine" news series. He’s all of these. It’s been my good fortune to have worked with the best in broadcast news--Hewitt, Fred Friendly and Ed Murrow on "See It Now," Walter Cronkite on his memoirs. They are hugely talented. Many a commentator likes to call Don Hewitt a genius. Maybe they’ve got the French poet Charles Baudelaire in mind. Baudelaire wrote: "Genius is childhood recaptured." Meaning: kids always see things straight.
If ever there was a boy’s heart beating in an 81 year old youth, who has never lost his first passion--to become a newsman and shake up the world while having fun--then Don Hewitt may be your candidate for a Baudelaire genius award. He remembers the first time he saw the inside of the CBS TV studio atop the Grand Central Terminal: "They had cameras and lights and makeup artists and stage managers and microphones just like in the movies, and I was hooked. I had been passing through Grand Central every day on my way to work and never knew that upstairs, over the trains and the waiting room and the information booth, was an attic stuffed with the most fabulous toys anyone ever had to play with.
"I was mesmerized. As a child of the movies, I was torn between wanting to be Julian Marsh, the Broadway producer in 42nd Street, who was up to his ass in showgirls, and Hildy Johnson, the hell-bent-for-leather reporter in The Front Page, who was up his ass in news stories. Oh my God, I thought, in television I could be both of them."
There was another movie that caught him by the throat: Foreign Correspondent, the Hitchcock film starring Joel McCrea, who played a reporter (somewhat like Edward R. Murrow) covering the Nazis and warning Americans that Hitler was an implacable foe. "It was shortly after the war started in Europe, and I wanted nothing more than to be there in uniform," Don recalls, "but the uniform I had in mind was a trench coat and a pipe. I didn’t know then that my infatuation with the movies and my infatuation with journalism would lead me to where I ended up."
Born in New York City, December 14, 1922, Don’s family moved from time to time to different cities where his father, Ely, had taken newspaper jobs as manager of classified advertising. Growing up in New Rochelle, Don began his writing career as sports editor of the New Rochelle high school newspaper. For Hewitt, New Rochelle--George M. Cohan’s "Forty five minutes from Broadway"-- represented middle America in its values and outlook. He says those values have been his guide in sensing what Americans want and where the country is tending.
He was captain of the track team ("anchorman" was an everyday term then) and even ran for the Catholic Youth organization. That created a minor brouhaha. "The Temple sisterhood called a special meeting to decide whether they would allow me to be confirmed for my bar mitzvah. In the end, they did." His father was Russian-Jewish and his mother was German-Jewish. In those days that was considered a mixed marriage," Don quips. "The only anti-Semitism I remember was Jewish anti-Semitism, expressed by German Jews who did not accept my father. Because he was a Russian Jew, there were clubs that wouldn’t accept us." As for Christian anti-Semitism: "Not something I remember running into very often." Racism? There was integration in New Rochelle schools and the only time he became aware of racism was in reports of lynchings elsewhere. Religion? God? "Needing to be worshipped is a human failing, and I think God is probably above that. So I don’t hold very much with religion, organized or unorganized, and I am reasonably certain that I would feel the same if I had been born Catholic, Protestant or Muslim."
In essence, the only "ism" Don Hewitt believed in--then and now--was journalism. And winding up in the trade was a case of pure dumb luck.
He had received an athletic scholarship to NYU because of his record as a runner. His study habits, however, were so poor, NYU pulled back the scholarship; Don dropped out of NYU in his sophomore year. But when he was a summer counselor up in the Berkshires, he met a weekend guest named Arthur Perrin, who was at that time assistant sports editor of the Herald Tribune. Hewitt told Perrin all about his infatuation with journalism. Perrin said, "If you want a job, come and see me."
"Dumb luck," says Hewitt. He got the job: copy boy at the New York Herald Tribune, $15 a week with 15 cents deducted for Social Security. I know it sounds corny," he says, "but when I walked into that building on 41st street and heard the presses, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Big name writers everywhere. Tex O’Reilly, Homer Bigart, Red Smith, Marguerite Higgins. God! How I loved that place! Sometimes I think it was the best job I ever had." Within a few weeks he was promoted to chief copy boy. One of his duties was to go down to Bleeck’s and help the publisher, Ogden Reid, negotiate an unsteady trip back to the office.
December 7, 1941, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. America is in the war. Hewitt does not wait for an army draft. He volunteers for the Merchant Marine. Within a few months he’s a cadet in a slow convoy in the North Atlantic that’s all but wiped out by a wolf pack of German subs. He prays hard. "The only thing I remember praying for was, ‘Please God, let ‘em hit us amidships. After all those frigid morning lifeboat drills on Long Island Sound at the Merchant Marine Academy, I didn’t want to freeze to death in a lifeboat." His ship stays afloat. Dawn breaks. His next memory of that post-combat action gives you a clue on how the Hewitt mind works: "I noticed two dots on the horizon- -a couple of RAF planes coming to escort us in. As the two dots got bigger, all I could think was: Where’s the music? Without a Hollywood score to go with it, it wasn’t happening. That’s what comes from going to too many movies."
There would be a second opportunity for the U-boats to sink Don Hewitt’s career.
"We were driven way up north into a field of icebergs by German subs and took a torpedo midships. We saw it knifing its way through the water and figured we were going down for sure. But the damn thing hit the side of the ship, didn’t explode, and sank to the bottom. It was a dud. Now I was convinced more than ever that I was leading a charmed life."
He was also a charmer. When he was waiting in London for a new cargo, he looked in on the American GIs who were running the daily newspaper, Stars & Stripes. (That’s where he got his brief first look at a young reporter who covered the Eighth Air Force, Andy Rooney.) Somehow, Hewitt convinced the editors they needed a man to cover the Merchant Marine. Nobody really believed that the stateside powers would buy Hewitt’s proposal. But the editors sent in a reasonably worded, albeit hyped-up recommendation--and Washington concurred.
Suddenly, Hewitt was a bona fide war correspondent, with a "simulated" rank of second lieutenant; his job classification was Merchant Marine editor for Stars & Stripes. The simulated rank allowed him to eat in the officers’ mess if he wanted to; now and then he’d throw back a salute of recognition when a passing G.I. mistook him for a full commissioned officer. Most of all, he set something of a new record: at 20 years of age, he was the youngest correspondent accredited to General Dwight David Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters.
Hewitt kept his hand in his chosen trade: news. Whenever he wrote up reports of men under fire, he would go out on a rescue ship, get the individual stories, write ten different leads for ten different hometown newspapers. "There were opportunities to plant my stories with hometown newspapers all over America," he says. "The reporters I knew worked hard, sometimes in harm’s way, and played harder. For young men interested in young women, it was a fool’s paradise--beguiling, silly and often outrageous. I managed to fall seriously in love three or four times in less than fifteen months, writing my folks that this girl, then the next, was the one, even as I pledged allegiance to Mildred, the girl back home."
On June 9, 1944, D-Day three days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, Hewitt was with a unit lying off Omaha Beach. A slew of old boats had been laced with dynamite, and would be exploded to form a breakwater. That would permit the follow-on troops and equipment to land in calm waters. The signal came, the ships that would start the dynamiting began to leave the beach--until Hewitt shouted out, "Wait, wait, let’s head for the beach! We did, just briefly enough for me to jump out, touch my feet on that hallowed ground, then re-board. We were out of there before they blew the ships." No one could accuse Don Hewitt of ever missing an opportunity to play a role in history.
Then follows a touch of Catch-22. After he returns to London from Normandy, an official letter arrives. "Congratulations, you’ve been drafted." Army wants Don. Don doesn’t want Army; he wants Navy. Solution? Don gets sworn in as an ensign in the naval reserve. "It meant that I’d go back to sea, but as a pharmacist’s mate."
The war was over. Now, to make a living. Reporter jobs were few, and the salaries were slim pickin’s. He tied in with the AP bureau in Memphis as night editor, salary $50 a week. The AP liked his work and held out the possibility that someday he might--just might-- be promoted to the Nashville bureau. Hewitt figured that he’d be an old man before his chance came through. He came back to New York, to work on the weekly Pelham Sun. Six months later, he became night telephoto editor for Acme Newspictures, which was the picture arm of the United Press. His job was to select pictures by Acme’s photographers, write captions for them, and then transmit them by wire to newspaper offices all over the country. By 1948 his salary was $100 a week. "Sounds like the big time," he says, "but it wasn’t. Musty place, musty job, and if this was journalism, I thought, maybe I’d better start looking for something more exciting."
Just in time, something more exciting did turn up. Bob Rogow, a friend from his Trib days, was writing news for CBS Radio. He told Hewitt CBS was looking for someone with picture experience. Hewitt was intrigued but..."What does radio want with someone with picture experience?"
"Not radio," Rogow said. "Television."
Hewitt: You mean where you sit at home and watch little pictures in a box?"
Rogow: "That’s it. They got it. I saw it."
Hewitt: "The hell you did."
Rogow: "The hell I didn’t."
Hewitt: "Where did you see it?"
Rogow: Upstairs over Grand Central."
Hewitt went and looked; he was enthralled, mesmerized, hooked--you name it. The job paid $80 a week, $20 less than what he was making at Acme. And for a second or two he worried, with a wife, baby and another on the way, could he afford that cut in income? "Oh well," he thought, "nothing ventured, nothing gained. Sometimes, to this day, more than half a century later, I get cold chills thinking how close I came to opting not to take the $20-a-week pay cut and letting television go on its merry way without me." When he told Acme he was leaving for television, his boss said: "Television? That’s a fad. It won’t last." To which, Don Hewitt today says: "He was half right. It was a fad, but it lasted."
Shirley Wershba helped in the preparation of this article. So did Don Hewitt’s indispensable memoir, "Tell Me a Story," published by Public Affairs.