Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Going Out & About with predecessors

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The proper term was "about-town columnist."

Not "society editor" or "gossip reporter." Those titles belonged to other journalists. Midcentury, every serious newspaper and many magazines employed an about-town columnist to penetrate beyond high society to cafe society, private parties, nightclubs, sporting events and trends on the streets. Readers who never left their armchairs learned about the personalities beyond their walls, as well as the ebb and flow of socializing in their own cities by reading these columnists six times a week. (A daily blog is the current analog.)

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Winsor French served as about-town columnist at various Cleveland publications, most notably for the Cleveland Press. Like Samuel Pepys in 17th-century London, French recorded the Great Lakes city's nightlife and daylife, from its boom days during Prohibition to its decline into a Rust Belt shell of its former self in the late century.

He's the subject of an entertaining new book, "Out & About with Winsor French" by James M. Wood, himself a former about-town columnist for Cleveland Magazine. Wood recalls — perhaps in too much detail — the adventures of this gay columnist, fairly open for his time, who fought racism and homophobia while befriending the likes of Cole Porter, Somerset Maugham, Cary Grant, Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich.

The dark prince of this type of columnizing was Walter Winchell, who dispensed malicious gossip from his New York perch, and whose work was syndicated in more than 2,000 American newspapers. The poetic paragon was Herb Caen, who covered the streets, bars and hot spots of San Francisco for more than 50 years.

With clarity and little moralizing, French described African American entertainers, gay retreats and novel parties from Hollywood to Broadway, Europe to the South Seas. He also reviewed movies and plays. His reports, quoted liberally by Wood, tell us a lot about how Americans lived before the advent of television and the Internet. And anyone who thinks their grandparents or great-grandparents wouldn't have tripped down to the Cleveland equivalent of the Warehouse District or Sixth Street in their youth — or at least wanted to — are distorting social history.

Witty and a bit too cynical, French's prose foreshadows the breezy currency of Austin Eavesdropper's Tolly Moseley, the on- and off-page extravagance of the Austin Chronicle's Stephen Moser and the insider social connections of Society Diaries' Lance Avery Morgan.

To produce his self-professed "new kind of reporting" from inside the world of the socially connected, rather than merely through formal interviews, the unmonied French depended on the kindness of friends and family, especially Ohio fortune heir Leonard Hanna, stepfather Joseph Eaton and the trusting celebrities themselves, who put the columnist up in their guest houses, or added him to their flocks of virtual retainers.

Thus, his willing editors traded credibility for incalculable access.

In Wood's pages, French doesn't come off as a saint: His boozy sprees, thorny feuds, chummy self-editing and constant cadging for cash are turnoffs. The admiring Wood emphasizes, instead, French's courage covering multiple levels of his city's and his country's social strata with a cold eye and an even hand.

mbarnes@statesman.com