August 8, 1921—a few minutes before midnight
Newspapering was a young man’s game. At least that was what Comer Howell told himself as he rolled his shoulders, put one foot on the running board, and unlatched the door of his Type 59 Cadillac. It was an odd and incongruous thought given that Comer was barely out of his teens and flush with promise. He had already studied abroad at Oxford and was only a few credits shy of a degree from the University of Georgia, but the pangs of another exhausting day reporting news for the Atlanta Constitution coupled with the suffocating heat of a Georgia summer night had zapped his vigor and left him feeling much older than his years.
With a tall, lean physique, a chiseled jaw, and perfectly slicked hair, he bore a remarkable resemblance to California’s latest moving picture sensation, an Italian named Rudolph Valentino. But Comer was no “Latin Lover” and certainly no play actor. With his chin high, a watch chain dangling from his vest pocket just so, the fingers of a hand relaxed in the pocket of his trousers, Comer looked like what he was: one of the Northsiders, the proper Atlantans who lived in the large neoclassical, Tudor-Jacobean, or colonial revival homes along the wooded northern hills of the South’s fastest-growing city. Atlanta had geographical as well as social demarcations. The hilly north side of town where oaks, magnolias, and dogwoods shaded the manicured lawns was the province of the right families, many wealthy, all white. The pine-laden flatlands grew progressively darker. The east side of town housed clusters of Orientals, Japanese and Chinese, who had migrated to the region as agricultural and railroad workers, and the southern enclaves were majority negro: areas someone like Comer Howell rarely visited, and never at this time of night.
He had removed his four-button jacket, a staple of the sacque suit, but too hot for August, even at midnight. He’d also loosened the silk tie, removing the clip and unfastening the collar of his white shirt, a faux pas bordering on scandalous in a town where lingering Edwardian mores required professional men to change clothes several times a day depending on the activity. Comer’s father certainly would have frowned on his casual appearance, but the elder Howell would just have to understand.
The thought of explaining his present wardrobe to anyone, especially his father, caused Comer’s shoulders to slump. He worked at the family newspaper and lived under his father’s roof (one of the largest Victorian dwellings on the north side) in the warm comfort of family largesse, but with those trappings came the heft of the Howell name. Maybe it was just the lateness of the hour: with Monday about to slip into Tuesday and his eyes burning from cigarette smoke and the strain of putting another day’s newspaper to bed, Comer couldn’t wait to get his car rolling uptown. Cadillac was one of the first automobiles with a venting system that blew air directly into the passenger compartment, and the Type 59, with its innovative tilted windshield, provided as comfortable an experience as one could find on the road. By all rights he was too young to be driving a luxury automobile, especially at a time when most Georgians still owned horses, or at least a mule, but along with the responsibilities of upholding the family reputation, being a Howell in Atlanta carried certain perks. Comer refused to feel guilty for indulging a few extravagances.
Of course, if he were such a big deal, why was he leaving the office at this hour, especially after going to press with such burning stories as the one about an eighty-year-old Atlantan who had fallen from a ladder in his yard?
He opened the door and waited on the running board while his passengers plopped into their seats. No matter the hour, Comer would never breach his Southern manners by sitting down before his guests. Lloyd Wilhoit, the city editor, got in first. He was a crusty, authoritarian man whose perpetual frown blended with his cheeks until one fleshy crevice became indistinguishable from the next. His demeanor didn’t brighten as he climbed into the back seat of Comer’s car for a ride home. No one told Wilhoit to sit in the back: it was just assumed he would want to be chauffeured.
Paul Warwick, a senior reporter and a man with enough clout at the paper that even Wilhoit left him alone, sat in the front. They were grizzled veterans of the news business, real reporters who ground out stories like meal from a stone, and men who viewed Comer as a nice kid, but the boss’s son, not their equal. That didn’t stop them from hitching a ride after a long night, especially since Howell had the nicest car in the newsroom.
Boss’s son: the moniker could burrow a hole through the sternest of young psyches. No matter what he did or how hard he worked, Comer seemed destined to be known as Clark Howell’s son. His dad had taken over as owner, editor, and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution in 1901, just a few months after Comer was born, and in the two decades since, the paper had grown into one of the most respected news organs in the nation. Of course Comer had had nothing to do with that success, which meant he had more to prove. Co-workers always looked askance at a young heir. It was common in any job, but it was especially brutal in a cutthroat business like the news.
As if Clark Howell’s shadow were not large, Comer’s grandfather, Captain Evan Park Howell, had been a war hero, the kind of man other men spoke of with faraway looks in their eyes. After serving in Virginia under Stonewall Jackson and leading a Confederate artillery battery during Billy Sherman’s romp through Atlanta, Captain Howell had worked as the sole reporter at the Atlanta Intelligencer. He hadn’t done it for money. The family sawmill on Howell Mill Road had become a gold mine as the town Sherman torched rose from the ashes. Lumber couldn’t be cut fast enough, and the Howell Mill became one of the city’s primary suppliers. Wealthy and a war hero, Captain Howell, known as E.P. among his friends, dabbled in law and politics, being elected state senator twice, but his true passion was the paper: reporting, editing, and publishing news of the New South. So, in 1887, E. P. Howell bought controlling interest of the Atlanta Constitution and assumed the mantle of editor-in-chief. Comer’s family had controlled things ever since.
Unspoken resentment hung like summer mist about Comer’s two passengers that night. After all, how were a city editor and a senior reporter supposed to treat a Howell? In addition to being their boss, Comer’s dad had once been president of the state senate and a candidate for governor. Newspapermen running for political office was quite common, since the public saw them as intelligent and informed citizens, as well as some of the wealthiest. The man who had beaten Clark Howell in that governor’s race, Hoke Smith, had once owned the Atlanta Journal, the rival paper to the Constitution.
While Comer never lived in the governor’s mansion and never ran anything more complicated than a weekly bridge game, he did live a life most reporters could not fathom. He wore black patent leather shoes to work, and two-toned wingtips with his casual attire at a time when many Georgians went shoeless. He also owned brogues with fringed tongues for the occasional retreat to Augusta, Thomasville, or the Jekyll Island Club. His tuxedo, a fifty-dollar extravagance, had been custom-tailored in New York along with several of his golf coats and knickerbockers. He didn’t play much golf, but he kept the clothes on hand in case he got called for a game at Brookhaven or the Atlanta Athletic Club at East Lake, clubs his family had belonged to from their inception.
Comer went to all the right parties. His acquaintances, romantic and otherwise, were esteemed Southerners, and his accent was just so: proper Victorian grammar delivered in an adagio rhythm with the r’s rolled into ah’s; none of the banjo-twanging phrases of the hillbillies, or guttural vowel swallowing of the field hands. He was the consummate gentleman. Even his name reeked of status: Hugh M. Comer Howell, his father’s family name plus the full name of his maternal grandfather, who was himself the famous late president of the Georgia Central Railroad. Little wonder other reporters at the paper had trouble warming up to him.
Comer worked as hard as anyone, staying late, taking piddling assignments, and pecking out un-bylined tripe on the latest socialite wedding—“officiating the service was the honorable reverend . . .”—or listening to endless blather at City Hall. Today’s inanity had included paragraph upon paragraph about traffic safety. The Junior Chamber of Commerce had declared the second week of August as “Traffic Safety Awareness Week,” in an attempt to draw attention to the maimings and deaths on the city’s streets. It was no doubt a worthwhile cause. According to the New York Times, one person was killed by a car every forty-two minutes in America, an epidemic that showed no signs of abating. Unfortunately, by eleven o’clock on a Monday night, Comer couldn’t have cared less. He was hot and exhausted, and longed for nothing more than a few hours alone in his Chippendale walnut bed.
He would decide how to respond to the contempt he sensed from Wilhoit and Warwick tomorrow. Fair or not, nepotism always left a stain. To combat it, Comer had to become the best reporter in the city. He needed nitty-gritty newspapering, something that would make Comer Howell the talk of the town for his efforts, not his name. Right now, though, he needed sleep. A dark, quiet house awaited him on Wesley Avenue, and he had a darn nice motorcar to transport him there: emerald green with a sturdy arched grille, sleek curved running boards, and twelve-spoke wheels, a machine worth more than most people at the paper made in a year, a point no one mentioned, but another source of unspoken tension among his passengers.
Conversation was light. They were too tired and the night was too hot for chitchat. August was always the most oppressive month, but this one had been especially stifling, and nightfall brought no relief. The air felt like molasses, and the smells of sawdust and tar, “the aroma of progress” as politicians called it, were enough to turn the stomach. Once they got rolling the breeze cooled things down a bit; still, no one spoke.
That all changed as they rolled through the 500 block of West Peachtree Street.
Wilhoit saw it first.
“Comer, stop the car! A man in the road!” he shouted.
Jerking the wheel toward the center of the street, Comer hit the brakes and the car wobbled to a stop. Thankfully there was no traffic. Comer whipped the car around at the Fifth Street intersection.
Then he saw it, too, a motionless figure facedown near the curb, legs sprawled, and a head cocked at a strange angle near the gutter. At first Comer thought it was a scarecrow or one of those mannequins that Gavan’s used to display their thirteen-dollar men’s suits, but as the headlights hit the figure, Comer saw the puddle, black and glistening.
It was a man. There could be no mistake. He wore cuffed trousers and a white shirt, and lay in a pool of blood.
They froze. As much as Comer, Wilhoit, and Warwick believed themselves to be noble men of courageous stock, nobody felt compelled to rush forward. They climbed from the Cadillac slowly, haltingly. When a streetcar approached, they clamored over each other in an attempt to flag it down.
There weren’t any passengers at midnight, so Wilhoit convinced the two conductors to help. Together, the five men inched toward the figure in the street, each fighting the urge to flee the scene as blood oozed from the lower extremities.
“He’s still breathing!” one of the streetcar workers said.
This news jolted Wilhoit into action. He ran to a house on the other side of the street, the only one on West Peachtree with the lights on at that time of night. “I need to telephone an ambulance,” he shouted.
Comer felt like his heart was going to leap out of his chest, but his legs seemed paralyzed. He couldn’t look away from the blood as it shimmered in the glow of the new White Way streetlamps the city had installed. The orbs, five per pole, gave the growing pool a glistening sheen. Comer knew he couldn’t stand there while this waxy-looking man expelled his last breath. The figure appeared so unnatural, like a mime or an actor in makeup.
When Comer finally moved, he slipped, only then realizing the blood had enveloped his feet. Comer leapt onto the sidewalk, his breath shallow. He sprinted to the nearest house, opened the screen and banged on the door.
“Let me use your telephone!” Comer shouted. “A man has been hit by a car!”
Why he’d used those words wouldn’t occur to him for some time. Comer had no idea what had happened in the street. Nobody did. But Traffic Safety Awareness Week continued to weave through his subconscious. Comer had learned a lot about auto accidents in the last two days: like the fact that, so far in 1921, thirty-eight Atlanta souls had been called home in traffic-related incidents, the fifth-highest death toll among cities of 100,000 residents or more. He also knew that cars were multiplying like rabbits. Henry Ford’s Model T factory on Ponce de Leon Avenue
had been churning out vehicles in Atlanta since 1915. A year after Ford came to town, the city had 6,000 automobiles chugging up and down its streets. George Hanson had added to the congestion by opening his Hanson Six plant, calling Atlanta “The logical automobile center of the Great Southeast.” Now there were close to 25,000 cars in town, and the death toll continued to climb. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone. The automobile itself was only a few years old, and motor vehicle dexterity was still a generation away. Most roads hadn’t been upgraded from their horse-and-buggy conditions, and Georgians certainly weren’t accustomed to fast, powerful machines on their streets. Dozens of people had died by walking in front of cars they had seen. They had simply underestimated the closing speed of a Model T. Shouting that the man in the street had been hit by a car was a reflex, a verbal vomit in the midst of a crisis. At the time Comer didn’t give it a second thought. There were far more pressing concerns, like getting an ambulance to the scene. He had no idea how crucial his words would later become, or how much he would regret having uttered them. At that moment, he just wanted to do something, anything, to help.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from To Win and Die in Dixie by Steve Eubanks. Copyright © 2010 by Steve Eubanks. Excerpted by permission of ESPN, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.