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How Not to Die in Oakland | Newspaperman Al Martinez takes Oakland sensibilities to L.A.

Growing up in East Oakland in the 1930s, L.A. Times columnist Al Martinez remembers how his mother used to scold him, saying he’d never amount to anything and he’d die in Oakland. Determined not to draw his last breath in his hometown, Martinez has managed to globe-trot with the best of them. His book, I’ll Be Damned If I’ll Die in Oakland (St. Martin’s Press, 2003), chronicles these journeys and his storied newspaper career, including his days with the Oakland Tribune in the 1960s. Martinez, who shared a Gold Medal Pulitzer [the highest of the Pulitzers] in Journalism in 1984, and a standard Pultizer in 1993 and 1995, has written several other books, including the recent Barkley: A Dog’s Journey, about traveling with his dying family dog. I caught up with Martinez at his hideout above Malibu to see where his mind would wander.

Paul Kilduff: I know this is ancient history now, but exactly why did you leave the Oakland Tribune?

Al Martinez: The Oakland Tribune at one time was a really good newspaper. We had some terrific reporters and I think the best photographers I’ve ever seen. Then Bill Knowland, he was the son of the owner of the Tribune and was in the U.S. Senate, decided to run for governor and got his ass beat by Pat Brown. He came back and started publishing the paper. It swung way to the right. I went along with the Civil Rights Movement and all the other liberally-oriented causes. I was doing a column six days a week [on the op-ed page] and he [Knowland] kept killing the columns. When I backed the Students for the Democratic Society or Mario Savio and his Free Speech Movement, he’d kill ’em. I went into his office many times and said, more or less, this is bullshit, it’s my byline, it’s a column. This went on for a couple of years, fighting and fighting, and finally he said, you do it my way or not at all. Meanwhile the L.A. Times had been offering, and that’s where everybody I talked to said the future is. It’s Otis Chandler turning it into a great, international, liberal newspaper and so I decided to go there.

PK: While you were at the Tribune, Herb Caen made a special point to have a meeting with you.

AM: It was like having an audience with a king. Even when I came down south he remained a close and good friend.

PK: You must have downed a couple of martinis.

AM: It’s amazing I’m still alive. I’m 76 years old and everybody I know is dead–all my friends at the Tribune. It was a hard-drinking era, the ’50s and ’60s. They had what they called the breakfast club. They would go across the street (from the Tribune Tower) to the Hollow Leg, which no longer exists, and have Bloody Marys or whatever with their eggs. We were on the early shift on rewrite, general assignment. We’d come in at 6 a.m. And by 10 or 10:30 it was lunchtime, so we’d take off maybe at 11, go across the street and have a couple of martinis and lunch, and come back and finish up. Then I got a column and my hours changed. So for the eight years that I had the column I was a temperate drinker. I joke about it, but [now] I have a martini when I go out to dinner a couple of times a week maybe, and that’s it.

PK: Do you have your own recipe for the perfect martini?

AM: I wrote about this for Bon Appétit. My perfect martini is Grey Goose vodka and a whisper of vermouth. First I wet the glass and I put it in the freezer. Then I put ice in a mixer–a metal mixer because it holds a chill. Then I pour the vodka. I’ve got one of these spray things of vermouth, but I use the bottle. It’s just a couple of drops really. And then I shake it. I get the glass out of the freezer and it’s got a nice frost on it and you pour the martini in that. No olive because it creates a scum. All this time you have to have a Billie Holiday CD on.

PK: As someone who’s made a career out of being a newspaperman, what do you think the future holds for the medium?

AM: The new generation is computer-linked and it’s a different kind of world for them. Newspapers are an element of the past. Something’s happening, I’m not sure what it is: computers, television, or the hammering that newspapers have taken from the right wing. I’m not sure how people are getting the news; they don’t want to hear bad news anymore. When I do a light, fluffy, good news-type column or funny column, oh they love that. When I write about Iraq or crooked politicians, oh they hate that.

PK: So you get complaints when you’re hard-hitting?

AM: One [story] I did was praising Mahoney, the bishop down here I’ve always called the Pope of Hollywood. I praised him because of his stand on immigration saying that there should be no law that would prevent priests or anybody else from offering religious comfort to anybody, [while] this new law was going to say that you have to ask for their papers. You cannot imagine the anti-immigration feeling, the anti-Mexican feeling, that exists across the country. I mean vicious letters. They were in the minority, but they were so vicious that they stand out.

PK: Do you think we don’t want to engage in debate, that we’d rather leave that to some pundit on talk radio?

AM: I think we’re hooked on good news. We don’t want to see, as Bush doesn’t, the body bags of what war produces.

PK: You were against the war in Iraq from the beginning.

AM: I’ve been to war. No one I know who has been in a war is ever for a war. It’s brutal. And even if you weren’t marked physically, you’re always marked emotionally. I still have nightmares. We live in this great area of hiking trails right on the edge of Topanga State Park and I walk those trails at twilight, the same time when the Chinese and the North Koreans used to attack. And I suddenly freeze and my wife says, "What’s the matter?" I’m always watching the ground because of mines. All these things come back to you. I’m totally antiwar and I’m especially anti this one because there’s no cause for it.

PK: No wonder we don’t want to hear about this stuff. I just want to hear about martinis.

AM: Exactly

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