The Night Beat

Remembering crime reporter Nieson Himmel

Yager marvels at the coincidence that shortly before Himmel's death, his favorite Minneapolis restaurant, the Nankin, closed its doors. She recalls that many a time during visits home, he would go directly from the airport to the restaurant, and usually ate there once a day while in town. Had other ills not killed him, she supposes, seeing the Chinese restaurant go out of business "would have put him away."

If Himmel's life in L.A. wasn't known in full by his family, many of his L.A. colleagues didn't know of his Minnesota history. "I was surprised to find out Nieson's background. I thought he was an Angelino through and through," says L.A. native Jerry Clark, who worked at the competing Los Angeles Mirror-News when Himmel was at the Herald. Clark recalls that Himmel always stuck to the basics: "He never forgot the fundamentals--he didn't wait for press releases." Later on, he says, he would often hear Himmel's voice on televised police press conferences, asking straight-ahead questions like "How would you spell that, Smith?"

Himmel came from an era when L.A. had true newspaper competition, but the relationships between reporters and police was anything but adversarial. "Did you see L.A. Confidential?" asks Dick Turpin, who was working on the Times police beat in the late '40s when Himmel was at the Herald. "L.A. Confidential was a pretty good example of things that were going on. The newspapers and the police and fire departments were really working hand-in-glove." Turpin says Himmel was respected and trusted by police sources: "He had a great memory. He had sources that none of us had. He never strayed from the facts."

Himmel, age 77, collapsed in the Los Angeles Times newsroom in February and died shortly thereafter
Himmel, age 77, collapsed in the Los Angeles Times newsroom in February and died shortly thereafter

Turpin now chairs the Old Farts Society, a club of mostly retired L.A. journalists, of which Himmel was one of the few members still working. At the society's first meeting after Himmel's death, at Genio's, an Italian restaurant in Burbank, says Turpin, "we had a silent moment for Nieson, and because he's so big we had two empty chairs at the bar for him."

In his later years, Himmel's memory dulled a bit. Former L.A. Times night city editor Rick Barrs, now editor of the weekly New Times Los Angeles, says that as he aged, Himmel lost the ability to sort out the usual from the unusual in the night's news. Nevertheless, Himmel would tap out 1,500-3,000 word "surreal" overnight notes; although some of the details would be confused, Barrs says, "Within that overnight note would be a gem." Barrs recalls one night in 1992 when Himmel picked up a wild tip about the Los Angeles Zoo's failed efforts to spirit a five-ton bull elephant named Hannibal away in the night, an account that sparked a string of subsequent stories about controversies surrounding zoo management.

Under Times Mirror Company CEO Mark Willes, who also serves as publisher of the Times, the paper has often found itself in the news for making deep job cuts. Somehow, Himmel survived the carnage: Most say that's because Times editors understood that Himmel's job was his life. "The only humanitarian thing I can think of them doing during the Willes regime," Barrs figures, "is letting him stay on."

By the time of his death, Himmel had become the last holdover from the storied rat-a-tat-tat days when reporters really did yell, "Get me rewrite!" Is there anyone of his ilk left? "No," Corwin says, emphatically. "He's the last one."

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