Twin Cities newspapers didn't take much note of the passing of Los Angeles Times journalist Nieson Himmel last month. True, Minnesota native Himmel--77 at the time of his death on March 13--hadn't lived in the state since he headed west in the early 1940s. The Star Tribune ran a few brief sentences; the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran several hundred words of the obit from the wire. But given the provincial pride that Minnesota media tend to take in anyone who ever spent more than a weekend in the state, it did seem odd that more wasn't written locally about Himmel, whose death was very big news to the journalism community in Los Angeles.
Himmel covered the police beat in one fashion or another for the bulk of his 55 years in that city, originally for the afternoon Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, later the Herald Examiner. The Times, where he'd worked since 1975, ran a 1,500-word elegy penned by staffer Miles Corwin, who worked nights with Himmel at the paper. The Washington Post ran a longer version of Corwin's piece than either Twin Cities daily.
Corwin's brilliant recollection is chock full of great anecdotes about the eccentric journalist: "Himmel, who was about 5-feet-7 and weighed close to 300 pounds, was a Buddha-like figure as he leaned back in his chair, eyes half-closed, hands over his mid-section, listening to dispatchers barking out the nightly mayhem and murder calls... Himmel did not own a car. Instead he rented an automobile from a rental car agency, paying a daily rate. The interiors were always a sight to behold, an odorous melange of partly eaten hamburgers, chicken bones, fast-food wrappers, French fries, and stacks of newspapers. Whenever the trash rose high enough to obscure the rear windshield, Himmel simply turned the car in and rented another one." Himmel collapsed in the newsroom in February; he ultimately died of pneumonia-related complications.
But for all his idiosyncrasies, Corwin says from his desk at the Times, Himmel was a gentle soul: "He grew up in a small town in Minnesota"--Faribault--"and still seemed to have that small-town politeness and graciousness about him." Corwin says his former colleague, who'd covered the murder of Bugsy Siegel and the so-called Black Dahlia case in his day, didn't like the way the business of journalism had changed. "He had sort of a dim view of today's newspapers. He came from a day when you covered every murder," remembers Corwin, who adds that, given the high number of killings in Los Angeles County these days, that's no longer the case.
In later years, Himmel wasn't tailing the mobsters and molls of L.A. nightlife. "His job was basically to answer the phones and listen to the scanners and help out when things got busy. He didn't do much writing anymore," Corwin says. "You wouldn't consider him a polished writer. He was more the reporter-gatherer. Writing was not his forte--obtaining the information was his forte."
The old yearbooks on file at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault show that Himmel graduated from the city's high school in 1939 and worked on the staffs of the Echo newspaper and the Voyageur yearbook. Photos from the yearbook show a young, slender, dark-haired Himmel--always standing at the end of a row, wearing a serious, inscrutable expression. A photo of his class's 50th reunion that ran in the local paper shows a heavier Himmel, sporting thick black glasses, pens protruding from his shirt pocket--standing at the end of the row, but beaming beatifically.
He attended the University of Minnesota, but did not graduate. He worked as both a copy boy and a reporter on the police beat for the Minneapolis Star Journalbefore lighting out for the coast to escape Minnesota's winters. Born Nieson Himmelstein, he never legally changed his name, but wrote under an abbreviated byline. He returned to Minnesota annually to attend his class reunion in Faribault, says his sister Guzzie Yager, of Minneapolis, and he always came home for family events.
Many of the anecdotes floated in Corwin's obituary of her brother came as surprises to Yager. "He was a real character, they tell me," she says. "We never knew anything about these stories. Tell you what kind of a guy he was: He had a girlfriend for 42 years that we never knew about. He had a life unto himself." While cleaning out Himmel's apartment after his death, Yager made other discoveries. "We found two Pulitzers in his apartment that I did not know anything about. They look like paperweights," she says. Corwin says both prizes were staff awards that everyone on the Times metro desk received for spot news coverage of the 1992 riots and the 1994 earthquakes.
Himmel seemed to inspire his own mythology. Colleagues often whispered among themselves that Himmel was heir to some fortune, possibly the Birds Eye frozen food empire. Yager says she thinks such stories about her brother were apocryphal, and speculates that their origins could be traced to Himmel himself. "He had a really good imagination. He was always a writer. He was not the heir to the Birds Eye fortune. Where else could these rumors come from but him?" Yager wonders. Corwin says, "There were all these stories floating around about him...probably because he didn't seem to care that much about money."
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 Timespolice 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."
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."