John Bartlow Martin · 1999

By Ray Boomhower

This excerpted article is reprinted, with permission, from the Spring 1997 issue of Traces magazine, a publication of the Indiana Historical Society. To read the full text of this article, go to the Indiana Historical Society page on John Bartlow Martin

The March 1948 issue of Harper’s offered its readers the periodical’s usual literate blend of fact and fiction. The magazine contained a poem from John Ciardi titled “Hawk,” a feature from William Harlan Hale on former vice president Henry Wallace’s independent presidential campaign, and a report by Eric Bentley on the previous year’s theatrical offerings. The bulk of the issue, however, was given over to a lengthy examination of a coal mine explosion in Centralia, Illinois, that resulted in the death of 111 men. The piece, which the Harper’s editors called a “top-notch reporting job, to be compared … with John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima,’ ” shocked the nation. The 18,500-word tale of helpless miners and an uncaring system, the longest ever printed in Harper’s at that time, brought about the downfall of the governor of Illinois and prompted the federal government to enact a stricter safety code for mines.

The Centralia article was just one in a score of pieces that flowed from the busy typewriter of Hoosier author John Bartlow Martin. In the 1940s and 1950s Martin’s work appeared frequently in the “big slicks,” mass circulation magazines printed on glossy paper like the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Collier’s, Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s. The former Indianapolis Times reporter became, as his son John Frederick Martin recalled, one of but a few freelance writers in the country able to support himself from his work. Martin’s peers considered him “the best living reporter” and “the ablest crime reporter in America.” What set Martin apart, however, was a deep and abiding concern for the common man. “Most journalists,” he noted, “make a living by interviewing the great. I made mine by interviewing the humble – what the Spaniards call los de abajo, those from below.”

Martin, whose career also included stints as a speechwriter and adviser for the presidential campaigns of most of the prominent Democrats of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s – Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern – was born on 4 August 1915 in Hamilton, Ohio, the eldest son of John W. and Laura (Bartlow) Martin
Derisively dubbed “the bookworm” by his father, the scholarly young Martin had a difficult childhood. His father, who had dreams of moving the family to a better neighborhood on the city’s north side, suffered severe financial setbacks during the Great Depression. Martin’s two brothers, Dickie and Billy, died at a young age. These tragedies helped to tear apart his parents’ marriage (they later reconciled). “Most people who write their memoirs,” Martin reflected in his autobiography, “seem to have had happy childhoods. I hated mine. Many seem to regard the years of their youth as the easiest years of their lives. Mine were the hardest.”

At an early age, Martin knew what he wanted to do in life. “Throughout high school, and even in grade school, I wanted to write,” he said. Graduating early from Indianapolis’s Arsenal Technical High School at age sixteen, Martin, with financial support from his grandmother, decided to attend DePauw University.

By his own admission Martin “behaved like a fool” during his freshman year in college. Expelled from the university because of a drunken incident, he returned home to join his father in walking the streets looking for work. Martin kept alive his dreams of becoming a writer by finding work as a “stock gummer,” taking stock market quotations off a ticker tape and pasting them onto sheets of paper containing the names of stocks, with the Associated Press’s Indianapolis bureau at nine dollars per week. Receiving a promotion to night copyboy, he began to learn the reporter’s trade, even wearing “my hat on the back of my head, as had Hildy Johnson in the Hecht-MacArthur play The Front Page…. I have seldom been happier than at this time. I hoped it would last forever.”

Martin’s wish failed to come true. When he asked Sam Ochiltree, Indianapolis AP bureau chief and the father of one of his high school friends, for a job as a reporter or editor, Ochiltree turned him down, telling Martin he would hire him only if he returned to DePauw and successfully finished his college degree. Readmitted to the university in early 1935, Martin buckled down to his studies and continued to hone his writing skills, becoming editor of the school newspaper and working as a stringer for the Indianapolis Times.

While still in school, Martin accepted a full-time job as a reporter with the Times (he completed his courses at DePauw in absentia). His first assignment was to replace Heze Clark, a veteran reporter, on the 4 A.M. to noon shift at police headquarters. In just a few days Clark, who switched to the afternoon shift, taught Martin everything he might need to know to perform his job as a police reporter. Rising up through the ranks, Martin covered city hall for the newspaper and eventually ended up doing rewrite, taking information over the telephone from reporters and turning it into stories for the Times. Norman Isaacs, the newspaper’s managing editor, told Martin he should be writing not for a paper, but for magazines.

Martin decided to try his hand at freelance writing, setting up his home base at the Hotel Milner in Chicago with but one suitcase and a portable typewriter. During those early years, Martin’s livelihood consisted mainly of writing articles for such magazines as Official Detective and Actual Detective. “I worked as hard at this writing as at any I ever did and, given the constrictions of the genre, made it as good as I could…. Thus I learned the uses of description, dialogue, characterization, and perhaps above all narrative pull – that mysterious invisible force that pulls the reader onward,” he observed in his memoirs.

On 31 July 1946 the Indianapolis Times informed its readers that one of its former reporters, Martin, was “scrambling all over Indianapolis and the state, digging up material for … a regional study of Hoosierland.” While writing what became the book Indiana: An Interpretation, Martin, who had assumed he would hate Indiana because of his rocky childhood, instead was surprised to discover “a certain affection suffusing parts of the book; and when I quoted the old saw ‘Many good men come from Indiana, and the better they are the quicker they come,’ it was more in jest than in bitterness.”

Indiana readers, however, were unprepared for Martin’s often blunt assessments about the nineteenth state. After the 1900s, according to Martin, Indiana began to suffer from “hardening of the arteries.” The wonderful things of the state’s past – George McCutcheon’s Indian summer cartoon, Riley’s poems, the natural gas boom, and the technical marvel of Elwood Haynes’s automobile – had faded away. “A suspicion had arisen that bigotry, ignorance, and hysteria were as much a part of the Hoosier character as were conservatism and steadfastness and common sense,” Martin wrote. “One of Indiana’s chief exports had long been ideas, but so many of these had turned out to be wrong-headed, wicked or useless.”

Martin consults with JFK before leaving to assume duties as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

Martin in his days at Northwestern University’s 
Medill School of Journalism.

Pounding out rough drafts of his stories on the typewriter, never in longhand or by dictation, Martin wrote quickly, on the average of fifty pages a day. In constructing his stories, he concentrated on using what he called the “three C’s – conflict, characters tightly related to conflict, and controlling idea.” To the Hoosier freelancer, writing was “more like carpentry than art,” with most of his work going through as many as six rewrites. In the detailed pieces that emerged from this process, Martin attempted to meet what he believed was the highest purpose of a writer: telling the truth.
Martin’s life changed in the early 1950s when a friend asked him to edit a book of speeches by Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who had used the Centralia story as an effective tool to strike at his opponent, incumbent governor Dwight Green. With Stevenson’s capture of the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination, Martin went to work for the governor.

In Stevenson’s 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, and in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 run for the White House, Martin managed to discover a niche for himself, that of an editorial advance man and sometime speechwriter. “I would talk to the local Democratic leaders, businessmen, newsmen, taxi drivers, waitresses, bartenders anybody I could find.” Martin would produce a report and rejoin the campaign party as it traveled through the state he had just visited. Working for politicians, the journalist discovered something about his profession. “No reporter can ever know what’s really going on; he is on the outside looking in,” said Martin. “As JFK used to say, the only man who knows what it’s really like is the man that fights the bull.”

After working for John Kennedy’s presidential effort, he received an appointment from the president as United States ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean nation he had first visited as a young man.

The following years were busy, and often tragic, for Martin. As ambassador, he worked tirelessly to support the Dominican Republic’s first democratically elected government, but saw his hopes dashed by a military coup. Just two months after Martin returned to the United States to discuss with the administration what to do next, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. A heartbroken Martin resigned his ambassadorship. Still, Martin believed that his political experience contributed to making him, in the long run, a better reporter.

The gloom that had fallen over Martin lifted in the spring of 1968, when Robert Kennedy decided to become a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy’s decision to run in the Hoosier primary against McCarthy and Indiana governor Roger Branigin (who stood in for Johnson and decided to remain in the race after the president’s withdrawal) “was in many ways the climactic event of my life, bringing together writing, politics, and Indiana,” Martin said.

Martin’s introduction to the Kennedy effort in Indiana became a painful one. After stops in South Bend and Muncie on 4 April, the Kennedy caravan had scheduled appearances at its headquarters in Indianapolis and an outdoor rally in an African American neighborhood. Martin, who had gone ahead with most of the staff to Indianapolis, learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. “In a squad car at the curb, I found an Indianapolis police inspector and asked if Bobby should appear at the Negro rally,” Martin recalled. “He said, with a fervor I imagine was rare in him, ‘I sure hope he does. If he doesn’t, there’ll be hell to pay.’ ” The police officer feared riots like those that had broken out in major cities across the country following news of King’s death might break out in Indianapolis.

Kennedy, speaking from a flatbed truck, informed the twenty-five hundred people gathered for the rally at the Broadway Christian Center’s outdoor basketball court that King had been killed. The crowd, which had not heard of the shooting, greeted the senator’s news with cries of “No, No.” In one of the finest speeches of his career, Kennedy calmed the crowd with his appeal for wisdom and compassion in the face of lawlessness and violence. There were no riots in Indianapolis.

After this tragic beginning, Martin settled into the familiar task of serving as an editorial advance man for the campaign. He also offered the candidate a no-holds-barred appraisal of his home state. “Indiana,” Martin wrote in a memo to Kennedy and Theodore Sorenson, “is a state suspicious of foreign entanglements, conservative in fiscal matters, and with a strong overlay of Southern segregationist sentiment. Hoosiers are phlegmatic, skeptical, hard to move, with a ‘show me’ attitude.” Martin advised Kennedy to visit Hoosier historic sites honoring heroes like Abraham Lincoln and James Whitcomb Riley, to conduct a railroad whistle-stop trip on board the Wabash Cannonball, and make more campaign appearances at factory cities like Kokomo. Kennedy took Martin’s advice.

Martin also suggested that in his Indiana campaign appearances Kennedy should “speak strongly against rioting and violence, using his experience as attorney general, but he should not omit a plea too for justice — should say that violence and rioting cannot be tolerated; neither can racial injustice in the big cities be tolerated (big cities far away).”

The result on 7 May was a win for Kennedy, who captured 328,118 votes (42.3 percent) to 238,700 (30.7 percent) for Branigin and 209,695 (27 percent) for McCarthy. A month later in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot and killed following his win in the California primary.

Kennedy’s assassination, according to John Frederick Martin, “broke the back of my father’s spirit.” Martin went on to work on behalf of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hubert
Humphrey, but found himself moving away from politics and spending more and more time in later years on writing, something that had always been his salvation. Instead of magazine stories, however, Martin produced a number of books. He also found time to teach journalism at Northwestern University, but changes in the profession, especially by those who practiced the “New Journalism” like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson, troubled Martin. Martin was dismayed by the New Journalism authors’ failure at learning how to write a proper English sentence and their habit of sometimes inventing dialogue and fabricating characters.

Martin died of throat cancer on 3 January 1987. To the end, he displayed the same straightforward attitude he had employed in his writing. Martin’s son John remembered that his father described to him “in detail what path the cancer would take that was unstoppably killing him and how he would die, in the same matter-of-fact tone that he had used with me before when, say, giving driving directions to Upper Michigan.”


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