By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
“This building was on the beach, and we’re standing outside on the third floor trying to decide what to do next when Pete decides we’re going to do something never done before: the ‘third-floor Beagle.’ He orders a copyboy from the paper—this terrific kid named Acey—to go down to the parking lot and lay down. Pete held the jug on the third-floor rail and pushed the button. It wasn’t long before we heard a cry rising up through the wind.
“‘Stop, Pete, it’s burning my eyes! It’s burning my eyes!’ Pete shouted down to the prone figure on the ground, ‘Goddamn it, Acey! Hold still! We’re trying to do something up here!’”
After two years at The Palm Beach Post, Dexter followed Favre out the door. His boss abruptly quit when Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises forced all its editors to endorse Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972. Favre went to The Daytona Beach News-Journal and brought Dexter and his equally irreverent colleague, Dan Geringer. When Favre moved again, to a Miami television station, Dexter left the paper, having received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to write poetry. Six months later, when the money ran out, Dexter and Geringer wound up at Ron’s Belvedere, a gas station in West Palm Beach.
“I remember I worked 77 hours a week and got $99 per week take-home pay,” Dexter says. “It seems like it was all white Cadillacs coming in. God, it was so hot you could fuse your fingers together trying to open the hood.”
“So Ron had this dog at the station,” Dexter continues, “and he was shitting all over the place—in the service bays and everything. Around this time, I’d gotten a call from Dave Lawrence, who I’d heard of but never met, wanting me to come and be a reporter in Philly. So I had to decide: Do I keep pumping gas and cleaning up for this animal, or go?”
Three days after the call—just before Christmas 1974—Dexter arrived in Philadelphia with, as he noted in his farewell column, “one pair of boots, no coat, running as close to empty as I’ve ever been.”
It was rough going in the beginning. “They were going through city editors like machine gunners during World War II,” Dexter says, shaking his head. “We had one city editor, poor bastard, everyone hated him. And he had all these secret files on me, and I knew he was trying to get rid of me.
“So anyway, this guy has a party at his house to try to improve morale. It was a chili party, and his wife had made two big pots. I told him I was going to drown him in it. I had ahold of his shirt when I told him.”
Gil Spencer, the much-adored editor at the Philadelphia Daily News and later the New York Daily News, knew how to get the best out of his loose cannons, especially ones able to craft sharp-edged narratives as was Dexter. It was Spencer who gave Dexter the chance to write a column in 1976. (It was also in 1976 that Dexter voted for Morris Udall in the presidential primary. He’s written him in ever since for president, even though the Arizona representative died in 1998.)
Spencer died this past June at age 85, and Dexter still grieves. “He was one of the best people I’ve ever known,” he says quietly. “The world has gotten a whole lot less interesting since he died.”
The death of Dexter’s stepfather also hit him hard, a key reason he spent so much time pouring his guts into Spooner, the book of which he’s proudest. It took Dexter four years to write this sprawling, touching novel about the many misadventures of a wayward soul.
Title character Warren Spooner’s fictional life closely resembles Dexter’s real one: His father dies when he’s 2; he spends his early childhood in Milledgeville, Georgia, and the Midwest; he’s an incorrigible kid raised by a nurturing stepfather (the fictional Calmer Ottosson) with inexhaustible patience; he works a series of low-paying jobs, drinks to excess, endures a failed first marriage, and goes on to a newspaper career in Florida, and then a successful column and happy second marriage in Philadelphia.
And, like Dexter, Spooner is beaten up by hooligans enraged by a column he wrote: “To Spooner’s huge relief, he looked up into the night sky, and found it full of Stanley’s remarkable face. That boneless nose. ‘Another night in the life of a big-city columnist,’ Stanley said, and picked Spooner up off the street with his good right arm. Spooner achieved verticality, but noticed that one of his legs had ceased to function. Absolutely would not move.
“‘We got to go,’ Stanley said.”
Of his writing regimen, Dexter says, “It’s work. You’re pulling stuff out, like I did with Spooner, that doesn’t want to come out. The only time I really enjoyed the process was writing Spooner. I didn’t want it to end.”