Let It Bleed

Hard at work on his eighth novel, 'Deadwood' author Pete Dexter still packs a punch

Dexter never took a journalism class in college, though he read some Hemingway and was a serious writer of poetry at the University of South Dakota. Reading books, he says, came late to him.

In his mid-20s, he found himself working odd jobs: mail sorter, laborer, truck driver, car salesman. He lived hand-to-mouth. Then, one afternoon, on a break from selling Jaguars, he happened to stroll by the offices of what is now the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and saw a sign for a reporting position. Those were the days.

“I looked in at all the girls. They all had white boots on,” Dexter remembers. “I was out there sweating, and I walked in, and it was air-conditioned!”

Dexter now lives on tranquil island near Seattle, where he initially found himself "full of juice [with] no place to shoot it." Yet he claims to no longer miss the newspaper industry.
Dian Dexter
Dexter now lives on tranquil island near Seattle, where he initially found himself "full of juice [with] no place to shoot it." Yet he claims to no longer miss the newspaper industry.
One of Dexter's more memorable yarns involves a dog named Lucky Al who feasts on his dead owner's remains in a bathtub.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News
One of Dexter's more memorable yarns involves a dog named Lucky Al who feasts on his dead owner's remains in a bathtub.

His career in journalism was launched that day. He covered ports, state agencies, tomatoes (“Yeah, tomatoes were an important beat”) and medical issues. “Back then, the more stories you got in the paper, the more important you were,” notes Dexter.

From there, Dexter went on to The Palm Beach Post, hired by Gregory Favre, the paper’s editor, and the two of them hit it off. “There was always a gem or two in anything he wrote,” recalls Favre, who later, as executive editor of the Bee, lured Dexter westward to be a metro columnist.

“Pete was a great, enormous talent,” says Favre, “but he was a little undisciplined and he struggled to find his way. He was much less subdued then than he is now.”

Jim Trotter, a colleague of Dexter’s at the Post and now Western States Enterprise Editor for the Associated Press in Phoenix, has a number of unforgettable Dexter stories. One of his favorites: “Pete invented a drink back in those days called a beagle. Basically, it was a quart of rum, a small bottle of lime juice and a dash of Pepsi in a 1-gallon Coleman picnic jug. That led to the Mighty Beagle Army, and you had to perform tricks with the jug to move up in rank. One night, we got kicked out of this woman’s party for throwing the jug across her living room, arguing over who had the prettier spiral.

“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.”

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