Popular Columnist May Return to the Times

After writing a column for the "L.A. Times" for more than 20 years, Al Martinez was let go by the struggling newspaper more than a week ago. Lots of talented reporters and editors have said goodbye to "Times" readers over the past year, but the departure of Al Martinez is different. Just a few days after he left... he might be coming back. KPCC's Kitty Felde talked with the veteran newspaperman.

Kitty Felde: Al Martinez takes me into the room where he writes. There are acres of books, a collection of martini glasses, a fish tank, and half a dozen antique oak file cabinets covered with odd treasures and photographs.

Al Martinez: There's Cinelli on a motorcycle. She loves the kinds of things that are different. I mean she won't go to the same restaurant twice unless she's really hung up on it, and she won't go here or there twice and once she actually told me she didn't want to keep going to Paris because she'd been to Paris.

Felde: "L.A. Times" readers know Cinelli, his beloved wife of more than half a century. They met at San Francisco State where Al was the managing editor and she was a reporter for the school paper "The Golden Gater." After serving in the Korean War, Al Martinez got a job writing for a small newspaper in the east San Francisco Bay city of Richmond. Martinez says he blew his first story, but the editor kept him on because he could write.

He moved to the "Oakland Tribune" in 1955, first as a reporter, then as a columnist. But he locked horns with the paper's conservative publisher, William F. Knowland.

Martinez: Every time I would take on the left, the column would run. I'd take on the right, and he'd kill the column. I said you can't do this.

Felde: About that time, the "L.A. Times" came calling. Martinez moved south and began reporting for the "Times" in 1972. His column began 12 years later.

Martinez: Those were glory days. We aspired to greatness and were reaching for it. It was a lot of competition among writers, among reporters. That's when all the Pulitzers were won. We were all busting our butt to be the best. It was just a wonderful era. We did aspire to greatness, now we aspire to survival. (laughs)

Felde: There were other benefits to working in L.A. Hollywood is always hungry for writers who can tell a good story. Al could, so he punched out a few scripts for several TV shows and movies of the week. But Martinez quickly had his fill of Hollywood types, saying the worst newspaper editors were better than the best of the network people. So he kept writing his columns until he got a call from the "Times" last month.

Martinez: I'm 77 years old and I figured that at some point or other that I would leave newspapering. But I always thought it would be when I decided that my prose was faltering or my head was too muddled to think clearly.

Felde: Martinez knew the paper was shrinking. But he was still surprised when an editor called and told him he had no choice but to take the buyout.

Martinez: The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. So I sent an e-mail to David Hiller the publisher and to James O'Shea the editor, neither of whom I've ever met, by the way, never met personally, and I expressed my outrage and said it just wasn't done that way to a 35-year employee and to a 25-year columnist.

Felde: Apparently his readers agreed. E-mail boxes at the "Times" overflowed with complaints. Editor Jim O'Shea met with Martinez, apologized, and offered a once-a-week column.

Martinez: I feel like I'm in the middle of an episode of "As the World Turns." You know, this is not like me to be in a soap opera kind of situation. Usually life has been fairly cut and dried. I write, they read, they pay. I don't feel it's all that I owe them for the job. I feel they owe me for my talent. And that's probably a lot rarer than a job.

Felde: Al Martinez is still considering the once-a-week column for the "Times." In the meantime, he has other irons in the fire. He just turned down a book deal. Instead, he'll work on a play about war veterans sitting around the Thanksgiving table. And there are a few places in the world he and Cinelli haven't visited yet. Remember, Cinelli doesn't like repeat visits. But Al might make one return trip: back to the pages of the "L.A. Times."