Saturday, February 21, 2015

How we became Plains Parisians

Even if you've just stumbled across this blog for the first time,  chances are good – if you know something about Kansas City – you recognize the name.  It's also the name of a cocktail festival and a song by a local band and an online cultural retrospective and a little saloon inside one of the antiques emporia down in the West Bottoms, and a gorgeous time-lapse video. It's an old nickname that seems appropriate for the city's recent urban revival.

You might also have heard that the name is rooted in the quote above, the opening sentence in a news feature written by reporter Edward Morrow – not to be confused with famed CBS broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow – and published February 27, 1938, by Morrow's employer, the Omaha World-Herald. It was headlined this way:

To get the story, Morrow and his photographer visited Kansas City and toured its red-light district, night clubs and gambling houses. Morrow's opening line is pithy and quotable, but it wasn't original. He might even have "borrowed" the tour idea and the Parisian image from another journalist. Six days before the World-Herald's article appeared, newspapers around the country published the second in a series of syndicated columns datelined Boss Tom Pendergast's town, written by the conservative scold Westbrook Pegler.

In his second paragraph, after trashing the state of Kansas, Pegler made his French connection:

Apparently in the 1930s debauchery was the image most closely associated with Paris, not ex-pat artistes. (Perhaps, in Hollywood terms, more Moulin Rouge than Midnight in Paris.)

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After Pendergast served a year in prison for income-tax evasion, after the reformers took over City Hall and set about cleaning up Tom's town, Pegler came back and wrote about what had transpired in the five years since his 1938 visit. This is how his March 15, 1943, column began:

Fast forward to the late 1950s. John Cameron Swayze had been a reporter here in the 1930s with the old Journal-Post, as well as a radio broadcaster. Later he became an NBC television news anchor and eventually a pitchman for Studebaker cars and Timex watches. In 1958 he wrote the liner notes for this Capitol Records jazz album:

Album cover detail, courtesy of Richard E. Logan.

In them Swayze recalled his time in Boss Tom's wide-open town, and tweaked Pegler's descriptive label:

And so let's give Westbrook Pegler most of the credit for his colorful metaphor for a sinful town, a nickname we now attach with love to various creative endeavors. Pegler, with an editorial assist from this man:

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