Hark! An Eclipse. I’ll Be Inside, Boss

Turns out that there’s a cloud over the first Pulitzer Prize-winning story ever written by a San Diego newspaper reporter.

Yes, a young and scrappy Magner White of the San Diego Sun wrote about how the skies darkened over Southern California during the eclipse of 1923. But did he ever bother to go outside to look at it, let alone witness the fleeting disruption in Tijuana’s “wickedness” as painted ladies looked skyward?

Not exactly.

“Much of the ‘color’ in White’s story, as Sun alumni will tell you, was reported before the fact,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry in a 1989 piece. “Thereby proving the journalistic adage that some stories are true whether they happened or not.”

Even White’s great-granddaughter, Kim Jennett of San Jose, admits that he had a “vivid imagination.”

The story was “his interpretation of what he felt the eclipse was going to do,” she said of a man who’s still a legend in her family.

As I read it, I thought that White’s story had a whiff of “I wrote this thing while sitting at the bar a week ago.” Perry thought so too and did some investigating two decades ago.

(He’s still covering San Diego for the Times and sent me of a copy of his article after reading my story this week about White’s forgotten Pulitzer.)

Back in 1923, White wrote that the “animals in Ringling Bros. circus, waiting for the afternoon performance, paced their cages and roared and whined.” Or maybe not, as Perry wrote: “The rival San Diego Union … had sent a reporter to the circus and reported the next morning that the animals were unaffected. Picky, picky.”

“Magner White was a very polite con man, and a great reporter,” Nelson Fisher, 80 at the time, told Perry.

“Magner used to joke about never having to leave the office to win a Pulitzer,” added another newspaper man, 84-year-old J. Boyd Stephens.

Whatever the case, White did San Diego proud. On its front page the day he won the Pulitzer, the Sun declared that he won “honors for the city” and was a “premier reporter.”

Fifteen years after winning the Pulitzer, White ran for San Diego mayor, back in an era of municipal scandal. He lost with only 11 percent of the vote.

He died in 1980, a “bright, colorful man of the world” who “had a lot of stories in him,” said his granddaughter Nancy Smith of San Diego, who never met him because her father was angered over the bitter breakup of his parents’ marriage.

“He would get a kick out of you remembering him,” she told me, “and I think he’d approve of what we’re saying about him.”

— RANDY DOTINGA

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