My kingdom for a photograph! The face of Irving Kravsow was half the story. It was the face of hyperintelligent dog, one who might play or bite. Irving was dark-complected with a broad brow and massive dark bushy eyebrows. And two rows of strong-looking plentiful teeth arranged in an overbite. Irving smiled a lot. He smiled because — despite his well-earned reputation for ferocity — he was also merry at whiles. He ran a newspaper full of Hecht and MacArthur characters, and they amused him. He also smiled sometimes when he was mad at you. Usually that meant there was someone standing nearby — the equivalent of a UN observer — in front of whom Irving did not wish to rage. That was one scary smile.
And the voice was the voice of that dog. It was pitched low and had little rocks rumbling around in it. It was a happy growl or an angry growl or a resigned growl. But it was ever a growl.
Irving Kravsow, a titanic figure in Connecticut for decades, eased into a quiet retirement long before the internet. So there is no photo easily retrieved from Google. Not much at all really, except references to his most notable feat as a reporter, a 1954 series called “Depravity for Children — 10 Cents a Copy.” It was a series about gruesome comic books — “Vault of Terror” “Crypt of Horror” — especially those published under the EC brand. It was widely reprinted and part of a wave that led to Congressional hearings that featured a confrontation between comic book kingpin Bill Gaines and the legendary Estes Kefauver. Malcolm Johnson, who served for years as assistant city editor when Irving was city editor and compared their relationship to that of “Lear and his Fool,” used to say, “It’s Irving’s fault that there are’t any good comic books anymore.” I used to think he was joking, but it turns out that Gaines ran into Irving in the hallway outside the hearings and said the same thing: “You know, this is all your fault!” But Gaines was sort of forced into doing something else, so Irving should get a little credit for the invention of Mad magazine too.
Irving died Friday night. When I came to the Courant first as an intern in 1975 and a year later as a full-time reporter, Irving was probably the biggest thing in Connecticut journalism.The Courant was by far the biggest newspaper and Irving — then its managing editor — was its embodiment. It was hard not to imagine that he had been there forever. He was not a visionary. He had a hard-nosed, old school day-to-day sense of how things ought to be done and a primal, Nietzschean way of making us do them.
I feel as if I arrived in the middle of Act III. By the time I got here, Irving had done something rather unexpected: married the TV newswoman Jean Tucker. My vague, second- and third-hand apprehension of the story goes like this: Irving had been a confirmed bachelor, married to the job, married to the newspaper. And then he wasn’t. He married rather late in life, maybe approaching 50. And by all accounts, it softened him. A little. You couldn’t make Irving soft any more than you could air-condition hell. But the historic tirades I heard about were far more volcanic than any I ever saw. And, more than most newspapermen, he liked to go home. He was home with Jean every night by 7:30, long before bedlam tended to break loose. He had pretty much ditched any bad habits he ever had. Unlike everybody else, he didn’t smoke. I think he had a drink when he got home. But he never drank with us. Not once in all my time. People would spot him and Jean out doing something normal, like riding bikes, and describe it as if they had seen Godzilla at a yarn store.
Shortly after Irving departed each night, an old man in a suit and fedora would arrive, enter Irving’s office and spend the night dozing in his chair and watching a little black and white TV. We called him The Professor. He was a Courant retiree, maybe one of the old hot metal typesetters but I’m not sure about that. He lived somewhere that didn’t feel safe at night, and he was lonely, so Irving let him sleep in his office and chat with those of us who labored late.
From time to time, a pol or a business type would try to intimidate one of us by saying, “You know, Irv Kravsow is a good friend of mine.” Really? And you don’t know enough to call him Irving?
He was sharp but amusingly unhip. Somebody asked him if he liked the Moody Blues, and he said, “Well, Coltrane.” He wasn’t a natural comedian, but he had a nice sense of timing, playing off his vast cast of comic personalities. I remember one of my first days on the job, watching him enter the building alongside night city editor Henry McNulty who was dapper, quick and puckish.
Irving offered a “How are you today, Henry?” and got back a rat-a-tat stream of cliches delivered in the manner of a Howard Hawks movie.
“Hi, Irving nice day if it don’t rain hot enough for you how about them Red Sox?”
Without breaking stride, Irving slowed down his cadence to exaggerate the difference and said, “You know, Henry, you really have a way with words.”
I think of it as a moment when I realized, with delight, that I was at a real city newspaper with Big Characters. One of the reporters from that era, Bill Grava, wrote to us this morning and concluded, “I will remember him until I can’t remember anything at all.”