By John Boston
Signal Staff Writer
I had been crying, not a dignified thing for a satirist. Right before Halloween and upstaging Bill Clinton’s 1992 November election, Scott Newhall died. Certainly this paper would do him proud with columns and tributes. But, a junior staffer had been given the task to write the straight news story of a man who lorded over Santa Clarita’s beige parenthesis for a quarter of a century.
She was in her early 20s, aware something huge was unfolding in the newsroom. I praise her for having the chops of humility and honesty to ask:
“I’ve been assigned the news story about Scott
Newhall. Was he somebody — important?”
I blurted out a strange sound, part sob, part laugh. It was funny. It was discombobulating. It was humbling. Yes. Scott
Newhall was — somebody.
The Signal newspaper was founded Jan. 1, 1919. Scott Newhall, its future “proprietor” was born five years earlier on Jan. 21, 1914. For a quarter-century, from 1963 to 1988, he and his wife, Ruth and their son, Tony, ran The Mighty Signal, turning it from a sleepy little farmland weekly into literally one of the best and certainly most unique community daily newspapers in America, the world and, I’m betting, the universe.
As a boy, he often spent summers here in Santa Clarita, riding horses and playing on the ranch his great-grandfather Henry Mayo Newhall built. Scott would have an effect on the newspaper and this community like no other person in the history of this valley.
He would one day own one of California’s most eclectic mansions, an abandoned home in the impoverished and sleepy town of Piru, a few miles west of here. He and Ruth remodeled. With the original restored décor and San Francisco touches, the place looked like a nautical version of the Addams’ Family mansion. Scott referred to it as “…the poor man’s Hearst Castle.”
I get tired driving to the San Fernando Valley. Scott Newhall sailed around the world — solo. He captained a paddle boat from England to San Francisco. That trek I believe was the inspiration for his imaginary holding corporation, The Irriwaddy Steamship Navigation Co. Every year, you’d be so lucky to be on their Christmas card list. Scott would send out ornate corporate reports with apologies that, for another season, there would be no dividends. In his fictionalized reports, natives would have murdered the staff at Indonesian rubber plantations. Typhoons would claim a fleet of ships carrying spices. It was a bittersweet tribute to when the Newhall family lost a fortune in the Depression. Scott, a young man, had to give up a stipend close to $20,000.
Some of the fondest memories of my life were those few times when I got to have Scott and Ruth all to myself. We’d have these dinners at The Mansion that started out formal and filled with dark shadows. At my first dinner, their maid, Bernice, brought out a solid silver stag’s head tray the size of a 1958 Buick Roadmaster. She lifted the cover and there waited three cheeseburgers with fries.
Ruth used to pinch me in the bicep because my first marriage didn’t work out.
Years ago, there used to be the coziest eatery in the strip mall on the southwest side of Lyons and Wiley. Le Crocodile Bistro is long gone, a little French eatery so out-of-place among the immense yuppiedom of Santa Clarita. It was so small it seemed it could only sit five people.
What struck me? After 50 years of marriage, they so adored one another.
Scott was a rascal.
At 14, he confessed he ran away with his maid, who was in her 20s — for several months. Scott had this movie star smile. Dragged back to his wild youth, he recalled: “We preferred to vacation in warmer climes.” Three times he was kicked out of prestigious boys’ schools. Once for staging a prize fight between two stable boys and selling tickets. Twice for bootlegging. Bathtub gin was not his strong point. He didn’t nail the recipe and blew up part of a chemistry lab. Then, there were the unfortunate poisonings of young customers.
He fell in love with Ruth in college. They honeymooned in the Yucatan. Scott was kicked by a horse in the middle of Mayan nowhere. The wound got infected. He lost his leg. It didn’t slow him down. It was the Depression. They had a baby, Skip, and no money. In 1934, Scott answered an ad in The San Francisco Chronicle for a photographer, sailed across the bay, nailed the interview and would start the next day. After exiting the Chronicle building, he walked to a bookstore and bought an Ansel Adams’ primer on basic photography. Scott lied through his teeth about his experience. He had never taken a picture. That began a 37-year career with The Chronicle. In 1952, he was named executive editor of the paper.
Before turning the Santa Clarita Valley on its head in 1963 when he bought The Signal, Scott Newhall had turned San Francisco on its head with his wild, but often thoughtful, brand of journalism.
He upped The Chronicle’s circulation to near a half-million. He ran the competition, The San Francisco Examiner, “The Monarch of the Dailies,” the newspaper of legendary William Randolph Hearst, out of business. The Examiner was forced to merge with The Chronicle.
Scott was an absolute genius when it came to knowing what attracted readers. He had a sensational, Barnum & Bailey style, tempered with strong, hard-hitting journalism. I call it the 10,000-pound monkey. People will run to see a 5-ton ape. They’re not particularly interested in 5,000 2-pound simians. Some of Scott’s San Francisco high jinx:
• He created S.I.N.A., the Society against Indecency and Nakedness in Animals. It was a fake organization that pestered the San Francisco Zoo to put clothes on their creatures.
• Sent a reporter to find the missing head of Pancho Villa.
• He hired a legendary staff, from San Francisco’s beloved Herb Caen to Count Marco, a breathy chauvinist who offered unasked-for beauty, romance and diet tips to women. Women HATED Marco. They read him voraciously.
• He had treasure hunts through the city with a $1,000 cash prize. Scott would later duplicate the gimmick here in Santa Clarita.
And then there were The Chronicle editorials. Like, “A Great City Forced to Drink Swill.” That was about San Fran’s bad coffee.
Amidst all this, he and Ruth raised three boys. He built and raced cars and hot rods. He took a World War II ambulance, cut off the top, put on a plexiglass roof and toured the national parks with his family. He revisited the Yucatan every year with Ruth on their anniversary, the spot where he lost his leg. He piloted a paddle steamboat from London to San Francisco and sailed solo around the world. He ran for mayor of the City by the Bay. He was the one who came up with the idea to name Newhall Land & Farming Co.’s gigantic urban community — Valencia.
Not bad, considering the only proof of a formal education, Scott claimed, was a certificate in welding from the Samuel Gompers Trade School.
Mr. Newhall died in 1992. That shall not stop us from revisiting him in these future columns …
John Boston earned the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award to go along with 118 other major journalism honors. He is a historian, novelist, author, humorist and, with a career nearing 40 years, the longest-serving journalist in Signal history.