North Park’s Len Novarro was working for the Orlando Sentinel in the late 1970s when he was blindfolded and taken to a man in Miami.
Novarro asked the mystery man: Who organized the 1976 car-bomb killing of Chilean diplomat Marcos Orlando Letelier? After a long pause, the man replied: “I did.”
In the early 1980s, as an investigative report for the now-defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar, Novarro took the blinds off a mammoth story — how toxic waste had devastated health in Shelby County, Tennessee. He described his findings to a local congressman.
Thus did future senator and Vice President Al Gore start his path to environmental warrior.
These and many other stories are vividly told in “Wordslinger,” an account of Novarro’s journalism journey that included eight years at the San Diego Tribune — as features writer and “Scene” editor — ending in February 1992, when the afternoon paper merged with the morning San Diego Union.
Self-published last year with help from AuthorHouse, Novarro says his book — subtitled “The life and times of a newspaper junkie” — is more about the times and importance of “issues that still resonate today, such as corruption, racism, attacks on the environment and the influence of cults.”
“Some things never change,” he told Times of San Diego.
“Also, I wanted to give context and trace the amalgamation of forces, i.e. social media, TV, strikes etc.that converged and contributed to the demise of a venerable and respected institution,” he said.
Instead of featuring gossip or a typical “behind-the-scenes tableau,” he calls the 260-page book a “wide range of anecdotes on people and places, well-known or well-accomplished, as well as little-known facts and topics ranging from organized crime to organized chaos.”
He also portrays the book” Wordslinger” — with many examples of his own reporting — as a “paean to good writing and the contributions of people who tried to keep it that way.”
Born in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, Leonard Anthony Novarro attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School several years after a future Dr. Anthony Fauci.
He earned a bachelor of social science at St. Peter’s College — a private Jesuit school in Jersey City now called Saint Peter’s University, where he majored in English literature and minored in world history, philosophy and theology.
“I earned full master’s credits at Florida Technological University (now the University of Central Florida) through the GI Bill, but did not earn the master’s degree because I never completed the required thesis, leaving Florida to take [a] job in Colorado,” he said.
“Father Joseph Landy, a Jesuit priest who taught romantic literature (Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc.) and was adviser to the college newspaper, had a great influence in expanding my love for literature, writing and newspapering.”
In 1964, Novarro was drafted — assigned to a support unit of the First Infantry Division at Fort Devens, Mass. But he suffered serious injuries during training in 1965, and spent a “considerable amount of time” in an Army hospital, as well as the Brooklyn VA years later.
“Because I had ROTC in college, I was fast-tracked to staff sergeant, but returned to Pfc. upon leaving active duty and was afforded 30% disability by the Veterans Administration,” he said.
Before the Tribune, the Pulitzer Prize nominee worked at a series of papers — including the Staten Island Advance and Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph — and dailies in Memphis and Orlando. With his wife, Rosalynn, he founded ASIA, the Journal of Culture and Commerce.
He also taught 10 years for extension programs at San Diego State University and UC San Diego. (More recently, he contributed to Times of San Diego.)
In 2017, he and his wife became news — and subject of death threats arising from a visit to the Wat Thai Temple in Los Angeles, where people spotted bright red flowers on Rosalynn’s jacket. He described the ordeal here, an opinion piece that went viral.
Why did he write “Wordslinger”?
In a five-page introduction, he says he wanted to share some newspaper history (including his hometown of New York), and spotlight ordinary people as well as “unknown heroes,” including his close friend Charlie Thornton, who in 1985 was the first American journalist killed in Afghanistan.
Novarro says he decided “somewhat” to write the book several years after Donald Trump took office.
“Even though I left residency in N.Y. to take a job in Florida in 1973, I did go back and forth and had a lot of friends and family still there, so I was aware of Trump’s reputation as a liar and scam artist,” he says.
“At the same time, I thought: All the journalism books I am familiar with either expose something big (Watergate) or recap a stellar career (Edward R. Morrow) in which someone has become nationally famous (Tom Wolfe, [Jimmy] Breslin etc.).”
But Novarro hadn’t seen many books describing the newspaper “trenches,” people “who did our best, not in skirting the truth, but trying to decipher it.” Having lived and worked all over the country, the book afforded him an opportunity to share many anecdotes.
This interview was conducted by email.
TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: Amazon lists hundreds of journalism memoirs. Even San Diego has a share, including titles by Preston Turegano, the late Dave Feldman and some broadcasters. How are you distinguishing your book from these?
LEN NOVARRO: I think of “Wordslinger” as less a personal memoir and more a memoir of the times and the importance of issues that still resonate today, such as corruption, racism, attacks on the environment and the influence of cults. (Some things never change.)
Also, I wanted to give context and trace the amalgamation of forces, i.e. social media, TV, strikes, etc., that converged and contributed to the demise of a venerable and respected institution.
You tease your blind-folded trip to interview someone claiming to oversee the Letelier assassination, and late in the book describe how your tape-recording was sabotaged with a syrupy substance. Wikipedia discussed the case. Who did you talk to in the abandoned warehouse? Did you uncover facts that would have helped the FBI had you published a story with direct quotes? Do you agree with the public record on the case?
I believe the individuals you mention were members of CORU, the umbrella group responsible for a lot of chaos and several assassination plots back then. The problem was that so many people were pulling so many scams on the public that no one could say for certain who was behind what.
The elderly (at the time) man I met was described to me as a CORU leader. At the time, according to my friend and contact, Marty Casey, who was well involved with goings on in the Cuban community, the guy was legitimate. But he was not the same guy Marty had introduced to me the night before as the so-called assassin. (So there may have been at least two people making the claim).
At any rate, it wouldn’t have helped to tell the FBI anything at the time since it was widely known that the United States — in the form of the FBI or CIA — was behind lots of illegitimate or questionable activity going on in the Cuban community.
Some — like Oliver Stone, later, for example — placed the U.S. behind a series of murders and assassinations (Bob Brown was another holding similar opinions).
About a week before I left for Miami, I detected strange sounds on my telephone. A close friend, Victor Miller, an executive with the local phone company, checked it out and confirmed it was a government wiretap, but he could not say by whom. It was court-ordered.
So if the U.S. government was involved in any way — and they probably were — it would have been in my best interest to keep any speculation to myself and the newspaper. Unfortunately, without the recording, I did not have enough to support any claim as serious as that.
You did great work on the Memphis toxic-waste story, which led you to help Al Gore make progress on the safety issues. But problems remain there. Has the Memphis media dropped the ball?
They definitely did drop the ball. During that time and actually before, the Commercial Appeal was pretty much the mouthpiece for the city, while the Press-Scimitar was known for its edgy, investigative reporting. (Ernie Pyle worked on and off for years out of the P-S office.)
I can’t say for certain that they served primarily as defender of the city and health department, but I gathered, at the time, that because they were lax and we broke the story first, they decided to take the opposition position. The local city magazine (I believe) picked up the story years later, but they did not have the influence that the morning newspaper had to raise much support.
What are the media doing right and wrong in reporting the East Palestine train derailment? How would you report the story – or lead a team of investigators?
I believe media, in general, has been lax for decades in not staying on top of environmental issues and I am not speaking about global warming. Industry (chemical and otherwise) has been polluting this country and literally killing people, babies included, for years, long before Memphis and many times over since.
Pollution from chemicals and other sources affecting air and groundwater has been part of the environment for more than half a century, but when it comes to discussing environmental stories, it is usually focused on global warming, weather etc., which is important but not the literal killer toxic chemicals have been.
With that being said, I see the real story — at least now — is deregulation. It was the same back then, when Ronald Reagan gutted the EPA for years.
Knowing all we know about the past and all sorts of chemical poisoning from Love Canal, Memphis and elsewhere, derailments, the Dakota Pipeline issue, etc., we only pay passing attention to this issue. But the story here is not the derailment, it is the derailment of regulations that has been going on for more than a generation.
I am not saying let’s curtail freedoms and pass a law for everything, but we certainly can guard against the wholesale poisoning of populations — just as we have done against the slaughter of young people by guns. OOPS! Maybe not.
How did you come up with the book’s title?
The original title was “BEWITCHED, BOTHERED AND BEWILDERED: A journalist’s journey amid the twilight of truth.”
That title seemed rather pretentious, so I decided to change it. At first, I kept B, B and B and strove for a subtitle, but kept coming up empty. Then my wife, Roz, showed me the cover of a book with some guy pointing a 45-caliber automatic at the camera. She suggested using the idea of gunslinger, slinging around words or something to that effect, when we both hit on “Wordslinger” — using words as a gunslinger would use bullets —to fight on behalf of those who could not fight for themselves. (Still seems pretentious, but what the heck)
The subtitle came a little later. I think the first one was Facts, Fables and Fiction in the golden age of journalism, but it was really about my love not so much for journalism, but for newspapers. Hence the subtitle and final title.
The idea for the look with leather jacket, pistol and sunglasses was hers and I asked Tom Kurtz, who use to work at the U-T with me, to take the photo.
Why did you self-publish? Have an agent? Shop the book around?
I emailed and wrote a couple of companies with no luck. Did the same looking for an agent, but could not spark interest in the topic. One agent told me something to this effect: “Newspapers are dead. Why revive the topic?”
At the same time, I looked at books being written and saw that there were successes from both fields. I personally believe readers do not make the distinction. A good read is a good read.
I also like the freedom of self-publishing and found that AuthorHouse did an excellent job in editing, design, packaging book and photos and in reaching out to potential movie interests.
Any measure of sales or downloads you can share?
Not yet, too early. The book technically was released Nov. 1, but there were some things I had to address — agreements, marketing approval, etc. It really wasn’t until December when I was able to generate the barest of interest.
It typically takes 6-8 months to see worthwhile results (unless one is already famous). The book currently is in the hands of some 60 book clubs, so I expect to hear more soon. I do have a website devoted to the book — wordslingerbook.com — and that is gaining some attention.
How did you develop your writing style?
Through trial and error mostly. In New York (or principally Staten Island), my time was evenly split between reporter/feature writer and editing (I served on the copy desk, as wire editor, entertainment editor and assistant night city editor.)
Reporting was pretty dry: who, what, when, etc., but I enjoyed profiling individuals such as WWI flying ace George Vaughn, Giani Russo (who played Carlo Rizzi in the “Godfather”), Barney Martin (later of “Seinfeld.”)
The main thing was learning what made them what they were. The Advance at the time also had a feature called “Over the Bridge,” which spotlighted interesting aspects of life on the other side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, mostly in Brooklyn and Manhattan, where I had an opportunity to pick my stories, such as the famous “Nathan’s Famous” in Coney Island and the Fulton Fish Market, which had played a major role in my family’s (the Italian side) business.
In Florida, I had the fortune to serve under Jim Squires, who later became editor of the Chicago Tribune and was a major figure in journalism. Squires encouraged his feature writers (which I was when he took over) to experiment with writing and to go after unusual stories or approach stories in an unusual way.
I also got some great experience working on the metro desk editing other reporters’ copy and as a night rewrite person assembling major stories from several reporters on strict deadline for the morning edition.
That taught me to think quickly and sometimes latch on to a microscopic detail, because that may be all you had, and make it the linchpin to tie a story together. I remember one story for the Tribune, one I mention in the book, in which I interviewed the caretaker of the Rosecrans veterans cemetery for a Memorial Day story.
At one point we were watching a funeral ceremony and he emulated the person conducting it, word for word, motion for motion. In doing so, he could barely hold back tears. Describing his reaction told me more about Memorial Day than any ceremony or speech ever could.
Your dad read three papers in NYC. What is your daily news diet — including print and online? Are you on social media?
I don’t pick up papers much anymore unless I am out of town. My news sources are the AP, which I access every day on my computer, MSNBC, Times of SD (primarily for local) and other sources on the Internet. Occasionally, I will pick up the New York Times and the U-T, usually on Sunday. I know the following is troglodyte thinking, but I am not a fan of social media. I depend on my wife, Roz, for that.
You admit tipping off the KKK to a possible threat of violence — but it led you to develop sources that gave readers key insights into the Klan. What should reporters today know about white supremacist groups and how to cover them?
The difference is that back then, because the Klan had been out from under the spotlight for so long, there was a relaxation of how they were perceived. So when they started saying they were becoming more political, they were not taken seriously for the racism expounded in the past.
That was the main reason I set out to get behind the veneer. We have learned since how dangerous that was — look where we are now. We know what they are and always have been, but I am afraid the Klan libido has taken possession of the minds of many ordinary and nonpolitical people, who, like the guys quoted in the Klan piece, see themselves losing ground to nonwhites and immigrants.
Between papers in Staten Island, Colorado Springs, Orlando, Memphis and San Diego — which was your favorite (as an employee)? How would you rank papers in quality and public service?
Foremost, I enjoyed working for all, even Colorado Springs, to a degree.
I would rank them this way:
A. Staten Island — fun working there and good for learning and developing.
B. Orlando — the most professional of all. Very high on quality, but steeped in office politics.
C. Colorado Springs — I’d rather not go there.
D. Memphis — A fighter in the shadow of a big brother or sister (The Commercial-Appeal). Great freedom for me because of the editor, but some clashes with the city editor who liked tight control of his reporters.
E. San Diego — While I enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom as a writer, the same was not so true as lifestyle/Scene editor. While [editor] Neil Morgan and [managing editor] George Dissinger were very supportive, there was always someone from middle management trying to exert control and getting in the way of decision making.
More often than not, they had little idea that a “lifestyle” section is about life styles and not a feature section of the city room. With that being said, I thought the Scene staff was the most well-rounded and talented staff of writers I ever worked with.
You decry the “demise of legitimate journalism.” What hopes do you have for the next generation of journalists? How should they prepare and make a living?
That’s a tough one to answer. Newspapers being a thing of the past, they have to turn to social media and in some way stand apart. And the only way to stand apart is not just with good writing, but with stellar writing and/or with sharp investigative skills.
Did you ever seek a job at The New York Times, Washington Post or another major metro?
The first time I was out in California, in the early 1970s, I interviewed at the L.A. Times and was offered a position covering (if I recall) Orange County school boards, but politely moved on. At some point — I am not sure exactly when it was — I was hired, on a probationary basis, by the N.Y. Daily News but quit after a week or so.
Which friends and family members have read your book? Their reactions?
Not much of my immediate family is still alive, but my nephew and one of Roz’s (and my) grandkids are reading it now. About a dozen family friends and others that I know of are just getting around to reading it. The reaction has been better than expected.
You are critical of how the U-T covered the incident where your wife was accosted at a Thai temple for showing the color red on her jacket. How was the U-T report guilty of unfair both-sidesism? The story said you had to flee your home for a time because of death threats on social media. Do you feel safe now?
To us, it was unconscionable that the reporter would accept an opposing and, foremost, an equal point of view, as well as allow criticism, from the individual who led the protest, took the video, created a fake narrative and emailed it to three of the worst websites in Thailand, without confirming who this person was, nor her motivations.
We haven’t had threats since, but we did experience a fire last May (no connection), which kept us detached from the home for months awaiting repairs.
You describe a chat with your late father on the unsolved murder of Arnold Schuster, and the impression is left that New York police officers had something to do with it. Have you ever shared that story with New York authorities? Should the case be reopened?
I am not sure it would do any good — to open this up for investigation. Everyone is dead and the event is ancient history. I felt I owed something to my father by telling the story because it had such an effect on him.
Do you still play an instrument? Ever think of joining a band again?
I still do play guitar, mostly for my own enjoyment, and sometimes jam with my son-in-law, who plays guitar and base. For a brief period when I was still at the Tribune, reporter Jamie Reno and I played a few times at a local coffeehouse under the name “The Reno Brothers.”
It was not serious, just some fun. I have seven guitars, the most prized being my Martin D35 I purchased in 1970. I had one of the original Les Paul Gibson’s, but it was stolen from my band’s rehearsal studio back in the 1970s.
I began playing in bands in high school and, in fact, the money I made playing on weekends, along with two newspaper fund scholarships, paid for a large part of my college tuition.
I studied classical guitar under a teacher named Giovanni Vicari, whose father was taught by Andre Segovia, and at one time I could actually play Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor on guitar (regretfully, no more). I wrote over 150 songs and recorded a bunch of them, so I’d love playing in a band again. But at my age, I don’t think I could remain standing long enough.
What occupies your time now?
My wife, Rosalynn, and I founded the nonprofit Asian Heritage Society in 2005 and are still behind it, although activity has cut back considerably since the pandemic.
We are currently focused on upgrading the website asianheritagesociety.org as “the place” for information and background on the Asian and Pacific Islander community and how we may integrate it with other things we have done with the Society.
I am also half-done completing a book on the fall of Saigon and its aftermath from the viewpoint of those who experienced it. (This year marks the 50th anniversary of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.) Rosalynn and I are also working on a musical based on the 1913 Triangle fire in lower Manhattan and a book combining Italian and Thai culture and food.
We are calling it “Being Thaitalian.”