Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Of "death machines" and "streets of terror"

My photograph of Milt Sosin, June, 1990. 
Photographed for the St. Petersburg Times.

"Milton was the most abrasive, annoying, persistent reporter I ever saw." -John Keasler, Miami News columnist

"[Milt] Sosin was so aggressive that he was arrested, more than once, for interfering with police investigations. He was physically attacked by mobsters, who objected to his take-no-prisoners coverage of organized crime. He intimidated public officials, lawyers, timid editors and anybody else who got in his way." -St. Petersburg Times reporter Jeff Klinkenberg writing about Sosin, July 15, 1990

"I never considered reporting as work. That's the truth. I never worked a day in my life." -Milt Sosin as quoted by Jeff Klinkenberg

Milt Sosin was the greatest newspaper reporter you probably never heard of.

Hired by the Miami News during WWII, he worked for the paper for 32 years.

In 1976 he retired. A day later he took a part time job with the Associated Press as a "stringer" at the federal courthouse in Miami and worked there for another quarter century.

Today, his name is virtually unknown to a generation of young news reporters.

But older newsmen still smile at the mention of his name.

The Miami Herald's John Dorschner described Sosin this way for a 1992 Tropic Magazine story: "[Sosin is] a super-competitive, cantankerous, feisty, abrasive, editor-hating, ambulance-chasing, go-get-'em tough guy from an era when newspapermen still unashamedly used the word scoop, when there were bulldog editions and legmen and shouts of "Stop the presses!"

Milt Sosin spends a day as a panhandler
Nov. 1958.

In his more than 50 years as reporter, Sosin covered a lot of stories. Big stories.

"I know he wasn't at Pearl Harbor. And I know he wasn't at the birth of Christ. But he was everywhere else,'' former Miami News editor Howard Kleinberg told Jeff Klinkenberg of the St. Petersburg Times in 1990.

When gangster Al Capone was taking his last breaths of life at his Palm Island mansion in 1947, Sosin was waiting outside.

He was in Havana in 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime. In a Jan. 3, 1959 Miami News story, Sosin described Havana as "a city of stark danger by day and sheer terror by night."

Milt Sosin has his papers checked 
by a policeman in Havana

And Sosin was in the basement of the Dallas police department in Nov. 1963, just feet away and close enough to smell the gunpowder, when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1978, Sosin somehow managed to snag an interview with publicity-shy mobster Meyer Lansky.

Sosin also covered the early days of America's space program and countless hurricanes.

But he wasn't without his faults.

Sometimes the title of "star reporter" went to his head.

When, in the 1950's, editors at the Miami News decided stories needed shorter, punchier sentences, Sosin rebelled.

According to the Herald's Dorschner, he posted a note on the newsroom bulletin board: "Quit. That's what reporter Milt Sosin did today."

But sometimes his bosses made allowances just to keep him happy.

When Miami News editor Howard Kleinberg learned that Sosin kept a bottle of rum in his desk, he told him booze wasn't allowed in the newsroom.

Jeff Klinkenberg of the St.Petersburg Times relates what happened next: "I called him on it,'' Kleinberg says. "Sosin explained that when he covered a fire, his feet sometimes got wet, and that a shot of rum kept him from catching his death of cold. I allowed him to have his rum. Who was I to tamper with tradition?''

Another Sosin legend is that for many years he was known to pack a pistol.

A retired A.P. editor told me: "[Milt] told me that once, gun in hand, he kicked in the door of a Miami Beach walkup, looking for some guy this local syndicate had supposedly hired to do Milt in. Milt, being Milt, had a free-lance photographer with him on his “raid.” It didn’t pan out."

Sosin covered the news in an era before cell phones and laptop computers.

In the 50's, 60's and 70's, reporters' lifelines were as close as the the nearest pay phone.

A guilty verdict at a big trial would send reporters scrambling for courthouse pay phones.

Legend has it that Sosin always kept a pocketful of "Out of Order" stickers which he slapped on courthouse hallway pay phones just before a big verdict was about to come in.

Milt Sosin phones in a hurricane story in 
Jacksonville in the early 1960's

But sometimes pay phones weren't always available.

In Jan. 1960, when 9 people were killed in a car crash 55 miles north of Miami on U.S. 27 in Palm Beach County, the News dispatched Sosin and a photographer by helicopter to the crash scene.

The photographer shipped his film back to the paper by helicopter. But Sosin, stuck on the scene, employed some of the enterprise that he's now famous for to get his words back to the paper.

The crash story also contained some of Sosin's famed prose...the kind of writing that's all but disappeared from today's newspapers. Sosin described one of the cars involved in the crash as a "hurtling death machine."

I remember reading Sosin's stories in the Miami News in the late 50's and early 60's. Twenty years later - in the mid-80's - I ended up working with him when I covered stories at the federal courthouse for A.P.

I had never met anyone like him before that time....or since. He was one of kind.

Sosin died ten years ago this month at the age of 92. But, his legend lives on.


  1. "Front Page" story, Bill. Milt would have cursed it and you, but with pride.

    There are so many Milt stories… I think book might cover them all.

    But you’d still probably have to leave out such things as why he chose to attend the University of Alabama for his college. “I wanted to be educated abroad, but couldn’t afford Europe. At the time, Alabama was a foreign country. So I went there.” And his time there produced some good, colorful stories.

  2. When I profiled him in 1991, Edna Buchanan told me Milt liked to beat the cops to the next of kin so he could tell them about their loved one -- and get a fresh reaction.

    Always love to read your blog.
    Jeff Klinkenberg
    St. Petersburg Times

  3. When I was a young reporter in the AP's Miami bureau Milt was tasked with 'holding my hand' on a couple stories at the courthouse. Once, sitting in the courtroom he asked (kind of condescendingly) if I knew which one was the defense attorney and which was the prosecutor. I nodded because we were in court - he said, "the prosecutor's the gal with the nice ass." everybody in court heard him, but he was about 90 so nobody seemed to mind
    Dave Royse

  4. On my first day at The Miami News in May of 1980, Milt was assigned to train me and show me around the newsroom.

    The first thing he did was take me to the parking lot and show me his Jaguar sports car, and the proper way to sit in it---“your ass first, and then your feet”.

  5. In the early 1990s, as I researched my Palm Beach Post series on World War II in Florida, which later became my book "War in Paradise," I came across a clip from June 6, 1944. The Miami News had sent a reporter to the POW camp for Germans in Clewiston to get their reaction to D-Day. Even as the summer South Florida sun roasted them, the soldiers scoffed that the invasion would be a spectacular failure. The reporter: Milt Sosin.


Feel free to comment on anything you read here.

All comments must first be approved. Spam and spam links will not be tolerated or approved.