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The Clap

An Oral History of ‘Coffee News’

‘We Can’t Charge for This’ — Part One

Introduction

You may not notice it, sitting in the background. Next to the lost-pet notices and bassist want-ads. Above the sugar. Its tan visage inviting you for a five-second perusal. Just enough color to camouflage a weak coffee stain. Coffee News is everywhere and nowhere. Widely read, but never truly understood. The anodyne accompaniment to many a Starbuck’s study session. The anesthetic accomplice to many a caffeinated evening’s eavesdropping.

On the scale of stimulating reading material, today’s Coffee News lies somewhere between Highlights magazine, a Lutheran church bulletin, and a Carl’s Jr. place mat. But behind that drab page lies a story of bacchanalia, murder, betrayal, greed, and scandal that has long been known only to a select few. Scattered until now in family legends, depositions, indictments, and unsold vanity autobiographies, the history of Coffee News is presented here for the first time, told in the words of those who lived the dream…or the nightmare.

On the scale of stimulating reading material, today’s ‘Coffee News’ lies somewhere between ‘Highlights’ magazine, a Lutheran church bulletin, and a Carl’s Jr. place mat.

PART ONE: The Indianapolis Imbroglio

Walter Fine, Managing Editor, Coffee News, 1978–1993: I suppose you’re asking me because I’m the oldest one left, everyone I know is dead, and I have no one else to talk to, so you think I’ll agree to your interview. Well, you’re right. So here goes. I’ll tell it to you the way I heard it. Linus Anacletus Clement Coffee made his fortune as a slave trader in Vicksburg, Mississippi. His son, Clement Coffee, grew that fortune as a Mississippi River barge pilot and later as a steamboat captain who specialized in returning runaway slaves. His son, Clement Coffee II, Chip, was a cattle trader and meatpacking magnate whose abattoirs were the basis for The Jungle. Clement III, Trip, was a renowned lawyer in St. Louis. He cornered the market in refrigerated rail cars and physically held them ransom at a rail yard in Kansas City using a private army of Pinkerton men. In that way, he amassed a still greater fortune. Clement IV, Skip, was sort of a reclusive philanthropist. He financed Birth of a Nation, has a dorm named after him at Dartmouth, and his charitable gifts endowed work-orphanages and union-busting-private-detective schools around the country. His first son, Clement V, Quint, became a priest and died of dystentery while aiding Colombian children freed from slavery on coffee plantations.

Quint’s younger brother, Vance Coffee, was a rampaging drunk and a womanizer. He invested the whole family fortune into casinos in Warm Springs, Nevada. He thought the name was better than the other options, Reno and Las Vegas. Well, he didn’t think about where the interstate was going to go and that was that. Lost the whole fortune. He went to Colombia to borrow money from Quint. Discovered powdered cocaine there. Started smuggling it in. He thought he had snorted it all on the plane ride to Miami, but he forgot the pinch in his snuff box. So he got busted at customs. Went to prison in Terre Haute, Indiana for a few years. When he got out, he broke into an elementary school in Indianapolis and made off with five mimeograph machines. He stashed them under a nearby bridge, where he lived at the time.

He published the first edition of Vance Coffee’s News of the Day in 1951. It started as a really virulent right-wing rag. Truman was a commie, Ike was a commie, Nixon’s a commie, there’s fluoride in the toothpaste. All that stuff. He’d pass it out at VFW halls, tattoo parlors, and biker bars. Old Bob Welch was one of the earliest readers and I’ve heard it said it inspired him to found the John Birch Society in ‘58.

Never had anything to do with coffee. Unless you count Vance going to Colombia. And even that had more to do with cocaine, as it turned out.

Vivian Martz, acquaintance of Vance Coffee: There was a joke in those days, “What do you call ten copies of Coffee’s News? A blanket.”

Felicia Wittingdon, Vice President of Franchising & Distribution, Grupo CN Media, S.A., owner of Coffee News, 2008 — : Yeah, I’ve heard that one. I think today I hear it more as a motto, “Coffee News: The blanket you can read.” Things more like that. Irony, you know.

We take pride in it today, our service to the homeless. We’ve switched to warmer paper. It is a special paper too, made so that if you scrunch it up a bunch of times, it gets soft enough to use as toilet paper if you’re in a pinch…so to speak. We thought of putting adhesive on the bottom and right margins to make it possible to actually attach them together to form a blanket. But it’s a cost thing. It’s print media and it’s free, so, as you can imagine, our budget is pretty constrained.

Coffee News: The blanket you can read.

Ian Hogg, creator of “Slag Off, You Posh Twats!,” the logo of Coffee News since 1970: The logo began as my proposal for the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I still think Pete Blake nicked the idea, the bastard. Instead of cutouts of all these pop and political figures, I had had a collage of all these miserable people from Liverpool from all walks of life. Drunk pipe fitter. Smoking chimney sweep. Bitter cab driver. Newsboy on diet pills. Mum pushing a pram with her fifth baby, taking a nip. All glaring at the Beatles like, “You fink you’re better’n, you cunts? Fook right off!” And the Beatles sitting there, in all that ridiculous regalia like, “Yeah, you Scouser twats, we’re rich innat ’n’ yer bollocks!” So it was this indictment of the nouveau riche and tax-dodging cunts like the Beatles. Lennon got it. I think Paul thought it hit a little too close to home. Posh twat. Anyways, Pete Blake takes that and replaces these Liverpudlians with famous people and makes a queen’s tit. Goes down in history. So he’s a gobshite.

But I had done these cartoony sketches of the idea before I’d made the photo collage. I had one in a drawer somewhere after I moved to New York in early 1970. I’d just finished doing the Today’s Now, Currently, a pop-art exhibit at the ICA in ’69. Stan Mason met me at this bar in Greenwich Village one day. He’d just gotten to New York and asked if I had anything he could use as a logo for this new paper he’s peddling. Offered to pay. So I dug up one of those drawings, turned those jealous frowns upside down, tacked in some newspapers, and there you have it. Two hundreds dollars. Never thought about it again until you asked.

Erin Stolhanske, granddaughter of William Stolhanske: My grandpa, William [Stolhanske], had a little coffee shop in the front of his grocery store. He ran the store, grandma ran the coffee shop. As I understand it, she let Viv Martz put the paper next to the apartment listings, classifieds, and garage-sale notices. By the cream. Viv was a waitress there. Gramps didn’t know who Vance Coffee was, let alone what was in the papers. My grandpa was not a political guy. He voted for Stevenson twice.

[Vance Coffee was found murdered in 1960 outside an apartment in Indianapolis after what police determined was an amphetamine-fueled, Nazi-themed sex orgy. Motive was never determined, but Vance’s gambling debts to local mobster “Stoney” De Luca were strongly suspected.ed.]

The attorney general came by after that bastard [Vance Coffee] was killed, asking why gramps was distributing anti-Semitic literature promoting the overthrow of the American government. They never charged him, but he found [Coffee’s] estate sale and overpaid for the mimeograph machines so they wouldn’t become a Bircher pilgrimage destination or be put to the same use again.

The only person he knew who could write was his son, my uncle Dave.

[David Stolhanske died in 2004. His quotes herein are from the transcript of his deposition in Stolhanske v. Mason, CA-98–00784, S.D. Ind. (LEXIS 98–082889712) — ed.]

Dave Stolhanske, owner of Coffee News, 1960–69: I had been a journalism major at Ball State and had just come home looking for a job. I was pouring coffee at mom’s coffee shop. They didn’t call it being a barista then; it was Maxwell House. I changed the name of the paper to Coffee News only so I could use most of the original typography and layout. I wasn’t good at typesetting. It was that simple. The fact that it was put out at a coffee shop was a coincidence. I put my poetry in there. Ads for the local floral shop. Some jokes. Garage-sale notices. Quotes from my old copy of Bartlett’s from school. Recipes. ‘This Day in History’-type stuff. Pretty wholesome. Other coffee shops around town began carrying the paper, so I made some side money on the advertising.

In the early-’60s we published a few stories from Kurt Vonnegut under a pseudonym, Norma van Haayden. Kurt and I had been in Sunday school together and he’d send me whatever had gotten rejected from the big magazines. Those stories later served as the basis for Cat’s Cradle.

I’m surprised I kept it going as long as I did. I finally quit the coffee shop when I got a job at Honeywell writing their style guide for the writing of technical manuals.

I played a lot of bridge back then. Stan [Mason] was in my bridge club. I guess I never saw the potential [of Coffee News] beyond a few coffee places in Indy and Carmel. But the original idea and format was mine. Not the militant fascism. The wholesome part, after we got it from Vance Coffee. That stuff.

On that night, Stan and I had been drinking a lot of beer. I remember Stan [Mason] saying he really liked the idea of Coffee News and had big ideas for it. I humored him, but I wasn’t interested. I don’t remember signing anything and I would never have signed anything. But if I did, I was incapacitated. And as far as the Vonnegut stuff, I guess that’s why we’re here today.

Walter Fine: Stan Mason was a son of a bitch and an asshole. But I loved the man. A true visionary.

[Stan Mason died in 2012. His quotes herein are from his autobiography “The Best Things in Life are Free — The Life and Times of Stan Mason, Sole & Exclusive Creator and Publisher of Coffee News,” © 1997, Simon & Shuster, as well as his testimony in SEC v. Mason/CNG Publishing, Inc., 87:808991, S.D.N.Y., (LEXIS 90–109283577, June 4, 1990) — ed.]

Stan Mason, Owner & Editor-In-Chief, Coffee News, 1969–2006; President of Mason Publishing, L.P., 1978–84; Chairman & CEO of Mason/CNG Publishing, Inc., 1984–2006: I don’t like to talk about other people, but I will say this. Davey Stolhanske was a degenerate gambler and a drunk. We had the same bookie. I knew he was in to him for about two thousand. Davey hated the [Indianapolis] Pacers [professional basketball team] because his girlfriend had cheated on him with Chick Rollins, who wrote for the [Indianapolis] Star [the city’s major newspaper] and owned part of the team. He knew better, but he couldn’t help but bet against them. They kept winning. He kept losing.

Davey drank Yuengling like water. I’d known this guy forever. We played cards. He was bitching about how much he owed his bookie, so yeah, I knew about the debt. We’re playing bridge and we start betting. I’d lived in Chicago for a few years and worked at the Tribune. I knew what kind of money was in advertising, and I’d seen this Coffee News rag all over town since I’d been back. So I just had an idea. Do the same thing in a bigger town. Do it in every town. And boom. Rich.

So I says to him, Davey, I got a bet for you. You win, I pay off your debt to [bookie] Stoney [De Luca]. I win, you give me your coffee newspaper. I won.

A week later, Davey calls me up. He’s bitching about the bet. Doesn’t wanna give up the paper. I take pity. I say, you know what, I’ll buy it off you. He says, How much? I say, How much do you owe Stoney? So we met at The Indianapolitan [night club] and we drew up a contract, and that was that.

So, yeah, it was a bridge bet that led me to get the paper, but I bought it fair and square for two thousand dollars. I did not win the paper in a card bet, because betting on cards is illegal in the great state of Indiana and such a gambling winning would be an illegal, and thus unenforceable, contract.

At the time, I was unaware of the Kurt Vonnegut stories that had appeared in Coffee News in, I guess, ’61 or ’62, but as a matter of course, whenever I purchased any publication, I made sure to include all copyrights and other intellectual property, known or unknown [emphasis in original], held by that publication. That’s just my due diligence. That’s business.

Anthony “Flat Tire” Medrano, interviewed at Federal Corrections Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana, 2016: The way I heard it, Davey Stolhanske signed that contract with a tire iron held against his head. Actually, that’s the way I saw it. I was holding the tire iron. Stoney De Luca was there. What do I give a shit? Stoney’s dead and the statute of limitations on that expired in ’75.

Why now? Well, nobody ever asked me before.

[Stanislaus “Stoney” De Luca died at his home in Coral Cables, Florida in 1988 of natural causes and complications from acute syphilitic necropathy — ed.]

The way I heard it, Davey Stolhanske signed that contract with a tire iron held against his head. Actually, that’s the way I saw it. I was holding the tire iron. — Anthony Medrano

Walter Fine: I’d worked at the New York Sun and then the Daily News. I was out of a job for personal reasons. When I was released, I met Stan Mason at Delmonico’s. My friend Billy “Batts” Battaliano had introduced us. I knew him from working the blotter at the Daily News. Stan knew him through some guy in Indianapolis, Stoney something. Anyway, he was hustling this paper and needed somebody to run the print side. That was right when he got to town. It was 1970 or so. He was involved a lot on the editorial side at first, but needed help. So I was Assistant to the Editor, then Assistant Editor through most of the ’70s. Finally, he got more into the higher-level publishing aspect and I basically took over running the paper in ’78.

A couple of months after I started, Stan came into my office holding some back issues he’d dug out of a box he brought with him from Indiana. He asked if I knew who Norma Van Haayden was. I asked if she’d been one of the girls who’d come back with us from P.J. Clarke’s [the famous New York bar] earlier that week. He said no. He asked if I knew a lawyer. My wife at the time was from old New York money. She gave me a name.

Piers van Valkenberg, former partner, Debevoise, Wardwell, & Van Dyck, LLP: All I can say about that is that in 1971, Coffee News reached a settlement with Mr. Vonnegut and his publishers on terms satisfactory to all parties.

It was New York in the 1970s and I owned the highest circulation paper in town, and we were expanding across the country. We were making so much money I said, ‘We can’t charge for this.’ It was a beautiful thing. — Stan Mason

Walter Fine: The advertising paid the bills. The Vonnegut royalties paid for the drugs. Our offices were across the alley from The National Lampoon and on the same floor. There was a zip line at one point. It was anarchy.

Erin Stolhanske: I didn’t know anything about the Vonnegut stories then, but I was just a kid. Later, I remember Uncle Dave talking about it, showing us the stories. He didn’t know anything about the law. He ended up teaching English in Castleton [Indiana]. It wasn’t until Stan Mason’s book came out that the light bulb went off.

Dave Stolhanske: He knew. I know he knew because I told him. People say I didn’t know, but I knew. I’m not stupid. Not like they say. I’m smart. I was an English major. I knew about copyright. There was nothing in there about copyrights when I signed it. If I did. Which I didn’t.

If I did. It was under duress. I told you. They had a tire iron to my head!

It was Stoney De Luca and another guy. No, I don’t know his name.

Stan Mason: It was New York in the 1970s and I owned the highest circulation paper in town, and we were about expand across the country. I said, ‘We can’t charge for this.’ It was a beautiful thing.

The preceding, in case you are a lawyer for Coffee News, is a work of fiction and satire. The views expressed herein are not those of Coffee News, the wonderful, widely available, franchise, local-advertising publication. No character herein is real or has any basis in any person, including those with anything to do with Coffee News. Except for Kurt Vonnegut. He was real, but is fictionalized here. He was an awesome writer, a public figure, and had nothing to do with Coffee News. Thank you.

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J.P. Melkus

J.P. Melkus

It's been a real leisure. [That picture is not me.--ed.]