Pssst, here’s a tip: Jerry Berger’s legacy is complicated

Gerald Berger

By Richard H. Weiss

When word of Jerry Berger’s death arrived via Facebook through a family friend, I knew exactly what I had to do. I became a tipster and got in touch with my St. Louis media connections. I believe the St. Louis Post-Dispatch got to the story first, with the Jewish Light, KSDK and St. Louis Public Radio not far behind.

It was only after I had sent out my texts and emails that I began to reflect on the strange karma involved here. For several years in the 1990s, I was Jerry’s editor, saying grace over what he collected from his tipsters.

I approached the job with reluctance and dread. Like many in my newsroom and the region, I was by turns charmed and appalled by Jerry.

Jerry understood the code of ethics that applied to journalists and the conventions that apply to polite society. He joyously tap-danced around them. He suffered no consequences. In fact, his sometimes outrageous behavior endeared him to many.  

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But not to all. One of my former Post-Dispatch colleagues, after reading the many encomiums for Jerry on social media, ladled in a teaspoon of rest-in-peace sugar, then added a tablespoon of righteous salt. She considered his column “a blight” on the newspaper.

And yet there were some of his P-D colleagues, also of great probity, who could both abide and enjoy Jerry. Include among their number: the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the paper’s longtime publisher.

J.P. Jr. had come to know the Bergermeister through Jerry’s work at the Muny Opera, then enjoyed Jerry’s dish from afar when he birthed his gossip column in the St. Louis Globe Democrat beginning in 1978. As the Globe spiraled into bankruptcy in the mid-1980s, Jerry began looking for a place to land. At first blush, the Post-Dispatch would not seem a good fit. Generally speaking, we took great care to serve up a balanced, nutritious, fact-based, even-handed, understated meal when it came to the news. Once you’ve cleaned your plate, you could have our comics and the horoscope for dessert.

But with the P-D facing the possibility that Jerry would take his audience to another publication, it forced a decision. J.P. Jr. put aside Executive Editor Bill Woo’s misgivings and, along with Managing Editor David Lipman, welcomed Jerry to the Post-Dispatch.

 With the Globe out of the way, the P-D fended off challenges from a couple of upstart publishers, one trying to revive the Globe, the other starting a tabloid. There were a series of moves around that time that would drive circulation to all-time highs, but we all knew there were a few individuals who made a difference, among them Jerry Berger and Bill McClellan.

Bill McClellan, whom I also edited (though not at the same time as Berger), was incredibly low-maintenance and a superb storyteller. He never missed a deadline, and he wrote his column exactly to fit the space allotted him. Basically, I served as his spellchecker. 

And then there was Jerry’s column. To badly paraphrase Winston Churchill, it arrived four times a week as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, seasoned with god-awful syntax.

Many of Jerry’s items were the product of favors granted and owed to his sources. Other journalists come to the bazaar as well, but not in the same way. How could Jerry’s spotlight be applied to our community in a fair and equitable manner? Who had Jerry’s ear, and what did they have to do to get it? We were all left to wonder as his column pinballed to items that covered the trivial, the charitable and the deplorable.

Some of Jerry’s critics believed that he was accepting and even expecting complimentary passes and special seating that he could distribute to his friends. Hearsay stories circulated that had him accepting free meals and haircuts or simply leaving without paying the tab. If true and proven, it would have subjected him to discipline or dismissal.

Then there were his behaviors that many felt should be called out. 

I will deal with each in turn, but it is appropriate to highlight as well that he shone a light on nonprofits from the arts to civil rights that prospered from his attention. That he facilitated phone calls and meetings for people who forged profitable ventures and romantic adventures, sometimes both. That he served as a watchdog who kept public servants on their toes. That no one worked harder at his job. And while Jerry craved recognition for everything he did and bathed in his own celebrity, he also generously shared his reporting, his sources  and the credit with his colleagues. That is why many in our newsroom, while finding his sins dismaying, so loved that sinner.  

Did Jerry accept free meals and haircuts? Never officially documented to my knowledge, but yeah, probably. He had an interesting way of dancing around the matter when I would pose the question. Without ever admitting to doing anything to violate newsroom policy, he would say his fans and tipsters wanted him to accept their freebies. It would be insulting to them to say no. His question for me: Did I really want to jump into the middle and try to adjudicate his complicated relationships? Had someone complained to me about a particular episode, providing chapter and verse? 

No, they hadn’t. (Of course, I recognized that you would have to have a death wish as a restauranteur or hair-bender, as he called stylists, to ever start a fight with a gossip columnist.)

As for his behaviors, which included forked tongue remarks, inappropriate sexual comments, and uninvited kisses and gropes, the jury is NOT out. It deliberated for 30 seconds and returned with its verdict. Guilty on all counts. 

Jerry was so awful in that way, it wasn’t even funny, though back in the day, he made many of us laugh. You might be in a pleasant three-way conversation with Jerry and a socialite or businessperson and, within seconds after the third party departed, he would apply a sobriquet to that person rhyming with rich. He did this so often and with so many people, you almost had to give him credit for being equitable.

And he could be hilariously insubordinate. 

“Richard,” he would tell me more than once and entirely off topic, “there’s a woman inside you, screaming to get out.”

This was so awful on so many levels and yet I laughed and went on with my day, which was wrong. I had done nothing to discourage him from saying something like that to his colleagues or to others when he was on assignment.

I should have taken measures. Had I done so, and had others acted similarly, we might have prevented what would happen years later when, as a retiree, Jerry was barred from ever setting foot in the P-D newsroom because of his uninvited advances. An even more egregious incident followed in a business supply store in 2013 that you can Google if you like, because St. Louis media, including the Post-Dispatch, covered it … just as Jerry would have done.

Even with all of that, I am dead certain Jerry will find his way to and through the Pearly Gates. He has some passes, which in all likelihood he’ll share with his tipsters who are still trying to get in.

Richard H. Weiss served as a reporter and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 30 years ending in 2005. He is founder and executive editor of Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson, a nonprofit racial equity storytelling site that can be found at beforefergusonbeyondferguson.org.