Written by Joe Scotchie Friday, 07 January 2011 00:00
Gerson Strassberg has history in his hands.
The former mayor of Roslyn Harbor is finally going public with two pieces of newspaper history that have been in his possession since the 1960s.
Strassberg, also founder of the Mineola based-Anglers Group, has long held the original New York Times printing plates, or “flongs,” of two of the most historic events of the turbulent 1960s: One of them the most traumatic event of that decade, the other an achievement of scientific marvel.
Through a relative of somebody in a senior position at The Times, Strassberg received and still holds the plates of the Nov. 23, 1963 issue of The Times, announcing and detailing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The other plate is dated July 21, 1969, reporting, in similar bold face type, the moonwalk of Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
The possessions are unique for not only the events they chronicle, but also for their technique. From 1896 to 1978, most major newspapers in America, Strassberg relates, used printing plates in a process termed “Matrix” printing, one that employed plastic flongs that were then transferred to the printing presses.
“Each page of the newspaper started as a conventional backup of linotype and picture plates on blocks,” Strassberg said. “One original flong was then made by compression of a sheet of layered papier maché on the type/picture lockup.”
According to dictionaries, a flong is a term which describes a papier maché mould made from a set form of type, which itself is used as the original mould for multiple curved printing. The flong mould, Strassberg said, is made with the aid of heat and pressure. The original master flong, Strassberg added, was then the master plate, which was used to produce scores of curved lead printing plates, one for each printing press. In the case of The New York Times, Strassberg noted, that meant approximately one million copies required for distribution each day. After the flongs did their job, they were destroyed and the many curved lead printing plates were melted for recasting another issue.
But the events of Nov. 22, 1963 and July 20, 1969 represented no ordinary news days. In addition to those two historic events, Strassberg also owns the flongs for the March 18, 1970 full eclipse of the moon that took place in the New York City region. Still, the Kennedy assassination and the moon landing is what Strassberg hopes to offer to the public.
And indeed, the newspaper headlines make both events as real to the reader as when they first occurred.
One difference in the flongs for Nov. 23 and the actual newspaper is that the photo of the late president in the print edition was produced with a black outline around it. That isn’t evident in the flong. Still, the page abounds with a history of its own. The Nov. 23 page carries the byline of veteran Times writer Tom Wicker in reporting the traumatic event. A recording of Wicker dictating the story, one later replayed on documentaries, revealed his anguish as he filed the story. This was also the case with famed CBS anchor Walter Cronkite who, dressed with a shirt and tie and wearing black-rimmed glasses, broke the story to a stunned nation as that station, then the “Tiffany” of American broadcasting cut away from an innocuous soap opera to report a history-altering tragedy. Page one of Nov. 23 is full of almost surreal stories, including a description of last rites given to the slain president, the stunned reaction on the streets of New York—-a city where Kennedy was especially popular—-and even ruminations on the political prospects for the new president, Lyndon Johnson.
Most striking is the bottom of the page, which includes a photo of Johnson being sworn into office on the Air Force One carrying the late president’s body. With then-President Johnson was his wife, Lady Bird and a grief-stricken Jacqueline Kennedy who was still wearing the blood stained dress she had on during the motorcade through Dallas. On the flight back to Washington, Lady Bird reportedly suggested to Mrs. Kennedy that she change out of the dress into something new. But Mrs. Kennedy refused, claiming that she wanted the world to see what “they” had done to her husband.
The moon landing, in comparison, is far less dramatic. Page one carries the bold headline, but it was accompanied by only one story, plus a transcript of Neil Armstrong’s first contacts with Houston and a poem by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Archibald MacLeish.
“The framed flongs are one of a kind, original, unique and historic items,” Strassberg correctly notes. “There is intentionally no glass on the front since it is captivating to run your fingers over the three dimensional face of the flong.”
The flong is a relic of the past. Today, newspaper pages are produced electronically through computer technology. Recently, Strassberg toured The Times’ huge printing plant in College Point, Queens. There, two old timers, both nearing retirement, recognized Strassberg’s prized possessions as the multitude of layered paper mache flongs they had once worked with on a daily basis. The two had also operated the machinery that printed the curved lead printing plates constructed from those bendable flongs.
So why is Strassberg now going public with these unforgettable witnesses to history? For years, all three flongs stood on his office walls. But time marches on and Strassberg told The Roslyn News that he wants to “turn [them] into money while I’m still around. I’m a grandparent and great grandparent.”