Herb Brin, February 17, 1915 - February 6, 2003
Herb Brin, pugnacious journalist, editor, poet and dogged campaigner for liberal and Jewish causes, died of congestive heart failure on Thursday, Feb. 6, at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. His death came 11 days shy of his 88th birthday and shortly after he completed his autobiography, pecked out with two fingers on a manual typewriter.
Brin turned a mortgage on his house into a chain of Jewish community newspapers that prospered in the 1960s and 1970s, serving communities in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and Central California. He also was the author of six books of Jewish-themed poetry and two books about post-Holocaust Germany, Ich Bin Ein Jude and Where Are the Children?
His youngest son, journalist Daniel J. Brin, who worked at his father's side for 25 years, called him "The very last of the old-time Front Page newspapermen, absolutely committed to every cause he felt just, from civil rights to the Santa Monica Mountains park."
Herb Brin was born in 1915 in Chicago to a poor family of Jewish imigrants from Poland and Russia. His father, Solomon Brin, was literate in seven languages; his mother, Pia "Fannie" Brin, could neither read nor write.
In his unpublished memoir, Shouting for Justice, Brin wrote of having to walk to school through a gauntlet of anti-Semitic neighborhoods where signs posted on windows read "No Jews and Dogs Allowed." An encounter with a gang of Polish immigrant toughs left him with a six-inch scar on his leg and an abiding hatred of anti-Semitism.
During the 1930s, Brin infiltrated the German-American Bund for the Anti-Defamation League, then the only American organization tracking the activities of domestic Nazis. In 1940, this taste for adventure led him to enlist as a gangland reporter for the legendary City News Bureau, the hardboiled news machine that inspired Ben Hecht's play, The Front Page. He quickly gained a reputation for tough and fearless reporting.
Brin enlisted in the army shortly after Pearl Harbor, but a training accident broke both of his feet. He was reassigned to the Army's Yank magazine and spent the rest of the war interviewing generals and celebrities in what he called "agonizing, frustrating, comfort while my fellow Jews were being murdered by Hitler."
The capstone of his military career was an August 1945 interview with Gen. Jacob Devers, commander of the Sixth Army Group, during which the four-star general stated that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima would have no effect on the course of the war. Brin wrote two versions of the story, one of which retained the general's absurd comments and the other with more sober quotes of Brin's own invention.
A few hours later, Gen. Devers' chief of staff told him, "Brin, you're a son of a bitch, but you saved a great general's career."
Following the war, Brin returned to the City News Bureau of Chicago, where he uncovered the infamous Consumer Coal Company scandal. Upon presenting Mayor Ed Kelly with incriminating documents, the mayor summoned photographers, wrote out a letter of resignation and handed it to the reporter who caught him.
But the sleazy style of Chicago journalism and that city's cold winds so annoyed Brin that he moved to Los Angeles in 1947, working at first for the Gendale News-Press. He quit after the paper's publisher arranged a comical raid on a "Communist Party" meeting that turned out to be a gathering of the local Democratic club.
He was then hired by the Los Angeles Times, where he became a respected feature writer, writing under city editors Paul Brecht and Taylor Trumbo. His specialty was oddball human-interest stories that Trumbo called "green suits." One of these involved a Stradivarius violin that washed ashore on a Los Angeles beach. For another story, Brin showed up at Union Station as the sole reporter to witness Charlie Chaplin's departure from Los Angeles.
Brin left the Times in 1954 to launch the Heritage Jewish newspapers, but he maintained his contacts with his former employers, writing occasional features. In 1962, he represented the Times at the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem and also shot film of the trial for KTLA television.
Among the anti-Semites Brin investigated at Heritage were Wesley "Shifty-Legs" Swift, American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, and Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby and the Institute for Historical Review, which proclaims that the German Holocaust against the Jews is a myth.
In 1960, Brin sounded an international alarm in the Jewish community upon his return from Moscow, where Soviet Jews had pushed slips of paper into his pockets, secretly urging him to shrei gevalt scream for help in the West. His articles on Soviet suppression of Jewish culture helped launch activist movements around the world.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Brin campaigned for liberal causes, championing the presidential efforts of Robert Kennedy in 1968. He heard the gunshots fired by assassin Sirhan Sirhan as the Kennedy campaign celebrated its California primary victory at the Ambassador Hotel.
An early opponent of the Vietnam War, Brin supported the presidential bid of George McGovern. He also was among the first to prod the city's Jewish leadership into endorsing the mayoral candidacy of Tom Bradley, the nation's first African American mayor of a big city.
In 1979, Brin mobilized community opposition to the decision by CBS to cast actress Vanessa Redgrave, an avowed supporter of the most extreme elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as Auschwitz survivor Fania Fenelon in the biographical television film Playing for Time. Fenelon participated in some of Brin's protests, which culminated in his picketing the 1979 Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Redgrave, who received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, used her acceptance speech to castigate the protesters as "Zionist hoodlums."
Also in the late 1970s, Brin began to take positions that alienated some of his friends on the left. He endorsed the Proposition 13 "taxpayers revolt," supported the settlement policies of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and opposed the reelection of Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
Retaining his pugnacity well into his 70s, Brin drove up to the gates of the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, introduced himself as a Jewish journalist and requested a tour of the grounds. Surprisingly, a secretary of the violently racist organization agreed to show him around, and Brin shared his experiences in words and pictures with Heritage readers.
Unfortunately for Brin, his family and his many admirers, his campaigns frequently alienated many the Jewish community's wealthy leaders. Some were deeply offended when he reported that Cedars-Sinai hospital, a chartered "charity hospital" and built entirely with donated funds, would not accept MediCal patients.
The leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation-Council who were sometimes derided by Brin as machers or big shots responded by converting its monthly house organ, the Jewish Community Bulletin, into a subsidized weekly newspaper in competition with the independently-owned Jewish press of Los Angeles. The Bulletin's successor, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, still requires an annual subsidy of more than $2 million in charity money.
Ultimately, the inveterate "tilter after windmills" was unable to fight the resources of a community leadership that appeared to be determined to put him out of business. After a decade of losses that drained his personal resources, Brin was forced to shut down Heritage in Los Angeles and Orange County in September 2001. One edition of the chain continues to publish under new management in San Diego, with Daniel Brin serving as senior associate editor.
Brin was married and divorced three times. He is survived by three sons: Stan, 54, a business reporter and investigative journalist in Orange County; David, a bestselling author of science fiction novels who lives in San Diego; and Daniel, 49, a resident of West Hills. Brin is also survived by six grandchildren: Miriam, Sarah, Nathan, Benjamin, Ariana and Terren.
Interment took place Monday February 10, in Jerusalem, overlooking the Temple Mount.