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Friday, August 17, 2007

Coffin fit

By Paul Bannister
Vince Eckersley was one of the Leigh Boys when we both attended De La Salle College, Pendleton, a fact unearthed at 5,000 feet on a desert mesa.

It wasn’t that Vince was in the habit of holding high-level converzationes, just that we were on a two-week muleback assignment together on the Baja peninsula of Mexico. We were seeking cave paintings of ancient flying saucers, a not-atypical National Enquirer venture.

To the background accompaniment of our three muleteers’ gastric rumblings (they’d eaten freeze-dried beef bourguignon too enthusiastically) we found we’d attended the same grammar school, a few years apart.

It was a small surprise that explained much. The contingent at DLS who travelled daily from Leigh was noted for its lawlessness, cunning and skilful interpretation of rules. All that made an admirable grounding for a photographer.

Vince had worked for Tillotsons’ Leigh Journal and Bolton Evening News before graduating to the Manchester offices of the nationals, but his taste for safari clothes and SCUBA diving (not indulged at the same time) led him to Florida and the Enquirer.

There, he and such as Scotsman Jimmy Sutherland (later Star photo editor) were among the handful of larcenous staff snappers who bought and sold their less-guileful American cousins week after week, smiling as they did it.

This is an homage to their breed, a modest account of just one episode. I’m proud to have worked with such as Vince, and Jimmy, and Jim Selby and Jeff Joffe, and … but not that Illinois idiot who gave the Guatemalan cop his driving licence…

After Elvis Presley died, the Enquirer had a stampede of approaches from his nearest and dearest, offering Last Photographs of the singer in his coffin.

The Enquirer ran one on the cover and sold more than seven million copies, which wasn’t a bad return for the $20,000 it paid to the family member – one of the people we called the Memphis Mafia - for the negative.
A couple of enterprising Enquirer employees later tried to lift that negative to print Elvis-in-a-box T-shirts. They were caught in a sting operation by the stork-like editor and a couple of fat cops. The story went that the editor unfolded out of a motel closet screeching ‘Aha! You rogues!’ and scared them half to death.

The publisher wanted another profitable Elvis cover, and hit on the idea of having a pic of the grieving widow, Priscilla, kneeling in prayer by the grave in Graceland.

Vince was given the job of getting that unsanctioned shot, for which Priscilla was to be paid.

The wily ex-Leigh Boy kitted himself out with a priest’s shiny black suit and dog collar, hollowed out a fat Missal and inserted a baby Rollei camera. Who’d question a priest in prayer?

Vince hung around some Holiday Inn in Memphis for a week, as Priscilla’s feet chilled so much that she never did that shoot.

Meanwhile, word came from Madrid. Bing Crosby had died and his body was being shipped to California for burial.

Eckers was told: Scramble. Get yourself to Los Angeles and get a picture of Bing in his box.

Observers at dusk a day later might have seen a portly priest busy with a pocket knife. He was removing a diamond-shaped pane of glass from the window of St Paul’s, Westwood, just at a place where a long lens might be inserted to get a fine view of the nave.

The next morning, the service was held early, to deter crowds, and that portly priest could now be seen at the back of the church, kneeling and murmuring over his Missal.

‘I looked up, and a big black-bearded priest was striding towards me with the light of battle in his eyes,’ Eckersley recalled. ‘I lowered my head, then cautiously looked again. It was Enquirer reporter Frank Zahour.’

Zahour was the only reporter inside the church, thanks to the ‘funeral director.’

That, in sober suit, was the late Gerry Hunt, another Enquirer reporter, (and ex-Daily Mail, Manchester) who was at the door, diligently keeping the media in its place outside while graciously accepting Kathryn Crosby’s thanks for his work.

Any indignant metro daily writer who protested at being excluded soon realised from Gerry’s demeanour that he’d best stay out. Gerry was noted for his short fuse and Pearl Harbour attacks at the office pub, and his air of menace wasn’t faked.

The service ended, and as Zahour exited, one of the humble excluded asked him for the name of the officiating priest. ‘Father Ellwood Kieser,’ said Zahour, who then spelled it, adding: ‘But, my son…’ (pause while the obedient hack waited, pen poised) ‘Check it. Check it!’

At Holy Cross Cemetery, the Enquirer team were back in mufti and the reporter who’d asked Zahour for the priest’s name did a mouth-breather’s double take.

‘A miracle, my son, a miracle,’ said Zahour, waving his fingers in blessing.
Former Daily Mail reporter Paul Bannister is shamelessly exploiting the Ranters blog in hopes of finding a publisher for his new memoir, from which this is an extract.