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Friday, August 3, 2007

The Petri Dish Kid

By Joe Mullins
Reporter kills world’s first test tube baby. That’s the headline that flashes across my mind whenever I read anything about Louise Brown. She was 29 last week (on July 25) and my heart went in to overdrive when I saw it noted in a Today In History paragraph.
It almost happened on my watch. I would have been able to blame photographer Mickey Brennan too. But most of the shit would have landed on me.
As a reporter on the National Enquirer – owned by Gene Pope, godson of Mafioso Frank Costello, the real Godfather – I would now be inside some Florida concrete column for making such a screw-up. He was an ogre…‘but our ogre’, we used to say fondly. Not a man to let down though.
I was pleased to be given the job of looking after Louise and her parents, Lesley and John Brown, when the family was invited to Florida a few months after Louise’s birth. In April of that year (1978), I’d been part of an Enquirer team sent to Manchester to find the expectant mother, along with Paul Bannister and an American reporter called Eric Mishara. Paul and I were former Daily Mail men in the city with lots of friends and contacts there. Our team leaders, Bill Dick and Brian Hitchen, gave us instructions I’ve never forgotten. ‘Hit the bars, throw some money around, get your old mates drunk, pick up the scent.’
The scent? After a week or two of buying booze for half of Manchester we could barely pick up our backsides from the barstools.
It became clear that we were way behind. The Daily Mail team, including some of the guys drinking our beer, just about had it nailed.
The Enquirer cut its losses and started to negotiate for US rights if the Mail cracked it. I was pulled out and sent on to Stockholm to pester The Fonz, Henry Winkler, and his bride Stacey, on their honeymoon. (That’s another story.)
Back in Florida in July, I read the Mail’s scoop on Louise’s birth. Gene Pope bought the story from Associated and according to newsroom gossip at the time paid out all the Mail had spent and more.
As I’d almost given my liver for the story already, I thought it was only justice a few months later when my editor (former Mirror man Bernard Scott) told me the Browns were heading to Enquirer headquarters in Lantana and I’d be looking after them.
What could be easier? It was a top secret job, of course. Baby Louise’s first time on US soil. But the Mail exclusive had told of the joyous couple whose miracle baby had made their dreams come true. They were the salt of the earth.
‘I’m happy to tell you that anything you need will be here for you,’ I told John and Lesley as they came off the plane with little Louise at Miami airport. ‘After all, you’re the guests of America’s biggest newspaper, the National Enquirer.’
‘It’s crap,’ said Lesley. ‘I’ve read it. It’s a rag.’
John rolled his eyes. ‘No problem, Lesley,’ I said. ‘You’re here now. Welcome to sunny Florida.’
‘I don’t know how you can live here,’ said Lesley. ‘It’s too hot. It’s so sweaty.’
‘And this is Louise,’ I pressed on, smiling at the baby and gently tickling her.
‘Waah,’ said Louise. ‘Waah,’ screwing up her face.
‘Ooh, she doesn’t like YOU,’ said Lesley.
I put it all down to jet lag and drove the family 120 miles north to the suite I’d booked at a Sheraton. We were on Hutchinson Island with the warm Atlantic lapping beside us. The whoosh and hiss of the waves seemed so soothing. ‘I hope that bloody noise isn’t going to be on all night,’ said Lesley.
This could be a long ten days after all, I decided.
Because it was a big exclusive job, the Enquirer photo editor had decided to fly in Michael Brennan from New York. That was great by me. Mickey and I were old friends since our days on IPC’s original Sun.
He came down after I’d spent a day or two getting the Browns settled.
Now anybody who knows Mr Brennan soon understands that when it comes to taking pictures he is a very serious man. The face of a Botticelli cherub, someone once said, and the temper of a cobra.
‘Nobody said anything about snaps,’ said Lesley. ‘I hope he’s not going to be clicking away all day.’
Snaps indeed! Mr. Brennan is a former Photographer of the Year. His clicking away when Donald Campbell died on Coniston Water won plaudits worldwide.
Ever the peacemaker, I explained that he wanted to make a nice album for them to record their first visit to the United States. ‘Nobody said anything about snaps,’ she repeated. John Brown looked nervously to the heavens. Brennan glowered.
Lesley also made it clear that while she didn’t like being photographed, she positively hated the ‘test-tube baby’ term. After all it wasn’t actually a test tube but a Petri dish where Louise had her start. It was never spelled out but it seemed that Lesley was uncomfortable with the misconception (how appropriate) that a test tube had been stuck up her.
That’s a subbing problem, I decided. Not that the Enquirer, being American, had actual subs. In the States, subs are fat, greasy, overstuffed things you see in the sandwich shop. While in Britain, they’re…well, where was I?
Later in the bar, while the Browns had an afternoon sleep, Mickey and I discussed their bloody minded lack of cooperation. ‘Fuck me,’ he said, ‘you mean the greatest medical minds of the century combined to let these two reproduce?’
I decided that we had to give the Browns such a good time they could not fail to respond.
An illegal bonfire on the beach and a champagne barbecue. ‘Too smoky,’ said Lesley. ‘All this sand gets between my toes.’
A special dash to get rum raisin ice cream. ‘Nothing special,’ decided Lesley. ‘It’s just like ice cream with rum and raisins.’
Editor Scott’s pretty assistant Laura Doss babysat Louise each night while Mickey and I pushed the boat out for John and Lesley in the Sheraton bar.
‘He’s got another hangover,’ Lesley told me. ‘And it’s all your fault.’
But they gradually came round. I was always good with babies. My cheeks still flap in a high wind from being stretched by doing that thing where you put your finger in your mouth and make a pop as you pull it out. I’d stood behind photographers on every paper I’d worked for, getting kids to smile. I was stung by Lesley’s charge that Louise had taken a dislike to me. Of course I could win her over.
My popping eventually did the trick. And with Louise gurgling, even Lesley and John had to smile for Mickey’s camera. And of course there’s nobody better than him at doing his job.
From the beach, we headed up to Disneyworld for the standard Mickey Mouse and Goofy pictures…and I got one of those reporting chills.
Lesley and John wanted to go on the terrifying ride, Space Mountain, which meant queuing for an hour or more. I looked after Louise, cradling her on my knee.
‘Hey Joe, didn’t know you had a young ’un.’ I looked up to see Jim Leggatt, a freelance snapper, camera round his neck. Now Jimmy regularly worked for the Enquirer’s then major rival, the Star. He sat down next to me and I told him I was just looking after a friend’s baby while she was on the ride.
He had an exclusive on the world’s first test tube baby on a plate and didn’t realize it. When I told him the story a few months later, Jim said, ‘Dinna worry, boy. I wouldn’t have screwed you. We’re pals.’ You would have Jim…you would. And I, you. That’s our business.
But that scare paled alongside my panic the next day. As we idled our way back to Miami to wave the Browns goodbye, I took them shopping for souvenirs in one of the flashy malls. A few gifts. Cheap jeans. Florida T-shirts. A western poster in which they posed as cowgirl, cowboy - and cow baby, I guess.
And then an expensive lunch. I noticed as we ate and drank that Lesley kept Louise quiet by breaking bread from the rolls on the table, dipping it in soup and shoving it into her mouth.
As John tucked into a series of fancy shrimp cocktails, Louise got quieter and quieter. When I looked more closely at her, she was turning blue.
‘Oh shit,’ I yelled. ‘Louise is choking.’ The world’s first test tube baby, first of what is now more than one million, born to world acclaim after the ground-breaking work of doctors Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, was going bluer by the second, eyes rolling up into her precious skull. She was about to snuff it on my watch.
What’s more, Mr Pope would say it was all my fault. If the National Enquirer killed the world’s first test tube baby, it would be the lead news item coast to coast.
John and Lesley just sat, mouths agape. I ran round the table and tried to dig out a mass of food with my fingers. I couldn’t get it all. I spun her round and slapped on her back. It wasn’t working. Slap. Slap. Again and again. A sloppy mess of bread finally plopped out. Louise let out a mighty yell.
John Brown looked at me accusingly. ‘Fair put I off my prawns,’ he said in his Bristol accent.
I waved goodbye to John and Lesley at Miami departures and made a final pop for Louise. She gurgled happily.
Next year, when she’s 30, I’ll give This Day In History a miss. The flashbacks are getting too traumatic.

Joe Mullins was on the Daily Herald, The Sun (IPC) and the Daily Mail before heading to Florida, where he worked on the National Enquirer, Globe and the National Examiner. He’s now a freelance in Florida.