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Jay Maeder, former Miami Herald People columnist, writer of ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ dies at 67

Jay Maeder gave Little Orphan Annie her voice when she nearly fell silent. He introduced South Florida readers to the Ronald Reagan Voodoo Doll, and emerged from the Everglades swamps as a zombie because that’s what reporters and writers once felt they needed to experience.

Maeder, the namesake behind the trailblazing Jay Maeder’s People column for the Miami Herald in the 1970s, a precursor to today’s celeb-obsessed gossip coverage, the writer of the revamped Little Orphan Annie comic strip, and a Daily News columnist and editor in New York, died of cancer Tuesday morning at the Houston home of his sister, Jane Walsh. He was 67.

Meader, “it seems, was not quite as invincible as he once believed himself to be and life, as so often happens, caught up to him when he wasn’t looking,” his son Jordan Maeder wrote in homage-style to his father’s singular voice — a voice that made readers laugh until their insides pinched, made them think and feel, and sometimes made them call his editor, clamoring for his head.

One infamous Maeder column in the Herald introduced readers to a farmer who had grown the largest collard in vegetable history. But Maeder was thorough, and Guinness Book of Records verification alone would not suffice. Maeder promised the voluminous veggie would be forwarded to the National Association for the Advancement of Collard People.

Editors cringed at the item’s off-taste and killed the offending line after the first edition. But “Mr. Jesus Christ, the noted Savior” made the page. So did an off-kilter description of President Richard Nixon as “Old Sinister Force” in another column that made some of his superiors blanch. And, behind closed doors, almost certainly laugh themselves silly, as they must have in 1983 when he reported on an Atlanta toymaker whose Mr. Ronald Reagan Voodoo Doll poked fun at the president’s economic policies.

“He always made us smile. He was a genuinely funny person, but also — this is the sort of thing people didn’t always appreciate — he was an absolutely terrific, first-rate reporter,” said former Herald City Editor John Brecher, who oversaw Maeder’s work for the paper in the 1970s.

“He came up with funny lines or things off the top of his head. So much of the humor came out of the reporting. He knew how to talk to people. How to interview people to find that funny quote, that situation. So he was not just a comedian but had a way of looking at things that gave everything a little more life.

“Everyone lives life in 3-D. He kind of wrote about life in 4-D,” Brecher said. “Whatever the story was that you asked Jay to do, you could count on the fact no one in the world would write that story the way Jay Maeder would write that story.”

Or that anyone else would prowl through the newsroom in fetid, swamp-rot zombie Nazi regalia, with outsize black goggle-like glasses, fresh from the set of director Ken Wiederhorn’s low-budget 1977 movie Shock Waves, a movie so not Oscar-bound that it couldn’t even settle on a title, alternately shown as Death Corps, Almost Human and Shock Waves.

Maeder secured a part as an extra so he could report on the filming with all the clarity required for a movie culled, as its poster shouted, ‘ From the depths of Hell’s Ocean!

“It involved a weird haircut and other changes which he was stuck with at work. He encountered John S. Knight, the formidable and proper publisher, who looked startled — but to his credit, commented something to the effect that Jay was looking the part, and walked on,” recalled Battle Vaughan, a retired Herald photographer who once shot Maeder atop a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephant in Miami Beach for a 1973 Herald feature.

“He was a reporter unlike any I ever worked with,” Vaughan said. “He could get into anywhere, fit in and report back with both laser precision and a mastery of language.

“Jay joined a group of homeless people being recruited by a cult to swell the voting rolls at some small western town. He went ‘undercover’ to report. He fit right in — and exposed them completely. Jay could have worked for the CIA instead of newspapers and done a heck of a job,” Vaughan said.

Maeder, with his famed fedora and a Lucky Strike cigarette hanging from his mouth, wrote with an eloquence that sometimes belied his speaking voice. He had a stutter most of his life.

“I loved his voice. He rarely stuttered around me, but apparently he stuttered a lot around the newsroom. Very handsome, and such a gentleman. Not too many men can rock a fedora like Jay,” said his partner, Amanda Hass, from New York City.

Maeder, born “in the bustling burg of Cleveland, Ohio,” settled in Fort Myers as a lad, his son said, attended Edison College, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida, served a stint in Vietnam and married Terry Wyatt, with whom he had sons Jordan and Christopher. “Possessing typing skills no mortal man should have,” according to his son, he landed his first journalism job with the Lorain Journal in Ohio, but made his name at the Herald, which he joined in 1971 and where he would remain for 14 years.

In Miami, he wrote his irreverent People column blend of gossip and frippery, the occasional op-ed piece, and also breaking news on the rewrite desk, where he was known for his speed and accuracy. “And calm. I never saw him not calm,” Brecher said.

He left the Herald for the Daily News in 1985, where he edited the Sunday Magazine, wrote several columns, and served on the editorial board.

In 2004, Maeder, who had four grandchildren, crafted a front page editorial for the Daily News when child-killer Joel Steinberg was released from prison. The piece began, “Let him feel every New York eye burning straight through his rotten soul.” The Wall Street Journal praised Maeder’s words as “pure tabloid poetry.”

Four years later, he left the Daily News for a cottage on Greenwood Lake in New York.

Even more readers would know Maeder as the voice behind Little Orphan Annie, a role that proved to be his favorite creative endeavor, said friend Michael Gold. Maeder took over the strip’s storyline from Leonard Starr in 2000 and kept the Depression-era comic strip’s “Leapin’ lizards” spirit alive for a decade before the sun set on it in 2010.

“Basically, she’s still the same tough, spunky, good-hearted kid she always was,” Maeder said of his take on the redhead responsible for Broadway’s ubiquitous tune, Tomorrow.

“Jay was proudest of his work on Annie. By far. It was the pinnacle of his career. Maybe his life,” said Gold.

Above all, Maeder, who authored a book about another hat-wearing chap, Dick Tracy: The Official Biography (Plume, 1990), was a throwback, a golden-era journalist who could have been conjured up by Hollywood.

“Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for transient communities. I myself have lived in 53 different apartments since 1971, usually just long enough for the potted plants to fall over dead,” he wrote in his final Herald column in January 1985.

“Walter Winchell made Jay Jay. Think about it: What Jay did in Miami is take the spirit and the energy of Winchell and update it — completely — to both the times and to your environment,” said Gold, a former DC Comics editor who met Maeder about 30 years ago when the two lived in New York.

DC had approached Maeder, then at the Daily News, about a possible job. Gold and Maeder, along with Maeder’s second wife Jo — “the Madame” on South Florida pop radio stations Y-100 and the former I-95 — dished about the Warner Bros.-owned company over lunch.

Maeder stayed at the News.

Gold was bummed. Robin without his Batman.

“So, really, we never worked together. Almost. Just about. But not quite. Damn it.”

In addition to his sons, sister and Hass, Maeder is survived by grandchildren Trae, Lauren, Cole and Jasmine of Lee County and niece Andrea Wernliof.

“Being an humble man, Jay requested no public services, though toasting his memory with a glass of Dewars is acceptable,” his son Jordan said.