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The Last Editor is a unique memoir of a man who loved a ...
The Last Editor is a unique memoir of a man who loved a fight--highlighted with commentary from his colleagues in letters and sidebars from the biggest names in media. Sidebars from Wolfe, Ben Bradlee, Art Buchwald, Katherine Graham, Mary McGrory, William Safire, just to name a few, and 16 pages of black-and-white photos, provide behind-the-scenes insights to the triumphs and controversies of the man who shaped the industry.
Copyright © 2002 Jim Bellows.
All rights reserved.
Tom Wolfe and The New Yorker
"Jim Bellows loved a brawl. I think if a month went by without a brawl, he thought it was a pretty dull month."
Tom Wolfe was recalling my relish at the literary controversy he landed us in with his articles on The New Yorker magazine.
It was 1965, the year that Norman Mailer marched on Washington, France left NATO, and the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam, so it was not exactly an uneventful time. But the Tom Wolfe-New Yorker flap was still memorable. It was unsettling, potentially damaging, and the most fun I'd had in years.
I had set out to redesign the Sunday edition of the New York Herald Tribune for its publisher, John Hay "Jock" Whitney. Jock had made me editor of the paper and I was trying to create a lively alternative to the New York Times, New York's venerable newspaper of record.
"Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?" we used to ask in our ads.
The centerpiece of our new Sunday edition was a new supplement called New York. It turned out to be so successful that it outlived the newspaper as the independent New York magazine. It contrasted nicely with the Sunday Times Magazine, which in those days was a little dull. Times readers were accustomed to spending their weekends with articles like "Brazil: Colossus of the South." Their covers featured pictures of an ox with a Cambodian native behind it pushing a plow.
The literary stars on our new magazine were a couple of extraordinary young men whom I had managed to bring aboard the paper. One of them was a sportswriter named Jimmy Breslin, whose book about the New York Mets' abysmal season, called Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, had been published in 1963. I put Jimmy to work writing a sports column, but I sensed that he was wasted there—Jimmy Breslin had enormous potential. So I asked him to write about the city. And the rest, as they say, is history. Then he started to write for New York magazine as well.
The other star of the Trib's new Sunday supplement was a young fellow named Tom Wolfe.
Tom had been working as a reporter on the paper, covering hard news for the main sections. I wanted articles that were readable stories, not just news reports. Not every reporter is able to write that way—but God knows, Tom Wolfe could do it. He could take the everyday fact and make you see it anew. He had met all the tests of a daily journalist regarding clarity and speech, but he had gone far beyond that.
Tom was a remarkable communicator of energy and grace. His prose rollicked along with unexpected words embedded in pages that were covered with a confetti of punctuation marks. If his prose was eye-catching, so was he—his trademark was a gleaming white suit.
It didn't take editorial brilliance to put Tom Wolfe to work writing features for New York.
And since a magazine is only as good as its ideas, I brought aboard a young fellow named Clay Felker to edit New York. Felker was a font of them. He came over from Esquire, where he and Harold Hayes had battled for the top spot and Clay had lost. One of the reasons he lost may have been that he was lobbying his boss to do an article satirizing The New Yorker.
"When you can edit as good a magazine as The New Yorker, we'll talk about it," was the reply.
Great minds think alike. Tom Wolfe had the idea of doing a profile on William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. When Clay Felker suggested a sendup of the legendary magazine, Tom leaped at the idea.
Richard Rovere's Letter to Jock Whitney
Physically and atmospherically The New Yorker office Tom Wolfe describes is a place I have never visited. The editor of the magazine described by him is a man I have never known. Unless I have lost all judgment and power of observation, the piece you published is as irresponsible as anything I have ever come upon outside the gutter press.
They agreed that The New Yorker—that great ornament of contemporary writing—had in fact become somewhat tedious.
The New Yorker had had its fun with New York magazine. Lillian Ross had written a piece for the Talk of the Town in a parody of Tom's coruscating style. It was about a playground in Central Park and the main character was a young mother called Pam Muffin. Clay Felker was engaged at the time to the actress Pamela Tiffin. Well, they had had their fun. Now we would have ours.
Tom called up William Shawn and when he finally got him on the phone, told him he wanted to do a piece on The New Yorker for New York magazine, and he wanted to interview him.
"We have a policy at The New Yorker," said Shawn coolly. "That is, if someone doesn't want to be profiled, we drop it. I would like you to show me the same courtesy."
Tom explained that it was, after all, The New Yorker's fortieth anniversary, and Shawn was, after all, a famous figure in publishing. So Tom was going to do the piece.
As he set out to write the article, the first thing Tom realized was that you cannot write a parody of a dull magazine. Not for more than half a page.
"Once you get the joke, it gets duller than dull. It's the Law of Parody."
So Tom decided to change the tone completely. He set out to write it in the style of sensational tabloid journalism. Something on the order of the old Police Gazette.
"I thought, the wilder and crazier the hyperbole, the better," said Tom. "I wanted to paint a room full of very proper people who had gone to sleep standing up."
Tom was working in the satiric tradition established by The New Yorker itself. Back in the 1930s The New Yorker had done a savage sendup of Time magazine and its famous editor, Henry Luce.
Luce went through the roof. The New Yorker's founding editor, Harold Ross, had sent a copy of the article to Luce ahead of time, and Luce went berserk. He confronted Ross in Ross's apartment and threatened to throw him out of the window. Tom never dreamed that Shawn's reaction would make Luce's seem mild.
Tom's piece turned out to be very long, so we broke it into two parts. The first part was almost exclusively about William Shawn—his life, his mannerisms, and the atmosphere he had created at The New Yorker. It kidded the magazine's offices, its customs, and its editorial procedures. Tom pictured the hallways filled with aged messengers bearing a blizzard of multicolored memos: "They have boys over there on the 19th and 20th floors, the editorial offices, practically caroming off each other—bonk old bison heads!—at the blind turns in the hallways because of the fantastic traffic in memos. They just call them boys. Boy, will you take this, please.... Actually, a lot of them are old men with starched collars with the points curling up a little, 'big bunch' ties, button-up sweaters and black basket-weave sack coats, and they are all over the place transporting these thousands of messages with their kindly elder bison shuffles shoop-shooping along."
He called Shawn "The Colorfully Shy Man" and portrayed him as diffident, excessively polite, and soft-spoken. He pictured Shawn draped in layers of sweaters as he went pat-pat-patting through the corridors.
The first section was headlined: "TINY MUMMIES! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!"
New York was printed on Wednesday for the Trib's Sunday edition. On Thursday, I sent a copy over to William Shawn at The New Yorker. Like Tom, I was innocent enough to think that the old spirit of The New Yorker still flourished. After all, who had engaged in satire more than the good old New Yorker? They had always gloried in puncturing pretension with a satirical needle. I suppose it makes a difference who is feeling the prick of the syringe.
William Shawn went berserk.
Within hours a hand-delivered letter arrived on Jock Whitney's desk.
"This is beyond libelous," said Shawn. "This is murderous."
Now, Jock Whitney had been America's ambassador to the Court of St. James's. So part of him was a very dignified gentleman. And part of him was a newspaper publisher.
"With one stroke," wrote Shawn, "this article will take the entire reputation of the New York Herald Tribune and thrust it down into the gutter, along with ..."
I don't remember the exact citations. Mussolini? Or the man who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby?
When Jimmy Breslin learned that Shawn was desperately trying to keep the Tribune from publishing Tom's series, he called Shawn on the telephone and said he had a method by which this could be accomplished if Shawn would meet him at Toots Shor's bar. He never dreamed that Shawn would show up. Jimmy was at the bar talking with friends when he noticed a little man crawling up behind him. Jimmy took him over in the corner and said:
"I can stop the publication. It's very simple—we just blow up the building?
Shawn left in a hurry.
But the letter to Whitney was just the beginning.
Letters rained in from America's shocked cultural establishment. Not one of the letters came to me (the editor), Tom Wolfe (the writer), or Clay Felker (New York's editor); they were all directed to Jock Whitney, the publisher. So I suspect the outpouring was orchestrated. Jock Whitney was a leader in the cultural community—these were his friends.
Maureen Dowd's Review of Tom Wolfe's Hooking Up
Even after the cascade of bitter and nostalgic books written about [The New Yorker] by Shawn protégés, Wolfe's send-up is still a scaldingly funny, perceptive portrait of the weirdo Whisper Zone, horsehair-stuffing days of Shawn. Fury over the piece ... reached from Walter Lippmann to President Johnson's aide Richard Goodwin to J. D. Salinger.... But Wolfe weathered it because he was lucky enough to work for an editor whom I was once lucky enough to work for at the Washington Star—James Bellows, a newspaperman with verve and bravery in equal measure, who always backed up his reporters and who loved nothing better than to do a joyous rain dance in a hail of criticism.
J. D. Salinger, John Updike, E. B. White, Muriel Spark, Hannah Arendt, Richard Rovere ... Virtually all of them had ties to The New Yorker of one kind or another. They either worked there or had contracts as contributors.
Perhaps they were troubled to see Tom describe The New Yorker as "the most successful suburban women's magazine in the country." Or "a national shopping news."
But why had Shawn become so unhinged? His frenzy seemed inexplicable. I reread the article. Yes, it made fun of his whispers, his reclusiveness, his sweaters. But still ...
Tom's best guess was that Shawn was enraged because he feared the piece would expose his affair with the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross. True, the article had mentioned their contacts, but only in a professional context—the fact that she could always get through to him on the phone immediately; the fact that they would often go off to lunch at some remote pastrami joint. In 1998 Lillian Ross wrote a memoir called Here But Not Here about her long affair with Shawn. So that may have been what set him off.
But whatever the reason for Shawn's meltdown, it was a strategic blunder. When Jock Whitney received Shawn's letter, he came into my office and showed it to me.
"Jim, what do we do about this?" said Whitney.
"Here's what we do," I said and called to my secretary.
"Jane, get me the press section of Time magazine, and then get me the press section of Newsweek."
I sent over Shawn's letter. I let them know that The New Yorker's lawyers were seeking an order of prior restraint to keep us from publishing Tom's article. If that wasn't a story, I didn't know what was.
The first part of Tom's article ran on Sunday, April 11, 1965; on Monday morning, Time and Newsweek arrived at several million homes. The press sections of both were all about The New Yorker and their reaction to Tom's story. You can't buy that kind of publicity.
My view has always been that we had every right to dismember The New Yorker, and to do it with irreverence and gusto. Tom's pieces were funny as hell, but they were not mean or malicious. William Shawn was a public figure. Every highly visible editor of every newspaper and magazine in America is a reasonable target for satire. That's true of Henry Luce, Ben Bradlee, William Shawn, and me.
The New Yorker has always been skillful at dishing it out; they should have been able to take it. And Tom's lampoon captured the essential truth of the magazine.
During the following week I noticed that Tom Wolfe and Clay Felker were not their usual exuberant selves. They knew that Jock Whitney had received letters from notables in the literary community, as well as the journalistic and political worlds.
Walter Lippmann had said, "Tom Wolfe is an incompetent ass."
E. B. White had said, "The piece is sly, cruel and undocumented."
Richard Rovere had said, "It is as irresponsible as anything outside the gutter press."
Lyndon Johnson's aide Dick Goodwin had said, "Here at the White House ..."
J. D. Salinger emerged from his own reclusiveness in the wilds of New England to write Whitney: "... the name of the Herald Tribune and certainly your own will very likely never again stand for anything honorable."
Tom's first reaction was that it had all been a prank.
"I know what this is," he said. "This is some kind of superprank. I pranked them, and now they are outpranking me."
He vacillated between this hopeful view and a more apprehensive one: "I thought the sky was going to fall down. Because you think if people this famous—Lippmann and Alsop and Salinger—think you've done something dreadful, you must be in serious trouble. I thought, can I survive this?"
None of the complainers tried to dispute or debate Tom's argument—that The New Yorker had grown prosaic and overrated. Most of the letters were a shrill cry for "dignity."
Nowhere was this more the case than in a piece by the New Yorker writer Dwight Macdonald in The New York Review of Books. It was a strange argument. Macdonald basically agreed with Tom's assessment of The New Yorker, then framed the case in his own terms: This was all about the New Journalism that Wolfe and his buddies had launched at the Trib. It was about the form in which Tom was writing, which was an affront to traditional journalism. The Herald Tribune was in a dilemma, said Macdonald—"caught between deficits and respectability."
The New York Review of Books called the Trib's writing "bastard journalism." We were "exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction." Tom came to the defense of our New Journalism in an article in New York. He pointed out that traditional journalism was often "lazy, slipshod, superficial, and incomplete."
But this New Journalism, complained Macdonald, isn't accurate.
Excerpted from THE LAST EDITOR by Jim Bellows. Copyright © 2002 by Jim Bellows. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted June 6, 2002
I've never been a reporter, but have written 800 magazine articles, so have a cousin's sense of life in the newspaper family. This book makes everyone with writer's blood wish they had worked for Bellows--and it explains why so many publications are mediocre. The writing itself is as good as any of the stars Bellows has famously shepherded, full of lots of fun sidebars from same. It's also a grand tour of the journalism pop culture of the past 4 decades.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2002
------------note--------------- In the review I submitted yesterday about the new James Bellows book, I meant to say, in refering to newspapers where he had worked, The New York HERALD TRIBUNE (NOT the N Y 'World') A minor correction, but perhaps worth notingWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.