Confessions of a Boy Wonder

I didn’t sign up to be a boy wonder. I was just tooling along at the Chronicle, editing the critics and writing the occasional entertainment feature, a well-regarded professional journalist whose acquaintance with the rigors of daily-deadline reporting was minimal.

Which was fine with me. This was 1969. Woodward and Bernstein were five years in the future; I didn’t realize I could be played by Dustin Hoffman if only I’d been allowed to follow the money. I was 26 years old.

One of the guys I edited was Ralph J. Gleason, a passionate fan of American music in all its forms. Most of his jazz-critic colleagues dismissed rock and roll as boring teen music, but not Ralph. He wrote the first serious review of the Jefferson Airplane ever. He helped start a tabloid newspaper about rock and roll. It was called Rolling Stone.

I wasn’t a boy wonder yet.

Ralph did not ask me to join Rolling Stone; he asked me if I’d be interested in joining a new Jann Wenner magazine, which would do for the environment what Rolling Stone did for rock and roll, or something. Stephanie Mills, fresh out of college with a high profile commencement address behind her (It was called “The Future is a Cruel Hoax;” in it, she declared that she would never have children, which for some reason created a great media stir. Woman Pledges To Remain Childless. Also, water runs downhill.), was the editor. She knew she wasn’t a real editor; she understood her instant celebrity very well. We got on wonderfully. I did the magazine-y bits; she did the saving the world part. It was fun.

But I wasn’t a boy wonder yet.

Earth Times, alas, lasted just three depressing issues (the last cover: garbage floating on water). I made a lateral move to Rolling Stone, wrote a few stories you will not remember, helped put out the Pitiful Helpless Giant issue (Kent State, sit-ins at the Washington Monument, killings at Jackson State), and got fired because Jann, back from joining John and Yoko in bed, decided the magazine was too political. Which is, you know, ironic.

Not a boy wonder yet.

Some of my friends from Rolling Stone were working for a very new magazine called Rags, a counter-culture fashion magazine. The art director was mysterious Mary Robertson . Half the magazine was written and edited in New York, so I spent two weeks a month there. In New York. What the Vatican is to Catholics, New York was to people in the publishing business.

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Rags: Not an ordinary fashion magazine

So I did some reporting and editing in New York, in a drafty office a block away from Max’s Kansas City. Rags was an outlier. (We ran a story called “Clothes for the Dead.” It was about corpse fashion.) Back home, I wrote headlines and captions and participated in some stunts dressed up as magazine features. It is my memory that some marijuana was smoked during that time. The fact that I remember that is a tribute to my attentiveness while much of my brain was otherwise engaged.

But there were some, uh, irregularities, and we came to work one day to see big red patches on the door. Do Not Enter, says the federal government. Something about payroll taxes.

So I embarked on the impoverishing career path of freelance writer. I went to New York a few more times. I had a few adventures. Now it can be told: I was Michael O’Donoghue’s drug mule.

Still was not a wonder boy. Just a guy at the fringes of a crowd, making up sarcastic one liners his head.

So then I got a job at West magazine, then the Sunday magazine of the Los Angeles Times. I had a crafty and fabulous art director (Mike Salisbury), and my prose looked pretty darned cutting edge. (Packaging: always important). Plus, I had worked for Rolling Stone, which was kicking butt, circulation-wise. Wise old magazine people realized that they had somehow missed the kid market, and they wanted someone who had the requisite supply of fairy dust to sprinkle over the magazine to make it wildly popular with those crazy kids with their psychedelic jewelry and naked picnic dancing.

So Hugh Hefner hired me to be the editor of his new magazine, Oui. Because of just a wee little mistake Playboy made, they needed an editor fast; heck, they needed an entire English-speaking staff fast. I could hire anyone. I could pay Playboy rates for stories. I could play my wood flute in the office and roam around in my long white shirts of Indian manufacture. I was not exactly standard issue Playboy executive.

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Oui: The counter-culture through Chicago eyes

Hefner and his minions were undoubtedly waiting for me to fail. They would have had time to make other plans, and as long as I didn’t mess with the nudie pictures, they were OK with that.

But the magazine was a success. Sold out the first issue in three days. The next issue, with 100,000 more copies, sold out in a week. Of course it did! I KNEW WHAT THE KIDS WANTED.

Now I’m a boy wonder. I was 28 (this story started when I was 26). I was swanning around the Playboy mansion, taking first class plane flights to France, recruiting writers in London and going to their parties (whew), and fighting off the Playboy executives who wanted a piece of my suddenly desirable job. Guess who won that?

Around that time, Billie Jean King asked me to help her start a magazine. So I did, WomenSports, and I hired the formidable Rosalie Muller Wright and she hired the astonishing B.K. Moran, and we formed a trio that lasted after the magazine took a different, uh, direction. Heard that before.

Around this time. I was also writing a column for the San Francisco Examiner. They even printed my drawings, which were extremely  amateurish, and perhaps disturbing . Put it this way: If an actual child had produced those sketches, he would immediately be sent for counseling.

Also, other stuff. Boy wonders are in demand. If you hire them to fix things, they will fix them. Or not. Doesn’t matter, because the boy wonder will be on to the next gig. Houston magazine wanted me to be their editor. I KNEW WHAT THE KIDS WANTED.

Could I mention here that I never did know what the kids wanted? I was married, living in Berkeley, with two small children. I knew what they wanted (ice cream, stuffed animals, hugs) but they were under the age of consumption. I just knew what I wanted: Amusing ideas with a certain “let’s throw this against the wall and see if anyone likes it” quality. Plus really good essays, and really fabulous illustrations and, I dunno, legible page numbers.

But still, boy wonder. Hype travels fast. As an official wonder, you can say any damn thing, throw out ideas and aphorisms about magazine publishing you invented on the spot. (“If  page 24 stinks, the whole magazine stinks”). I had many new friends. I knew they would desert me when I stopped being a boy wonder, but, you know, I like friends. Sometimes you like to cash a check even if you know there’s no money in the bank.

I do not wish to radiate false modesty. I wrote some pretty fine stuff. Clay Felker had just bought the Village Voice, and he hired me as West Coast editor. The Village Voice needed a West Coast Editor like it needed a third nipple, but Clay had a Plan.  That Plan  had two components: 1) Starting a magazine called New West, and 2) Somehow managing to sell a majority interest in his company to Rupert Murdoch. Who forced him out. Sad.

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New West: Such a lovely time.

So I worked on then New West start-up (I got a golden spike for my troubles; Clay had class) and opened the Northern California office. And then shit happened and there was Conflict and, as usual when the word “vision” is tossed around, I lost. Fired. Sad.

So a year passed. I was living in Inverness, rusticating pleasantly, when the call came. They were desperate. They wanted me. In Beverly Hills! With a leased BMW! They wanted Wonder Boy. I KNEW WHAT THE KIDS WANTED.

You can read all about it in my last column. We were just unleashed humans with considerable talent playing magazines on Rupert Murdoch’s money.

There was damage. This is the dark part of column. My  wife and kids went with me to Chicago for Oui, then a year later, we all moved back.  I was of no help with the move either way. This did not come as a surprise to my wife, because even before I was boy wonder, I wasn’t home much. I was having a career, making pit stops at home when my schedule permitted. Boy wonders gotta work while their wonderhood is still active.

There was damage. There was a divorce right in the middle of the wonder run. Mostly my fault. It was sort of a B+ divorce. I still saw my kids a lot. The rancor was, if not minimal, manageable. We are cordial now, although it’s not the kind of divorce where our blended families spend the holidays together and go to Gstaad for a convivial ski vacation. That shit is weird, man.

Every choice has consequences.

A few years later, I signed on to do a daily column for the Chronicle. That was my last Wonderful thing. Had a pretty good run. Got married again. Took in cats. I seem to be writing a blog now. Candidly, I think the kids want blogs. And whatever that thing is where you can put walrus tusks on your friends. And world peace.

 

Photography by Tracy Johnston (magazine covers from bound volumes again)

Tech stuff and helpful stuff: Michelle Mizera

Happy Days

 

We didn’t know what we were doing. We were making it up as we went along. It was glorious.

In the early 70s, magazine start-ups were like tech start-ups in the last decade: exciting and adventurous. There were lots of them, and they had a scruffy glamor because they were on the edge of What Was Happening Now, whatever that was. Most of them failed quickly (sometimes with just one issue), some lasted a little longer (one year), and some had a healthy life that continued for decades. I worked on all three kinds.

Print was hot, baby. We thought it would last forever.

I love magazine journalism. I grew up reading the New Yorker and anthologies of Thurber and Benchley and Perelman and White (who was too serious and folksy for my tastes). I began to develop opinions about how magazines should be structured and what they should cover and how they should define themselves.  Just a crazy 10-year-old, interested in bikes and baseball and broadening Talk of the Town.

The last magazine I ever edited was New West. It had it all. It was a magazine about the West Coast, a topic about which I had a great deal of personal knowledge. I could pretty much hire anyone I wanted. I could also fire them, which was terrible each and every time it happened. I only ran the stories I liked, except occasionally when someone I trusted said, “oh Jon, you are so so wrong.” I hired the most talented people I could find, and I let them do their work.

Nevertheless, I was where the buck stopped, and sometimes the buck was tattered and stained with an unknown brown liquid. It would be soggy and smelly and I would have to say, “yup, that’s my buck.”

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See footnote #1

I made oh so many mistakes. I had no experience in management. I could run the editorial side of the magazine, and I tried to be open to the nuances of the workplace, but I had no idea what to do when people lied to me, or tried to manipulate me, or seethed silently with ambition to make changes around here. I had “boss brain,” a curated lack of awareness  created by my perceived power. People didn’t tell me stuff because it might get them fired, or at least pushed to the side.

And there were other lapses of judgment, about which you will not hear. Good morning, this is not a confessional.

I am not going to tell the story from the beginning. It’s too complicated and way too boring to recount in its full baroque splendor. Let’s just say that early in 1978, I found myself by a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking Wilshire Blvd in lovely Beverly Hills, home of rich celebrities and rich non-celebrities and a few poor people south of Wilshire and north of Pico.

The office had been furnished by Clay Felker (a significant player in the magazine publishing explosion), so all the office fixtures were from the set of the movie “All The President’s Men.” That was in line with Felker’s view of California — indeed, the view of most everybody in east coast media. California was a paradise that dealt in illusion, and thus a faux-Washington Post set down in a sun-drenched street one block from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was just perfect.

Remember “Pretty Woman”? That hotel.

(I stayed in that hotel for three months. Everything I spent there went right to the company’s credit system. Yes, I knew Miguel at the El Padrino Room quite well.  Once, when my mother came to town, I asked Miguel to lay it on thick. “Only the corner table for Mr. Carroll’s mother,” he said, escorting us with a series of small bows and, at the table, a discreet pirouette. He insisted that she allow him to order their special martini. “Excellent choice, madam.” All of that.  There were celebrities a-plenty at the Beverley Wilshire. Most every morning, I rode down in the elevator with the women who watered Warren Beatty’s plants. That is not, by the way, a euphemism.)

New West came complete with a format designed by Milton Glaser for New York magazine. (See,  New York, New West, east  coast, west coast; the plan for empire). God bless the gorgeous Milton, but the format was a strait-jacket that took some time to escape. Then Rupert Murdoch swooped in and bought it all. So yes, Rupert was my boss. He left me alone, and he never lied to me. So, for me, the perfect boss. Yes, I know, Fox News and British hacking scandals and all that, but I saw him as an elderly Australian man who spoke softly and didn’t boast.

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See footnote #2

I got the New West gig as an interim matter after the previous administration collapsed in internecine warfare. After doing it for three months, the staff petitioned to make me permanent. (That was a very, very good feeling).  I did not want the gig; I was just getting over a divorce, living in West Marin and enjoying introducing my children to log fires and headlands hikes and sunsets on the beach (which are so fucking wonderful that even their exalted status as an International Cliche does not dim their majesty). So I got a paid apartment in Northern California plus free airfare for my kids to fly down or us to fly up.

(Which meant that the kids spent three summers hanging around the New West offices, coloring and running in the halls and chatting people up. No one seemed to mind. On the other hand, they were the boss’s kids. One of my continuing problems is that I never thought of myself as “the boss”. I assumed when someone said, “sure, it’s OK if your daughter Xeroxes her face,” they were being sincere).

New West-10
See footnote #3

Meanwhile, there was journalism. There were the exploding tires and the assassination witness and Hollywood scandals (remember David Begelman? Why would you?) and a cover story called “Television Without Networks”  (called that one, didn’t we?) and a cover story called “The Last Hurrah: Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire” (that one was on me), and a coverline that said “Jojoba: The Bean That Could Change  Civilization” (that was everybody), and some groan-worthy headlines (“Isthmus be The Place”), and “The White Album” by Joan Didion (Me and Joan; another tale) and a parody of Sunset magazine and, oh yes, People’s Temple, which we were right in the middle of.

Also, a national magazine award. That’s a story too.

_________________

And still, I am making it up as I go along. I started writing this not knowing where it was going, or what it might say.  It seems to have turned into an introduction of sorts, which means I will write about other things that happened and other things I learned.  I’ll probably keep writing about oh God Donald Trump and sundry other things, although, who knows? I can do anything! I can fly! Oh, the wonders of non-compensated labor.

The stories here are my own. Other people have other stories, but this is mine, based on my flawed memory of the events described. Maybe they happened differently; maybe the whole magazine was a dream.  But I control reality as long as you’re here. Smooch.

Photography by Tracy Johnston (from magazine covers in bound volumes, which is why the photos look distorted).

Giving advice I am not yet taking: Michelle Mizera

Footnote #1:  What a wonderful cover story. “Good-bye to the Seventies” (printed a full year before that decade actually ended) was written by Charlie Haas, the best writer a boy editor could ever have. He called the 70s “a Pinto of a decade.” The production was complicated, and a lot of people worked a lot harder than they had to, and a lot of them stuck around until the pages went to press, trying to make it better right up to the last minute. Magazine journalism is, like the making of movies or architecture, a group art form, and when the group starts improvising, it’s like being in a dance troupe and suddenly knowing all the steps.

Footnote #2: We had the idea to send David Strick, a puckish photographer with a fabulous sense of humor, off to photograph the extremely varied borderlands of California. (Note border at the bottom of the swimming pool). I loved conceptual pieces like that, partly because we made no effort editorially to tell the photographers what to find. “Go there and show us,” I would say. Even better, I got to write the text — there are few things I enjoy more than writing photo captions, especially long ones. Like, come to think of it, this.

Footnote #3: We sent to redoubtable Grover Lewis, a famously cynical and bleak  writer, to follow Larry Flynt around and write a story. (Grover was particularly good with American hustlers, which Flynt quite obviously was). Grover was walking two feet behind him when Flynt was shot in the back by a white supremacist. Grover was very freaked out, showing what I know now were symptoms of PTSD. But we wanted the story, so we put him together with skilled editor Larry Dietz (he looks drunk in that photo of him in the link, but he looked like that all the time, hardly ever drunk), and together they produced the story in four days, complete with a sketch of Flynt and Lewis by Julien Allen. It was pretty weird and emotional when it was happening, but now it seems like part of the adventure. Grover Lewis died more than 20 years ago, and writing this paragraph made me sad all over again.