A couple of weeks ago, I challenged myself to come up with a story I’ve never told before. I’ve written about 7.2 million published words (I know, right?), and probably a quarter of them were devoted to telling mostly true stories of my childhood, my family life, my adventures, and my encounters with animals large and small. So is it possible that I’ve told all my stories? Must I only mine the future?
First of all, there are many stories I’ve never told, and never will tell. Most of what went on in 1971, for instance — that’s never going to see the light of day. And that time with the Xerox machine and the disused sauna and a large stuffed muffin — forget it. Although, caution: Stuffed muffins are flammable.
So I found one:
The year was 1979. I was the editor of New West magazine, based in Beverly Hills. New West was owned by Rupert Murdoch, but he didn’t care about it. He’d bought it by accident when he acquired New York magazine.
Later he confessed to me that he’d once bought an airline by mistake.
Anyway, Rupert left me alone. I could do what I wanted, as long as it wasn’t obscene or libelous — unless “obscene or libelous” caused a notable circulation spike. I had fabulous editors; I had great writers; I had a few ideas. In 1979, the magazine was nominated for four National Magazine Awards. That was a very big deal back then; it was sort of like winning an Oscar.
And I won one. The story was “Hell on the Wheels” by Moira Johnston, about defects in Firestone tires. Within three months of publication, Moira was testifying before Congress, her shredded tire by her side. The editor of the piece was my beloved executive editor Rosalie Muller Wright. But, hey, I was there too, waving my hands in an encouraging manner. And my name was on the citation.
The winners were announced at a gala lunchtime event at the Plaza Hotel. The industry was there. I shook hands with many masthead names and a few demigods. “David Halberstam, why yes, of course I know who you are…”. Sadly, I did not get to go on stage to accept the award. Joe Armstrong, the New York-based publisher, decided to take the credit. Not that I’m bitter. My one and only chance to…oh hell. It was really Rosalie’s award anyway.
But then Joe handed me the Ellie.
The Ellie is the Alexander Calder-designed stabile (as opposed to a mobile) that is given to each winner. Calder didn’t call it anything; someone else thought it resembled an elephant and named it. It was a heavy bit of hardware, and it had pointy ends. My first thought, as I was standing there hefting it in the swirl of people in the huge loud room, was that it would be a perfect instrument for murder. I may have been looking at Joe Armstrong at the time.
An hour later, after we’d made a call to the home office and shared the love, me and Ellie hopped into a cab and rode downtown. Ellie rested on my lap; I kept stroking her curves. I got out at 80 University Place and rode the struggling elevator up the fifth floor. I carried the award through the newsroom, and people applauded, just like in the movies.
I was at the Village Voice, which was the place in New York where I felt most at home. I sat near M. Mark and Karen Durbin, two of my favorite women, and I loosened my tie and told the story three or four times. I was in the part of journalism I loved, the big ugly room with the congenial pals and the droll remarks and the casual insults. Word-drunk people deep in their addiction.
I hauled the Ellie around all night. It sat on a coffee table and a regular table and a bureau and, eventually, on the floor. I loved my Ellie.
I had to give it up the next day. Publisher Swift Lockhart needed to show it to advertisers as he sought a little prestige business. (I know it seems like I had three publishers, but, you know, long story. Long boring story). I saw it again in his office. I posed for pictures with it.
Then it disappeared.
I figured Swift stole it. I think he thought we didn’t deserve it. He didn’t care for us much, although he was as smiley and glad-handy as a guy can be. He was from Mad Men-era Madison Avenue, where geniality in the face of pretty much anything was the norm. He had secret demons, I was sure.
I learned later that he thought I’d stolen it. I wish.
Twenty-two years later, I was killing time in Santa Fe and I entered a small pawn shop on a side street near the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. I was mostly looking for deep shade, and the shop was dark and cool. In the back room, I found a leather-bound trunk about the size of a dishwasher. More from curiosity then for any real reason, I asked the proprietor…you’re not believing this, are you? It would be a great story, but it never happened. Life is filled with disappointments.
I never did see Ellie again. The magazine got bought, the staff scattered, I moved to San Francisco and got another job. But it was a great afternoon.
This is another story, but it’s more in the way of a cautionary tale. The years was 2015. I was meeting my friend Mary in San Francisco. We were going to have dinner at Dobbs Ferry and then see the Pop-Up Magazine, as conceived by the energetic people at California Sunday Magazine, which is the closest thing to New West since New West.
There was traffic. There is always traffic from the East Bay to the city, and I had allowed for it, but not enough time. I shoulda taken BART, but I didn’t, which is too bad because it’s going to fall apart within a decade. Have you noticed that public transportation systems all over the country are breaking at more or less that same time? The DC Metro is going to have to close for nine months or more, and BART is basically the same system. Was I saying something?
So the traffic was bad, and NPR was boring, and I began fretting about Mary, sitting in that restaurant nursing a white wine and fending off strangers. I did not want to text her, because I am a slow texter and I did not want take my eyes off the road. Ah, but Siri! She’s always giving, giving, giving. “Text Mary,” I said, and summed my current plight.
Finally I got to the restaurant. “Did you get my text?” I asked her. “I got your text,” she said. She showed me her phone. I have preserved the text in all its glory.
“Yes well I’m in San Francisco anyway I think the best thing for out party right now if you have 247 Republican Kevin.”
Would you not worry about a friend who sent you that text? Would you not be concerned about cognitive impairment? Indeed. So here’s the lesson: Never text with Siri when the radio’s on.
One more brief thing. I’ve seen a lot of theater this winter, and the hands- down winner is “The Heir Apparent” at the Aurora Theater. Farce is so hard to do well; it requires a deep commitment to silliness. When that happens, though, the results can be hysterical. The actors are all splendid (I mention in particular Katie Rubin), and the script by David Ives is wonderfully anarchic. Closes May 22; tickets available.
Photography (except for the Ellies) by Tracy Johnston
Explanations for the simple-minded by Michelle Mizera