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.”
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.
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).
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).
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.
Dear reader: It would be good if you would listen to this recording while you are reading this. Twice, if necessary. You’ll see why.
Scarlett Johansson swoops and preens and dives off tall buildings and cultivates steely stares — all because she has the brain of a Japanese woman. In the original manga of “Ghost in the Shell,” the android with the brain of a Japanese woman was, well, a Japanese woman. But someone somewhere said, “we cannot make the big bucks with some unknown Japanese woman, let us get a real movie star!”
Real movie stars are English-speaking white people, except for a few English-speaking black persons and never ever an English-speaking Asian person. (A Japanese-speaking Japanese person: Are you kidding?) So is that what you call your cultural appropriation? It’s a somewhat amorphous category, but I’m going to say yes.
Now suppose you have a white painter doing a work based on the death of Emmett Till? That happened at the Whitney Museum in New York. The painter is a woman, which means she has her own victimization issues. Can you play the woman card there? I dunno. Is the black card worth more points than the woman card? Whatever, the painting generated protests and angry essays and threats of boycott and several symposia (because that’s the way museums roll).
Some protesters pointed out that Till got in trouble when a white woman lied about him, and therefore…candidly, I did not follow that argument, unless all white women are somehow diminished by the lies of one white woman. That way lies madness.
I’m not sure what the political situation was here, but it doesn’t look good.
The painter, Dana Schutz, is not a racist person, nor did she create a racist work of art. You would not know it was created by a white person unless someone told you. Some protestors reacted badly on Twitter (“Burn This Shit Bitch”) while others adopted a more contemplative tone. A black woman artist named Kara Walker posted on Instagram a short essay which included this: “Art often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage. Perhaps it too gives rise to deeper inquiries and better art.”
Of course, there are no definitive answers to these questions. There are no administration edicts defining the correct attitude for every questionable situation. In matters of cultural appropriation, it’s every human for herself.
As I understand the argument (always a cowardly way to begin a sentence), white Northern Europeans dominated the rest of the world after the 16th Century economically, politically and culturally. The invaders took what they wanted, sometimes literally (Elgin marbles) and sometimes less concretely. They took music and woodcarving and folktales and even vocabulary. This is the crime that people who promote the idea of evil appropriation are referring to. It’s a real crime. And the question that hangs over every crime: What next?
You might say that New World slavery is the boldest act of appropriation ever. Many African cultures uprooted and set to do the roughest of jobs, without pay, without freedom, without even a guarantee of family life. And the music came with the Africans. And as the northern Europeans were listening and taking notes, the Africans were also listening. And those dual acts of appropriation created gospel, jazz, blues, rock and hip hop.
How can that be a bad thing? I understand it came from a bad thing, but what should be done now? The genie is not going back in the bottle, and hooray.
Put black jazz musicians together with the great mostly Jewish-American songwriters of the early 20th Century, and you get unimaginable genius. Were you to tell me that there was a movement on to ban Miles Davis doing “Bye Bye Blackbird” by white guy songwriters Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon, I would say that such a movement would be misguided.
And what about “Hamilton,” eh? A Puerto Rican guy celebrating the founding fathers, many of whom own slaves. But that seems fine, right? It sure does to me. But then, I’m very much of the opinion that it all seems fine.
I am also in favor of white rappers. Dr. Dre listened to the Slim Shady EP and, after being told he was white, said “I don’t give a fuck if you’re purple; if you can kick it, I’m working with you.” Dr Dre, meet Kara Walker.
I think people of many ethnicities can agree that Picasso could kick it. He appropriated African masks and used them or the ideas they suggested in both paintings and sculptures. Of course that’s problematic. On the other hand, the world is immensely richer because of it. So…what?
Ai Wei Wei, Alcatraz, Lego portraits of political prisoners around the world
Here’s what I think. We’re moving from a mono-cultural society to a multi-cultural one. And all the other multi-‘s you can think of: racial, ethnic, gender. Many adjustments are required; many conversations must be had. The pendulum wiggles back and forth. At the moment, there’s a Trumpish recidivist air in the country, as isolated people threatened by change take a last stand against the inevitable. They want to appropriate the entire damn country. At the moment they’re getting away with it. I’m against that appropriation, because art will not be created. (Except protest art, which is swell, but it would be better if there were nothing to protest against).
Understandably, the cultural and academic worlds have swung the other way, creating and refining new definitions of “hate speech” and “trigger warnings” and “appropriate”. Everybody is offending everybody, so it’s no wonder things can get a bit testy.
This cacophony makes me proud. In a functioning democracy (I know; let’s pretend), ideas should be battling each other in the public square. Screeds should be written; marches should be held. These are the birth pangs of a new society; let us cherish them. It’s gonna take a century or more; congratulations for being there at the beginning.
I’m sure of one thing: This is how art works. Appropriation is not only permitted; it is desirable. An artist is supposed to have open ears and open eyes, and to process everything in the environment. All of the data gets closer to what we might call “the truth,” which is what art aspires to.
And art lasts longer. I have seen lovely pottery that’s 2000 years old. Under what political regime were these made? Were there struggling masses who needed help and somebody was making a damn pot instead? And the designs on that pot; were they inspired by similar and lesser known bowls made in mountainous Montenegro? Who’s to say, although the Montenegrins are still pissed off.
I know that cultural appropriation is a real thing, and I’m glad people are bringing it up. Maybe it would be useful to spend more time on advertisements that reach millions of people, which are often accompanied by music made by black musicians. So do I need to hear the Staple Singers shilling for a Japanese (!) automobile? The Staple Singers, for god’s sakes. That offends me, and I’m old white guy.
Men stealing from women, whites stealing from blacks, Asians stealing from whites, the French stealing from the Italians, the Chinese stealing from the Persians, and the pottery and poetry all changes too. It doesn’t matter what you think of it, it will continue. The urge to share realities is just too great.
A Hard-hitting protest against inequality? No. Just Utah.