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.”

New West-11
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.

New West-12
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.

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55 thoughts on “Happy Days

      1. Lauren Milicov! Rae Lewis! Jill Johnson Keeney! (And I don’t even have the bound volumes)

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  1. A very enjoyable blog. I almost always enjoy looking back. Even more so when someone else is. New West without bell bottoms. My mother loved her martinis into her 80’s.

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  2. Dude, I LOVED that magazine. I felt like such a worldly college student with that in my reading material basket in the bathroom, next to the Rolling Stones and the William and Mary Quarterly, excellent company in my opinion!

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  3. Fun and frothy. So nice I read it twice and now on to David Begelman research. Maybe this will be part of a memoir? I am holding out hope (that I didn’t know I had) for the Jojobo Bean. Come on little fella, we need ya more than ever!

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  4. I too had (a minor) role with a San Francisco magazine during the early seventies and, although I too still wince at my own mistakes and stumbles, I do remember them both fondly and well. You were kind enough at the time to give us encouragement (in Oui) with (our modestly titled) Rip Off Review of Western Culture.

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      1. The Rip Off Press was best known as an Underground Comix publisher, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers it’s best known series of titles, and so the Review contained comix as well as underground articles, interviews and stories, with illustrations by some of the psychedelic rock poster artists and whatever else we could come up with without being able to pay much if anything for contributions. We did have some great parties.

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  5. Oddly enough, I was just thinking of L’Affaire Begelman the other day. The man got caught stealing $40K from actor Cliff Robertson–forged Robertson’s signature on a check, IIRC. Hollywood being what it was/is, when Robertson filed a complaint, HE got blackballed in the industry, rather than Begelman.

    Anyhoo, Like other commenters, I loved New West.

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      1. Thanks. I couldn’t remember if it was New West, or the at-the-time pretty good Esquire that had the story.

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  6. I loved so many magazines in the 70s. I was young and they were telling me how to live, what to aspire to. Some of it stuck, some of it I laugh about now, but I still remember the energy and the design skills with happiness.

    I loved New West. My boyfriend subscribed and we talked about every issue. 99% sure that’s where I read a brilliant discussion of Star Wars as an an old fashioned movie, not something new: crew of buddies in war, dogfights in the skies, adventuring for plunder.

    With love from crow@well.com

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  7. More please. And include Hunter S. Thompson next time (you can make shit up now).

    The truth about life is that everyone is just making it us as they go along — though not always as obviously as the Trump administration/train-wreck.

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  8. You call it “uncompensated labor”, I call it “gainfully unemployed” and I still am since 1991 when I retired at the age of 57. Go us!!!!

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  9. My connection is I was running around the Bay Area at the time (’72 masters in what was almost useless, education, Stanford), living a couple of magazines in East Paly, alternative education. Read Herb Caen for years before the kid came along….we had no idea we were on some kind of era cusp….fled to the mts in ’73 and never looked back….apropos of not much…fun to read your stories!

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  10. Jon, I thoroughly enjoyed this walk down memory lane with New West and Life. I have never read the magazine and wish I had known about it during its heyday. Would have been a great read in college. Always love finding your notification drop into my Inbox and my moment to read, savor and smile.

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  11. Hi Jon,

    I do remember David Begelman, and fondly! I was enrolled at UC San Diego during those times, studying filmmaking. During two of my summers back home in LA (Northridge) I worked in the accounting department of Columbia Pictures, at The Burbank Studios (formerly Warner Brothers Studios). I performed various low-level tasks like microfiching receipts from location shoots, filling out lots of forms and taking documents to and from different departments all over the studio. My favorite task was going through a huge box filled willy nilly with thousands of checks and putting them all in bundles, in numerical order by check number. The controller there told me that they were to be used as evidence in the David Begelman investigation. The reason I loved that task is because I quickly figured out the most efficient way to organize the checks and then I was pretty much on autopilot while doing the 2-day job, free to think my thoughts and chat with people who passed by the big table where I had all my sub-stacks of checks arrayed. Being tangibly productive, earning money while doing something simple and having a good time while doing it — lovely. I haven’t had enough of that kind of work in my life since then, so I have a special place for David Begelman in my heart.

    Loving your blog, Jon.

    Don’t know if you’re a Bob & Ray fan, but my podcast episode about them, with Bob Elliott and an “appearance” by my friend Tom Lehrer (probably his last interview, since he doesn’t give them anymore) can be found here: http://andystreasuretrove.com/andystreasuretrove.com/Podcast/Entries/2013/12/31_Episode_17_-_Bob_%26_Ray_(with_guests_Bob_Elliott_and_Tom_Lehrer).html

    Be well.

    Best, Andy

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  12. Happy days, indeed. Just reading a few lines of Jon’s sends them flooding back– some with with joy, some with regret.

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  13. I knew you then! (and I know you now!) I thought you were hot shit then! (and I think you’re hot shit now!)
    xxx’s judith

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  14. I was one of your freelancers at New West, Jon.

    One article I wrote was called “Saturday Night Earache.” I went to a dozen discos around the Bay Area with a decibel meter to measure their average loudness and ear-busting hot spots in the middle of the dance floor. Mainly I contributed political and cultural items for “New West Intelligencer.”

    One morning after (unsuccessfully) pitching a piece about a DIY $3 home light show, I went over to City Hall to see what was doing there. It was November 27, 1978. I arrived right after Dan White shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

    A few weeks later, based on one of the last pretrial interviews given by White’s defense attorney, Doug Schmidt, I wrote that he was going to let the trial happen in San Francisco because he thought he could play on the sympathies of a jury here. Yep. Herb Caen rediscovered the item months after the trial (and ensuing riot) and wrote that we’d “scored a super scoop…. Right on the money.”

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  15. Loved New West. Loved it so much that when I ran out of time to read each copy (came waaay too fast, much like the New Yorker today), I piled the copies on my closet shelf thinking I would find time to read them later. When I moved from that spot (1984), all the New West issues went to New West heaven. I still regret not reading them all. Loved it, loved your Chron column, love your blog.

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  16. We subscribed and read every issue from the start. When it went away, we started following whatever you were doing (but not in a stalker way, of course). Which has brought us along to this blog. Always fun and insightful writing. Thanks.

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  17. Wonderful stories, thank you! I remember that magazine, living in SoCal and working in the newspaper business myself at that time. I was the “boss” (managing editor) of one community paper and like you was very naïve about the politics … prefer to write! But you are right, the group energy and self-propelled themes that took on lives of their own were wonderful. I hope you share more.

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  18. More please, Jon.
    I loved working in the art department at New West…wine spritzers for lunch at The Ginger Man, fun in the stat room (we needed photostats for pasting up pages), and working with amazing artists like Phil Garner, Gary Panter, the Duckworth sisters!!!

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    1. Nancy! Yes, the art department was an exotic and wonderful place. Those Duckworth Sisters were so amazing, and probably still are. And yes, the Ginger Man 00 we were eating lunch way above our pay grade.

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  19. Roger Black hosted a New West party of some sort at his place in Ocean Park, and Rupert Murdoch and his wife at the time showed up late, at just about the point where everyone who was still there was a clinical mess. So Murdoch and his wife stood around pretty much alone in the back yard, all the young party straggler leftovers too wasted to make small talk with the boss, who was an actual adult. Rupert had his hands in his pockets, face mostly down, looking like a downcast bassett hound, which is a redundancy. David Barry and I were a different sort of mess, and decided to give them some cover, so we approached them and started chatting inanely. Mrs. Murdoch was a bit of a conversation machine, eager to engage. She asked me what I did, and asked me what I thought about a recent New York piece about the paparazzi. I hadn’t read the story, but bluffed my way through a few minutes pretending I had. Some other party leftovers became emboldened enough to sidle up, and as soon as they did I moved away and left the party, feeling like the perfect geisha.

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    1. You did well, David. On the night we won the national magazine award, Rupert took us to some Polynesian restaurant deep in the bowels of a fancy midtown hotel. I remember Pupu platters and umbrella drinks. I had taken the trophy downtown that afternoon and paraded it around the Village Voice, where I had friends. So I too was pretty much a of clinical mess when the pu-pus started flying.

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  20. I love these stories, Jon. Though I very rarely bought a copy of New West. I certainly bought many more Chronicles back in the day, because I wanted to see your column in print five days a week. And I bought every copy of Rolling Stone from the moment it came out, till I moved out of town and had to subscribe. I even had my first two volumes bound by the Rolling Stone official binder in SF. And admired you and a surprising number of WELL folk for your contributions in the early days.

    I suppose if I had lived in LA, where you and I grew up, I would have liked New West better.

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  21. More please, Jon.
    I loved working in the art department at New West…wine spritzers for lunch at The Ginger Man, fun in the stat room (we needed photostats for pasting up pages), and working with amazing artists like Phil Garner, Gary Panter, the Duckworth sisters! Loved it so much that when I ran out of time to read each copy (came waaay too fast, much like the New Yorker today), I piled the copies on my closet shelf thinking I would find time to read them later.

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