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.