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

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32 thoughts on “Confessions of a Boy Wonder

      1. Jon: I was a subscriber to New West from its inception; it was there that I first learned of Warren Zevon. I bought Rags from its first issue to the “Gala Anniversary,” June 1971 final number which was its demise. I have them all bound. Later when I was editor/art director of Surfing magazine, I hired Mike Salisbury to be our design director. He had done Francis Coppola’s City magazine in SF. Both New West and Rags are among my favorites.

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  1. didn’t know about some of this stuff. VERY happy to fill in missing bio details. also enjoyed tracy johnston’s name over joan didion’s….
    cheers.

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  2. Thing is, Jon, I remember what you did for Rolling Stone. At least I remembered your name, long before the column, and remember being impressed. I bought every single issue of RS and then subscribed, and I could find your stuff pretty easily. I’m sure I would still enjoy it. And I hardly ever read New West, much less Oui, which I looked at only for the pictures.

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  3. Ah, the memories. Yeah, been there, done lots of that, too. They don’t teach you about that “vision thing” in school, or that managing up, down, sideways and inside out on a publication is like herding cats, most of whom always have their claws out. The best description I heard in close to 40 years in the words and pictures on paper biz came from the lips of CBS’s Eric Sevareid, who described the process of group journalism as, “…like being bitten to death by ducks.” Though he probably wasn’t the first or only wise old journalism guru to utter that sentiment, I heard him say it in person in CBS’s New York digs in the summer of 1962 as a fresh J-school graduate, and it has served me well as a touchstone of sanity ever since.

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  4. “The kind of divorce where our blended families spend the holidays together” means more adults to share the cooking and is quite nice if you can pull it off. Going skiing, however, is definitely weird.

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  5. What the old folks want (or at least this old folk) is blogs with civilized and interesting comments. This was also true of your Chron column when the Chron hit the internet. Which was rare. I don’t know whether you just didn’t attract trolls or you patrolled diligently, but whatever it was, I appreciated it.

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  6. Ralph Gleason. Wonderful man. Persuaded me to go see Duke Ellington. I approached and thanked him after the show. Died much too young.

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  7. You are still a Boy Wonder — a Thinking Boy Wonder — while I am a nobody, merely a delighted reader. Thank you, kindly.

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  8. Thank you, Jon. Even in your retirement, you are still going strong. I love it that you decided to keepsharing with us.

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  9. What a lively CV!!! A pleasure to know a bit more about your wild and gritty journey, Jon. I like context.

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  10. Blogs, once the cool and exciting thing that was destroying journalism with its unmediated voices, has now become the closest medium we have to old-fashioned, long-form journalism on the internet in the space of ten years.You are such a good thinker and persuasive writer that you are making a lot of people happy by publishing this site. Plus, you get to collaborate with your wife’s wonderful photography, and don’t have to ski at Gstaad with extended divorced families, thank the goddess.

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  11. The very first time I saw your name was in a piece about going to some festival (shit, was it a pumpkin festival?) and you said “I want be where you’re not” as I recall, and since that is still my main mantra, I’ve loved you ever since! Was so delighted to meet you at the Diabetes thing (Alex’s friend-Sara)…

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  12. I was, I think, 14 years old when the Chronicle hired you as a temporary substitute for… was it Delaplane or McCabe? One of the back page columns anyway. I had only just started paying attention to the non-comic-strip parts of the newspaper, and your column was the first one that really seemed to speak to me. I liked Hoppe and Caen too, but they were speaking some other generation’s language. It felt like my own private discovery, like the brilliant underground punk band no one else knows about yet. I read every column, was bummed when your temporary assignment ended, and ecstatic when you came back to stay.

    So yeah, you apparently did know what the kids wanted.

    I’ve mentioned this to you before in email, Jon, but I’ll say it again here in a blog comment: When I was developing my own voice as a writer, the two writers I imitated the most were Douglas Adams and you. I dropped most of the Douglas Adams schtick eventually, but I kept what I learned from you.

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