'The Last Editor': Tom Wolfe and The New Yorker
"The Last Editor"
Jim Bellows' career in journalism spanned six decades and took him to newspapers, magazines television and the Internet. His wry and insightful recollections can be found in his new book, "The Last Editor" (Andrews McMeel Publishing).
In this second part of a four-part series excerpted from the book, Bellows recounts his spat with the magazine of the literary elite, The New Yorker.
After a peripatetic career that took me from Columbus, Georgia, to the Atlanta Journal, the Detroit Free Press and the Miami News, I became the editor of the fabled New York Herald Tribune. There, I fought a David-and-Goliath battle with the mighty New York Times, one of my many underdog fights. I assembled a newsroom Camelot of writers that included Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Dick Schaap, Gail Sheehy, Art Buchwald, and Evans & Novak; editors like Dick Wald and Clay Felker; veterans like Red Smith and Walter Kerr. In 1965, young Tom Wolfe landed us in quite a fracas:
"Jim Bellows loved a brawl. I think if a month went by without a brawl, he thought it was a pretty dull month."
Tom Wolfe was recalling my relish at the literary controversy he landed us in with his articles on The New Yorker magazine.
It was 1965, the year that Norman Mailer marched on Washington, France left NATO, and the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam, so it was not exactly an uneventful time. But the Tom Wolfe-New Yorker flap was still memorable. It was unsettling, potentially damaging, and the most fun I'd had in years.
A lively competitor for the Times
I had set out to redesign the Sunday edition of the New York Herald Tribune for its publisher, John Hay "Jock" Whitney. Jock had made me editor of the paper and I was trying to create a lively alternative to The New York Times, New York's venerable newspaper of record.
"Who says a good newspaper has to be dull?" we used to ask in our ads.
The centerpiece of our new Sunday edition was a new supplement called New York. It turned out to be so successful that it outlived the newspaper as the independent New York magazine. It contrasted nicely with the Sunday Times Magazine, which in those days was a little dull. Times readers were accustomed to spending their weekends with articles like "Brazil: Colossus of the South." Their covers featured pictures of an ox with a Cambodian native behind it pushing a plow.
The literary stars on our new magazine were a couple of extraordinary young men whom I had managed to bring aboard the paper. One of them was a sportswriter named Jimmy Breslin, whose book about the New York Mets' abysmal season, "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?," had been published in 1963. I put Jimmy to work writing a sports column, but I sensed that he was wasted there -- Jimmy Breslin had enormous potential. So I asked him to write about the city. And the rest, as they say, is history. Then he started to write for New York magazine as well.
The other star of the Trib's new Sunday supplement was a young fellow named Tom Wolfe.
Tom had been working as a reporter on the paper, covering hard news for the main sections. I wanted articles that were readable stories, not just news reports. Not every reporter is able to write that way -- but god knows, Tom Wolfe could do it. He could take the everyday fact and make you see it anew. He had met all the tests of a daily journalist regarding clarity and speech, but he had gone far beyond that.
Tom was a remarkable communicator of energy and grace. His prose rollicked along with unexpected words imbedded in pages that were covered with a confetti of punctuation marks. If his prose was eye-catching, so was he -- his trademark was a gleaming white suit.
It didn't take editorial brilliance to put Tom Wolfe to work writing features for New York.
And since a magazine is only as good as its ideas, I brought aboard a young fellow named Clay Felker to edit New York. Felker was a font of them. He came over from Esquire, where he and Harold Hayes had battled for the top spot and Clay had lost. One of the reasons he lost may have been that he was lobbying his boss to do an article satirizing The New Yorker.
"When you can edit as good a magazine as The New Yorker, we'll talk about it," was the reply.
Great minds think alike. Tom Wolfe had the idea of doing a profile on William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. When Clay Felker suggested a sendup of the legendary magazine, Tom leaped at the idea.
Tom called up William Shawn, and when he finally got him on the phone, told him he wanted to do a piece on The New Yorker for New York magazine, and he wanted to interview him.
"We have a policy at The New Yorker," said Shawn coolly. "That is, if someone doesn't want to be profiled, we drop it. I would like you to show me the same courtesy."
Tom explained that it was, after all, The New Yorker's 40th anniversary, and Shawn was, after all, a famous figure in publishing. So Tom was going to do the piece.
'The wilder and crazier the hyperbole, the better'
As he set out to write the article, the first thing Tom realized was that you cannot write a parody of a dull magazine. Not for more than half a page.
"Once you get the joke, it gets duller than dull. It's the Law of Parody."
So Tom decided to change the tone completely. He set out to write it in the style of sensational tabloid journalism. Something on the order of the old Police Gazette.
"I thought, the wilder and crazier the hyperbole, the better," said Tom. "I wanted to paint a room full of very proper people who had gone to sleep standing up."
The first section of Tom's two-paper article was headlined: "TINY MUMMIES! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!"
New York was printed on Wednesday for the Trib's Sunday edition. On Thursday, I sent a copy over to William Shawn at The New Yorker. Like Tom, I was innocent enough to think that the old spirit of The New Yorker still flourished. After all, who had engaged in satire more than the good old New Yorker? They had always gloried in puncturing pretension with a satirical needle. I suppose it makes a difference who is feeling the prick of the syringe.
William Shawn went berserk. Within hours a hand-delivered letter arrived on Jock Whitney's desk.
"This is beyond libelous," said Shawn. "This is murderous."
Now, Jock Whitney had been America's ambassador to the Court of St. James. So part of him was a very dignified gentleman. And part of him was a newspaper publisher.
"With one stroke," wrote Shawn, "this article will take the entire reputation of the New York Herald Tribune and thrust it down into the gutter, along with ..."
I don't remember the exact citations. Mussolini? Or the man who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby?
When Jimmy Breslin learned that Shawn was desperately trying to keep the Tribune from publishing Tom's series, he called Shawn on the telephone and said he had a method by which this could be accomplished if Shawn would meet him at Toots Shor's bar. He never dreamed that Shawn would show up. Jimmy was at the bar talking with friends when he noticed a little man crawling up behind him. Jimmy took him over in the corner and said:
"I can stop the publication. It's very simple -- we just blow up the building!"
Shawn left in a hurry.
But the letter to Whitney was just the beginning.
Letters rained in from America's shocked cultural establishment. Not one of the letters came to me (the editor), Tom Wolfe (the writer), or Clay Felker (New York's editor); they were all directed to Jock Whitney, the publisher. So I suspect the outpouring was orchestrated. Jock Whitney was a leader in the cultural community -- these were his friends.
J.D. Salinger, John Updike, E.B. White, Muriel Spark, Hannah Arendt, Richard Rovere ... virtually all of them had ties to The New Yorker of one kind or another. They either worked there or had contracts as contributors.
But whatever the reason for Shawn's meltdown, it was a strategic blunder. When Jock Whitney received Shawn's letter, he came into my office and showed it to me.
"Jim, what do we do about this?" said Whitney.
"Here's what we do," I said and called to my secretary.
"Jane, get me the press section of Time magazine, and then get me the press section of Newsweek."
I sent over Shawn's letter. I let them know that The New Yorker's lawyers were seeking an order of prior restraint to keep us from publishing Tom's article. If that wasn't a story, I didn't know what was.
The first part of Tom's article ran on Sunday, April 11, 1965; on Monday morning, Time and Newsweek arrived at several million homes. The press sections of both were all about The New Yorker and their reaction to Tom's story. You can't buy that kind of publicity.
The New Yorker made a tactical error in going through the roof about Tom Wolfe's piece. Thanks to the boost given by their rage, within 18 months New York magazine became the hottest magazine in America.
And Tom Wolfe was suddenly famous. All thanks to the bonfire of vanities on West 43rd Street.
"It taught me a lesson," reflected Tom Wolfe. "You can be denounced from the heavens, and it only makes people interested."
(Next: The Washington Ear and Ben Bradlee)
Copyright 2001 Jim Bellows. Reprinted with permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.
Dick Schaap recalls his life, and a half-century of journalism
January 17, 2001
Excerpt: 'Hooking Up' by Tom Wolfe
October 23, 2000
Tom Wolfe's 'A Man in Full' makes 'unprecedented' launch
November 10, 1998
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