Last weekend, a moment of inspiration turned into hours of perspiration and, eventually, aggravation. I reorganized our overflowing bookshelves, believing it would make life easier if I broke the books down into subject or by author or with some system that was at least superior to “let’s just keep stacking these dusty tomes until they reach the ceiling.”
It was a good plan and would have been even better if I had hired someone to do the actual reorganization. By the time I stood on our hardwood floor, surrounded by dozens of hardcovers and paperbacks, some of which I actually did climb upon when I couldn’t find any floor below me, I realized I was out of my element. I’m a gatherer, not an organizer. I’m not going to appear on any shows devoted to exposing the worst hoarders in this country, but I’m also not someone who can easily spend three hours filing and stacking.
But that’s what I did.
So the next time a visitor to our humble Fury household wants to borrow or steal a book, it will be easier for them to locate one. Fiction’s grouped alphabetically, nonfiction by subject. Need a baseball book? They’re on the far right, mixed in with, uh, football ones (the limited space led to compromises). One section deals with Hollywood, books like Monster and Rebels on the Backlot and The Devil’s Candy. The Best American Sportswriting series shares space with other Best Of books, whether it’s essays, crime-writing or short stories. Next year? Dewey Decimal System.
But 13 of my favorite books reside on the top shelf, easily accessible because I reread several of them each year. All of the books offer behind-the-scenes looks at magazines or newspapers. Some are memoirs from editors who worked there, others from former writers. Some of them are critical, a few of them probably romanticize things a bit too much. They detail the rich histories, controversial stories and brilliant writers who worked at places like Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Esquire and The New York Times. They detail a media world that’s long gone, which makes any reading of the book a tad bittersweet. They’re fascinating reads, written in lively styles; they’re anything but dry encyclopedic tales of a publication’s history.
The most famous of all the books in this genre – and not just the most famous in my modest library – is probably The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. The legendary Halberstam wrote books about the Vietnam War, the 1950s, the auto industry, Civil Rights, Michael Jordan and September 11. You know, little things. In keeping with his unique ability to write about the biggest subjects in the most intimate way, The Powers That Be focuses on The Washington Post, CBS, Time, The New York Times and the LA Times. Originally published in 1979, the book came out when all of those media entities were at the height of their power.
For me, the best parts of the book concentrate on the Post and CBS, although both accounts contain tragic moments. Halberstam details the rise and fall of legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, whose name still conjures up images of courage and integrity. During the final years of his career – he died of lung cancer in 1965 – Murrow, Halberstam wrote, “was tired now and eroded physically and spiritually. His dark and somber view of life was coming all too true, and in particular he was depressed about his own profession. He saw it more and more a vehicle for manipulation rather than for broadening understanding.”
Think what Murrow would feel today if he tuned into Fox & Friends. When examining The Post’s history, Halberstam tells the sad story of Phil Graham, the co-owner of the paper who committed suicide at the age of 48 in 1963, setting the stage for his wife, the legendary Katharine Graham, to take over the paper.
Halberstam didn’t write a lot on The New York Times, his former employer. He didn’t have to, as the Times has been the subject of numerous books over the years, some laudatory, many critical. I have three books on the paper and each one is from different decades, providing a great overview on how the newspaper has changed over the years and how it’s still the same in so many crucial ways. Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power came out in 1969, Edwin Diamond’s Behind the Times appeared in 1993 and Seth Mnookin’s Hard News was published in 2004, right after the Jayson Blair scandal.
Each book is outstanding, but if you’re going to read just one – and most normal, non-media people probably have no desire to read more than one – pick up Talese’s classic. In many ways, it set the stage for many of the media books that came after his. It was a trend-setter and a look at an institution that was used to investigating everyone else. It was also the first best-seller for perhaps the greatest nonfiction writer of the 20th Century.
Talese worked at The Times but had already written many famous pieces for Esquire by the time he wrote The Kingdom. He took the tools he used in writing stories like “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” – superb reporting, pitch-perfect writing – and utilized them on his dissection of the inner workings of The Times. It was certainly a different world, especially for women, though one that’s probably still a bit familiar to female newspaper employees today, if not to fans of Mad Men. Talese writes of a secretary named Patricia Riffe:
“An extremely pretty blue-eyed young woman who dresses impeccably. When Miss Riffe first appeared at The Times a few years before, there was hardly a reporter in the newsroom who was not aware of her–feminine beauty not being all that common in the newspaper business, at least not in front of the office door of The Times’ managing editor. …Many staff members were anxious to date Miss Riffe, and a few did, but her obvious discretion and mildly aloof manner soon discouraged them.”
And you should have tasted her coffee.
All of these books in the Fury Family Library – which operates a branch in the basement of a yellow house in Janesville, Minn., where 10 boxes of my books still reside, waiting for the day when Mr. and Mrs. Fury move — have large sections that detail a media world unimaginable to writers and editors today.
Much of Michael MacCambridge’s fascinating The Franchise — the history of Sports Illustrated — features the exploits of Dan Jenkins, the legendary writer who was nearly as famous for his actions on the road as he was for his words that appeared in the magazine. When SI writers traveled to distant cities, the people knew it, their presence – according to MacCambridge – announced on marquees like rock stars and their hotels at the end of their stays were also likely similar. The Franchise introduces readers to editor Andre Laguerre, who made SI what it was, turning it from a magazine that regularly featured covers of dogs and bridge players into one that featured some of the best nonfiction stories in any publication. And, Jenkins said, Laguerre “told me three things when I started. One, I couldn’t receive too much hate mail to suit him. Two, I couldn’t spend too much money on the road. Three, if any editor jacked with my copy, he would have him killed or fired, my choice.”
Laguerre is a dominant presence throughout The Franchise, just as Harold Hayes takes center stage in Carol Polsgrove’s history of Esquire, “It Wasn’t Pretty Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun?” Hayes lorded over a magazine that featured writers like Talese, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, John Sack and Michael Herr. The magazine popularized New Journalism. If the media world no longer features unlimited expense accounts and a monopoly on news coverage, an even more striking difference on display in these books is with the actual stories, the ones that made New Journalism famous. Composite characters played a key role in many of the stories, the writers cobbling together several people into one person. Today, if people discovered a writer doing this, the outrage would fill the Internet and the writer would likely resign within the day.
Marc Weingarten’s The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight discusses Hayes and New Journalism, paying special attention to Esquire’s Herr, whose eventual Vietnam book – Dispatches – is considered to be one of the greatest books ever written about war.
Weingarten vividly describes Herr’s time in Vietnam for Esquire, noting that after Herr received the assignment, he didn’t get to Saigon for four months. During that time, he bought a gun and prepared himself for the project of a lifetime, which he undertook at the age of 27. One of his eventual dispatches mentioned an “unidentified general, a veteran of the Indochina war and a lover of Beethoven and Blake, a fellow adrenaline addict, like Herr.” In his story, Herr described him as having eyes that were “ice-blue but not cold, and they suggest his most interesting trait, an originality of mind that one never associates with the military, and which constantly catches you off balance.”
When the magazine’s lawyers read the story, they wanted to know the general’s identity. Herr wrote back, “He’s fiction — I hoped that would be obvious — made up out of a dozen odd types I’ve run into around Vietnam.”
Hayes approved, as did the soldiers back in Vietnam who eventually read Herr’s gripping stories. But imagine someone trying that today. Think of the firestorm that ensued after Michael Hastings accurately quoted General Stanley McChrystal in a Rolling Stone profile that led to the general’s departure. Yet Herr’s stories described the conditions in Vietnam as accurately as Hastings did those in Afghanistan, even though it’s impossible to imagine his story appearing in a major publication today.
Speaking of Rolling Stone, Robert Draper wrote a history of the magazine called, appropriately, Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History.
Much of the uncensored parts center on Hunter S. Thompson’s drug and writing exploits. Many people today believe Gonzo Journalism is as much about the drugs as the work, but Thompson’s early stories changed the business, even though much of his later work was negatively affected by his excesses. One of the more amusing characters in Draper’s book is Joe Eszterhas, who started off as a writer before becoming the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood history, thanks to movies like Jagged Edge and Sharon Stone’s Exposed Crotch, also known as Basic Instinct. Draper wrote that Eszterhas could “crank out 50,000 words over a weekend,” although copy editors “came to despise him for his unwillingness to give an inch on editorial revisions. When art director Bob Kingsbury deleted a comma on a pullout quote for space purposes, Eszterhas blew a vessel. ‘I wrote that comma!’ he hollered.”
Long before Eszterhas specialized in writing movies filled with sex and knife attacks, he wrote about narcotics officers for Rolling Stone. Eszterhas’s stories also featured shaky facts and in one case he seemingly stole the story of a freelancer who had pitched a story to the magazine. Still, considering he wrote Showgirls, that literary theft can hardly be considered Eszterhas’s greatest sin.
Of the three histories of The New Yorker I own, the most entertaining is Brendan Gill’s Here at The New Yorker. In it, Gill brilliantly describes the sense of panic that all writers feel at some point, when they question every choice they’ve made, from the use of verbs and nouns to their decision to become a writer in the first place. This even happened to writers at the famed New Yorker.
“The machinery of benign skepticism that surrounds and besets him in the form of editors, copy editors, and checkers, to say nothing of fellow writers, digs a yawning pit an inch or so beyond his desk. He hears it repeated as gospel that there are not three people in all America who can set down a simple declarative sentence correctly; what are the odds against his being one of this tiny elect? The piece will be much improved, but the author of it will be pitched into a state of graver self-doubt than ever. Poor devil, he will type out his name on a sheet of paper and stare at it long and long, with dumb uncertainty. It looks — oh, Christ! — his name looks as if it could stand some working on.”
Gill’s book also serves as a bit of a love letter to the longtime New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, who is also the focus of Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker. But Gill perfectly captures Shawn’s influence, especially his ability to help writers like Truman Capote. Gill writes, “Shawn’s exceptional lucidity of mind finds a structure for the most intractably diverse materials, and it is obvious that the New Testament would make far more satisfactory reading if it had been the handiwork of Matthew, Mark, Luke and Shawn.”
There are dozens more books like the ones I mentioned, many of which will, hopefully, one day find a spot on my – for now – well-organized bookshelf. Still, it’s hard to picture any current publication whose history would be worthy of a full-length book. All the good publications have already been written about. Perhaps Gawker will one day be a subject, the website that’s spawned influential sites like Deadspin and Jezebel and has some of the sharpest – and most controversial – writing around, on everything from politics to sports to technology. An in-depth examination of Nick Denton’s Gawker empire could prove fascinating.
For now, I’ll keep reading the old classics.
All of these books still serve as inspiration. The old worlds the authors document might not exist in today’s new media universe, but the stories of the writers and editors who made their names decades ago are just as relevant in 2012. The drug use isn’t as outrageous and neither are the expense accounts. Sexual harassment is out, as are composite characters.
But great writing will always survive, no matter the medium. Esquire, Sports Illustrated, The Times and The New Yorker continue to produce first-rate stories, profiles and investigations that will still be talked about in 50 years, in the same way people still talk about the early work of Talese and Thompson.
But if you ever want to read about those old times and those classic stories, stop by the Fury Library. Just be aware of the harsh late fees.