The Day the Editor Walked Out

By Ron Javers

Alan Halpern’s editorship of Philadelphia magazine began in 1951 when he was hired by D. Herbert Lipson to revitalize a sleepy publication that Herb’s father had acquired from the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Though not too different in age, the two men were different in almost every other aspect of their lives and times.

Herb was rather stuffy, some said prissy, a conservative and a dandy in bespoke suits, who alternated between shaking up and sucking up to a fast-changing Philadelphia establishment in the post-war years. Alan was an Ivy League liberal who, with his smeary horned-rimmed glasses, rumpled tweed sport coats, and offbeat wit, reminded one of Woody Allen. Four more things: Alan was one smart son-of-a-bitch. Herb was one nasty son-of-a-bitch. Alan was deeply respected by the writers and editors and artists around him. Herb was deeply feared.

During the decades this odd couple worked sort of together, Philadelphia became one of the best magazines in America, known and appreciated by editors cities from New York to Chicago to L.A. Herb and Alan’s uneasy alliance led to the development of a whole new kind of American magazine, the city magazine. Today, almost every city has one, though the age of the great city magazines is over, and maybe even the magazine age is over, given the disruption wrought by the Internet.

All of this is by way of preamble to the incidents that marked the odd couple’s breakup. Here’s how that happened, and, incidentally, how I became editor of Philadelphia magazine.

Alan’s classic tactic after a major blowup with Herb was to retreat to his office and silently begin packing up all his books and mementos in cardboard boxes. Soon Herb, sitting in his ornate office across the hall from the editorial offices, would get a whispered call from one of the top editors: “He’s packing up, Herb.”

Faced with losing the heart and head and soul of his magazine, Herb would come crawling back with soothing words. As he spoke, often with staffers gawking near the doorway, Alan would begin putting his books and things back on the shelves. Herb would exit quietly with a sigh.

Until the last time. That was the time Herb, on one of his many globetrotting holidays in Paris, met Tom Moore, a former writer and editor for both Life and Fortune—and actually hired him to be Alan’s number two. Without even mentioning the plan to Alan! Nor had he bothered to mention to Tom Moore that he hadn’t mentioned it to Alan. Tom had moved his family from Paris to Philly to take the job. Tom showed up at the office on a Monday—and Alan began packing. It was very awkward. The whole staff was agog–and firmly in Alan’s corner.

At one point, I looked up from my desk to see Alan standing in my office doorway. He had rolled up the small red oriental carpet that, for so many years, had graced the floor in front of his desk. Now he was holding it before him with both arms. “Here, Ron,” he said softly. “You take this.” He was pretty close to crying.

This was the man who taught me how to be a magazine editor and who, mostly by example, had awakened me to much, much more, to music and history, worthy old books and wild new art, as we prowled the downtown bookstores and galleries on many a long lunch hour and as we sat around the big wooden table in his office while he passed a sherry bottle among the writers and artists and editors who were always happening by.

Now, here stood Alan with his red rug.

“Alan,” I said. “Go put it back. Put it in your office. Herb will come around, just like he always does.”

“No, this is it,” he said. He propped the rug by my desk, gave me a sad half-smile, turned and walked out.

Not long after, Art Spikol, another staff editor and former art director, was named editor. Herb berated and harangued poor Art almost daily. Then Art walked out, mentioning to Herb that maybe Javers could take the heat.

I became editor of Philadelphia in 1982, with Tom Moore, a superb journalist, serving as my number two, and beating me regularly on the squash courts. Eventually, Tom left Philly to return to Fortune and New York, happy to be out of Herb’s orbit. These days, he is the editor-in-chief of the Australian edition of Reader’s Digest.

I served as editor-in-chief for nearly a decade. During that time, Alan and I always made it a point to have lunch together once a week or so. We also made it a point not to talk about the magazine that Alan Halpern created and ran so superbly for nearly 30 years. Alan died in 2005 at age 79. Herb Lipson is still alive and living in Margate New Jersey. I don’t know how old he is. I still have the red rug.
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Author’s note: Ron Javers began his journalism career as a freelance writer. Later, he served as columnist and editorial page editor at the Philadelphia Daily News. In 1976 he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship for studies at Harvard University and the Harvard Law School. In 1977, he was appointed special projects writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered Proposition 13, traveling the country writing stories about the incipient tax revolt. In November of 1978, he was assigned by the Chronicle to travel to Guyana in South America to investigate Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Shot and wounded at the jungle airstrip, he escaped and published some of the first reports on the mass suicides and killings of 914 Americans.

Javers joined Philadelphia in 1979, serving as aassociate editor, then editor. Later, he was appointed editor-in-chief of Town & Country. In 1996, he was hired by Newsweek and assigned to oversee and expand Newsweek’s special editions worldwide. As executive editor of Newsweek International, he was responsible for all of Newsweek’s 12 overseas editions, 10 of which he created and launched.

Javers has taught at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism and, most recently, at Sen Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, and has lectured widely abroad. He was nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper work. Three of the magazines he oversaw—Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Manhattan, inc.—won National Magazine Awards during his tenure.

Comments

  1. Jack Limpert says:

    As a longtime editor, I’m not as pessimistic as Ron about the future of city magazines. It’s a tougher environment for all of print as editors and publishers try to figure out where the digital revenue is coming from, but special interest magazines—and I put city magazines in that category—will do much better than more general interest magazines. And the monthly special interest magazines are much better positioned than the weeklies, with their much higher costs to print and mail 52 issues a year.

    At The Washingtonian, circulation and ad revenues have stayed strong as the magazine continues to provide stories that help readers live better. Equally important, a city magazine can help readers understand their cities and the issues that directly affect their lives in a way that national magazines can’t.

    An issue of a good city magazine delivers news that is much more relevant to readers than the stories in national magazines. And not only news but an issue of The Washingtonian is likely to provide a couple of hundred names, addresses, and phone numbers of people (good physicians, plumbers, etc.), places (good theater, museums, music, etc.), and businesses (good restaurants, shops, etc.) that are of direct interest to readers. An issue of The Washingtonian continues to offer more than 200 pages of interesting, useful stories and ads each month, while most the weeklies are down to 64 pages or less with almost no advertising. If you look at the income and expense numbers of a magazine, as I did for 40 years, the outlook for the weeklies is brutal while strong monthly city magazines can continue to do well, giving them time to create print and digital operations that will bring in enough revenue to continue to do really good journalism.

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