Young Editor Asks Magazine Legend a Question

By Jack Limpert

Ed Thompson was probably the most colorful magazine editor ever to work in Washington—though it might be a tie between Thompson and Charlie Peters, the esteemed founder and longtime editor of the Washington Monthly.

Both appeared on the Washington media scene in the late 1960s. Thompson came to DC after he had edited Life magazine for more than 30 years; he first consulted at the State Department and then S. Dillon Ripley, head of the Smithsonian Institution, lured him away to start Smithsonian magazine, which published its first issue in April 1970. Peters created the Washington Monthly in 1969—he had been director of evaluation for the Peace Corps until 1968, developing a passion for how government bureaucracies work and don’t work.

By the late 1970s, I had been editing The Washingtonian for almost 10 years and while the editorial side of the magazine had improved I was baffled by art directors. I had gone through a succession of them, never figuring out how to handle them, how much design freedom to give them. Too often I felt they were being creative for the sake of being creative rather than giving readers a clean, clear layout.

In 1978, Time Inc. bought the Washington Star and installed Murray Gart as its editor; he had been a key editor at Time magazine so knew Thompson. One Sunday morning I went to a brunch Gart hosted at his Connecticut Avenue apartment and saw Thompson across the room.

I walked over and introduced myself as another magazine editor and said: I’m having a hard time with the art direction of The Washingtonian. Do you have any suggestions about how editors should work with art directors?

Thompson was a magazine legend but at the time I didn’t know anything about what he was like.  Sometime later I read this description written by Carey Winfrey, who edited Smithsonian from 2001 to 2011: “Ed Thompson…his hair slicked back, his tie loosened, a fat cigar stuck in his mouth. He swears a lot. He mumbles. Sometimes I feel him looking over my shoulder, shaking his head at what the world in general…”

If I’d known that, I’d have been better prepared for Thompson’s reaction. As I awaited his advice, he gave me a world-weary, almost disdainful look. Then he said, “If you notice the art direction, fire the art director,” and walked away.

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