By Barnard Law Collier
I once described a New York Review of Books editor as “a good editor” in a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile. The editor wrote me a venomous, condescending letter and followed with a phone call to inform me that the adjective “good” was insulting and diminished him in his trade.
He said he should be described as “the best editor” in New York.
When I first became a paid writer at age nine ($2 per weekly issue) as the founder and sole employee of the Audubon Society News in Royal Oak, Michigan, the concept of “editor” first dawned on me. I’ve not yet, in nearly seven decades, met a “best” editor, but I’ve known a grand selection of truly good ones.
I was lucky. The editor of Royal Oak’s Daily Tribune, Grant Howell, was a bird and word nut, too. He sat with me (my dad was his lawyer) to help me make all my bird stories clear, accurate, concise, and worthy of mimeograph print. He advised me on punctuation, grammar, headlines, and layout. Grant, who was affectionately nicknamed “Growl,” for 40 years lovingly wrote for and edited his newspaper.
Good luck struck again with Frank Angelo, a compact, wiry, Italian Catholic, who was managing editor of the Detroit Free Press when I was a newsroom copy boy. His rival paper was the bigger, richer Detroit News. He was the first fierce “deadlines before all” editor I’d ever met.
It was well known in the newsroom that Frank was a devout Roman Catholic and that Pope Pius XII was deeply loved by him.
On the evening of October 8, 1958, Pope Pius XII lay on his deathbed at the lakeside Castel Gandolfo in Italy.
10 p.m. was the press deadline for suburban sales. Frank paced up and back in front of the AP, UP, and other teletype machines. The bells went ding-ding-ding every few minutes to signal urgent bulletins that the Pope’s temperature was spiking, his respiration intermittent, he was almost but not quite dead.
Frank wanted a 144-point top-of-the-front page “Pope Pius Dies” headline for the Catholic suburbs. If the pontiff did not expire by 10 p.m. Detroit time the presses would roll and at breakfast next morning avid morning Free Press readers beyond 8 Mile Road would be without the news from Rome.
By 9:50 Frank’s face was blotched with annoyance and he stalked into his office and out again to stand over the chattering-dinging teletypes.
Frank glanced at the bulletin: “Pope failing, end near.”
There is no conflict worse than a conflict of loyalties.
I saw Frank’s face turn crimson. He raised his right fist and smashed it down, loud and hard, on the AP machine’s viewing glass.
“God damn it!” Frank snarled so that the whole newsroom heard him: “Die already!”
Within seconds came the ringing of dozens and dozens of teletype bells from the row of teletypes, a slight pause, and then a FLASH!
Pope Pius XII smiled, lowered his head and died at 9:52 p.m. (3:52 a.m. on October 9 in Italy.)
Frank barely concealed his smile. The copy editor told me to put the prepared headline order into a plastic capsule, put the capsule into the compressed air/vacuum pneumatic tube, and send the order hissing off to the composing room to be set.
A few days later Frank called me into his office. He motioned me to sit.
“You are going to be a good newspaperman,” he said, “but I want you to forever remember one thing.”
I waited for it.
“Do not become a cynic. You will be pushed to become one, it’s fashionable, but it’s bad reporting. Don’t fall for it.”
I made the promise, and kept it.
Got lucky again to work for Otto Feurbringer, the managing editor of Time magazine in its heyday. He insisted that his weekly magazine be written with pith and vinegar. If he penned a compliment, in his small, concentrated script, about anything a writer wrote or an editor edited, it was reason for a champagne toast.
I often wrote Time’s People section and Otto appreciated how hard it was to write funny for him. He was the first big-time editor I’d met, and he possessed an elegant and durable sense of humor. He was tough but fun to write for, and he even accepted poetry.
Alfred Eisenstadt, affectionately known as “Eisie,” was not technically an editor at Time/Life but he was editor of his own work, which was monumental in quality and quantity. He taught me picture editing, especially how truly gifted photographers think about getting good pictures. “F.8 and be there.”
“The Blue Darter” was the nickname for the late James Bellows, whom I met first at the Detroit Free Press where he was an assistant city editor. Later, he was the top editor for the Miami News and he invited me down as a reporter and overnight editor. When Jim then became editor of the New York Herald Tribune he urged me to leave Time Inc. to work as the Trib’s Latin America editor. Jim’s skinny frame held up a head that bubbled with sharp original ideas. He was the first editor I knew who really thought about journalism philosophically, as an art form, not just for newspapers but audio-visual media as well.
James “Scotty” Reston
James “Scotty” Reston, a top editor and columnist for The New York Times, had the sense of humor of a smoked kipper, but his sense of rightness, fairness, truthfulness, and dogged professionalism was well developed. At an economic conference in Punta del Este, Uruguay, “Scotty” came down from New York to report, write, and lead the coverage of the Buenos Aires bureau, of which I was chief. On the morning of day two, I got a call from Scotty. “Where are the Timeses?”
“I didn’t order any. They’d have to send them by very expensive overnight air shipment. The desk said no.”
“Barney,” he said with a good Scot’s restraint, “you write about people so that people you write about can read what you write, and when they see you put their names and ideas in print in the newspaper, and realize they are well written part of history, they tell you more. Without the newspaper to hold in their hands, they do not know. We need people to see and feel what we write. Tell the office to send down the papers we missed and a dozen papers each day by the first available flight.”
Scotty was also the editor who permitted my reporting of events from the 1969 Woodstock music festival to be printed without a distorted editorial perspective focused on marijuana and traffic jams. In the final analysis, it was Scotty Reston’s fair and righteous editing decisions that saved Woodstock from a looming gubernatorial abortion before it was born.
There is a mysterious editor I’ve never met, and I know only as Mr. Lord, who worked at Harper’s magazine. He was the best headline writer and line editor I’d ever worked with. My favorite head of his is on a story I wrote about who gets saved by the government, and who doesn’t, if Washington comes under nuclear attack. His pre-clickbait line: “The Most Embarrassing List in Washington.”
Clay Felker was a legendary New York editor who was promoted by Jim Bellows at the Herald Tribune and later went on to start and successfully edit New York magazine. He was, at heart, a sportswriter, a craft where you must be able to describe the same old things happening over and over in new ways that keep the audience enthralled. He taught me to think like Red Smith, a very good sports writer of that era, and gave me a gig as a cover subject.
In his last year as editor of Saturday Review in 1972, Mr. Cousins asked me to write a series of essays and a cover story for him. Something funny between us clicked and much of the work I’m most pleased with was written for him. His sense of humor was elegant and delightfully wry. He was a virtuoso hoaxer. I think his best was in 1971 when he reported on a bill in the Congress to outlaw golf in America. Tens-of-thousands of rabid golfers were sucked in.
Sir Harold and Lady Tina Evans
Lady Evans and Sir Harold Evans, her husband, operate as creative literary editors in a rarefied realm of egos and talents so bloated that even their real life is bigger than real life. I learned about class, wit, daring, old wealth, new riches, British effervescence and adventurousness from this badass couple. Harry is tidy, sharp, humorous, and efficient. Lady Evans is the irreverent spoon that stirs the pot.
Some editors are so pleased with what’s committed there in front of them that they neglect the critical importance of what’s omitted. The most alert and on-target editor of omissions I know is David Ledford, now editor-in-chief of the Wilmington News-Journal in Delaware. He can almost always spot a hole in the fabric, the logic, the reality, the music of a good story, and he demands, even under pressure, that the holes be mended and the facts down solid before the story enjoys publication.
Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.