Stories an Editor May Feel a Little Guilty About

By Jack Limpert

Once upon a time The Washingtonian ran a lot of aerial pictures of Washington—it’s surprising how different a city looks from the air—and also lots of pictures of the homes of important people.

The home photos were part of a regular feature called Map of the Stars. We’d take a picture of a VIP’s home (from the sidewalk or street, never going onto the homeowner’s property), give readers the general location but not the street address, and include its purchase price and year it was bought, its current value (estimated by a real estate agent), and its assessed value. The assessed value was a reason to do it other than voyeurism—if a city council member lived in a house worth $900,000 and the house was assessed at $400,000, it  seemed a public service to point that out.

Map of the Stars also was controversial. Some owners of the homes featured weren’t happy about it. A TV reporter—still prominent—called to ask that we not include his home because his young daughter feared being kidnapped. We didn’t run that picture. Not long after one Map of the Stars, I was having lunch at Duke Zeibert’s, a popular DC restaurant, when humor columnist Art Buchwald walked up to our table, pointed at me, and said, “You son of the bitch, they burglarized my house.”

Looking for a new approach, we once decided to do an aerial map of the stars. There were VIP homes that we couldn’t photograph from the sidewalk or street—the property was too big or there were too many trees for a photographer to get a good picture. So we rented a helicopter—about $750 an hour back then. Our executive editor, John Sansing, mapped out a flight plan and invited me to go along.

On a sunny day a photographer, John, and I  went out to a suburban airport, boarded a helicopter, and cruised over Washington—something you now can’t do because of flight restrictions after 9/11. It was eye-opening and fun to see Washington this way. The ability of a helicopter to zero in on a house, go down for pictures, and then swoop away seemed almost God-like.

After a couple of hours over Washington we headed out to the Hunt Country of Virginia where a lot of rich people had estates. Katharine Graham, Paul Mellon, and Willard Scott were among the big names. Also Herman Wouk.

Wouk didn’t have a big estate, just a nice home on a big piece of land, and we swooped down to get a picture. As we were hovering, he came out onto the deck of the house to check out the noise, saw the helicopter, and shook his fist at us.

John and I didn’t feel very good about having disturbed Wouk, a distinguished author who had won a Pulitzer Prize for The Caine Mutiny in 1952 and gone on to write two big novels of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Back in the 1980s he  published Inside, Outside, a novel about the lives of  four generations of a Russian Jewish family in the US—he may have been working on that novel when we buzzed his country home.

The incident didn’t stop us from trying to get him to write something for The Washingtonian. Several years later I sent him a book about Washington, featuring of all things aerial photographs, and asked him to consider writing something along the lines of “The Washington I Know.” I don’t think at that point he connected me or the magazine with the helicopter, and he politely acknowledged getting the book but skipped by the request for him to write something—here’s his letter.


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