Enjoying Lunch With Art Buchwald—and Learning Something About Writers

Screen shot 2014-07-14 at 11.22.04 AMBy Jack Limpert

We had no staff writers when I started at The Washingtonian so my first learning experience as a magazine editor was finding writers willing to do good work for 10 cents a word. (Ten cents a published word, I learned to say, not 10 cents a word as submitted.)

The Washingtonian’s freelance cupboard then seemed bare and I looked everywhere for writers. The previous year, while on a Congressional Fellowship, I had met lots of political reporters and I tried many of those. The first issues had pieces from Al Eisele, Murray Seeger, Hays Gorey, Marilyn Berger, Tom Foley, Nick Thimmesch, Jules Witcover, Bill Prochnau, Stu Loory, Bryce Nelson, William Beecher, Tom Ottenad, Julius Duscha, Carl Bernstein, Charlie McDowell, and Jim Perry, all writers I had met while on Capitol Hill.

The magazine then was owned by Laughlin Phillips, an independently wealthy publisher (Jones & Laughlin steel money from Pittsburgh) who was well-connected with A-list Washington. One of his acquaintances was Art Buchwald, the humor columnist whose work appeared in the Washington Post and more than 500 other newspapers. Phillips had a summer home, with tennis court, on Martha’s Vineyard, and Buchwald sometimes played tennis there.

I figured if I could get Buchwald to do a piece for us it might help attract other name writers. I called him, passing along Laughlin Phillips’ best regards, and he agreed to have lunch at Sans Souci, then Washington’s top lunch place for political and media types.

We had a very nice lunch—lots of people came by the table to say hello to Art. I threw out maybe a dozen ideas, and finally one seemed to click. I suggested he write a piece that was his obituary as he would light-heartedly write it. We talked about a deadline and money—I probably doubled our usual 10 cents a word rate.

When the piece was due, I waited a few days and then called him.

“Oh, that story,” he said, “I sold it to Playboy.”

Art, I thought, we had a wonderful lunch, the story was my idea, you said you’d do it, we agreed on the deadline and money, you wrote it, and you sold it to Playboy?

I now can’t remember what I said to Buchwald—I couldn’t believe he’d done it—but it was a lesson all editors have to learn:

Writing for a living is a tough game and money is how they keep score.

Comments

  1. On the other side of the writer-editor equation, some writers feel they have, in casual or not-so-casual conversations given story ideas to editors, only to have the editors “steal” their ideas and give them to another writer to write and be compensated for, no matter how little or how much the pay rate.

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