Life in a Journalism Soap Opera—First the Editor Has to Go

By Jack Limpert

The Lipson family and its magazines in Boston and Philadelphia were in the news again this week: “The tumultuous times continued for the staff at Boston magazine Tuesday as they watched three colleagues lose their jobs amid a corporate restructuring led by owner Metro Corp,” said the Boston Globe. “The job cuts, leaving the magazine with a staff of 52, follow the surprise departure of editor Carly Carioli. He announced his resignation to the staff two days before Christmas. Tom McGrath, editor of sister publication Philadelphia magazine, was promoted to Metro Corp’s chief content and strategy officer. He’ll oversee both magazines’ news operations….”

The Lipsons and their two magazines have been an editorial soap opera for many years—though both Boston and Philadelphia have had many good editors and published a lot of good journalism.

D. Herbert Lipson acquired Philadelphia from his father in 1961, and he bought Boston in 1971. Now in his mid-80s, Herb is Metrocorp’s executive chairman and his son, David Lipson, is chairman and CEO.

Two of the noted editors at Philadelphia were Alan Halpern and Ron Javers. Here, for some perspective on what’s happened this week in Boston, is a post Javers wrote in 2013 about Halpern and the Lipsons.
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.

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.
About Ron Javers: He began his journalism career as a freelance writer. Later, he was a 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 associate 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.
From Jack:

Here’s a link to a 1991 New York Times story that described how Herb Lipson fired Ron Javers.

And then there was the time the Pope died: In the mid-70s I had met the bright, young guy who was editing Boston magazine. We were about to have our annual meeting of city magazine editors when the Pope died. In the issue of Boston that just had come out, a piece made satirical fun of the Cardinal of Boston. Local TV showed the Cardinal at Logan Airport about to take off to Rome to select a new Pope. By the time the Cardinal landed, the Boston editor was out of a job.



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