The Time Inc. Editors—They Weren’t All Like Henry Grunwald

One of Dick Stolley’s cover laws: “Nothing is better than the celebrity dead.”

Having been an editor in Washington for 50 years, my contact with the Time Inc. editors in New York was limited but at times memorable. I never got to know Henry Grunwald, the “Order me a helicopter” editor described in yesterday’s post. But I did get to see some of their editors in action while judging the National Magazine Awards and being on the board of the American Society of Magazine Editors in the 1980s and ’90s.

One year I was one of three ASME judges in a writing category; another of the judges was Otto Fuerbringer, the managing editor of Time. He was sometimes called “The Iron Chancellor” by Time staffers. David Halberstam said he was the most controversial man within Time and the most influential conservative of his generation in journalism.

The three of us sat down at the Columbia Journalism School to read the NMA finalists and then talk for two days and pick the winner. We started at 9 a.m. and at 9:30 Otto told us who the winner was. We talked for several hours and agreed with him, which meant we had a day and a half to wander among the other categories.

Grunwald and Fuerbringer may have represented the authoritarian side of Time Inc. but many of its editors were smart and willing to listen.

Dick Stolley, best known as the founding managing editor of People magazine, was often an NMA judge and a smarter, fairer editor would be hard to find. Among other things, he was famous for Stolley’s  cover laws which included “Pretty is better than ugly” and  “Anything is better than politics,” an insight I confirmed many times at The Washingtonian. He was the kind of editor who dominated National Magazine Award judging by listening and leading.

Also admirable for their intelligence and fairness were Time Inc. editors Pat Ryan, Ray Cave, and Jim Seymore. Ryan succeeded Stolley as managing editor of People; she died four years ago and the NYTimes obit said,In her five-year tenure, she allowed articles to run longer and expanded the magazine’s coverage of more serious news, exploring topics like sexual harassment on college campuses, the spreading AIDS epidemic and children orphaned by civil war in Nicaragua, even devoting an entire issue to life in the Soviet Union. Ms. Ryan also inaugurated one of People’s glitziest traditions, its annual anointing of ‘the sexiest man alive,’ with the first honoree, Mel Gibson, in 1985.”

Cave, like Stolley, was a good, smart editor. Talking with him during NMA judging, I found that he had a lot of insights into how the digital world would change magazines. He had left the Baltimore Sun to join Sports Illustrated as a reporter in 1959. He rose to be SI’s executive editor, then transferred to Time, where he was managing editor from 1977 to September, 1985. He was made corporate editor of Time Inc., then editorial director, before resigning in 1988. Stolley, Ryan, and Cave represented the best of the old Time Inc. before the bureaucrats took over.

Seymore and I had some history. In the early ’70s he left the Smithsonian to become a Washingtonian writer. He then went on to People and in 1990 took over Entertainment Weekly, editing it for 12 years, winning lots of awards and readers. He’s probably tired of me telling this story:

I’ve worked with lots of writers and the worst case of writer’s block involved one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. When we hired him at The Washingtonian, he had come from the museum world. He had a great education and interesting mind and he got off to a promising start. After about a year he began to freeze up and miss deadlines. We both knew it couldn’t go on very long.

Then one afternoon he came in, looking happy, and said, “Jack, we’ve figured it out. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist. He says it’s either fear of success or fear of failure.”

That diagnosis didn’t help and he soon left the magazine, moving to New York City. He got a job writing for radio, then went to People magazine, where he became a star.

The cure seemed to be getting away from a monthly magazine where the long deadlines can lead to too much thinking and brooding.

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