Herb Lipson RIP: He Loved Journalism But Not His Editors

Herb Lipson, the longtime owner of Philadelphia and Boston magazines, died Christmas day at the age of 88. He was described by Tom McGrath, the current editor of Philadelphia, as an outspoken and hard-charging owner and a city magazine pioneer.

Lipson had famously contentious relationships with his many editors. Alan Halpern, who edited Philadelphia from 1951 to 1980, had made it one of the best in the country. A 2013 post, reprinted below, by one of his former editors, Ron Javers, has some good stories about Alan and Herb.

When I became editor of the Washingtonian in 1969, my first magazine job, I had a hard time figuring out how to edit a monthly so after about a year I called Alan to ask if I could come up to Philadelphia and spend a day with him. He was very welcoming and helpful.

Ron Javers describes the split as Alan’s decision to leave, but Herb, talking to another magazine publisher, described it as more of a firing. He told the other publisher that he gotten tired of people referring to Philadelphia as Alan’s magazine, not his magazine. I took it as a warning that editors should never forget who owns the publication.

I stayed in touch with Alan—he always was helpful to other editors, often recommending talented writers he knew—and when he died in 2007, I went up to Philadelphia for the memorial service. The service was striking not so much for the many good things said about Alan but for the many bad things said about Herb. The journalism community in Philadelphia had never forgiven Herb for how he had treated Alan.

Here’s a memory of Herb Lipson posted on Christmas day by Lisa DePaulo, a writer at both Philadelphia and Washingtonian magazines before heading to New York:

“He would say, ‘I don’t want to publish nice magazines. I want to publish stories that can’t be ignored.’”

The term “end of an era” is often overused and usually overwrought.

Not today.

Herb Lipson died this morning at University of Pennsylvania Hospital. I would add “after an illness,” but I could just hear Herb saying, “Of course it was after an illness! Why else would I be in the hospital?”

Herb was a lot of things: A publisher who was unflinching in seeing that quality investigative journalism got its due—even if it meant fending off numerous lawsuits that almost buried his enterprise many times. He was a champion for his magazine’s reporters. He was fearless. He LOVED a great juicy story so, needless to say, we got along fine. (I loved when Herb would come into my office to gossip. Or tantalize me with story ideas: “We need a story on Main Line Housewives who are also hookers,” for example.)

He hated boring people and people who wore bad shoes. He was a Piece of Work. Now, it is true that there are some who found him, ahem, difficult, like the editors he unceremoniously fired. I never did. But then I like impossible people. Maybe that’s why we got along so well. I have a thousand Herb stories, but for now, I’ll share one.

In 1991, when he fired the editor in chief over Best of Philly—he was pissed that the editor did not award his favorite men’s store the laurels (Herb would fight tooth and nail for a story about the mob, but don’t fuck with his tailor!)—I quit in protest. (P.S. Quitting in protest is very overrated.) I did not have a job when i did that, though I got one eventually.

The editor I quit in protest for turned out to be a schmuck who would snub me at social gatherings as soon as I wasn’t useful to him anymore. Herb, who SHOULD have been pissed at me, thought it was amusing that I quit (and knew I would eventually return—I did), but never stopped respecting me.

Even years later, when I was living and working in NYC, he would call me many times when he and his wife Carol were coming to NYC to take me out to dinner. We always laughed our asses off. And argued too. That was the beauty of Herb. RIP, though I know you won’t. I am sure you are already making trouble.

Here’s the 2013 post about Herb and Alan Halpern, “The Day the Editor Walked Out,” by Ron Javers:

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.

During the decades this odd couple worked sort of together, Philadelphia became one of the best magazines in America, known and appreciated by editors in cities from New York to Chicago to L.A. Herb and Alan’s uneasy alliance led to the development of a whole new kind of American magazine, the city magazine. Today, almost every city has one, though the age of the great city magazines is over, and maybe even the magazine age is over, given the disruption wrought by the Internet.

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 2007 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.
Author’s note: Ron Javers began his journalism career as a freelance writer. Later, he served as 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. As executive editor of Newsweek International, he was responsible for all of Newsweek’s 12 overseas editions, 10 of which he created and launched.

Javers has taught at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism and, most recently, at Sen Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, and has lectured widely abroad. He was nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper work. Three of the magazines he oversaw—Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Manhattan, inc.—won National Magazine Awards during his tenure.



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