When Journalism Depended on Unfiltered Camels

From The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas:

My tenure at Time was ignominious. I was a “floater,” assigned each week to whatever section of the magazine was short-handed. Often it was Milestones, the page that recorded the deaths of famous people or significant—usually malign—events in their lives, such as divorces or prison convictions or spectacular financials crashes.

In the next cubicle sat Muchiko Kakutani, chain-smoking unfiltered Camels as she turned out fast-breaking stories with a machine-gun clack of typewriter keys. Who could have predicted that within a decade she would land the job of daily book reviewer for The New York Times and become the most feared critic in America?

“If I Can’t Smoke I Can’t Write.”

Until 1985, smoking was allowed in the Washingtonian offices and more editors and writers smoked than didn’t. We sometimes wonder what it would be like to now walk into the magazine’s offices in the “If I can’t smoke, I can’t write” days. I think we’d say, “I can’t believe that every day we breathed in all this cigarette smoke.”

One of our best writers desperately wanted to quit. He did long articles, typically taking three months on a story. For the two months of reporting, he didn’t smoke. But when it came time to write, he started again. How did he deal with the 1985 ban on smoking in the office? He wrote on weekends when hardly anyone was in the office and he could close his office door and smoke and write. Finally he gave in and quit smoking.

One of our top editors also wanted to quit. He remembers: “My children begged me to quit smoking after my father died of lung cancer. I told them, ‘Next year.’

“Eleven months later, they came to me and said, ‘Daddy, you promised to quit this year and the year is almost over.'”

The magazine made a deal with him: We’d send him for a week to Canyon Ranch, a spa in Arizona that offered a smoking-cessation program. We paid for the week and in return he wrote a story about the experience.

There was an added incentive: We’d sit down a year later and if he had resumed smoking, he’d have to pay us back half of what the week cost. He didn’t have to pay.

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