Remembering John Homans: “He could take a sagging manuscript, whip it through his computer, and end with a piece that crackled.”

John Homans. Photo by Randy Harris.

On New York magazine’s website, remembering much loved and respected editor John Homans:

John Homans died earlier tonight, at 62. He edited features at New York for not quite twenty years, from 1994 to 2014, and because he was not a celebrity editor, he was not particularly well-known outside the publishing universe. But let us assure you, because we saw it firsthand: There was nobody quite like him. A disproportionate number of the best things you ever read in New York came through his hands. The shape and sound and worldview and talent pool of this place would be immeasurably lessened without him.

On first encounter, he could come off as a caricature of Wasp indifference: Tall, lean, Bostonian, great strong jawline, wearing khakis and whatever wrinkled shirt he’d grabbed that morning, maybe a little shaggy-looking from a post-basketball-game shower. (The standard description, especially when he was younger, was “He looks like Harrison Ford.” But he didn’t have Han Solo’s sleepy maybe-a-stoner gaze: John’s was more darting and interrogative.) John was, according to various rumors we heard, a member of the third or fifth or maybe hundredth generation of Homanses to graduate from Harvard. He lived in an old loft downtown with his partner, Angela, and they raised their son there, an ’80s-style Soho family that was still in place in 2020. The word “laconic” could have been coined for him. He wrote a book about owning a big dog. He played in a band with other boomer magazine editors — The New Yorker’s David Remnick among them — and it was called the Sequoias. A grove of enormously tall, protected, prehistoric, increasingly rare living things.

One of the distant ancients in his lineage was a doctor also named John Homans, and there exists a particular surgical procedure called “Homans’ operation.” It’s used in cases of lymphedema, and calls for excising a lot of swollen tissue from the limbs. The comparison is apt. John, as an editor, was intense, decisive, and fast. He was a great talking editor: You could come to him with a half-formed idea, and he’d find the story in it and lead you through how to write it before anybody typed one word. Once the typing had begun, he could take a sagging manuscript, whip it through his computer on the day it was going to press, and come out the other end with a piece that crackled. And you never saw anybody work quite the way he did: Slouched deep down behind his computer screen, muttering to himself as he rearranged and rewrote and recut. We all knew when John was beginning to focus on something: You’d pass his office and hear guttural sounds and partial sentences: Mmmhuhhh, okay, what the fuck am I doing now, okay, hmmnk, uhhh, yeah, all right, now what hmmm yeah. (The muttering got more intense after he quit smoking.) The key sentence, the one we regularly heard leaping out of the stream of noise like a breaching whale, was What the fuck? Which meant, Okay, what do I do next?

Journalists — the good ones, at least — tend to be good at avoiding self-delusion, and John was peerless at it. The clarity that served him as an editor perhaps kept him from doing something more lucrative: Some of us always suspected that he might have gone off into media-start-up-land if only he’d been able to gin up a little more fake optimism. Instead, he saw artifice for what it was, perceiving the thinness of fame, of gasbaggery, of promotion. He also knew that some of what we did was froth and some of it was the real thing. Another Homans aphorism, when we were confronted with a project nobody thought was going especially well: “It’s a shit sandwich, and everyone has to take a bite.” After New York was sold in 2004, going from a lousy owner to a great one, we got to do a lot more good work than we’d ever dreamed we’d be able to, and John flourished. Even when he was laconic, he could be exuberant: If you had a story that really got people talking, a book that took off, a movie-rights sale, his pet phrase was “You scored!”

He left New York in 2014, not because anyone wanted him to but because he believed that he’d become, as he said around the office, “a fucking dinosaur.” It was a pleasant surprise, then, when he figured out an afterlife, first at Bloomberg and then at Vanity Fair. In his final couple of years, he got Vanity Fair’s “The Hive” airborne, giving it a big injection of his dino taste and dino skills. It was exhilarating to watch, if also envy-inducing. We missed him.

We’ve invited his colleagues at New York, past and present, to talk about him. Here’s John in their words. We’ll be updating this post throughout the day, adding to it as they respond. . . .

From a post by Gabriel Sherman about John Homans:

John brought a magazine editor’s sensibility to digital journalism. He said my weekly Hive posts should be like episodes in a serialized drama. We went through many battles together. He trusted me to publish breaking news that put us way ahead of the Washington press corps. Early on, we were the first to report Trump officials discussed the 25th Amendment and more recently, that Trump would replace Brad Parscale. We took heat from the White House, and even rival journalists. The pushback only convinced John we were doing it right. In his spare time, John loved to climb mountains in the Adirondacks, even in winter. It was the ideal hobby for an editor with his rugged New England mien. No matter how windy it got, he never wavered

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