Remembering Otto Feurbringer: “He believed that facts were Time’s editorial currency and fact checkers were Time’s treasurers.”

By Barnard Law Collier

Time magazine editor Otto Fuerbringer looking almost happy.

Otto Feurbringer, magazine editor, founding spirit of the 48-story TIME LIFE building, died July 28, 2008, at age 97.

My first 150-square-foot office was on the 34th floor. I was a contributing editor for Time.

The “news” veterans at Time wrote for the influential Nation and World sections. I got the newbie’s slots: Latin America, the People column, and Milestones, which were anniversaries, memorable dates, and obits.

The edge-of-new-and-cool vibe people felt inside the Time Life building radiated out of the office of Time’s managing editor, Otto Feurbringer (or “Firebringer”).

His face was of a fierce, hairy lion, and at times so was his voice. He was a politically conservative Lutheran.

He nonetheless insisted on fair and factual coverage of the right-wing bugaboos of the day: Sex, The Pill, and God. His most infamous question red headlined on a 1966 Time cover: “Is God Dead?”

To “be on the cover of Time magazine” came to mean, in the popular lingo, the epitome of significance in some field or pursuit. Otto was master of the Time cover, which made many people rich and famous, and disappointed or disemboweled others. He also raised Time’s circulation from 3 million to 5 million.

Otto was a stickler for brevity. His needlepointed, compressed handwritten notes penned in the margins of story drafts were feared and revered. A few writers felt Otto was a tyrant and they soon departed.

Otto’s succinct advice to all incoming Time Inc. writers was:

“Begin at the beginning, work through the middle, get to the end, and sit down.”

Otto believed that provable facts were Time’s editorial currency and “fact checkers” were Time’s treasurers.

The reality of the Time Inc. “fact-checkers” (later called “researchers”) was that they were, in fact, a powerful journalistic tool.

They were almost all women and, however underpaid, they brooked no nonsense from anyone when it came to what was or wasn’t factual and publishable.

Otto backed the fact-checkers, but he was also concerned with costs. He sent the chief fact checker a quasi-humorous bill for $68,000 because to corroborate a single quote had cost six hours of triple time into a Sunday morning for the press crew.

For me, the Time Life building is thick with memories of hard, interesting work that was almost always fun.

Food and drink of exquisite quality was part of Time Inc.’s editorial life. On Friday and Saturday nights, for those who worked past 6 p.m., the Four Seasons restaurant provided a spread, usually hubbed by 15-pound wheels of Stilton cheese with an old tawny port or sauterne poured into the middle. I was hooked by large iced bowls of pink jumbo shrimp with horseradish cocktail sauce. A favorite entrée was Amish-made noodles in Gorgonzola cream sauce. Any desired mixer was available, but you had to pour your own alcohol in your own office.

There was often a silver bowl of Gauloises cigarettes and small Tampa cigars on the table.

Those few who felt wealthy could also dine inside the building at The Tower Suite or La Fonda del Sol.

The office work was, in a nutshell, to spin in-depth reporting and rock-solid fact checking into a kind of distilled brand of English that went down quick and smooth, with bubbles and twists here and there, as if Lewis Carroll were writing the news.

The peculiar placement of verbs and quirky syntax—plus the abuse of puns—was a game writers and editors played and most readers enjoyed. Critics of a facet of the so-called Time style mocked it with the quip: “Backward roll the sentences until reels the mind.”

But Otto enjoyed Tom-foolery in structure as long as the point got made.

My fondest memory of Otto is his chair.

He knew that to work all day at a typewriter and on into the wee hours of the morning four nights a week, writers and editors required a vital piece of equipment: A good chair.

Time’s editors and writers sat royally in the new Charles Eames desk chairs, designed for comfort and beauty at the request of Time’s co-founding father Henry Luce. Everyone with an office was given one.

The chair was so comfortable that sitters and their chairs often became close friends; some people named their chairs and raised hell if the cleaning staff unintentionally switched them.

My chair was built by hand in 1960 in the shops of Herman Miller. An Eames chair sported two soft and puffy black leather back cushions, a thick, soft, and conforming leather seat cushion, and cushioned leather arms. It tilted, swiveled, and manually adjusted for height. It had a four-spoke polished aluminum base. Mine was fitted with castors and rolled about smoothly with the push of a toe.

There was an ID number and construction date and data on a label under the seat.

They were fabulously functioning works of art.

If you now own an authentic 1961 Time Life Desk or a Lounge Chair in good or better condition, with the ID label never removed, add $10,000 or more to your personal value.

Otto’s desk chair was an “executive model.” It was two inches wider than a desk chair and the leather was extra sumptuous.

In that chair Otto reigned over the Time Life Building in its youth. When he left his managing editor job in 1968 he went on to direct, develop, and launch Money in 1972 and People in 1974.

Otto was almost always the sharpest mind in the room and his chair would be worth a small fortune.

Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer,  former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.

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