“I was hanging at the bar in the Lion’s Head when the house phone rang and the bartender said, ‘Lucian, it’s for you. Guy says he’s a magazine editor, got an assignment for you.’” 

From a post by Lucian K. Truscott IV on substack.com headlined “I was a ghostwriter for ‘True: The Magazine for Men'”:

As I record these pages of memory and experience, I find myself frequently reaching for the introductory phrase, “there came a time in my life when…” because that’s exactly the way things happened.  Nothing in my life back in the early 70’s was planned.  I picked up ideas for stories in the Voice on the fly – I never planned ahead what I wrote.  I got magazine assignments when I answered the phone and discovered an editor on the line inquiring if I’d be interested in writing about some mafiosi out in Kansas City or a chanteuse on the burgeoning gay cabaret circuit or the disco boom that was suddenly sweeping the nation and dominating the record charts. I even met the girlfriend I lived with back then, Peggy Kerry, on my way to a party. . . .

I was earning $80 a week from the Voice, plus whatever I could pick up from magazines on the side, and Peggy wasn’t even making that much working on campaigns for liberal politicians like Herman Badillo and Ramsey Clark and her brother John Kerry and going on unemployment in between.  Something had to be done.

Then one day I was bellied up to the bar at the Lion’s Head having a drink when a gregarious gray-haired guy whose big smile parted the crowd like the prow of a ship sidled up next to me and introduced himself.  His said his name was Mel Shestak, he was the editor of the men’s magazine True, and he asked if I would I be interested in writing for him.  He was a big fan of my stuff in the Voice, he said, and he was sure he could find something for me to write about in the pages of True.

I had just put one of the few remaining dollars I had left for the week on the bar to pay for my beer, so naturally I answered in the affirmative.  I knew a couple of guys who had written stuff for some of the “pulps,” as the low-rent men’s magazines were called.  True and Stag and Argosy and Cavalier and Swank didn’t pay what the slicks paid – you could get two or three grand for major pieces in Esquire and GQ, even more from Playboy and Penthouse – but I was told you could pick up some quick cash writing for them, so I jumped.  Of course I was dying to write for True!  Mel and I shook on the deal and he bought me a celebratory drink.  He said he would call me when something came up.

It didn’t take long for that day to arrive.  I was hanging at the bar in the Lion’s Head after work when the house phone rang and the bartender called down the bar, “Lucian, it’s for you. Guy says he’s a magazine editor, got an assignment for you.”  I walked to the end of the bar and took the call.  It was Mel, and he seemed a little hesitant as he explained what he needed.  He was on deadline at the magazine, he explained.  They went to press the next day at 10 a.m.  Would I be willing to do a rewrite on the cover story?  He could pay $500, and he promised to pay in cash.  Could I get up to the Fawcett offices right now, this minute, and pick up the copy for the story and get the rewrite to him overnight? . . .

Out the door I went and down the steps to the 7th Avenue Subway at Sheridan Square and up to the Fawcett Publications headquarters in Times Square.  I found Mel in a cluttered office on 44th Street.  He pulled me inside and shut the door.  Promise me you won’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you, he whispered.  I promised.  We sat down.  Mel explained that almost every month, True published a true adventure story on the cover, but the stories came from guys who weren’t writers, and they were so terrible they were unreadable.  All I had to do was take their copy and rewrite it.  Stay close to the story, Mel instructed, but you can embellish it a little for dramatic structure and effect.  You got it?

That was all I needed to hear.  Mel handed me my first True cover story, written by a guy who had been attacked by a grizzly bear and lived to tell the story.  He showed me the cover illustration, a painting depicting a truly massive open-mouthed grizzly towering over a teeny little guy dressed in a plaid jacket and a hunting cap.  He handed me the copy. . . . Mel was exactly right.  It was probably one of the worst things I had ever read – incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, awkward sentences, misspelled words, atrocious grammar, the works.  But the worst thing about it was that it was boring.  Here was this guy who had really been attacked by a grizzly, and he had actually survived to tell the tale, but the thing was, the “attack,” if it could be called that, was over in an instant.  He stuck the grizzly in the throat with a hunting knife, and that was it.  The beast dropped at his feet and it was over. . . .

See what I mean? Mel asked as I finished scanning the copy.  Yeah, I saw.  This thing’s a piece of crap.  You think you can do anything with it? he asked.  For $500 cash money, there was no question in my mind.  I would be back in the morning with copy that would widen the already beaming smile Mel perpetually had on his face.

Looking back at that night in the loft rewriting a cover story for True, I realize now it was my first introduction to writing fiction.  The story took place in Alaska.  The guy was on a hunting trip.  That’s about as much as I retained of his story, because the rest of it was as boring as the grizzly attack.  Nothing happened before or after or during the attack that was of any dramatic moment.

I put the copy to the side and rolled a blank sheet of paper into my typewriter and began:  The first thing I did was get him lost.  I figured the boonies of Alaska had to be like the classic Frost description of woods that were “lonely, dark and deep,” so into those frightening woods I had him wander until he didn’t know which direction he had come from or where he was going, and now it was getting dark and snow had begun to fall and he was cold and he had lost his matches and he was trying to get a fire going with his pocket knife and a piece of flint he had picked up from the ground…

You get the picture.  The piece had to be about 1500 words, and I spent at least 700 of them getting him lost and scared and cold.  By the time he had a fire going – there was a fire in the painting on the cover that had to be accounted for in the story – I had burned through a thousand words.  I had to get the grizzly out of the woods and into his campsite and dead on the ground in 500 words.  I can still feel my fingers flying across the typewriter keys as I described the guy huddled next to his fire afraid for his life when he heard twigs snapping and branches breaking as the grizzly approach.  I spent 200 words on the awful sounds of the grizzly in the dark, 200 words on the terror the guy felt huddling there next to the fire, and the last 100 words on the attack.  He stabbed the thing in the neck and the huge beast fell at his feet, just like in real life, but by the time you got to that moment, as a reader you were as terrified as the poor hunter was. . . .

I took the subway uptown and turned the copy into Mel by 9 a.m.  He read the story seated as his desk.  When he was finished, he stood up and walked over and gave me what can only be described as a bear hug.  He handed me $500 in cash and said, my boy, I knew you would come through. It’s a masterpiece!

The story ran word for word in True as I had written it.  Mel’s bosses at Fawcett were pleased, and Mel told me the author of the story was as happy as they were. I saw Mel in the Lion’s Head a week or so later and he told me the guy had called him from Alaska thrilled about the story.  He thought he wrote every word! Mel said, laughing. . . .

I rewrote more cover stories for Mel over the next year and then he moved on to edit some other magazine in the Fawcett stable that didn’t need its cover stories fictionalized.  For years I would run into Mel at the Lion’s Head or at a book party uptown or a movie premier or an art opening, the kinds of places you encountered each other in those days of wide-open literary excess in the 70’s, but he would always refuse to tell me the name of the guy who wrote the most boring story in the world about the exciting and dangerous world of cocaine smuggling.

Then one night he was in his cups at the Lion’s Head, and for some reason the author of the story had snubbed him, or he had otherwise been insulted by the great man, and Mel broke down and told me who he was.

“Tom McGuane wrote that piece of crap,” he said.  “You rewrote the great Tom McGuane, and you know what?  He was just like the other guys.  He called me up, thrilled with the piece when it was published.  He thought he wrote every fucking word until I told him it was all you.”

Years later I was living in my Royal Street place in the French Quarter when McGuane published a new novel that got a splashy review in the New York Times.  The reviewer was just as effusive in his praise of McGuane’s prose as Mel Shestak had been about my rewrite of him more than a decade before.  But my eyes almost bulged out my head when I read about his lead character, who was described in the review as undertaking a half-witted journey in exploration of his tortured manhood.  McGuane had apparently named him after me.

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