Tommy Tomlinson: A Few Words on a Great Editor and Great Man

From a story by Tommy Tomlinson headlined “A few words on a great editor and great man”:

(Today is the third anniversary of the death of Jay Lovinger, my former editor at ESPN the Magazine. I wrote this piece for my old blog right after he died. I still miss him every time I sit down to write—and lots of other times, too.)

This piece won’t be as good as it would have been if Jay Lovinger were around to edit it.

Here’s how he worked, at least with me: He would read my story and then give me a call. He might start with a thought on a movie he saw, or an update on which joint or organ in his body was currently falling apart. But then we would turn our conversation to the story. He would have just a few thoughts — “I think the problem here is,” he would say, or “It feels like it would be better if,” or “You might try doing this.” And those few comments would turn the story from a rock into a gem. Not only that, he would it say it in a way that made you feel like it was your idea all along, and he was just there to remind you of what you already knew.

When we were done with the call, I felt confident and content, like I had spent a week at a spa. It was an amazing gift. If Jay had chosen to, he could have become the second-greatest Jewish faith healer in history. But what he loved was working with writers. Officially he was retired, but unofficially he was still working with one writer on a magazine story and another on a novel, right up until early Sunday morning, when he died at the age of 75.

Jay was managing editor at Life magazine for a year, and he ran the Washington Post Sunday magazine, too. He was part of the original staff at Inside Sports, a brilliant publication for a brief moment in the ’70s and ’80s. He worked at People, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine. He edited some of the best writers of the last 50 years: David Halberstam, Hunter Thompson, David Remnick, Bob Woodward, Gary Smith, Tom Junod, James McBride.

Over the next few days you might see tributes to Jay from some of those stars. I just wanted to add a small voice to the choir. Jay came into my life at precisely the time I needed him. And maybe at a point where he needed me.

*****

It was 2013. I had quit the newspaper where I’d worked for 23 years for a chance to write for a startup called Sports on Earth. After a year on that job, the guy who ran the site called to say he was coming through Charlotte and asked me to meet him at his hotel. When I got there he took me into a conference room and fired me.

After that, what I wanted was a place to write the long magazine stories I loved to read. What I needed, besides a paycheck, was an editor I could trust and my confidence back. I called my friend Jena Janovy. We had worked together at the Charlotte Observer, and she had left for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. She got me an interview. I flew up to Bristol, Connecticut, for two days of interviews with the key editors. Then we got in Jena’s car and she took me to New York City to meet Jay.

By then I think he was a part-timer, too. He’d had a series of health problems and so he worked from his home in the Bronx. I’m not sure ESPN quite knew what to do with him. We talked for a while at his apartment then walked down the street to a diner.

Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to have a few nights in your life where you just sat and talked with friends for hours, and at some point you broke through the shallow surface and got to the stuff that matters, and three hours flew by like 30 seconds. That was that night with Jena and Jay. I didn’t get back to Bristol until 2 in the morning, and I had to be up at 5 for my flight. It didn’t matter. I floated home.

ESPN signed me to a part-time deal to write a few longform stories a year. I did that for a little more than three years and Jay edited most of those stories. I would grind and sweat, send a draft to Jay, he’d read it and make it better and make me feel like the heavyweight champion of the world. By then he and his wife, the writer Gay Daly, had moved to Sleepy Hollow, New York. I went up to visit one time. Gay is just as charming and smart and funny as Jay. The three of us went to a Thai place and talked about stories and it felt like the diner in the Bronx. I wanted to move in with them and live like that forever, although my wife, back in Charlotte, might have objected.

Jay and I did three stories in particular that I’m really proud of. One was on the last days of former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who had lost his memory to Alzheimer’s. One was on NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was trying to restart his career and his life after a series of terrible concussions.

The third was on a quarterback named Jared Lorenzen, who was a fat guy like me. I heard later on that some editors at ESPN wondered why we were doing the story — Jared wasn’t a star, you couldn’t put him on the cover and sell magazines. But Jena believed and Jay believed. They shielded me from the blowback and let me tell the story. And after it came out, for a while at least, it was the most-read feature on ESPN’s site that year.

That story also gave me the courage to write about my own lifelong struggle with my weight. I sent an early draft of my memoir to a few close friends. Jay called me to talk about it. I don’t even remember what he suggested, although I’m sure I took the suggestions. I just remember how much he cared about what I had written, and how he made me feel like the whole thing was worthwhile and meaningful. Which were things I already knew but had forgotten out there in the jungle of trying to get the work done.

Maybe that was Jay’s real gift. When you got lost in the work he knew where to find you. And he showed you how to get home.

*****

His body was a wreck for as long as I knew him. He needed to get a knee replaced. His heart had been bad for years. His kidneys failed and he had to go on dialysis. Sometimes he could joke about it. Other times he just sounded tired.

But he still burned to work. He must have told me a dozen times to send him drafts of anything I wrote — book ideas, stories for other publications, whatever. As his body crumbled he wanted to keep his mind alive.

We talked a lot about death over the years, not in a morbid way, but as our natural destination — where the human story always leads. We’re all going to die. The only question that matters — the core of any great story — is what we choose to do with the time we have.

Jay loved great movies and great novels. He loved a good ball game. He loved his wife and daughters. He loved all the writers he had nurtured over the years. Some of them would show up at his house, needing an edit, and they would sit side by side and turn words into art.

I’ve been doing this work for a long time now. The money matters some, the kind words from readers matter more, the finished stories matter more than that. But what matters most is the relationship. I’ve come to realize that what I treasure more than anything is working with people who make me laugh and make me think. People who (to quote Jason Isbell) give a damn about the things I give a damn about.

I’ve never met any editor who fit me so perfectly as Jay. And he was a genius because so many others he worked with — so many different styles and characters and personalities — feel the same way, too.

Jay was not much of a note-writer, at least not with me. He liked to talk. But after Jared Lorenzen died at age 38, I wrote a short follow-up piece for ESPN. Jay didn’t edit that one — Jena did. But when it came out I got a note from Jay.

Your piece on Jared after his death was beautifully and lovingly done — not to mention achingly painful, especially because I’ve been reflecting on my own mortality and what it means, for obvious reasons. Wondering what happens to all our knowledge and creativity and wisdom after death. (There’s a scene in “The Unforgiven” when The Kid has actually killed someone for the first time. He tells Clint Eastwood how sick he feels, how he never wants to kill again, how he doesn’t want to be like Clint. And Clint says, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”)

We all end up in the same place, and as Clint says later in the movie, deserve’s got nothing to do with it. But maybe Jay’s not really gone if you can still read the thousands of stories he shaped. Maybe a part of him still breathes inside the writers he made into not just better storytellers but better human beings.

I know for sure that Jay Lovinger will live on in everything I write, and in how I hope to live, and I know that’s true for so many of the people he touched. His knowledge and creativity and wisdom made so much of the world better, down to this little essay. He wasn’t here to edit it, except he was.

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