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January 16, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 14
More Irrelevant Than Irreverent
by Pete Hamill
The tv cameras had departed, the reporters were gone, and in the fourth-floor offices of the Saturday Evening Post at 541 Lexington Avenue, there wasn’t much left to do. A bulletin board stood on a table, rapidly filling pu with job offers, typed on yellow ruled paper: secretaries needed (steno a must), book condenser (must live in Pleasantville), publicity director (relocate in Washington). There were not many good jobs on the board; they were being taken on the phones. The only difference to a casual visitor was that for the first time in five years the people at the Post were printing their resumes in the open.
“I’ve had six offers,” said Bill Ewald, one of the best of the Post editors. “But I just can’t make up my mind. Sometimes I think I’d just rather go on welfare in La Jolla, California.”
In other offices down the hall, editors talked to writers who were still out on assignments and to others who wanted to know what to do about expenses and old assignments. All seemed resigned, even gentle; the writers who called told the editors they were sorry, and the editors told the writers they were sorry, and in the end, none seemed to care much any more. The Post was dead and gone, with O’Leary in the grave. The deceased had been dying since some unspecified date in the 1950s when the world that the Post represented changed forever. It had always been the sort of magazine that was read by Richard Nixon’s mother; in its way, it had been truer to the older sins and the older virtues of America than any other publication in America, and of course, in the end, America go rid of her. We grow bored easily in this country; and in the end, we did not get bored with the world that the Saturday Evening Post used to represent, but the world of the present which it tried to deal with so inadequately. The Post failed; failure bores us.
The Post did have its moments of small glory in the past five years: Murray Kempton’s piece on the 1968 Democratic convention; Lewis Lapham’s piece on the disastrous career of a Broadway musical; Roger Kahn on the murder of a Brooklyn bookmaker; Al Aronowitz on Lillian Reis and Ray Charles; Joan Didion on anything. There were other good things, but you would have to look at the back numbers; they don’t come immediately to mind. At the end, with the magazine collapsing around them, the Post editors finally saw fit to commission Norman Mailer to write something for them. It will never be printed by the Post.
There were lessons to be learned from the Saturday Evening Post, of course. Most of them were professional. The Post first got in trouble during the Republican recessions of the 1950s when the advertising agencies had to cut budgets and suddenly discovered that the Post was still printing Tugboat Annie stories. The fight for the advertising dollar between print and tv was bloody and brutal, and the Post was one of the major casualties. It changed its format, it bought stories from O’Hara and Updike an Nabokov and almost everyone else who was writing serious short fiction. But it still did not have the guts to really grapple with the audience it worried so much about Out There. I don’t think they even knew who that audience was.
That was always the problem for the good journalists who would have liked to work for the Post because it paid well and yet couldn’t write for the Post because of the way the editorial process chewed up their copy. People like Gay Talese, Dan Wakefield, Gloria Steinem, Larry King, David Halberstam, John Sack, Joe Flaherty, Jack Newfield, and others did not work with any frequency for the Post (if at all) because they knew what would happen to their copy. No matter what the piece was about it had to be understood in Fargo, South Dakota. Some did occasional pieces, but the experience was often too disheartening. An assignment would be worked out, the writer would invest weeks, occasionally months of his time, and send off his manuscript. At the Post, the process would begin; every insecurity, every ounce of disdain and even viciousness would go into the manuscripts; each editor along the assembly line would impress the next editor with his own alertness and cleverness, until the piece would reach Otto Friedrich at the top, and then Otto would top them all. I did my own time at the Post as a contributing editor in 1964 and 1965, and I saw at least three good journalists virtually destroyed by the assault on their own work. There might have been more, but we’ll never really know. One would not really mind, except that the editorial process did not turn out an excellent product; instead it turned out a magazine that never knew what it wanted to be, and in the end that was probably what killed it faster than any other cause.
The Post, of course, had once been the biggest thing in American publishing. It sat smugly in Independence Square in Philadelphia and acted as if the world had never changed. the painted covers became an object of scorn in places like New York, not because New Yorkers, or Easterners in general, hated the mid-western valentines about spelling bees, sleighrides, cornhusking, loving schoolteachers, boys home on furlough and the like; the covers were scorned because they had so little to do with the America that was developing in cities. The Post in those years was irrelevant. Later when it tried to become more relevant, it simply couldn’t do the job, because it had never acquired the equipment.
There were other factors, of course: the lead time — time between submission of material and actual publication — was about six weeks; that meant that writers on the Post could seldom cover anything, they had to be prepared to write in some mushy form of the present tense (“Charlton Heston eats mello-rolls for breakfast”), giving an illusion of reporting and nuance without much substance (because they were writing more often about what people said they did, rather than what they actually did); or the writers had to be prepared to write big survey pieces (“The Scandal in our Hospitals” etc. etc.) which sometimes worked, but more often failed because they lacked one crucial ingredient in the 1960s: passion.
The Post “Speaking Out” section would attempt passion, but the editors seldom took pieces from reporters who had been out looking at something; they wanted Curtis LeMay, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, whoever else might be handy, to mail in their own pet peeve piece, written by a ghostwriter, and printed with the usual disclaimer that in a free democracy, there is room for dissent and so on. The piece with passion became a kind of minor freak show in the magazine, lost in the corporate whale, and more often the passion was only pique. In general, the magazine itself had neither.
More and more, the Post would fall behind. If the biggest story of the day was the Beatles, the Post would be the last of the major magazines to get their piece into print. If a fiction writer got hot, the Post would print him, but the pieces always smelled like rejects from the New Yorker. It was terrible to see, because there were some people who worked very hard to make changes. When Milton Ackerman took the magazine over last year, there was some hope of change. The Post dumped millions of subscribers (too rural) and announced that it would become more urban-oriented. One editor told me that they were probably going in the direction that Harpers had taken since Willie Morris became editor. But nothing much really happened, except that an art director spruced up the layout. There were those occasional pieces (Kempton’s), but more often you would have the case of Roger Kahn’s fine piece of reporting on the New York garbage strike which unfortunately appeared almost eight months after the strike, when even John DeLury probably no longer cared.
The terrible thing about stopping around at the Post on Monday was that nobody seemed very much to care. There were some mutterings about being sold out by the money men (which would take a finer financial brain than I possess to explain); grumbling about the severance pay (one editor who had been there six and a half years was getting three weeks’ pay); and, from editor Bill Emerson, some protest that the magazine had been picked to death in the news magazines and the trade press, “without ever recognizing how good we really were.” (Emerson is a very nice man, but the fact was that the Post was not a very good magazine. I don’t mean that in any sneering way, but only with a sense of regret. It was another place where I had paid my rent which was now behind me forever. I was sorry to see it go out the way it did, like a showgirl of the ’30s dressed in powder and rouge and a miniskirt getting run over in the slush on a wintry side street in New York.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 17, 2010