Monday, March 30, 2009

The Last Great Editor Remembered

By Lawrence S. Dietz

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members that we will be featuring here. This piece was originally read at Jim Bellow's memorial service in Los Angeles, and later quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

I met Jim Bellows when he moved to the L.A. Times after the N.Y. Herald Tribune collapsed. Tom Wolfe had befriended me and gotten me writing for New York, the Sunday supplement to the Tribune.

Jim asked me to meet him at the Times; we’d go out for lunch from there, but we wouldn’t drive: we’d walk over to a nearby place, which turned out to be the dining room of the once splendid but by the 60s down-at-the heel, Alexandria Hotel.

It was drizzling, and to his surprise Jim slid on the sidewalk. I told him that L.A. sidewalks weren’t as gritty as New York’s – they weren’t constructed with inclement weather in mind. He filed that one away.

He filed a lot away. He was a sponge for information about Los Angeles, unlike subsequent editors from New York who came to the Los Angeles Times with the same air of pious certitude exhibited by missionaries going to Africa in the 19th Century to bring enlightenment to the savages. Of course, those editors were from the New York Times.

At the L.A. Times, Jim oversaw the “back” of the paper – the features and the Sunday magazine, West, the sections that “real” newspapermen sneer at as “soft.”

The guy who’d really made the careers of Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and so many others was clearly open and accessible to ideas. I was barely starting as a free-lance writer, but when I suggested West, which was drab-looking, could use great design (after all, New York and the Herald Tribune were sensational to look at) Jim hired a friend of mine, the brilliant and mercurial Mike Salisbury, to be the art director. Mike made West the best-looking magazine in the country.

I went to New York to edit a new magazine, and when it folded, Jim lured me back to L.A. to write for West. Jim personally worked with a few writers – I was lucky to be one of them – whose words could keep up with Salisbury’s graphics.

West was the first thing people turned to on Sunday. It even attracted the Holy Grail, younger readers. But editors in the vast Times bureaucracy opposed Jim getting the top job; so he left and went to Washington.

After his stint editing the Washington Star, throwing darts at Ben Bradlee, he came back to L.A. and took over the Herald-Examiner, the distant #2 paper in town. With slender resources he actually challenged the behemoth Times. Finally, though, it was time for him to move on.

No more newspapers to edit? He became the managing editor of “Entertainment Tonight”, hired after the show debuted to embarrassing, accurate reviews labeling it a studio flack’s wet dream. He brought in some of us print guys, and asked that field reporters ask real questions. What a concept. ET flourished.

Later he developed editorial content for Prodigy, a web service ahead of its time (a combination of AOL and the Huffington Post, with a stable of terrific columnists).

After Prodigy faded, some young Stanford grads hired him to create short reviews of websites to distinguish their new search engine, Excite. Again Jim turned to journalists, and we beavered away in the days of dial-up 14.4 kbps modems and pages that took forever to load. (A colleague wrote the best Excite web review, of a bestiality chat room: “Lassie! Go home! Quick!”)

Google proved that web surfers just want links, not reviews, so Jim wrote his autobiography, all the while looking for the next opportunity. It came from UCLA’s communications staff: perhaps a great magazine written by the faculty could move the campus up the college pecking order.

Jim turned to me and we developed the idea of mixing UCLA contributors with “real” writers, many from Jim’s enormous Rolodex. We created a smart and beautifully designed dummy and a business plan. The project made its way slowly, slowly through the bureaucracy; finally it won the support of the faculty Senate, but when it got to the then-Chancellor, who had come to UCLA from Harvard, he said that while he worried about the finances, it couldn’t succeed because no one in Los Angeles reads. I was too stunned even to sputter.

Jim’s health had begun to fail, so the UCLA journal would not be a terrific last hurrah for an editor who, most of all, revered talent. Even as he slowed down, though, he talked about another project.

I’ve written mostly about work. Jon Carroll printed some of this piece in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon, who worked for Jim at West, wrote: “Sooner than most of us, Bellows understood that information was fungible, and nostalgia for a particular medium was not useful.”

But beyond work, what a sense of humor Jim had. After ET, Jim was hired by ABC-TV to develop a news show, so he went back to New York for a while. As always, he liked working with the people he had faith in, and among the crew he assembled for the project was Jack Nessel, who had been Clay Felker’s #2 at New York. Jack sent me this e-mail message after Jim died.

“I brought my Akita [about 85 pounds] to a meeting with Bellows about the TV show we were supposed to invent. He said he supposed I thought my dog was tough, but he had a dog that could take mine in seconds, and he proposed a ‘dog-off’ the following Sunday in Central Park by the bronze sled-dog statue. At the appointed time he showed up with a dog the size of a large rat, on a leash that looked like a string. The two animals barely looked at each other. Whereupon Bellows claimed he won because my dog was clearly intimidated.”

Finally, much has been made of Jim’s mumbling. I think it was a brilliant strategy for dealing with writers who parse every word an editor says to them, and never forget what they deem criticism.

You knew when Jim didn’t like something from the shake of his shoulders and his pained expression. If you were any good, you didn’t need him to tell you exactly what to do to make your piece or editing job or headline better.

And when you did fix it, there was nothing better in this world than the smile that lit up his face.


Lawrence S. Dietz is the former editorial manager for Excite.com.

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