Whatever plenty means in Allen’s world, it seems to be enough, because he is as alive and curious at midnight as at midday. Both times we met he arrived with a stack of items for me to read. Prince takes back his name. Helen Thomas retires. The only subject Allen seems unprepared to discuss is himself. At dinner he does his best to keep the conversation trained on me. “You’d make a much more interesting profile,” he says more than once, then grabs my notepad and starts asking me questions. When the waiters check in, he engages them. “You have a great memory,” he tells the kid who recites the daily specials, eliciting a blush. When a cell phone rings within earshot—which is often—Allen reaches for his. After several false alarms, he calls the desk to see if there are any problems with his story. There aren’t. He tells the desk editor to “have a wonderful evening.”
Not infrequently, Allen steers his urgency onto the highway. Once, when he worked for the Times, he drove from New York to Richmond on a Friday night for a going-away party for a former colleague, easily a six-hour trip. Yet somehow he was back in New York on Saturday with enough time and energy to report and write an 1,100-word story on Mayor Giuliani’s crackdown on city sex shops and strip clubs for Sunday’s paper.
Over at Show World on Eighth Avenue, videotapes of John Wayne movies share shelf space with Naughty Neighbors magazine. Outside, a sign for a “Live Las Vegas Revue” is posted near the old one for rubber goods. Yesterday, customers seemed to be ignoring the new merchandise—T-shirts, pen sets, cellular phones—and heading straight for the “buddy booths” and the 25-cent classics like “Dirty Debs.”
The incredibly detailed story—it contained scenes like that from all over the city—was the kind “that would take anyone else a week to write,” says Bill McKelway, who was at the Richmond party. “I still don’t know how he did it.”
This commitment to friends and family is also a part of the Allen legend. “He’s got such a kind way toward people,” says McKelway. “He always remembers to ask about your sick aunt.” Friends say Allen has a grandmother’s memory for birthdays and anniversaries, and seems to always know what they’ve been up to. “I did a profile on McCain,” says Kemper, “and the next time I saw Mike he says, ‘Dude, killer quote.’ And proceeds to quote something verbatim from my story that I didn’t even remember.”
Allen grew up the oldest of four children in a news-junkie family in Rossmoor, California (population 9,800), a “typically suburban” town near Seal Beach in Orange County. His father, Gary, an investor who died when Allen was in college, and his mother, Barbara, a first-grade teacher (now retired), subscribed to three papers—the Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Allen subscribed on his own to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Mention to him that most kids don’t do that, and Allen quickly notes: “I never got them both at the same time.”
His interest in politics brought him to Washington and Lee University because he wanted to be near D.C. “When you’re from California,” Allen says, “Lexington, Virginia, is near D.C.” Although he majored in journalism and politics, Allen took the LSAT and considered becoming a lawyer like nearly everyone else in his fraternity. “It was the thing to do,” he says, “like the Web is now. But journalism is what I love, and I would never have been happy doing anything else.” After school, he did a year at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, then moved to the Times-Dispatch where, according to McKelway, he had an immediate impact on the paper’s coverage. “His work was so much beyond the day-to-day reporting of news in terms of what he saw and wrote,” says McKelway. “He just doesn’t miss things.”