On my first day at the Columbia Journalism Review, the editors were reading page proofs for an upcoming issue, and if you found a glitch, the editor who had read the piece before you had to pitch a coin into a pizza-fund jar—a dime to a quarter, depending on the grievousness of the error. This provided a quick insight into the economics of the place. Also, it was fun. I thought, maybe I could work here for a while.
So, I did. The copy we were reading that fall day was for the twenty-fifth anniversary issue, and here we are—zip!—at the fiftieth, trying to peer into the past and the future, as I will here. I see that Jim Boylan, CJR’s founding editor, stole all the Pulitzer quotes for his essay on the previous pages. So if you don’t mind, I’ll start this on a personal note and save the mission material for the end.
I came to CJR as half of a junior editor, splitting the position with my wife, Mary Ellen Schoonmaker, as we had done before on the copy desk at BusinessWeek. We took bimonthly turns, one of us working at the magazine while the other tended toddlers and wrote freelance. In one of my at-home stints, I wrote a long piece for CJR. Mary Ellen delivered the manuscript, and her desk was positioned in a way that allowed her to observe the reaction of the editor, a thin and classy man named Spencer Klaw. “He danced,” she whispered to me on the phone. “What?” I said. “He danced,” she said, “in the hall.” Thus was the hook set.
Klaw, who died in 2004, edited the magazine from 1980 to 1989. If I was ever going to be an editor, I thought in those days, here was the model. He didn’t scare anybody; you just didn’t want to disappoint him. His lieutenants were a bear of a man named Jon Swan, who spun straw prose into gold overnight, like Rumplestiltskin, and the steely Gloria Cooper, passionate and smart. Some time before I started, the legend goes, Gloria detected inadequate valuation of her work, vis-a-vis Jon’s work, and secretly wrote an unsigned commentary, overnight, on Jon’s typewriter. When Spencer praised the puzzled Jon the following morning, Gloria was all cat and canary.
This is a good moment to thank all of them for caring for the flame that Jim Boylan and his colleagues lit back in 1961, and to thank all the editors and staff members before and after them. In my time, Suzanne Levine was the editor after Spencer, and led the magazine in a fairly gutsy fashion between 1989 and 1997. In 1994, she sent Trudy Lieberman to write about David Bossie, the activist who at the time was feeding Whitewater gumbo to reporters. We could not obtain a photo, so Suzanne hired a police artist, who revised and revised his sketch until Trudy said, bingo!—that’s the guy. Marshall Loeb came next, from 1997 to 1999, and pushed the magazine in a slicker direction that reflected his roots at Fortune and Money. I have a memory of Marshall walking into the office early one morning with two immense suitcases, after what must have been a grueling all-night flight from China. He was in his seventies by then, but he dove into the pile of papers on his desk with what looked to me like rapture.