Disco as a musical style predated the movie Saturday Night Fever by perhaps as many as five years, but disco as an all-consuming cultural phenomenon might never have happened without the 1977 film and its multi-platinum soundtrack featuring such era-defining hits as the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You.” What is absolutely certain is that Saturday Night Fever would never have been made were it not for a magazine article detailing the struggles and dreams of a talented, young, Italian-American disco dancer and his scruffy entourage in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That article—”The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” by journalist Nik Cohn—was published on this day in 1976 in the June 7 issue of New York magazine.
In the blockbuster film that was based on the article, a young John Travolta turned the role of Tony Manero into a career-maker thanks to his own considerable talents, but the character Travolta played was brilliantly drawn by Nik Cohn before a frame of film was ever shot. From his style of dress and his job in the paint store, to his god-like status at the local disco and his vague dreams of escaping to something bigger, the young man named “Vincent” whose experiences Cohn reported on practically leaps off the page with his undirected ambition and otherworldly charisma. You can practically hear the Bee Gees singing “More Than A Woman” and picture “Vinnie” pointing to the sky in his platform shoes and white three-piece suit as you read Cohn’s profile, and you can certainly see why it caught the attention of Hollywood. There was just one problem, though, with the story that served as the source material for one of the biggest pop-cultural phenomena of the modern era: “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” was almost entirely fabricated.
Yes, there really was an Odyssey 2000 discotheque in Brooklyn, and yes, its habitués were of the general age, ethnicity and social class as depicted in Cohn’s supposedly nonfiction piece, but the truth is that Cohn never immersed himself in the life of young “Vinnie” and his cohorts, because young “Vinnie” and his cohorts were the product of Cohn’s imagination. Cohn’s admission of his fabrication came in 1994, in a piece for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “My story was a fraud,” he confessed. “I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road.”
Its first issue was published on September 6, 1896, and contained the first photographs ever printed in the newspaper.  In the early decades, it was a section of the broadsheet paper and not an insert as it is today. The creation of a "serious" Sunday magazine was part of a massive overhaul of the newspaper instigated that year by its new owner, Adolph Ochs, who also banned fiction, comic strips and gossip columns from the paper, and is generally credited with saving The New York Times from financial ruin.  In 1897, the magazine published a 16-page spread of photographs documenting Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, a "costly feat" that resulted in a wildly popular issue and helped boost the magazine to success. 
In its early years, The New York Times Magazine began a tradition of publishing the writing of well-known contributors, from W. E. B. Du Bois and Albert Einstein to numerous sitting and future U.S. Presidents.  Editor Lester Markel, an "intense and autocratic" journalist who oversaw the Sunday Times from the 1920s through the 1950s, encouraged the idea of the magazine as a forum for ideas.  During his tenure, writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, and Tennessee Williams contributed pieces to the magazine. When, in 1970, The New York Times introduced its first Op-Ed page, the magazine shifted away from publishing as many editorial pieces. 
In 1979, the magazine began publishing Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist William Safire's "On Language", a column discussing issues of English grammar, use and etymology. Safire's column steadily gained popularity and by 1990 was generating "more mail than anything else" in the magazine.  The year 1999 saw the debut of "The Ethicist", an advice column written by humorist Randy Cohen that quickly became a highly contentious part of the magazine. In 2011, Ariel Kaminer replaced Cohen as the author of the column, and in 2012 Chuck Klosterman replaced Kaminer. Klosterman left in early 2015 to be replaced by a trio of authors—Kenji Yoshino, Amy Bloom, and Jack Shafer—who used a conversational format Shafer was replaced three months later by Kwame Anthony Appiah, who assumed sole authorship of the column in September 2015. "Consumed", Rob Walker's regular column on consumer culture, debuted in 2004. The Sunday Magazine also features a puzzle page, edited by Will Shortz, that features a crossword puzzle with a larger grid than those featured in the Times during the week, along with other types of puzzles on a rotating basis (including diagramless crossword puzzles and anacrostics).
In September 2010, as part of a greater effort to reinvigorate the magazine, Times editor Bill Keller hired former staff member and then-editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, Hugo Lindgren, as the editor of The New York Times Magazine.  As part of a series of new staff hires upon assuming his new role, Lindgren first hired then–executive editor of O: The Oprah Magazine Lauren Kern to be his deputy editor  and then hired then-editor of TNR.com, The New Republic magazine's website, Greg Veis, to edit the "front of the book" section of the magazine.  In December 2010, Lindgren hired Joel Lovell, formerly story editor at GQ magazine, as deputy editor. 
In January 2012, humorist John Hodgman, who hosts his comedy court show podcast Judge John Hodgman, began writing a regular column "Judge John Hodgman Rules" (formerly "Ask Judge John Hodgman") for "The One-Page Magazine". 
In 2014, Jake Silverstein, who had been editor in chief at Texas Monthly, replaced Lindgren as editor of the Sunday magazine. 
In 2004, The New York Times Magazine began publishing an entire supplement devoted to style. Titled T, the supplement is edited by Deborah Needleman and appears 14 times a year. In 2009, it launched a Qatari Edition as a standalone magazine.
In 2006, the magazine introduced two other supplements: PLAY, a sports magazine published every other month, and KEY, a real estate magazine published twice a year. 
US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey selects and introduces poems weekly, including from poets Tomas Transtromer, Carlos Pintado, and Gregory Pardlo.
The magazine features the Sunday version of the crossword puzzle along with other puzzles. The puzzles have been very popular features since their introduction. The Sunday crossword puzzle has more clues and squares and is generally more challenging than its counterparts featured on the other days of the week. Usually, a second puzzle is included with the crossword puzzle. The variety of the second puzzle varies each week. These have included acrostic puzzles, diagramless crossword puzzles, and other puzzles varying from the traditional crossword puzzle.
The puzzles are edited by Will Shortz, the host of the on-air puzzle segment of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday (introduced as "the puzzlemaster").
In the September 18, 2005, issue of the magazine, an editors' note announced the addition of The Funny Pages, a literary section of the magazine intended to "engage our readers in some ways we haven't yet tried—and to acknowledge that it takes many different types of writing to tell the story of our time".  Although The Funny Pages is no longer published in the magazine, it was made up of three parts: the Strip (a multipart graphic novel that spanned weeks), the Sunday Serial (a genre fiction serial novel that also spanned weeks), and True-Life Tales (a humorous personal essay, by a different author each week). On July 8, 2007, the magazine stopped printing True-Life Tales.
The section has been criticized for being unfunny, sometimes nonsensical, and excessively highbrow in a 2006 poll conducted by Gawker.com asking, "Do you now find—or have you ever found—The Funny Pages funny?", 92% of 1824 voters answered "No". 
|Title||Artist||Start Date||End Date||# of Chapters|
|Building Stories||Chris Ware||September 18, 2005||April 16, 2006||30|
|La Maggie La Loca||Jaime Hernandez||April 23, 2006||September 3, 2006||20|
|George Sprott (1894-1975)||Seth||September 17, 2006||March 25, 2007||25|
|Watergate Sue||Megan Kelso||April 1, 2007||September 9, 2007||24|
|Mister Wonderful||Daniel Clowes||September 16, 2007||February 10, 2008||20|
|Low Moon||Jason||February 17, 2008||June 22, 2008||17|
|The Murder of the Terminal Patient||Rutu Modan||June 29, 2008||November 2, 2008||17|
|Prime Baby||Gene Yang||November 9, 2008||April 5, 2009||18|
Sunday serials Edit
|Title||Author||Start Date||End Date||# of Chapters|
|Comfort to the Enemy||Elmore Leonard||September 18, 2005||December 18, 2005||14|
|At Risk||Patricia Cornwell||January 8, 2006||April 16, 2006||15|
|Limitations||Scott Turow||April 23, 2006||August 6, 2006||16|
|The Overlook||Michael Connelly||September 17, 2006||January 21, 2007||16|
|Gentlemen of the Road||Michael Chabon||January 28, 2007||May 6, 2007||15|
|Doors Open||Ian Rankin||May 13, 2007||August 19, 2007||15|
|The Dead and the Naked||Cathleen Schine||September 9, 2007||January 6, 2008||16|
|The Lemur||John Banville |
(as Benjamin Black)
|January 13, 2008||April 27, 2008||15|
|Mrs. Corbett's Request||Colin Harrison||May 4, 2008||August 17, 2008||15|
|The Girl in the Green Raincoat||Laura Lippman||September 7, 2008||1 (to date)|
Of the serial novels, At Risk, Limitations, The Overlook, Gentlemen of the Road, and The Lemur have since been published in book form with added material.
The first cover of Ms. magazine Edit
The first preview of Ms. magazine was published in December 1971 by New York magazine. The cover, illustrated by Miriam Wosk, depicts a pregnant version of the Hindu goddess Kali using eight arms to hold a clock, skillet, typewriter, rake, mirror, telephone, steering wheel, and an iron.   300,000 test copies of the magazine sold out in three days, and generated 26,000 subscription orders within the next few weeks.  Steinem advocated for this cover as she liked the imagery of a woman juggling multiple facets of life, something that Ms. magazine would focus on.  Additionally, the cover displays a Hindu goddess to convey messages of neutrality and female universality. 
Origins and creation Edit
Ms. was viewed as a voice for women by women, a voice that had been hidden from and left out of mainstream media. The magazine's first publication as an independent issue included articles about women who had experience with abortions, promoting the removal of sexist wording from the English language, and literature focused on helping women realize they could stand up for themselves against social norms. 
Co-founder Gloria Steinem explained the motivation for starting Ms. magazine, stating: "I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine."  Steinem wanted a publication that would address issues that modern women cared about instead of just domestic topics such as fashion and housekeeping.  Steinem originally wanted Ms. to be a newsletter but was convinced to make it into a magazine by her peers. Patricia Carbine thought a magazine was better because of the money from advertisers and that it could reach their audience with its portable, visually pleasing, easy format.  The creators of Ms. expected there to be significant participation of the general public as well as readers.  For example, the first issue published in 1972 included a feature titled "We have had abortions", a list of famous women acknowledging that they have gone through this particular medical operation. The feature had a coupon for readers to include their own names as part of this list. In addition, readers frequently interacted with the magazine through sending in letters to the editors about the personal importance of Ms. magazine. 
As to the origin of the name chosen for the magazine, she has stated: "We were going to call it Sojourner, after Sojourner Truth, but that was perceived as a travel magazine. Then we were going to call it Sisters, but that was seen as a religious magazine. We settled on Ms. because it was symbolic, and also, it was short, which is good for a logo."  "Lilith" and "Bimbo" were considered titles for the magazine as well.  At this time, Ms., an alternative to Miss or Mrs. that neutralized a women's marital status, was not well known or defined by the media.  "Ms." was being promoted by Sheila Michaels.  In particular, when Michaels suggested the use of Ms. in 1969, in a lull during a WBAI-radio interview with The Feminists group, a friend of Steinem heard the interview and suggested it as a title for her new magazine. 
Wonder Woman cover Edit
Gloria Steinem placed Wonder Woman, in costume, on the cover of the first independently published issue of Ms. v1 #1, July 1972 (Warner Communications, DC Comics' owner, was an investor), which also contained an appreciative essay about the character.  Steinem was offended that the world's most famous female superhero had had her powers removed in the most recently published comics. The progressive author Samuel R. Delany wrote two issues of the Wonder Woman comic book in 1972, during this controversial period in the publication's history when the lead character abandoned her superpowers and became a secret agent.  Delany was initially supposed to write a six-issue story arc that would culminate in a battle over an abortion clinic, but the story arc was canceled after Steinem led a lobbying effort protesting the removal of Wonder Woman's powers, a change predating Delany's involvement.  Scholar Ann Matsuuchi concluded that Steinem's feedback was "conveniently used as an excuse" by DC management.  Wonder Woman's powers and traditional costume were restored in issue #204 (January–February 1973). 
Joanne Edgar wrote the cover story for the 1972 issue with Wonder Woman. She described her personal relationship with comic books and applied issues women were facing such as power dynamics and gender discrimination at the work place to the character. 
Ms. featured Wonder Woman on the cover of their magazine in 1972 with the title "Wonder Woman For President".  Steinem wanted to lobby DC comics to display Wonder Woman as a feminist hero because she felt that new images of Wonder Woman in the 1960s objectified her. By including Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms., Steinem was able to encourage Dick Giordano to reinstate Wonder Woman’s truth lasso, bracelets, and her origin story. 
The Ms. cover wanted to embrace the traits of compassion that Wonder Woman had as well as her belief in justice. Tim Hanley, a comic historian, commented on how the Ms. cover, emphasized unity and “sisterhood”.  While some women were in support of Wonder Woman being an icon of second-wave feminism, others critiqued Ms. for displaying a woman with "superhuman" or unachievable qualities. However, the Ms. editors were worried about featuring actual female public figures on their covers early on due to their worry of tokenizing them as the symbol of the feminist movement. 
Jill Lepore reflected on Ms. magazine's cover with Wonder Woman by calling it the connection between first-wave feminism and second-wave feminism. Wonder Woman was inspired by the efforts of the women's suffrage movement and by the work of women in the Great Depression. 
Editorial content Edit
"The Housewife's Moment of Truth", the first cover story for Ms. magazine, was written by Jane O'Reilly. O'Reilly's article spoke for feminist strength and the opposition against the repression of wives in society and the home. The article also helped introduce the idea of "click!", or the realization a woman acquires when she realizes the demands being pushed upon her to act, work and behave in a certain way can be fought against. 
In 1972, Ms. published the names of 53 women who admitted to having had abortions when the procedure was illegal in most states of the country.  The Ms. petition included a tear-out section for women to remove, sign and send back to the magazine. The tear-out section stated:
The attitudes and laws against abortion in this country are causing untold suffering. Approximately one million American women had "illegal" abortions in 1971 — many of them self-induced or performed by the unqualified, some of them fatal. I have had an abortion. I publicly join millions of other American women in demanding a repeal of all laws that restrict our reproductive freedom.
Signatories included Billie Jean King, Judy Collins, Anaïs Nin, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag, and Nora Ephron.  The petition drew on evidence that around 25% of American women had chosen to have an abortion, despite its variable legal status.  Called the American Women's Petition, the Ms. petition was inspired by the Manifesto of the 343 that had been published the previous year in which 343 French women publicly declared that they had had an abortion, which was also illegal in France at the time.  In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision by the Supreme Court of the United States would legalize abortion throughout the country.
The petition was the inspiration for a similar campaign by Ms. in 2006, as well as an amicus brief signed by more than 100 American lawyers in support of overturning the abortion regulations at issue in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. 
The January 1973 edition featured Shirley Chisholm and Sissy Farenthold on the cover with the title: "The Ticket That Might Have Been." 
From 1974 to 1977, Ms. collaborated with public broadcasting and, with the help of a grant from the Corporation for Public Funding, produced the television series Woman Alive!.  The show was formatted to reflect the magazine, and consisted of short documentaries made by independent women filmmakers, interviews, and entertainment segments. 
A 1976 cover story on battered women made Ms. the first national magazine to address the issue of domestic violence. The cover photo featured a woman with a bruised face.
From 1972 until 1988, Suzanne Braun Levine served as editor of Ms. 
In conjunction with other efforts towards feminist language reform, Ms. challenged the common holiday phrase "Peace on earth, good will to men" by changing the salutation to "Peace on earth, good will to people." In its earliest years, the magazine's December cover proclaimed this altered holiday message in bold, colorful designs by Brazilian designer Bea Feitler, as well as in editorial addresses from Steinem. 
Over its long history, the magazine has featured articles written by and about many women and men at the forefront of business, politics, activism, and journalism. The magazine's investigative journalism broke several landmark stories on topics including overseas sweatshops, sex trafficking, the wage gap, the glass ceiling, date rape, and domestic violence.
The type of feminist that Ms. attracted is most often labeled as a "cultural" feminist, those interested in changing the deep rooted gender norms within American culture.  Ms. magazine editors represented this background as they did not identify as women in politics or political feminist rather they were activists writers, and graduates of all women’s colleges.  Though the editors represented a small fraction of feminists in the 1970s, Ms. strived to represent the term "female universality", a phrase that encompassed representation of all women no matter their socio-economic status, race, religion, or political beliefs. 
In 1987, Ms. was bought by Fairfax, an Australian media company, which appointed the head of its US arm, Sandra Yates, to oversee the magazine's editorial and financial turnaround.  In 1989, concerned about a perceived "Cher cover"-centered editorial direction under Anne Summers, American Feminists bought it back and began publishing the magazine without ads.
Robin Morgan and Marcia Ann Gillespie served respective terms as Editors in Chief of the magazine. Gillespie was the first African-American woman to lead Ms. For a period, the magazine was published by MacDonald Communications Corp., which also published Working Woman and Working Mother magazines. Known since its inception for unique feminist analysis of current events, Ms. magazine's 1991 change to an ad-free format also made it known for exposing the control that many advertisers assert over content in women's magazines.
In 1998, Gloria Steinem and other investors created Liberty Media (not the cable/satellite conglomerate of the same name) and brought the magazine under independent ownership. It remained ad-free and won several awards, including an Utne award for social commentary. With Liberty Media facing bankruptcy in November 2001, the Feminist Majority Foundation purchased the magazine, dismissed Gillespie and staff, and moved editorial headquarters from New York to Los Angeles. Formerly bimonthly, the magazine has since published quarterly.
In 2005, under editor-in-chief Elaine Lafferty, Ms. was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Martha Mendoza's article "Between a Woman and Her Doctor". Despite this success, Lafferty left the magazine after only two years following various disagreements including the editorial direction on a cover story on Desperate Housewives,  and a perceived generation gap towards third-wave feminists and grunge.
Later editorial content Edit
Another "We Had Abortions" petition appeared in the October 2006 issue as part of the issue's cover story. This time, the petition contained signatures of more than 5,000 women declaring that they had had an abortion and were "unashamed of (the) decision", including actresses Amy Brenneman and Kathy Najimy, comedian Carol Leifer, and Steinem herself. 
In 2017, Ms. celebrated its 45th anniversary of publication. In honor of this event, Ms. made a reference to their very first issue in 1972 that featured Wonder Woman on the cover. This choice was based on Wonder Woman's belief in "sisterhood and equality",  something Ms. states is a "driving value" for feminist beliefs not only when the magazine first began, but in today's society. 
Ms. and black women Edit
Steinem, herself, was inspired by many women of color throughout her career in activism. Most notably, Steinem worked with Flo Kennedy and Shirley Chisholm for advocating for women’s rights.  Steinem founded Ms. magazine with Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who was involved in child-welfare activism as well as the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1973, Ms. featured a cover of Shirley Chisholm titled as "The Ticket That Might Have Been…". At the same time, Ms. magazine was also criticized for the lack of diversity displayed in its content, especially towards the end of their era of influence in the late 1980s.  In 1986, author Alice Walker, a contributor to Ms., resigned citing the lack of diversity on the magazine's covers and its limited features of women of color.  Walker had previously written an article in 1975 titled "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston", which was credited to have created new interests in Black female writers.  The editors of Ms. admit, as they reflect back on their influence in the 1970s, that their publications were perceived as "elitist" at times due to their staff but the content was always meant to be inclusive.  In 1975, Ms. magazine had a cover of Pam Grier and in 1979 they had Michelle Wallace on the cover. Though Ms. did feature covers of Black women, magazines such as Essence created during a similar time period focused more on Black female empowerment. There has been no association found between Black feminist media organizations such as the Kitchen Table Press and the Combahee River Movement with Ms.
As of 2020, Ms. magazine has features and columns that highlight the work of Black women. For example, Janell Hobson, a Ms. Scholar, works on the Black Feminist in Public series highlighting intersectionality in the media. 
Ms. and Indigenous women Edit
Steinem was greatly influenced by the activism of Wilma Mankiller, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.  Mankiller joined the board of Ms. Foundation for Women in 1973 and was awarded the title of Woman of Year by Ms. in 1987.  Steinem and Mankiller were friends, advisors, and colleagues. Mankiller focused indigenous women’s rights and collaborated with Steinem on this issue as well. The magazine's coverage of issues affecting the indigenous community has increased over the last couple of years. For example, Ms. covered the passage of legislation to protect indigenous women such as the Savannah Act and the Not Invisible Act. 
On January 10, 2008, the American Jewish Congress released an official statement  which was critical of Ms. magazine's refusal to accept from them a full-page advertisement  honoring three prominent Israeli women: Dorit Beinisch (president of the Supreme Court of Israel), Tzipi Livni (Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel), and Dalia Itzik (speaker of the Knesset).
The New York Jewish Week reported that a number of Jewish feminists, including Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance founder Blu Greenberg, were mostly disappointed with the decision by Ms. to reject the ad.  
However, Katherine Spillar, executive editor of Ms., responded to these criticisms on the magazine's website, rejecting claims of anti-Israel bias. She argued that the proposed advertisement was inconsistent with the magazine's policy to accept only "mission-driven advertisements from primarily non-profit, non-partisan organizations", suggesting that the advertisement could have been perceived "as favoring certain political parties within Israel over other parties, but also with its slogan 'This is Israel', the ad implied that women in Israel hold equal positions of power with men".  Spillar stated that the magazine had "covered the Israeli feminist movement and women leaders in Israel . eleven times' in its last four years of issues". 
Building on the success of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang magazine, Fawcett Publishing, based in Robbinsdale, Minnesota published the first issue of True Confessions in August 1922.  With a cover price of 25 cents, the front cover of the October, 1922, issue heralded, "Our Thousand Dollar Prize Winner—'All Hell Broke Loose'." During the 1920s, Jack Smalley was the editor, and early issues in the run sometimes featured cover illustrations by Norman Saunders.
Directed at a female readership between the ages of 20 and 35, the magazine climbed to a circulation of two million during the 1930s, carrying such articles as "The Romantic Story of Jack Dempsey's Cinderella Bride." With True Confessions Fawcett was in competition with rival publishers Macfadden (True Story, True Romance, Experiences) and Hillman Periodicals (Real Story, Real Confessions, Real Romances, Crime Confessions). In 1945, Fawcett learned that 72% of the women who read True Confessions were married, just one piece of information gleaned after Fawcett spent $50,000 for a year-long survey involving 600 questions asked of True Confessions readers in Dayton, Ohio (chosen after the Census Bureau named it a typical wartime United States city). 
By 1949, these old-style confession magazines faced a setback in the midst of a new comic book trend, over 100 love and romance titles from two dozen companies, with press runs averaging 500,000. Macfadden reported a loss in the second quarter of 1949, while Fawcett profited with its new romance comics, reaching a million readers with Sweethearts and 700,000 with Life Story.
During the 1950s, when True Confessions was priced at 15 cents, the editor was Florence J. Schetty. The contents of the March, 1959, issue, edited by Schetty and priced at 25 cents, provide insight into the magazine's approach during that period. It included "God Is My Guide" by Clint Walker, "Hairdos You Can Do Yourself" by Grace A. Hufner, " "When a Girl Goes to Prison" by Jules Archer, "I Couldn’t Forgive My Brother-in-Law" by Anonymous and "Let’s Enjoy Breakfast" by Erva Jean Vosburgh. Another editor in the field was Clark Dimond, who edited True Experience for Macfadden-Bartell during the 1960s.
Some articles for True Confessions were condensed for republication in Reader's Digest, and Fawcett launched its Gold Medal Books paperback line in 1949 with anthologies of material from True (The Best of True Magazine) and True Confessions (What Today's Woman Should Know About Marriage and Sex).
Macfadden-Bartell purchased the magazine in 1963. Macfadden spun off its romance and teen magazines as a separate company in 1992, which then merged with Sterling publication to form Sterling/Macfadden.  Dorchester Media bought Sterling/Macfadden in 2004. In 2006, Dorchester teamed with Leisure Entertainment to launch a series of paperback anthologies titled True Confessions, True Romance and True Story.   In 2012, Dorchester Media sold True Confessions and True Story magazines to True Renditions LLC. 
The Burning River That Sparked a Revolution
I t was the disaster that ignited an environmental revolution. On this day, June 22, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River burst into flames in Cleveland when sparks from a passing train set fire to oil-soaked debris floating on the water&rsquos surface.
When TIME published dramatic photos of the burning river &mdash so saturated with sewage and industrial waste that it &ldquooozes rather than flows,&rdquo per the story &mdash concern erupted nationwide. The flaming Cuyahoga became a figurehead for America&rsquos mounting environmental issues and sparked wide-ranging reforms, including the passage of the Clean Water Act and the creation of federal and state environmental protection agencies.
But the episode itself did not quite live up to its billing. It was not the first fire, or even the worst, on the Cuyahoga, which had lit up at least a dozen other times before, according to the Washington Post. Flare-ups on the river were so common that this particular fire, which was extinguished in half an hour and did relatively little damage, barely made headlines in the local papers.
And industrial dumping was already improving by the time of the 1969 blaze. As the Post points out, &ldquoThe reality is that the 1969 Cuyahoga fire was not a symbol of how bad conditions on the nation&rsquos rivers could become, but how bad they had once been. The 1969 fire was not the first time an industrial river in the United States had caught on fire, but the last.&rdquo
In fact, TIME&rsquos dramatic photos were not even from the 1969 fire, which was put out before anyone thought to take a picture. The magazine instead published archival photos from a much bigger fire on the same river 17 years earlier, in 1952.
The story&rsquos points were valid, however, and even more shocking than the photo spread. Aside from the Cuyahoga, in which there were no signs of visible life &mdash &ldquonot even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes&rdquo &mdash unregulated dumping befouled nearly every river that passed through a major metropolitan area. The Potomac, TIME noted, left Washington &ldquostinking from the 240 million gallons of wastes that are flushed into it daily&rdquo while &ldquoOmaha&rsquos meatpackers fill the Missouri River with animal grease balls as big as oranges.&rdquo
While the Clean Water Act might not have prevented any more river fires, which were already on their way out, per the Post, it did force cities to clean up their act, and their water, in other ways.
By 1989, the Cuyahoga was not quite pristine &mdash but it was fireproof, according to the New York Times. Some signs of life had reappeared, including insects and mollusks. And Cleveland&rsquos water pollution control commissioner averred that the Cuyahoga no longer oozed, but &ldquooften gleam[ed] and sparkle[d].&rdquo Almost like, well, a river.
Read more, from 1969, in the TIME Vault: The Price of Optimism
An oral history of how the pre-eminent media organization of the 20th century ended up on the scrap heap.
By SRIDHAR PAPPU and JAY STOWE MAY 21, 2018
It was once an empire. Now it is being sold for parts.
Time Inc. began, in 1922, with a simple but revolutionary idea hatched by Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden. The two men, graduates of Yale University, were rookie reporters at The Baltimore News when they drew up a prospectus for something called a “news magazine.” After raising $86,000, Mr. Hadden and Mr. Luce quit their jobs. On March 3, 1923, they published the first issue of Time: The Weekly News-Magazine.
In 1929, the year of Mr. Hadden’s sudden death, Mr. Luce started Fortune. In 1936, he bought a small-circulation humor publication, Life, and transformed it into a wide-ranging, large-format weekly. Later came Sports Illustrated, Money, People and InStyle. By 1989, with more than 100 publications in its fold, as well as significant holdings in television and radio, Time Inc. was rich enough to shell out $14.9 billion for 51 percent of Warner Communications, thus forming Time Warner.
The flush times went on for a while. But then, starting about a decade ago, the company began a slow decline that, in 2018, resulted in the Meredith Corporation, a Des Moines, Iowa, media company heavy on lifestyle monthlies like Better Homes and Gardens, completing its purchase of the once-grand Time Inc. in a deal that valued the company at $2.8 billion. The new owner wasted no time in prying the Time Inc. logo from the facade of its Lower Manhattan offices and announcing that it would seek buyers for Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and Money. The deadline for first-round bids was May 11.
We reached out to more than two dozen editors and writers who worked at Time Inc., asking them to reflect on the heyday of this former epicenter of power and influence, as well as its decline. These interviews have been condensed and edited.
The Old Culture
Time Inc. rose to prominence at a time when old-world mores still held sway in a society about to undergo a transformation. In 1959, the company left its home at Rockefeller Plaza and moved into the grand, 48-story Time & Life building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, a cobalt blue curved sculpture by William Crovello marking the company’s presence at the center of the media universe.
Richard Stolley Managing editor, Life founding managing editor, People editorial director, Time Inc. (Years at company: 1953-2015) We were at 9 Rockefeller Plaza, across from the skating rink. On closing night, to prevent or make it unnecessary for writers and editors to go out of the building for dinner, they would serve dinner and preceded that with the so-called drinks cart. It was not abused, as far as I was able to tell. The food was good and it came from a French restaurant.
Jim Kelly Managing editor of Time managing editor, Time Inc. (1978-2009) By the time I arrived, the so-called bar cart was a copy boy who would come around on Tuesdays and give each senior editor two bottles of liquor and a couple bottles of wine for that week’s closing nights. You could go into a senior editor’s office on a Thursday or Friday night for a drink, but you𠆝 be crazy to, because the senior editor would ask, “So, how’s the story going?”
Walter Isaacson Time political correspondent Time managing editor CNN chief executive officer (1979-2003) There were gentlemen writers and editors and women researchers who stayed up late and often had affairs. People just stayed in the office and would make drinks, or people would go out to long dinners. You felt like you were in some movie version of an elegant magazine.
Peter Castro Deputy managing editor, People managing editor, People en Español (1987-2014) The first time I was on the 34th floor, where the executive offices were, I thought I was in some part of the Pentagon. Everything was shiny. Everything was marble.
Kevin Fedarko Reporter, staff writer, Time (1991-1998) In the Time & Life Building, the offices on the inside — the offices that do not have windows — those were offices for junior-level people. And the offices on the outside of each floor, the ones with the windows, were for the writers and the editors. But the remarkable thing is that the majority of the researchers and fact checkers were women, and the majority of the editors and writers were men.
Rumblings of Change
Time Inc. had a strict pecking order and a largely white patriarchal office culture that was slow to adjust to the changes happening in the world beyond its walls.
Nancy Gibbs Researcher, staff writer, editor in chief, Time (1985-2017) They had brought in female writers and editors in the early s — Maureen Dowd and Alessandra Stanley and Michiko Kakutani and Susan Tifft, many of whom did not stay very long. But they also began to hire male fact checkers, partly with the notion that it might turn the fact-checking slot into a more entry-level boot camp position than an entirely service profession.
Maureen Dowd Reporter, staff writer, Time (1981-83) I came in at the end of a culture where the editors and writers were overwhelmingly male and the researchers were overwhelmingly female. The researchers were still known then as “the vestal virgins.” Torrid affairs abounded and several of the top male editors had been married multiple times, the last time to much younger researchers or secretaries. I remember one of my bosses being angry when he found out that his office couch was being used for late-night trysts. One night, I was in my New York apartment and the phone rang. It was a researcher I had an acquaintance with — a beautiful, sexy young woman who had been tangled in office liaisons. She said she was going to walk to the East River and jump in. I talked her out of it but it added to my sense that the culture was warped.
The culture was so “Mad Men,” even at the height of the feminist movement, that my boss felt free, when we worked late closing the magazine on Fridays nights, taking all the young male writers out to dinner at the steakhouse downstairs without a thought that they were walking past the offices of the only two women in the hall — me and my friend, the late Susan Tifft. Susan, a staunch feminist, confronted the boss. But we never did get to that steakhouse.
Janice Min Staff writer, senior editor, People assistant managing editor, InStyle (1993-2002) There was a late-night closing process and it never got any better. Part of that process was having largely female fact-checkers — known, at People, as reporters — go down to Cité and drag wasted senior male editors to sign off on their copy. That was absurd, that whole nature of women trying to corral men into behaving.
Margaret Carlson White House correspondent and columnist, Time (1988-2005) Time basked in its maleness. It wasn’t a hostile environment. It was just a male environment and an Ivy League environment. It was a big deal when I got the column — the first woman columnist. They ran a story about it in The Times. Really? How could that be a story in 1994?
Martha Nelson Founding editor, managing editor InStyle Managing editor, People editorial director, Editor-in-Chief, Time Inc. (1992-2012) Was I ever propositioned by my colleagues? Of course I was. But I was also lucky to be supported by powerful men: Henry Muller, Lanny Jones and John Huey in particular. Few people understood that Huey, the “good old boy” from the South, was a feminist ally who supported my career and that of many other women
Dimitry Elias Leger Staff writer at Fortune and People (1999-2002) I first joined Time Inc. as an intern at SI for Kids in 1996. Among the many editors I met across the building was Roy Johnson Jr., and he became my mentor. All the black staffers knew each other — there weren’t that many of us.
Roy S. Johnson Jr., Reporter, senior editor, assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated senior editor, Money editor-at-large, Fortune (1978-81 1989 2003-2006) I was excited that my first job would be at Sports Illustrated. The second wave of African-Americans experienced things in corporate America that our predecessors were unable to experience. And we were prepared and we were unprepared. I went to a predominantly white middle school and high school. I went to Stanford. White people didn’t scare me. There were many times that I was reminded that I was a rarity in those hallways, but I never felt like I didn’t belong. Others might have thought that, but I really didn’t give a damn what they thought.
The Inside Story of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George Magazine
In the '90s, John F. Kennedy Jr. founded and edited a revolutionary magazine called George, which covered politics like it was pop culture. Was it folly&mdashor a glimpse of the Trumpian future?
John F. Kennedy Jr. stared out his window overlooking the Hudson River, past the piles of proofs, magazines, Knicks ticket stubs, and take-out containers on his desk. He cracked the faintest smile, as one colleague remembers. It was the summer of 1996 he was the editor of a magazine named George, which was less than a year old and still finding its way and an idea for the September cover had just occurred to him: Madonna dressed as his mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
He asked his assistant, RoseMarie Terenzio, for a notepad so that he could dash off a note to Madonna with the request, while Matt Berman, George's creative director, sketched what they hoped would become the cover. Shot by avant-garde fashion photographer Nick Knight, the image would be disguised in such a way that, upon first glance, the reader would think the subject was indeed the editor&rsquos mother, before taking a closer look to realize it was Madonna. Making the cover even more provocative was the fact that Kennedy was rumored to have dated Madonna before starting the magazine.
Unfortunately, the pop star&mdashperhaps one of the few people more famous than Kennedy at that time&mdashshot him down. "Dear Johnny Boy," she began in her handwritten fax (which appears in Terenzio&rsquos book, Fairy Tale Interrupted), "Thanks for asking me to be your mother but I&rsquom afraid I could never do her justice. My eyebrows aren&rsquot thick enough, for one."
With Madonna out, the September cover took a decidedly different turn&mdashinstead of referencing his mom, Kennedy chose to nod at another well-known woman in his dad&rsquos life: Marilyn Monroe.
Drew Barrymore was posed in a nude-colored cocktail dress and platinum wig, with a mole perfectly placed on her left cheek. The idea came from George&rsquos executive editor, Elizabeth Mitchell, who suggested it as a fiftieth-birthday tribute to President Bill Clinton. The reference: In May 1962, in front of fifteen thousand people during a Democratic-party fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, Monroe had famously serenaded Kennedy&rsquos father ten days before his forty-fifth birthday with a breathy, seductive "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." The subtext to the song, of course, is that the president and the actress were rumored to have had an affair.
That photograph might seem a strange choice for a man who adored his mother&mdasheven stranger than asking Madonna to impersonate her&mdashbut the thing was, according to Mitchell, Kennedy never believed anything had happened between his dad and Monroe. "He just thought it was sort of tweaking the expectations of the public," she says all these years later.
An irreverent play on politics and pop culture with a dash of Kennedy intrigue, the Barrymore/Monroe cover accurately sums up George, the magazine Kennedy launched in September 1995. His concept, in today&rsquos terms at least, seems relatively straightforward: "a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core." Back then, however, George was revolutionary there had never been anything quite like it. Nor had there ever been a magazine editor quite like John F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer by training. Perhaps predictably, media critics sneered, lampooning him as aimless and unqualified, his idea frivolous. Esquire called the magazine "the riskiest venture of a pampered life indelibly marked by tragedy." Newsweek: "Kennedy has been able to live without real responsibility, as a bit of a slob, considerate to his (many) women, not quite sure what he wants to do, looking forward to&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspthe Frisbee game in the park.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspNow, apparently, he&rsquos ready to grow up." The Los Angeles Times asked: "Is John Kennedy Jr.&rsquos George making American politics sexy? Or is the magazine just dumbing it down more?"
But Kennedy&rsquos instincts were right: In the twenty years since his death, politics and pop culture have become so intertwined that candidates now spend nearly as much time courting voters on late-night shows as they do on the Sunday talk circuit. Politicians are covered as if they were celebrities, while celebrities seek out a voice on politics. The current president is largely a product of reality television, and his predecessor recently signed a production deal with Netflix. Oprah Winfrey has been seriously touted as a potential presidential candidate, as have&mdashsomewhat less seriously&mdashThe Rock and Mark Cuban. As the son of the thirty-fifth president and an elegant First Lady&ndashturned&ndashbook editor, Kennedy was uniquely positioned to both cover and promote the marriage of politics and pop culture&mdashbecause he lived it
Some of art director Matt Berman&rsquos sketches which eventually became George&rsquos covers:
Some of the people close to him whom I spoke with believe George was Kennedy&rsquos first step toward his own eventual run for office. His plan, they say, was to build it up as a successful magazine that could survive without his star power so that he could one day step into politics. But he ran out of time. On July 16, 1999, less than four years after the first issue, the aircraft Kennedy was flying plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, killing him his wife, Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren Bessette. Just eighteen months later, George folded.
Beyond the personal tragedy was a professional one: Kennedy had worked hard to build a fiercely loyal team an exciting, buzzy brand and a new way to think about politics. But the personal and professional were hard to separate. It was the Kennedy name that persuaded publishers, advertisers, and readers to take a chance on him, but at the same time, it was his family&rsquos legacy that complicated his role as an editor and led to conflicts both inside and outside the magazine.
&ldquoJohn died before his time,&rdquo says Frank Lalli, the editor who replaced Kennedy (and who controversially put Donald Trump on the cover in 2000). &ldquoAnd this magazine died before its time.&rdquo
After graduating from Brown University, in 1983, and New York University School of Law, in 1989, President John F. Kennedy&rsquos second child worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan from 1989 to 1993. It was President Clinton&rsquos successful 1992 campaign, including his saxophone performance on The Arsenio Hall Show, that inspired Kennedy to create a political magazine focused more on personalities than on policy.
He brought up the idea over dinner with his friend Michael Berman, who was running the Manhattan public-relations firm PR/NY. Berman was on board. Their first step was attending a two-day seminar in 1993 called &ldquoStarting Your Own Magazine,&rdquo hosted at a New York Hilton. During one of the sessions, an instructor told the class, &ldquoYou can successfully launch a magazine in just about anything except for religion and politics.&rdquo But Kennedy already had his mind made up.
Keith Kelly, then a reporter for Folio magazine and now a media columnist at the New York Post, got wind of the famous attendee at the conference. When Kelly arrived, he saw someone who looked like Kennedy standing at the front of the class helping the instructor fix a projector. That can&rsquot be John-John, he thought. But when he approached the man later in the day, he realized it was indeed him.
&ldquoHey, John, are you going to start your own magazine?&rdquo Kelly asked.
Kennedy demurred. &ldquoOh, I don&rsquot know. I don&rsquot know.&rdquo
Kelly pressed: &ldquoIf you ever do, could you let me know first?&rdquo
Kennedy and Berman continued working on the project sporadically into spring 1994, when Kennedy set up a secret shop in Berman&rsquos office, coming in every day to strategize. After a few months, Berman announced to his team he was selling his firm and going into business with Kennedy. The two men brought on Berman&rsquos former employee RoseMarie Terenzio as their assistant, and they got to work on the new project.
&ldquoThey thought it was too political, too hot of a potato to handle.&rdquo
The early nineties were a golden age for glossy magazines. It was an incredibly lucrative business, because, in the days before the Internet became ubiquitous, companies poured their advertising budgets into magazines. Readership was surging, particularly among celebrity-focused titles like People, which drew 3.1 million readers a week in 1994. The biggest magazines helped define the zeitgeist with their covers, turning celebrities into overnight icons&mdasha nude and pregnant Demi Moore photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, or Rolling Stone crowning Nirvana the &ldquoNew Faces of Rock&rdquo in 1992. But finding a company willing to back Kennedy and Berman&rsquos concept was difficult&mdashin spite of Kennedy&rsquos famous name&mdashbecause of the belief that it was difficult to sell advertising in political publications. Compared with glossy magazines, titles like The New Republic and the National Review had smaller circulations and fewer ads, and the ads they did have were typically from the low-ticket likes of university presses.
Kennedy had pitched a George prototype to publishing giant Hearst, the owner of magazines including Cosmopolitan and, yes, Esquire, but the company declined to work with him, according to Samir Husni, who consulted for Hearst in the mid-nineties. &ldquoThey thought it was too political, too hot of a potato to handle,&rdquo he says. &ldquoThey didn&rsquot see a business model that would sustain the magazine.&rdquo
When Rolling Stone cofounder and Kennedy family friend Jann Wenner heard about the magazine, he was irate, according to a 1995 Esquire story. &ldquoWhat&rsquos this about?&rdquo he allegedly asked Kennedy. &ldquoYou better see me immediately. Politics doesn&rsquot sell. It&rsquos not commercial.&rdquo
In early 1994, Berman and Kennedy found a partner in David Pecker, then president of Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, which at the time published Elle, Car and Driver, andWoman&rsquos Day. (All three are now Hearst titles. Pecker, meanwhile, has become famous for his friendship with Donald Trump Pecker&rsquos current company, American Media Inc., which published the National Enquirer, helped squelch negative stories in 2016 about then candidate Trump.) Pecker jumped at the opportunity to make a deal with Kennedy and, according to reports from that time, agreed to invest $20 million over five years. In a 1995 interview with New York magazine, Pecker accidentally called George a &ldquoliving, breathing orgasm,&rdquo which, the writer posits, &ldquodoesn&rsquot, in fact, seem too far from his hopes for it. All in all, Mr. Pecker is pretty excited.&rdquo
&ldquoJohn had shopped the idea for George to all the major publishers, many of whom, like Jann Wenner, were personal friends. One by one they turned him down, usually with the excuse that a magazine connecting politics and pop culture would never work,&rdquo Pecker recalls via email. &ldquoEventually, John came to see me at Hachette and when he explained his concept, I enthusiastically agreed to go forward. I not only recognized the reader appeal a magazine edited by John would have, but all the advertiser interest it would generate as well.&rdquo
One of the first things Hachette wanted to change was the magazine&rsquos name&mdashthe company offered alternatives like Crisscross, meant to suggest the intersection of politics and pop culture. But Kennedy and Berman insisted on George&mdasha mildly irreverent nod to the first president&mdashand when an anonymous source leaked to Page Six that Kennedy was starting a magazine called George, the name was set.
Pecker was right about the advertisers. Before the magazine launched, Kennedy went to Detroit to lure the auto companies&mdashtraditionally among the most desired of advertisers, both for their deep pockets and for their blue-chip cachet&mdashinto buying space.
&ldquoI went to Detroit to talk to people at General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford. I followed John by a week,&rdquo former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter remembers. &ldquoPeople were lining up around corners to get to see him. He was filling auditoriums. By the time I got up there, it would be just me and my salesperson out there in a small office of metal furniture. We were very much overshadowed by the presence of John Kennedy.&rdquo
Kennedy&rsquos salesmanship worked, with GM becoming George&rsquos largest advertiser. Pecker says, &ldquoThe first issue sold out with over five hundred ad pages, more than the September issue of Vogue at that time.&rdquo
In early 1995, Kennedy was quietly building his staff with the help of a discreet headhunting firm that had worked with his uncle, Senator Robert F. Kennedy. One of the people brought in was Elizabeth Mitchell, an editor at Spin (another magazine started by a famous scion: Bob Guccione Jr.), who would eventually become George&rsquos executive editor. Kennedy struck Mitchell as curious, funny, and down-to-earth.
"He had definitely read through a lot of the pieces I had edited at Spin,&rdquo Mitchell says. &ldquoI was in charge of the international investigative features and the heavier political content, and he had specific questions about the things I worked on. Mainly he was interested in how we got access that allowed us to embed reporters in the Irish Republican Army, in a helicopter in Mogadishu, into the offices of the key generals during the Yugoslavian war. And how had I found the writers."
At one point during the meeting, Mitchell recalls, a staff member from the headhunting firm asked what they wanted to drink. Kennedy wanted water, to which the staffer responded: &ldquoDo you want Evian ice cubes or tap ice cubes?&rdquo Kennedy, to his credit, considered it an odd request. &ldquoYou know, a block of ice cubes are fine,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt doesn&rsquot have to be fancy.&rdquo
The initial staff was composed of just eight editors, who shared office space on the forty-first floor of Hachette headquarters on Broadway and Fifty-first Street with the staffs of Elle and another fashion magazine, Mirabella. George&rsquos new colleagues would conveniently find excuses to use the photocopier right outside Kennedy&rsquos office to catch a glimpse of the handsome, famous editor. A giant orange George logo adorned a hallway wall in the mostly drab space. Kennedy&rsquos own office featured a black-and-white photo of Mick Jagger on the family&rsquos boat in Hyannis alongside a bust of George Washington and a photo of Kennedy himself as a little boy on his dad&rsquos shoulders. Kennedy&rsquos girlfriend, Carolyn Bessette, sent over a mid-century sofa to dress up the space, but it quickly became covered by rumpled T-shirts and sweatpants.
&ldquoWe went rollerblading with John in Central Park at midnight. And it was just the fucking coolest.&rdquo
Once in place, the team had just three months to create the premiere issue. They put in grueling hours, working forty days straight, taking one day off, then working another forty. They&rsquod sometimes stay at the office past midnight&mdashincluding Kennedy, fueled by coffee and Diet Coke. On weekends, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he would surprise the staff by sneaking his black-and-white puppy, Friday, into the office in a duffel bag. On late nights, the editors would order pizza or dinner from Rice &rsquon&rsquo Beans, Kennedy&rsquos favorite restaurant on Ninth Avenue.
&ldquoIt was notable in this grinding work situation that you would look over and there&rsquos John working away with you,&rdquo says Mitchell. &ldquoYou felt like, okay, that person who could do anything in the world is choosing to be here doing this work you can certainly suck it up and keep going.&rdquo
Kennedy knew how important his first cover would be to establish the publication not as the &ldquoJohn Kennedy magazine&rdquo but as something that stood on its own. To brainstorm cover subjects, he invited fashion photographer Herb Ritts, a friend of his, and Matt Berman, the creative director (and no relation to Michael Berman), to his TriBeCa loft. Over Rolling Rocks with Bessette, they threw out names of all-American celebrities who could represent the brand. Kennedy suggested Bill Clinton. Ritts proposed supermodel Cindy Crawford, who at the time was also appearing regularly on TV in Pepsi ads and as the host of MTV&rsquos popular House of Style.
&ldquoCindy Crawford&rsquos perfect,&rdquo Bessette said. &ldquoShe&rsquos all-American, a self-made woman, sexy, strong, and smart.&rdquo
Ritts suggested dressing Crawford as George Washington&mdasha cheeky play on politics and pop culture. They all agreed, and Kennedy called the model himself to ask her to be on his first cover.
&ldquoHe called my hotel. He reached out directly. And who&rsquos going to say no?&rdquo Crawford says. &ldquoI trusted Herb Ritts enough to know it would be okay. But it was kind of like, I&rsquom going to do what? Dress like George Washington? With the wig and everything?&rdquo
It wasn&rsquot just the wig. After studying old paintings on the set of the photo shoot, the team decided to stuff Crawford&rsquos skintight breeches with a sock. Matt Berman was unsure whether Kennedy, who wasn&rsquot on set, would be quite that adventurous, but he figured they could make changes in postproduction. Sure enough, when Kennedy saw proofs a few days later, his response to Berman was &ldquoMaestro, what the fuck?&rdquo They airbrushed out the bulge.
At this point, two years after that how-to-make-a-magazine seminar, Kennedy made good on his promise to Keith Kelly. He called the reporter and said he was granting him the first interview about George.
As Kennedy geared up for the launch, his personal life hit a milestone. During Fourth of July weekend in 1995, at his family&rsquos home in Martha&rsquos Vineyard, Kennedy proposed to Bessette, a striking, stylish blonde who worked in public relations for Calvin Klein. They hoped to keep the engagement quiet for as long as possible, as Bessette prioritized her privacy.
Kennedy had served as America&rsquos crown prince since his birth&mdashonly two and a half weeks after his father was elected president, in November 1960. John F. Kennedy would die just three days before his son&rsquos third birthday, the toddler becoming an instantly tragic icon after photographers snapped him saluting his father&rsquos casket. Kennedy&rsquos mother shielded him and his sister, Caroline, from the press as they grew up in Manhattan. But as soon as he finished boarding school, the tabloids descended. After People named him its Sexiest Man Alive in 1988, his relationships with celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Daryl Hannah were covered breathlessly. The news that he was now off the market would most certainly cause a media frenzy.
The New York Post broke the engagement story the Friday before Labor Day&mdashmere days before Kennedy and Michael Berman&rsquos scheduled press conference to unveil George. Berman was furious, worried the gossip would overshadow the launch, recalls Terenzio, who was asked to fax a statement denying the engagement to the Associated Press. Sure enough, there was a deluge of coverage about her statement. When hundreds of reporters and dozens of TV cameras showed up at Federal Hall&mdashwhere George Washington took his presidential oath&mdashon September 7, 1995, for the first George press conference, they may have been hoping for titillating details about Kennedy&rsquos love life. But the event was focused squarely on the magazine.
Kennedy, dressed in a navy double-breasted suit with a bright white pocket square, stepped behind the small wooden podium in the vast marble building. Berman and Pecker sat on small wooden folding chairs to his left, and to Kennedy&rsquos right stood the first cover of George, on which Crawford posed confidently in a powdered wig and midriff-baring costume. It was Kennedy&rsquos first time addressing reporters since his mother&rsquos death the year before, and he&rsquod worked with an image consultant who prepped him on personal or potentially embarrassing questions that might be asked. Still, he looked nervous.
&ldquoI don&rsquot think I&rsquove seen as many of you in one place since they announced the results of my first bar exam,&rdquo joked Kennedy, who had appeared on the cover of the New York Post in 1990 with the headline &ldquoThe Hunk Flunks&rdquo after failing the New York bar exam for a second time. He talked about the mission of his magazine, and when asked what his mother would think about his new venture, Kennedy said, &ldquoI think she&rsquod be mildly amused, glad she wasn&rsquot standing here, and very proud.&rdquo
With the tagline &ldquoNot just politics as usual,&rdquo George hit newsstands in September 1995, a bimonthly selling for $2.95. It was a runaway success, selling out its print run of nearly five hundred thousand issues&mdashby comparison, The New Republic typically sold one hundred thousand issues at that time, while Vanity Fair had more than 1 million readers a month that year.
The political landscape was primed for George. The Clintons had brought youth and accessibility to the presidency for the first time in years. Secondary figures like George Stephanopoulos, then a thirty-four-year-old White House boy wonder, were getting increasing attention. And on Capitol Hill, Newt Gingrich, who in 1994 had led Republicans to their first House majority in forty years, was weaponizing the media like no other leader of Congress had before. George treated budding D.&thinspC. personalities like celebrities and brought movie stars into the political conversation. Early issues featured an essay titled &ldquoThe Next American Revolution Is Now&rdquo by novelist Caleb Carr, an article about Time Warner&rsquos war against rap music, a satirical piece about Jesus running in the &rsquo96 election by Beavis and Butt-Head writers Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil, and a Q+A with Planned Parenthood strategist Leslie Sebastian.
Throughout the fall of 1995, the staff kept up its grueling hours and Kennedy remained a hands-on editor. The cover motif of celebs decked out in early-American regalia stuck, with Robert De Niro posing as a sword-carrying Washington for the second issue and Charles Barkley in a powdered wig and basketball shorts on the third cover. After the success of the first three issues, Hachette increased the magazine&rsquos frequency to monthly and doubled the staff. At the same time, Kennedy&rsquos second-in-command, Eric Etheridge, resigned. Etheridge has never spoken publicly about George and declined to be interviewed for this piece, but others at the magazine say he and Kennedy had disagreed about the direction of the magazine.
&ldquoI really respected Eric. I thought he was extremely smart. He had a really tough situation, which was mapping out the definition of what George is,&rdquo says Mitchell. &ldquoI think he probably had an idea that John was going to be less involved in the editorial decisions, but it was clear that John wanted to be involved.&rdquo
Mitchell was promoted to the role of Kennedy&rsquos No. 2, but whereas Etheridge had simply been listed on the masthead as editor, Mitchell was given the title of executive editor, indicating that editor-in-chief Kennedy alone was the top editorial voice. In pitch meetings, he would pepper editors with questions about their angles. Though he didn&rsquot have a formal journalism training, he had good instincts about what made an interesting story, according to his staff. His frequent question was &ldquoWhy would people care about this?&rdquo Then senior editor Richard Bradley remembers filing a profile on presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to Kennedy, who remarked, &ldquoIt feels like you&rsquore missing the point on this.&rdquo Kennedy thought the story focused too much on policy and Washington intrigue and not enough on personal details, which he believed George&rsquos readers were always more interested in.
&ldquoHe was a dominant force in every meeting,&rdquo says senior editor Ned Martel. &ldquoNothing went forward without him knowing about it, or understanding it completely.&rdquo
The staff was young&mdashmost were in their twenties&mdashand Kennedy took his role as a leader seriously. He initiated team outings to movie matinees, plays, and baseball games and organized touch-football games&mdasha Kennedy family tradition&mdashin Central Park&rsquos Sheep Meadow. The editorial team was tight-knit. Former staffers beam when sharing memories of Kennedy showing up on his bike at their birthday parties at downtown bars and going out of his way to give personal gifts for holidays.
&ldquoEven though he often did stay late, [Kennedy] also would just disappear, and one night we disappeared with him,&rdquo recalls associate editor Hugo Lindgren. &ldquoMe and my friend Manny&mdashwe were both associate editors&mdashwent Rollerblading with John in Central Park at midnight. And it was just the fucking coolest.&rdquo
In each issue, Kennedy wrote an editor&rsquos letter and interviewed a famous figure, such as former Alabama governor George Wallace, Elizabeth Dole, and Gerald Ford. Other standing features included a pop-culture-figure column called &ldquoIf I Were President.&rdquo In the first issue, Madonna proclaimed, &ldquoHoward Stern would get kicked out of the country and Roman Polanski would be allowed back in.&rdquo There were interviews with up-and-coming political personalities&mdashthe young conservative pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, now known by her married name, Kellyanne Conway, was interviewed about &ldquowhy female and Generation X voters are ripe prospects for the GOP.&rdquo Her response: &ldquoTo younger voters, the lack of hope and optimism is the most glaring absence in politics today.&rdquo Fitzpatrick did polling for the magazine and is quoted in a few subsequent issues offering a conservative voice. &ldquoLook, there&rsquos plenty of times where I&rsquove been in the, you know, quota on any panel. Hey, let&rsquos get a conservative. We&rsquoll call Kellyanne,&rdquo Conway says. &ldquoBut John never made it that way. He was generally interested in why somebody would have a different point of view than most of the people he knew.&rdquo
(A staffer also remembers her stopping by the George offices to pass out her business cards and encourage editors to come to her stand-up-comedy shows. Though Conway doesn&rsquot recall this, she says she did one stand-up show in D.&thinspC. during that time period. &ldquoI totally missed my calling in this world,&rdquo she says.)
The mix of politics and pop culture sometimes fell flat. In the 1996 State of the Union address, President Clinton had recommended implementing school uniforms, and the magazine used that as a peg to do a high-fashion photo shoot. &ldquoWe asked a handful of the fashion industry&rsquos brightest talents to design uniforms that one might be happy to wear instead of enduring the daily ritual of donning the apparel equivalent to Brussels sprouts,&rdquo writes David Coleman. The net effect is a forced effort to make a political publication look like a fashion magazine. But features by Norman Mailer on Bill Clinton and Bob Dole during the 1996 campaign hit the mark. (They were also yet another wink at JFK&rsquos presidency: During the 1960 campaign, Mailer had written a pioneering New Journalism profile of Kennedy&rsquos father for Esquire titled &ldquoSuperman Comes to the Supermarket.&rdquo)
George was undoubtedly a major success&mdashone editor says MTV was eager to partner with the magazine early on&mdashbut the political-media elite scoffed. White House deputy for intergovernmental affairs John Emerson told the Los Angeles Times in 1996, &ldquoDo I read George? I skim George.&rdquo An unnamed pundit called the magazine a &ldquonet loss of information.&rdquo But the magazine&rsquos competitors may have been more threatened than they let on. One night over dinner at the downtown Manhattan hot spot Balthazar, Matt Berman was approached by a Vanity Fair editor who asked what covers George had in the works.
&ldquoHe&rsquos like, &lsquoYou know, I have a fabulous idea for you: You should do Adolf Hitler on the cover.&rsquo He was thinking, Oh, I got this kid art director here. I&rsquom going to try to make a mess,&rdquo says Berman, who gave an exaggerated eye roll, then reported it back to Kennedy at the office the next day. &ldquoJohn goes, &lsquoOh, right. That&rsquos a great idea. They&rsquod love that over at Vanity Fair.&rsquo They were watching us.&rdquo
Kennedy and his staff mostly brushed off criticism and focused on their goal of speaking to a broader audience. He was proudest when readers wrote in to say they&rsquod never really paid attention to politics before but loved George. Kennedy relished the rare industry affirmation when it did come, though.
&ldquoI remember later when I got hired at the Times, John wrote me the nicest note,&rdquo says Lindgren, who went on to become the editor of The New York Times Magazine from 2010 to 2013. &ldquoHe was like, &lsquoI&rsquom psyched someone from George is working at The New York Times it&rsquos a validation of what we do here.&rsquo&thinsp&rdquo
As George took off, there was increasing attention placed on Kennedy and Bessette as well. When the time came to plan their wedding, held in the fall of 1996, the couple was desperate to keep the event quiet so that the press wouldn&rsquot get wind of it&mdashKennedy couldn&rsquot even risk his staff finding out. So Terenzio covered by telling them that Kennedy and Bessette were going to Ireland for a vacation and wouldn&rsquot be reachable for a couple days. When Bessette needed wedding programs, she was afraid to have them done professionally, lest one find its way to a reporter, so she and Terenzio snuck into the George offices late one evening to use the magazine&rsquos printers.
The tactics worked, and Bessette and Kennedy wed on Georgia&rsquos Cumberland Island on September 21, 1996, with no press in sight. The Monday after the ceremony, Kennedy arranged for Terenzio to leave cigars on the male staffers&rsquo desks and Champagne for the women with a note that read: &ldquoI just wanted to let you know while you were all toiling away, I went and got myself married. I had to be a bit sneaky for reasons that by now are obvious. I wanted you all to enjoy these small tokens of gratitude and fellowship. You folks all do amazing work and it&rsquos an honor to have you as colleagues.&rdquo
That he thought to praise his colleagues in his wedding announcement was classic Kennedy. His staff and friends describe him as kind, funny, and easygoing. He was quick to crack a joke, the first to call to congratulate former staffers on new jobs, and in spite of the paparazzi who constantly trailed him, his preferred mode of transportation around Manhattan remained his bike. The closest anyone comes to a criticism is the observation by a colleague that Kennedy could have a temper&mdashthough, they say, he readily admitted mistakes and apologized. But unpretentiousness aside, his star power was undeniable, and dealing with it could be complicated.
&ldquoThere was this kind of tension where, like, are you working for John or are you working for George? It should&rsquove been pretty much the same, but it wasn&rsquot invariably,&rdquo says Bradley, who replaced Mitchell as executive editor in early 1999.
Kennedy&rsquos relationship with Michael Berman also became an office distraction and eventually the subject of media coverage as their partnership soured. Berman had stepped into the role of publisher, while Kennedy took the head editing role, and Berman&rsquos lack of authority over editorial caused discord.
In January 1997, the strain erupted into a physical altercation after a difference of opinion over an article that left Berman&rsquos shirtsleeve ripped. After the incident, Kennedy asked for a locksmith to change the lock on his door. Two days later, he offered Berman a new dress shirt as an apology. Shortly after, however, Berman left his position as the magazine&rsquos publisher, moving to a new movie and television division at Hachette. Kennedy took on a dual role as editor-in-chief and president.
&ldquoI don&rsquot know exactly what went down with him and Mike. I mean, maybe I knew at some point and I&rsquove forgotten, but people do get a little crazy around someone like John,&rdquo Lindgren says. &ldquoMichael and he, I think, had a really good friendship at some point, and then didn&rsquot, and I think that can be very disturbing to people. They sort of lose their special &lsquoin,&rsquo and that&rsquos what really fucks people up.&rdquo
Berman didn&rsquot respond to repeated requests for comment for this piece. At the time of his departure, he told Keith Kelly, &ldquoIt was always professional. It wasn&rsquot a dispute so much as a maturing of differences. For me, George was an entrepreneurial idea and a challenge, but it wasn&rsquot anything I expected to stay with throughout my career.&rdquo
Kennedy again drew attention away from the magazine when two members of his family made headlines.
Over the decades, nearly a dozen Kennedys have run for office, and how John Jr. would cover his family was a question dating back to George's launch. In a 1995 interview with Larry King, Kennedy said, &ldquoIf you are going to write about politics, every now and then there is going to be a Kennedy who is going to be doing something and we should write about it. We&rsquore not going to go out of our way. Certainly, there are enough people that write about the Kennedys without us joining in.&rdquo
But when his cousin Congressman Joe Kennedy II had his marriage annulled and another cousin, Michael Kennedy, was accused of having an affair with a fourteen-year-old babysitter, Kennedy addressed the scandals in his magazine. His September 1997 editor's letter began, &ldquoI've learned a lot about temptation recently. But that doesn't make me desire any less. If anything, to be reminded of the possible perils of succumbing to what's forbidden only makes it more alluring.&rdquo Kennedy continued: &ldquoTwo members of my family chased an idealized alternative to their life. One left behind an embittered wife, and another, in what looked to be a hedge against mortality, fell in love with youth and surrendered his judgment in the process. Both became poster boys for bad behavior. Perhaps they deserved it. Perhaps they should have known better. To whom much is given, much is expected, right? The interesting thing was the ferocious condemnation of their excursions beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. Since when does someone need to apologize on television for getting divorced?&rdquo
&ldquoI&rsquove learned a lot about temptation recently. But that doesn't make me desire any less.&rdquo
On the cover, Kate Moss appeared nude as Eve. Alongside his letter, Kennedy posed nearly nude, in strategic shadows, gazing up at an apple. Back then, the photo garnered most of the attention and the letter was largely interpreted as a rebuke of his relatives. But today, it reads like a tone-deaf defense of the men, ignoring their privilege and power while being disturbingly dismissive of the women, especially the teenage girl who was the victim of an alleged statutory rape. (The Norfolk district attorney called off the investigation into charges after the babysitter declined to cooperate.)
When asked later about the photo and editor's letter, Kennedy said he didn't regret them. &ldquoI did that because that was something I wanted to say and something that I had felt strongly about, which is, we judge harshly people in the public eye for being human. The picture had to accompany the letter because the picture exposed me to judgment,&rdquo he told Brill's Content in 1999.
Not long after that issue came out, one of the biggest political stories of the decade broke: President Clinton's relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky. It should have been perfect fodder for the magazine in fact, Kenneth Starr's September 1998 report revealed that Lewinsky had tried to get a job at George after her time at the White House. But the magazine chose to cover the controversy by having Kennedy interview Gary Hart, another politician brought down by a sex scandal, along with a profile of Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan (who was linked to the Lewinsky story) and a column on workplace sexual harassment.
&ldquoDuring the Lewinsky scandal, John had great reluctance to cover that,&rdquo says Bradley. &ldquoBut if you didn't cover it, you kind of would've been completely irrelevant.&rdquo
Some of that reluctance may have been due to the fact that Kennedy's father had had multiple affairs while in the White House. When Kennedy was asked at the press conference launching George if the magazine would cover the sex lives of politicians, he admitted, &ldquoIt would be disingenuous to say I don't have some sensitivity to the seamy side of issues.&rdquo
Keith Kelly remembers the Lewinsky story as the beginning of the magazine's decline. &ldquoBy the end, it seemed to be running out of gas. Advertisers had lost some of the enthusiasm,&rdquo he says. &ldquoAnd there was the Clinton scandal with Monica Lewinsky&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp. They didn't really dive into that story. I think he was a little hamstrung by his own family history with those things.&rdquo In 1999, even as the economy boomed (the dot-com bust was a couple years away), newsstand sales declined by double digits, though overall circulation, buoyed by subscriptions, was relatively healthy at around four hundred thousand copies per month.
Kennedy's relationship with Pecker was becoming increasingly strained as well. Kennedy was constantly expected to woo advertisers and began to suspect he was being used as bait for other Hachette deals. And Pecker pushed for Kennedy to move into a more public-facing role. Before Michael Berman left, he and Kennedy had come up with an idea for a George TV show with political commentary. Kennedy had no interest in becoming an on-air personality, yet according to two staffers, Pecker was moving forward on a deal for a Kennedy-hosted series with potential partners.
Pecker wouldn't comment on specific business dealings but tells me, &ldquo[Kennedy] had his own vision for George, and he would insist on maintaining that vision. I began to provide more and more advice when the newsstand began to decline&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp. I had several conversations with John about taking more risks editorially.&rdquo
In February 1999, Pecker unexpectedly left Hachette for American Media, Inc. At that point, George, nearing its four-year anniversary, had a loyal audience, with one of the strongest subscription-renewal rates within the company, but it had never made money. (This was not necessarily unusual for a new magazine in that era patient and/or profligate publishers&mdashnotably Condé Nast&mdashsometimes waited quite a bit longer to see titles make it into the black.) Kennedy was becoming frustrated with Hachette, but when he met with the new president and CEO, Jack Kliger, in June 1999, he was open to discussing plans to make the magazine profitable.
&ldquoFiguring out how to make it work well for both of us was a priority,&rdquo Kliger says. &ldquoWhen I got to Hachette, I was hired with an awful lot of issues, including George and Mirabella, and also I was following a CEO named David Pecker, who left us with a lot of stuff to clean up. You could put it that way.&rdquo
According to Kliger, Kennedy put together a strategy to reduce frequency, rein in costs, and increase George's digital presence. (The magazine had had a website since its 1995 launch, but a look at archived versions shows it mostly served as a home for print stories, and the editors say it wasn't a priority.) Kliger says he was never aware of talk of TV deals but that Kennedy made it clear he didn't want his family name to be exploited. &ldquoJohn always expressed a concern about being used as a bird in a gilded cage. That was his phrase.&rdquo
While efforts were made to reinvigorate the magazine's business, on the editorial side, Kennedy was preparing for one of his biggest interviews yet: a sit-down with Fidel Castro in Cuba. He'd done a pre-interview with Castro and was planning to go back to Cuba for New Year's weekend to talk to him on the record.
That interview never happened. On July 16, 1999, Kennedy was flying his wife and her sister Lauren to Martha's Vineyard for his cousin Rory's wedding. At some point in the night, the plane crashed nose-first into the Atlantic Ocean.
Terenzio was the first member of the George staff to learn the editor had gone missing. She was staying at his TriBeCa apartment because her air-conditioner was broken. A little after midnight, she got a call from Carole Radziwill, a relative of Kennedy's who was trying to get in touch with the couple. Radziwill explained that a friend who was supposed to pick up Kennedy and the Bessettes at the Vineyard airport had told the family they'd never arrived. After trying to call Kennedy's flight instructor, nearby airports, and some of his friends and relatives, Terenzio called Matt Berman, who was planning to fly to Los Angeles in the morning to shoot Rob Lowe for the next cover.
&ldquoYou can't go to L.&thinspA.,&rdquo she said. &ldquoJohn never landed last night.&rdquo
Berman switched his flight to 11:00 a.m. and left to meet Terenzio at Kennedy's loft. Hours passed without any news. Berman then pushed his flight to 1:00 p.m. and told Lowe's team only the photographer would be at the shoot. As the day wore on, newscasters began to describe Kennedy and the Bessettes as officially lost, and Berman took a cab up to the George offices. That afternoon and the weeks that followed are now a blur, he says. The bodies of Kennedy, Bessette, and her sister were found six days after their disappearance.
&ldquoThere was this sort of sense of sad sorrow but also purposelessness. What the hell do we do now? What's the point?&rdquo says Bradley, who was the executive editor at that time. There was the practical question of what to do about the next issue of the magazine, but also the chaos of the news cycle in which they were now the center.
&ldquoWe were very protective of him and his privacy, and then that suddenly became moot. The entire country, world, was talking about what happened to John and Carolyn and Lauren. Here we were, the people who professionally knew him better than anyone, and we didn't feel like we could say a word about it,&rdquo Bradley says. &ldquoWe were told that we couldn't say a word about it by Rose [Terenzio], who told the staff that this was what Caroline Kennedy wanted, and Caroline was the significant owner of the magazine at the time when John died.&rdquo (Terenzio says she doesn't remember Caroline giving that directive.)
Kliger, who'd only been on the job for a little more than a month, instructed the team to move forward with their work and assured them the magazine would continue without Kennedy. According to Kliger, he had the backing of Hachette's owner, Jean-Luc Lagardère: &ldquoHis first comment after I confirmed to him that John had passed away is 'Well, we're not going to close the magazine. I'm not going to leave that as his legacy that it was closed immediately following his death, so we will continue publishing and we'll see what happens.'&thinsp&rdquo
After Hachette bought the Kennedy family's 50 percent stake in the magazine, Kliger began taking meetings with possible new editors-in-chief. The New York Times wrote, &ldquoThe position of editor-in-chief at George has probably been the most difficult job to fill in the magazine industry this year, if not this decade. After all, who would want to step into a role established by a favorite son of America?&rdquo
But Kliger says he had plenty of interest, including from Al Franken, the comedian who would later become a senator. &ldquoI was willing to meet with Franken, just because he expressed interest. He had, of course, a career with Saturday Night Live. He knew what journalism and writing were about, but at the meeting, Jean-Luc said, 'No. We have to have somebody that knows how to put out a periodic magazine from both a journalistic as well as an editorial-operations point of view.' I agreed.&rdquo
Kliger eventually offered the job to Frank Lalli, a former managing editor of Money magazine.
&ldquoI not only read the prospectus, but they sent over the last year's worth of the magazine and I looked at them very, very carefully,&rdquo Lalli says. &ldquoI don't think John was fulfilling the prospectus he wrote. I don't think he had the staff to fulfill it. So what I brought to it was a kind of editorial expertise that John didn't have.&rdquo
The staff underwent an overhaul after Lalli arrived. He ended the contracts of columnists Ann Coulter and Paul Begala, whom Kennedy had signed up earlier that year Lalli felt they were too partisan. He says the relationship with Coulter ended after he refused to run a column because he found it to be homophobic.
&ldquoI got rid of more than half of the staff in six months. A lot were emotionally spent others weren't very good at all, actually,&rdquo Lalli says. &ldquoOne of John's really good friends told me later, 'You know John took in strays.' So then, little by little, I put together the staff we wanted to put together. And we did some really good journalism.&rdquo
Lalli's first issue hit newsstands in March 2000, featuring Donald Trump on the cover with the headline &ldquoThe Secret Behind Trump's Political Fling.&rdquo Lalli says the idea came from someone on the business side of the magazine who knew Trump. (Pecker, who'd already left Hachette, wasn't involved with the cover.) At the time, Trump was a famous but often ridiculed real estate developer with multiple bankruptcies on his résumé who hadn&rsquot yet starred on The Apprentice. He was someone who appeared more in tabloid gossip columns than on the business pages, which is why former George staffers believe Kennedy wouldn't have put him on the cover.
&ldquoI remember we went to Trump Tower and we did a portrait of Melania and him. He did have his hand on her ass the whole time, squeezing it. I'm thinking, This is so gross,&rdquo says Matt Berman, who left the magazine shortly after that shoot. &ldquoThere were always people that you're constantly&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinsp.&thinspThey're orbiting. There were probably just scraps of people after John passed away. I was in a daze by then. I'll tell you, John would've never put him on the cover.&rdquo
Bradley, who left around the same time Lalli started, says, &ldquoTrump would not have been someone that we'd put on the cover, because there was nothing about Trump that represented what John believed in.&rdquo Bradley describes the new editorial team as &ldquoa group of people who were determined basically to say, 'Fuck you' to what the old guard did and establish their independence and announce that they weren't going to be chained to John Kennedy's vision for the magazine.&rdquo
The new George featured a piece on Elián González, the Cuban boy who was embroiled in a charged custody battle, which garnered a lot of attention. And Lalli says he was proud of landing a cover interview with Linda Tripp, the former confidante of Monica Lewinsky's who had betrayed her. &ldquoI saw that and I was like, 'Oh my God, John is spinning in his grave like a top,'&thinsp&rdquo says Bradley.
Though newsstand sales increased under Lalli, advertising revenue continued to drop, and nearly eighteen months after Kennedy's death, George folded. Kliger says, &ldquoWe just came to the conclusion that we tried, we gave it a shot, we spent some money. At that point, we just had to focus on our core businesses and we couldn't see how we could get George to be in that ring. It was a tough decision.&rdquo
One question that has lingered over the two decades since Kennedy's death is: Would he have eventually followed in the footsteps of so many of his relatives and run for office? It came up in nearly every interview he sat for, and he always deflected with a joke like &ldquoI've never been asked that!&rdquo Many colleagues of his whom I spoke with believe he would have done so&mdashbut not until the magazine was healthy enough to survive without him.
&ldquoMy feeling was always that George was a way of testing the waters for him, to kind of turn the tables on the people who would be asking questions about him if he ran for office and sort of get a perspective on it,&rdquo Bradley says. &ldquoI thought that was kind of a genius thing to do.&rdquo
Had Kennedy had been able to leave George on a solid foundation before entering, say, a Senate race, what might that have looked like? &ldquoMy mind's thinking is that if that magazine would have kept publishing, it would have been the perfect magazine for the times we're in,&rdquo Kliger says. &ldquoIt would have been a magazine more squarely about politics and the consciousness of a millennial generation. I think Beto O'Rourke and Elizabeth Warren would have been on the cover. It was a great concept ahead of its time. I wish we would have been able to stick with it because I think it would be a very relevant and needed product today. I think the times have come to George.&rdquo
Maybe. But maybe that would have been a double-edged sword. Certainly the magazine would have faced unprecedented competition from emerging digital media outlets like BuzzFeed News and The Daily Beast, not to mention lifestyle publications like Teen Vogue, Elle, and GQ, which help drive the political conversation today. In fact, it's difficult to name a title aiming for an audience broader than Cat Fancy's which doesn't touch on politics.
&ldquoNot only can coverage of politics and pop culture go together, they have to go together. It really is the lens through which you have to view the world,&rdquo says Noah Shachtman, the editor in chief of The Daily Beast. &ldquoOur core mission is we explore politics and pop culture and power. It's what we do, yeah, it's definitely part of the mission.&rdquo
Kennedy may have foreseen the changing media landscape. But today's political journalists don't point to George as the catalyst. &ldquoI'm not sure it has [a legacy],&rdquo says CNN's Jake Tapper, who wrote an article for George about the future of transportation. &ldquoI don't think very much in journalism has a legacy. We all just do the best job we can and what we do is important but journalism is ephemeral and it's the people we cover that matter, not us.&rdquo
There is also a big difference between George's relatively bipartisan point of view and today's polarization, especially now that Trump has raised the political stakes and soft, glossy coverage of the president and his administration would draw accusations that the indefensible was being normalized. And celebrities who want to be a part of the political conversation are now expected to be informed about the policies of whomever they're lending their support to. Remember the outcry when Kanye West showed up at the White House? A light-hearted &ldquoIf I Were President&rdquo celebrity column like the one George featured would be a lightning rod today. Maybe in the last two decades the culture caught up to George, but then a proudly provocative reality TV star president gave new meaning to the tagline &ldquoNot just politics as usual.&rdquo
&ldquoGeorge tried to liven up politics,&rdquo says MSNBC's Hardball host Chris Matthews, who wrote for the first issue of George about the ways in which Congress is like high school. &ldquoI personally think you don't have to colorize politics anymore. I think [Kennedy] probably thought the stiff shirts have to be colorized, that they needed to give it some MSG.
&ldquoToday we know we've got plenty of that. We're not looking to sexy it up.&rdquo
Brooklyn Man Finds New Life in Crime (Writing)
Jonathan Ames became a showrunner at HBO thanks to his short story &ldquoBored to Death.&rdquo &ldquoEven then,&rdquo he said, &ldquomy Holy Grail was to be writing crime novels.&rdquo Credit. Adam Amengual for The New York Times
It was over lunch in 2013 that the literary agent Eric Simonoff asked Jonathan Ames, “So what do you want to do with your writing career?”
Ames replied, “Have you read Richard Stark?”
Simonoff confessed that he had not. Moreover, he had no idea who Richard Stark was.
“Well,” Ames explained to his old friend and new agent, “I’d like to be like Richard Stark.”
Richard Stark is one of the pseudonyms for the prolific writer Donald Westlake who, under that name, published over 20 novels centered on a character named Parker. The Parker series, with titles like “The Hunter,” “Butcher’s Moon” and “Nobody Runs Forever,” features a classic antihero: a no-nonsense criminal who speaks tersely and acts decisively, most often with his fists.
Ames, in his 20-year writing career, had written perhaps most frequently about a character named “Jonathan Ames.” Before he departed New York for a television job in Los Angeles in 2014, he was well known in his hometown as an essayist, novelist, performer and bon vivant. “Jonathan Ames” turned up as the lead in his comedic confessional essays, collected in books like “What’s Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer,” and in the short story “Bored to Death,” which in 2009 became an HBO comedy series starring Jason Schwartzman. On that show, Schwartzman is a neurotic Brooklyn writer who dreams of writing pulp novels and who, inspired by his love of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, decides to advertise his services as an amateur private detective.
“We were shooting the first season and we were coming up with the graphics for the opening, which showed a pulp novel called ‘Bored to Death’ opening up and showing the actual words of my story,” Ames, 57, said this month over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool. I wish I was writing books with covers like that.’ And one of the writers said to me, ‘Jonathan, you have a TV show now.’”
The implication, of course, being that whatever rung on the literary ladder that involves writing pulp fiction, Ames, a newly minted HBO showrunner, had long since climbed past it. “But he picked up on something,” said Ames. “The fact that, even then, my Holy Grail was to be writing crime novels.”
This month, Ames has captured his personal Holy Grail, in the form of a detective novel titled “A Man Named Doll.” Published by Mulholland Books, it is the first in a proposed series (there’s already a Netflix film in the works) about a Los Angeles-based ex-cop and private detective named Happy Doll. (No spoilers, but suffice to say that the circumstances leading to his unusual first name are not, themselves, happy.)
Crime readers may notice some superficial similarities between Doll and the kind of fabled gumshoes that Ames has long been enamored with — figures like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, or quick-fisted pulp avatars like Parker or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. But it quickly becomes clear that Happy owes more to the rumpled Marlowe played by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” than to any hard-boiled toughs inhabited by Humphrey Bogart.
Doll, for example, may be the first private detective in Los Angeles who’s in Freudian analysis five days a week. He is certainly the first one to describe his relationship with his beloved dog as “disturbed,” saying, “We’re like two old-fashioned closeted bachelors who cohabitate and don’t think the rest of the world knows we’re lovers.” Doll is less Jack Reacher than, well, Jonathan Ames.
“He’s a neurotic Reacher with the soul of a poet,” said Joshua Kendall, the editorial director of Mulholland. When he received “A Man Named Doll,” he said, he recognized it as perfect for Mulholland, an imprint that specializes in both contemporary and classic genre fiction. But he also realized that “one of the great pleasures of the book is seeing the Ames pop out.”
Of Ames’s detour toward crime writing, Simonoff, his literary agent, said, “He was clearly called in this direction. But the novel also exhibits the charm and quirkiness of classic Jonathan Ames. There’s a sweetness to it that isn’t there in the typical Parker novel.” (Since their lunch, Simonoff has happily brushed up on his Westlake.)
Ames has spent most of his decades-long literary career bed-hopping promiscuously between forms and mediums: He’s been genre-fluid but pulp-curious.
“Bored to Death” was a warmly satirical take on hard-boiled themes, set against a hipster Brooklyn backdrop. And on assignment from the online publication Byliner, Ames wrote a novella-length story, “You Were Never Really Here,” which was adapted into a dark and violent film directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Joaquin Phoenix that premiered at Cannes in 2017. With that story, Ames said, “I did have this goal of not being funny at all. I just wanted to write something really lean and dark.” He loved the challenge of creating “an express train of a plot, where you can’t put it down.”
There is a well-worn piece of writing advice, often traced to Aristotle, that contends that the perfect ending of any story should be surprising yet inevitable, and the fact that Ames has written a detective novel seems exactly that: surprising yet inevitable.
Other authors have veered unexpectedly into crime writing, either as a commercial diversion or out of love for the form. Graham Greene famously classified certain of his novels as “entertainments.” (Ames said, “I often liked the entertainments best of all.”) Denis Johnson wrote the pulp homage “Nobody Move,” and the Booker Prize winner John Banville wrote crime fiction as Benjamin Black.
Yet for Ames, “A Man Named Doll” is not a dalliance with detective fiction so much as the consummation of a decades-long courtship. “At a certain point in my life, starting back in the ’80s, I began to read almost entirely crime fiction,” he said. “You’re studying the form — you’re kind of doing an apprenticeship.”
“A Man Named Doll” feels both like the culmination of that apprenticeship and the logical successor to his comedic autobiographical writing, in which, after all, he cast himself as a lone figure roaming in the naked city, a broken romantic embroiled in adventures that often veered toward the illicit.
Ames’s former teacher, Joyce Carol Oates, once gave a quote to The Paris Review that has stuck with him. Oates, he recalled, had said that, in “Ulysses,” James Joyce had used the structure of the “Odyssey” as “his bridge to get his soldiers across.”
For him, pulp has become that bridge, he said.
“The soldiers being my wish as a writer to observe, to describe, to form sentences, to entertain and to share my fears, my hopes, my, you know, despair — and maybe some of my courage. It’s important,” Ames added, “to try and pass on courage to the reader.”
Robert Stigwood, the 42-year-old Australian impresario known as “the Daryl Zanuck of pop,” was out of his mind. That was the talk in Hollywood, Bill Oakes remembers, on September 25, 1976, when his boss held a lavish press conference at the Beverly Hills Hotel to announce that the Robert Stigwood Organisation—RSO—had just signed John Travolta to a million-dollar contract to star in three films. Oakes, then in his mid-20s, had worked for the Beatles and had once been Paul McCartney’s assistant. By this time he was running RSO Records, which boasted Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees among its roster of pop stars. “Everyone thought it was madness,” says Oakes, “because nobody had ever made the transition from television to movie stardom. So, a lot of us thought to pay a million dollars for Vinnie Barbarino [Travolta’s character on the TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter] is going to make us a laughingstock.”
Stigwood wanted Travolta to star in the movie version of Grease, the long-running Broadway musical (in which Travolta had already appeared as Doody, one of the T-Bird gang members, in a road company). Five years earlier, Stigwood had auditioned the actor—then just 17—for Jesus Christ Superstar, and though Ted Neeley got the job, Stigwood had penciled himself a note on a yellow pad: “This kid will be a very big star.”
But Stigwood’s option for Grease stipulated that production could not begin before the spring of 1978, because the musical was still going strong. While they waited, Stigwood and his lieutenants began to look around for a new property.
A few months before, an English rock critic by the name of Nik Cohn had published a magazine article entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.” Appearing in the June 7, l976, issue of New York, the article followed the Saturday-night rituals of a group of working-class Italian-Americans in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who held dead-end jobs but lived for their nights of dancing at a local disco called 2001 Odyssey. Cohn’s hero, named Vincent, was a tough, violent guy but a great dancer who yearned for a chance to shine, and to escape the mean streets of Brooklyn.
On an icy winter night in 1975, Cohn had made his first trip to Bay Ridge with a disco dancer called Tu Sweet, who would serve as his Virgil. “According to Tu Sweet,” Cohn later wrote, “the [disco] craze had started in black gay clubs, then progressed to straight blacks and gay whites and from there to mass consumption—Latinos in the Bronx, West Indians on Staten Island, and, yes, Italians in Brooklyn.” In l975, black dancers like Tu Sweet were not welcome in those Italian clubs nonetheless, he liked the dancers there—their passion and their moves. “Some of those guys, they have no lives,” he told Cohn. “Dancing’s all they got.”
A brawl was in progress when they arrived at 2001 Odyssey. One of the brawlers lurched over to Cohn’s cab and threw up on his trouser leg. With that welcome, the two men hightailed it back to Manhattan, but not before Cohn caught a glimpse of a figure, dressed in “flared, crimson pants and a black body shirt,” coolly watching the action from the club doorway. “There was a certain style about him—an inner force, a hunger, and a sense of his own specialness. He looked, in short, like a star,” recalled Cohn. He’d found his Vincent, the protagonist of his New Journalism—style piece.
Later, Cohn went back to the disco with the artist James McMullan, whose illustrations for the article helped persuade Cohn’s underwhelmed editor in chief, Clay Felker, to run it. The title was changed from “Another Saturday Night” to “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” and a note was added insisting that “everything described in this article is factual.”
In the l970s it was almost unheard of to buy a magazine article for a movie, but “Tribal Rites” attracted enough attention that producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl) and a few others bid on it. Cohn had known Stigwood back in London and liked him. Stigwood came from humble stock: farm people in Adelaide, Australia. He’d made his way to London in the early l960s and ended up managing the Beatles organization for Brian Epstein. Ousted in the power struggle that followed Epstein’s death, Stigwood went on to create RSO Records, and in l968 he branched out into theater, putting together the West End productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Grease. His movie-producing career began five years later, with the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, followed by Tommy, the rock musical written by the Who and directed by the flamboyant Ken Russell, which became one of the biggest movies of l975.
So the deal was made, and Cohn was paid $90,000 for the rights.
Now they had to find a director.
In Los Angeles, Stigwood’s assistant, Kevin McCormick, a brilliant, lean 23-year-old from New Jersey, went from office to office looking for one. “Kid, my directors do movies,” one agent promptly told him. “They don’t do magazine articles.” But while McCormick was packing to return to New York, the phone rang, and it was the agent saying, “Kid, you’re in luck. My client came in and looked at this, and he’s interested. But you should see his movie first.”
“So we saw Rocky on Monday, and we made a deal,” recalls McCormick, now executive vice president of production at Warner Bros. The client was director John Avildsen, and he brought in screenwriter Norman Wexler, who had earned his first Academy Award nomination for the screenplay for Joe, the popular 1970 film about a bigoted hard hat, played by Peter Boyle. (Incidentally, the film gave Susan Sarandon her first screen role.) Wexler had also co-adapted Peter Maas’s Serpico for the screen (which brought him a second Oscar nomination). That seemed fitting, as Al Pacino was something of the patron saint of Cohn’s article, as well as of the film—in the story, Vincent is flattered when someone mistakes him for Pacino, and in the movie, the poster from Serpico dominates Tony Manero’s Bay Ridge bedroom, going face-to-face with Farrah Fawcett’s famous cheesecake poster.
Wexler, a tall man, often wrapped in a trench coat, puffed on Tarrytons so continuously he was usually wreathed in cigarette smoke. McCormick thought of him as “a sort of tragic figure, but enormously sympathetic.” A manic-depressive, Wexler was on and off his meds when he stopped, all hell broke loose. Karen Lynn Gorney, who played Stephanie Mangano, Tony’s love interest in the movie, remembers, “He would come into his agent’s office, or try to pitch a script to somebody, and start giving nylons and chocolates to the secretaries.” He could turn violent, and was known to sometimes carry a .32-caliber pistol. In the grip of a manic episode, he once bit a stewardess on the arm on another flight he announced that he had a plan to assassinate President Nixon. “You’ve heard of street theater?” he yelled, holding up a magazine picture of the president. “Well, this is airplane theater!” He was arrested and escorted off the plane.
But McCormick was pleased when the script came in. At l49 pages, “it was way, way, way, way too long, but quite wonderful. I think what Norman did so well was to create a family situation that had real truth, an accurate look at how men related to women in that moment, in ways that you would never get away with now.” Wexler transformed Vincent into Tony Manero and gave him a young sister and a favored older brother who breaks his mother’s heart by leaving the priesthood. During one row at the dinner table, Tony explodes at his mother when she refuses to accept that her eldest has turned in his collar: “You got nuthin’ but three shit children!” he yells. Tony’s mother—played by acclaimed stage actress and Off Broadway playwright Julie Bovasso—bursts into tears, and Tony is overcome with remorse.
Before John Travolta became a teen idol, he was a dancer. “I think my first turn-on to dance was James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, when I was five or six,” recalls Travolta on a break from filming the musical version of John Waters’s Hairspray in Toronto. “I used to try to imitate him in front of the television set. I liked black dancing better than white dancing. I used to watch Soul Train, and what I wanted to create was a Soul Train feel in Saturday Night Fever.” That famous strut to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” in the opening scene? “It was the walk of coolness. I went to a school that was 50 percent black, and that’s how the black kids walked through the hall.”
“Nobody pushed me into show business,” Travolta says. “I was aching for it.” Born in l954 in Englewood, New Jersey, he was one of six kids, five of whom pursued careers in show business. His mother, Helen, was an actress who taught in a high-school theater-arts program and who set a record for swimming the Hudson River. His father, Salvatore (known as “Sam”), once played semi-pro football and was a co-owner of Travolta Tyre Exchange. John’s parents agreed to let him drop out of Dwight Morrow High School, in Englewood, at 16, for one year, to pursue a theatrical career. He never went back. Soon after, in 1970, Travolta caught the attention of agent Bob LeMond when he appeared as Hugo Peabody in a production of Bye Bye Birdie at Club Benet in Morgan, New York. LeMond quickly got him work in dozens of TV commercials, including one for Mutual of New York, in which Travolta played a teenager crying over the death of his father.
Travolta moved to Los Angeles in 1974 and auditioned for The Last Detail, but lost the role to Randy Quaid. He landed a small role as Nancy Allen’s creepy, sadistic boyfriend in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, just before auditioning for Welcome Back, Kotter, the ABC sitcom about a group of unteachable Brooklyn high-school students called the “Sweathogs” and their local-boy teacher, played by the show’s creator, Gabe Kaplan.
After signing to play the dumb but sexy Italian kid, Vinnie Barbarino (who thrilled the girls with his goofy grin, curly forelock, and swiveling snake hips), Travolta landed the lead role in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. But ABC wouldn’t let him out of the Welcome Back, Kotter production schedule, and Richard Gere took his place. “I thought, What’s happening here? Will I ever get my big break?” Travolta recalls.
What Travolta didn’t know was that he had already gotten his big break. The network was receiving l0,000 fan letters a week—just for him. Soon there were beefcake Vinnie Barbarino posters everywhere—that cleft chin, those cerulean eyes. His public appearances were mobbed. When his 1976 debut album was released, thousands of female fans packed E. J. Korvette’s record department in Hicksville, Long Island, and an estimated 30,000 fans showed up at what was then the world’s largest indoor mall, in Schaumburg, Illinois. When Carrie was released, Travolta’s name appeared above the title on some movie marquees.
ABC asked him to star in his own show, based on the Barbarino character, but Travolta turned it down, worried about ever getting a major film role. Then Robert Stigwood called.
While still appearing on Welcome Back, Kotter, Travolta had played the lead in an ABC TV movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, the true story of a teenage boy who had been born without an immune system. It aired November 12, l976, and his co-star was Diana Hyland, who played his mother. Hyland—often described as “a Grace Kelly type”—had appeared on Broadway with Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth, but was best known as Susan, an alcoholic wife on the TV series Peyton Place. A romance flowered between 22-year-old Travolta and 40-year-old Hyland, which baffled many who knew the young actor, and was toned down so as not to raise too many eyebrows in the press or alienate his teen fan base.
“We were fairly dead in the water at that point,” Barry Gibb recalls. “We needed something new.”
It was Diana who persuaded Travolta to take the role of Tony Manero. “I got the script, I read it that night,” Travolta recalls. “I wondered if I could give it enough dimension. Diana took it into the other room, and in about an hour she burst back in. ‘Baby, you are going to be great in this—great! This Tony, he’s got all the colors! First he’s angry about something. He hates the trap that Brooklyn and his dumb job are. There’s a whole glamorous world out there waiting for him, which he feels only when he dances. And he grows, he gets out of Brooklyn.’” Travolta remembers answering, “‘He’s also king of the disco. I’m not that good a dancer.’ ‘Baby,’ she said, ‘you’re going to learn!’”
Stigwood “just had blithe confidence that the movie’s going to be up and ready to go,” according to McCormick. “And he had no financier. He was financing it himself with his new partners, for two and a half million dollars. I knew that the budget was at least $2.8 [million] already. I had a stomachache every day. We were making this low-budget movie out of l35 Central Park West—we literally put together the soundtrack in Stigwood’s living room.”
And they had to hurry: Travolta and Stigwood were slated to film Grease soon after. This was just a little movie to get out of the way.
After six months of prepping, a huge problem reared its head: the director turned out to be all wrong. McCormick noticed that Avildsen was becoming increasingly difficult. “First he couldn’t figure out who the choreographer should be. We met endlessly with [New York City Ballet principal dancer] Jacques D’Amboise. [Alvin Ailey star] Judith Jamison we talked to for a while. So, it just got to a point where Avildsen wanted to be put out of his misery. He was acting provocatively: ‘Travolta’s too fat. He can’t dance, he can’t do this, he can’t do that.’”
Avildsen brought in a trainer, ex-boxer Jimmy Gambina, who had worked with Sylvester Stallone on Rocky, to get Travolta into shape, “which was really good,” McCormick says, “because Travolta is prone to be soft and not that energetic, and Gambina ran him like he was a fighter.” But Avildsen still wasn’t satisfied, and wondered if maybe Travolta’s character “shouldn’t be a dancer—maybe he should be a painter. It was just weird. It became Clifford Odets,” recalls McCormick. Travolta, ultimately, wasn’t happy with Avildsen, either he felt the director wanted to smooth Tony’s rough edges, make him the kind of nice guy who carries groceries for old ladies in the neighborhood—another Rocky Balboa.
Just weeks before filming was set to begin, Stigwood summoned Avildsen to an emergency meeting. That morning, Stigwood had learned, Avildsen had been nominated for an Oscar for Rocky. McCormick says, “Robert walked in and said, ‘John, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is you’ve just been nominated for an Academy Award. Congratulations. The bad news is you’re fired.’” (Avildsen won the Oscar.)
“Now what do we do?” McCormick asked Stigwood.
So, John Badham came on the scene, three weeks before principal photography was to begin. Badham was born in England, raised in Alabama, and educated at the Yale School of Drama. Like Travolta, he came from a theatrical family. His mother was an actress and his sister, Mary, had played Scout, Atticus Finch’s daughter, in To Kill a Mockingbird. It was her connection to Gregory Peck that had gotten her brother’s foot in the door in the industry: in the mailroom at Warner Bros. At 34, Badham still had few credits to his name—some television and a baseball movie starring Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and James Earl Jones (The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings). He had just jumped from—or been pushed out of—directing The Wiz, because he objected to 33-year-old Diana Ross being cast as Dorothy. McCormick sent him the Saturday Night Fever script and promptly flew him to New York.
When Travolta met Badham, he was surprised that his new director knew so little about New York. The actor took it upon himself to show Badham Manhattan and Brooklyn. “I said, ‘Let me be your guide. Let me take you by the hand and show you New York and its environs—the real New York. I know this town.’” He was a quick study, says McCormick. “Badham, the most unmusical guy in the world, brought in the choreographer, who was fantastic”—Lester Wilson. Travolta had already been working with Deney Terio, a disco dancer who would later host a TV disco competition called Dance Fever, but it was Wilson, many in the crew believe, who breathed life into the movie.
Wilson was a black choreographer who had worked with Sammy Davis Jr. as a featured dancer in Golden Boy on Broadway and in London. A legend in gay dance clubs, he’d won an Emmy for choreographing Lola Falana’s television specials. Paul Pape, who played Double J, the most aggressive member of Tony Manero’s entourage, says, “Deney Terio did show John the moves, and I give him credit for that. But I don’t think Lester Wilson got nearly the credit that he deserved. The movie was Lester.”
Travolta describes Wilson as “such an interesting guy. He taught me what he called his ‘hang time.’ He would smoke a cigarette to greet the day, and he infused my dancing with African-American rhythm. I’m the kind of dancer who needs thought and construction—an idea—before I dance. I need an internal story. Lester would put on some music and he would say, ‘Move with me, motherfucker—move with me!’”
Before they could start filming, they had to get the setting just right. Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of Troma Entertainment and the film’s executive in charge of locations, says, “We looked at every disco in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, and even considered converting a loft to our own specifications, before deciding to go with 2001 Odyssey, in Bay Ridge. That was always our first choice, since that’s where the story really happens.” The movie, except for two days’ filming on the West Side of Manhattan and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge scenes, was shot entirely in Bay Ridge.
“There were 10,000 kids on the streets, and we only have four security guys,” says Kevin McCormick.
Filming in Brooklyn brought a whole new set of challenges. It was a rough place, and the production started to have some neighborhood problems. A firebomb was thrown at the discotheque, but it didn’t cause any serious damage. McCormick asked John Nicolella, the production manager on the shoot and a tough Italian character, “‘What the fuck is this about?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, it’s a neighborhood thing. They want us to hire some of the kids.’ Then these two guys appeared on the set, pulled me off to the side. ‘You know, you’re being disruptive to the neighborhood. You might need some security. And if you want to put lights on the bowling alley across the street, Black Stan really wants seven grand.’” They paid him.
Tom Priestley, then a camera operator on his first feature film, says, “We all grew up on locations in New York because Hollywood had all the studios. We had one or two stages that were decent. But most of the time, all our work was in the streets. We didn’t have all the bells and whistles that Hollywood had. And that’s what made us, I think, tough and adaptable. You figure if you can work in New York you can work anywhere.”
To research his character, Travolta began sneaking into 2001 Odyssey with Wexler. So great was his popularity as Vinnie Barbarino he had to disguise himself in dark glasses and a hat. Before he was spotted, he watched the Faces—the cool, aggressive dancers Cohn had based his article on—concentrating on every detail of their behavior. When he was recognized—“Hey, man! Hey, it’s fuckin’ Travolta!”—the actor noticed how the disco’s alpha males kept their girls in line. “Their girlfriends would come up, and they’d say, ‘Hey, stay away from him, don’t bug Travolta,’ and they’d actually push the girls away. Tony Manero’s whole male-chauvinist thing I got from watching those guys in the discos,” says Travolta.
Priestley remembers, “I would’ve thought the real guys [in Brooklyn] would have resented a film like this, like we’ve come to make fun of them or something, but they loved it. There was one brother-and-sister team that was very good. Remember, all those people in the show are extras. You see them dancing next to Travolta and Donna Pescow [who played Annette]. They were really good dancers.”
There were no special effects in Saturday Night Fever, except for the smoke rising from the dance floor. Bill Ward, the film’s sole gaffer, explains that it wasn’t from dry ice or a smoke machine—it was “a toxic mix of burning tar and automobile tires, pinched from a Bay Ridge alley.” It created such heat and smoke that at one point they had to wheel in oxygen for Travolta. The filmmakers also went to great trouble and expense—$15,000—to put lights in the dance floor, designed to pulsate to the music. The walls were covered with aluminum foil and Christmas lights. When the club’s owner saw the dailies for the first time, he said, “Holy shit, you guys made my place look great!”
Filming began on March 14, l977. “The first day’s location was outside the dance studio,” recalls McCormick. “I got a phone call from the production manager, and he said, ‘This is chaos!’ I came out and there were l0,000 kids on the streets, and we only have four security guys. So we had to shut down for a couple of hours while we just regrouped and tried to figure out a way to make it work. It was the first time that we actually had a sense of who John was.” By the end of the first day, they had to shut down and go home because “there was no place you could point the camera without seeing l5,000 people. We’d have to put out fake call sheets and get out there at 5:30 in the morning” to avoid the crush of fans.
Brooklyn-born actress Donna Pescow, who breaks your heart as Annette, the foolish local girl whose adoration of Tony nearly destroys her, was in the makeup trailer with Travolta when fans surrounded them and started rocking the trailer back and forth. “That was terrifying,” she remembers. “So, they got the right people in the neighborhood, who said, ‘Don’t do that anymore.’ They were practically paying protection—I mean, it was really tough.” Karen Lynn Gorney, however, felt that the sheer energy released by thousands of Travolta’s female fans yelling “Barbarino!” added to the set. “It helped the film,” she says. “A lot of female hormones raging around—that might have been a good thing. Women aren’t supposed to express their sexuality, but that’s what you get, all that screaming and crying, because they’re sitting on their gonads.”
A personal tragedy was unfolding for Travolta, however: Diana Hyland’s struggle with breast cancer. By the time he began preparing to play Tony Manero, she was dying. Travolta made many trips from New York to Los Angeles to be with her through her illness, so he was in a state of constant jet lag and distress. Two weeks after shooting began, he flew to the West Coast to be with Diana one last time. “He did not know Diana was sick when he fell in love,” Travolta’s mother, Helen, later told McCall’s magazine, “but he stuck with her when he did know.” On March 27, l977, Hyland died in his arms.
Andy Warhol was on Travolta’s return flight to New York. He later wrote in his diary, “John Travolta kept going to the bathroom, coming out with his eyes bright red, drinking orange juice and liquor in a paper cup, and he put his head in a pillow and started crying. I saw him reading a script, too, so I thought he was acting, really cute and sensitive-looking, very tall…. You can see the magic in him. I asked the stewardess why he was crying and she said, ‘death in the family,’so I thought it was a mother or father, until I picked up the paper at home and found out that it was Diana Hyland, who’d died of cancer at forty-one, soap-opera queen, his steady date.”
Karen Lynn Gorney later said that she could feel Diana’s spirit on the set, “protecting him, because he was going through deep grief and he had to get through it. If he fell into the grief, he wouldn’t be able to pull himself out of it. But he was very professional and he was right there on the money. I remember the scene at the Verrazano Bridge when I lean over and kiss him. The poor thing was suffering so, and that kiss was totally spontaneous. That wasn’t Tony and Stephanie—that was because I really saw he was hurting.”
There’s another lovely scene between Travolta and Gorney, when Stephanie agrees to accompany Tony to a Brooklyn restaurant. “We wanted to see how much of it we could do in one shot,” Badham says about that scene, which was filmed through the restaurant’s window, so you see them through a glorious, dreamlike reflection of a city skyline—“magic and distant.” They try to impress each other with their savvy and their cool, but they are hilariously unpolished. (Stephanie informs Tony that worldly New Yorkers drink tea with lemon.) “These kids are trying to pretend like they’re a lot more sophisticated than they are,” Badham says, “though obviously anybody that says ‘Bonwit Taylor’ hasn’t quite got it all together.” As the scene unfolds, the light subtly changes, late afternoon moving into dusk.
Badham and Travolta clashed on a number of occasions. When Travolta first saw the rushes of the opening scene, in which a stand-in—shot from the knees down—takes that famous walk along Brooklyn’s 86th Street to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive,” he insisted that his character wouldn’t walk like that. He made Badham reshoot the scene, this time with Travolta strutting down the avenue. Later, when Travolta got his first look at how his big dance solo had been edited, he had a meltdown. “I was crying and very angry because of the way the dance highlight was shot. I knew how it should appear on-screen, and it wasn’t shot that way. You couldn’t even see my feet!” The sequence had been edited for close-ups, so that all his hard work—the knee drops, the splits, the solo he had labored over for nine months—had been cut off at the knees. He knew that for the scene to work, he had to be seen head to toe, so no one would think someone else had done the dancing for him. One of the most famous dance numbers in the history of film almost didn’t make it to the screen.
“I called Stigwood,” Travolta says, “crying and furious, and said, ‘Robert, I’m off the movie. I don’t want to be a part of it anymore.’”
Stigwood gave Travolta license to re-edit the scene, over Badham’s objections. At 23, Travolta knew what he wanted and what he could do, and he was protecting his character and his dazzling moves.
“The Bee Gees weren’t even involved in the movie in the beginning,” says Travolta. “I was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs.” Once they came in, however, everything changed.
Afterward, Stigwood thought of the Bee Gees as co-creators of the movie. “Those first five songs,” says Bill Oakes, “which I put on the first side of the soundtrack double album—‘Stayin’ Alive,’ ‘How Deep Is Your Love,’ ‘Night Fever,’ ‘More than a Woman,’ and ‘If I Can’t Have You’ [written by the brothers Gibb but sung by Oakes’s wife at the time, Yvonne Elliman]—that’s the side you couldn’t stop playing.” But in l976, before Stigwood bought the rights to Cohn’s article, “the Bee Gees were broken,” remembers McCormick. “They were touring Malaysia and Venezuela, the two places where they were still popular. They were a mess. Everybody [in the group] had their own little soap opera.” But Stigwood “still had this innate ability to spot where a trend was going, like he had this pop gyroscope implanted in him,” he adds.
The Bee Gees are three brothers—Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb—who were born on the Isle of Man and grew up in Australia, and whose first big hit, “New York Mining Disaster l941,” had some people believing that it was secretly recorded by the Beatles under a pseudonym. It was followed by two more hits: “To Love Somebody” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” Quick fame and riches put tremendous strains on the group—they broke up, tried solo acts, regrouped, and by the time of Saturday Night Fever were considered a dated 60s band, awash in drugs and alcohol and legal problems. Nonetheless, Stigwood signed them to his record label and released “Jive Talkin’” to radio stations anonymously, because no one wanted to hear from the Bee Gees. Oakes recalls that in the early l970s “it was hard just getting the Bee Gees back on the radio, because they were virtually blacklisted.” But when “Jive Talkin’” hit, people were surprised to learn that “these falsetto-singing disco chaps were in fact your old Bee Gees—that again was Stigwood’s genius.” The song and the album it came from, Main Course, were huge hits. Even though they weren’t a disco band—they didn’t go to clubs, they didn’t even dance!—Stigwood felt they had “the beat of the dance floor in their blood,” Oakes says.
When Stigwood told the band about Cohn’s article and asked them to write songs for the movie, they were back living on the Isle of Man, for tax reasons. Barry Gibb suggested a few titles, including “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” but it wasn’t until they convened at the Chateau D’Heuroville studio, in France, to mix a live album called Here at Last Live, did they flesh out those songs—and they wrote them virtually in a single weekend.
Stigwood and Oakes turned up in Heuroville, and the Bee Gees played their demos: “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” “More than a Woman.” “They flipped out and said these will be great. We still had no concept of the movie, except some kind of rough script that they’d brought with them,” according to Barry Gibb. “You’ve got to remember, we were fairly dead in the water at that point, 1975, somewhere in that zone—the Bee Gees’ sound was basically tired. We needed something new. We hadn’t had a hit record in about three years. So we felt, Oh jeez, that’s it. That’s our life span, like most groups in the late 60s. So, we had to find something. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Oakes mixed the soundtrack on the Paramount lot. Senior executives would call across the commissary to ask, “‘How’s your little disco movie, Billy?’ They thought it was rather silly disco had run its course. These days, Fever is credited with kicking off the whole disco thing—it really didn’t. Truth is, it breathed new life into a genre that was actually dying.”
The music had a profound effect on cast and crew. Priestley remembers, “We all thought we’d fallen into a bucket of shit, and then we heard that music. It changed everything. We didn’t hear the soundtrack until we were about three weeks into the movie. But once you heard it, you said, ‘Whoa!’ An aura came over it. I mean, I’m not a disco fan, but that music transcends disco.” For the first time, everyone dared to think this movie could be big. Gorney, whose father was Jay Gorney, the songwriter who wrote such hits as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” and “You’re My Thrill,” had the same reaction: “The first time I heard the music I said, ‘Those are monster hits.’”
“How long was the Fever shoot?” asks Karen Lynn Gorney rhetorically. “Three months and 30 years, and it’s not over yet. I seemed to be always working on the film, because of the dancing. Physically, I was weak when I started. I was terrified, because the first time I danced with John he’d been working for half a year on this stuff. I felt like I was trying to dance with a wild stallion—he was that strong.”
An actress and dancer who was well known at the time as Tara Martin Tyler Brent Jefferson on ABC’s endlessly running soap opera All My Children, Gorney landed the part after sharing a cab with Stigwood’s nephew. When he described the movie to her, she asked, “Am I in it?” She then auditioned for Stigwood in his apartment in the San Remo, on Central Park West. “I remember this giant silk Chinese screen along the wall—the whole history of China. I did the best acting of my life in front of him.” She landed the part of Stephanie, a Brooklyn climber who has already made the big move to “the city” and is hell-bent on self-improvement—taking college courses and drinking tea with lemon. Tony reminds her of the neighborhood she’s trying to escape. It’s a touching and comic role—at one point, while showing off her erudition in her Brooklyn accent, she insists that Romeo and Juliet was written by Zefferelli. “I was trying to convince myself to stay away from Tony,” she says about her role, “because he wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I wanted you to see the voices in her head saying, ‘Oh, he’s too young. He doesn’t have any class.’”
“I’m not that good a dancer,” Travolta told Hyland. “Baby,” she said, “you’re going to learn!”
There was some early grumbling about Gorney when filming began. Certain crew members felt she was too old for the part, and that her dancing wasn’t up to par. (She had sustained serious injuries in a motorcycle accident a few years earlier.) But Pauline Kael, in her review of the film, found the performance affecting: “Gorney wins you over by her small, harried, tight face and her line readings, which are sometimes miraculously edgy and ardent. The determined, troubled Stephanie … is an updated version of those working girls that Ginger Rogers used to play.” Her toughness, her ambition—even her comic cluelessness—contribute to the authenticity of the film. As does an accent so thick it needs subtitles.
The other important female character is Annette, played by Donna Pescow. She auditioned for the role six times—three for Avildsen, three for Badham. When she got the part, at 22, she said it was the first Christmas in years she wouldn’t have to work at Bloomingdale’s selling ornaments. She had spent two years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in New York, trying to get rid of her Brooklyn accent, but when she finally landed the role, she had to reclaim it. Legendary casting director Shirley Rich told her, “Donna. Move back home, hang out with your parents. You sound like you don’t come from anywhere.”
“I grew up never calling it ‘Manhattan.’ It was always ‘the city’—‘We’re going to the city,’” Pescow recalls. “I was living with my folks because it was close to the set, and I didn’t drive. And so the Teamsters used to pick me up. My first night of shooting, my grandfather Jack Goldress drove me to the set in Bay Ridge. He was a former lighting man in vaudeville and then a movie projectionist at the RKO Albee, so movies were not a big thing for him. He was more interested in finding parking.”
Badham rehearsed Pescow and the Faces for a couple of weeks, “just to get us to be kind of a gang. We went to the clubs together. Travolta couldn’t go because he was too recognizable, but the other guys went. I’d never been in a discotheque, ever.”
One of the first scenes shot with Donna was the gang-rape scene, still a harrowing thing to watch. An acting coach at the American Academy once told her, “If you play a victim, you’re lost,” and she seems to have followed that advice. Though we cringe at the way her character is abused, we see her strength and her resilience. In her effort to become the kind of woman who can attract Tony, she allows herself to be abused by the boys she probably grew up with, went to school with, danced with. Yet her character has the most insight into how women’s roles were changing: Tony contemptuously asks her, “What are you anyway, a nice girl or you a cunt?” To which she replies, “I don’t know—both?”
“John Badham and I had a running disagreement” about that scene, Pescow remembers. “I said, ‘She’s a virgin.’ He said, ‘No, she’s not.’ That’s why I never played it as if she were really raped—she wasn’t—she was off in her own little world,” offering up her virginity, by proxy, to Tony Manero.
Pape admits how difficult it was to film that scene. “What Donna did was an incredible piece of acting. We were really worried it was going to affect our friendship. We talked about it a lot before we did it. We had to go into this choreographed situation where you’re violating your friend with no concern for her feelings whatsoever. We had to go to a place where we weren’t protecting her at all. She was willing to give it up to the wrong guy. And what did she really want? She just wanted to be loved.”
Everyone on the set seemed to respond to Pescow’s vulnerability. Says Priestley, “The crew just loved her. She was so great. But we all felt sorry for her. There’s that great scene where she walks up to Tony and says, ‘You’re gonna ask me to sit down?’ And he says, ‘No,’ but she said, ‘You’d ask me to lie down.’ She was perfect—it was so Brooklyn. I mean, the little outfit with the white fur jacket? It makes you feel bad for every girl you screwed over.”
Tony Manero’s Faces—his entourage of homeboys who watch his back, admire his dancing, keep the girls from bothering him, and rumble with the Puerto Ricans—were played with pathos and humor by Pape (Double J), Barry Miller (Bobby C.), and Joseph Cali (Joey). When he first moved to New York from Rochester, Pape says, “Pacino was the actor to be—he was the hottest thing. He was the presiding spirit of the movie. When Tony comes out of his room in his underwear and his Italian grandmother crosses herself, he says, ‘Attica! Attica!’—that’s from Dog Day Afternoon.” Pape managed to land this, his first film role, on his first audition—almost unheard of—and his character was a kind of “lieutenant figure who could easily have been the leader. But he had one flaw: he had a bad temper. That’s why he was in second position.”
Like his cohorts, Cali, a stage-trained actor, would end up being typecast by the role of Joey. “People thought I was that street guy. I had to be Joey,” he later said. Miller, as the hapless Bobby C., has the most shocking moment in the film when he falls—or jumps—to his death from the Verrazano Bridge. He’s depressed because his girlfriend is pregnant and he knows he has to marry her, ending his carefree days as one of Tony’s entourage.
The actors rehearsed for a few weeks in Manhattan, around Eighth Street and Broadway. “We just played basketball together and did that scene where we’re making fun of the gay guys,” Pape says. “We were all brand new—it’s what we’d been dreaming about, having a chance to prove ourselves. We all improvised well together.” (Travolta, in fact, was an inspired improviser. Manero’s overbearing father slaps him on the head during an argument at the dinner table. Travolta improvised, “Would you just watch the hair? You know, I work on my hair a long time, and you hit it! He hits my hair!”)
In prepping for their roles, the Faces went to Times Square with the costume designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein (who would later win an Oscar for her art direction on Amadeus.) The wardrobe was bought off the rack, adding to the film’s authenticity. “We were buying all these polyester things, picking out all this costume jewelry. She had a great feel for it,” Pape says. Von Brandenstein found Travolta’s famous white suit at a boutique in Bay Ridge just under the El. “It was l977,” says Priestley. “You had to have bling—all the gold around your neck, the pointy shoes. You had to have the suit. It was called ‘the Hollywood Rise.’”
Pape took inspiration from the crush of local Barbarino fans hanging around the shoot. “It wasn’t just that they were there to see Travolta,” he says. “If they could get within five feet of you, they wanted to be sure you were doing them right. They didn’t want Hollywood bullshit. These were the guys who went to the clubs on the weekends, who worked in the paint stores, who had the dead-end jobs. This was important to them. It wasn’t just about hanging around movie people. It was like, Yeah, you’re welcome to be here. But regardless of what you think, respect it. This is our life, this is our world. One of the guys said, ‘You can touch it, but don’t spit on it.’”
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge looms over Saturday Night Fever as a nearly mythical structure. Named after the l6th-century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, the bridge is a source of ethnic pride for Italian-Americans. When it opened, on November 21, 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. An American achievement with an Italian name, it symbolizes the realization of unreachable dreams. Tony knows that bridge, and in one scene he lovingly describes its history, its dimensions, its grandeur. It’s where Tony’s entourage—full of alcohol and sheer animal energy—hang from the girders and dare one another to climb higher. The crew spent three harrowing nights filming on the Verrazano, and it was a nightmare, as the March weather veered from freezing on one occasion to nearly 90 degrees on another. The high winds posed additional threats to the camera crew and stuntmen. Doubling as Travolta’s stand-in and wearing Tony Manero’s shoes and pants, Priestley, the camera operator for the scene, took a handheld camera out on the bridge’s main beam and filmed himself with just a key grip holding his waist. “I was young. You couldn’t sense danger then. But you’re 600 feet off the water. I had my camera in my hand and we just did it. We wanted to show Hollywood we could make great films.”
“They were talking about putting a guy wire on us,” Pape reminisces, “and I said, ‘No.’ I just jumped up on the cable to show them I could swing around. There was no safety net. I was [hundreds] of feet above the water. All that was improvised—it wasn’t planned. I just jumped up there and said, ‘Let’s do it, let’s get it done.’”
The cast and crew thought that Paramount didn’t care about Saturday Night Fever. “They gave us an office on the lot the size of a broom closet,” Oakes says. “They didn’t believe in it. Only Stigwood knew it was going to be something big. It was just the studio’s ‘little disco movie’—that was the phrase that haunted me.”
In fact, word was getting back to Michael Eisner, newly ensconced as Paramount’s head of production, that the movie was too vulgar. At previews in Cincinnati and Columbus, half the audience walked out because of the language and sex scenes. McCormick remembers being paged in Kennedy Airport: “I pick up the phone and it’s Eisner, who starts screaming at me because we’d only taken two ‘fuck’s out. It became one of those ridiculous arguing sessions, where they said, ‘Take out two “fuck”s and I’ll let you have one “spic.”’ Stigwood finally agreed to take two ‘fuck’s out of the movie, and that was it—he wouldn’t change.” They did leave in the term “blow job,” however, which, some believe, is the first time the phrase was uttered in a feature film. (Attempts to reach Eisner were unsuccessful.)
It wasn’t just the language. Some of the suits at Paramount were made uncomfortable by the way Travolta was so lovingly photographed in one scene—preening in front of the mirror in his bikini briefs, his gold chain nestled in his chest hair—by the cinematographer Ralf D. Bode. “We got all kinds of hassle,” remembers Badham. “We were letting some man walk around in his underwear, showing his body off.” The image of lean, sexually vibrant Travolta was so homoerotic that the production designer, Charles Bailey, put up that Farrah Fawcett poster just to cool things off.
There was another little problem that Paramount had to deal with before the film could ever be released. Hairspray would not be the first time John Travolta dressed in drag. Letting off steam at the end of the shoot, Travolta and members of the crew filmed a mock wedding at the disco—for laughs—with John dressed as the bride and one of the grips appearing as the groom. “They wanted to blow Paramount’s mind,” Bill Ward explains. But when the studio executives arrived, according to Tom Priestley, “they didn’t see the humor in it. They sent someone to take control of the film, and I’m sure they burned it.”
Stigwood released the music before the film—his strategy not only worked, it changed the game. “He basically pioneered an entirely new way of doing business in the distribution of films, records, stage, and television,” Oakes believes. “I think his being from Australia had a lot to do with it—that sort of buccaneering adventurism, that entrepreneurship. I don’t think he would have been as successful if he’d been English.”
Eisner was skiing in Vail two weeks before the movie opened, on December 7, l977. “I heard ‘Stayin’ Alive’ at the lift, at the bottom, and then we went up to the top, to the restaurant, and they were playing ‘Stayin’ Alive’ there, too, so I called up Barry Diller, head of Paramount, and I said, ‘Do we have a hit here?’ And then it opened,” Eisner recounted, and Travolta “was the biggest thing that ever happened.” When the film debuted, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, it was a phenomenon. In its first 11 days, it grossed more than $11 million—it would go on to gross $285 million, and the soundtrack became the best-selling movie soundtrack album of all time (until Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard, in l992).
Travolta, who thought they were just “doing a little art film in Brooklyn,” was stunned. Not only did it breathe new life into disco, it changed the way American youth looked: “Thousands of shaggy-haired, blue-jean-clad youngsters are suddenly putting on suits and vests, combing their hair and learning to dance with partners,” wrote Newsweek. The Abraham & Straus department store in Brooklyn even opened a “Night Fever” men’s-wear boutique. John Travolta look-alike contests were drawing lines two blocks long. Fans no less prominent than Jane Fonda and Chicago Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel—who saw Saturday Night Fever 20 times—bid on Travolta’s suit when it was auctioned at a charity benefit in 1979. Siskel outbid her at $2,000. (It’s now valued at $l00,000 and has ended up in the Smithsonian Institution.)
Pape and Pescow went to see the film in a theater in Brooklyn. “It was my first time seeing it with the people that we made it about,” recalls Pape. “It was amazing. They were talking back to the screen, they were screaming and yelling, and as we came out of the theater, we were caught. But the crush was not mean—the crush was, ‘You nailed it! What part of Brooklyn are you from?’ It was a crush of affirmation.”
The film was, finally, so authentic, Karen Lynn Gorney believes, that it was more of a documentary. “We improvised for two weeks, so that by the time it came to filming, Badham just shot what was happening. It wasn’t acting.”
For the Bee Gees, once the music hit, life became insane. “Fever was No. 1 every week,” remembers Barry Gibb. “It wasn’t just like a hit album. It was No. 1 every single week for 25 weeks. It was just an amazing, crazy, extraordinary time. I remember not being able to answer the phone, and I remember people climbing over my walls. I was quite grateful when it stopped. It was too unreal. In the long run, your life is better if it’s not like that on a constant basis. Nice though it was.”
When the reviews came out, Travolta noticed his manager, Bob LeMond, quietly weeping in the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel. He was reading Pauline Kael’s review in the December 26, l977, New Yorker. To this day, Travolta treasures Kael’s words: “[He] acts like someone who loves to dance. And, more than that, he acts like someone who loves to act…. He expresses shades of emotion that aren’t set down in scripts, and he knows how to show us the decency and intelligence under Tony’s uncouthness … he isn’t just a good actor, he’s a generous-hearted actor.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Travolta for a best-actor Oscar, along with Richard Dreyfuss, Woody Allen, Richard Burton, and Marcello Mastroianni (Dreyfuss won, for The Goodbye Girl). But the Bee Gees were snubbed. Stigwood threatened legal action, and McCormick threw an “anti—Academy Awards party” at his house, in Los Angeles, in protest. The guest list included Marisa Berenson, Tony and Berry Perkins, Lily Tomlin, and the writer Christopher Isherwood—even Ava Gardner showed up. “It was the last blush of Saturday Night Fever” for McCormick. “It was over after that, for me.”
The movie changed John Travolta’s life. What Brando and James Dean had been to the l950s, Travolta was to the l970s. Saturday Night Fever, believes Travolta, gave the decade its cultural identity. Pape felt that it was just Travolta’s fate: “Sometimes it’s time for you to have the brass ring. It’s like, in John’s life, it was meant to happen, and everybody just has to get out of the way.” When movie stardom hit for Travolta, there was no one else in his stratosphere. “I had the field to myself,” he recalls. “A few years later, Cruise would come along, and Tom Hanks, and Mel Gibson, but for a long time there was no one else out there. It was like Valentino-style popularity, an unimaginable pinnacle of fame. It’s not that I wanted competition. I just wanted company.”
For Pape, the movie “was like getting strapped onto a rocket ship. I became almost a victim of my own success. All the stage training I’d had, all the stuff that I’d done, it was starting to work against me, because the only work I was being offered were similar kinds of things. The very thing that made us trapped us.” Pescow, who won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best supporting actress for the film, later got rave reviews playing a waitress on television in the short-lived Angie. After that, she “spent years waiting for a film part to come through. And when it didn’t I realized I was turning my entire life into a waiting room. I wasn’t going to do that anymore.” Today, Pape is in demand doing voice-overs for television and film, and he’s C.E.O. of his own production company, Red Wall Productions. And Pescow’s return to acting was not an insignificant one. As if to forge a link between Tony Manero and Tony Soprano (could there possibly be a white suit hanging among the other skeletons in Soprano’s closet?), Pescow appeared in the controversial final episode of The Sopranos.
By the end of the 90s, Joseph Cali had occasionally turned up on television, in shows such as Baywatch Hawaii and Melrose Place, but he now primarily sells high-end home-theater equipment for Cello Music & Film Systems, a company he founded six years ago. Gorney has appeared in dozens of independent films since Saturday Night Fever. She might well have ushered in the era of the tough heroine with the thick Brooklyn accent, embodied by actresses such as Marisa Tomei, Debi Mazar, and Lorraine Bracco.
McCormick now says that working on Fever “was the most exciting time of my life. I couldn’t get up early enough, and I couldn’t wait to see the dailies every night. It went from a dark winter of John losing Diana to a glorious summer. And we didn’t know at the end how it was going to work out. All I prayed for was that it would be enough of a success that I’d get to work on another movie.” His prayers were answered. At Warner Bros., McCormick has overseen such films as Syriana, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Perfect Storm, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Fight Club, and Blood Diamond.
Stigwood’s comet also continued to burn—for a while. Fever was followed by Grease, which did even better at the box office. But inevitably, perhaps, Stigwood and the Bee Gees fell out. The band filed a $120 million lawsuit against him, which would later be settled out of court. RSO folded in l981. “I know I’d worked for a magician—an alchemist,” McCormick says, but after Saturday Night Fever “you could never get him interested in anything again. He really had no serious desire. He wanted to be safe. And all that money went offshore to Bermuda,” where Stigwood maintained a baronial estate for a number of years. Oakes says, “He removed himself from everyday life, almost like Howard Hughes. He was literally on his yacht, or in a suite somewhere. To get him to go out was a major achievement.”
Travolta believes that “the big difference between me and Stigwood was, when something is that big, people feel in a way that they’d rather get out if they can’t replicate that incredible success. He pulled up his ladder, moved to Bermuda, decided to get out of the game.” For Travolta it was different. “It was never just about money. I’d wanted to be a film actor my entire life. For Stigwood, if it wasn’t the pinnacle every time, he wasn’t going to stay.”
Travolta found himself in the wilderness, too, after the success of Grease. His third film for RSO, Moment by Moment, with Lily Tomlin, was a disappointment for everyone. (Critics nicknamed it Hour by Hour.) In 1983, Stigwood co-produced a sequel to Saturday Night Fever called Staying Alive, with its writer-director Sylvester Stallone. Although Norman Wexler co-wrote the screenplay, the movie was a disaster. “I called it Staying Awake—it was ego gone mad,” recalls Oakes. “It was shorter, five times more expensive, and not any good.” Oakes withdrew from Hollywood soon after. “That’s when I said, ‘I’m putting down my tools.’” After writing a film for Arnold Schwarzenegger (Raw Deal, in 1986), Wexler started turning down work. “I was fired by my agent,” he told friends gleefully, before returning to playwriting. His last play, in l996, was a comedy, Forgive Me, Forgive Me Not. He died three years later.
Travolta’s career had a brief boost with two comedies, Look Who’s Talking and Look Who’s Talking Too, in l989 and 1990, but by 1994, when he came to the attention of an intense young filmmaker new in Hollywood, his asking price had plummeted to $150,000. Quentin Tarantino was a huge fan of Travolta’s, and he cast him in the role of Vincent Vega, a hit man who can dance, in Pulp Fiction. After Welcome Back, Kotter and Saturday Night Fever, it was the third time a character named Vincent would transform Travolta’s career.
The paper’s series on slavery made avoidable mistakes. But the attacks from its critics are much more dangerous.
On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.
Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded. The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America.
Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”
I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.
I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking.
The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.
Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.
Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious. Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.
The 1619 Project became one of the most talked-about journalistic achievements of the year—as it was intended to. The Times produced not just a magazine, but podcasts, a newspaper section, and even a curriculum designed to inject a new version of American history into schools. Now it’s back in circulation the Times is promoting it again during journalistic awards season, and it’s already a finalist for the National Magazine Awards and rumored to be a strong Pulitzer contender.
But it has also become a lightning rod for critics, and that one sentence about the role of slavery in the founding of the United States has ended up at the center of a debate over the whole project. A letter signed by five academic historians claimed that the 1619 Project got some significant elements of the history wrong, including the claim that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. They have demanded that the New York Times issue corrections on these points, which the paper has so far refused to do. For her part, Hannah-Jones has acknowledged that she overstated her argument about slavery and the Revolution in her essay, and that she plans to amend this argument for the book version of the project, under contract with Random House.
The argument among historians, while real, is hardly black and white.
The criticism of the Times has emboldened some conservatives to assert that such “revisionist history” is flat-out illegitimate. The right-wing publication The Federalist is extending the fight with a planned “1620 Project” about the anniversary of the Mayflower Landing at Plymouth Rock. (This plan is already inviting its own correction request, since Plymouth Rock is not actually the site of the Pilgrims’ first landing.) The project was even criticized on the floor of the U.S. Senate when, during the impeachment trial, President Donald Trump’s lawyer cited the historians’ letter to slam the project. Some observers, including at times Hannah-Jones herself, have framed the argument as evidence of a chasm between black and white scholars (the historians who signed the letter are all white), pitting a progressive history that centers on slavery and racism against a conservative history that downplays them.
But the debates playing out now on social media and in op-eds between supporters and detractors of the 1619 Project misrepresent both the historical record and the historical profession. The United States was not, in fact, founded to protect slavery—but the Times is right that slavery was central to its story. And the argument among historians, while real, is hardly black and white. Over the past half-century, important foundational work on the history and legacy of slavery has been done by a multiracial group of scholars who are committed to a broad understanding of U.S. history—one that centers on race without denying the roles of other influences or erasing the contributions of white elites. An accurate understanding of our history must present a comprehensive picture, and it’s by paying attention to these scholars that we’ll get there.
Here is the complicated picture of the Revolutionary era that the New York Times missed: White Southerners might have wanted to preserve slavery in their territory, but white Northerners were much more conflicted, with many opposing the ownership of enslaved people in the North even as they continued to benefit from investments in the slave trade and slave colonies. More importantly for Hannah-Jones’ argument, slavery in the Colonies faced no immediate threat from Great Britain, so colonists wouldn’t have needed to secede to protect it. It’s true that in 1772, the famous Somerset case ended slavery in England and Wales, but it had no impact on Britain’s Caribbean colonies, where the vast majority of black people enslaved by the British labored and died, or in the North American Colonies. It took 60 more years for the British government to finally end slavery in its Caribbean colonies, and when it happened, it was in part because a series of slave rebellions in the British Caribbean in the early 19th century made protecting slavery there an increasingly expensive proposition.
Far from being fought to preserve slavery, the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American Colonies. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, a British military strategy designed to unsettle the Southern Colonies by inviting enslaved people to flee to British lines, propelled hundreds of enslaved people off plantations and turned some Southerners to the patriot side. It also led most of the 13 Colonies to arm and employ free and enslaved black people, with the promise of freedom to those who served in their armies. While neither side fully kept its promises, thousands of enslaved people were freed as a result of these policies.
This week from Politico Magazine
By Mark Ostow and David Giambusso
The ideals gaining force during the Revolutionary era also inspired Northern states from Vermont to Pennsylvania to pass laws gradually ending slavery. These laws did not prescribe full and immediate emancipation: They freed the children of enslaved mothers only after the children served their mothers’ enslavers through their early 20s. Nor did they promise racial equality or full citizenship for African Americans—far from it. But black activism during the Revolutionary War and this era of emancipation led to the end of slavery earlier than prescribed in such laws. Enslaved black people negotiated with their owners to purchase their freedom, or simply ran away in the confused aftermath of war. And most Northern enslavers freed slaves ahead of the time mandated by law.
Among Northern—and even some Southern—white people, the push to end slavery during this time was real. The new nation almost faltered over the degree to which the Constitution supported the institution. In the end, Northern Colonies conceded a number of points to the protection of slavery on the federal level, even as the Constitution also pledged to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade by 1807—all without once using the word “slave.” The degree to which the document was intended to provide for the protection or the destruction of slavery was hotly contested in the antebellum era. While Frederick Douglass may have seen the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, both radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and pro-slavery ideologue John C. Calhoun saw it as written to support slavery. Abraham Lincoln was unable to use the Constitution as written to end slavery, either during his time in Congress or after his election to the presidency. The argument was settled through the Civil War, and by rewriting the Constitution with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
Frederick Douglass, right, may have seen the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, while fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, left, saw it as written to support slavery. | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The 1619 Project, in its claim that the Revolution was fought primarily to preserve slavery, doesn’t do justice to this history. Nor, however, does the five historians’ critical letter. In fact, the historians are just as misleading in simply asserting that Lincoln and Douglass agreed that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document” without addressing how few other Americans agreed that the Constitution’s protections should be shared with African Americans. Gradual emancipation laws, as well as a range of state and local laws across the antebellum nation limiting black suffrage, property ownership, access to education and even residency in places like Ohio, Washington and California, together demonstrate that legally, the struggle for black equality almost always took a back seat to the oppressive imperatives of white supremacy. And racial violence against black people and against those few white people who supported ending slavery and supported black citizenship undergirded these inequalities—a pattern that continued well into the 20th century.
The five historians’ letter says it “applauds all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history.” The best-known of those letter-writers, however, built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries. By the time Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz were publishing their first, highly acclaimed books on pre-Civil War America, in the early 1970s and mid-1980s, respectively, academic historians had begun, finally, to acknowledge African American history and slavery as a critical theme in American history. But Wood and Wilentz paid little attention to such matters in their first works on early America.
In Wood’s exhaustive and foundational The Creation of the American Republic (1969), which details the development of republican ideology in the new nation, there is only one index listing for “Negroes,” and none for slavery. In his first book, Chants Democratic (1984), Wilentz sought to explain how New York’s antebellum-era working class took up republican ideals, which had been used by some Founding Fathers to limit citizenship, and rewrote the tenets to include themselves as full-fledged citizens. Yet Wilentz’s work largely ignored issues of race and black workers, even though New York had the largest population of enslaved black people in the Colonial North, the second-largest population of free black people in the antebellum urban North, and was the site of the most violent race riots of the 19th century. As I wrote in my own 2003 book, Wilentz created “a white hegemony more powerful than that which existed” during the era he was studying.
In their subsequent works, Wilentz and Wood have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.) In The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), Wood acknowledges the new nation’s failure to end slavery, and even the brutality of some Founding Fathers who held people as property. But the facts of slave-owning are not presented as central to that time. While he discusses the Founders’ ability to eliminate other forms of hierarchy, Wood has no explanation for why they were unable to eliminate slavery nor does he discuss how or why Northern states did so. Further, black people as historical actors shaping the ideas and lives of the Founders have no place in his work.
Wilentz has struggled publicly over how to understand the centrality of slavery to the nation’s founding era. In a 2015 op-ed, and more fully in his 2018 book No Property in Man, he argues that the Constitutional Convention specifically kept support for slavery defined as “property in man” out of the Constitution, a key distinction that the Founders believed would eventually allow for ending slavery in the nation. Such an argument obscures the degree to which many Founding Fathers returned to a support of Southern slavery as the revolutionary fervor waned by the early 19th century, as only one example, Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia in part as a pro-slavery bulwark against Northern anti-slavery ideologies.
Fortunately, the works of Wood and Wilentz and others who underrepresent the centrality of slavery and African Americans to America’s history are only one strand of a vibrant scholarship on early America. Beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century, historians like Gary Nash, Ira Berlin and Alfred Young built on the earlier work of Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Quarles, John Hope Franklin and others, writing histories of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras that included African Americans, slavery and race. A standout from this time is Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, which addresses explicitly how the intertwined histories of Native American, African American and English residents of Virginia are foundational to understanding the ideas of freedom we still struggle with today. These works have much to teach us about history, and about how to study and present it in a way that is inclusive of our historical and present-day diversity as a nation. Just as importantly, these scholars and many others fostered new scholarship by mentoring a diverse group of thinkers within and beyond academia.
HOW CLOSE WE CAME
There was one last milestone on Podhorzer’s mind: Jan. 6. On the day Congress would meet to tally the electoral count, Trump summoned his supporters to D.C. for a rally.
Much to their surprise, the thousands who answered his call were met by virtually no counterdemonstrators. To preserve safety and ensure they couldn’t be blamed for any mayhem, the activist left was “strenuously discouraging counter activity,” Podhorzer texted me the morning of Jan. 6, with a crossed-fingers emoji.
Trump addressed the crowd that afternoon, peddling the lie that lawmakers or Vice President Mike Pence could reject states’ electoral votes. He told them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Then he returned to the White House as they sacked the building. As lawmakers fled for their lives and his own supporters were shot and trampled, Trump praised the rioters as “very special.”
It was his final attack on democracy, and once again, it failed. By standing down, the democracy campaigners outfoxed their foes. “We won by the skin of our teeth, honestly, and that’s an important point for folks to sit with,” says the Democracy Defense Coalition’s Peoples. “There’s an impulse for some to say voters decided and democracy won. But it’s a mistake to think that this election cycle was a show of strength for democracy. It shows how vulnerable democracy is.”
The members of the alliance to protect the election have gone their separate ways. The Democracy Defense Coalition has been disbanded, though the Fight Back Table lives on. Protect Democracy and the good-government advocates have turned their attention to pressing reforms in Congress. Left-wing activists are pressuring the newly empowered Democrats to remember the voters who put them there, while civil rights groups are on guard against further attacks on voting. Business leaders denounced the Jan. 6 attack, and some say they will no longer donate to lawmakers who refused to certify Biden’s victory. Podhorzer and his allies are still holding their Zoom strategy sessions, gauging voters’ views and developing new messages. And Trump is in Florida, facing his second impeachment, deprived of the Twitter and Facebook accounts he used to push the nation to its breaking point.
As I was reporting this article in November and December, I heard different claims about who should get the credit for thwarting Trump’s plot. Liberals argued the role of bottom-up people power shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly the contributions of people of color and local grassroots activists. Others stressed the heroism of GOP officials like Van Langevelde and Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, who stood up to Trump at considerable cost. The truth is that neither likely could have succeeded without the other. “It’s astounding how close we came, how fragile all this really is,” says Timmer, the former Michigan GOP executive director. “It’s like when Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff–if you don’t look down, you don’t fall. Our democracy only survives if we all believe and don’t look down.”
Democracy won in the end. The will of the people prevailed. But it’s crazy, in retrospect, that this is what it took to put on an election in the United States of America.
–With reporting by LESLIE DICKSTEIN, MARIAH ESPADA and SIMMONE SHAH
Correction appended, Feb. 5: The original version of this story misstated the name of Norm Eisen’s organization. It is the Voter Protection Program, not the Voter Protection Project. The original version of this story also misstated Jeff Timmer’s former position with the Michigan Republican Party. He was the executive director, not the chairman.