Ben Bradlee’s spacious office looks out over the main newsroom of the Washington Post. He sits with fingers interlocked behind his head and grins with the ease of a famous athlete giving you a moment. Buggy blue eyes, tapered shirt, striped silk tie chosen by his new wife, Sally Quinn, from the lush Britches haberdashery down in Georgetown. Sally’s ties on Ben have inspired Ivy League wannabes throughout the building, whose new ties now clash with the usual frumpy shirts and scuffed shoes. But missing in the Post’s illustrious editor is the thoughtful air of Jason Robards, the actor who portrayed Bradlee in All the President’s Men and with whom Bradlee insisted upon being identified in the film’s credits.
“We might need you to do a quick and dirty profile,” he tells me. But mostly I’m to write features for the magazine, part of the “soft” side and far from what matters at this newspaper, which is news and sports.
Howard Simons, Ben’s managing editor, fidgets nearby while Ben asks me if I got criticism from Reagan’s people about my piece that appeared in the Atlantic. I say that I did. Bradlee says, “We know what that feels like,” and looks pointedly at Simons. He’s referring to staff writer Janet Cooke’s story about an eight-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer Prize until it was revoked two days later after being exposed as a complete fabrication—a major embarrassment, to say the least, to a paper that was still basking in the afterglow of its Watergate glory.
And that’s it. I have had my prescribed few minutes with the most famous editor in America, and now my work can begin.
Why would a freelance writer who is making a living take a job, even at the august Post? Because steady employment can be a way of extending one’s scope and experience and allow time to breathe freely at night when usually you’re running numbers in your head: bills, bank balances, health insurance for five, Social Security contributions paid for most Americans by employers but not for freelancers and, lastly, a periodic reminder of why you rejected steady employment in the first place. But if it is largely necessity that has landed me here, my four-year stint at the Post will give me a front-row view of an institution entering the last of its salad days while still running on the fumes of its preening self-importance. I am here at the bonfire of the journalistic vanities.
As it turns out, I am soon writing for the Post’s Sunday Magazine, a backwater within the larger slough of the soft sections. Unlike at the New York Times, few at the Post read their own magazine, and if you’re a newcomer like me you’re unlikely to be read as a matter of principle anyway. Because, you see, if you were worthy you would already have been working for the Post.
There are only two categories of human beings here, I soon discover: those who arrived before Watergate, and those who arrived post-Watergate (hereafter “BW” and “AW”). If you’re an “AW” you forever bear a figurative “A”. Even the Post’s new publisher, Don Graham—Donnie—is an “AW” in a way, having only recently taken over from his mother, Katharine Graham. After serving as a grunt in Vietnam, he worked as a D.C. cop to learn his city from the street up, a noble goal, it seems to me, but this marked him as a chump in the eyes of Ben and his boys. So does riding on the Metro instead of in a limousine.
Sometimes I see Donnie stretched out on a bench in the Farragut North station in a black wool watch cap, waiting for a train up to Cleveland Park, as I am. But while I’m trying to think of story ideas for the magazine that will get the attention of top editors on the main floor, Donnie’s probably worrying about having to name Ben’s replacement. Donnie wanders the building on 15th Street like a principled wraith with a frozen smile, keeping the Post profitable until that proves impossible.
Ben’s famous dictum, “creative tension,” supposed to inspire competition among writers and editors, is meanwhile inspiring jealousy, ill will, drastic maneuvering, and paranoia. One inspirer of the latter is Dick Harwood, a former Marine from east Tennessee who has held various positions in the editorial pantheon, none for very long. Harwood’s probably the best example of the Peter Principle at the Post—the informal law that one’s inevitably either fired or promoted to a level of incompetence. Harwood performs as Ben’s surrogate humiliator, and he and Howard Simons, a bookish sort, are said to hate each other’s guts. But then so many editors seem to hate each other’s guts in this smoldering colosseum.
Harwood’s bibulous lunches in the Madison Hotel across 15th Street are well-known. They showcase his proud absence of restraint. He invites me to lunch and says he liked my novel, World’s End, but there’s nothing friendly in the exchange. He’s collecting impressions for future reference, I feel, and presiding over daily briefings held behind glass next to the newsroom when Ben’s away. I’m invited to attend one of these, too. Editors of various sections tell which stories they will lead with the next day and await comment and occasional ridicule. The Style section usually goes last and sometimes time has run out. “Nobody gives a shit what Style’s doing anyway,” Harwood will say unless the Style editor Shelby Coffey is present.
For a time Harwood oversees all the soft sections of the paper while new editorial lines are being drawn in the graphite dust on the floor. Meanwhile Donnie is still trying to decide what to do about Ben’s replacement, and how it will be announced, and Ben’s trying to decide what to do with Shelby who, according to the Peter Principle, can rise no higher at the Post unless he’s made editor.
Meanwhile, Harwood’s telling Book World to review the latest publication of the national budget because it is, after all, a book. He seems puzzled by my writing for the magazine, including a profile of the cagey Texan James Baker, George Bush’s Secretary of State. Harwood thinks I’m displaying literary pretensions. Neither they nor coherence survive his rewrite.
Bob Woodward, another wandering wraith, is unique. His umbilical problem is out there for everybody to view. He can’t seem to cut the cord despite all the success he’s had with All the President’s Men, and the paper continues to cater to his needs, whatever they may be. Something sad about a reporter, however successful, unable to break away, and a newspaper—the Post—owing him a lot but diminished by his investigative unit ever since the Janet Cooke debacle, allowing him to make new millions for himself in this strange, transactional twilight.
And then there’s Howard Simons’s replacement as managing editor by a Minnesotan in a sleeveless diamond-plaid sweater named Len Downie. None of Sally’s striped ties for him, no sir. He held the Maryland suburban political beat when no one else wanted it, a super-straight arrow from the hinterland who some fear will go straight through the heart of the newspaper. Others write Downie off as a driven workhorse without imagination, and some think of him as a creature from outer space.
Despite this, it is increasingly likely that Downie will replace Ben. He could never compete with Ben in the glamor contest, being bereft of charisma, but that would allow Ben’s meteor trail to burn longer than most in the journalistic heaven crowded with instantly forgotten “greats.” Others wonder aloud if Downie will shred the veil covering the Post’s past as a parochial, bush-league rag with a brief stretch of glory.
The magazine may be isolated, but we’re an affable lot, aware that we matter not at all. I write about various things—armed robbery, hitchhiking to work (easy if you carry a briefcase), wine because I have lived in Europe, personalities in the bureaucracy, Robert Strauss, the extraordinarily successful lawyer lobbyist. I get advice over lunch with Mark Shields, a smart, funny political columnist and member of National Public Broadcasting.
My eye is on the Style section, the class act among the soft sections, though I’m told there’s little chance I can escape this way. Shelby Coffey, still Ben’s favorite, a southerner from that weird iteration of bygone gentility, mountainous Chattanooga, is put in charge of all the soft sections and given a corner office upstairs. His hair’s prematurely silver and he keeps his jaw tucked like a good middleweight boxer, daring you to swing.
He asks me to start my trial period all over again on grounds that he wasn’t the one who hired me, a classic Shelby move, I’m told. I refuse his request, always risky with Shelby, but the magazine editor likes my writing, and by now I have a long, diverse string of stories to my credit. Shelby backs down and I join his informal Sunday morning group jogging sessions along the C&O Canal to show goodwill. Egalitarian conversation, however, isn’t popular. When I ask what he’s reading, Shelby says, “Catullus.”
He’s away from his office much of every day, in Georgetown helping Sally Quinn write her novel. Word is that over lunch she reads aloud what she had written that morning, and Shelby nods and comments and together they move the book toward literary acclaim. Although it never receives any.
This is the beginning of Shelby’s fall. He leaves the Post with Ben’s blessing to become editor of the magazine, U.S. News and World Report, recently bought by billionaire Mort Zuckerman. That doesn’t work out, so he soon moves to the top of the masthead of the Dallas News, fulfilling the Peter Principle yet again. From there he moves to the top of the Los Angeles Times. Same outcome. Shelby will end up at one of those institutions invented for superannuated newsmen in Washington so they will have a chair to officially sit on until they fall off it.
Back on 15th Street, the editorship of Style is bestowed upon a veteran of the Post’s coverage of the war in Vietnam, Lee Lescaze. A well-born, New York bibliophile with good journalistic instincts and guts, he has little talent for diplomacy, I’m told. He tells Katharine Graham during an editorial meeting in which she asks for coverage of a Georgetown affair, “Don’t worry, we’ll get your friends into the newspaper.”
Lee’s bluntness has made him more than his share of enemies at the Post. He makes more by dating a pretty young Post reporter, Lynn Darling, which is against official company policy, even though Ben did the same thing with Sally while married to someone else. But Lee is not Ben. The worm was turning.
I go to Lee with a proposal to profile Willie Morris, the author of North Toward Home and a former editor of Harper’s Magazine fired for running Norman Mailer’s lurid The Prisoner of Sex. Morris went from Manhattan to Bridgehampton to Georgetown, where he hung out with a southern socialite, Barbara Hower, and Ben and Sally Bradlee. A highly publicized joint garage sale held at the conclusion of Morris and Howar’s affair provided fodder for Morris’s novel, The Last of the Southern Girls. The reviews of it were not good. Nor were those of the book that followed, A Southern Album. Edward Hoagland wrote in the New York Times Book Review that it was “derivative drivel” and “foggy Faulkner.”
Morris moved back to the Mississippi anyway and started teaching writing at Ole Miss in Oxford, Faulkner’s town, the returning prodigal with what I think has to be a good story. Lee Lescaze agrees and sends me to Oxford to find out.
Driving south from Memphis in a rental car on mostly empty Highway 55, I sit next to a copy of North Toward Home open on the seat. “Why is it in such moments before I leave the South,” Willie had written, “did I always feel some easing of a great burden, or as if some old grievance had suddenly fallen away?”
William Faulkner wrote about Oxford, too, in Sartoris, calling it Jefferson, set among “good broad fields richly somnolent in the leveling afternoon.” Those fields were now full of automatic cotton pickers and the road into town lined with Shoney’s Big Boy, Wendy’s, Taco Hut. Suburban mansions had sprung up around the Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, which attracted thousands of visitors every year from as far away as Japan.
Morris is known to keep his phone in the refrigerator. I find him not there but in the home of Faulkner’s niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, a slight, pleasant, supportive woman who lets Willie sprawl at will in her easy chair, a glass of bourbon in hand.
I introduce myself and ask why he had decided to return to Mississippi. There begins a monologue that moves around town over the next two days: “I was an only child. After my mother died, I had no more close relatives. I felt the need to come home. I couldn’t go back to Yazoo City. I know the people there too well, and they know me. Besides, there aren’t any bars or restaurants in Yazoo City.”
And Greenville, once known as the Athens of the Delta, has also lost its appeal after the Hodding Carters sold their crusading newspaper. In Jackson “the new South is writ too large,” Willie continues. “Oxford’s the only place in the state where I could live.”
His old black lab, Pete, sleeps noisily on the rug. Willie, too, looks broad of beam in a faded sports jacket and wrinkled trousers. Deep-set eyes suggest to me the backcountry countenance of a Magnolia State axle-snapper, but also the idealist’s intensity that made him the youngest editor ever of Harper’s.
The word home echoes throughout the pieces he commissioned from other writers when in New York, “the Big Cave” in his words. Out on Long Island he grew close to the once-famous, dying writer James Jones. William Styron and the poet James Dickey were also friends, and Willie tells me the story of Dickey being caught in an Ole Miss “honey trap.” A co-ed lured him into the parking lot of her dormitory where, at an agreed-upon signal, girls appeared on balconies and ridiculed Dickey as he slunk off into the darkness.
Willie is working on a book about football for Doubleday, more specifically “a middle-aging man and a 19-year-old black athlete,” a running back from Philadelphia, Mississippi, named Marcus Depre. The idea was suggested by David Halberstam when he passed through Oxford, and “Willie jumped at it,” Dean Faulkner Wells tells me. “Sometimes I think Willie has a guardian angel. This gave him a chance to write about the great hope of blacks.”
Dean and her husband Larry run Yoknapatawpha Press out of their garage and have published several of Willie’s old titles. Willie recently traveled all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska with Marcus’s family to watch him play Oklahoma State: “Marcus just sat and stared at the ground, his old high school coach patting Marcus’s hurt hand.” Willie has tears in his eyes.
“We share a love of sports,” says Willie, of the Wellses and of Oxford generally. “Somebody said that in the East, sports is big business. On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it’s cannibalism. In the South, it’s religion.” He sips. “Pappy”—the family nickname for William Faulkner—“said that you can cure people of everything but marriage. Well, I would add talk to that.”
In a recollection of New York in Life magazine, Willie wrote, “I dined in the Four Seasons and the Oak Room of the Plaza and the executive suites of skyscrapers, and mingled with the scions of the Establishment in the Century, and sipped Bordolino with the movie actresses in Elaine’s, and performed on Talk Shows, and stood on the balconies of apartments on Central Park West and tinkled the ice in my glass and watched the great lights of Manhattan come on. Like cotton candy at the county fairs of one’s youth, it was all so wonderfully sweet.”
Dean serves us lasagna and Willie eats with his head propped on one hand, listening to the Tulane-LSU game. He says good night to Dean and invites me for a final drink at the Holiday Inn, where his friends await. “I suspect that they have already cracked the corn gourd.”
It is raining, the bar already crowded and football highlights playing on the six-foot screen.
The men wear hunting boots and camo caps, deer season being underway. They have indeed cracked the corn gourd. Morris talks again about the football game in Nebraska, demonstrating how Marcus Dupree had hugged himself. “I saw some of it on television,” says the agent. “The commentator said some bad stuff about Marcus. Don’t worry, I taped it.”
Willie turns abruptly to me. “I’m talking to my friends, and you’re taking notes.”
I close my notebook.
“I’ve already written about coming back to Mississippi, I don’t know what else to say. I’m just a writer. I’m trying to write a book, and I’m scared.”
The insurance agent invites me to step into the back room. “I’m a do you a favor,” he says. “Willie’s not himself tonight, he don’t feel like talking. I’m his best friend in town, and I can tell.”
We’re joined by another deer hunter who lists heavily against the wall. “You better hear what he says,” and he pokes me in the shoulder with a thick finger. “You… better… listen… to… what… he…”
Willie doesn’t look up as I leave.
My story ran in Style just before New Year’s, but I didn’t get back to the Post until well after that. Two members of the Style staff I didn’t know came over to the magazine section to compliment me on the piece. One asked, “Have you seen the column about your piece in Time?”
I haven’t, and she hands me a copy. Time’s Newswatch columnist Thomas Griffith, reputedly a friend of Willie’s, wrote under the headline, Cutting Down to Size, that “the hatchet job is a familiar hazard in show business that was extended in the 1960s to politics by the New Journalists. To make a target worthy of demolition, first praise him. Reporter James Conaway speaks of Morris’s ‘extraordinary autobiography’ and ‘Harper’s finest time.’ Conaway now finds Morris in Oxford ‘drinking bourbon by the fire’ in the house of Faulkner’s niece…broad of beam.’”
It wasn’t a hatchet job but a vivid reminder that you really can’t go home again, I want to say, particularly when your entire oeuvre is predicated upon the notion that you had to leave it to write well. But I don’t bother. Time is the competitor of Newsweek, owned by the Grahams, and Griffith concludes, “The real question is why a paper like the Washington Post should publish… a long hatchet job. Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Post, says, ‘I thought it was an incisive, good piece.’”
As if on cue, Bradlee comes walking onto the floor of Style, a rare visit, Howard Simons bouncing along behind him. Lee Lescaze follows, and a couple of other editors. Bradlee wears new versions of the Sally shirt and tie. There is a pause, full of expectation, and then Ben asks loudly, “Jim, is Willie fucking Faulkner’s niece?”
All faces turn to me. This is my big chance to say something amusing for the benefit of Ben and his boys, but I am dumbfounded by the question. Is this really all they care about?
“Gosh, Ben,” I say, truthfully, “I have no idea.”
It’s true and it’s the wrong answer. I have failed to amuse, which is unforgivable. Bradlee harrumphs, turns on his heel and walks out.
At least Lee Lescaze is smiling. A few days later I have my own square yard of the linear desk running the breadth of Style. I’m in.