Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An Editor's Legacy: Some Messy Details

Art Cooper (1937-2003) was the editor of Condé Nast’s GQ magazine from 1983-2003. 

In January 2003, he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. (Yes, there is such a thing.) He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award.  Cooper resigned in 2003 amid rumors the corporation was going to dump him for someone younger. 

And now his name pops up again. 

Adam Sachs’s installation as Saveur editor-in-chief prompted the 29 September 2014  New York Times article, Legacy of a Venerated Magazine Editor Lives Large on the Newsstand.” It noted Cooper’s greatest impact may be “the small army of top magazine editors whose careers he groomed.” 

“He made it clear we were going to be editors in chiefs someday,” one of Cooper’s army told the Times reporter (Christine Haughney), adding, “He believed in you even when you didn’t.”

This is a lovely remembrance and, perhaps, it harbors an element of truth.

But there is another record of Cooper’s legacy that must be noted. It is found in The Red Devil (pub. Crown, 1999)  by Katherine Russell Rich (1955-2012) The Times called the book a “gritty, darkly comic memoir of her protracted battle with breast cancer.”

Kathy Rich found her lump in 1988 when she  was 32, and working as an editor at GQ. (She had been recruited by Cooper from her slot as a respected Seventeen editor.) In Red Devil, she describes several interactions with Art Cooper. In her book, she refers to him only as “the editor."

While recovering from treatments, she noticed that the editor was quietly, constantly excluding and ignoring her. She saw the editor collecting other senior staff editors for lunch. Her proposals went unanswered. A writer she pursued for the magazine was given to another editor. She was being treated as an un-person.

After  months of virtually no conversation between Rich and the editor, Cooper summoned her for a performance review. This is what Rich wrote.

“Sit down,” he said gruffly. He didn’t look like a man who wanted to talk. He looked like a man who was under orders from Personnel to deliver the corporate report cards.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” he began. “I can’t review your work. You haven’t done much this year. I haven’t wanted to give you things to do. Partly for humanitarian reasons. But partly because I wanted to be sure that they got done.”
But they would have, I assured him. And you can begin now, I said. Smiling, he said he would. “You know,” he chortled. “I really felt bad for you. No one here wanted anything to do with you because you reminded them they could die.”
This encounter shook her because, she wrote, “the editor had fired people for lighter infractions than being walking reminders of death.”

In 1992, the other shoe dropped.

“Close the door,” he said, glancing up from a manuscript. “Have you spoken with Personnel?”
I had. They were giving me an extra month to look. But they weren’t giving me any reason.
“Why am I being fired?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” the editor said, looking at me hard. “Why do you think?”
I shrugged to signal that if he didn’t know, neither did I.
“Do you realize that by firing me, you could be leaving me without insurance?” I asked. I wanted this to be spelled out
He nodded.
“Do you realize that if my cancer came back, it could bankrupt me and my whole family?”
He nodded again.
“And you don’t care?”
He shook his head slowly. No.
What more was there to say? I was out first of the year. . .
In early Spring, a former colleague called. The editor had submitted two of my pieces with a third and had gotten his first National Magazine Award nomination.

Let’s not be too quick to venerate our editors.

Magazine publishing really is just a small town, populated by cannibals. It attracts careerists, narcissists and other self-important sorts. 

After its heartfelt homage to Cooper, the Times article ends with Adam Sachs’s experience
". . . he was a senior staff writer at GQ before Mr. Cooper “strongly encouraged” him to leave the magazine. That prompted him to become a freelance food and travel writer.
“It certainly hurt my feelings at the time,’” Mr. Sachs said. “But it was probably a good kick in the rear. Maybe Art knew what he was doing, or it was a happy accident that set me on a path.’”

Yeah! Right! Tough love! 

Was it that Cooper was so busy grooming his future fellow elite that he didn’t have time to ease the afflicted; that he didn’t have time to acknowledge the talent, worth and humanity of someone who wanted to contribute and wanted out of the isolation; that he didn’t have time to set a good example for his staff — the future editors of America?

He had the time. He didn’t have the empathy. He didn’t have the soul.

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