Writers sometimes become famous; their editors rarely do. The reasons are obvious. It’s the writer’s name or byline on the book or magazine article or newspaper story. It’s generally their words, but not always. Also, it’s fairly easy to understand what writers do since we all write in one form or another.
It’s harder to explain what editors do. They come up with ideas or help hone yours. They tighten your prose. The best of them improve your work. The very best of them improve your work so subtly that even you aren’t sure how they did it. You can’t find the seams. All you know is that it didn’t sparkle before but it does now.
One of the very best died on July 29th. Unless you were in the magazine business you probably haven’t heard of him. His name was John Homans. At the time of his death, from colon cancer at the age of 62, he was an editor at Hive, Vanity Fair’s online news and politics site.
For the twenty years before that he served as a top editor at New York magazine. That’s where I worked for him, and at the New York Observer before that.
John was known for his headlines, among other aspects of an editor’s craft, and the one that he and Kurt Anderson, New York’s editor-in-chief at the time devised for my first cover story, about the cutthroat methods New York City parents employed to get their children into the Ivy League, and the pressure kids felt under to make their families proud, was “Give Me Harvard Or Give Me Death.”
I didn’t love the title. It wasn’t subtle. But I suppose it did the job. Also, both John and Kurt had graduated from Harvard so there may have been a bit of chest beating involved.
Other stories followed, many of them documenting the angst of those who have it all. “Widows of Wall Street” was an inside look at the desperate, gilded lives of wives whose handsomely compensated husbands slaved in the Financial District while they were left to raise the kids alone, albeit with lots of help. There was also “Class Struggle on Park Avenue.” Between New Money and shabby gentility. I liked to think of what I wrote as upper middle class porn.
The way it worked is that you’d walk into John’s office on Madison Avenue. He’d greet you with an affectionate expletive and ask what was new? He meant what did you have for him? You’d pitch him some ideas and if one held promise he’d help brainstorm it and send you back into the world with your marching orders.
New York has put up a tribute to John on its website where many of his writers and other editorial colleagues over the years celebrate him and his work. A lot of their memories jibe with mine.
You’d find John with his feet propped on his desk, day and week and month old coffee cups among the paper products littering the office. The most nerve-wracking aspect of the process came after you delivered a story and awaited his approval. Writers tend to be insecure by nature and John didn’t do much to alleviate their stress.
But you eventually learned not to take it personally. His people skills left something to be desired. Conversations typically occurred while he was distracted doing half dozen other things that you deemed vastly more important to him than you were – checking his emails, poring through magazines, talking, or rather cursing, to himself.
But he’d eventually focus on your work and in a few sentences tell you exactly what it would take to make it publishable. And then when it was, it sounded more graceful than you remembered, your hesitation and hedging gone.
His gift, at least one of them, was to convince you that you were fighting the good fight together. There was no need to articulate what that was. You both knew. To expose hypocrisy and bring down a notch or three those who didn’t deserve their great fortune. Otherwise you wouldn’t be writing for him.
Part of the reason you probably haven’t heard of John is that he never became editor-in-chief of a magazine. He wanted to at times. He had the brains, obviously. One of those who left tributes on New York’s website, Vanessa Grigoriadis, a writer of John’s at New York and Vanity Fair, said he wasn’t suave enough to pull off business meetings. That’s probably as good a way to frame the problem as any.
A magazine is/was in the heyday of magazines before the Internet took over, a fantasy delivery system; and its editor, more or less, the personification of that fantasy. As well as someone who knew how to throw parties and smooze advertisers.
As Vanessa added, John couldn’t fake it. If I take any exception to the description of him lacking suavity that’s only because he was extremely suave in his own way – tall, handsome in a craggy sort of way, and as good a writer as he was an editor. He was also a gifted pianist.
His death shocked and saddened me. We hadn’t worked together in years, since the mid-2000’s, though I’d run into him a couple of years ago at a New York Observer reunion. I had no idea he was sick.
I suspect the reason for feeling a profound sense of loss, even love, is because he could identify and appreciate what a writer did best and nurture it. He encouraged you to follow your instincts and when they failed he was there to serve as your compass. He was sort of like literary Miracle Gro.
The day before he died he told Ariel Levy, another of his writers, that he was moving to hospice care. “Pretty heavy, right? I am going to be another configuration of atoms.”
It’s that sort of sublime, ironic consciousness that made him a great editor and mentor. So what if he never made it to the top of a masthead.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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