People, people who need People

People, people who need People

: People magazine is celebrating its 30th birthday as an agent of cultural change. I worked at the company for almost a decade (from 1981 until I started Entertainment Weekly in 1990) as a writer and TV critic and so I realized it’s time to fire up the way-back machine and cue Streisand’s Memories:

: I was at People during a few crucial cultural changes. While I was there, the audience fragmented before our very eyes. It used to be that we could put a No. 1 TV show on the cover and, zap, it would sell. But suddenly — thanks to the most revolutionary device ever invented, the remote control — that changed.

I remember my managing editor and mentor, Pat Ryan, coming down the hall more than once shouting at me, “TV’s dead, Jarvis, it’s dead.” That meant another Dallas cover had inexplicably bombed. The audience sat asunder.

Welcome to the future of media and culture.

The audience took control of their entertainment (just as, today, we are taking control of their news and media). Cable grew. VCRs were just starting to be sold. We were no longer captive to three networks. We watched what we wanted to watch.

The truth is that our time in a shared national experience was short — it lasted only from the moment TV reached critical mass until the mid-80s and the spread of the cultural bomb we called the clicker. “Who Shot J.R.” was our last single shared experience. Even now, when we watch a war, we watch it through CNN’s eyes or FoxNews’ or the Internet’s.

Some lament the passing of that shared national experience. I don’t. It was a tyranny: rule by the mass (or rather, what executives thought the masses should or would want). Now the individual is in charge again.

: Once ratings and box office stopped ruling People’s cover, we needed to find something else to sell it.

Thus began the age of bodily fluids journalism.

It started with the death of John Lennon. Amazingly, before that, magazines shied away from putting death on their covers. Unseemly, you know. But Lennon was big news; couldn’t be ignored. So it went on the cover. And you know what they learned?

Death sells!

From that, People learned that disease sells. And divorce. And affairs. Bodily fluids.

We went through so many corpse covers that I used to argue that we should change the name to Dead People Magazine.

: This also led, more importantly, to the rise of the power of the flack. For it became apparent that entertainment products no longer sold magazines. Personalities did. People sold People. Duh.

And the flacks, the PR agents, realized that their clients held big market value.

It used to be that we, the journalists, were the gatekeepers to what mattered: newsmakers and people in power on one end and the audience on the other.

But now the flacks became the gatekeepers to what mattered: celebrities.

People created its own monster, the powerful flack. And their power spread through the rest of news and into politics and even into business.

Access to marketable fame became the new cultural gold.

: A few amusing memories of the joint:

> They were always known for working late at People. Legend has it that during the launch period, Dick Stolley, the founding M.E., turned to Jim Gaines, later an M.E., in the men’s room one night and, with straight face, said, “Why don’t you go home early tonight, Jim?” It was 3 a.m.

> Another M.E., Landon Jones (there were two guys named Jones at this oddly patrician place but neither was a Bob; the other was a Cranston) so loved working into the night that the staff dubbed him “late-night Lanny.”

> My friend and the man who made me a TV critic (the rest being history) as movie critic Peter Travers (long since at Rolling Stone). We would work well into those nights writing and rewriting those famous People headlines and leads(“Oscar Schmoscar,” I wrote in a trimphant moment over a story about Streisand getting snubbed by the Academy). We would keep writing them and rewriting them until some besotted top editor would finally convince himself that we’d had a eureka moment. “We hate the stars, Jarv,” Peter would moan at 3 a.m. I would moan agreement.

> My best People headline, on a story about a guy who invented stuff to fix sneakers: “Shoe Goo Guru Lyman Van Vliet Cures Tattered Tennies’ Toes With Sheer Stick-to-it-iveness.”

> I met few famous people at People. But at least one now-famous person worked there then: Patricia (then Patty) Heaton was a copy clerk to earn a living as she worked in New York theater. She’s now costar of Everybody Loves Raymond. And her brother, Michael, who also slaved there, is now a columnist on the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He just emailed me to get a memory for a column he’s writing on the anniversary. Thus this post.

> I was a writer at People. That meant that I didn’t report. Reporters reported and sent in 30, 40, 50 pages of notes, which I’d boil down to 30, 40, or 50 lines of densely packed, alliterative — and dash-bedecked — cute prose. I wrote cover stories about Mr. T and Chevy Chase and Robin Williams and Rock Hudson, all of which now date me.

> After the reporter reported and the writer wrote, the editors edited and messed up the stories. Famously, one top editor changed a story to add the words “the late” before Abe Vigoda’s name. A researcher dutifuly took those words out. The editor stubbornly put them back and that’s what we published. Abe wasn’t dead. But People said he was. So he took out a full-page ad in Variety with a picture of himself in a coffin, sitting up, reading the latest People.

> Some of these editors (not that one, though) became, well, loose with their editing after their long lunches — and dinners. Those were the days of three-drink lunches and three-drink dinners. Even our boss, the editor of editors up on the feared and fabled 34th floor, always had at least two gins and burned beef at lunch. (“It’s the vermouth that gives you hangovers, Jeff,” he said — this being the only wisdom he ever imparted. “The bartender at 21 told me that.”) I don’t know how the hell they did it. But they did. They even had company-purchased booze in their desks, dutifully refilled by assistants. At Time, in the old days, they had waiters serving their drinks from carts. We, the people at People, had free beer and wine with dinner on late nights, not to mention free Pepperidge Farm Cookies. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end. But they did.

> During those big-expense-account days, I also remember one writer who was famous for walking into Bloomingdale’s and, spying a nice couch, judging it immediately on his economic scale: “That’s about a four-luncher.” This same writer used to conspire with another to cover for each other in the mornings they despised. The one who came in would get two cups of steaming coffee and put the second on the other writer’s desk, next to paper just rolled into a typewriter. “Where’s Jim?” someone may ask. “Dunno,” his conspirator could now answer. “He must be around — he got his morning coffee.”

> My very best boondoggle at the place was getting myself assigned to fly around the country to 10 cities to find America’s best pizza. I have the award to Gino’s East in Chicago (honorable mention to John’s in New York). Yes, those were the days, my friend.

: I was lucky enough to become a TV critic (thanks to Travers) during what I said was the real Golden Age of TV, when competition from cable forced executives to try something daring: quality.

The original Cosby show (before it got smarmy and sermony) proved that sitcoms weren’t dead (they’re writing sitcoms’ obits again these days, aren’t they?) and quality could make a fortune. I’ve often said that Cosby made having a family look like fun. Thanks to him — and Travers’ infant son — I lost my fear of children and later had a few.

: After spending many years writing what became known, pompously, as “personality journalism,” and watching that spread to take over every magazine and every newspaper on earth, I saw an opening for a new magazine that helped people decide how to spend their time in a new world filled with new choice. I saw a need for a magazine that covered the products of entertainment, again, and not just the personalities. I proposed launching Entertainment Weekly.

It was rejected by the then editor-in-chief of Time Inc. because, he said, people who watch TV do not read and one magazine could not possibly serve both needs.

It took six years before I got the magazine launched. And that’s another tale for another anniversary.

: More important, more enjoyable, more wonderful than anything that happened to me as a writer at People, something else quite magnificent happened there: I met my wife, Tammy.