The former editor of Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated looks back.
After 40 years as journalist, editor, and magazine founder, McDonell celebrates his career with a collection of short pieces that include acerbic commentaries on the media, tender remembrances of friends and colleagues, and cogent advice to editors and writers. Sharp profiles feature “vaguely menacing” Hunter S. Thompson, moody Kurt Vonnegut, elegant Paris Review editor George Plimpton, and “princely and brooding” Steve Jobs, among many others. McDonell defines his life as “accidental”: “Ideas got broken and jobs didn’t work out. Friends faded. Love failed. But the thing was, no matter how strange or rocky it got, there was redemption in the work. That was not accidental.” He loved editing, which, he says, is “never only about the words” but also images, typography, display copy, and “polish and nuance.” He admires precision (Gay Talese’s sentences, he remarks, were unfailingly “immaculate”), advises writers to “cut anything precious, overly clever or self-indulgent,” and admonishes reporters: “Check your sources.” Among the most moving pieces are homages to friends, including irreverent Harper’s Bazaar editor Elizabeth Tilberis; novelist James Salter; and Peter Matthiessen, a writer whose work McDonell finds “astonishing in its range.” The author portrays the unlikely friendship between George Plimpton and Hunter Thompson, fueled by their love of cocaine. He also offers withering anecdotes about Jobs, who came to Newsweek in 1984, “wearing a sharp suit and tiny bow tie,” to sell staff on “the greatest tool ever”: the Apple computer. In 2010, an imperious Jobs arrived at Time, Inc., seated at the head of a table of top editors who fiddled with soon-to-be released iPads. McDonell, who founded LitHub, does not bemoan digital media, but he regrets that “digital content” meetings rarely focus on the quality of journalism.
A wide-ranging, smart, and witty collection testifying to an impressive career.