When I first met Sir Harold Evans, the famed British-American editor who died on September 23 at the age of 92, he was not yet a “Sir”—it was April of 1987, and he wouldn’t be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to journalism until 2004, twenty years after he had moved to the United States and become an American citizen.
I was a supplicant—a young editor who had applied for a job as senior editor at the travel magazine he was developing for S.I. Newhouse at Condé Nast and which would become Condé Nast Traveler. After a stint in book publishing, I was working at what was then the ivory tower of New York intellectual life, The New York Review of Books, and had tried once already, unsuccessfully, to assail the glittery, glamorous aerie of Condé Nast.
“The magazine will be about travel, but they’re going to be using real writers, journalists, novelists,” the literary agent Andrew Wylie, a friend of mine, said when he called me with the hot tip. Travel, as a journalistic category, had long suffered from a reputation of mediocrity. Magnificently launched, one can argue, in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus, whose The Histories was at once a rip-roaring account of Herodotus’s voyages and an exhaustive reportorial “inquiry” into the origins of the Greco-Persian wars, it had largely devolved into something distinctly lesser, its practitioners more often than not handmaids of the travel industry. (With a pantheon of notable exceptions, of course, including Patrick Leigh Fermor, Wilfred Thesiger, Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, Pico Iyer, and a handful of others.) “Evans,” Wylie emphasized, “is of course the famous former editor of the British Sunday Times. You should apply.”
I was given a long, 4,000-word feature to edit, a piece on Macau, then still a Portuguese colony, written by a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, whose editor was then Harry’s wife, Tina Brown. I still recall the appearance of the marked-up manuscript that I returned to the managing editor a few days later.
It was not a pretty sight: Those were still the antediluvian, pre-computer days of pencil on paper, and I’d reshuffled paragraphs, cut entire sections, rearranged sentences, inserted queries, requested explanations, substituted words. And heard nothing for a few days. I knew others were applying. Harry and team probably couldn’t even decipher my intentions amid the sea of scribbles. And then I got a call. “Harry would like to see you.”
He was holding my edit in his hands when I walked into his corner office at 360 Madison Avenue. (Condé Nast was then housed largely at 350, with a few titles, including the then still embryonic staff of CNT, in the sort of annex across the street facing the Roosevelt Hotel; yes, precisely where those rows of black town cars, the now infamous perk of Condé Nast’s higher-ups, used to idle.) I was struck immediately by his slight stature, charmingly rumpled aura, and his eyes—large, blue, intense, engaged, thoughtful.
There were some preliminary pleasantries, I’m sure, although I was too nervous then (at least in the first moments) to remember them now. I was sitting, after all, with a superstar, journalism’s version of James Bond, as he was once called, the editor who not that long ago had reinvigorated British investigative journalism and redefined what it meant to tell truth to power, guiding his so-called Insight team at the Times to produce during his 1967-1982 tenure meticulously reported, hard-hitting, and fearless stories on issues of social importance. (He was forced out by the Times’ new owner, Rupert Murdoch, for being, said Harry, insufficiently pro-Thatcherite.)
And now here was the great Harry Evans improbably peppering me with questions about my pencil marks. Why this change? Why that cut? Why do you want to hear more about this point? He wasn’t being critical, I sensed, but curious: He wanted to completely understand my thinking, have me defend it, and see if he agreed. Why had I changed the world “insinuations” to “persuasions”? It was that detailed. He just wanted to know.
Getting to the bottom of things—even minor editorial choices—was just the way Harry was wired, I would come to understand. Grand vision was inseparable from granular facts, big ideas from the small truths that were their building blocks. (It’s like what Hemingway once said about writing: “All you have to do is write one true sentence….and then go on from there.”)
It was that inquisitive, interrogative, probing, truth-telling instinct writ large that had earlier led Harry to helm those ground-breaking newspaper exposes that made his reputation: For example, about the deep penetration of Soviet spies into the highest ranks of British intelligence services; or of the producers of the drug thalidomide, against whom Harry had the Times undertake a prolonged, legally risky crusade. Thalidomide had been prescribed with impunity to thousands of pregnant women to alleviate the symptoms of morning sickness and had caused severe deformities in their babies, for which they had not been compensated.
As Clive Irving, one of Harry’s co-conspirators in the early gestation period of Condé Nast Traveler and the magazine's long-time consulting editor, wrote in the Daily Beast yesterday, “It was truly a golden age for British journalism. Harry directly inspired other editors in print, in television, and in documentary film-making to go deep and ignore the pressure of everyday deadlines—to patiently build the incremental details of a story into a blockbuster narrative.”
Harry apparently liked my scribbles, I got the job, and stayed on at CNT, and Condé Nast, for 26 years. Harry himself was editor in chief only until 1990, plucked by S.I. Newhouse to run Random House, which he had just acquired. (Tom Wallace, Harry’s executive editor, succeeded him as editor in chief in late 1990, and I did in 2005.) But although we only had Harry for a brief spell, his stardust–and it was nothing less than that—stayed with all of us who had the pleasure and the privilege of being there in those early, crazy, formative, in-the-office-until-midnight years, full of the agony and ecstasy of a high-profile, well-funded 1980s magazine startup.
“Truth in Travel”—a perfectly Evansian logo—was emblazoned on the magazine’s cover from its first, September 1987, issue. It signaled editorial independence from the industry we were covering. We would accept no free travel, we would not be beholden. We would be doing journalism, not travel brochures, goddamit. We assumed intelligence and an interest in the world, in all its complexities, on the part of our readers. All that was great and liberating, fun and noticed. (Over the years, the magazine earned 26 National Magazine Award nominations and won seven times.)
But for all that—and much more than the frissons of all those much-written-about Condé Nast-ian excitements and intrigues (would editorial director Alexander Liberman tear up the issue at the walk-through today? Who would be seated where at S.I.’s annual holiday lunch at the Four Seasons for editors and publishers?)—what I cherish most were those two years with Harry: the pleasure and privilege of being in close proximity to the delightful ferment of such a creative, kind, driven, and enthusiastic mind.
There were the raucous editorial meetings, all opinions welcome. There were the multi-page, single-spaced memos to staff in which he set out his vision for the magazine and which I still have collected in a folder labeled “Early Condé Nast Stuff,” along with our back-and-forths about writers, photographers, and other luminaries we were bringing into the fold .
He would share his advice on everything from editing humdrum service sections (“and let us never be exhaustingly exhaustive”) to the importance of first-hand sources ("nothing we get from guidebooks, tourist bodies, and the like can compare with the observations of our writers in economy, authority, and wit") and how best to refuse invitations for free trips from travel companies (“we have this policy, but it is important not to be rude to people who invite us—and not to regard an invitation as ruling out independent coverage”).
And he seemed to love nothing more—okay, maybe the paparazzi-chronicled parties he and Tina were throwing in their Sutton Place apartment—than commenting on stories in progress.
A piece on the French Riviera: “I need to see this in galley before I can get a sense of how Clive’s microsurgery is working. When a galley is ready, I would like a couple of Riviera experts to have a browse.”
A piece on Maui: “This is nicely done, though I don’t care for the macabre intro.”
A proposal for an environmental story: “This is a good—but I’d rather we get at the environmental challenge through enjoyment of what’s there to preserve, rather than straight polemic. We should leave the reader space, as it were, to get angry.”
An essay on Bombay: “It bothers me. It’s breezy enough but it is not hilarious enough (to me) to justify the absence of a feel for place or insights for travelers. Maybe I am too critical.”
I saw Harry less as time went on. We had lunch now and then. I sent him issues, occasionally, to get his views (he was interested in how his baby was growing). He graciously attended CNT anniversary parties and other events when he could. He invited me to panels he hosted at the Reuters news agency in Times Square, where in his later years he held the title of editor at large.
We all have mental images of people important in our lives. Over time, some recede and others—surviving the rigorous editing process that is our mental recall—seem to grow stronger. We all did our share of living the glamorous life at Condé Nast, to be sure, slipping into our fancy duds and graciously loaned jewels. I remember all that well of course. But what I find myself recalling from those early years not just with the greatest clarity but with fondness is the phenomenon of Harry in the mornings—rushing, sometimes literally running through the hallways, intent on the new day's various missions, a light in his eyes, a conspiratorial, excited smile on his face, and (not at all infrequently) a half-eaten buttered bagel stuffed in haste into his pants pocket. You could almost hear a woosh outside your office door, and then he'd be gone.
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