The draw is not merely the money, which in Netland rarely materializes, but the opportunity the newbies crave to challenge themselves to the limits of their creativity -- an opportunity they find increasingly lacking in a magazine industry bound up in yesterday's news, rigid hierarchies and a deluded sense of its own cachet.
Which means that for the mag trade to prosper, it's got to treasure those folks who take joy in nurturing young talent. Which brings me to Elizabeth Crow, who last week announced her resignation as editor in chief of Mademoiselle. Crow had a remarkable way of spotting talent, even in its rawest form, and encouraging it to achieve beyond its own expectations.
I know, because she found me. I owe my career to Elizabeth Crow.
It was 1976 and I was a junior in college, a classics major with grand plans for graduate school and a career in academia -- if I could find one course to fill an unmet social science requirement. Fortunately, among the less-than-thrilling offerings in sociology and anthropology was a journalism course that met the criteria. I'd been a high school journalist, so I applied and was accepted.
Although called "Politics & the Press," the course was structured by the visiting professor, a former New York Times editor named Victor Navasky, as a magazine-writing seminar. Somehow, Navasky had gotten the editors of some 20 publications to agree to allow his students to pitch story ideas at them. If the editors could tolerate the concepts, they'd make the assignments "on spec," read the finished products and just maybe buy and publish the pieces.
Among the hungry and experienced student scribes, I felt quite the odd man out. They were avid followers of Harper's, The Atlantic, New Times; I was an Aristotle aficionado, my periodicals reading limited to New York Magazine's "Underground Gourmet" column. Hearing that, Navasky, my first professional mentor, guided me to an editor at New York and even gave me the story idea: to research resurgent allegations that blacklisting of leftists in the entertainment industry had been preceded by blacklisting of anti-Communists.
Nothing I'd done in my 20 years, not even translating Sappho, had ever been as fascinating. I found discarded old documents; I located the last surviving editor of the original TV-radio blacklist; I traced apocryphal stories to their roots. I finished the piece and sent it in.
Two days later, I read that New York Magazine was being sold to Rupert Murdoch, and that many on the staff were fleeing. After several excruciating weeks, my manuscript was returned in another magazine's envelope, with a note from the editor saying, thanks, but it wasn't right for Esquire. Frantic, I called New York, babbled my woes to a receptionist and asked if there was anyone else who could help me. She connected me to a senior editor, Elizabeth Crow.
I don't know why Crow took the call. New York must have been in chaos, with barely enough people around to look at assigned features, let alone student spec pieces. But she calmly listened to my gibberish and cheerfully told me to send back the piece. I did, and less than two weeks later Crow responded with one of the nicest rejection letters I've ever received. The kicker: Why don't I drop by for a meeting?
On the bus into the city, I worked out the speech in which I would plead for a chance to write for New York. But I didn't need it. After five minutes of pleasantries, Crow smiled and said, "I think you're a very good writer. Do you have any other ideas for us?"
I did. She assigned one on the spot. I spent months working on the 750-word opus. Crow patiently took my calls, gave me stylistic guidance, listened to my first-draft lede and then bought the piece, a profile of an old Beat poet. With the $750 I made, I took myself on Laker Airways for a two-week vacation in Britain. "What a great business!" I thought to myself. "Goodbye, classics."
A year later, B.A. in hand, I called Crow looking for a job. She directed me to New York's honchos, who hired me as a fact checker. Shortly after, Crow left, first to edit Parents, then to run Gruner & Jahr's U.S. division and later to steer Mademoiselle.
As for me, it's all in Lexis-Nexis. But only because Elizabeth Crow took the call.