Auspicious my debut at Time was not.
In 1981, I started working in the Washington bureau of the newsmagazine famously mocked by the New Yorker's Wolcott Gibbs for its inverted Homeric style. "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind," Gibbs satirized. "Where it all will end, knows God!"
I thought my first Monday morning story conference would be my last. The bureau chief wanted to see how we felt about the prospect of a Time cover on salt. He called on me first.
"My mom puts salt on everything," I replied. "She's not worried about it."
A veteran reporter across the table looked at me scornfully. "He's talking about SALT II," she sneered, referring to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviets.
I cringed. But to my astonishment, the bureau chief corrected my tormentor. "No," he said, "I'm talking about table salt."
That's the kind of place Time was. One week, the Ayatollah Khomeini was the villain on the cover, the next week, Salt the Killer. One week, you worked on Gadhafi hit squads; the next, cats. (I got a byline on the cat cover for a penetrating interview with a cat psychologist named Fox who did Swedish massages on Burmese felines.) "Father Time," Henry Luce, wanted everything in his magazine to be either "epic" or "titillating trivialities." Luce and his fellow Yalies started Time in 1923 with a breezy tone, snazzy adjectives and the promise to keep "busy men" informed, concisely.
Headlines about Time Warner's breakup with Time Inc. sent me into a reverie about my salad days in Time's glory days. In "The American Century," as Luce dubbed it, nabbing the cover of Time was the most coveted honor in our culture. Now the humbled magazine, bleeding ad revenue like the rest of print media, is facing a future, as the New York Post's Keith Kelly put it, "untethered from the Time Warner mother ship," which prefers to focus on its two better-performing children, TV and film.
After my stint in Washington, Time moved me to the New York headquarters, with its "Mad Men" aura of whiskey, cigarettes, four-hour sodden lunches and illicit liaisons. (Partake of which, unfortunately, I did not.) The researchers, a largely female staff, were referred to as "the vestal virgins." To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, a woman's writing about national affairs was like a dog's walking on its hind legs; that we could do it at all was seen by some older editors as surprising.
On Friday nights, when the magazine was going to bed, there were sumptuous platters of roast beef rolled in, and bars in editors' offices.
Sometimes you'd go in a senior writer's office as the drinking wore on and just see two feet sticking out from under the desk, like the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when the house falls on the witch.
It was a plummy time when a top editor could arrive in Paris and think nothing of sending a staffer from Paris to London to fetch a necktie he had left in his hotel room, or of sending a minion flying off to fetch a box of his favorite cigars, or of having articles about the Nicaraguan contras flown to his Martha's Vineyard house so he could make sure the political tilt was right.