When I first asked Bob Drury if I could interview him about his journalism career — an ascent that started out with a job in newspapers as a copy boy, and later as a sportswriter and crime reporter, and then as a glossy men’s magazine star and author — he told me there was nothing special about his story.
In fact, he wrote back and said his story was pretty mundane.
As you are about to read in the following email interview, Drury’s life in newspapers, magazines, and books is anything but mundane.
As a newspaper reporter myself working at a mid size daily, Drury’s story reminds me that things are so different now than when Drury was coming up.
The hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-living reporter — in most quarters — is a dinosaur.
In the past glory days of “newspapering”, reporters hung out with each other in bars after hours.
Today, newspaper reporters are more likely to squeeze in visits to the gym at lunch and after work than talk about writing in between swigs of beers at their local tavern.
But nostalgia aside, Drury’s story shows that talent and hard work goes a long way and luck — being in the right place at the right time — can play a role too.
Tell me about your journalism background. More specifically, when and where you started writing professionally? How did you get the job and what did you cover?
After attending high school in Newark and college at a small Jesuit school in Ct. — Fairfield University — where I majored in English because, well, because I liked to read I suppose, I more or less drifted north to Cape Cod. Other guys were doing it. We heard there were girls up there. Soon found out you needed money to attract girls.
Got a job on a painting crew, painted the Hyannisport Water Tower and the Hyannis Police Station. I recall talking to one of the Kennedy cousins, forget which one, while I did the window trim on the outside of his jail cell. He was in for something minor. Public drinking, I think. Anyway, he told me that they were hiring on the Chatham commercial fishing pier, and I spent the rest of the summer unloading from boats and re-loading to trucks boxes of cod.
Come Labor Day, when some of the mates went back to school, I split time between working the pier and setting the long lines out on the Georges Banks. It was cold out there in winter. Odd, just a few weeks ago I was back up in Chatham for a feature I’m writing on the Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. Back when I was sailing they used to tell newbies not to worry about falling overboard, as you could just walk back to the boat on the backs of the cod fish. Now there are no cod. They closed the Georges Banks to fishing in the ’90s.
That first winter we weren’t going out much. Chatham is a small harbor with small boats, and even a 15-mph westerly could keep us in on an otherwise perfectly sunny day. I was playing ball in the Cape Cod Basketball League — I had been pretty good in high school — when one day someone mentioned that the Cape Cod Standard Times was looking for someone to write a weekly round-up of the league. They were offering $20 a story. I jumped. From there I began earning another $20 a story covering town council meetings up and down the Cape. Decided that this newspaper racket sure beat working. It still does.
A year later I moved to New York — well, to Harrison, New Jersey, actually, just across the Hudson from Manhattan — and started looking for work. I recall getting $15 a story from a weekly political rag — sorry, its name escapes me — and I was over the moon when Crawdaddy magazine — a now-dead music monthly — paid me $1,100 to interview the comedian Richard Belzer after his act at Catch a Rising Star. Eleven hundred bucks? My bartenders were happy.[Editor’s note: Crawdaddy was relaunched as an online music webzine in 2007.]
Next I found a job running film cans around town for Bud Greenspan, who was then and is still making Olympics documentaries. “Can Carrier” was a pre-digital occupation — you used to see us all over Manhattan with our blue canvas shoulder bags. Bud’s was a tiny, five- or six-person operation, and I also swept up, ran errands, and operated the projector when he screened his films for visitors. One night, not long after Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post, Bud screened a rough cut of his documentary The Australians for a bunch of Post execs, and among them was Jerry Lisker, Rupert’s new sports editor.
Jerry, now dead, was my first mentor. (The other was GQ‘s Art Cooper. Also dead. Jesus.) They called him, and he called himself, “Blackie” and/or “Cholo” because he was part American Indian. He was part everything — German, Irish, Russian, Mexican — and he was completely nuts. The night of the screening Greenspan was kind enough to mention to Lisker that I had hopes of becoming a sportswriter, and Jerry hired me as a copy boy on the spot. They still had hard wire copy, and copy boys, back then. Not for long.
Lisker assigned me the 8 p.m. – 3 a.m. shift and told me to show up the following Sunday night. When I asked him what exactly I would be doing he told me not to worry, an old hand named Harvey Araton would show me the ropes.
Back then the Post did not publish on Sunday so when I arrived in the newsroom an hour or so early on Sunday the joint was empty. I was walking around looking and feeling stupid in my corduroy sport coat with the patches on the elbow when this kid shows up appearing as bewildered as I was.
“Yeah, you Drury?”
“Yeah, its my first night here and Jerry Lisker told me you’d show me what I’m supposed to do around here.”
“It’s my first night, too. And Lisker told me that some guy named Drury would show me what I’m supposed to do around here.”
I remain good friends with Harvey. He’s now, of course, a New York Times columnist.
So how long did you write about sports at the Post? Did you start out writing game stories and was later promoted to columnist? Also, did you feel like you were getting away with murder — being paid to write about sports?
For the first couple of months or so I was strictly peon material at the Post — ripping copy off the wires, fetching coffee, taking dictation from the baseball writers on deadline on the West Coast. I remember Paul Zimmerman — now Sports Illustrated Dr. Z — going ballistic when I once transposed one of his football picks I’d taken over the phone at the end of a long night. Thought he was an asshole, but we patched it up later.
About six months into the job, they let me start compiling a thin, half-column wire round-up of minor sports news, two grafs at best, called, appropriately enough, “Sports Round-Up”. The deal was, if you could get more than half of the copy on your own, you’d get a tag-line at the bottom of the column. I loved that challenge, all the copy boys did (there were no copy girls in the sports department then). Each night between “official” job duties I dialed up sports information directors at all the small local schools — Hofstra, St. Francis, Wagner, etc. — that didn’t rate the St. John’s/Seton Hall treatment looking for game scores, high scorers, record-breaking rushers or passers etc. Finally one night I compiled enough of my own copy to earn my first tag-line. Thing was, I went by Robert, my friends called me Bobby. I wanted “Robert F.X. Drury” as my tag. But it didn’t fit across the format in a single line. So I was, and am, and will be forever “Bob Drury”.
The Sports Editor Jerry Lisker was a mug and a mensch. He had boxed semi-pro, and if you shook hands with him it was like grabbing a board wrapped in sandpaper. More, if you went out drinking with him often enough, he’d throw you an occasional bone. Thus I started getting assigned to cover basketball games nobody else wanted. Fordham-Manhattan. Wagner-Rutgers. Games like that. Couple grafs back by the racing results. Tag-line stuff. This led to the occasional sidebar at a Giants or Jets game, or a Knicks scene setter. By-line. Cool.
The day Yankees catcher Thurman Munson crashed his plane — forget the year — I had just gotten off a double shift. I was barely home in my sixth-floor walk-up on East 73rd and York — I was living in Manhattan by now — when I heard the news. I called the sports department to see if there was anything I could do. Lisker answered. “Get out to Canton, Ohio right-fucking-now.”
I caught a plane out of LaGaurdia that afternoon. For the next couple of days I was the only New York reporter on the scene — don’t know why, now that I think about it — and my by-line was on the front and back pages of the Post for a week straight. I also got to know the cops and security people investigating the accident, so I was getting good stuff none of the other papers had. Even spoke briefly to Munson’s widow, the only reporter to get a quote from here. It was probably the usual mundane stuff, but you had to know the Post back then. It was Murdoch through and through. Headlines like, “GRIEVING WIDOW SPEAKS EXCLUSIVELY TO POST MAN ON THE SCENE.” A real hoot … well, I guess not for her.
When I got back to New York there was much back-slapping and whiskey toasts and an offer from Lisker to take over the Giants beat. I remember telling my girlfriend that this newspaper racket, most especially sportswriting, was like pissing up a rope and not getting wet. I did the Giants for a couple of years, with a lot of college basketball after the season. I loved it. Fighting with Ray Perkins. Playing hoop with Phil Simms. Getting smashed with Lawrence Taylor. I remember once there was a rumor that Dick Young, the columnist for the rival New York Daily News, was about to break a story about the Giants being riddled with reefer smokers. I was screwed.
Murdoch, and by extension Lisker, hated nothing more than to be beaten on a story by the Daily News. I never heard Lisker call it the Daily News. It was always the “scumbag News“. And beaten on a gossipy story about sex, drugs or alcohol by the scumbag News was even worse. But I was buying reefer from the starting free safety and/or the back-up halfback, and smoking after practice with about half the team. There was no way I could write the story, and Dick Young was going kneecap me. (Do you know what an IRA Sixpack is? Three in the knees and three in the elbows.)
Then, an idea. Confront the impending story head-on, get a denial-y quote from some Giants official. Boom — I would have both the story and the denial first. My best friend on the beat shared my recreational proclivities — The Marxist we called him; I don’t want to name him; he’s now an editor on the New York Times‘ Foreign Desk. Anyway. The Marxist and I made an appointment to interview the Giants’ General Manager, the late, wonderful, witty George Young.
I really liked Young. He was a former history teacher. I chatted him up often, and I think I probably had more conversations with him about the Battle of the Boyne than I did about football. (I come from a family of greenhorns; My grandfather was hung by the Black & Tans, and my father became a homicide cop in Newark straight off the boat.) Between talking to Young about anything and everything and talking to then-linebackers’ coach Bill Parcells about his passion for baseball and boxing, ’tis I wonder I ever wrote a football story. (Forgot to mention, I was also covering a lot of fights in the off-season. Mostly Vegas. I was too young for the hallowed travel-scam days of Manilla and Zaire, although, sitting next to Cholo Lisker in his silk black shirt and black headband in New Orleans, I did phone in the “running” for the Duran-Leonard “No Mas” fight when the Post’s boxing writer, Mike Marley, failed to show because he’d ran off with a Brazilian hooker.)
And this from Young I will never forget. As we sat in his office, beating around the bush with more hems than haws, I finally blurted, “George, there are a lot of rumors going around about some of your players and drugs.”
Young looked me in the eye. Swiveled his head to The Marxist and held the stare. Back to me. “We’ll Bob,” he said evenly, “there are a lot of rumors going around about some of the Giants beat writers and drugs.” He waited a beat; the coup de gras. “And I don’t believe a word of them.”
End of interview. End of drug story. I will never forget that moment. It is up there with the time the late, great Murray Kempton told me, “Drury, you are font of useless information.” Coming from Murrray, well, I want that on my headstone. Murray and George were peas in a pod.
But even though I had only done it for a year, I was already getting antsy about covering sports. Sometimes I looked at my notebooks and laughed. The coaches giving “110%.” The 30-something pitchers, “This spring my arm feels 10 years younger.” Every fat guy was always in “the best shape of my life.”
I thought about sitting in a press box at 35, 40, 45, 50 years old. Cadging quotes, eating free hot dogs, trying to decipher the hieroglyphics in my box score. Sportswriters, as Shakespeare said about kings, always leave the office feet first.
A Reporter’s History
Let’s go back to your reporting career chronologically — you moved on to another paper, right? The New York Daily News or Newsday? You started writing about crime. How did the transition from sports to crime take place? I loved your Elaine’s memoir in GQ years back, so a crime reporter saloon story or two would be great.
I did a few more years at the Post, covering the Giants and (mostly) college hoop before being promoted to columnist. Pretty incredible, seeing my little face-photo atop a column. Being able to spew an opinion on (just about) anything I wanted, although I hewed pretty closely to pro football and college basketball.
Attended four-five, maybe six Super Bowls (can’t recall exact number), and probably about as many NCAA tournaments. They were the best. When we weren’t covering games a coterie of reporters were always out playing ball. I remember Bryan Burwell had a pretty good handle, Jack Wilkinson of the New York Daily News breaking my nose (accidentally, I think) during a game in New Orleans, and guarding the Boston Globe‘s Leslie Visser — the only female who played. (She was game but lame on the court; easy defensive assignment.)
One year I got a great story. Someone in the stands at one of the quarter-final games had brought a radio, I happened to be next to him on the hot dog line at halftime, and he told me he was picking up the 107-year-old DePaul coach Ray Meyer on a short-wave signal. Turns out Meyer was miked by NBC for a documentary. I told the guy he could sit in my courtside press seat if I could borrow his radio for the second half. Deal.
DePaul had a powerhouse team that year — Mark Aguirre, Skip Dillard and a couple of other future pros — but they were in a close game with tiny St. Joe’s (Philly). Toward the end of the second half DePaul fell apart, and I could hear the players cursing the coach in the time-out huddles and, finally, dismissing him altogether to argue amongst themselves. Meyer had lost control of his team, and St. Joe’s upset them. Of course I wrote this.
But Meyer was known as a saintly old gent, and the next week Bryant Gumble, then with NBC Sports, held up my photograph on national television, said, “Boo Bob Drury”, and basically called me a liar. I was furious; so was Blackie Lisker. Back in New York that Monday, I called Meyer, who mumbled an apology to me — on tape!! — before his handlers got him off the phone. Then I called that little asswipe Gumbel at home and played him Meyer’s tape. The fucker couldn’t say anything except to keep stammering, “How did you get my home number?” Ha! naturally I wrote a column for the next day basically challenging him to a fist fight. And Lisker wrote a back-page editorial more or less doing the same. Tall Fun … although I suppose I’ll never be hired as a correspondent for his HBO sports show.
Anyway, my best friend Mike McAlary had moved on from the Post sports department, where he’d covered the Yankees, to New York Newsday, where he was covering crime. He kept urging me to do the same. But I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to leave sports. Plus, it was a big salary cut. I was a kid, a columnist, traveling the country for free, and making six figures.
In a kind of halfway move, I left the Post and joined the old Sport Magazine with a kind of tacit agreement that I would give them, say, a pure sports piece one month (profile of Digger Phelps, for instance) and be allowed to pick a sort-of-sporting story to write the next month (profile of the former light heavyweight champ Bob Foster, for instance, then a New Mexico homicide cop). At the same time I started doing some freelance crime stuff for the Daily News.
I liked the non-sports enough, and McAlary kept bugging me, so finally I applied to Newsday and was hired to work the Cop Shop down at Police Plaza (The Purple Palace), 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. I was not only right back working the hours I’d started in the newspaper business, but I took a 50k pay cut as well. No big deal, I guess, I still had enough money for whiskey.
The late ’80s were a great time to be a crime reporter. The height of the crack wars in NYC. Street villains with names like “Popeye” and “Fat Cat” and “Jughead”. Larry Davis wounded six cops during a Bronx shootout and went on the run for three weeks or so and I OWNED the story. I remember hanging out all night ’til dawn in his brother’s ghetto apartment. The brother swore he could convince Larry to surrender to me. He didn’t, but it scared the hell out of my editors when they didn’t hear from me for 24 hours in those pre-cell phone days. They finally got Larry and I showed up the first day of his trial in the Bronx. When I noticed that half the jury refused to take off their sunglasses I knew the Bronx DA would never get his attempted homicide rap. He didn’t, although Larry did go away. I was also the first reporter on the scene of the assassination of Officer Ed Byrnes, his head blown off in his squad car while guarding a witness in Queens who was set to testify against Fat Cat.
I guess we thought we were wild and cool. A bunch of us. McAlary (who went on to win a Pulitzer and with whom I had a falling out — he could be a selfish prick — before making up with him right before he died too young); Richie Esposito (now winning awards as ABC News’s Brian Ross’s investigative producer), Ellis Henican (still at Newsday writing a column as well as the “official” liberal foil at Fox News); Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer (now both at the New York Times — Dwyer won a Pulitzer, too, but Flynn was the better ball player). I still kept in touch with Harvey Araton, and when we both got nominated for Pulitzers we’d joke that we could only tell each other and no one else; it didn’t count unless you won.
Guys like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Don Forst — Newsday Editor in Chief — were our idols, and we had two crazy-nut city editors named Hap Hairston and John Cotter — both also died young — who were great, wonderful teachers. They hated each other. We used to hang at certain bars in the city. The Lion’s Head on Christopher Street in the village (since closed). You’ve probably heard the old Lion’s Head saw: “A place for writers with a drinking problem and drinkers with a writing problem.” Ryan McFadden’s on 42nd and 2nd across from the old Daily News building. One night in McFadden’s Cotter and I convinced Steve McFadden that Haiti was a vacationer’s paradise. We just wanted to fly down for the ousting of Baby Doc Duvalier, currently in progress, (Papa Doc being long dead), but McFadden had no clue. It was maybe five in the morning, we were all pretty oiled, and after stopping at McFadden’s apartment to pick up some tapes of the Wolfe Tones (don’t ask) we all took a cab to Kennedy and caught the first flight to Port Au Prince via Miami. McFadden was aghast. It was a war zone. When he sobered up he was so hungover and so pissed at us. But we ended up staying a week at the Hotel Oloffson — where Graham Greene wrote The Comedians — listening to the Wolfe Tones on the owner’s tape deck amid the gunfire, and had a pretty good time.
And, of course, there was Elaine’s — Elaine Kauffman, she loved reporters and cops. I had met her back when I was a kid sportswriter, maybe seven or eight years earlier. A literary agent owed me 11k — a lordly sum at the time for me; even today now that I think about it — and he was hosting an afternoon party at Elaine’s for another one of his clients. When I arrived at the door he was greeting people and handed me the check. I didn’t know anybody so I slinked over to a corner of the bar and ordered a beer. When I went to pay, and the bartender told me it was an open bar, I jacked him a two-spot tip. Three or four more beers later, three or four more $2 tips later, I notice that there’s this, er, zoftig women giving me the voodoo eye from a couple of bar stools down.
I stand up and start to say, “Hi. My name is …” and she holds a hand up and cuts me off.
“I know who the fuck you are. I saw Jay give you that check for eleven grand when you walked in and I’ve been watching you tip my bartender with every drink. My name’s Elaine, and your welcome in my place any fucking time.”
Years later, the first time McAlary and I walked in there together, she remembered my name and introduced me around to the regulars as “the guy that tips.”
The Move from Newspapers to Magazines
Please talk about how you made the jump from newspapers to glossy men magazines. Also, tell me about the influence Art Cooper had on you and your career as a magazine journalist.
One night in August of 1989 I was — hard to believe — crawling about the East Side of Manhattan with a few mates when we bumped into Steve Dunleavy. I was working for Newsday, Steve was a Rupert star, first (and later) at the Post, but currently working on TV as a reporter on a show called, well, The Reporters. Murdoch already had A Current Affair up and running, and The Reporters was allegedly his “serious” answer to “serious” shows like 60 Minutes. Hah!
We crawled pretty hard all night, with Dunleavy hooking up a bunch of Australians (all men) to our gang. The next morning, at work at my desk, I was suffering from a mighty hangover. The phone rang. I answered, and a male voice with an Australian accent said, “‘Ello mate, this is Garreth Harvey, a friend of Dunleavy’s. We met last night. How’d you like to be on television.?”
I hung up the phone. It rang again a moment later. It was Harvey again, and this time — this is what makes the Aussies such good reporters — he said. “‘Ello, mate. Can I buy you a Bloody Mary? Right now.” It was 10:30 in the morning. Of course I met the guy — left the newsroom right then — and by that afternoon had a TV contract to be one of the on-air reporters. I had done broadcast before, albeit minimum. Guests appearances on news and panel shows. And three years on ESPN while working at the Post on an early, weekly version of “Pick the Pros” during football season. (I mentioned that earlier, no? Al Albert, Marv’s brother, was the host the first season; Greg Gumbel, Bryant’s brother, the next two. Couldn’t find a nicer man in the business that Greg Gumbel. Sweetheart. Hard to believe they came out of the same womb.)
So I did The Reporters for a year — tall fun — until the show got canceled. I had already ghostwritten the former Baltimore Colt Arty Donovan’s autobiography (Fatso) while at the Post and Sport magazine, and was just finishing up a true-crime book with former NYC Special Prosecutor (and soon to be Brooklyn District Attorney) Joe Hynes (Incident at Howard Beach). So I had some long-form journalism cred and, by now, an editor I knew from my days at Sport magazine — Peter Griffin — was working at Men’s Journal. I called him. We met. Lunch. I got a couple of assignments, and fulfilled them well enough to parlay them into a series of two-year contracts. Along the way I also ghostwrote Mafia Cop for the (now disgraced) NYPD detective Louie Eppolito, edited the memoirs of the Gambino soldier Joe “Dogs” Ianucci, and ghostwrote Joe’s Mafia Cookbook. We later had a falling out and he threatened to leave the Witness Protection Program, which he was always leaving anyway, and come kill me. He knew where I lived — I had hosted him at my house on the east end of Long Island; he liked to flash his gun around the bars. I told him to come fucking try and I’d rip his head off and piss down his neck. Probably not too smart of me. Sometimes I still think twice when the doorbell rings.
One of the pieces I did for Men’s Journal — about a group of Air Force Pararescue Jumpers, or PJs. stationed in Alaska — turned into a book proposal. I moved to Alaska and flew with them every day. Even climbed a little. But didn’t jump. Those days were over. That turned into The Rescue Season.
While I was in Alaska my agent happened to be speaking to GQ‘s Art Cooper — why, I can’t remember — and Art mentioned that he’d love to have me on staff. Pig in shit! I had done a couple of freelance pieces for GQ before signing on with Men’s Journal, and I always wanted to work there. Upon my return from Alaska — I lived up there for about six months, I guess — we cut the contract deal.
I know it sounds corny, but Art Cooper had a nose for a good story. By this time every magazine editor was already locked tight into focus groups to tell them what sold, etc. Not Art. I could go to him and tell him I wanted to fly with the USAF’s Hurricane Hunters (I ended up flying through Hurricane Floyd), or chase the source of Sicilian Mafia money around Cuba, or trek into the Liberian interior to report on gold mines owned by that hypocrite Pat Robertson — who was in bed with then-Dictator Charles Taylor. Art took some heavy religious-right lobbying heat when Robertson’s people found out we were running that story — naturally, upon my return from Africa I went to Robertson and his people for comment re what I had discovered; I actually came out of that shithole country with a copy of a gold-mine contract the two had signed. But Art never backed down — and he never showed any sign of stress working in the Conde Nast pressure dome. He took the heat for his writers, he stood by their ideas, and — like Jerry Lisker way back in my days at the Post sports department — he fought for us like a hyena on speed.
I had done plenty of “adventure” stuff before, but I was kind of new at the foreign correspondent game, and he taught me to just go for the story no matter who I had to barrel through to get. He would run interference. That’s what happened right after 9/11. I called my editor at GQ, Marty Beiser, Art’s #2, and told him I wanted to go to Afghanistan. Then I came in and Art and Marty and me talked for about five minutes before Art told me to get on it. He got me $5,000 in cash — mostly 10s and 20s — which I taped all over my body. I made some calls to people who knew people who knew people who were trying to get into the country. Don’t forget, at the time the Taliban (and, extensionally, Al Qaeda), still controlled 90 percent of the territory. The Northern Alliance — their leader, Shah Massoud, had been assasinated the day before 9/11 — was clinging to the Panjshir Valley and a small strip of land in the north, near the Tajikistan border.
At any rate, I got in by bribing my way — and I MEAN bribing — around a rather circuitous route: NYC-Moscow; Moscow-Tashkent (scary-as-shit midnight flight); overland through Uzbekistan’s “kidnap alley” with a fixer; through several Uzbek-Tajik checkpoints at their border (I felt like a LeCarre character); overland to a dusty old Sil Trail town in northern Tajikistan, and then down to Dushanbe on an old Russian-made Air Tajik Aeroflot. We flew over the Pamirs — or, rather, we flew through mountain passes in the Pamirs, because the plane couldn’t get altitude to top them. This flight made me long for the days of safe Moscow-Tashkent legs. More bribes in Dushanbe, a lot more, and then across the river — the Pang?? — into Afghanistan after bribing the drunken Russian guards. I was handing out cash left and right, only way to get anything done, and even ended up borrowing 5K more from an Irish writer from Time Magazine International.
But those of us who got in got a great fucking story. Living in mud huts. Crossing horse-head high rivers with the Northern Alliance on Marco Polo ponies. Watching the Taliban-held cities fall like dominoes — Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Baglahn, Kabul. I got caught in the middle of a firefight where the first three western reporters were killed, almost right next to me. The Irish writer from Time got a good scoop. Sometimes I wished I was still writing for a daily newspaper, or at least a weekly.
And when I got home, Art and Marty took one look at my expense report — I had chronicled every bribe, but of course had no receipts — and did not blink. Things, perhaps, might have been different if they did not like the story I produced. But they did.
Couple of years later Conde Nast forced Art out before he wanted to go. Oh, everybody said the right things. Art got a nice golden parachute out of the deal. Then, within days of his official departure date, he dropped dead of a massive stroke/heart attack in the Four Seasons, where he would take me every two years to have lunch before we renewed my contract over Irish coffees and cigarettes at the bar.
That’s when I left GQ.
How did you hook up with Men’s Health as their foreign correspondent and do you like it as much as your GQ days? I mean I know you wrote literary journalism for GQ but Men’s Health — with all its focus on exercise and men’s grooming products — seems a bit much for the hard drinking, hard smoking, hard charging, hard newspapering Bob Drury.
I can sorta-kinda-maybe understand your snark re Men’s Health, but I have to tell you, the magazine has been nothing but good to me since I signed up with them almost six years ago.
I admit, I am not the target audience for better abs or better love-making or better hair care products — and I have never had a question for any bartender, including Jimmy, other than can I run a tab and when is last call. But Men’s Health has allowed me to keep my journalism chops up while I also write my books. (Halsey’s Typhoon was a New York Times best seller; The Last Stand of Fox Company just cracked 100 on the Amazon list this morning, and while I was gone Tom Clavin and I sold our next one, about Vietnam.)
Consider — in just the past few months or so I’ve reported and written three short-ish (2,500 words) “Men’s Health Profiles” on a US Air Force Pararescue Jumper whose helicopter crashed in the Afghan mountains and who was not only never supposed to walk again, but has actually made it back on to his PJ team; on a Cape Cod long-lining hook fisherman/environmentalist/activist who not only decided to make it his cause to save the New England fisheries but to get himself into better physical shape before he died doing it; and on a squad of active-duty Marines taking cooking courses at the Culinary School of America.
And that is not to mention the longer, 5,000- and 6,000-word pieces I’ve reported from both here and abroad. I am working on a three-part series right now that I find quite fulfilling — although I would prefer to not mention the subject. But as an example I can give you not only the features I’ve done on returning veterans suffering from PTSD, or the concussion crisis in professional sports, or the piece on the physiology of fear that saw me embedded with a US Navy SEAL team in Fallujah. My favorite, I suppose, was another series, “The Doctors of …,” that Men’s Health ran a year or two ago. For those pieces I lived with a U.S. Air Force surgical team at a FOB in Balad (“The Doctors of War”), rode with a Medecine Sans Frontierre mobile unit ministering to Darfur refugees along the Chad-Sudan border (“The Doctors of Chaos”), and journeyed to Oregon — the only state in the union with legalized suicide — to report on a cancer patient whom, soon after I interviewed him, killed himself (“The Doctors of Mercy.”)
Through all these, Men’s Health has allowed me to explore with some depth focus of these stories, and never stepped on my dick — other than for the minor editing processes that annoy all writers (and usually makes us better). When I first signed up with Dave Zinczenko — this was after Art Cooper got shitcanned at GQ and I was looking for a place to land — Zinczenko promised me that he would listen to my ideas and send me anywhere as long as the stories I was interested in writing somehow had a connection to medicine, health, or fitness. So far he and my editor at the book, Bill Phillips, have kept their word. Do they need someone like me at the magazine? I would like to think they do, but I cannot attest to the fact that my stories make any difference on the newstands. in fact, they probably don’t.
But, as I think I’ve said a couple of times to you before, it sure as hell beats work.
Let’s talk about your recent books. You have written and published two amazing military adventure history books with fellow East Hampton writer Tom Clavin — Halsey’s Typhoon and The Last Stand of Fox Company. One of the reasons these books are so fun to read is because I had never heard about either story before. My questions — how did you and Tom Clavin first meet up and decide to collaborate on these books? Two reporters seem better than one for research and reporting. But how do the two of you approach the writing aspect? Do you split the chapters up? How does the writing process work when you have a partner?
Interesting question re the book “production”. As you probably know and understand, two people “writing” one book never works. The reader can just … feel the disjointedness.
Tom and I met years ago when he was the editor of the East Hampton Independent. He’s the smart guy in our partnership. What we try to do — and I suppose we’ve boxed ourselves in this modus operandi — is attempt to find a little-known heroic incident from past American wars that we can turn into a narrative from the boots-on-the-ground perspective (as opposed to the saddle.) Then we hunt and dig and hunt and dig some more for men (and so far they have all been men) who lived through such tragic circumstances. Nothing interests us so much as ordinary men facing extraordinary, life-or-death situations. A kind of, “What would I do?” pervades all our tales. I believe that is why readers relate.
The fact that both of our collaborations have been mini-victories in otherwise fucked-up situations — Bull Halsey possessing the hubris to attempt to sail straight through one of the largest typhoons of the 20th century; the “attack in another direction” Chosin campaign — is coincidence, I think. Although we just sold another book, this one about a single day in Vietnam, and I guess you can’t really call that a feel-good war.
The two of us form a nice assembly-line team putting these books together. We’re both pretty good at face-to-face, or even telephone interviews, although I may excel in that a bit more. It’s like following bread crumbs. You find a US Navy veteran in Minneapolis who lived through his destroyer breaking apart and capsizing out from under him in the Pacific, or a US Marine who lived through a 400-1-odds-five-day-battle in 30-below weather on top of a desolate North Korean mountain, and he tells you his story. You are blown away. Then, at the end of the interview, he mentions Harry Smith in Kansas City with a better story — “If you think I’ve got a story, you better speak to Harry” — and you travel to Kansas City. Then Harry in Kansas City mentions Joe Jones’ story, and Joe lives in Texas … well, you get the idea.
I’d say our books are perhaps one-third personal reminiscence, one-third letters from the front and other written material our characters put to paper either right before or right after the incidents we write about (the more immediate material is the most poignant, as well as the most truthful and accurate), and one-third official history. This is where Tom Clavin shines.
I suppose I could descend into the bowels of the National Archives, or the Library of Congress, or the Quantico (Virginia) Marine Corps Museum, or myriad other research facilities, and perhaps-perhaps-perhaps if you came looking for me in a couple of months with a miner’s light and a treasure map I may have come up with some useful information. But Tom is a dedicated museum rat. He likes going in there, and the stuff he comes out with blows my mind.
I do the writing and Tom does the editing before it gets the editor at the publishing house, who further refines it. I’ll write a chink, pass it along to Tom, and he’ll work on that while I’m writing another chunk. All in all, as I say, a nice Henry Ford assembly line (without the racism, anti-semitism or fascism).
When I look back at your magazine writing career, I have some favorites. Your 1998 Men’s Journal piece on the death of sportswriting; your 2002 GQ war reporting with the Northern Alliance, and your 2001 GQ memoir about hanging out at Elaine’s with your writer friends. When you look back, are there stories from Men’s Journal, GQ or Men’s Health that stand out for you? Do you have two or three favorites?
You have nailed one of my favorites — riding Marco Polo ponies across waist-deep rivers with the Northern Alliance warlor … er, general Mamur Hassan and witnessing the WWI-style trench warfare between his troops and the Taliban — “Talib, tonight you die,” they would whisper into their radios, knowing the enemy was on the same frequency — was beyond my imagination.
I suppose that is of a piece with many of my other favorites. Seeing the world is what it is all about, no? I mean, schlepping through the Liberian jungle for GQ looking to find Pat Robertson’s gold mines (and nailing that slywit with the contract he’d signed with the predator Charles Taylor), or running around Cuba looking for Sicilian mafioso in bed with Castro’s lieutenants; traveling the Chad-Sudan border with a Medicine Sans Frontiere mobile unit ministering to Darfur refugees or flying with US Army medics and living with US Air Force surgeons at the Balad FOB for Men’s Health — what could be neater?
But though I seem to have a preference for foreign correspondence, not all overseas assignments have to involve war or danger to be fun for me. I’ve written travel pieces from Tahiti, Glastonbury, and — yes — Sarajevo. I’ve shared a four-hour, five-course (six-bottle) lunch with Peter Mayle in the Luberon. I’ve rappelled down French Alpine cliffs with the Haute Montaigne Rescue Service, and I’ve chronicled the downtown scene of Montreal. No one was shooting at me, but it sure was cool.
I wrote one of my favorite pieces for GQ in 2003. I was on my way back from the Balkans and Art Cooper asked me to stop in London to profile Lennox Lewis. He was fighting a Boer, Franz Boetha, “The White Buffalo”, in the East End. I have a son who lives in France with his mother. Long story. He’s 12 this June, and visits me five or six times a year — I am proud to brag that he has been flying TransAtlantic by himself since he was five years old — but back then I didn’t see him much, and Art was always trying to get me to write a personal piece about living across an ocean from my boy.
Since I was in London anyway, and had only seen the western North Atlantic from my commercial fishing days on the Cape, I convinced Art to let me train to Glasgow (stopping on the way in Edmonton to watch Tiger Woods one day in the British Open), and ferry and tramp steamer across the eastern North Atlantic. Melville remarked that it is water and meditation that are forever wedded, and I told Art I’d write a reflective piece about me and Liam-Antoine while I sailed.
It was wonderful. Glasgow to the Orkneys to the Shetlands to the Faeroes, stopping at B&Bs to see the sights along the way. I ended up on the ass-end of Iceland — can’t remember the little fishing town on the island’s east coast — and the trip was everything I had dreamed it would be. Wrote a pretty good story, too.
Finally, this doesn’t mean I have to be overseas to write good “stuff”. I once spent a jolly, twisted week in Philadelphia profiling Joe Frazier — what a guy! — and I’m very proud of a lot of the stateside pieces I’ve done over the past couple of years for Men’s Health. The concussion story I mentioned jumps immediately to mind, as does the third and concluding part of the “Doctors of …” series, the time I interviewed the soon-to-be suicide.
Most of my favorite magazine writers — you, Mike Sager, Charles Bowden, Gary Smith, Charles P. Pierce, Tom Friend, and the late, great Dick Schaap — all have one thing in common: you toiled at daily newspapers before heading to the glossies. How important do you think it is for a budding magazine writer to start out newspapering? Also, the world of journalism right now — especially for newspapers — seems to be dying or going down the tubes fast. What advice would you give a young man or woman with a desire to pursue reporting for a living?
To answer your second question first — as I do happen sometimes to speak at journalism schools and the like; reporting is reporting, and no matter who you do it for, it involves the same steps — literally the same steps, as in shoe leather. I know this from my days as a copyboy and I know this from experience researching non-fiction books. That said, used to be, say, 10 years ago, when kids would ask me how to become a newspaperman, and I’d warn them off it real fast, advising them to get into some kind of electronic media. Now, well, now I don’t even get those questions. Not surprised.
It’s a good question you have about newspaper people moving on to glossies. I think it used to be, at least when I was coming up, that you felt deep down inside that you were apprenticing at a newspaper if you had any desire to “move up” to magazine or book work. Working in a newsroom as a kid, learning how to ask a question that does not elicit a pat answer, how to develop a “nose” for the thing that will make a good lede, how to crash a story on deadline, I suppose it served as a kind of vocational school. A plumber knows his U-joints, a crime reporter or city hall reporter knows his bullshit meter.
Not that there weren’t colleagues, good reporters and writers, who saw themselves first, last and always as newspaper people. I don’t care how many best-sellers or screenplays Jimmy Breslin has written, he’s still a newspaperman. Same with Denis Hamill and Michael Daly. Some guys are just born to the job, and they’re going to be there no matter what else they succeed in. I’m not sure I know how to explain it, the “moving up” process, other than the obvious. Space, for one. I tend to be prolix — the devil’s sign for a good newspaper editor — and I was always looking, even in my early newspaper days, for a way to bust out of the conventional newspaper story-telling confines and write some long narrative pieces. Moreover, from a strictly practical point of view, magazines and, of course, book contracts, paid better. And not least, they got you more famous — not a small accomplishment when you are young and horny and stupid. (Frank Sinatra once told Humphey Bogart that he hoped in heaven there were lots of broads and no newspapermen; Bogart replied that when he grew up he’d realize he had it backward.)
As for where we’re heading, this is what I will find interesting: I read a lot of blogs. Probably too many. The late NY football Giants GM George Young once told me he didn’t hire people who do crosswords — they waste too much time at work. If my editors knew how much time I waste surfing the web …
Anyway, so I read a lot of blogs. Good stuff. Good writing. Provocative. Like that. But the thing is, most bloggers are riffing off what reporters have uncovered in Afghanistan, in the State Department, in City Hall and the Gaza Strip and the campaign trail and Caracas and … well, once there is no more reporting from these places, what knowledge is left to riff on?
It will be interesting to see.