A Fan’s Notes: An Interview with Journalist Bob Drury

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.