Workin’ for the Mag
“What Is To Be Done?” The title of the magazine resonated differently in each of our heads. To some it was a Leninist cry mocking bourgeois Harvardian desires for capitalist amusements. To me it was a quote from Joseph Smith, seeking respite from the confusion of worldly philosophies, offering to guide the reader to worthwhile pursuits. I recognized mine was a minority opinion. To most it was about arts and entertainment beyond the party going on across the hall.
Though not really an underground newspaper, our flavor was decidedly more relaxed than the daily Crimson. But our stories were some of the best writing published on campus. The most popular weekly feature was the movie page, written by Mark T. Whitaker ’79, now editor of Newsweek. His talent, precise prose, and personality stifled any editorial inclinations to tamper, but we all benefited from his freedom. For some of the less-talented rest of us, this freedom could be problematic. I wrote a column and, pulling rank, overruled my editor on several points. In the clear light of morning I was embarrassed to read the resulting hash. As editor of the magazine, though, my conclusion was not to edit more strictly but to insist on higher-quality writers.
The magazine was put to bed early Thursday mornings long after the daily paper staff had gone to bed. The resulting fatigued focus on getting things done efficiently has served me well in later life, but the schedule trashed my grades in Thursday morning classes. I doubt I missed anything in those courses to rival what the magazine brought: friendships, laughter, a satisfying sense of growing something lasting from the embryonic magazine we’d inherited and discovering you really can get a buzz from mixing Coca-Cola and aspirin in large doses.
Anthony Y. Strike ’78 graduated from Harvard Business School in 1982, worked for Bain & Company in Boston and now is president of several companies that license technology to textile mills and garment manufacturers and franchise One Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaning stores. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife Katie and their six children.
When I was the Assistant Editor, putting out What Is To Be Done? every week was a little like writing a term paper in a course you really loved, only messier. You had a deadline; it didn’t matter if you felt like it; it was going to be exhausting; it was going to be exhilarating; it was largely about words you cared about, terrifically; you were going to get to eat a lot of junk food; and you knew, absolutely, you were going to be up all night. It’s funny, though. I was in it for the words, I told myself; the rest of it was a mysterious process as close to chemistry and engineering as I was going to get at Harvard, and a good thing, too. But while I loved writing and working with writers, loved the rush of editing copy on deadline, loved thinking up mischievous headlines, and still have a file stuffed with every issue for which I wrote the least little thing, it’s not the words I remember most—it’s the mess. Editing copy on coarse yellow sheets of paper, the type from the old machines upstairs so uneven you had to notice the way the letters made themselves. Doing paste-up with an X-acto knife that more than once sliced my finger open, smearing blood onto the layout sheet. Swiping down the dripping offset plates so they could be loaded onto the cylinders. Scrambling to scoop the fresh-newsprint-smelling pages as they swarmed off new, and then gathering them into bunches that you grasped loosely and tapped folded-edge down, so that they slid together cleanly in thick blocks and the newsprint rubbed its way into every swirl and crevice in the pads of your fingers and stayed there until you scoured it out with rough soap. And then walking home filthy as the sun came up, knowing you’d helped put together something good, something finite and ephemeral and tangible, something hundreds of people you’d never see would hold that very morning in their hands.
Jurretta Jordan Heckscher ’79 received an M.Litt from Oxford as a Marshall Scholar and a Ph.D. in American Studies last year from George Washington University. She edits the American Memory online historical collections for the Library of Congress, writes about dance for the National Endowment for the Arts, and is completing a book on the cultural importance of early African-American dance. None of this has been more fun than writing and editing for What Is To Be Done?
Rarely in its history could the What? have had a such direct impact on the social lives of those in the Harvard Community than during the Spring of 1983. That’s when I wrote a profile of a male Bowdoin student who was spending the academic year at Wellesley College. Though the article itself was relatively tame, the very delicate subject matter and suggestive headline, “Some Like It Hot” generated a good deal of controversy and mail.
The letter with the most significant potential ramifications came from a group of Wellesley students. “Let’s hit them where it really hurts,” they wrote urging that any woman vaguely associated with Wellesley “boycott sex with Harvard students, faculty, administrators and anyone else vaguely associated with the school until the magazine prints an apology for the article.” The next week, we received a letter from an ad hoc organization of civic-minded MIT students who offered to pick up the slack until that apology was forthcoming.
With so much at stake, co-editor Mary C. Warner ’85 and I attended a Wellesley student council meeting to discuss the article. Afterwards, the council decided to suspend distribution of the What? on campus for three weeks. The more serious moratorium, however, was avoided.
John D. Solomon ’85 oversaw “women’s issues” programming at the Lifetime cable network for four years. He now reports on those issues and others for several women’s magazines, The New York Times, USA Today and National Public Radio.
One of the first things that comes to mind is how miserable we made Pat Sorrento, The Crimson’s legendary and beloved foreman and fear-inspiring father figure to us all. On Wednesday night—the night that the What? closed out—Pat was in for double misery. Not only did he have to deal with “asshole” Crimson editors and their inability to get the paper out before the wee hours of the morning, but he also had the “fuckin’ albatross around his neck” (one of his choicest descriptions of the Mag) which guaranteed that he wouldn’t leave the building until dawn. I remember standing on the filthy and entirely precarious landing at the top of the stairs pasting up the Mag and being accosted by Pat as he walked down the steps toward his shop in the basement, “Shit, it’s Kramnick, don’t tell me it’s another fuckin’ Wednesday night.”
The whole point of the Mag, we thought, was to be a little crazy, provocative, edgy, push the envelope, etc. Sometimes we went too far. I remember one “endpaper” I edited in the spring of 1986 which consisted of a compilation of space shuttle Challenger jokes. (The space shuttle had blown up in January ’86). While any number of people told me that they thought the jokes were tasteless and offensive, the person that really got to me was Brian Byrne, The Crimson’s press operator, who said that he personally knew the family of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the accident and that he had been disgusted when he read the piece as it came off the press.
Editing the Mag was a lot like life at Harvard. I simultaneously felt thrilled and exhilirated, exhausted and anxious, self-important and always in way over my head. It was probably good training for life post-Harvard which is more of the same, except the self-importance fades quickly as you leave Cambridge behind (and thank God for that). One final note to Pat Sorrento: you were right about one thing, work is work and there’s nothing better than getting home early and going to sleep.
Rebecca K. Kramnick ’87 is a senior staff attorney at Lawyers Alliance for New York, a New York City public interest law firm which assists community based nonprofit organizations. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her husband and two daughters.
I was so spectacularly under-informed before I started at The Crimson’s weekly, What Is To Be Done?, that when future managing editor Joseph R. Palmore ’91 tried to explain the source for the magazine’s name, I thought the Lenin he kept mentioning was the Brit of love-ins and “Imagine.” But, qualified or not, I jumped in. We set out to develop a bigger, better magazine, with more and longer stories and a splashier design. We did paste-up back then by hand, with X-acto knives, waxed type and blue-gridded layout boards. We worked in what can only be described as a cave off the newspaper’s paste-up room. I remember cold, cracked, concrete walls, leaky pipes, and a damp vegetable odor that mingled with the pervasive smells of ink, hot wax and photo chemicals. An atmosphere, I imagine, not too different from those at L.A’s downscale porn studios.
For that first issue, the three of us worked way past the time the paper had been put to bed. I discovered that Melanie R. Williams ’91, extraordinarily, could keep talking through the night. She chattered about future stories and her hometown in New York, while Dave A. Plotz ’93 and I got wearier and more silent. (Through the year, in desperate moments, Melanie would throw her fist into the air and cry, “Sleep is for the weak.”)
We emerged from the building sometime before dawn. Stray phrases and odd headlines were jumbled in my head. I didn’t know how I’d make my classes that day. On Cambridge’s dark, quiet streets that morning I worried, what have I gotten myself into? But there wasn’t a thing to be done about it (besides, in Terry-Thomas’s words, press on). And thinking back now—about all I learned, about the great mix of talented people who walked in and out of that little cave—I’m glad for that.
Lisa A. Taggart ’91 was editor of “What Is To Be Done?” in 1990. She is now a staff travel writer at Sunset Magazine in California.
My most vivid memory of a year chained to the What?—well, besides the time I wrote an article about Christian Scientists in which I brilliantly referred to them as “Scientologists”—is the miserable working conditions.
Our guard was the last to toil in the pre-rehabbed hell of 14 Plympton St. Because we were the What?—and hence scoffed at by the newshound bosses—and because The Crimson was tight on space, the three of us were exiled to the most dismal sub-sub-basement, a cave at the bitter end of the cellar, past the presses and the half-tone machine. Our putrid little home glistened with slime-mold, reeked of ink, photo chemicals, and rot, and was cluttered with mysterious tin buckets sloshing with murky green chemicals. The stink would make us slightly queasy, but during good weeks, also slightly stoned. It was wonderful! I still miss it.
David A. Plotz ’93, was assistant editor of the What in 1990. He is Washington Bureau Chief of Slate.com, where he has been for 5 years. Before Slate, he worked for three years as a staff writer and senior editor for the Washington D.C. City Paper.
Rebecca Jeschke, Liza Velasquez and I had a great time working on the final year of What Is To Be Done?, and were disappointed to see it abolished in favor of the stupidly-named Fifteen Minutes. We covered many interesting stories, expanded the length of the magazine and got a broader base of writers to write stories. Advertising revenue also increased. But no good deed goes unpunished, and the name was changed without any input from us.
The most irritating aspect of our work was that the operations manager (whose name escapes me) never seemed to think it important that the What? actually get delivered to all the places our hardworking ad guy, Barry, told advertisers the magazine would be delivered. Those to whom the business staff felt like delivering the What? seemed to enjoy it. A word of advice: don’t ever hire anyone with an SAT score greater than 1400 to be a paperboy.
Our time was marked most significantly by our several-month relocation during the renovation of the Crimson building and the upgrade of the computers. The smell of the Hong Kong’s dumpsters will never leave me. A hassle, but well worth it in terms of the improvements attained.
Stephen J. Newman’s only current connection to the world of journalism is through his law practice in Los Angeles. He found his experience on The Crimson and the What? very rewarding, if only because it taught him how to write to length and write to deadline—two skills that are surprisingly important to an attorney. He also knows the difference between a point and a pica.
Don’t get me wrong: FM is a serious journalistic endeavor, all the better for its in-depth, investigative cover pieces. Nonetheless, when Lisa K. Pinsley and I took the helm of the mag, we felt a burning desire to lighten things up. Actually, we—like all uppity, sarcastic FM editors—really just wanted to make fun of other people in public. But it turns out that mocking others (especially those who are probably better than you) is not easy. In fact, quality ridicule takes finesse, friendliness, focus, and a number of other words that start with f (sometimes even fish and fancy cheese).
Of course, we’re talking just friendly joshing. (A little incident involving a prank call, Room 13, Yale, and the Ad Board reminded us of that—but that’s another story.) Which is why Lisa and I were darn lucky to have AE Michael Colton ’97 on board. Who’s Michael? These days, he works running some little project called Modern Humorist (www.modernhumorist.com). But more importantly, he’s the man, the myth, and the legend behind the original Gossip Guy, a safe forum for mocking Harvardians for five years running. And that’s the rest of the story.
Lindsey M. Turrentine ’97 is currently a senior editor at CNET.com and lives with her husband in Berkeley, California.
Riots broke out, famine spread and leaders were deposed—but not while we in charge of Fifteen Minutes.
During our term, nothing happened. (Actually, just nothing we can remember.) Old age has forced us to fabricate a list of events that might have transpired while we ran the magazine. We present 15 of them to you now:
- Harvey “C-” Mansfield gave us all A’s.
- We humiliated that geeky grad student at the Bow, taunting him with “How about them apples?”
- Ivy C. Pochoda ’98, selected for the cast of The Real World: Juneau, and her pygmy housemate were severely injured in a dog sled collision.
- We got stalked by Natalie Portman. Man, she wouldn’t leave us alone.
- First-time user Matthew A. Stewart ’98 was rushed to UHS after a terrible Biore pore-cleansing strip accident.
- Larry Summers became president of Harvard.
- Boy George got mauled after singing “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” at the Leverett ’80s dance.
- After another lonely night at The Crimson, we went home and cried ourselves to sleep—wait, that did happen.
- Scott Baio mistakenly came to Head of the Charles because he thought he was “in charge.”
- Tickets were lotteried when JFK School guest-speaker George Michael offered a rousing lecture entitled “Wham! Onomatopoeia and Song.”
- We saw David Hasselhoff at the Kong. Except he was short. And Asian.
- A.J. McLean went “back to back, belly to belly” with Anne L. Brody ’98 during the Opportunes “Pa-JAM-a Party” at Sanders Theater.
- Springfest featuring Hanson
- Bill Clinton went on a kegger at the Spee.
- We wrote something worthwhile.
Ian Z. Pervil ’98 makes copies for Us Weekly magazine in New York. Sharon C. Yang ’98 makes coffee for a large law firm in Los Angeles.
There was scandal (or, at least, some people were scandalized): our party pictures page threatened to set us up as the arbitrators of cool; our underwear ads were warmly received only in some quarters; life at The Crimson imitated The Real World, surprisingly, with love triangles and people leaving the show; and there was a rumor that I always carried a coke bottle filled with whiskey on Monday and Tuesday nights, during production. That is mostly untrue; when I drank in the building, I always did it in the open, and it was not limited to Mondays and Tuesdays, as it could generally occur any time I expected to be in the building for more than an hour after the sun had gone down. I don’t think that was so much a scandal, actually; some of my fellows thought it was stupid and the rest had a beer.
Either things got better, we gave up on not being obsessively self-referential, we started drinking more, or we proved that you can fool some of the people most of the time, and that at Harvard, those people read Fifteen Minutes. I lean more to the first three—and Prof. Irv DeVore (I think we had three stories that featured him prominently, if not solely)—can’t ignore the possibility of the fourth, and wish sometimes that we had had another year to figure it out.
T.J. Kelleher ’99 was Magazine Editor in 1998, and is currently an assistant editor at Natural History magazine, published by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The first article I ever wrote for FM was in September of 1996—a boring but cleverly titled (“Massholes!”) piece about Mass Hall residents. My second article was a bit more memorable—an installment in a series called“Prank Files.” My task was to put strange shit in my bag, go to campus libraries, and then attempt to leave the libraries, hopefully eliciting colorful reactions from surprised security checkers.
My two notable innovations were to fill my bag with popcorn and to place an adult magazine entitled “Over 50” in my bag for the security checker to see. In both cases, the guards were nonplussed, and I had to lie about their reactions to make the article entertaining. A few years later, now a seasoned editor of the magazine, I constantly kicked myself for not thinking of additional ways to shock and confuse the library checkers. More food—hot food. Tennis balls that rolled out all over the checker desk and floor. A diorama-like setup of a miniature living room, with small figurines sitting around a coffee table, reading miniature books, that I would insist the security guard check for due-dates because “they came from the library—the small books section.”
Having graduated only eighteen months ago, in June 2000, I cannot pretend to have worked on FM in a totally different era. I talk to my fellow editors often, and our conversations are dominated by jokes about our time at FM. Lately, we’ve been talking of creating a spinoff of FM. Several spinoffs, actually. FM: New York will feature reviews of cool bars and hot nightspots. FM: DC will have informed, but sardonic and clever, articles on politics and life “inside the beltway.” FM: Duluth is still in the early stages of development, but Gossip Guy is said to be very popular up north.
In one of these spinoffs, I’ll write the long-awaited sequel to the library “prank files” story. Maybe it won’t be as funny at the New York Public Library as it would have been at Lamont, but I won’t miss my second chance to load my bag with a whole roast chicken and a side of rice pilaf.
Aaron R. Cohen ’00 was editor of FM in 1999. He is an Olympic researcher for NBC Sports.