I didn’t sign up to be a boy wonder. I was just tooling along at the Chronicle, editing the critics and writing the occasional entertainment feature, a well-regarded professional journalist whose acquaintance with the rigors of daily-deadline reporting was minimal.
Which was fine with me. This was 1969. Woodward and Bernstein were five years in the future; I didn’t realize I could be played by Dustin Hoffman if only I’d been allowed to follow the money. I was 26 years old.
One of the guys I edited was Ralph J. Gleason, a passionate fan of American music in all its forms. Most of his jazz-critic colleagues dismissed rock and roll as boring teen music, but not Ralph. He wrote the first serious review of the Jefferson Airplane ever. He helped start a tabloid newspaper about rock and roll. It was called Rolling Stone.
I wasn’t a boy wonder yet.
Ralph did not ask me to join Rolling Stone; he asked me if I’d be interested in joining a new Jann Wenner magazine, which would do for the environment what Rolling Stone did for rock and roll, or something. Stephanie Mills, fresh out of college with a high profile commencement address behind her (It was called “The Future is a Cruel Hoax;” in it, she declared that she would never have children, which for some reason created a great media stir. Woman Pledges To Remain Childless. Also, water runs downhill.), was the editor. She knew she wasn’t a real editor; she understood her instant celebrity very well. We got on wonderfully. I did the magazine-y bits; she did the saving the world part. It was fun.
But I wasn’t a boy wonder yet.
Earth Times, alas, lasted just three depressing issues (the last cover: garbage floating on water). I made a lateral move to Rolling Stone, wrote a few stories you will not remember, helped put out the Pitiful Helpless Giant issue (Kent State, sit-ins at the Washington Monument, killings at Jackson State), and got fired because Jann, back from joining John and Yoko in bed, decided the magazine was too political. Which is, you know, ironic.
Not a boy wonder yet.
Some of my friends from Rolling Stone were working for a very new magazine called Rags, a counter-culture fashion magazine. The art director was mysterious Mary Robertson. Half the magazine was written and edited in New York, so I spent two weeks a month there. In New York. What the Vatican is to Catholics, New York was to people in the publishing business.
So I did some reporting and editing in New York, in a drafty office a block away from Max’s Kansas City. Rags was an outlier. (We ran a story called “Clothes for the Dead.” It was about corpse fashion.) Back home, I wrote headlines and captions and participated in some stunts dressed up as magazine features. It is my memory that some marijuana was smoked during that time. The fact that I remember that is a tribute to my attentiveness while much of my brain was otherwise engaged.
But there were some, uh, irregularities, and we came to work one day to see big red patches on the door. Do Not Enter, says the federal government. Something about payroll taxes.
So I embarked on the impoverishing career path of freelance writer. I went to New York a few more times. I had a few adventures. Now it can be told: I was Michael O’Donoghue’s drug mule.
Still was not a wonder boy. Just a guy at the fringes of a crowd, making up sarcastic one liners in his head.
So then I got a job at West magazine, then the Sunday magazine of the Los Angeles Times. I had a crafty and fabulous art director (Mike Salisbury), and my prose looked pretty darned cutting edge. (Packaging: always important). Plus, I had worked for Rolling Stone, which was kicking butt, circulation-wise. Wise old magazine people realized that they had somehow missed the kid market, and they wanted someone who had the requisite supply of fairy dust to sprinkle over the magazine to make it wildly popular with those crazy kids with their psychedelic jewelry and naked picnic dancing.
So Hugh Hefner hired me to be the editor of his new magazine, Oui. Because of just a wee little mistake Playboy made, they needed an editor fast; heck, they needed an entire English-speaking staff fast. I could hire anyone. I could pay Playboy rates for stories. I could play my wood flute in the office and roam around in my long white shirts of Indian manufacture. I was not exactly standard issue Playboy executive.
Hefner and his minions were undoubtedly waiting for me to fail. They would have had time to make other plans, and as long as I didn’t mess with the nudie pictures, they were OK with that.