gentlemen, sports writers, token right-wingers, ombudsmen and sex columnists:
want to thank you for flying me here from Los Angeles on your private jet and
giving me the SUN’s penthouse suite at the Statler with its simulated
waterfall. Yes, very nice, that
lavender water. But in truth,
standing here, I feel like Robert Shaw, the victim in the film “The Sting,”
who was the only one not in on the scam. Are
you all going to jump up in a minute and yell “Gotcha!” and bring on a real
journalist as your speaker?
hook coming out to pull me off?
let me add that I’m particularly grateful for the free meal and the chance to
pass on a lifetime’s journalistic wisdom, which I will summarize in two words:
see some of you uncapping your pens and taking notes--stop! As
that great man of Elmira, Mark Twain, almost said, “Persons attempting to find
a motive in this speech will be prosecuted.”
a student journalist today rarely involves getting paid.
When I, as a senior, served as the Ithaca correspondent of a Binghamton
radio station and a Syracuse TV, I earned enough to meet my room and board bills
and buy beer and pizza. That would
be impossible now. I had summer
jobs after my sophomore and junior years at the Roanoke, Virginia, Times, and
the Ithaca Journal that paid $60 a week, and I was able to save money.
my generation rarely hires your generation for anything more than an unpaid
internship. Even the few SUN
staffers who are paid are paid late and get less per hour than a Cambodian
shoemaker. But when you leave the
world of parental support and enter the market economy, if you wish to buy those
Nikes that are marked up to equal the Cambodian’s annual wage, you’ll need a
not. You could become a freelancer.
And that’s the lifestyle I want to tout to you tonight.
I want to give you a few simple rules for success as a freelance
writer--or as we independent journalists are known to the world at large,
of you have already tasted the seductive fruit of early freelance success.
I enjoyed Mark Zawel’s piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago
about the website that teaches clueless Harvard students how to party.
But Mark and others who have sold freelance pieces, beware.
One or two checks don’t pay the rent every month.
let me offer you a few precepts that will help you build a life in which you
take naps whenever you like, own a million-dollar house, pay your children’s
Cornell tuition and retire before you’re 60.
one: Be lucky. Go to Cornell,
compet for the SUN, learn to write, make contacts, use them, but above all, be
lucky. After I left Cornell, I
found myself in the United States Marine Corps.
If I were running for president I would attempt to conceal the fact that
I avoided serving in Vietnam by talking my way onto the staff of the Marine
Corps Gazette, where my chief duty was listening attentively to the editor, Col.
Hammond, recite Kipling. Col.
Hammond liked the idea of having a pet Ivy Leaguer who could appreciate his
taste in poetry. Whenever I got
orders from headquarters to fly to Asia, Col. Hammond got them rescinded.
time to muster out. I sent letters
to the top 10 journalism companies. I
got written offers from most of them on the strength of my SUN
experience--Newsweek wanted to send me to Chicago, McGraw-Hill wanted me to
start in Pittsburgh, the New York Times wanted me to be a copy boy.
But beyond writing to me, only one company called me, Dow Jones.
was one of those “remember me?” calls.
The caller was Mary D. Nichols, class of ’66.
She had been a frequent critic of mine on the faction-ridden SUN of those
days--I understand you’ve risen above all that now.
I still recall Mary writing an op-ed knocking my “rough and ready
she was calling from New York, where she worked for the guy at Dow Jones who
interviewed job applicants. So I
was lucky enough to get my first job in journalism by antagonizing someone.
Blind luck. So, step two: be
luckily antagonized Nancy Dunhoff, features editor of the SUN.
She voted against me in the editor-in-chief election of March, 1963,
which was decided after a three-hour wrangle by a single vote, which I think of
as hers. Nancy hung out with the
intellectual faction of SUNnies, whose candidate for editor was Dick Denenberg.
Dick used words like “recrudescence” and “egregious” the way I
used “a” and “the.” Despite
our Shaq-and-Kobe relationship, Dick turned out to be a fine editor and he
luckily reappeared in my life later.
it was lucky that I antagonized Nancy Dunhoff, for we got married three years
after graduating. The general
reaction was like the question ever-present on the SUN website ad: “They got
Aside from the wonderful freelance life we’ve had together, there’s
another reason I got lucky with Nancy--she clued me into my first regular
column. We were in New York, she
flying high at Scholastic Magazines, me toiling on the night shift, copy editing
for Dow Jones’ international news wire.
I would straggle home at 8:30 a.m. after a hard night checking Pakistani
jute prices and Bavarian auto output and give her a quick squeeze as she set off
to glamorous midtown Manhattan. I’d
sleep all day and get up when she got home.
One day she arrived with the news that Scholastic’s teen magazine,
called Co-Ed, had decided it needed an advice column written by a man, like the
one Glamour Magazine had by Newman and Benton, who later got out of the advice
business and wrote movies like “Bonnie and Clyde.”
As I rode the subway downtown to start my midnight shift, I thought of
advice I’d give 14-year-old girls. I
avoided thinking of the advice I would have given them as a 14-year-old boy.
At 3 a.m., during my lunch hour, I tapped out 800 words of light-hearted
advice, passed it to Nancy as I came in the door and she was going out, and went
to sleep. When I got up, I had the
job. This is my third piece of
wisdom: Act fast.
Soon enough, editing economic news all night palled. To prevent me from quitting, Dow Jones offered me a chance to
keep on editing economic news, but during the day while living in London.
Everyone should have a chance to live in London during the 1960s.
However, soon enough, editing economic news came to seem a high price to
pay for the privilege. Freelancing
I’d always been entranced by movies, though never by movie stars.
I had as many dreams about meeting Lois Lane as Marilyn Monroe--they were
equally fantastic creatures to me. But
I noticed reading the English newspapers that stars were the subject of many
articles. I glimpsed what would
become the central truth of my career: mortals like me could meet stars, write
about them and, most importantly, get paid.
One Saturday, I was alone in the office monitoring the flow of vital
information about Danish steel tonnage when a telegram arrived addressed to our
shipping correspondent, Wayne Lintott. It
was from MGM, not known for having many ships at sea. I opened it. It
read, “Please come to the American Bar of the Dorchester Hotel on Monday next
at 1:15 p.m. to meet Mr. Michael Caine on the occasion of the release of his
latest film, ‘Get Carter.’”
I thought, “Why should Wayne Lintott meet Michael Caine when I
could?” So I went along to the
Dorchester Hotel, and I joined a dozen or so other ink-stained wretches huddled
around Caine. After a very short
time, the other journalists, being British, went to get more drinks, leaving me
alone with Caine.
My tongue was tied, I dropped my tape recorder, but somehow Caine
didn’t notice my obvious incompetence and even believed me when I said I was
from the Philadelphia Bulletin. He
gave me enough quotes for some sort of article, which I mailed off to the
Bulletin and they naturally didn’t buy.
Fourth precept: Keep trying. My
next move was to enlist my partner in crime, Nancy, to pose as my secretary and
call the agents of all the stars in London, saying that the distinguished movie
writer from the Philadelphia Bulletin, Bart Mills, was going to be in London and
could he have an interview?
Amazingly, they all said yes. Alan
Bates, who died, sadly, just a few months ago, was my first victim.
I interviewed him between a matinee and evening performance of
“Hamlet,” managed a good impersonation of a professional, got the quotes,
wrote them up, sent the article off to the Philadelphia Bulletin and got a
rejection letter back.
I cried, I admit it. But I
kept trying. I sent the manuscript
to the Los Angeles Times, which did buy it.
Not only did I bank the princely sum of $50, I got a tearsheet with my
byline, which I could send everyone in town to announce that I was legit.
I felt like Michael Corleone in the second “Godfather,” and I
didn’t even have a trail of dead bodies behind me.
I left Dow Jones and never again worried about the deutschemark-rupee
exchange rate. Aside from some
freelance work writing about the oil industry, which I accepted in case this
interviewing-the-stars lark didn’t work out, I began living the dream I advise
you all to pursue: Step five: have fun.
I began getting assignments from the New York Times Arts and Leisure
section. One of my first articles
for the Times was a story about Michael Caine on the set of “Sleuth.” The Times, characteristically, cut my work to shreds, and I
wondered vengefully what I could do with all those great unused quotes.
This led me to my next great discovery, Step six: As I am doing here
tonight, recycle your material.
I had been a great reader of British newspapers, even before the SUN, the
British SUN, began picturing nude women on page three every day.
I had noticed that one paper, the Guardian, stood out for the quality of
its writing and the percipience of its liberal editorial outlook.
I determined to get published in the Guardian.
studied British style. I learned
the tricks of irony, indirection, understatement, facetiousness.
I sold the Guardian an article comparing American Top 40 radio to the
single British radio station at that time in the entire country that broadcast
rock music. The only hiccup came
when the arts editor queried my byline. “Bart
Mills?” he asked. “Is that your
real name? Because it’s too good
to be true.” After that I began
looking at myself in the mirror funny.
was paid 18 guineas. The guinea was
a typically British unit of currency that did not exist, like a baker’s dozen. It was a pound plus one shilling. You have no idea how much satisfaction I got from being paid
in the same units as Samuel Johnson. This
was truly Getting Paid, with capital letters.
So when it came time to recycle my Michael Caine quotes, I added some
British style twists, sent it off to the Guardian and awoke one morning to find
it in the paper.
After that, I wrote hundreds of star profiles for the Guardian, traveling
to Malaysia to meet David Niven, Libya for Anthony Quinn, Budapest for George C.
Scott, back to Malaysia for Nick Nolte, Helsinki for Charles Bronson, etc., etc.
I took most of my Guardian stories and removed the jokes and big words
and sold them to American newspapers.
At the same time, I couldn’t let go of writing about the oil business.
I was perhaps the only person in the world equally conversant in the
location of North Sea oil rigs and the location of motion picture units around
To drum up sales of my recycled Guardian material, I went back to America
to visit newspaper offices. One of
these was the New York Times. I had
some satisfactory dealings with the Arts and Leisure editor and got in the
elevator to go down, and whom should I bump into in the elevator but Dick
Denenberg, the SUN editor who got my wife-to-be’s vote 10 years before.
I told Dick about my dual expertise, and he said he was working on the
Times’ News of the Week in Review section.
It was 1973, which history majors among you may recall was the year of
skyrocketing oil prices. Dick
informed me that his section was looking for someone who could make sense of
this mess. All this took
about two floors to communicate. We
got out at his floor, I met the editor of his section and sat down and banged
out 1,000 words that were in the paper that Sunday in the approximate order in
which I had written them.
I repeat, in order to succeed, you must be lucky.
You must also go to parties. That’s
how I met the editor who indirectly made me a rock critic. This editor ran the Listener, the highbrow BBC weekly that
commented loftily on current affairs. Between
gin and tonics, he commissioned me to be a guest critic covering a week’s
worth of TV.
This I did, commenting on several programs, including a documentary on
David Bowie. Nancy had the bright
idea of buying 25 copies of that issue of the Listener and sending them to
magazine and newspaper editors seeking more commissions.
Two replied. One was Punch,
the late lamented humor magazine, which asked me to write an article about
cricket from the standpoint of an American who knew nothing about cricket.
This I was only too glad to do.
The other reply came from the Daily Mail.
Their features editor said they were recruiting people for two freelance
positions, ballet critic and rock music critic. I volunteered to do both.
She said that was not possible, even for someone who already straddled
the worlds of petroleum and motion pictures.
I chose rock and roll, as who wouldn’t.
It’s very easy to write about popular music.
You don’t even have to fake knowing anything about it.
You don’t actually need to know anything at all.
You just have to write what you feel.
No, the problem in this job lay in the necessity to listen to the music.
This was the era when disco was being supplanted by punk.
One night I would be subjected to Donna Summer, the next the Sex Pistols.
When I wrote after seeing the Sex Pistols that they were so bad they were
good, the editor spiked my prescient article.
My star waned at the Daily Mail when the successor to the editor who
hired me demanded that I “do” Roger Daltrey of The Who.
By “do” he meant malign, impugn and otherwise badmouth.
I had no problem with writing negatively--in the Guardian I’d exposed
Sammy Davis Jr. as a strutting ninny and Andy Warhol as a vacuous con artist.
But I didn’t do ambushes. This
is a character fault I beg you to overlook.
After dinner, people usually ask me, “Who’s the most interesting star
you’ve interviewed?” I reply
that I used to regularly fall in love with the beautiful women who sat on
couches with me, leaning forward in their low-cut dresses.
But our affairs always ended when the PR person who was sitting in the
corner said my hour was up. Where
are you now, Michelle Pfeiffer?
spent three hours discussing theology with Don MacLean of “American Pie”
fame. Sylvester Stallone is
actually a great conversationalist. Michael
Caine always gives good quote. Bruce
Willis can’t stop wisecracking and girl-watching.
Rock Hudson was very straight with me.
James Woods is my nomination for Most Interesting Subject. I first met this MIT dropout nearly 30 years ago when he
snarled and threatened everyone standing between him and stardom.
After he attained stardom, he still snarled and threatened, as I found
out one day in his trailer on the set of an HBO movie about a child molestation
scandal at a preschool in the town where, coincidentally, I lived, Manhattan
Woods played the attorney for the defense, whose argument was that the
proprietors of the pre-school didn’t molest any children.
Woods said he had a special connection to this movie because his mother
had put him through school with the profits from a chain of pre-schools she
owned in Providence, Rhode Island. He
added that if Mom ever had any problems she had only to call on the local Mafia
Don, Vittorio Zappardino, a.k.a. “The Cement Mixer” for obvious reasons, who
was very concerned about the welfare of children.
Now, all of you journalists in embryo in the room know what I asked next.
Any guesses? Yes, I asked Woods if his mother ever needed to call on the
Cement Mixer because of any trouble she might have had at the pre-school, any
Woods sat a moment, then said to the PR person, “This interview is
terminated. Please leave my
trailer. Get out!
The PR woman and I scuttled out and stood fanning ourselves about 20 feet
away. What set off that explosion,
we wondered. Suddenly, Woods came
leaping out of his trailer and ran up to me, yelling, “How dare you?
How dare you say such a thing about my mother?
I know some people. I know a
few top people. You’re going to
find it hard to work any more in this town, just leave it at that.”
And he ran back into the trailer, slam!
The PR and I just looked at each other in shock.
But before we could speak, out came Woods again, in my face, I mean
literally nose to nose, shouting profanity and abuse. I stood there, talking back, saying I didn’t mean to
suggest…, I don’t have anything against…, I’m sorry if you took it…,
etc., but not backing off.
Woods stalked back to his trailer. A
moment later he came out again and said, “Come on back. Gimme your notebook.”
I gave him my notebook. He
tore out the last sheet of my notes and said, “Let’s go back to before this
sheet.” So we did.
We talked cordially for another 45 minutes, and he gave me a hug on my
A year later, I was in New York for the junket plugging Oliver Stone’s
film “Nixon,” in which Woods played Bob Haldeman.
In junkets, the personalities rotate among tables filled with
journalists, except for one empty chair. Anthony
Hopkins, Bob Hoskins, Stone and finally Woods came to my table.
Woods ignored all the other journalists sitting there, including the
correspondent for the Syracuse Post-Standard, who had asked Stone whether there
was special significance in the fact that when Nixon went to the Lincoln
Memorial to talk to some anti-war students sitting-in there, one of the
peaceniks was wearing a “Syracuse” sweatshirt.
Woods leaned over the table to shake my hand, said, “Hi, Bart, long
time no see,” and directed all his remarks, no matter who asked the questions,
to me. Strange man.
The lesson from this story: Hang in there.
OK, I’ve had a fun career, but I know you want to know, “How do I get
there from here?” For one thing,
you have to make the most of your chance on the SUN.
I’ll close by recalling a couple of formative incidents from my own SUN
days, 39 and 41 years ago.
The SUN has never published on Saturday, except once, as far as I know,
on November 23, 1963. Does the date
ring a bell? No, but you might
remember the day before.
I was asleep at noon on that Friday the 22nd, when Joel Sussman, the
SUN’s photo editor, burst into my room at von Carmm Co-op, yelling that
President Kennedy had been shot. A
minute later, as I was running down the stairs, I ran into a friend who was from
Dallas, who laughed as if I’d told him a preposterous joke when I gave him the
Joel and I raced downtown to watch the AP ticker, the one that’s
preserved now in the SUN’s office. The
other staff leaders and I went to the Ithaca Journal and negotiated a deal to
publish an extra edition of the SUN on Saturday.
Back in the office, we put together a12-page paper, heavy in AP copy,
naturally, but also full of campus reactions.
It was tough duty, and I’m glad we did it well.
Enough solemnity. Laughs
from here on. Two years later, in
February, 1965, we on the SUN did something we also regarded as a duty, and
again we did it well. We hijacked
the Daily Princetonian and replaced it with a bogus made-in-Ithaca version.
Background: Bill Bradley, before he became a Senator and a presidential
wannabe, was a great basketball player. That
year he took Princeton to the Final Four of the NCAA’s. So he was the main target of our trumped-up Princetonian, and
the date of our attack was the day of the Cornell-Princeton game in Princeton.
I had graduated the year before, but my successor as managing editor, Sol
Erdman, enlisted me in the anti-Princeton plot while I awaited induction into
the Marines. I was the advance man.
I drove to New Jersey and camped out where I could see the rear of the
building where the Princetonian was printed.
I watched as the pressmen plunked the whole print run on the loading dock
and a truck pulled up and loaded the papers.
I followed the truck as it dropped off bundles at various campus
locations. Later, I doubled back
and inspected the bundles for size and distinctive markings.
Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Sol and the rest of the staff were creating a
fake Princetonian. They paid
special attention to the typefaces and worked with the men in the Ithaca Journal
pressroom to re-create the Princetonian’s unmistakable over-inked, smudgy
Two or three carloads of SUNnies came down from Ithaca on Thursday night
and holed up in my motel room. Somewhere
around 5 a.m., we moved out, each car with its bundles of fakes destined for
particular drop points.
The switch went off without a hitch, and the student delivery boys
didn’t suspect a thing. We met
triumphantly in a townie diner, where Sol went to a phone booth and called in
the story to the New York Times, which printed it the next day on the front
Metro page. We went to a student
dining hall, where we eavesdropped on pitiful Princetonians talking tearfully
about the shattering of all their hopes and illusions: the news of Bill
Bradley’s season-ending injury, Woodrow Wilson’s downgrading among U.S.
presidents, and the sad secrets of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s personal
That was fun, but the most fun came when we went to the Princetonian
office to gloat. For some reason,
they didn’t think our joke was funny! They
spluttered about legal action. We
were ready to return the real Princetonians, but that wasn’t good enough.
We only mollified them by agreeing to deliver their papers for them.
Which was also fun, because we got to gloat all over again all over
campus. Unfortunately, Bradley
played and Princeton won.
I understand that in 1989 or thereabouts, a new generation of SUNnies
performed the same stunt at Yale. They
did it the easy way, by just taking the press run off the loading dock and
putting the bogus papers in their place. It
was riskier, since one wide-awake night watchman could have foiled the whole
operation, but it worked. Back in
the 1950s, Syracuse was the SUN’s victim.
I wonder who will be next, and when?
If the game’s afoot, call me.