As much as anyone who was part of the world of journalism in the 1970s, McDonell carried some of the era’s aura around with him, having been an editor at Rolling Stone and spending a lot of time hanging out—a polite phrase for smoking dope and drinking a lot—with everyone from Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton to Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane. He did stints as editor at Outside, Newsweek, Sports Afield, and Sports Illustrated, became president of the Paris Review Foundation, and joined th e the Board of Overseers of the Columbia Journalism Review. In 2012, McDonell was elected to the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame.
He was a traveling ringmaster at a time when circuses had three rings, even as he watched them all shrink to one, lose the animals acts and give it all over to the clowns in the 21st century. He has, therefore, enough material for several volumes of his own bio, but instead, in his new memoir The Accidental Life, he distills all the important, funny, decadent, sad, egocentric, destructive, brave, manic, hysterical, and declining aspects of the last four decades of journalism into an elegantly written 370-page book cast in short chapters (the word count is even given), ranging from insightful personal essays on Kurt Vonnegut, Gay Talese, Jann Wenner, Liz Tilberis, James Salter, Warren Hinckle, and Steve Jobs to straight talk about the business of journalism, from money to deadlines, from ad sales and declining circulation, to having constantly to defend S.I.’s Swimsuit issue, which in his heyday sold more than 1.5 million copies on the newsstand.
There are actually several books within these covers—the strictly biographical, sage advice to the professional, and a cogent social history of an era. There’s the obligatory paean to Elaine Kauffman, owner of the NYC watering hole Elaine’s, where struggling writers found a home and successful ones a supportive friend; an unexpected appreciation of the tough-as-nail polish Helen Gurley Brown; weird but wholly believable tales of Hunter Thompson and Peter Matthiessen; touching farewells to friends who died too soon; and all the ins and outs of the writing-editing process, filled at times with complete frustration and at others with sheer exhilaration, with ample examples of writing that to this day floors McDonell for their unique excellence.
I got to know McDonell a bit while he was at Esquire, though he was not my direct editor, and I cherished the few times we had lunch or dinner and his occasional one-sentence approvals of a column I had written. He never played at being the antagonist, as many editors believe it their duty to do. He’d been a writer, a novelist, and a poet, and he knew that great writers missed deadlines and good writers handed in 10,000 words when 4,000 had been assigned. He also knew that writers’ egos are overwhelmingly fragile, even when he had to reject pieces by the best of them. (It’s always soothing for a young writer to read of the great ones whose work was turned down.)
Like all writers and editors of the last four generations, McDonell had a respect and awe of Hemingway and loved the camaraderie of outdoorsmen and hunters like Tom McGuane more than he ever enjoyed literary parties in the Hamptons or Aspen. A California surfer and for a time a settler in Colorado and Montana, McDonell came to love New York as much as he did getting away from it.
“Top editing jobs have always been precarious perches,” McDonell writes, “especially for those editors whose complete identity is based on their job.” Having bounced or been bounced off one perch after another, McDonell should know, and all the joy and anguish, the commitment to good writing and the need to remain fresh, not least as instigator, is here in this book, which can be read with equal pleasure by historians and literary critics as by all of us who lived through a time when journalists were as heroic as they were boozy and didn’t suffer under the catch-all term “media” along with news readers and listicle bloggers.
Read McDonell’s book and you’ll see just how meretricious so much contemporary magazine work is—he himself was briefly an editor of US Weekly “buying celebrity baby pictures, overseeing lipstick pages and editing pieces about Britney Spears.”
Of all that is remarkable about The Accidental Life I find its graciousness the most revealing and how McDonell does not use the pages to spill venom and settle old scores. The stories he tells about so many people who could be infantile, lying, self destructive, pompous, and vicious, to the point of betrayal are all couched in what Wordsworth wrote of in his Intimations Ode:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing though
ts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Given the times he had back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Terry might chuckle over that line about “splendour in the grass” and “glory in the flower.” He was there for all that and his memoir shares what he’s learned since.