It is far from enough that Jim Bellows is being recalled as a great man; he must be remembered, too, as a good man.
Jim died the other day, with preposterous medical accounts suggesting that there was something wrong with that amazingly fine brain of his. If anything, he would have bowed only to his astonishing, irrepressible explosion of creativity, innovation, genius. He was a titan among newspaper editors, a truth being widely honored in wistful papers across the land as they look back on a glorious time and to a giant who once enlivened and dazzled-up newspapers in all corners of the game.
It is wonderfully appropriate that he is being so well honored in the very journals he “competed” against — The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and others — and that would have tickled Jim enormously. It was the happy subtheme of his only book, The Last Editor, that his cross-town example forced the mighty leviathans of journalism to become more lively, more vibrant, less stuffed-shirt and less self-important — for the brief time that they could sustain it. He always knew what he was accomplishing and took happy satisfaction in it, even as a grabby and near-sighted world of his own coarse bosses too often begrudged him the success. But success he had in such fine abundance. You can read of it everywhere.
But there was so much more than just that. He was a good man. He cared so much about his family and his friends and his colleagues, and seemed to make very little distinction or boundaries between those categories. As editors go he was hailed as a lion among marmosets, yet Jim always had the kindness and generosity to care for everyone around him.
At a going-away party to attaboy him when he was driven out of the sainted Washington Star, where I learned so much from him, I happened on a lobster shift copy editor, one of those pale, seldom-see-the-sun types so rarely getting any credit at all for their incredibly important service; it was the lingo of the times to see “The Butterflies and The Trolls,” the trolls being those who have labored through the darkness only to watch the fancy dans come flittering in in the morning all abuzz over their whirling social life, with hoo ha about “the mission” and “Hooray for Precious First Amendment” talk. I had been both and spoke the language. I said how good it was that he showed up at the party, held when he usually would be sleeping. “Couldn’t miss this,” he said. He explained that Jim had a desk of his own with the overnight crew and visited them first thing every single morning over coffee to ask after their work, to discuss their decisions, their lives. Every day. First thing. “Couldn’t miss this.”
If someone was sick or having a baby, he would want to know the details — and on at least one occassion whistled up a stuffed toy kangaroo the size of an NBA power forward and delivered it himself to the amazed new mother in the hospital. He took peoples’ lives into account when he was making assignments and while he was as firm and resolute and disciplined as any good boss must be, he was gentle with peoples’ feelings. He loved to poke the pompous but had the deepest scorn for any that would harm the defenseless.
Jim Bellows loved to laugh, although it wasn’t always clear what it was that was amusing him. Things very often were not “always clear” with Jim. Famously, his brain rattled on far faster than his lips could keep up and a conversation was all fragments and pieces of sentences. I am perfectly sure that he was a genius even though half the time I had no idea what he was talking about. Once, as the Vietnam war was ending, he had us collect brief recollections on the war’s significance from hundreds and hundreds of people, mighty and “small,” politicians and veterans, celebrities and widows. It was a powerful package running on for page after page. I had written up a brief introduction, a few sentences to tell the reader what was going on. He looked it over carefully and said, ” … wheat and the chaff … yes, but … Clive Barnes chatty…” with a vigorous waving of hands. We all nodded in sage appreciation but as we went off, Jack Germond, the political panjandrum, turned to me and said, “What the hell was that all about?”
Jim did, and often some were lucky enough to tumble to his visions. We often guessed that it was This that he meant when it might well have been That. But if we didn’t always get it right he never seemed to much hold it against us so long as we came up with something that was different, off from the normal, eccentric, fun. He deeply appreciated the news, and would leave it to the experts aboard. His joy was to inspire the features, the columns, the graphics, the cartoons, the special coverage that would especially bring the paper home to its readers.
He had the most amazing sense of timing I have ever seen, somehow knowing that a story would work so much better a week from Thursday than tomorrow. He saw stories where others saw lint and footnotes. He looked for the truth in the shadows while the parade was trumpeting along out in the sunshine. I became expert in typography, so often did I receive little tiny scraps of torn up newspaper with, “Let’s talk, JGB” written on them. I came to know from the typefaces that this bit of paper was from the Times or that one from the Wall Street Journal — and set off like an archeologist to try to find the original story so I could hope for some hint what JGB wanted to let’s talk about. I never once got a front page or lead paragraph clipping (“ripping” is the better word) from him; he invariably found something worthy to chase, instead, down in the second jump: a person to interview, a detail worth hunting down, a dim spark fromwhich a major piece could be fanned.
I remember that but I remember better how he fought for the staff, how he would have lunch with whomever was handy rather than just the Butterflies or Washington’s impossibly self-centered powerful. I remember how, often, when my demons would get me into some new trouble, he would have a kind word — or none at all, knowing when silence was better and when a hand on the shoulder was support aplenty. And it wasn’t just me, of course; if once you were his friend, you were always his friend. Only a few years ago, we had Jim up to a big writers’ workshop here, to reflect on his career and, hopefully, to sell a few of his books to youngsters who likely could have trouble imagining what it was like a decade or two earlier when newspapers had so much hope. His publisher brought along a short film with some of the great figures of Jim’s world going on and on about his glories. I noticed that Jim just beamed in the darkened room, at a film he must have seen a dozen times already. But he was beaming at the sight of this old pal and that old friend, not at what they were telling the world about him. It was a beautiful sight and I treasure it even as I have forgotten the details of the movie itself.
Jim loved his newspapering. But when there was little left for him to do in it, he moved on. At an age when others would be golfing (Jim Bellows golfing! What a thought!), he went off to fashion chit-chat television. When that played out for him, he became a pioneer in the Internet. He counselled newspapers and electronic mediums so complex as to baffle the rest of us. His next project, in his 80’s, was to be a book interviewing 80 people over 80 about being 80. “I need to work faster, I’m losing numbers 22 and 18 while I’m working on 34 and 35,” he said. Or at least I think that’s what he said. He wrote, yes, but his awe-inspiring journalistic gift was in electrifying others to the greatness that might be in them. Breslin … Wolfe … Sheehy … McGrory… sure. But, also, that guy from the night desk. Or the secretary, or the family of the reporter on the road or in the saloon too much.
To this very instant, even though I even got to meet Clive Barnes later, I have no idea at all what “… Clive Barnes chatty … ” might mean. But I know that it was the perfect choice. As always.
James G. Bellows. A good man.