Newsweek Alumni Wax Nostalgic About Magazine's Sex-and-Booze-addled Halcyon Days
While many of us can probably wax nostalgic about a job in our past that was thoroughly challenging and enjoyable, I'd venture to say not many of us would fondly recall unlimited expense accounts, much less free-flowing booze and a sexually promiscuous culture that treated female employees as ready-to-order mistresses. But then, you might if you worked for Newsweek in the 1960s and '70s.
In his "oral history" interview feature that was compiled for the magazine's final print edition, Newsweek.com staffer Andrew Romano chatted with some of the writers and editors from the Mad Men era of the weekly magazine. What particularly struck me was the almost wistful way in which many interview subjects fondly recalled sexual liaisons in the magazine's Madison Avenue office. Also seemingly excused by Newsweek alumni was the blatant sexual harassment female staffers were shown. At one point, one justified the harassment by attributing it to the journalistic profession writ large, practically absolving offenders of any personal responsibility (emphases mine):
Nora Ephron, researcher (1962–63): For every man there was an inferior woman.
[Lucy] Howard [writer, 1963-2002]: We had the weirdest things to do. Somebody needed their reading glasses delivered. Go get Sam’s reading glasses. You get a key to Sam’s apartment. You had to go and find them on the his desk and bring them back. Or go get somebody’s dry cleaning. If you were a good girl, and did a good job, put the mail in the right slots, then you got promoted, after a few months, to clipping the newspapers. And that was… you were on your way to becoming a researcher. If you could handle that: rolling the papers out properly, cutting the rows straight, and putting the clippings in the right boxes. Then you got to be a researcher, and then the fun began. Then you got to check facts, and be the boys’ backstop. That was the training program. But you could never be a writer.
Ephron: They were the artists, and we were the drones.
Melinda Liu, foreign correspondent (1979–present): Even much later ... I didn’t get hired until 1979. By that time it was already sort of, you know ... They treated me just like every other reporter. Sent me to Somalia, Gulf War I and II, Afghanistan. Everything. But when [Newsweek editor] Maynard Parker would come to the Hong Kong bureau, he would bring with him half a dozen of his shirts. Amazing shirts, custom made. And he would say, “Could you have someone send these to my tailors and have them change the collar?” And suddenly there I was: the Hong Kong correspondent, carrying seven shirts to the tailor. It was insane.
Ephron: But what is interesting is how institutionally sexist it was without necessarily being personally sexist. They were just going to try to sleep with you—and if you wanted to, you could.
Lynn Povich [editor, 1965-91]: By the mid-’60s when the sexual revolution was in full swing, the magazine was a cauldron of hormonal activity. Women felt as sexually entitled as men, and our short skirts and sometimes braless tops only added to the boil.
Howard: Flirting was part of the game.
Kevin Buckley, foreign correspondent (1963–72): The hubba-hubba climate was tolerated. I was told the editors would ask girls to do handstands on their desk.
Howard: There were times when there was definitely harassment, but you learned to deal with it. You took it for granted. Somebody comes up to the water cooler and puts his arm on the ... a very tall and drop-dead attractive correspondent from Los Angeles who’s movie-star handsome, and stands right by your desk and says, “I had a great fuck last night. Wanna join me tonight?” That’s what it was like.
Povich: Many guys looked at us as people they wanted to cheat on their wives with—and many women were happy to accommodate them. The infirmary, two tiny rooms with single beds, was the assignation of choice. Often a writer would there to “take a nap” for an hour or two, albeit with a female staffer.
[Peter] Goldman: I think there was a difference between the back of the book and the front of the book.
Povich: Oh, the back of the book was like, action central.
Goldman: When [Nation reporter] Tony Fuller moved to the back of the book as a senior editor, he called me one day and said, “Peter, you wouldn’t believe this. It’s a sexual rodeo up here.”
[Evan] Thomas [writer/editor 1986-2010]: Even when I got there in 1986, the 10th floor was known as the Tunnel of Love.
Betsy Carter, researcher (1970–79): You would open the door sometimes, and there were these two heavy bodies against the door. And they would both be on the floor drinking Jack Daniel’s or having sex under the desk.