Prize fighterJim Bellows '47 knows all about taking on big, powerful opponents who seem to have an advantage over him. He did it as editor of the New York Herald Tribune when he antagonized the New York Times. He did it at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner when he badgered the Los Angeles Times. And he did it at the Washington Star when he rankled the Washington Post. But right now, he's more concerned with controlling Otis, his daughter's chocolate brown labrador retriever.
"Come on, Otis," he says, as he tries to coax the large and very excited dog out of the living room. "Calm down now, relax."
Bellows is at his daughter's house in San Francisco, California, to celebrate her birthday. At seventy-nine, he looks dapper in gray slacks, a darker gray mock turtleneck and a pair of gray New Balance running shoes, which work despite their casual look. He's enjoying the Giants-Cardinals playoff game-when he's not dealing with the dog-but it's clear that a life of leisure isn't exactly his style.
"Newspapers are just too tame now," he says, a little smile on his face, or is it a grimace? "I'd love to manage a newspaper again, but that's probably not going to happen."
Tame is one word that would never be used to describe a paper run by Bellows. At the Herald Tribune in the sixties, Bellows delighted as writers like Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin created what came to be called "New Journalism." It was colorful and personalized, and it shocked the purists. When Wolfe wrote a highly satirical attack on William Shawn, the venerated editor of the New Yorker magazine, it caused an uproar.
"As the editor of a publication that tries always to be truthful, accurate, fair, and decent, I know exactly what Wolfe's article is-a vicious, murderous attack on me and on the magazine I work for," Shawn wrote to Herald Tribune publisher Jock Whitney. "It is a ruthless and reckless article; it is pure sensation-mongering."
Of course, Bellows just isn't the type to shy away from angry feedback or controversy. When he edited the Washington Star, he encouraged his gossip columnist to cover the romantic entanglements of the Washington Post's well-known executive editor Ben Bradlee. The Post was, after all, the competition. Bradlee was about as pleased with Bellows's approach as William Shawn had been a decade earlier. "Your references," Bradlee wrote to Bellows, "are without exception sneering, impugning, belittling and ridiculing. And when it is known that you are personally involved in their editing, it is only natural that I feel you are something of an authority on what is shoddy and disgraceful in journalism."
Readers loved all the excitement. And so did Bellows. "When you're at the number two paper, you've got to make your competition care about what you're doing. If they're not talking about you, you're dead," he says. "I think when you get people discussing things and arguing and involved, it's a good thing."
Bellows went on to do a lot of things besides run newspapers. He worked in television, did some media consulting, and served as the West Coast bureau chief for TV Guide. He also became a trustee at Kenyon. But he is fundamentally a newspaper man, and his passion and devotion to the business is detailed in his 2002 autobiography, The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency.
"It is one of those seasoned-old-newsman memoirs about the old days and the good times when reporters treated celebrities and politicians with the contempt they deserved and sometimes did brave things," Russell Baker wrote in the New York Review of Books. "It is light as a June cloud and just as pleasant."
There was little indication that the larger-than-life journalism career that unfolds in the book was a possibility when Bellows enrolled at Kenyon in 1940. He began by studying economics, but college was interrupted by World War II. The small and wiry Bellows remembers gorging himself on bananas for weeks to make the 130-pound weight requirement for the Naval Air Corps. It worked. But much to his disappointment, Bellows spent the remainder of the war in flight school. At one point, he and a buddy tried to transfer to the Army so they could see a little combat. His request was denied.
"It was an early lesson for me in top management's ability to ignore passion in the ranks," he writes in The Last Editor.
But the experience of flying-the "umbrella of sky" and the "limitless ocean"-did have a lasting impact on him. "Being a Navy carrier pilot got me wondering what I really wanted to do in life," he says.
Bellows became a philosophy major when he returned to Kenyon and dabbled in journalism at the school newspaper. As graduation approached, he went to his mentor, philosophy professor Philip Blair Rice, to discuss his future. Rice admitted that he had once tried unsuccessfully to be a journalist but suggested the field might be right for Bellows.
"Now, after a lifetime of work in newsrooms across the country, from New York to Washington to Los Angeles, from Miami to Detroit to Atlanta, I look back on his suggestion with gratitude," Bellows writes in The Last Editor. "I often ask myself: What if Professor Philip Blair Rice had been a failed veterinarian?"
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