Newsweek’s Golden Age
Eleanor Clift reflects on her "final issue after 50 years at Newsweek."
Eleanor Clift, who arrived at the magazine as a secretary in February 1963, reflects on her “final issue after 50 years at Newsweek.” (She’s staying on at the Daily Beast; Newsweek is off to new ownership and a very uncertain future.)
It’s a series of anecdotes that are mildly interesting for color. The thing that stands out is how incredibly lavish the lifestyle was in elite journalism until fairly recently.
In those days, few expenses were spared in the name of magazine journalism. For interviews, there was “Top of the Week,” the penthouse conference-room-lounge-restaurant where the magazine hosted newsmakers, everyone from Lauren Bacall to Robert F. Kennedy. Designed by I.M. Pei, it was spacious—with a fabulous view of the city, an area with couches and chairs where cocktails were served, and then a large dining table where the illuminati would gather. I wasn’t on the guest list then—few women were, even though the publisher was a woman—but I enjoyed some perks all the same. When we worked late Friday nights putting the magazine to bed—finishing well after midnight, sometimes not before three or four in the morning—there were rooms for us at the Waldorf-Astoria, just a couple blocks away. For a kid like me from Queens, this was pretty heady stuff. I could even charge my breakfast at the Waldorf’s coffee shop.
In 1983, the same year as the ill-fated Hitler cover, Newsweek celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gala at Lincoln Center in New York. There were 1,600 guests, including President and Mrs. Carter, first lady Nancy Reagan, Mary Tyler Moore, Henry Kissinger, Andy Warhol, Betty Friedan, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. A stage set designed to look like an old-style magazine office featured Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Lauren Bacall, and James Earl Jones playing journalists. In retrospect, it appears to have been a warning sign of the magazine’s hubris.
To make it up to Newsweek‘s real-life journalists who were not on the guest list, publisher Katharine Graham spared no expense, taking over the Concord resort in the Catskills for a day of recreation followed by an evening of dancing to the Beach Boys. If not the most special day in my life, it’s easily in the top 10. My soon-to-be husband and I were flown from Washington—where I had been stationed as a correspondent since December 1976—to the resort in a private plane. It’s a courtesy that is almost unimaginable today at most media outlets unless they were airlifting someone out of a war zone in a matter of life and death.
Arguably, airlifting a reporter to a lavish party illustrates the ways in which Newsweek—and other news organizations—sometimes went overboard when it came to creature comforts. Resources spent on actual reporting weren’t always used optimally either. For instance, during the Reagan administration, we spent long stretches in Santa Barbara, California, sequestered on the beach 20 miles from the president’s ranch. It was a carryover from the Kennedy assassination, after which major news organizations such asNewsweek staffed the president constantly, including during vacations—a practice that continues to this day, though without Newsweek. (Journalists call it “the body watch.”) Reporters spent their days wining and dining White House staff; one Reagan staffer was known as “America’s guest” because he turned up on so many expense accounts.
Clift doesn’t quite tell us when things changed or whether it was a gradual thing or a tectonic shift. Obviously, the widespread availability of more quality reporting than anyone has time to read on the Internet hastened the demise—especially at a place with “week” right there in the name.