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Sunday April 14, 2002

The 'Lion' in Winter


At 79, a former newspaper editor pitches a quirky story--his own.

By ALLAN M. JALON, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For more than 40 years, the colorful newspapers that Jim Bellows edited and the iconoclastic writers he nurtured have won most of the glory. Now, the editor has a new angle.

He's pitching a story about a man who openly admits he can't write a lick, yet revitalized underdog papers in cities across America and became the hero of a grand journalism adventure. Supporting parts go to an array of journalistic-literary stars--Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Ben Bradlee, Otis Chandler and others who worked with him, fought with him and generally seem to have come away admiring him. He finds someone to shape this story--his story--into a book. The results are a new memoir (written with Gerald Gardner and published by Andrews McMeel) and a documentary to air on public television. Both have a title--"The Last Editor"--that Gardner modeled on "The Last Lion," as in William Manchester, as in Winston Churchill.

Churchill helped save Western civilization. Gardner's bratty, endearing subtitle supplies the boast of Bellows' career: "How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency."

The self-styled underdog tilted against the dragon of stuffy journalism from the "second paper" in the most competitive news towns in the country. The New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner fought some of their last, best rounds under him before succumbing to strikes, richer competitors and, alas, TV's quick delivery of the news. He took a break from moribund newspapers to work at the Los Angeles Times, shaping its features sections from 1967-75.

Starting in the early 1960s, Bellows marshaled vivid feature writing to arm the "cool" medium of print against the "hot" flash of television. He then leaped to TV, editing "Entertainment Tonight" to relate those Hollywood details everyone needs to know. By the 1990s, he was helping Internet start-ups grab eyeballs.

The idea of making the newspaper a daily magazine didn't start with Jim Bellows any more than "the new journalism" began with Tom Wolfe. But Bellows became a godfather to both. At the Herald Tribune in the early 1960s, he gave Breslin, a sportswriter, a column in which the main character was New York. Wolfe followed the king of Morocco on a shopping trip to buy linens for his harem. Bellows ran it across the top of the Herald Tribune's front page.

"I was using scene-by-scene construction, lots of dialogue, point of view, status details about how people dressed and talked," Wolfe recalls. "That drove a lot of editors crazy in those days. Bellows was open to it."

"'Tell me the details'--that was Bellows," Los Angeles TV reporter Linda Breakstone shouts into her cell phone, rushing to cover Richard Riordan the morning after he'd been crushed in the recent Republican gubernatorial primary. Breakstone, now at KCBS News, was a political reporter at the Herald Examiner. "Today, I'm doing what Bellows taught: What did Riordan eat for breakfast? What color were the walls when he opened his eyes after losing?"

A thin, bent 79-year-old man walks with a contemplative shuffle toward the Herald Examiner building, at 1111 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The exotic 1915 edifice, with vaguely Arabic domes and Alhambra-style arches that Julia Morgan designed for William Randolph Hearst, remains in pretty good shape. Bellows--who lives in Brentwood--edited the Her-Ex from 1978 to 1981, and others took over until it closed in 1989.

He passes empty loading docks from which trucks once hauled seven editions and climbs to the second-floor newsroom, where a dusty stillness hangs over metal desks and computers from the 1980s. Today, they're props for Hollywood crews that rent the place, superimposing a make-believe newsroom over the ghost of a real one. "Type faster," Bellows urges a phantom reporter at an empty desk. "Give me some good ideas."

Without stopping to take off his hat, he peers at walls, out windows. Paul Conrad, a syndicated cartoonist and longtime L.A. Times contributor, remembers a restless Bellows, always moving "from here to there, from there to here." The editor reminds some of the strong, quiet men played by Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda. Conrad compares him to Groucho Marx.

There is a quirky, rebellious comic in Bellows, a man of props. Pressed to sit and talk about himself, he whips out a little white card from his pocket. It says: "This is not a simple life, there are no easy answers."

Other phrases pop out. What did he tell writers seeking inspiration? Dreamily, he murmurs: "Spread your wings and do a thousand things."

It's not easy to reconcile the two sides of his character. He describes himself as "shy ... quiet" and has long seemed content exerting subtle influence through the work of others--yet he's newly eager to make himself known. Asked to explain the contradiction, Bellows gazes through metal-rimmed glasses and says: "You'll figure it out."

Silence.

No other advice?

"You'll do fine," he says.

Ex-Bellows staffers say that's the terse way he encouraged them. In the documentary, many take on slightly drugged look as they recall the charismatic beam of faith he aimed at them. They say he had the same faith in himself, a confidence with which he spied stories in wisps of potential and built crusades with underfunded newsrooms.

An AWOL hippo named Bubbles became a saga that spread from the Herald Examiner to papers and television around the country. Stories about the shooting of a black woman named Eulia Mae Love for failing to pay her gas bill shed light on police brutality and prefigured the Rodney King episode.

Let other editors manage with crisp, direct orders. Bellows guided his people with hand signals, nonsense syllabic jabbering in crumbling, mumbled sentences.

"I said, 'Exactly what kind of column do you want?'--'Bip, bip, bip,' those were my instructions," proclaims Diana McLellan in the film. In 1975, Bellows paired McLellan with Louise Lague to write the Ear, a gossip column in the Washington Star. Mary McGrory, a political columnist for the Star and then the Washington Post, looks baffled, re-enacting a gesture Bellows used to show how he wanted her to write. "And Jim Bellows said do it like this"--she mimes a wavy boat ride with her hand--"and I don't know what that means."

Ask the right question, though, and Bellows turns on a verbal fluidity, as if by a switch.

What is editing from an editor's view?

"Editing is an art. You try to put all these parts together to make a day's news, and every day you get another chance. And you are taking all these forms, pictures, layout, writing, good writing. And if you use the room properly, if you are working with people who want to take part, you can take the gifts of the people in that room and make them go beyond their normal skills."

Ask a probing question and his speech grows spare: What was his biggest mistake?

He stares at the ceiling and haltingly says: "I did not vet the Seberg story enough."

In 1970, The Los Angeles Times ran a gossip item that targeted actress Jean Seberg. The story, planted by the FBI, did not name Seberg but made her identity clear as it suggestively described a "Miss A" who was pregnant by a Black Panther, not her husband. The item was false and was viewed by her husband and others close to her as having pushed Seberg toward her 1979 suicide. Bellows--going into depth he doesn't offer in the film or book--says he approved the piece without knowing it was a plant. He didn't check it out, he says, because the information came from another Times editor he trusted.

Then he asks that the questions stop--"No more on that." Later, for the first time, he goes into detail about a case that stands as a cautionary tale of how printed gossip can be used as a weapon. (See accompanying story.)

In every kind of reporting and writing, those who have worked with him say, Bellows fostered in others an unusual flair for language that could animate information. He found this mission when he was a reporter on a small paper in Georgia, fresh from service as a Navy pilot during World War II. He read a book of stories by the newspaper tale-spinner Damon Runyon. Runyon conjured a gritty, glamorous New York where gangsters mingled with Broadway stars, in stories that became the musical "Guys and Dolls."

That world of the Lemon Drop Kid and Harry the Horse called to Bellows, who grew up in Cleveland, the "socially nervous" son of a salesman father he describes as "somewhat overbearing." His parents had roots in stiff-backed, Protestant New England. He attended prep school in Connecticut and Kenyon College in Ohio, studying philosophy.

He had a grandfather he calls "a quiet man with a way of getting people to do things without ever saying very much." Bellows admired that. He also fantasized about the glittering hum of New York. Bellows says he paid close attention to how the urban fables Runyon teased out of the city and learned "the whole importance of details that give the sensation of being there."

He carried that lesson with him as he moved from editing jobs at the Detroit Free Press and Miami News to the position that put him on the national journalism map, editorship of the New York Herald Tribune, which he ran from 1961-67.

There, Bellows hired an Esquire magazine editor named Clay Felker, who created New York, the paper's groundbreaking Sunday magazine about the city, which later became New York magazine. Its main competition was the New York Times Magazine, which Felker recalls "dealt mainly with the world and the nation. We felt we could outgun the Times by concentrating all our resources on New York" at a time when the city was bursting with cultural and political change.

And Bellows was responsible for all this? Felker says that Bellows, in the way that a top editor decides what happens, represents his ideal: "His technique was to have people who he agrees with, and if they are going in the right direction he just leaves them alone," says Felker, who teaches at the journalism school at UC Berkeley.

"He was never afraid to run something that was controversial. He didn't rule by fear, but by trust and enthusiasm. And believe me, it wasn't his fault that any of these newspapers folded."

Some media critics worry that an increasing focus on celebrity and amusement has diverted America's news culture from what people need to know about the world. Bellows comes from a time when newspapers were grayer and devoted himself to gossip columns as a lighthearted way of luring readers.

He tenses with excitement when he recalls how the Ear teased Ben Bradlee, the editor who became a celebrity for his stewardship of the Watergate story, for an affair with a reporter, Sally Quinn, whom he later married. "We had to get them into the pond with us," he says, of the Post. "That's how we did it. You've got to get that buzz," he softly chants. "That buzz, buzz, buzz .... "

At a restaurant near the Herald Examiner newsroom, during a wait for a table, Bellows turns and says: "If you are going to try to go hard on me, you'll have a problem. Because of that underdog thing, I always get good press."

He consciously uses his David versus Goliath image to win goodwill?

"Yes, of course," he says. He dates this approach to when he was called "the maggot" for his small size as a boy. As a freshman in college, he spurted 7 inches from his oppressive 5 foot 3. By then, his book says, he'd become determined to "substitute vision for power."

As Bellows nurses a vodka on the rocks, he doesn't mumble. He doesn't always mumble, he explains, because mumbling is a strategy, "part of a philosophy I call 'practiced humility.' It's a method to use if you want people to help you. You make them feel how you need them."

The mumble creates "a space that others can fill" with their ideas.

That was behind McLellan's "Bip, bip, bip?"

"I meant that I wanted hot stuff and I wanted it to move. I did not want a theoretical discussion with her."

He says a good editor must sometimes cross the permeable border between striving for truth and striving for effect, whether to get writers into the groove or beat the competition.

Bellows recounts how, in 1978, he got behind a Herald Examiner editorial supporting Proposition 13.

Weren't his politics pretty liberal?

"Yes, but my politics didn't matter." He supported Howard Jarvis' anti-tax rebellion "because the monster was against it." The monster was the Los Angeles Times. "And you couldn't mimic the monster. The underdog paper must distinguish itself every way it can."

Wouldn't that raise a question about his integrity, swinging an editorial sword against his true opinion?

"I had to get people talking," he says.

*

"The Last Editor: The Jim Bellows Story," produced and directed by Steven Latham and Christopher Carson, will run on April 26 on KLCS at 11 p.m. and KVCR at 9 p.m. It is set to appear on KCET on April 28 at 10 p.m. A Web site called TheLastEditor.com gives other times for separate PBS stations around California and the country.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times