Editor’s Notebook: A paper chase

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by Brian Clarey

It didn’t sink in until the drive home.

I mean, I definitely felt something when I was going through the Harold Hayes papers up on the sixth floor of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library on the campus of Wake Forest University in preparation for this week’s cover story (beginning on page 16).

Hayes is a hero of mine, the editor of Esquire magazine through the most exciting years of American journalism, leading a crew of young, innovative writers into new territory, elevating the practice of journalism into art.

Simply put, I do what I do because guys like Hayes did what they did.

So for me to hold the letters that went between Hayes and his man Gay Talese as they negotiated the “Frank Sinatra has a cold” piece… to see an apology written to Hayes by James Baldwin in his deliberate hand… to read a note Tom Wolfe wrote in flowing calligraphy… well, it was so intimate it almost felt wrong.

Baldwin wrote in print, using capital As. Diane Arbus’ typewriter had a faulty shift key. The letters of William F. Buckley read like they were carved out of ice.

I think I could write a short, one-act play based entirely on the exchanges between Hayes and Dorothy Parker.

There was more: a story pitch to Saul Bellow for a three-parter on Nikita Khrushchev; a copy of the original manuscript of “To the Hilton,” William S. Burroughs’ piece on the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; a lovely note to Truman Capote; piles of strongly worded missives from Norman Mailer’s lawyers; a note from Hubert Humphrey on paper embossed with the seal of the vice president of the United States of America.

I think I could write a short, one-act play based entirely on the exchanges between Hayes and Dorothy Parker.

And I have never, in my entire life, seen an actual telegram before.

But it wasn’t until I pulled off the campus the final time that I felt the full weight of the history I had just absorbed.

The experience brought me that much closer to the goals I set when I got started in this business more than 20 years ago, catching the bug right around the first time I read “Frank Sinatra has a cold.”

The business has changed a lot since Hayes’ day — it’s changed a lot since I came along. But the fundamentals remain, as does the desire to make journalism as art.