Saturday, July 30, 2011

Clay and Joan Blair Interview - Part I

Joan and Clay Blair, Feb. 1994
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

In February of 1994 with my daughter, Evy who was a college English major at the time, I had the opportunity to interview Joan and Clay Blair over the course of two wintry afternoons.  I have vivid memories of these occasions, first because they gave us a great deal of their time, with trust in my amateurish interview skills, and second, because if they had known how I blew the tape recording they would know it was the work of an amateur.  

I recently came across a cloth bag with my sketch notes and several cassette tapes of an interview I did with them, and I decided, despite some major flaws in my method, to begin to transcribe those conversations.  With major gaps
in the interview due to my ineptitude, I still believe the content is of great enough interest, given the subjects, the breadth of the topics, and the lapse of time, to be important enough to reproduce for others to read.

Joan Blair is a daughter of Jean and Paul Rutledge, close friends of Arni and Mary Richter for years, but most importantly to us, Doctor Paul was the island doctor.  He left a successful practice in Kirkwood, MO, a St. Louis suburb, for the rural and distinctive life of island doctor.   He was much loved by island people for his care and concern.  He also delivered babies, and he did so for two of our children, Hoyt and Evelyn, at a time when a doctor still had the desire to do so, over the increasing threats of malpractice suits.   On one of the first occasions I met Joan, at a cocktail party, I confided I had read Silent Victory, some 800 detailed pages, but at my reading speed I found it to be "a rather long slug."  I hope she forgave me later and kept my comment to herself!  

Joan is an island resident as of this writing, and she is an active member of several island organizations.

On one of the first occasions I heard Clay speak, he appeared at a Door County zoning hearing on behalf of the Ferry Line, an effort to obtain a permit to expand ferry operations to year around at Northport.  Clay modestly recited the demanding, technical nature of his work, and he explained that it required utmost concentration.  He also noted that he and Joan lived but a few hundred feet from the island ferry dock, and that his work was not impaired in the least by regular coming and going of our ferry boats and vehicular traffic, and he doubted that folks living near Northport (our mainland dock) would be bothered, either.  

In later years, Clay served on the island school board (as did I).   He was an instrumental committee member in the Island Rec Center's formative years, and he and I served for approximately eight years on a committee to explore and develop ideas for a performing arts center.   All the while, he and Joan worked tirelessly on one complex writing project after another.

Clay D. Blair Jr. died in December of 1998 after suffering a heart attack.  He and Joan had continued with their work right up to that time, interrupted it seemed, only by brief periods of required medical recuperation.  A World War II veteran as well as noted military historian, Clay was buried at Arlington Nation Cemetery. 

IN the years since the interview, I had forgotten the scope and depth of their work, and how important their combined efforts were in the recording and interpretation of major events in our nation's history.   Clay was a top-notch journalist who became a leading writer of detailed military history, and Joan was indispensable with her research, the organization of volumes, boxes of information, and the transcribing of endless interviews.  I also had not fully appreciated the importance of their working relationship until I recently began transcribing the several cassette tapes I had made of my interview with them.    

Now for the confession of a want-to-be journalist:    some time after the 1994 interview I was dismayed to discover I had recorded the second session over the top of the first tape, thereby losing valuable material about Clay's younger days, service in the Pacific aboard the submarine SSS Guardfish in WWII, their return to the States via Panama Canal to New Orleans, and his embarkation on a career in journalism.   Upon reviewing these tapes now some 17 years later, I found their contents still timely.   Clay and Joan's insights about their lives as researchers and writers describe an Olympian effort, creating a major body of work that will continue to be valued.

This is Part I.  Rather than edit down the material, I have chosen to present the interview pretty much as transcribed directly from the tapes, with some obvious gaps due to my tape recorder malfunction, and the occasional difficulty of interpreting precisely what words were spoken.
  -  Dick Purinton


[The taped interview picks up during Clay’s time with Curtis Publishing Company. He had just left a position as Time Magazine Washington correspondent.]

The (Saturday Evening) Post was getting into serious financial trouble, not a story I’m going to get into…except to tell you that.   And the other thing was, I had a much adored son, about three years old, and he was run over and killed in front of our house, and that had a great impact on me.  And I was looking for a different scene as a result of was a horrible impact.   
And the Post people were looking for new talent.  They were losing money and all that.  First they said, “Would you come up here and spend a month and tell us what’s wrong with this magazine?”  

And I said “Yes” and spent a month.  I sat in an office as if I was doing a report, and I wrote a report, telling them what was wrong.   And they were very impressed with it, so they invited me to be an assistant managing editor, with the promise I would become editor.  My appeal to them was youth.  I was about 35 years old, a scuba diver, had written books, I had done all that stuff.  They were all older people…older than the hills, they really were… and (they) had that view.  I was very young and was go-go-go, and I was broke, so I was offered this job, that I would be editor in several years. 
They were all retiring out.  I received $135,000 a year, which was a lot of money in that day.   That would be like…I don’t know... a huge amount of money today.  
This happened because of my misfortunes, and so we moved lock, stock and barrel to Philadelphia.   I went from Asst. Managing Editor to Editor in about a year, and in another year, I was Manager.   This was not how they had it planned.  They let many people go, it was a blood bath, and I rose up the corporate [ladder].    I tried to change the Post into a news magazine.   The magazine hadn’t changed in years: old, stodgy, unbelievably reactive, rather than active.   They were too far off for news, and I worked out a deal to work faster.    
We were shipping magazines to the west coast on freight cars, and we changed the train, closed the lead time down to about a week.  We hired people from Newsweek to change this thing to a timely, meaningful publication.  

That didn’t work, either, and there was a huge political battle within the company, with the stockholders - all the corporate stuff you can imagine.  I became head of all of the magazines:  Ladies Home Journal, Holiday, American Homes, Jack and Jill - the most popular magazine ever.    We had acres of trees, two printing plants.  We had the biggest printing plant in the world.

That’s what was wrong.  They had made the decision to go for facilities, rather than decentralization and flexibility, and they got stuck into this thing where they had to use their own trees, their own paper making, their own printing companies to make their…to justify their events.    Life Magazine was being printed in about five different places at that time (names them) and that’s where we should have been.  I wanted to sell it all:  the paper companies in Canada, the printing companies - we had one right across from the Liberty Bell - and wanted to move the whole damn thing to New York, lock, stock and barrel. 
All of this was very heady stuff for a 35-year old, but they wouldn’t do any of the things I proposed, and the whole thing went down the tubes.  And finally, when we were trying to sell off all of these parts, the whole thing went “Boom!” 

I couldn’t stand it any more.  It was a Fortune 500 company.  We had 12,000 employees.   About 600 were in editorial.  We had a huge circulation company.   I had no time for writing, just running the corporation, fighting boardroom battles, and I was still editing.  A weekly magazine, mind you.  I was very busy.  
Q - Have you ever thought it would be good to be back on the desk? 
I thought it would be good to retire, then return to writing, but the whole thing blew up, and I’m out on the street, not with a good parachute.   We were married, six kids, living in Greenwich at the time, a typical Greenwich building upscale life.  I had an apartment in New York, a limousine, all of that, great perks.    But the thing was hopeless.  The fundamental thing was that the families that owned it never produced another publisher.  They were all drunks, had no interest in the magazine. 

The accountants got hold of the company.   They couldn’t do editorial, and so they build this huge empire, extra, outside of editorial, and that’s what destroyed the company.  They had a chance to buy ABC, but they thought it was a fad that wouldn’t last.  They could have had it for about $10 million.  Holy smokes!  But that was the kind of management: unimaginative, bad. 

This is a huge, long story, and I certainly won’t go into it further, but it was hard.  It was relentless, back stabbing, trench warfare, people in the departments - typical boardroom strife, the creative vs. the mechanical, the accountants.  And of course, I was the editorial leader, committed to save this thing.   

I was never very fulfilled in the job.  I was a writer, and although I did it well, and I held my ground and won a lot of battles, and became a true player - you have to or you’ll get killed -I didn’t really approve of it, didn’t like it, because the business ethic wasn’t the high standards I learned as a Henry Luce journalist. 
There was an attitude in Time-Life that we were like priests, I don’t mean to stretch this too far, but we were dedicated, we were clean, idealistic, and this was all a reflection on his astounding personality, his religion.  And he was essentially editorial, too, although he had business people with him.  And then, being thrown into it on my own like that at Curtis.  They just did things I wouldn’t think of doing, and I condemned that, those people on the business side, and I found a lot of it odious.  
I introduced a compromise.  I would not run a piece on General Westmoreland that was favorable, in order to get advertising from GM.   We were getting GM ads.  I was pressed to do it every day, from one person to another. 

Return to writing books... 
I left Curtis Publishing in 1965, and I decided I would not ever get back into the corporate scene.     I wasn’t fairly used,  I was used and abused.  And I did my share of abusing, too, no question about that.   It was odious, and I didn’t ever want to go back to that corporate … again, we had so much contact with Madison Avenue, which is basically sleaze … they were a bunch of carnies, at least they were in those days…and they’d pull any kind of a deal to get an account.   Here we were conveying that, it was a constant battle to do so to be clean.  All magazines were being pushed.  I was just a foolish knight on a white horse… and I would never do that again. 

I had enough money I could start out as a writer.   No more of that (corporate world).  I even quit subscribing to a magazine.  I became a book writer.   

End Part I -  Dick Purinton

No comments: