Rich Blow looked a little jumpy. It was pouring outside, and the former executive editor of George magazine had dragged his cappuccino, bagel, and New York Post to the most remote corner of the basement of Xando, the coffee bar at 76th and Broadway. Wincing at the New Age jazz that was toodling from a stereo speaker mounted on the wall above him, he buttonholed one of the cafe’s employees. “Can you turn that off?” Mr. Blow asked in a stiff-jawed Groton drawl. The music could not be squelched, but it didn’t seem to distract Mr. Blow from other sounds in the room. Occasionally, someone would make a racket behind him, and Mr. Blow would whirl around in his chair, as though he were about to confront some latté-fueled lynch mob.
Mr. Blow has reason to be on edge. He’s the latest guy to enter the vicious hailstorm that almost inevitably kicks up when someone with proximity to a famous person decides to tell all after that person has died.
For Mr. Blow, the storm began in late March when news began to circulate that he had sold to Little, Brown & Co., for a reported mid-six figures, a proposed memoir about his time working with John F. Kennedy Jr. at George . (In the interest of full disclosure, The Transom applied for a low-level editorial position at George in 1996, and met with all of the senior-level editors, including Mr. Blow. The Transom never heard back.)
That somebody was writing a book about Kennedy’s George years was not surprising in itself. “Gee! A magazine editor writing a tell-all book!” said Texas Monthly deputy editor Evan Smith, a friend of Mr. Blow’s for more than a decade. “I’m shocked to discover that! You’re kidding me!” Mr. Smith shouted into the phone. “Give me a fucking break! The idea that people in this business are going to get up on their high horses and look down their noses! Tell them to call Bill Clinton to commiserate with him over George Stephanopolous. Oh, boo hoo!”
But the news that Mr. Blow had seized the opportunity was shocking to those who remembered that, in his role as George ‘s No. 2, he dealt harshly with those employees who had talked to the press about John Kennedy, however fondly, in the days following his death. In retrospect, it looked as if Mr. Blow had been using his position at George to ensure that his memoir idea did not get put into play.
Mr. Blow’s memoir deal seems to have split the media world into two camps. There are those, such as Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter, who want a piece of Mr. Blow’s book. Mr. Carter told The Transom that he recently called Mr. Blow’s William Morris agent, Joni Evans, to offer to buy an excerpt of the book sight unseen.
And then there are those, including a number of former George staffers, who want a piece of Mr. Blow. Their sentiment toward Mr. Blow’s six-figure deal was captured in the headline of a recent Salon magazine piece about the sale: “John-John, I kinda knew ye. And I’m going to make a bundle writing about you.”
So just as the Diana crash had its paparazzi, and the O.J. Simpson trial had Mark Fuhrman, Mr. Blow has emerged as a heavy in the John Kennedy tragedy. In the span of just a few months, Mr. Blow, who was one of the last of the original George employees when Kennedy died, found himself practically friendless among George alums. And those who once defended him and worked with him, looked back at Mr. Blow and reassessed him as a weasel who aimed to throw open the doors to the one place where the paparazzi could not follow Mr. Kennedy: the offices at George .
“[ George ] was the one place that John could go and not have to worry about that,” said Ned Martel, a former senior editor at George who considered Mr. Blow a friend. “And this is the thanks he gets. One of the people he entrusted the most is doing this to him.”
“I kind of don’t give a shit about my image in the media,” Mr. Blow told The Transom as he sipped his cappuccino. But clearly, his reputation among his former colleagues concerns him.
A few days earlier, Kennedy’s assistant and confidante RoseMarie Terenzio, the only George staff member to be provided for in Kennedy’s will, said: “Pretty much the whole original staff is unhappy about [Mr. Blow's book]. If you knew John at all you’d know that this isn’t what he wanted. Rich would not be the person to write the book about George or about John. Rich was the executive editor for four months … Why would Rich be the one to write this book?”
There’s more. At a recent gathering of ex- George editorial employees, an informal poll was taken as to who still didn’t “hate” Mr. Blow. According to one observer, nobody raised a hand.
Mr. Blow had an explanation for this behavior. “These are the lingering psychological issues of a group of people who worked at a place that was very intense, very insular, [and] who went through a terrible loss together,” he said. “It needs to be seen in the context of that loss. You don’t get over losing someone like John in six months. Some of the strength of the emotion has a lot to do with that.”
“I think John would be surprised if there weren’t a book written about George ,” he said. “I think he would say, write a good book. Write a book about what was important about George not what was banal about the day-to-day life of any office. Articulate what we were trying to do. Be fair. Be responsible. To those people who disagree with it, let it go, live your life.”
Yet, the sampled bits of Mr. Blow’s book proposal that were leaked to Salon on March 28 read more like a Casey Kasem long-distance dedication than a serious memoir of a semi-serious magazine. “No one else has the experience with and perspective on John that I do,” Mr. Blow wrote, “I hope that doesn’t sound like boasting … because I don’t mean it that way-and there were times I wished for someone else to be in that position.”
Mr. Blow wrote of the “thrill” of wearing Kennedy’s discarded ties, and alluded to diaries that he’d kept since he began working at George . “We had no preparation, no defenses, against someone so charismatic, so charming,” he wrote. Mr. Blow went so far as to state that ” George was one of the most influential magazines of the 1990′s.”
Mr. Blow came to George by way of affluent Fairfield, Conn., where he grew up in a politically well-connected family. His uncle was a founding partner of the Washington law firm Patton Boggs and his grandmother was a Republican who ran for congress in Virginia.
Mr. Blow went to Yale, won a Rolling Stone College Journalism Award, worked at the New Republic under Michael Kinsley, and spent a few years in the Ph.D. American studies program at Harvard. After toiling as the editor of the Washington, D.C., business bimonthly Regardie ‘s, Mr. Blow was hired as senior editor to launch George in 1995. In January 1999, he was promoted to executive editor when Elizabeth (Biz) Mitchell resigned from the position.
At the time, Mr. Blow presided over a stable of writers who may not have quite adored him, but who certainly respected him. Like his boss, he was tall, chiseled and muscular; he in-line skated and dated foxy women. There is even a nude black-and-white photograph of Mr. Blow and his ex-girlfriend hanging on the wall of his West End Avenue apartment. (“You can’t see anything,” Mr. Blow said.)
And most important, John Kennedy apparently believed in him sufficiently to toss him the keys to his magazine.
But then, Mr. Kennedy died, and Mr. Blow’s trouble began. After spreading the word that the Kennedy family wanted George staffers not to talk to the press, in a much disputed incident, two writers with close ties to John Kennedy, Lisa Depaulo and Doug Brinkley, were released from George after disobeying the edict. Ms. Depaulo had spoken to New York magazine specifically about how Kennedy had helped her get emotionally through her mother’s terminal cancer.
“We felt that to speak about John, we should do it in the pages of his magazine,” Mr. Blow told Brill’s Content at the time. Ms. Depaulo’s dismissal was not a popular one in the office. About this time, George staffers began calling Mr. Blow ‘L.B.J.” or “Lyndon Blow Johnson,” for his eagerness to pick up the reigns. Mr. Blow maintains that he did not fire Ms. Depaulo and that they had a mutually agreed upon parting of ways over an impasse resulting from her not receiving an invitation to the Kennedy memorial service.
“Oh please,” said Ms. Depaulo. “This is the fourth new version of the story I’ve heard him try to peddle since he sold the book, but I guess now that he’s making a buck off of John’s death, he has reason to re-spin that little chapter.”
When Frank Lalli was chosen to succeed Kennedy as editor in chief, Mr. Blow exited George . On March 11, just weeks after he left, Salon reported that Mr. Blow was shopping a book proposal about working with Kennedy.
This story led to another press report that Mr. Blow had signed a paragraph-length confidentiality agreement, which stipulated that he would not talk to the press or write about Kennedy or his then-partner, Michael Berman. It was an agreement that he said he signed grudgingly in early 1996, after a couple of George office tales leaked into the tabloids. Mr. Blow calls the non-disclosure “an agreement that was never intended for this situation.” He said that he thought that Kennedy’s co-author of the agreement, lawyer and former George senior editor, Gary Ginsberg, would agree.
Mr. Ginsberg, who now works for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., said that the agreement was intended to cover the principles during their lifetimes, because no one had ever contemplated Kennedy dying prematurely, but the spirit of the agreement was such that no one was supposed to write about their experiences at George . Mr. Ginsberg declined to comment any further on Mr. Blow.
Other former staffers were more willing to talk about Mr. Blow, provided they weren’t identified. Some contend that Kennedy merely “tolerated” Mr. Blow, and never had the towel-snapping relationship that he had with less-fussy male editors.
These sources cite the ticket incident as the watershed event that defined Kennedy’s relationship with Mr. Blow. The former George staffers told The Transom that in the early days of the magazine, Mr. Blow allegedly went into Kennedy’s corner office after he had left for the day, and grabbed his boss’ pair of floor seats for a Knicks game. When Kennedy found out, the sources said, he had a closed-door session with his editor.
In addition to denying that this incident ever occurred, Mr. Blow took issue with this characterization of his relationship with Kennedy. “I don’t think John would have made me executive editor if he quote, tolerated me,” he said. “I think John could have done better than that. That’s insulting to John.”
Cupping his cappuccino, Mr. Blow said: “I think when this book is published it will be interesting to go back and look at some of the things that people have said about me and compare those insinuations to the reality of what I’ve written.” There was a heavy tone to his voice. “I think that comparison will reflect more on the people saying these things than it will about the book.”
Many, like Lisa Depaulo, who since being dismissed from George has been writing for New York and Vanity Fai r, are not convinced. “Even if Rich Blow’s book is a valentine to John, he still broke an agreement. I don’t think anyone, especially journalists should be doing that for blood money,” she said.