John Lahr’s cover story about Frank Sinatra in the Nov. 3 issue of The New Yorker reads much like a mammoth obituary in The New York Times, a well-turned clip job bolstered by reminiscences from friends, family and acquaintances without any cooperation from the subject himself. But what readers of the 20-page recap of Mr. Sinatra’s life and times don’t realize is how close they came to receiving a full-fledged tribute issue to the still-living singer, à la the magazine’s extravaganza on Diana, the Princess of Wales.
Here’s how Mr. Sinatra narrowly avoided dying in the pages of The New Yorker. Late on Friday, Oct. 17, around 5 o’clock, editor Tina Brown called in a hot news tip that she had heard while outside the office: Frank was dead. “Suddenly, there was all this madness,” said one editor. “You would have thought the President was assassinated,” said another staff member. Fact checkers and art department drones were marshaled into action and informed that most likely their weekend would be spent at work, feeding more Frankie-ana into the upcoming issue, which by some freak coincidence was already scheduled to include a piece by Mr. Lahr on the Chairman of the Board. And just as it had done with its Diana coverage, The New Yorker decided that it would rush out the issue before its regular on-sale date. (The magazine was in the second week of a double issue, so the next issue wasn’t supposed to come out until Oct. 27.)
A few hours later, the editorial brain trust realized the rumor was not true; the 81-year-old Mr. Sinatra may be in poor health, but he was very much alive. So the magazine resorted to its original plan and ran Mr. Lahr’s piece solo. Still, the editorial red alert hammered home the message to the staff that The New Yorker had truly entered a new era. “[We’re] in our new newsmagazine mode,” said one writer. “The New Yorker is on permanent deathwatch now,” added another staff member. “We wait for famous people to die.”
“We wouldn’t have done it just for the sake of doing it,” said deputy editor Pamela McCarthy. “If we hadn’t had the story already in the can, we wouldn’t have thought of putting an issue out early and creating material for it.”
However, that doesn’t mean The New Yorker is not averse to engaging in a little pack journalism from time to time. “We’re not in the business of competing with the newsweeklies, but there are certain moments where there is good reason for us to pull something up and run it earlier,” Ms. McCarthy said. “Why not let people read what you have on the subject at the moment it’s most interesting?”
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the magazine has a bit of a morbid fixation. Driven by an incessant need to turn a profit, The New Yorker has discovered what other magazines, such as People, have known for years: Dead people pay off. Tribute issues to Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Onassis and the Princess have become such money-makers-the salute to Ms. Hepburn netted People more than $1 million, Time Inc. sources said-that magazines are getting their issues ready well before the celebrities shuffle off this mortal coil. In fact, People, Life and Ladies’ Home Journal have set aside any editorial qualms of appearing ghoulish and are even now preparing special issues to commemorate Katharine Hepburn when she dies. The New Yorker’s first foray into cemetery journalism proved successful. According to Ms. McCarthy, preliminary newsstand sales figures for the Diana issue, which came out on Sept. 5, hit 123,000; its average for the first six months of 1997 was 43,272.
It’s a Ralph Lauren world, and George Stephanopoulos just lives in it. The former adviser to the President of the United States, who has cashed in handsomely on his public service days with a $2.85 million book contract and high-profile network TV gigs, shows up in November’s Architectural Digest, proudly offering the voyeuristic masses glimpses of his $550,000 apartment overlooking the Hudson River at Riverside Drive and 114th Street. And although most people don’t decorate their homes with the product line of a single company, nearly every piece of furniture in Mr. Stephanopoulos’ apartment-the navy overstuffed sofas with calico pillows, the sisal rugs, the blue-plaid bedroom drapes, even the cut-crystal barware-comes from the high-end Ralph Lauren Home Collection. (Off the Record could not determine the origin of the antlers in the fireplace.)
The odd alliance of Mr. Stephanopoulos, Mr. Lauren and Architectural Digest is another example of the cozy relations between subject, advertiser and publication in the shelter-magazine business. Mr. Stephanopoulos, who “never really unpacked” his boxes when he lived in Washington, D.C., was in dire need of furnishings. “That he had no furniture was fantastic-we could start fresh,” architect-designer Stephen Miller Siegel told Architectural Digest. “And it wasn’t a handicap that he had no clear understanding of the design process.”
Mr. Lauren had already begun courting Mr. Stephanopoulos before he closed on the apartment. The former Washington sex symbol was Mr. Lauren’s guest back in February at the awards dinner for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and was even provided a tuxedo by Mr. Lauren for the black-tie event where Mr. Lauren received a “men’s wear designer of the year award.” According to magazine and fashion industry sources, Mr. Lauren then furnished Mr. Stephanopoulos’ apartment for a hefty discount. In return, Mr. Stephanopoulos agreed to let the crack Ralph Lauren P.R. team shop the feature to a magazine willing to overlook the artificiality of an apartment furnished by a lone designer.
Architectural Digest was the perfect fit. The Condé Nast magazine loves getting the homes of younger celebrities into its pages-Michael J. Fox was on the cover of the October issue. And it’s never been too concerned about the niceties of editorial ethics; the only products it mentions in a story’s picture captions are those of its advertisers. As editor in chief Paige Rense told the attendees of an American Society of Magazine Editors luncheon back in May: “Let’s say there are two carpet manufacturers. One supports us with advertising. They don’t ask for anything, they just give us their money. The other doesn’t give us their money. Why would I give credit for the one that doesn’t support us with their advertising? Why should I slap the other one in the face?”
Running Mr. Stephanopoulos’ Ralph Lauren spread can’t hurt Architectural Digest on the advertising front. So far this year, the magazine has carried 18 pages of Ralph Lauren Home Collection advertising; last year, it had just five.
Mr. Stephanopoulos was out of town and could not be reached for a comment about his lovely candlesticks.
National Public Radio’s most determined legal foe has struck again. The Washington, D.C.-based law firm Bernabei & Katz has filed another race-discrimination lawsuit against the public radio network, this time on behalf of senior executive Sandra Rattley-Lewis.
Ms. Rattley-Lewis, who is African-American, is the fifth NPR employee represented by Bernabei & Katz to sue the radio network for racial, sexual or disability discrimination in less than three years. Bernabei & Katz is also fighting NPR on behalf of former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, claiming that NPR’s refusal to broadcast his “Live from Death Row” series of programs violated his First Amendment rights.
Ms. Rattley-Lewis, whose job was officially eliminated on Oct. 1, is seeking reinstatement to NPR, back pay and at least $1.2 million in compensatory and punitive damages. She alleges that she was passed over for the job of vice president for news and cultural programming, a position that went to a white person who she feels is a less qualified candidate. She also claims that she was punished in retaliation for her allegations of discrimination within NPR.
Ms. Rattley-Lewis, who worked at NPR for 13 years, first complained about what she viewed as NPR’s racially discriminatory atmosphere in early 1992 after it aired “Ghetto Life 101,” which the suit claims “unfairly depicted African-Americans in derogatory and stereotypical terms.”
But according to the complaint filed in Superior Court for the District of Columbia, Ms. Rattley-Lewis’ relations with NPR’s top brass became increasingly problematic once Delano Lewis, who is also African-American, became president and chief executive of NPR in early 1994. The suit claims that Mr. Lewis began freezing her out after she spurned his offer to become his special assistant in charge of public relations and equal employment opportunity. Despite the frosty relations, in March 1994 Ms. Rattley-Lewis got the “acting” removed from her title as vice president of cultural programming. But about two years later, in June 1996, she was informed her position was being eliminated, and that she was being replaced by a white man she had previously supervised. Ms. Rattley-Lewis was then put in charge of NPR’s program strategy board, only to be told this past June that that job was also being abolished, though its duties would be taken over by NPR’s lobbyist (also a white executive).
“We’re not out there soliciting the cases,” said Debra Katz, the lawyer. “The workplace at NPR is really in crisis. African-Americans are under attack at NPR. They’re not advancing, they’re being deprived of similar opportunities that white employees are getting. NPR is not taking corrective action, and that’s why people are seeking remedial action on their own in the courts.”
In a written statement, NPR said that it was “shocked to learn of Ms. Rattley-Lewis’ complaint,” and added that it didn’t see her departure as a case of discrimination but rather as “the result of a structural reorganization” at NPR. “NPR and Ms. Rattley-Lewis were working toward an amicable agreement relative to her separation from NPR,” the statement said. “NPR is saddened Ms. Rattley-Lewis has chosen to file a complaint that is absolutely without merit.”