World’s Youngest Relic: Master of the New Old Journalism

The summer of 1988, David Samuels was between his junior and senior years at Harvard and decided he wanted to cover the Republican convention in New Orleans.

His journalism experience had been limited to writing parodies of news items for the Harvard Lampoon, and he had little in the way of access set up for the convention.

He stopped in to the offices of the Washington City Paper, where he met Jack Shafer, the editor, and told him he was convinced he could penetrate the event and gain access to the big players there because he owned a tuxedo.

Mr. Samuels remembers Mr. Shafer, better known today as Slate’s media critic, as “this dude with a leather jacket.”

Mr. Shafer remembers Mr. Samuels, too. “David was a bright and bold little fuck.”

Mr. Shafer made Mr. Samuels the kindest offer an editor can make to a fledgling journalist: “We have this thing called spec …”

The tuxedo worked. Mr. Samuels got into the convention and glad-handed George H. W. Bush, his son, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, and others. He filed his story—4,000 Hunter S. Thompson-inflected words—and got his spec: Ten thin cents a pop.

“I was like, ‘Huh, I can make 400 dollars at this!’” Mr. Samuels said.

Twenty years later, Mr. Samuels has had the sort of bylines today’s Harvard juniors would give anything for. He’s been nominated for two National Magazine Awards, received prestigious fellowship appointments and been invited to teach at N.Y.U.’s magazine journalism department. He’s also married to New York Times Magazine columnist Virginia Heffernan, with whom he has a 2-year-old son.

Last week, the New Press released two books he wrote: Only Love Can Break Your Heart, which collects some of Mr. Samuels’ articles from The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, among others, and The Runner, an expanded version of a New Yorker story about James Hogue, a highly accomplished runner and less accomplished grifter who scammed his way into Princeton in his late 20’s by claiming to be a self-educated, part Native American teenager named Alexi Indris-Santana.

Kirkus Reviews called The Runner “a dizzying, exhilarating tale of deception”; The New York Times praised Samuels as “an elite narrative journalist” in a Book Review essay.

But a recent visit to Mr. Samuels’ office found the writer despondent, even a little hopeless, and talking about retirement.

“Burnout is inevitable in this profession. It’s inevitable doing this sort of intense, long-form magazine writing,” Mr. Samuels was saying as he sat munching supermarket sushi at his desk in a small, wood-paneled studio he rents on the first floor of a creepy Victorian in Brooklyn Heights.

Aged 41, Mr. Samuels has the soft, rumpled appearance of someone who spends a lot of time alone in a room writing. In one of the essays in Only Love, Mr. Samuels looks at himself through his wife’s eyes and sees “her soft-bellied husband” and compares himself to the “neighborhood characters who tote tattered shopping bags filled with books and periodicals along the Promenade.”

The couple met at a party where Mr. Samuels spent the majority of the night flirting with Ms. Heffernan’s friend, who was “hot and funny and wearing a really nice dress.” But it was Ms. Heffernan who talked to him about his work, and after some insightful criticism and a couple of years of courtship, the two were married in 2003.

“I now have all the trappings of normalcy that I found completely impossible to maintain longer than a month,” Mr. Samuels said.

Between the lines of many of the pieces in Only Love is a loneliness borne of too many weeks spent in hotel rooms in Eugene, Ore., and other less glamorous locales, reporting his stories, for which he insists on face-to-face contact even for minor interviews, and in encounters with complete strangers, during which Mr. Samuels tried “to seem casual and relaxed while concentrating on them really intensely in a way that hopefully doesn’t creep them out.” Now, he says, “I’m very happy and I thank God every day that I have a wife who loves me.

“I have to earn every line I write by actually going somewhere, staying in some horrible hotel—although the hotels have gotten nicer. … I have to write and rewrite these sentences until there’s a world that’s self-contained.”

World’s Youngest Relic: Master of the New Old Journalism