The Virtuoso of the Canorama: Gil Rogin Ran SI at Its Peak, But His Fiction Might Make Him Immortal

The New Yorker is where, in 1951, Mr. Rogin broke into the magazine business as a lowly office boy. On his first day on the job, he found himself in a taxi, the Western-style hat of Harold Ross, who had died three days before, in his lap. On day two, he took a cab to the Frank. E. Campbell funeral home with a suitcase containing the clothes Ross was to be laid out in. The next day he shared a cab with William Shawn, Ross’ successor, intently mulling what color Shawn’s new office should be painted.

And what was the most valuable lesson he learned during his short stay at the magazine? “Stand clear of the men’s room when James Thurber was using it,” Mr. Rogin said. “Thurber was famous for missing the urinal. He was so blind that everything would get sprayed.”

Mr. Rogin joined the fledgling SI in 1955 and was quickly made a reporter. He wrote profiles of boxers, bird watchers, surfers, shortstops and motorcycle daredevils before shifting to the editing track. Fiction he wrote on the side–to mostly rapturous praise: In 1972, he won an Academy Award for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He became a sort of touchstone–a writer by whose example other journalists judged themselves.

“Outside of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner,” said Bill Nack, a much decorated general-assignment writer for SI, “Gil was the most respected literary figure ever to appear in the pages of Sports Illustrated.”

Mr. Rogin was SI‘s managing editor from 1979 until ’84, a pre-ESPN era when SI was ascendant and essential in a way no magazine would ever be again. Under his watch, SI became the first all-color weekly, and profits more than tripled. The 534-page Summer Olympics Preview in 1984 generated $24 million in ad revenue, then a record for any magazine. Mr. Rogin was so successful that, over his protests, he was put in charge of Discover, Time Inc.’s struggling science magazine. In 1986, he won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. He designed an oft-imitated all-black cover and ran the first no-holds-barred story on AIDS. “While The New York Times was still bumbling about this ‘mysterious exchange of body fluids,’ I put the words ‘anal intercourse’ on the cover,” he said.

Brooding and self-absorbed, he often edited stories in a stall of his adjunct office, which he variously called the Can, the Canorama and the Canorama-Plus. “Gil is a man of the flesh, or selected bodily functions,” Mr. Moore said. “He’s not anal retentive, he’s anal descriptive. Elimination, in his poetics, becomes profound completion. It’s the Zen of the Can.”

Mr. Nack remembers Mr. Rogin as an editor who “understood the importance of cadence, pace and rhythm in a piece of writing, and who was always extremely generous in his praise of stories that he liked.”

Of course, stories Mr. Rogin hated were not necessarily greeted with incredible tact and benevolence. “You know what the best thing about the best job in America was?” he asked. “If I didn’t like a story, I could tear it up! While people watched! Was performance art invented in 1979? If not, I invented it.” And when the editorial underlings had filed out of the office, he would sheepishly fish the story out of the wastepaper basket and reassemble it with Scotch tape.

Not every writer appreciated Mr. Rogin’s eccentricities. Dan Jenkins of Semi Tough fame quit due to an abiding hatred of him. “We were bitter enemies,” Mr. Rogin said. “He missed deadlines and had an astonishing sense of entitlement. He wrote about golf as if it were played not on a course, but in a cathedral.”

Unawed by reputation, Mr. Rogin assesses sportswriters with cool objectivity. “Frank Deford was very good, but not as great as he thought he was,” he said of the 1999 National Magazine Award winner, a fixture on NPR. “You’d ask for 3,000 words and get 5,000, all of them, according to Frank, ‘imperishable.’ In profiles, he’d pick out a psychological trait and use it like a magic brick to build a house. His stories were well thought out, but artificial.”

Mr. Rogin’s favorite sportswriter was George Plimpton, whose breezy copy required no editing. He also enjoyed Jimmy Breslin. He once bellied up to a bar with the tabloid fabulist after a prizefight in Las Vegas, and Mr. Breslin showed him his account of the match. Mr. Rogin scanned the first paragraph and said, “Jimmy, this never happened.” Mr. Breslin said nothing.

Mr. Rogin scanned the second graph and said, “Jimmy, this never happened, either.”

Mr. Breslin stared at him wearily and said, “Yeah, but how does it read?”

Mr. Rogin, who lately has begun calling himself “the former Gilbert Rogin,” maintains no connection with SI and has met Terry McDonell, current editor of the Sports Illustrated Group, only once. Mr. Rogin, in fact, no longer reads magazines, nor does he swim a mile a day. That ended around a couple of years ago when he blacked out off the coast of Florida and nearly drowned. Since then he has gotten a pacemaker. And a catheter. And, now, a walker.

At his Westport kitchen table, toying with the ends of a napkin, Mr. Rogin reconsidered an earlier statement. “Actually, being the editor of SI wasn’t my greatest personal achievement,” he says. “Getting published in The New Yorker was much more satisfying. Because what was the competition at SI, a bunch of third-rate journalists? All writers want to get their stuff in The New Yorker.”

He picked up a copy of Preparations and read a passage aloud: “Like the acrobats, usually related, who form human pillars by standing upon one another’s shoulders, as we grow older, heavier, less agile, we take our place farther down until, at last, we are at the bottom, supporting the rest. There we totter about–a bit theatrically from time to time, Albert admits.”

Putting down the book, he smiled. “Who writes this shit anymore?” he asked. “It’s amazing shit, man. But it was a long time ago. What have I made of my life since then?”

His cool green eyes fixed on a mote in the middle distance. “I have no excuse for giving up fiction writing,” he said, ruefully. “I wasted my talent. What a waste!” Not that he plans to ever attempt another short story. “Once in a while, two or three opening lines will pop into my head. I’ll murmur them to myself and then I’ll forget them. I’m a great murmurer.”

editorial@observer.com

Mr. Lidz, a senior writer at SI from 1980 to 2007, is the author of several books, including the memoirs Unstrung Heroes and Fairway To Hell.

 

 

The Virtuoso of the Canorama: Gil Rogin Ran SI at Its Peak, But His Fiction Might Make Him Immortal