‘Harper’s’ Bizarre: How the House of Twain Became a House of Pain

(Photo Illustration by Scott Dvorin)

On a bright winter morning last January, John R. “Rick” MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, walked into editor Roger D. Hodge’s office and fired him. It was so unexpected that when Mr. Hodge told the magazine’s literary editor, Ben Metcalf, what had happened, his colleague laughed in disbelief.

Three Fridays ago, in the offices of Levy Ratner, the law firm of the United Auto Workers Local 2110, two lawyers representing Harper’s management laid off Mr. Metcalf, a 17-year veteran whom other staffers described as the “soul and conscience of Harper’s.” Another pair of lawyers present, representing the staff’s union, objected that the termination was illegal, as Harper’s vice president, Lynn Carlson, watched in silence.

It was a painful year in the life of a magazine that has appeared continuously since 1850, never missing a month. In the wake of Mr. Hodge’s firing, several senior staffers decamped, and the staff unionized, with Mr. Metcalf as union leader. An increasingly bitter dispute has ensued between labor and management in an office where all parties come to work with uncommon passion.

A document drawn up by a lawyer for Harper’s management three months earlier displays the ironies of the scenario. The aim was to prove that editors of Mr. Metcalf’s rank are management, not labor, but the document more vividly serves as an argument for Mr. Metcalf’s indispensability. Ellen Rosenbush, who succeeded Mr. Hodge as editor, testified to the National Labor Relations Board that she and the employees regarded Mr. Metcalf as her second-in-command, and that he had “enormous editorial influence.” The document reports on Mr. Metcalf and other editors’ authoritative taste and trustworthy hiring recommendations. Of Ms. Rosenbush, Mr. MacArthur’s lawyer writes, “She is, in effect, a rubber stamp.”

Mr. MacArthur believes that the unionization arose from bitterness about personnel changes. After he fired Mr. Hodge, he believes Mr. Metcalf wanted the job. Unionization was, in his eyes, a power play.

“It’s clear that some people on staff are still upset that Ben Metcalf wasn’t made editor,” Mr. MacArthur told The Observer.

“Since the motives behind a union are, as a matter of law, irrelevant,” Mr. Metcalf told The Observer in an email, “not even the ludicrously false ones imputed to me can excuse the treatment I and my fellow editors have lately received from the management at Harper’s Magazine.”

Mr. MacArthur cited financial concerns and claimed that Mr. Metcalf’s work could most easily be absorbed by other staffers.

“We have filed unfair labor practices charges against Harper’s Magazine for their failure to bargain in good faith about this layoff,” said Maida Rosenstein, the union’s UAW representative.

Mr. Metcalf’s layoff became effective immediately. He was at the time in the middle of editing a cover story about Mark Twain by Lewis H. Lapham, a short story by Alice Munro and Thomas Frank’s column. When he went to the Harper’s office to sort through years of galleys and correspondence, he found his belongings had already been packed into boxes.

Mr. MacArthur fell in love with Harper’s as an undergraduate at Columbia in 1977, when he covered a speech by then editor Mr. Lapham for Columbia Spectator. He became a devoted reader and invited Mr. Lapham to address the college journalists at their annual banquet.

“I had no contact with Lewis between the Blue Pencil Dinner and the day I called him, more than four years later, to tell him we were trying to organize the rescue,” Mr. MacArthur told The Observer. In those four years, Harper’s had suffered near-fatal mismanagement under the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company. In June of 1980, the company announced it would cease publication of the magazine.

Though only 23 years old at the time, Mr. MacArthur was well placed to save Harper’s. His grandfather was the insurance billionaire who founded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, famous for its “genius grants.” His father, J. Roderick MacArthur, was disinherited but quickly made his own fortune through the collectible-plate emporium Bradford Exchange and the gadget catalog Hammacher Schlemmer. (Harper’s employees receive the catalogs in their mailboxes and are eligible for discounts.) J. Roderick still sat on the board of the MacArthur Foundation. His son convinced him and the board to buy the magazine.

‘Harper’s’ Bizarre: How the House of Twain Became a House of Pain