When it comes to writing profiles, Esquire’s Chris Jones is used to getting the last word. But a few weeks ago, when Jones worked his storytelling mojo on Roger Ebert, he took on someone who had his own platform and his own audience.
“I knew Roger was writing about the story,” Jones told us via email, confessing his hands had trembled when he clicked on the link to see what Ebert had written about his piece. “I mean, he’s a critic, right? And I really enjoyed spending time with him, and I hope he enjoyed spending time with me. I didn’t want him to feel regret for having let me in.
“So, when I read what he posted, I felt like 1,000 pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. I could have received a million letters from other people saying they liked the story, but if Roger Ebert had hated it, I would have felt bad about that, literally for the rest of my life.”
Jones’ moving profile of the film critic drew praise from Ebert, and also garnered a mention by Jim Romenesko and a post from the Cronkite School’s Tim McGuire, who portrayed the article as a call to the journalistic ramparts. And it’s true that the Ebert article is beautifully written, and that Jones is a national continental treasure (it turns out that the Canadians get credit for him, along with Sidney Crosby and Celine Dion).
But the thing that struck me about the story is how its online existence has transformed it. If it had come out as a print piece only, the profile of Ebert would have been read and praised, then perhaps used in some classes or maybe eventually, it would have found its way into a collection of Jones work. But what has emerged instead is a larger, living thing—a dialog of stories, if you will, between Ebert and Jones, and Ebert and Esquire.
The online version referenced Ebert’s journal on the Chicago Sun-Times site and described the movie expert expounding there on the “existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost.”
So we have an Esquire piece that points to nearly two years of entries in Ebert’s online journal, followed by Ebert using his online journal to comment on the Esquire piece. But the story doesn’t stop there. Ebert talks about his work with Esquire decades ago and mentions “the best interview I ever wrote” for the magazine. And that interview, “Saturday at Lee —-ing Marvin’s,” is now posted on Esquire’s site as well, linking back to Ebert’s response and the original profile. Jones explains how the Marvin interview came up:
“In the course of my research for the story, Tim Heffernan at Esquire photocopied a bunch of Roger’s stories for me out of the paper archives. One of those stories was the Lee Marvin story. I brought them to Roger to show him—there was also one on Groucho Marx, and one of Hugh Hefner’s daughter—and he lit up and said that the Lee Marvin story was the best story he ever wrote.
“I mentioned them in the article and told my editor, Peter Griffin—you talked to him about the helicopter piece—what Roger thought of the Lee Marvin story. A little while ago—maybe two weeks ago—Peter asked if I thought Roger would mind if the story was posted. Roger was fine with it, and someone at Esquire typed it into the system. Voila. A piece that’s nearly 40 years old is suddenly given new life and a new audience.”
These posts and stories work particularly well together because of the talent possessed by both writers. But their connection also illustrates how a standalone story can evolve into a larger narrative by picking up prologues and codas as it finds echoes and responses in the world.