EDITOR’S NOTE: Authentic profiles are among the most rewarding, challenging and essential of journalistic art forms, requiring an alchemy of relationship, grit and elegance. The most successful often involve a bit of self-reflection, as a writer peers into the life of another to see glimpses of himself. That’s what award-winning author and magazine writer Steve Oney did over a 40-year career to bring forth immersive profiles of 20 men — from the famous to the forgotten — as a way to explore the particular ways that modern men face the challenges of success and failure. Oney’s book “A Man’s World,” published in May 2017, was released this week in paperback. For those who missed it, we reprise an interview Oney did in July 2017 with former Nieman Storyboard editor Kari Howard.
In today’s America, the word “masculinity” is almost a Rorschach test. When you look at it, do you see a patrimony that is raging, raging against the dying of the light? Or do you see an assault on the concept of traditional male roles?
“Maybe I read too much Ernest Hemingway in college, but regardless of all the societal transformations, I think men’s lives basically revolve around the concerns he examined in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ Life is hard. You do what you can. You pray for happiness. Then it’s over.”
The last election exposed the divisions in the country over the word and the existential things it signifies. So it’s either very provocative or very canny to come out with a book called “A Man’s World,” as the writer Steve Oney has just done.
The book is a collection of Oney’s articles over his 40-year career as a journalist and includes profiles of characters as diverse as Gregg Allman and Nick Nolte, Robert Penn Warren and an old-time cops reporter in L.A.
He divided the book into four sections: Fighters, Creators, Actors and Desperadoes, and the first of those themes is a leitmotif throughout the entire book.
“I’m interested in success, but I’m really interested in struggle,” he says. “I’m impressed by people who don’t quit. With me it’s a daily battle, and in my writing I’m drawn to people for whom it’s the same.”
I talked with Steve via email about how he chose the theme of the book, how ideas of masculinity have changed in his decades covering men, and how he predicted the rise of Breitbart America.
I thought I’d start with a bit of sweep: Why did you choose this theme, and what does it say about both your career and what you think it means to be a man?
A couple years ago, I had a conversation with Beth Vesel, my agent, about publishing a collection of my magazine stories. During my 40 years in the business, I’ve written some 150 full-length pieces. I’m talking about ones of at least 3,000 words. Many are about the South, where I was raised. Many are about California, where I moved pretty early in my career. I’ve dealt with all sorts of topics – the rituals of small-town life in Georgia, the impact of the Charles Manson murders on Los Angeles, the Hollywood left’s infatuation with Nicaragua’s Sandinistas – but I’ve specialized in profiles, and a majority of my subjects have been men. “There’s your collection,” Beth said, then asked me to pick my best and write an introduction that gave shape to the selections and laid out the recurring themes. As I looked at my work, I realized I’ve basically been interested in four kinds of guys – Fighters, Creators, Actors and Desperadoes – and I organized the book around 20 who fit more or less into these categories.
The stories range from the start of your career, in 1977, to 2011. Men’s roles have changed a lot in those years. Did you want to capture that, or instead show how in many ways the struggles – the fight, you call it – have remained the same?
Certainly, ideas of masculinity have changed since 1977. Gender itself has been reconsidered as something more fluid. But to borrow from the unforgettable theme of “Casablanca,” the fundamental things still apply. Men fight – sometimes in battle, more often in a figurative sense. They create, whether in the arts or while solving work problems. They act – that is they present themselves in public. And from time to time they discard the script to confront an inner demon or do something outrageous, which can lead to greatness or ruin. Maybe I read too much Ernest Hemingway in college, but regardless of all the societal transformations, I think men’s lives basically revolve around the concerns he examined in “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Life is hard. You do what you can. You pray for happiness. Then it’s over.
The inscription reads: “To the memory of my father, Robert Oscar Oney,” and you close your introduction with memories of him and what he gave you. Does the father-son role play a big part in your life and in the broader theme of “a man’s world?” One of the pieces, “The Casualty of War,” explores that quite movingly.
My father was an extremely moral guy. He tried to leave people better than he found them. He spoke often of fair play, and he would not tolerate dishonesty. He was Old Testament. He imbued me with those traits, and I’m thankful he did. He was also, however, a child of the Depression, and he often seemed crippled by a resulting fatalism. To some extent I battled against that. I thought that if I fought hard enough, trusted my imagination and took some chances I could break free. That was the push-pull of our relationship, and that is certainly a central drama of “The Casualty of War,” which I wrote for Los Angeles magazine during the Iraq war. The piece is about rebellion, reconciliation and loss. I look at the father-son relationship in many of the other stories in the book as well. Incidentally, my dad died five years ago of congestive heart disease. I kept his final voicemail message. He said he loved me. That’s a big deal for a son no matter his age.
Because I’m a music fan, I have to ask a question about the title. I’m guessing it’s from the James Brown hit, right? A great song that has nonetheless always made me a bit queasy, because it’s a very old-fashioned view of the world (never mind his use of the word “girl,” although that must have been for the rhyme). But the song also says that men would be lost without women. Can you talk about why you chose that title? And how does it resonate through the articles? I’m struck by how women are playing this role in many of them, especially the Herb Alpert, Jake Jacoby and Robert Penn Warren profiles: They’re strong, but at the same time, they’re playing supporting roles. The men have the main stage.
Yes, the song “It’s a Man’s World” suggested my title. I chose it because all of the book’s subjects are men – and it’s provocative. It’s plainly not a man’s world anymore, and it hasn’t been for a while. But I’m all for stirring things up. And yes, there are a lot of strong women in the book. Eleanor Clark, Robert Penn Warren’s wife, was a superb writer who won the National Book Award in nonfiction for “The Oysters of Locmariaquer.” It’s about oyster harvesting in Brittany. Lani Hall, Herb Alpert’s wife, was the lead singer for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66. These two and several others pop up in my work. True enough, they’re secondary, yet not because they’re subservient. They aren’t the focus. I’ve written many profiles of women – among them Tracey Ullman for GQ and Arianna Huffington for Los Angeles – and in those, men assume the supporting positions. So it depends on the assignment.
So much of this collection revolves around identity. You say in your introduction, “When people tell you you’re not defined by what you do, they’re wrong. You are what you do – action is character.” Can you talk about this theme a bit more?
Now we’re back to Hemingway. Even as a kid I never subscribed to the notion that you can just be. The marching orders from my mom were: Make something of yourself. I figured that a good life, like good writing, is a product of active verbs. That said, I do think this is really a philosophical question. Maybe an examined life is more worthwhile than an active life. Maybe our strivings are futile exercises. But I don’t believe so. I’m interested in success, but I’m really interested in struggle. I’m impressed by people who don’t quit. With me it’s a daily battle, and in my writing I’m drawn to people for whom it’s the same. Get up off the mat and show me what you’re made of.
Another theme is the artifice of our lives, the faces we present to the world. “It may be said that our lives are our supreme fiction,” you quote Robert Penn Warren as saying. When you seek out profiles, is that a conscious thread you’re pursuing in all of them, or does the story develop and you find you’ve returned to it?
I’ve always been interested in creativity. Ever since the University of Georgia, where I went to undergraduate school, I’ve been mad for Robert Penn Warren. In 1973, I read “All the King’s Men,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, for an English class. In 1977, after a couple years working for small daily newspapers in South Carolina, I lucked into a job as a staff writer at The Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine. Warren, who would soon become America’s first poet laureate, was at that time publishing great new poems once or twice a month in The New Yorker – in fact, he won the 1979 Pulitzer for poetry. I wrote him proposing a story, and he invited me to spend a week with him in Vermont where he had a summer home. The Atlanta papers were in high cotton at the time – Jimmy Carter was president, and they were rolling in dough. So they flew me up and gave me a month to do the piece. I realized as I was working on it that Warren – Mr. Warren to me – was by example and in his observations advancing the idea that imagination provides the path through life. To put it in more simplistic terms: If we dream big, it might happen. Since then I’ve sought out people to write about who follow that credo. Of course, just because you conjure something in your mind doesn’t mean it will be good. It might be awful. You might be wildly untalented. Or you might be a sociopath and do harm. But I realized early on that unless you have a great notion, you’ll never achieve very much. That was Mr. Warren’s gift to me. I’ve tried to put it in practice in my own career, and I’m fascinated when I see it in others.
I really loved the Warren interview. (A mark of that is how many turned-down pages I had for it.) I could ask so many questions about it, but one thing I loved was him talking about tale-telling, and how Southern writers “have a goddamned honed tale sense.” And that he and his wife (the writer Eleanor Clark) don’t have a TV because they don’t want to lose their innate ability. Do you think it’s harder to be a storyteller in these days of endless distractions?
Like most everyone else, I’m addicted to social media. Unlike most everyone else, I hate it. Sure, I enjoy seeing what my friends are up to, and I appreciate the business uses. I’m a self-employed writer. Facebook is where I promote my work. In every other way, however, social media is a sewer choking with the flotsam and jetsam of ill-informed opinion – or pet videos. It’s CB radio for the digital age. But that’s our age. Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark were from a different age. For them, Herman Melville’s poetry and Theodore Dreiser’s novels delivered not just joy but the news. They were more attuned to the bards of oral tradition than they would be to Instagram. Nonetheless, I think there’s a deep craving for the kind of storytelling Warren and Clark championed and embodied. Great books – and the better podcasts – feed that hunger, and that’s why they keep getting published and made. I live and die for them. If I’m not in the middle of a novel – and I always try to be – I go a bit crazy. Fiction and longform nonfiction order my world and hone my mind. The rest – unless it’s the weather report – is usually just noise.
One of my favorite articles is the one on Jake Jacoby, the ultimate L.A. cop reporter. When you wrote it in 1986, he had been a cop reporter for 50 years and was still at it. It’s so lively, and the ending is the strongest in the collection, I think. What about Jake appealed to you?
Jake Jacoby was the last of the old-time police reporters. He was as much cop as journalist, and he believed that newspapers should help solve crimes. In 1985, while working for a feisty LA wire service, he broke parts of the infamous Night Stalker case that led to the arrest and conviction of Richard Ramirez. I wrote that piece for GQ. Eliot Kaplan, my editor there, mailed me a clip from the L.A. Times reporting that the LAPD was naming its press room for Jacoby. In an attached note, Eliot said, “This is a great story.” (That’s how editors used to do it.) What initially attracted me to Jake was that he was an anachronism – a guy from the age of Tommy Dorsey functioning in the age of Sid Vicious. But after spending time with him, I realized there was more – Jake was guided by a moral code. At the top of the piece, I quote him saying that his job is to “sweep back the waves” of criminal outrage. He was saying that he saw reporting as a kind of noble witness bearing. By writing the news, a journalist stems the tide of wrongdoing. Now, Jake was not all admirable. He’d spent a few years as a McCarthy-era propagandist. He was right of Attila the Hun. But he was ultimately on the side of the angels, and that’s what appealed to me. By getting up and doing his job each day, he cast light into the darkness. That was his fight. The story appears in the Fighters section of “A Man’s World.”
His advice to young journalists starting out on his path today: “Get a job at a medium-sized daily newspaper whose managing editor believes that the best way to win new subscribers is with great storytelling. Then let this editor work you like a dog. That may be easier said than done, but I read local papers when I’m traveling, and I’m impressed by many of them.”
It’s of course fascinating reading the Andrew Breitbart piece seven years after the fact, now that it’s such a part of the firmament in the Trump White House. You say in the piece, “Breitbart perceives himself as a new-media David out to slay old-media Goliaths.” And you have him saying, “I want it to be in the history books that I took down the institutional left, and I think that’s gonna happen.” Are you a bit spooked by how prescient you were in the piece?
Thanks – I think – for calling me prescient on this. I wrote that piece for Time in 2010 shortly after Breitbart posted the James O’Keefe Acorn/prostitution video that made all involved infamous. I’d known him casually for several years. He and I belonged to a group of writers and producers that met monthly at the lovely old Hollywood restaurant Yamashiro to discuss politics and current events. But until I started reporting the story, I didn’t have a bead on him. During our time together he indeed predicted the demise of the mainstream media and the Democratic Party. He said there was a big group of Americans who felt that elites in the press and in Obama’s White House patronized them, and he said Breitbart.com would become their virtual salon in the same way that the Huffington Post – which he also helped to start; go figure – had become the left’s salon. I was incredulous, but I took it all down, and wrote it up and, as you say, almost everything he predicted came true. Andrew was raised in Brentwood, LA’s most progressive neighborhood, but he went to college at Tulane during the heyday of multiculturalism on campuses and deconstruction in liberal arts classrooms. He chafed against both. In the early days of the web, he fell under the spell of Matt Drudge and became a flame-thrower. It’s no accident that my story on him is in the Desperadoes section of my book.
A related question: The book seems to tap into the Trumpian wave of male discontent. Men angry that their roles have changed. Was that a conscious move?
Except for some proofreading and a few decisions about cover art, I was done with “A Man’s World” before the election. Like many, I was surprised by Donald Trump’s victory. So if the book taps into a Trumpian wave of male discontent, it will be by accident, although I’ll be happy if it happens. There haven’t been many books in recent years that look at manhood straight up. There are academic studies of masculinity and treatises on gender. But “A Man’s World” is 20 portraits of guys, love ‘em or hate ‘em. It’s not prescriptive. It’s not ideologically driven. By the way, my agent thinks more women will read the book than men. She thinks that it answers the question: What do men want? We shall see.
I haven’t asked much about the craft of your storytelling. Can you talk a little about how you approach the writing of the stories? What’s your process, if there’s a constant in how you write?
I typically let the story dictate my approach. Until I’ve done some reporting, I don’t know what I’m going to write or how I’m going to write it. By and large, I’m straightforward when it comes to structure. However, I am willing to take chances. In “The Casualty of War,” for instance, I reveal near the beginning that its subject, Chris Leon, is dead. The story still has more than 7,000 words to go. That was a risk. I banked on being in such command of the material that I could make you keep reading even though you know how the piece ends. In “That Championship Season,” a profile of Brandon Tartikoff, the legendary president of NBC television, I present Tartikoff’s bio as if it’s taken from a TV program guide. His childhood is a sitcom. A bout with cancer is a movie of the week. I think that was effective, and it enabled me to avoid what I call the tyranny of information. Reporters often think that if they accumulate a bunch of facts and hit you with them all at once they’ve made a character come alive. More often, they’ve written something that is dense and poorly organized. I always search for ways to make details serve the narrative. I also aim for comic relief. One of my favorite pieces in “A Man’s World” is a profile of the architect John Portman I wrote for Esquire. I start the piece with a lengthy description of Portman’s wild comb-over, which is both defensive and outrageous. I think this is funny. More crucial, I think it’s apt – his buildings are both defensive and outrageous.
If you had to pick one, which of these interviews left the most lasting impression on you? Either with the process itself, or what you learned, or what you ended up writing.
“Talese is a master of writing about defeat. This is the school of journalism that says that after the big game, you often get the best story if you go to the loser’s locker room. There’s truth to that, and I’m always surprised that more reporters don’t do it.”
They all had a big impact on me. I don’t undertake stories lightly. That’s a curse and a blessing. They get under my skin: none more so than one on the late baseball star Bo Belinsky. Bo played for the Los Angeles Angels. Everyone thinks Sandy Koufax pitched the first Major League no-hitter in California. Not true. It was Bo. Bo had everything – talent, good looks and beautiful girlfriends. But he threw it all away. First there was alcoholism, then cocaine addiction. Finally he shot his wife. Bo ended up selling used cars in Las Vegas. Not long after his death, a friend of his gave me a bunch of cassette tapes Bo recorded at the end. In a sense I got an interview from beyond the grave. That story, which is called “Fallen Angel” and which I wrote for Los Angeles, addresses why Bo said no to life and how he lied to himself. Those were hard things to ponder, and it took a toll. Incidentally, that piece and several others in “A Man’s World” – a profile of Gregg Allman that I wrote for Esquire when Gregg was in trouble, a story about the crazed novelist Harry Crews I wrote early on for The Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine – owe a lot to Gay Talese. Talese is a master of writing about defeat. This is the school of journalism that says that after the big game, you often get the best story if you go to the loser’s locker room. There’s truth to that, and I’m always surprised that more reporters don’t do it.
And is there a profile I haven’t mentioned that you want to talk about, either the writing or the reporting? I’m guessing some were quite wild.
The most ambitious piece in “A Man’s World” is “The Talented Mr. Raywood.” It’s about a high-end conman who bilked wealthy people in New York and Los Angeles out of millions. An interior designer, Craig Raywood relied on finesse and charm to bamboozle his clients. I worked on the story for nine months – luckily, I was on staff at Los Angeles at the time – and almost no one involved wanted to talk with me. Raywood was on the run, and the victims were mortified. Moreover, the case was still under investigation. There had been no arrest. The reason crime stories are almost always written after the fact is that prior to conviction, a reporter has no legal cover. All facts are in dispute. I was ahead of the police on this piece, but happily I had two great editors – the magazine’s editor in chief, Kit Rachlis, and Richard E. Meyer, a legendary former editor at the Los Angeles Times who’d just come to Los Angeles to shepherd this kind of work. They kept me on point, and I think I ended up writing a strong story that says as much about status and money as it does about the actual cons. But it was a challenge.
Finally, what’s your advice to young writers starting out on this path today?
Get a job at a medium-sized daily newspaper whose managing editor believes that the best way to win new subscribers is with great storytelling. Then let this editor work you like a dog. That may be easier said than done, but I read local papers when I’m traveling, and I’m impressed by many of them. A lot of good writing still appears every day in America’s papers.