The Magazine

'New Leader' Days

Can you have a political magazine without politics?

Sep 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 01 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Sometime earlier this year the New Leader magazine, after 82 years in business, ceased publication. Not all that many people could have known of the magazine during its existence. The tag line in a full-page ad that it once ran in the New York Times Book Review seeking new subscribers, as I remember it, was "Habitual coupon clippers please don't clip this one." The ad went on to say that not everyone read the magazine and cited a statistically infinitesimal number of people who did--only the intellectually best people, to be sure. John F. Kennedy read it, Hubert Humphrey read it, T.S. Eliot read it, and I forget the other rather rarefied names who did. In its house ads, the magazine used to carry a blurb from Eliot that went (again, I'm quoting from memory): "Of all the journals that cross my desk, the one I should most sorely miss is the New Leader."

I worked as a sub-editor for the New Leader for nearly two years, 1962-63. If that ad were to have been re-run later, it could not have said that Joseph Epstein reads it, because for more than 40 years I scarcely glimpsed it. Now that the magazine is gone, I suppose the best I can say is that I shall miss not missing it. But my brief adventures there, I have always known, were of considerable significance, to me if not at all to the rest of the world.

The first article I published was in the New Leader. The year was 1959, I was in the Army, an enlisted man typing up physicals in a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas. Two years before, Little Rock had been at the center of the world's attention, when President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to insure the safety of the black children who, by court order, integrated Little Rock's Central High School. I wrote a piece on race relations in the city two years later from the standpoint of an outsider. I have just reread it, and it strikes me as in the category I think of as sensitive-pretentious, and rather cheaply moralistic, with ornate vocabulary thrown in at no extra charge: "Gallimaufry," "blague," and "panjandrum" were among the words I used.

I had learned of the New Leader only a few months before I sent off my article. I discovered it in a tobacco store on Main Street in Little Rock that sold out-of-town newspapers and foreign magazines, including the London Spectator. I had discovered the little magazines and intellectual journals a few years before, while a student at the University of Chicago. Encounter, Commentary, Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review, these magazines opened up a new world to me, and an entirely new cast of writers--among them Dwight Macdonald, Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Robert Warshow, Midge Decter, Isaiah Berlin, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, and a great many others. I must have been the only soldier who went off on bivouac with copies of Partisan Review and Dissent in his backpack in the icy November of 1958 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

The New Leader of those days, even though published on slick paper, was a weekly and impressively drab. The logo--small n, capital L--was in white surrounded by a black box. A news photograph usually appeared on its cover; there was nothing seductive about its typeface or layout. (The general appearance of the magazine was revamped in 1961 by a gifted designer named Herb Lubalin, who changed its typeface to Times Roman, pitched out dreary photographs in favor of line drawings, and added lots of elegant--if slightly funereal--thick black lines above the titles of articles and reviews. With a bit of sprucing up here and there, it retained this look till its dying day.) I was beguiled by the grandeur of some of the names I discovered in its pages. An early issue I read carried a debate between Bertrand Russell and Sidney Hook over whether, with the possibility of an atomic war hovering over the world, it was better to be Red than Dead. Hook argued that life without freedom such as was offered by communism wasn't worth living; without freedom, he declared, better dead than red--better to be a dead lion than a live jackal. He easily defeated Russell. British Labour MPs wrote articles for the magazine; so did a number of writers whose names I knew from other intellectual magazines.

I was 22 years old and thrilled to have my article published in a New York magazine, even if no one I knew read or had ever heard of the New Leader. In identifying the magazine, I could always say that Bertrand Russell wrote for it. After the pleasure of first publication began to wear off, I wondered about what I would be paid for the article. Surely it couldn't be less than $100--and then I began to imagine it as much more, up around $500, maybe an even thousand.