One Man's America
Journalist's Search for the Heart of His Country
Doubleday, 658, pp., $ 30
As a boy in Vienna, Henry Grunwald dreamed of becoming an inventor or an engineer, "the most typically American occupations." Instead, as the Age of Edison gave way to the Age of Woodward and Bernstein, he wound up in journalism, and he wound up at the top. Editing Time, as he did for almost a decade, might demand impossible hours, but it provided "an excitement unknown to civilians who lived by a conventional clock and calendar." It was a career he adored, as he shows time and again in his amiable memoir One Man's America.
The name-dropping starts before our narrator is out of knickers, when he develops a crush on a Vienna schoolmate who happens to be Dr. Freud's granddaughter. Over the pages that follow, Grunwald's pal Norman Mailer admits to finding Margaret Thatcher sexy ("a feeling I could not share"). Marilyn Monroe urges Grunwald to read a new novel called Catcher in the Rye. In the bathroomless dressing room at the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein tells the Grunwalds that "all the great conductors in the world have peed in this sink."
In 1972, Henry Kissinger begged that Time's Man of the Year honors go solely to President Nixon, and not jointly to Nixon and Kissinger as the magazine had planned. "The President is really upset," Kissinger reported. When Grunwald wouldn't oblige him, Kissinger took his complaint to Grunwald's boss, Hedley Donovan. "I told him," recounted Donovan, "that if he didn't stop pressuring us, we would put him on the cover alone."
Grunwald has few scores to settle. Instead, he tells agreeable stories of life at Time. He gives a number of expense-account tales, including a submission for "orchids and caviar for Maria Callas, as well as pate for her poodle," reimbursed without question. "Another reporter put on his expense account the single and unelaborated statement 'Trip down the Nile, $ 25,000.' Granted, but correspondent subsequently fired." Grunwald repeats the legend of the reporter who, after being given an insultingly measly raise, cabled the home office using coinages to save a few pennies on telegraphy: "Upstick your raise asswards."
After his stint as managing editor, Grunwald left the newsroom for Time Inc. , where he eventually became editor-in-chief. They were not his proudest years. He became editor in chief of the company's publications just as the newsmagazine niche was vanishing.
"Very much aware that the previous regime . . . had produced People and Money," Grunwald writes, "I was greatly frustrated by the lack of similar accomplishments on my watch." The company closed the money-hemorrhaging Washington Star, launched Discover and sold it off because it was losing money, and poured nearly $ 50 million into the disastrous TV Cable Week. Already, publishing accounted for only about a third of the company, with the rest divided between cable TV and forest products. Time Inc. was well on its way to becoming just another faceless conglomerate, in which the editor in chief no longer ran the show. It was a time of budget-cutting; no more pate for poodles.
Grunwald's saga comes full circle when he returns to Vienna as the American ambassador. Looking back as he prepares to leave Time Inc., Grunwald calls journalism "great work, a pass to all the world" and "important to democracy," but bothersome on two levels. First, it's superficial. Journalists tend to be generalists, hiding behind (in the case of newsmagazines) smart-assed omniscience: "I had often felt uneasy passing judgment on stories about nuclear physics or the validity of the Laffer curve," he writes. Second, journalists too often lose sight of their role. "A journalist," he says, " must never forget that he is only an observer and, almost by definition, an outsider. Deep commitment to a cause is laudable in anyone else, but in a journalist it is not permissible."
Like Time itself, Grunwald aims not merely to report but to explain. The explanations, alas, rarely rise above conventional wisdom. After the Quiz Show scandals, "Americans felt betrayed." Only "a certified anti-Communist like Nixon" could have established relations with China. At times the author comes across as poignantly fogeyish, as when he relates that "I sometimes told Beverly that we should have more black friends, and she agreed."
One Man's America -- padded out with quotes not only from Grunwald's magazine articles and internal memos, but also from his high school compositions, poetry, and after-dinner remarks -- is far too long. As a person, Grunwald appears graceful, gracious, and likeable. As a writer, he is polished and unostentatious, but unacquainted with that paramount newsmagazine virtue: brevity.
Stephen Bates is the author of three books, including If No News, Send Rumors: Anecdotes of American Journalism.