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Paging through the decades
How many television programs are celebrating 50th anniversaries?”
The answer, of course, is “hardly any.”
But, a magazine celebrating a 50th anniversary isn’t unusual, according to Dr. Samir Husni, Director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism. Husni – known as “Mr. Magazine” – is decidedly bullish on printed publications.
Magazines not only can be long-lived (the oldest American one is The Old Farmer’s Almanac at 225 years), but as Husni says, “once you print something, it’s permanent. People like the sense that it’s permanent.”
As for the future of magazines today? “I think they are doing very well; I hear from almost everywhere. There is a big surge in city and regional magazines,” Husni says. “The entire print industry isn’t disappearing.”
New Orleans Magazine has certainly proved its staying power in the last 50 years. Changes in ownership, new faces in the editor’s chair, even the complex systems disaster named Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans Magazine has been through it all and thrives!
A major factor in the magazine’s longevity would be the writers, whose work and whose care with words spin the stories the readers look forward to each month.
One contributor to the very first issue – October 1966 – who’s still around is Michael Ledet.
Ledet was never primarily a writer. He is an artist. As he explains, “I only wrote something for the first two issues. The first was an article on art galleries in New Orleans, and the second was on artists.”
While a student at Jesuit High School he became a volunteer at the Orleans Gallery, which is run cooperatively by artists. Ledet had found his niche; he soon began making art himself.
He was Promotions Director at WVUE-TV when station executive Perry Brown urged him to write the art column for New Orleans Magazine.
After that, Ledet quit television, moved to the French Quarter and had his first art show at the Glade Gallery in 1968.
He worked for Ida Kohlmeier as a studio assistant, sold typography for Harvey Printing and for Forstall Typography. Throughout, he practiced his art, and today he has paintings in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“I paint, mostly in acrylic and mixed media, with hand-made paper and penciled drawings,” Ledet says. He taught at Loyola University for 10 years – only later did he get a degree in History at Holy Cross College.
“My life has always revolved around some kind of creativity, whether graphic arts or fine arts,” Ledet admits. He recently retired from book design, but he’ll probably be working on a second book for Oak Alley Plantation, “twice as big” as the first.
When New Orleans Magazine started, the first editor was James Townsend, who had come from a city magazine in Atlanta. (My own first article for the magazine was in December 1966, a feature piece on the Irish Channel.)
Succeeding Townsend in New Orleans in April 1967, was James “Jim” Autry. Autry’s writers especially liked the fact that he called editorial meetings at Antoine’s – where the magazine’s founding meeting had taken place. Bonnie Warren was president of the New Orleans Artists’ Association and was asked to do a piece on artist Leonard Flettrich (husband of WDSU-TV personality Terry Flettrich).
“He was the most charming, fabulous person!” Warren says. "They lived in the house in the bend of Bourbon Street and the back building was his studio – I spent almost the whole day with him.”
After she turned in the story, Autry called and invited her to lunch. “He told me, ‘you have a lot of talent but I’m going to make you into a writer.’” Asked what she would like, Warren suggested “a column like ‘Talk of the Town’ in The New Yorker.” The column was named “Around the Belt.” Warren took her own photos and reported on events. “It was good just to get dressed up and go to everything,” she says.
Over the years Warren thrived, turning out features on “call girls, one of the first kidney transplants, swingers, one on a divorce lawyer. I interviewed veterans who had lost limbs – I cried when I wrote that story.” In the meantime, she began writing for national publications and gained an interest in writing on architecture, which she still follows today.
About 10 years after its founding, the magazine was sold to Ben Turner, best remembered for the number of editors hired in his tenure. “I was the editor – and then Don Lee Keith was the editor,” Warren says. “I think he coined the phrase ‘editor du jour.’” She gave her editorship a mixed review: “You work so hard. You’re invited to the best parties but you’re too tired to go!”
In all, Warren’s experience was positive: “New Orleans Magazine opened up New Orleans to me like nothing ever could.”
Rosemary James was a star political reporter for the New Orleans States-Item; as a Picayune corporate employee, she couldn’t write for local magazines. When she moved to WWL-TV, New Orleans Magazine sought her out. “I write long and they liked that,” James says with a throaty laugh.
She first appeared in the magazine in December 1968, and fondly remembered the Aubry style and the Antoine’s meetings. Dave Kleck, in advertising and an advisor to the first owner, Joe David of Franklin Printing, had persuaded James to write for the publication. Kleck, however, wanted a little more editorial control than James was willing to give.
“One of the big stories they asked me to write was a profile of Hale Boggs, and they wanted me to go to Washington and spend some time with him. But, when Dave Kleck saw the story, he wanted to edit it and I pushed back,” James says.
Kleck had Boggs as a political client, James was a journalist and she held out against changes. “It was a good story and it turned out fine,” she adds.
She took particular pride in her profiles. “Tommy Lupo, I was interviewing him and he started talking about being a Naval aviator and I realized I had already heard of him: ‘Lucky Lupe.’”
James had been at the forefront of reporting on Jim Garrison’s futile investigation of the assassination of President Jack Kennedy and wrote extensively on it for the magazine.
After the sniper shootings at the Howard Johnson’s, she interviewed black City Councilman Johnny Jackson.
“The interview with Johnny Jackson was pretty emotional. It took a lot of guts for the magazine to print that story, I think,” James says. “It was long, and it was even on special paper. It was a time when things were different in terms of race relations. I think it was worthwhile.”
"The interview with Johnny Jackson was pretty emotional. It took a lot of guts for the magazine to print that story, I think," Rosemary James says. "It was long, and it was even on special paper. It was a time when things were different in terms of race relations. I think it was worthwhile."
“There’s a great deal of satisfaction in being able to tell the whole story instead of just giving a couple of headlines,” she says.
Liz Scott has had a Modine Gunch story in New Orleans Magazine every month since 1986. A Loyola University Journalism graduate, she later taught there for 15 years and was advisor to the school newspaper The Maroon.
Modine Gunch is a name that has long been part of college folklore locally, and, according to Scott, is more widely known. “Sort of like Mrs. McGillicuddy – not a real person.”
Scott had been working at The Times-Picayune. While covering the 1984 World’s Fair she began writing Modine stories and saving them.
Then she was asked to do an article on the Riverwalk by New Orleans Magazine editor Sandy Shilstone. She followed with other features, and one on Sister Helen Prejean that won an award. “They decided I was good,” she admits. She became a staff writer and brought the Modine stories with her.
The Modine column was always freelance, and she had the name Modine Gunch copyrighted. “I kept worrying I’d get sued by the real Modine,” she admits. It never happened, and the rest is history (three decades of columns and three books, available at ModineG.com).
These days, Scott has moved across the lake to a house “on a hill. Every piece of property I owned before was below sea level or on a beach.”
Besides the Modine stories, Scott also wrote the Chronicles of Modern History column for years (the same column I eventually took over). Modine, however, is her longest running creation.
“I have had her age slower than me – she started at 35,” Scott says. “I have six children and the youngest is getting married in California. I have a batch of grandchildren – I guess that’s why I’m beginning to identify with Ms. Larda now.
“I have the perspective of age, but not the talent with sewing – Ms. Larda could sew muumuus for garbage cans – or the weight.” Scott says. “And she’s a little slower with technology than I am.”
Another one-time staff writer, Faith Dawson, was freelancing for CityBusiness when New Orleans Magazine was part of the same company. “When the magazine needed an editorial assistant, Errol Laborde gave me the job,” Dawson says.
A New Orleans native, Dawson’s first assignment was, appropriately, a story on New Orleans neighborhoods. Her most memorable story was also on a local topic. “I did a story about an author who wrote a book about being Creole: what does it mean for people, food, race,” Dawson recalls. “I won a national award for that story, it caused a lot of comment. I had hit on a contentious issue and I had done a good piece of writing.”
Dawson also wrote the Arts and Letters column, and she served as managing editor of New Orleans Magazine for nearly a decade.
After Katrina, she relocated to Atlanta and married New Orleans journalist David Lee Simmons. They adopted son Elijah and moved home. Dawson is now Tulane University’s Editorial Director in the Editorial and Creative Services Department, the former publications office. Of New Orleans Magazine, she says, “I’m so pleased to have been a part of it. It’s a great publication.”
Jason Berry’s first story in New Orleans Magazine was in 1973. “Jenny Derbes was editor and asked me to do a piece on local photographers – she called them ‘art orphans.’ I got to spend time with Clarence John Loughlin, Mike Smith, David Richmond,” he says. “I wrote an art column a while, a book column; it was always freelance.”
Berry was already a published author. Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi, came out in 1973. “That book was the dividing line of my life – white boy goes out in Mississippi with a black candidate,” he says.
Berry’s later investigative work resulted in several volumes on Catholic Church topics. But, he also wrote Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II in ’86, and in ’94 he began doing a music column for New Orleans Magazine.
“I had started doing a lot of cultural writing in New Orleans, interviewing musicians. James Rivers was one of the first I did – we’ve stayed close: he gave me the ‘brother-in-law’ rate for my daughter’s wedding,” Berry laughs.
“In a column, you have to focus like a laser beam: it’s a way of spotlighting those artists who deserve the attention,” Berry says.
“When you interview people, and you go back and hang with them, sit with them at a club, you get a rounded experience with them,” Berry continues. “I’m fortunate to get to know these artists who carry an idea of the city in their music as I try to do in my writing.
“That’s a dimension of this town. People who move here are awed that it’s so easy to make contacts. We are receptive, we’re a Caribbean city, and I think the social patterns and the old ways promote a kind of intimacy with a great many people,” Berry says.
And, it’s just that kind of intimate storytelling and artfully transmitted knowledge of the city that readers have found in New Orleans Magazine over 50 years.
Here is to the second half of our first century!