Our Back Pages: Reminiscenses of America's editors and staff
Deep historical insight often comes from simple anecdotes. The quirks that no one ever discussed publicly, the scathing nicknames, the hidden pitched battles, even the tall tales add flesh to the bare bones of history and give it character. As America concludes its yearlong series on the history of the magazine, it seemed only fitting to ask editors and staff of recent decades to spin a few yarns and share a few chestnuts of their own.
Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J. (1962–71)
I was missioned to America in 1962 by John R. Connery, S.J., the head of the Jesuits’ Chicago province. Thurston Davis, S.J., was then the editor in chief (1955-68). The house was a true Jesuit community of that era: cassocks and Roman collars were standard garb at all times in the house and office, and “clericals” (a black suit and Roman collar) were worn on the streets of New York. Women secretaries and visitors were allowed on the first two floors (offices, chapel, library and dining room), but the third and fourth floors were cloistered.
In 1963, Father Davis was able to begin realizing one of his great desires: acquisition of a building to house both the America business office and the editorial office under one roof. A friend in the police department “tipped him off” that the Montclair Hotel at 106 West 56th Street was “closed” and might be for sale.
The Montclair, originally the in-town residence club of the Alpha Gamma Delta engineering fraternity, was a nine-story building in midtown Manhattan near Central Park with club rooms, meeting rooms, a kitchen, dining room, library and lounges on the lower three floors and individual resident rooms on the top six floors. When the fraternity decided it no longer wanted the club, the Montclair became a small “resident hotel.”
Later it became a shady enterprise where ladies of the evening were available to guests. When that operation was closed by the New York Police Department, Thurston heard about it. The building seemed an ideal location to house the offices of America and the Jesuit editor community—all under one roof. We moved at the beginning of September 1965.
Richard A. Blake, S.J. (1971–85)
During Thurston Davis’s tenure as editor in chief, America set a goal of surpassing 100,000 in circulation. The project nearly succeeded, but with unintended, disastrous financial consequences. The magazine offered a number of bargain “trial subscriptions,” like 10 issues for a dollar, which cost a lot and made no money at all. Success depends on renewals, and the renewal rate for these came in far below expectation.
We took another hit in advertising. In those days the bulk of ad revenue came from religious orders (advertising for vocations), Catholic colleges and Catholic publishers, most of which had limited resources themselves. Once circulation began to rise, the ad rate became too expensive for them, so they dropped out. It was a difficult time.
Coming to America House shortly after that era, I experienced the financial pinch. It was the toughest living I ever had in the Society of Jesus. For a time the refrigerators were locked and corridor lights were turned out every night. Once I went down to Gimbel’s to buy underwear, and the house charge card was confiscated because we hadn’t paid the bills. During my years at America House, though I lived within walking distance of the theater district, I might have seen at most three Broadway shows. We just did not have the money.
John C. Haughey, S.J. (1968–74)
I went to America in the summer of 1968 as theology and religion editor. Within two weeks of my arrival, Humanae Vitae “hit,” and the editor in chief, Donald R. Campion, S.J. (1968-75), asked me to write the editorial on it. I did so along the lines of the majority report, to which we were privy. The gist of my text was that the encyclical was a real mistake and was going to challenge the church in drastic ways. Don did not accept a word of what I wrote; he felt the need to be more evenhanded toward Paul VI and much more gentle. In hindsight, I think he was more aware of the America readership than I took into account, but, as we know, the negative consequences are still reverberating.
In general, Don was more skittish than I thought he needed to be about most matters having to do with church; there was always a tension at our editorial meetings because of this. Associate editor C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who had been on staff for years, said he had never remembered such turmoil before I came. I think I represented the restive crowd that wanted Vatican II to be implemented through the magazine much faster than the older heads around the editorial table thought was prudent; most of them had been there for years. To them I was an upstart from Georgetown, pushing for what I had understood of the council and was teaching at the time.
Julia Sosa (1981–present)
I joined the business staff of America in 1981, three years before Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J. (1975-84) left to become president of Fordham University. My first assignment on my first day was to help April Kienle (assistant to the comptroller) set up for a birthday party. Paul Mahowald, S.J., the office manager, advised me not to think that there was going to be a party every afternoon.
He lied. As editor in chief, Father O’Hare had a keen sense of which occasions should be celebrated. During his administration we celebrated the birthdays of editors and staff monthly in the staff lunchroom; held an open house on St. Patrick’s Day, complete with soda bread (I met the charming Peter Lawford at a St. Patrick’s Day party one year); inaugurated the start of the summer biweekly schedule on the sixth floor balcony with shrimp salad, then bade farewell to that schedule with a rooftop clambake; and, my favorite, Christmas in the Jesuit community living room with past and present staff and editors, the Jesuit community, and our friends and families.
In those days members of the Catholic Book Club received monthly newsletters, then the business office staff or Father Paul filled the book orders into the wee hours while watching baseball. Subscription renewal notices and airmail subscriptions were also stuffed and mailed in-house. The days were filled with tedious work, but Fr. Paul had a way of making the time fly. His favorite ploy was to pit the guys against the girls in a stuffing race. We were a young staff…the girls always won.
Michael G. Harter, S.J. (1985–89)
In winter 1984-85 I was surprised to receive a handwritten note from editor in chief George Hunt, S.J., inviting me to be part of the staff and to bring the magazine into the computer age. Little did I know that George knew nothing about computers and had little desire to learn. He did, however, know that it was a necessary move for America.
Associate editor John Donohue, S.J., became one of my staunchest supporters...as long as I let him compose and submit copy on his trusty I.B.M. Selectric.
George W. Hunt, S.J. (1981–98; editor in chief 1984–98)
Formally, John Donohue was our expert in education (with a Yale doctorate), but he was more our resident polymath (he would say “doddering dilettante”). He kept notes and file folders on an extraordinary range of topics and could retrieve information with a terrier’s dexterity and purposefulness. If a question of fact arose, “Ask John” would be the recommendation.
John called his rule for evaluating manuscripts the “shave rule.” If one were going out to an event in the evening and thought, “Should I shave or not?’’ the very question meant he should. So too with rejecting manuscripts or accepting received opinions. There was something boyish and mildly mischievous about him and, for this reason among others, all the women working at America thought John was “cute.”
I seldom wrote an editorial, but I did compose the weekly column Of Many Things, which opened each issue. It often engaged thorny, serious subjects, but readers seem to remember the more humorous or offbeat efforts. These I started when I noticed that a particular issue had a good many heavy-water articles and could use a shift in tone to avoid intimidating the reader. I began to conceive of the column as a cocktail to relax the reader and perhaps stimulate the appetite for the more substantial meal ahead in the magazine proper. In Irish mythology the god Dalga was famous for his mythical harp. It was said that this harp could play three strains: the first produced tears; the second, laughter; the third, sleep. Why not choose occasionally to pluck the second strain rather than the third?
Joe O’Hare, the editor in chief when I arrived at America, was the most intellectually broadly gifted Jesuit I had ever met. Not only a lucid and persuasive writer but an excellent extemporaneous speaker as well. Some writers think in paragraphs, but few are equally capable of speaking in them, a quite different talent. Equally impressive was his good judgment, a gift even rarer among the intellectually blessed. Joe was not an ideologist, being instinctively suspicious of enthusiasms “not thought through as to their consequences.” Instead, he was a realist who aspired toward impartiality and the long view. Because of his good sense and judgment, the magazine was balanced and temperate in its opinions.
Patricia A. Kossmann (1999–present)
On March 1, 1999, “America magazine,” a friend wrote me, entered a “brave new world.” Thanks to the editor in chief Thomas Reese, S.J. (1998-2005), my naming as literary editor was groundbreaking: the first laywoman to become a member of the editorial board. In a press release (which I still have), he wrote that my appointment “is in keeping with the Jesuit commitment to collaborative ministry with the laity, and solidarity with women.”
For me, the first days and weeks were a roller coaster ride. A weekly magazine was brand-new territory—an almost dizzying pace and quick turnarounds after my years in book publishing. I remember when the managing editor, Robert C. Collins, S.J., brought me my first set of galleys to go over and thinking, “There is not enough time!” I felt awkward at first, seated at this huge conference table amid a sea of “black.” But actually, the dress code is informal here; and the priests’ wardrobes helped assuage anxieties I might have experienced in the beginning.
Tom Reese was very independent. A good idea was acted upon quickly. He did let it be known he was Boss. I don’t mean to suggest he did not listen—he did. And he was well liked. How he accomplished all he did—especially tasks unrelated to editorial matters—amazed me: he would fix people’s computers and things around the building, including the boiler once. I especially liked his open-door policy. He seemed relaxed and welcoming whenever I needed to see him. He was constantly called upon for press interviews, television and the like. It was a sad day when we said goodbye to Father Reese, and a personal sadness for me.
George M. Anderson, S.J. (1994–present)
David S. Toolan, S.J., an associate editor, was one of the brightest people I have ever known, and also one of the most approachable. (These two qualities often do not go together.) I remember sitting with him at lunch in the Jesuit dining room, feeling perfectly at ease. Always cheerful, always faithful, he managed to generate a spirit of excitement and energy around him, even when he had little physical energy himself. I jokingly said to him once that he was the bold hunter-type, shooting flawlessly aimed arrows high into the air toward their mark, while I plodded along as a quiet gatherer-type, myopically staring down at the ground, basket in hand. He wrote articles and editorials on so many topics that he became the “living rule” for the other editors: “Know something about everything and everything about something.” True words indeed.
John W. Donohue, S.J. (1972–2007)
On a particular morning it was pointed out that the next week’s issue had some unoccupied room on the pages allotted for editorials. One of the associate editors volunteered to write a short editorial to fill this gap and he asked rather airily: “How many lines do you need?”
The editor in chief replied levelly: “We don’t need anything. If you have something worth saying, you can have as many lines as you want.”
No doubt, that was an exaggeration, but it made a good point. As the magazine begins its second century, its readers surely hope that in an era when so many agonizing questions confront the human family, America will continue to have something helpful to say and the space to say it.