Let me tell you a story about The Independent, the Spectator and me. In the summer of 1987, I was a transcendently lazy store clerk working for Schoolkids Records on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. One day I got a call from a friend who worked as a receptionist at the Spectator offices. Spectator was looking for a copy editor.
I promise this is going to get fascinating real soon.
Desperate for a real job, I rushed to the Spectator offices, which were then rather grandly situated in a modern brick building off Wade Avenue. I met with executive editor Hal Crowther, though there was nothing remotely executive about him. Beamish and frowsy and patrician, he was a big man but with the fidgets of a weakling, gnawing his beard and patting his wavy hair down. He squirmed in his chair like someone being tattooed on the ankle. He searched the ceiling tiles for something to say. Hal was miserable.
Hal was the sole-proprietor type. The hard-hearted office routines of hiring–and God help him, firing–were acutely unpleasant for him. He couldn’t bear to turn away anyone who looked as hungry as me. I was hired.
I found myself sharing offices with Hal and film critic Godfrey Cheshire, two of the most phenomenal autodidacts I’ve ever met. Godfrey’s erudition was especially showy–Foucault one day, Lester Bangs the next. He hung out on the Cote d’Azur, drinking and smoking with rock stars. He corresponded with theologians. I thought Cote d’Azur was some sort of outerwear.
I had never seen such glamorous intelligence up close, and I was amazed. Then I was aghast. I was no more qualified to copy edit Hal and Godfrey than I was to be Secretary of Agriculture.
A few months later, Hal jumped to The Independent. It was a good fit–Hal had chafed under the rule of Spectator‘s founding editor Bernie Reeves, who was an overbearing right-wing popinjay, because it worked for him. Bernie’s “Mr. Spectator” columns were hilarious rants, delirium tremens of polysyllabic xenophobia, as he himself might put it. The thing about Mr. Spectator was, he wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t a half-bad writer. And compared to the cultural sensibilities of Raleigh in the late 1970s–when “culture” equaled “pie-eating contest”–Bernie was Lionel fucking Trilling. He put the arm on every geezer at the Raleigh Country Club and some of Godfrey’s friends, too, to raise the money to start Spectator.
A decade later, Spectator was an alternative press Camelot. Hal’s desk was piled high with manuscripts from heavy-hitters near and far–Martin Gardener, Jonathan Yardley, Bill Leuchtenberg, Reynolds Price–too many features, really, than Spectator could ever run, and certainly more than Hal would ever pay for. The voice of the magazine was rampant and recondite and occasionally very silly. We had an art reviewer who wrote in Ciceronian-length sentences of gnomic interiority, laced with academic malapropisms, not so much the author’s commentary as his muttering to himself madly in a closet.
And then there was me, who tried my hand at theater reviews. I sucked.
When Hal left, Spectator became unhinged, as a product and a workplace. Though he hadn’t been in the office much and he wasn’t exactly breaking rocks when he was, Hal was the office genius, and the magazine had a pace, a jive. Godfrey, against his better nature, felt a little betrayed by Hal at first. Yet, honor-bound he tried to carry the magazine. He had a great stable of music critics–Joe Vanderford, Farnum Brown–who wrote like Bird played. Larry Bird.
Godfrey would disappear for weeks at a time–Off to Iran for a film festival!–and Spectator drifted. Bernie fired me after 18 months for being a pot-smoking loser and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Meanwhile, there was The Independent. It’s easy to forget how unusual the Spectator–Independent war was. They were both started around the same time, both by children of privilege, one in Raleigh and one in Durham. While Mr. Spectator espoused his brand of sunny plutocratic nihilism, The Independent‘s voice shook with old-time liberal indignation. And yet the papers were similar in that they imagined themselves in political terms, William F. Buckley vs. Graham Greene, Evans and Novak. And the Indy had damn fine reporting too, which might sound easy enough, but try to find somebody to birddog a story about, say, corruption in the N.C. Department of Corrections–a literal stone wall in terms of access–and pay them $200 for a 3,000-word feature. Investigative journalism at the Indy was less a career than a calling.
Yet the Indy was an honorable place to hang one’s byline. After Bernie sold out to Creative Loafing Inc., Godfrey, who had moved to New York to write for the New York Press, began forwarding his columns to the Indy. Even I wrote for the Indy for a while, an improbable little car column nested in the back pages between ISOs from latex and diaper fetishists.
These papers that seemed so Manichean had in common this much: Given the market demos, both publishers understood that in order for his delightful, free-spirited weekly to survive it would have to kill off the other delightful, free-spirited weekly. A half a life preserver does you no good.
It’s fitting that the papers should share a common destiny.
Dan Neil, now a nationally known automotive writer, was a copy editor at Spectator from 1987-1989.