Time was a glorious place to work in the years that I was there, from 1959 to 1964. I was twenty-seven when I was hired, and an ignoramus, vintage Princeton ’54, with a degree in history (I had written my senior thesis on Lord Lothian, the Cliveden Set’s house Christian Scientist, an appeaser, and later British ambassador to Washington at the time of the destroyer for bases deal, and never cottoned to the fact that he was also, as Time in those days would have it, Nancy Astor’s great and good friend). I got my job because a woman I was seeing on the sly, Vassar ’57, was also seeing George J.W. Goodman, Harvard ’52, a writer in Time’s business section who was later to become the author and PBS economics guru “Adam Smith.” Goodman, I was informed by Vassar ’57, was leaving Time for Fortune, which meant that if I moved fast there was probably a job open. I applied to Time’s personnel man, a friend, Yale ’49, and was in due course interviewed by Otto Fuerbringer, Harvard ’32, and Time’s managing editor. The cut of my orange and black jib seemed to satisfy him, and the $7,700 a year I was offered more than satisfied me, and so a few weeks later I went to work as a writer in the business section, although I was not altogether certain of the difference between a stock and a bond, and had no idea what “over the counter” meant.
The Time (and the Life and the Fortune) of those years was pervaded by a kind of Protestant entitlement and arrogance (no matter that I was an Irish Catholic; I felt spiritually brevetted a Protestant), an arrogance often spectacularly unearned (as in my case), or earned largely in the city rooms of the Harvard Crimson or the Yale Daily News or the Daily Princetonian. A corporate hubris prevailed, a confidence in ourselves, and in our place in the world. However misplaced this confidence, there was a verbal esprit de corps, a sense of purpose founded on the conviction that every Tuesday Time would give the educated man (the educated woman was considered so minor a factor that the magazine would not hire women writers; women on the staff could only aspire to be researchers, the Time equivalent of domestics) a review of the previous week’s events presented with some political rigor and intellectual brio.
There was no pretense to objectivity; Time had a partisan Republican point of view, and if it was one not shared by many of its gentrified Ivy Leaguers, few felt the compulsion to quit. The excessive compression led to what became known as Time style, often ludicrous, easily parodied, but rich with possibilities for veiled and not so veiled innuendo; one wonders how many great and good friends were so identified over the years. Perhaps Time’s most prophetic contribution to journalism, however, was the importance it attached to “soft news,” the back-of-the-book news that was rarely reported in the daily papers, weekly digests of what was happening in science and medicine and art and education and in the press. We were amateurs for the most part, inspired amateurs in some cases, discoursing easily on the brushstrokes and color schemes of Bernard Buffet one week and on the financial restructuring of the Malaysian economy planned by Tunku Abdul Rahman the next, and few were ever the wiser.
The first piece I wrote for Time was an obituary of oilman Sid Richardson, of whom I had never heard until the day he died. On that first closing night, and all the rest of the closing nights during my tenure, waiters from the Tower Suite, on top of the Time-Life Building, rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts. There was wine, French and domestic, and an elderly Time factotum, once said to be a superior foreign correspondent but by then a burnt-out case, was in charge of dispensing the liquor, and did so in prodigious quantities. Hotel rooms were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher, Radcliffe ’58 or Smith ’47. For those who lived in town and who were working into the small hours, there were limousines to take us home, Carey Cadillacs for most, but I secured a company charge account at Buckingham Livery, which only used Rolls-Royces, and when I turned in my expense accounts no one objected. It was not journalism, but it was fun, and through constant practice, four or five stories a week, one did learn to meet deadlines and write to space, and with an infusion of curiosity even to learn a little about the world.
Henry Luce was still around, a spectral presence to those of us in the lower editorial orders, so sure of himself and the Protestant hegemony (a legacy as the son of a Presbyterian missionary in China, albeit one with enough wherewithal to send his son to Hotchkiss and Yale) that he ordained this to be “The American Century.” Among ourselves, we called him “Luce,” and envied those higher up on the food chain who referred to him as “Harry,” and we woundered if we would ever reach such eminence, or impertinence. Luce had formulated a doctrine of Church and State, with Church the editorial staff and State those on the business and publishing end. Between Church and State there was to be perfect separation, and we monks and nuns of the Church believed in our bones that the editor-in-chief enjoyed papal infallibility to which the State must always defer. As long as Luce was alive, the Church was indeed prima inter pares, but with his death this was a cross that the State was increasingly unwilling bear, the cross upon which the Church, and Time Inc., were ultimately nailed.
Within the one true editorial church, however, there were schisms, the most nettlesome to Time’s all powerful managing editors being the independence of the News Bureau, which ostensibly was part of their domain. While the magazine’s chief of correspondents was nominally subordinate to the managing editor, he and he alone, by Luce’s fiat, hired and fired the reporters who staffed Time’s foreign and domestic bureaus, and it was to him they were responsible, not to the managing editor; the better the reporters, the more insidious the challenge to the managing editor’s dominion. Since Time was an editor-driven magazine, what the managing editor did not dominate he did not entirely trust, and damn the facts.
Theodore H. White, a Luce favorite, discovered this truth in the late 1940s when Luce did not believe his dispatches from China that corruption within the Kuomintang would bring about the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek and victory for Mao Tse-tung. White left; Mao won; Luce was unrepentant. In my years, Otto Fuerbringer questioned the integrity and abilities of the late Charles Mohr, another Luce favorite, a superior journalist and relentlessly nonideological war correspondent who as early as 1962 was reporting from Saigon that the war in Vietnam was at best a questionable and at worst a no-win proposition.1 Mohr finally quit and went to The New York Times, where he covered so many wars so well he earned the reputation of being something of a soldier manqué.
Even without bylines, and even with their files rewritten by editors with partisan views often at war with what was seen on the ground, the correspondents, in the 1960s, were the magazine’s stars, its true professionals, and this was in no small way the doing of Richard M. Clurman, Time’s chief of correspondents. Clurman “upgraded the news service,” David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be, “building what became…one of the great journalistic stables in the world…. He could offer his reporters good jobs, good—very good in those days—pay, [and] unusually generous expense accounts.”2 Clurman was in every way antithetical to what the Time catechism calls, with beguiling and unexamined pomposity, the “Time culture,” which basically meant its Ivy League fiefdom of gentlemen amateurs, every week expert in a new directory of the world’s data base. He was a Jew who went to the University of Chicago and had theatrical connections—his uncle was the theater director and critic Harold Clurman—and he had once worked at Commentary.
Clurman was fiercely protective of his reporters, and they in turn were fiercely loyal to him, although not immune to mocking his well-documented pretentions. His home telephone, it was reported, had as many buttons as the alphabet; and when he visited his troops in the field it was claimed he always booked two first-class tickets so he would not be bothered by the plebs, or would have a place to offer any personage on board worthy of his company. “There are worse sins,” one of his admiring former reporters, Yale ’57, said recently, “than self-importance.” To this day Clurman drops names as easily as Darryl Strawberry drops fly balls. After I left Time, I ran into him once in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco and mischievously left messages for him with the hotel operator—Mr. Clurman, please call John Sherman Cooper, you know the number; Mr. Clurman, call U Thant, use the private line—confident that he would return every call even as he suspected he was being had.
As journalist and executive, Clurman stalked Time’s corridors of power for what he calls “twenty gratifying and exhilarating years.” Remembering everything and forgetting nothing, including a few grudges, he is uniquely qualified to report on the abortive merger between Time Inc., and Warner Communications, Inc., and the subsequent (after the merger was challenged in the courts by what was then the Gulf + Western Corporation and afterward became Paramount Communications, Inc.) forced leveraged buyout of WCI by Time. If Clurman is overly romantic, even moony, about the old Time culture, he is bracingly mean-spirited about the confederacy of dunces who sold that culture down the river to the corporate riverboat gambler, Steven J. Ross, chairman and chief executive officer of WCI. What gives To the End of Time its engaging nastiness is Clurman’s account of the way Ross, in every way legally, picked the pockets of Time’s dim senior executives, and the gold from the corporation’s teeth.
In fact, Henry Luce’s death in 1967 all but preordained Time’s demise as an independent entity. Whatever one might think of Luce’s vision, he did have one, and one that was shared, in large part, by his own designated heirs apparent, Hedley Donovan and Andrew Heiskell, respectively Pope of the Church and Chief of State. After the retirements of Donovan and Heiskell, however, Time passed to a generation of tough-guy managers who had never known Luce well enough to call him Harry, or if they did, only hesitantly, and who did not share his passion for print. They were bean counters, from finance and circulation and ad sales departments, and because the corporate profit centers were increasingly in television and cable systems and forest products they were never entirely comfortable sharing power with the editor-in-chief, as had been laid down in the corporate by-laws by Hedley Donovan, and ratified by the board of directors. According to the Donovan Charter, the editor-in-chief reported directly to the board, and not to the CEO, and was entirely reponsible for the contents of the magazines. He was, moreover, assured membership on the board, and could intervene in business practices “if publishing activities seemed to conflict with editorial standards.”
Heiskell’s successor as CEO was J. Richard Munro, once publisher of Sports Illustrated, and a former marine sergeant wounded three times during the Korean War. As Time’s president and chief operating officer, Munro had chosen Nicholas J. Nicholas, Jr., Andover- and Princeton-educated, the son of a career US Navy submarine officer. Nicholas was instrumental in getting Time’s television operations off the ground, and as he climbed the corporate ladder his efficiency in cutting budgets earned him the name “Nick the Knife” within the company; less flatteringly, the head of one investment banking house recently characterized him to me as “that little shit in elevator shoes.”
Munro was so unsentimental about Time’s publishing heritage that he canceled his mentor Heiskell’s free (and tiny) grace-and-favor office in the Time-Life Building and made him put up $50,000 a year in rent and secretarial services; and then later, when the executive offices were scheduled for redecoration Munro suggested that the portraits of Luce, Heiskell, and Donovan be removed. When Heiskell threatened to protest to the board, Munro backed down. Nicholas was displeased. “Who is Andrew Heiskell?” he asked. “Andrew was the latest guy to come along. Hedley Donovan was the number-two editor-in-chief. We’re now into number four. Big deal. Give me a break.” One may tax Henry Luce for many things, but never, I expect, for being so vulgar as to say, “Big deal, give me a break.”
In truth, Time has become all but irrelevant in the years since Luce died, a dentist’s office magazine more often bought than read, except in those few foreign places where access to what is happening is not readily available. A weekly newsmagazine is an oxymoron in an age of television news, the national edition of The New York Times, USA Today, and, most importantly, Ted Turner’s twenty-four-hour Cable News Network. What Time provided was less news than a kind of racy presentation—“Shortly after two o’clock one day last week…”—a tarty take on what its readers already knew. Once the jewel in Luce’s crown, Time was seen by its new managers as just another rhinestone. “Time culture” notwithstanding, Munro called People and Sports Illustrated “the huge engines that drive” the magazine division; a 1988 People cover on Princess Diana made more money in one issue than Vanity Fair made all year, and SI’s annual swimsuit edition is a cash cow. In other words the Time culture was about gossip and cleavage.
Not that Time and Life and Fortune had lost any of their pretensions. A few years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, Time began preparing a cover story on California, and I was contacted by a reporter in “Bevedit,” as its LA bureau was always called (because it is located in Beverly Hills), and asked what “changes” I had discerned in the state. “Since when?” I asked. “Since Time’s last California cover,” he answered.
A few years earlier, my wife had signed a contract to do a column for Life in spite of my admonitions that writing in such an editor-dominated environment was like being nibbled to death by ducks. What won her over was the promise made to her by the late George Hunt, then Life’s managing editor: “There’s a world in revolution out there. We can put you in Prague tomorrow, Moscow the next day, Peking when we can get you in. You can do that, or you can stay home and find a babysitter.” She signed the contract, but then George Hunt retired, and to the enormous relief of all concerned, she quit after nine columns, never having got to Prague, Peking, or Moscow (and being turned down when she asked to go to My Lai the week the massacre story broke; she did however get to Santa Monica and to Hermiston, Oregon). The last straw was when Hunt’s successor said to her, “Why can’t you find the little guy doing a good job and give him a pat on the back?”
During the 1980s, Time’s once sure touch in starting new magazines faltered. Millions were spent in launching something called TV-Cable Week, which was meant to be a direct competitor to Walter Annenberg’s TV Guide; TV-Cable Week was a humiliating folly, and was closed down in only five months. The dreadful Entertainment Weekly staggers along, while other ventures died aborning. Overseeing new magazine development, Henry Anatole Grunwald, the Viennese-born former managing editor of Time and Donovan’s successor as editor-in-chief (as well as, an article of faith at Time, the company’s house intellectual), tried not to leave too many fingerprints on these failures, in part by patronizing Munro, his supposed corporate superior. An assiduous Everyman who coached a suburban Little League team, Munro was given to peanut butter and Big Macs, and until he saw Batman after the merger had not seen a movie in ten years. “I don’t take Dick to the opera,” Grunwald said, “and he doesn’t take me to the ballgame.”
Among the troops, there was a certain gallows humor about Time’s inability to start profitable new magazines; one tongue-in-cheek in-house flyer listed “Six Stages of New Magazine Development: 1) Exultation 2) Disenchantment 3) Confusion 4) The Search for the Guilty 5) Punishment of the Innocent 6) Distinction for the Uninvolved.”
For their part, Munro and Nicholas talked big and thought small. In 1985, Ted Turner, badly in need of money, offered Time a half interest in CNN for $300 million. Munro hid when Turner showed up at the Time-Life Building; one of his advisers said Turner “wasn’t a Time Inc. type. He drinks too much, spends money crazily, and chases women.” CNN is now worth $5 billion, and in a marvelous irony Turner was chosen Time’s 1991 Man of the Year.3 Warren Buffett, the legendary Omaha corporate investor who had major holdings in both The Washington Post Company and Capital Cities/ABC, fared no better. Knowing how fearful Munro and Nicholas were of a hostile takeover, Buffett offered to buy enough Time stock to make the company invulnerable to a takeover by putting that stock into the equivalent of a non-voting trust. In spurning this offer, Nicholas was as usual tough instead of smart. “What does he bring to the party?” he asked about Buffett, who had the courtesy not to ask the same question about him. Buffett, Munro said in retrospect, “was a couple of steps—not surprising—ahead of where we were. Boy, if he’d come across two years later, we would have been terribly interested.” For Munro to say that Buffett was only a couple of steps ahead comes close to being libel.
It was, in fact, a libel suit against Time by Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon that effectively ended Luce’s doctrinal separation of Church and State. In its issue of February 21, 1983, Time published a story on the findings of Israel’s Kahan Commission, which had investigated the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila after the assassination of Lebanon’s president Bashir Gemayel. Time claimed access to an unpublished Appendix B of the Report and from this claimed authority for printing the allegation that Sharon “reportedly told the Gemayels that…he expected the Christian forces to go into the Palestinian refugee camps. He also reportedly discussed with the Gemayels the need to take revenge for the assassination.”
As an old Time writer, I immediately spotted, in two consecutive sentences, the weasel-word “reportedly,” the Time-honored hedge against the possibility that the facts in a given sentence might not hold up to reasonable scrutiny. Sharon sued. Although Munro and the publishing side wanted to settle, it was Henry Grunwald’s call as editor-in-chief, and Grunwald elected to fight the suit. Thomas Barr, who headed the Cravath, Swaine and Moore legal team defending Time against Sharon, was the kind of bullying advocate who, in taking a deposition, without a judge present, would try to rattle opposing counsel by calling him “Sonny” and offering such interjections, on the record, as “Horseshit” and “Jesus Christ.” Once he suggested that a Jewish lawyer’s inability to take depositions on Rosh Hashana was “a dodge,” a remark that would perhaps pass unnoticed in the Protestant preserves of Meadowcroft Lane in Greenwich, where, according to his entry in Who’s Who, Barr celebrates the Christian holidays.4
Time’s case rested on the testimony and reporting of David Halevy, the correspondent who claimed to have seen Appendix B. In 1980, the magazine had put Halevy on probation for a questionable story on Menachem Begin’s reputed failing health, a story for which Time had to issue a grudging retraction. (In deposition, Time tried to conceal the results of its investigation of Halevy and even that any investigation had taken place, “to a point,” as Renata Adler noted in Reckless Disregard, “very near the borderline of legal ethics.” Asked if he recalled the contents of Halevy’s personnel file, Time’s chief of correspondents, Richard Duncan, who had conducted the investigation and should have known the file intimately, swore under oath: “No, I do not.”
In his deposition and on the stand, Halevy was incapable of keeping his story straight. Even those Time witnesses who had put Halevy on probation now went out on a limb to vouch for his bona fides, to the horror, it turned out, of many of his colleagues who had worked with him in the field, but who felt constrained, out of loyalty to their employer, from giving a public and honest evaluation of his trustworthiness. In its verdict, the jury found Time’s story a) defamatory b) false of the facts and c) without malice; because of the absence of malice, it was therefore not per se libelous. But in an extraordinary amplifying statement, the jury put its distaste for Time’s behavior on the record by saying that David Halevy had “acted negligently and carelessly in reporting and verifying the information.”
“We won, flat-out and going away,” Thomas Barr insisted. But Time’s board was not so sure that either the magazine or the corporation could afford many such victories, not to mention the ridicule the story and the lawsuit directed at Time’s editors, writers, and fact checkers. “You could have all this horseshit you wanted about church and state,” one director said. “But directors can be sued and you can’t adopt an absolute philosophy like that.” Close to retirement, and about to be named US ambassador to Austria by the Reagan administration, Grunwald appointed Time’s managing editor Jason McManus, a former Rhodes scholar, as his heir. The Sharon experience, however, impelled a number of directors to vow that McManus would be the last editor-in-chief automatically put on the board, and also led to the rewriting of the Donovan Charter so that McManus and his successors would in the future report to a corporate superior on the publishing side. The State had finally succeeded in subordinating the Church, and it was the State that now began listening to the courting song of WCI’s Steven J. Ross, a song that a rock group recording on one of WCI’s labels might call “Synergy.”
Steven J. Ross, like Jay Gatsby, is his own best invention. He was born in Brooklyn, the son an oil-burner salesman who changed his name from Rechnitz to Ross and at the first opportunity moved his family to less parochial surroundings in Manhattan. Ross’s entry in Who’s Who is a scant six lines, and what is between the lines has been concocted largely from whole cloth by Ross himself and public relations men with imaginations equally as vivid as his own. He joined the navy at seventeen in June 1945, and claims today that his deafness is the result of his ship, the USS Hopping, a destroyer escort turned into high-speed transport, participating in amphibious landings in the Pacific theater; in fact, Clurman notes that after digging up his service record, Seaman 1/C Ross spent only seven days of his year-long navy tour at sea, two days from Norfolk to Charleston, and five from Charleston to Green Cove Springs, Florida, where the Hopping was decommissioned.
On the GI Bill, Ross went to Paul Smith’s, a junior college near Lake Placid with courses in “forestry,” “hospitality,” and “resorts management,” the perfect school for someone whose closest friends claim has never read a book and who pronounces the name of Madame Bovary’s creator as Flow Bert. In a touch-football game at college, Ross broke his arm. With the gloss of time, this broken arm is alleged to have been fractured while Ross was a rookie defensive end for the Cleveland Browns; the Browns have no record that Ross ever tried out for the team.
One of his teachers at Paul Smith’s remembers that even then Ross was a wizard with numbers, but a Jewish boy with a fantast’s memory from a jerk-water junior college was not exactly what Wall Street recruiters were looking for, especially the tonier Jewish firms like Salomon Brothers and Kuhn, Loeb. Ross took a job as a stockboy on Seventh Avenue, and had graduated to salesman of men’s slacks and bathing suits when, at twenty-six, he married the daughter of a man who owned a chain of funeral parlors. Offered a job at his father-in-law’s Riverside Funeral Home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ross was smart enough to see possibilities that existed beyond the grave. “I learned about people in the funeral business,” he told Connie Bruck of The New Yorker. “It’s a service business. You service people in an emotional time—you learn about their needs, their feelings.”5 For Ross, grief was also opportunity. “I negotiated my first deal for [him] on the back stairs of Campbell Funeral Home,” Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Frères told Connie Bruck, “while a funeral was going on in the front.”
In his own way, Ross was as much a visionary as Luce, because only a visionary could have figured out how to parlay stiffs into a multi-billion-dollar communications empire. Funeral homes had limousines; to keep the limos working between funerals, Ross branched into limousine rental. From car rentals, it was an easy jump into parking lots, via the Kinney Service Corporation, named after Kinney Street, around the corner from the company’s first office in Newark. The downside of parking lots was the people who ran them, and it was from Kinney that Ross was first tarnished with the mob taint that he has never entirely lost. “Parking is a rough business,” Felix Rohatyn mused to Connie Bruck. “Did some people’s relatives have unsavory connections? Probably. Did some people who worked for Steve wrongly assume he would do certain things? Probably. But did he know? I just don’t believe he did.” This is probably as qualified a character reference as one can get.
Ross simply could not pass up a deal, and he bought and sold companies as if business was a giant monopoly game. Using what Clurman calls “an array of stock swaps, acquisitions, successes, failures, spinoffs, warrants, mergers, buy-outs, tax write-offs, trades or whatever deal device was handy,” Kinney became a conglomerate of 160 different entities, including dry-wall partitions, comic books, plumbing contracting, data processing, newsstands, a New Jersey bank, hospital cleaning and window washing; within Kinney the funeral parlors were called “our permanent parking division.” In 1967, Ross acquired the Ashley Famous Artists talent agency, and with the Ashley Famous foothold in show business soon acquired Warner-Seven Arts, the ruin of Warner Bros., in its time one of the great motion picture companies. Movies offered live bodies instead of dead ones, movie star live bodies, and glamour instead of grief. Ross began to spin off all his unrelated companies to concentrate on the movie business, and its ancillary appurtenances in the record and cable TV industries. With its dubious connotations, the Kinney name was banished and the new company reincarnated as Warner Communications Inc.
Ross divorced his first wife, and married the Daisy Buchanan of his dreams, Amanda Mortimer Burden, stepdaughter of CBS’s William Paley (“Brooklyn meets Park Avenue,” said Paley, at a wedding fete), and when she left him sixteen months later, he segued into a third marriage with the woman he had abandoned for his trophy second wife. At the upper echelons of WCI, life was sweet; salaries were huge, stock options plentiful, and when one executive wished to redecorate his office suite, the price of $700,000 was not seen as excessive. Ross’s own annual recompense was between ten and twenty million dollars, and his personal barber trimmed, blowdried, and combed his immaculate corona of white hair every day. WCI maintained four Gulfstream corporate jets, a Hawker Siddeley, and three helicopters, and there was a fully staffed vacation house in Acapulco for executives and favored movie and recording stars stocked with $24,000 worth of tennis shoes in every size and color. In his own New York office, Ross kept between $60,000 and $90,000 in cash that he variously claimed was gambling winnings (on which he never paid taxes, he told the IRS, because his losses “netted out” his winnings every year) or, in another version, the money was used to keep a mistress in baubles when he was between marriages.
There was, however, a large cloud over the corporation which evoked the memory of those people who were said to run parking lots. In the early 1970s, WCI made a $250,000 investment in the Westchester Premier Theater, in Westchester County outside New York. Soon Liza Minelli, Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, and Johnny Carson were playing there to standing-room-only audiences. Frank Sinatra was also a headliner, but when Life ran a photograph of Sinatra in his Westchester dressing room with Carlo Gambino, Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno, and Paul Castellano, who was later hit, allegedly on the orders of John Gotti, in front of a midtown Manhattan steakhouse, it was a preview of the kind of trouble West-chester would present to WCI and indirectly to Ross himself. Within two years of its opening, and for all its big stars and full houses, Westchester filed for bankruptcy, and was finally torn down.
The Westchester venture attracted federal prosecutors, and they followed a trail of kickbacks, skimming, and $220,000 worth of bribes right to Ross’s office door. Charges were brought, and Ross named an unindicted co-conspirator, although Ross’s lawyers were able to stop this information from being made public in order to avoid what they called “pre-trial publicity.” A number of second-tier thugs were sent to jail, and one of Ross’s closest associates, Jay Emmett, in return for a light sentence, blamed everything on a minor WCI accountant, who then refused to give up Ross as the federal attorneys wanted. As part of his plea bargain, Emmett wore a wire to tape a conversation with Ross, but took the precaution of warning him about the wire beforehand, which was not exactly what prosecutors had in mind.
“Greater love hath no man,” said a mutual friend of both Ross and Emmett, “than one who would secretly tell you he would be wired by the Feds when he next talked to you.” As per his contract, WCI advanced Emmett his $700,000 legal fees; the convicted accountant was subsequently hired to do tax work for clients funneled to him by Ross’s own chief financial adviser. Hoping to put the case behind them, WCI’s board hired Michael Armstrong, a criminal lawyer, to conduct his own independent investigation of the Westchester affair, but his 663-page report was hardly the ringing vote of confidence Ross might have desired. On the topics of fraud and bribery, the Armstrong Report concluded, “our concerns about Ross’ credibility have prevented us from reaching any definite conclusions about his possible involvement.”
Although the Armstrong Report was buried, the Westchester case hovers over Ross, as Connie Bruck wrote, “like an unappeased spirit”; it is, said one WCI director, his Chappaquiddick. But for Ross, out of sight was out of mind, and he looked for new fields to conquer. “Synergy” was the new corporate buzzword, the interlocking of compatible interests—movies and magazines, TV and cable, hardware and software, et cetera and so forth. (In the OED, synergy is defined as “combined or coordinated action of a group of bodily organs, of nerve centers or muscles, etc.”). In the corporate debasement of language, synergy was essentially just a new upmarket word for greed, a rationale for allowing the big to get bigger, usually on an international scale. Ross wanted to synergize, and so did Munro and Nicholas, and in the end they were no match for a man who kept $24,000 worth of sneakers in a vacation pad.
Not all of Time’s directors were enamored of Ross as The Gentleman Caller, or as fearful as Munro and Nicholas of a hostile takeover. “If all you want to do is make money by whatever means,” said board member Arthur Temple, who with his family had once been the largest stockholder in Time Inc., “let’s just open a string of whorehouses across the country.” Most of the board, however, suffered from what Clurman calls “terminal indifference,” and were content to go along with Munro, Nicholas, and Gerald Levin, Nicholas’s exact contemporary and blood rival in the executive suite. Their discussions with Ross were conducted in great secrecy, with Time code-named “Tango” (as in, “It takes two to…”) and Warners “Wonder” (as in “wonderful”). Time’s twelve outside directors knew Ross only distantly, if at all, and after negotiations began, only one took the trouble to meet privately with him. Although they were aware of the Armstrong Report, neither the board nor key Time executives asked to see it; it would have been “embarrassing” to Ross, one said, and another added, “Steve is such a sensitive soul.” Munro said it all: “If I’d read the Armstrong Report, it may have told me some things that were a little less than positive about Steve. But to me it was kind of ancient history. That was then. This is now…Let’s make this goddamn deal happen.”
Since Munro was contemplating retirement, the key to Time’s acquisition of WCI was, from his point of view, that Nicholas serve as co-CEO with Ross, to succeed him in five years, and that such a succession could only be changed by a two thirds vote of the combined board. To show his troops that Time was not being hustled, Munro even dusted off the sanctity of Church and State, which under his stewardship, at least in the board room if not with the self-deluded editorial staff, had been relegated to the status of heresy.
For months Ross bobbed and weaved with Time’s negotiators; although he recognized that Time was acquiring Warner’s, he did not explicitly wish to have it admitted, WCI being his creation as much as Time was Luce’s. At last a deal was cut, but when Munro and Nicholas arrived at Ross’s immense Park Avenue apartment to announce the merger, Ross tearfully backed away. The sticking point this time was the succession. Ross’s tears softened the resolve of Munro and Nicholas, who were now totally dazzled by the prospects of global synergism. At every juncture, they and Time’s board caved in, until finally a succession agreement was ratified that junked the two thirds rule, and while it stipulated that Nicholas would take over as sole CEO in five years, Ross was to remain as chairman of the board for ten, and as an adviser for five years after that; Ross’s $14 million annual compensation would continue, and Time would immediately let him cash in $125 million in accumulated stocks, rights, and benefits.
As a lagniappe of their own, Munro, Nicholas, Levin, and McManus also received whopping new stock options, although their salaries stayed “only” in the million-dollar range. Blinded by Ross’s tears, neither Nicholas nor Munro seemed to realize that what they had negotiated was for Nicholas to become a highly paid copilot who could at any moment be fired by a simple majority of a board dominated by WCI. “Ross is absolutely good to his word,” Nicholas blustered when it was suggested that his was perhaps a less than a perfect situation. The good word, it should be said, of someone who claimed to have been a defensive end for the Cleveland Browns. No one agreed more about the value of Ross’s word than Steven J. Ross himself. “I signed it in blood,” he said. “It was a matter of honor with me. My word is my word.”
On Jason McManus’s instructions, Time did not run a story the week of the biggest media merger in history because he did not wish to be “a shill for the deal,” and hoped instead to write a tasteful and discreet editor’s letter about it for the following week’s issue. How McManus would have finessed Time’s high-minded pieties about the RJR-Nabisco takeover just three months earlier (“A Game of Greed” ran the cover line) in writing about Ross he did not say. Newsweek covered the merger as if it was the discovery of a cancer cure, and then in an advertisement gave Time’s absent journalism a very public finger: “We stay ahead of the competition, even when the competition is the story.”
McManus and his deputies went into contortions to justify their decision. “You’re not going to give us this integrity shit, are you?” asked McManus’s number two in replying to one complaint, as if the integrity shit was not what Time was supposed to have been about, and what led Theodore White and Charles Mohr to depart when theirs was questioned.6 On the editorial floors, McManus’s decision was seen as the perfect metaphor for the role the magazines would have in Time Warner Inc., and he did not help his case when he tried to explain the benefits of the merger to the editorial staff, whose Newspaper Guild unit was negotiating a new contract with Time, which was offering only 3 or 4 percent wage increases. Pressed about the huge executive compensation packages, including his own million-dollar deal, with stock options on top, McManus said, with an absence of irony noticeable for someone who had once been a published writer of fiction, “We journalists didn’t get into this business for the money.”
Munro and Nicholas had no trouble with the deal, and in fact were so pleased with themselves that they wrote George Bush to announce the merger on specially designed stationery bearing both their names, patting themselves on the back for a deal in which essentially no money changed hands and no crippling debt was incurred. What the merger announcement had done, however, was to put Time in play. Waiting for the final papers to be signed, it lined up $5 billion in emergency financing, and also paid a group of banks $5 million not to help anyone who might attempt a hostile takeover. This last move is called “bankmail,” and is defined by one economics professor as “using shareholder money to bribe a bank not to finance a lucrative tender offer to shareholders.”
That Time was willing to ladle out so much protection money only proved to Gulf + Western’s Martin Davis how ripe the company was for a hostile takeover before the merger was approved. To this corporate shark, Munro was a guppy, and he was also certain that whatever Ross’s assurances to the contrary, he would never willingly pass the baton to Nicholas. Martin Davis’s major claim to fame, after succeeding the late Charles Bluhdorn as G+W’s CEO, was that he had driven both Barry Diller and Michael Eisner from Paramount Pictures, the G+W film studio they had made so hugely successful, in so doing making each rich beyond his dreams—Diller through his holdings at Twentieth Century Fox, where he next hung his hat, Eisner by way of his at Disney. With his glasses and hesitant chin, Davis might be taken for an accountant—one who always looks as if he had just tasted something unpleasant—and perhaps in compensation he takes pride in being known as “the toughest boss in New York,” one with a history of verbally abusing people who work for him; at an off-the-record editorial luncheon given him at The New York Times, the name of one of his equally aggressive division managers was mentioned, and Davis, I am told by an editor who was present, offered to “trot him over on a leash.”
Three months after the proposed Time Warner merger was announced, Davis (who by that time had changed G+W’s name to Paramount Communications) made a hostile bid to Time stockholders in the amount of $175 a share, 40 percent over market price, $10.7 billion in all. Time employees, whose equity was largely tied up in the company’s pension and profit sharing plans, began pricing holiday houses in Tuscany. Munro and Nicholas, however, knew that if Davis and Paramount took over, their days as executives were numbered, and so they prepared for a long, vicious fight.
To Munro and Nicholas, Davis was “a liar” and “a son of a bitch,” and when Davis tried to reach Munro on the telephone, Munro reverted to the Marine Corps parade ground lingo of his youth by ordering his secretary: “Tell him to go fuck himself.” Time hired Kross and Associates, an international private detective agency, to dig up dirt on Davis, and even asked Kross to check if a business reporter for a rival publication was sleeping with a Paramount executive; Kross had a higher sense of propriety than Time, saying it would look bad for an organization with Time’s putative journalistic credentials to order an investigation into the sex life of a reporter. It should also be said, as Clurman notes, that Time had never ordered a similar investigation into the checkered history of Steven J. Ross. What Time had not seen fit to mention, however, Paramount did, dredging up the Westchester Theater affair, racketeering charges by associates, and allegations of insider trading by Ross. Time, Paramount said in a legal brief, imperiled “its journalistic integrity by going into business with a company which in the recent past has been the subject of criminal investigations, prosecutions and in some cases convictions.”
When Davis bumped his tender offer to $182, and then to $200, smarter Time stockholders cashed in, including some holding options at $13 a share. Davis’s bid ended any idea of Time’s peacefully merging its assets with WCI, since Time’s shareholders would not vote for a merger with Warner if they could have $200 a share from Davis. Time would now have to buy Warner’s, in the process taking on the huge debt incurred by buying out WCI stockholders, and also dashing the hopes of those Time shareholders, including most of its employees, who thought they had latched on to a bonanza. The “most important revisions,” Clurman writes,
involved paying more than a billion dollars to Ross and Warner employees and stockholders, as well as potential millions in new stock options. Time Inc. employees got no cash, although its top trio of executives [Munro, Nicholas, and Levin] got new contracts and millions in income for the rest of their lives. The value of the stock that Time employees held dropped to almost one-third ($66) of its pre-merger high ($182). The mid-level Time Inc. employees and stockholders would have to wait for the “long term” to realize any financial benefits from the deal.
Because both Time and Paramount were incorporated in Delaware, the Delaware chancery court had to rule on the conflicting offers, and in July 1989 decided in favor of Time. The decision saddled the new Time Warner Inc. with billions of dollars in debt, but Ross came away with what compensation experts said was the biggest payout ever made to an executive in a public company—$193 million, plus at least 1.8 million new stock options, and long-term bonuses that could reach hundreds of millions more over the fifteen-year term of his contract. Perhaps coincidentally, Ross’s seventy-nine-page contract referred to him as the “Executive,” while Nicholas in his contract was called. “Employee”; however accidentally this language was arrived at, it did dispel any doubt that might have existed about who was in charge. Dissatisfied though he might have been at his contractual designation, Nicholas did have a first-class ticket on the gravy train; his new contract promised a package in the fifty-million-dollar range, while Munro, Levin, and McManus, in their new contracts, would divvy up tens of millions more between them.
Justifying the deal, Munro sounded like the drill instructor as cheerleader. “What the fuck do they mean, Warner wins?” he asked. “Time Warner Inc. wins. Everybody wins. There’s this mentality out there of the scorekeeper. It always comes out in the press as ‘Nick the prick. Dick the dummy. Steve the hustler’—that Ross is smarter than we are. No. We won—both companies. Don’t those assholes out there understand that? We all won.” In the Time cafeteria, the employees had a firmer grip on reality. They knew who won, and more importantly that they had not; when Munro stopped by for lunch, they booed him.
What happened to Time Warner after the deal was ratified was like waiting for a computer virus to kick in; it was going to happen, but unlike the Michelangelo virus, one did not know exactly when. Realizing his bona fides were questioned on the magazines, Ross romanced writers and editors with flowers and notes (“Love, Steve” was how they ended, even to people he might not recognize if he saw them), and if someone expressed a liking for a particular wine served at lunch, he might receive a case the next day. But while Ross played sommelier, the accountants were at work. In the fall of 1990, the magazine division announced a 10 percent across the board budget cutback, with a forced reduction of 600 jobs on all the magazines, including fifty editorial jobs on Time. “It’s now part of the way we do business,” Nicholas told protesting magazine staffers; he then neatly shifted the blame for the layoffs to McManus and the head of the magazine division.
For his part, McManus was reinterpreting the Time culture in a manner suggesting Vidkun Quisling was now in charge, and order had to be preserved. Senior editorial staff were put under three-year renewable contracts, and in them, McManus himself wrote muzzling provisions prohibiting managing editors from criticizing Time Warner, its affiliates, or subsidiaries even after they left the company, at the risk of losing their severance or retirement benefits. Ross questioned the wisdom and the necessity of this extortionate clause, but was overridden by Time’s directors. The editors professed not to mind, even though McManus did not have the clause in his own new contract, nor did Warner executives have it in theirs. “The contract…assures me I’ll get three years’ pay if I’m fired,” Time managing editor Henry Muller said. “If they’re willing to give me three years’ pay, I didn’t bother with the criticism clause.” This is the language of a brothel; an empire built on words—whatever one thought of the words—had passed to people threatened by words and for whom words seemed to have no meaning.
“Steve is a good guy,” Nicholas had said of Ross in the honeymoon period. “Absolutely good to his word.” “My word is my word,” Ross had agreed. So much for words. In late February, Nicholas was ousted by Ross in a palace coup while on a skiing vacation with his family in Vail. His firing, as such it was for all the fulsomeness of his letter of resignation, and Ross’s equally fulsome reply, went unmourned in the corridors of Time, its editors and writers eternally hopeful that his successor, and each successor’s successor, would perhaps be the new Sun King. That the current Time really has no distinctive place in contemporary American journalism was a fact that few wished to face, and the redesign promised by its current managers (Time’s third redesign in fourteen years, with the target date Memorial Day or sooner) seems only a further attempt to keep abreast of magazine fashion, as if Time had become just another journalistic couture house.
The reasons for Nicholas’s departure really did not matter. Pick one, all, or a combination: Nicholas and Ross had a fundamental disagreement on how to retire Time Warner’s debt; Ross had prostate cancer, and Nicholas used the actuarial tables to whisper against him: le roi est mort, vive le roi; Gerald Levin positioned himself as Ross’s man at Time, and plotted against Nicholas, his old foe, for the best of corporate reasons, like Brutus; J. Richard Munro, retired but still a voice on the board, put his finger to the wind and turned on his former protégé. Although company PR men said Ross’s condition was improving as a result of his chemotherapy treatments, and that he would return soon to the corporate wars, the twin prospects of Ross’s mortality and Nicholas as his successor did not sit well with the board whatever Nicholas’s contract stipulated. Nicholas was soon gone, rich in benefits, destitute in reputation.
Although his book was finished months before Nicholas was fired, Clurman was prescient in predicting the inevitable outcome, wrong only in that he had not expected the corporate bloodletting to happen so quickly. He is not the most graceful of writers, too often apt to fall into the fancy flourishes of Time style (“The barge was…loaded to her gunwales with a gourmet’s selection of fine wines and viands tended to by a betoqued French chef”). But To the End of Time is a fascinating book, ugly only because it is such an ugly story of a particularly ugly period in American business. Its final irony, one that Clurman cannot quite bring himself to say explicitly, perhaps from a residual allegiance to his former employers, is that in the land of Lilliput that Time has now become, Steven J. Ross seems a giant.
April 23, 1992
I was the writer charged with tailoring Mohr’s Vietnam cables for the magazine. His last file, in the fall of 1963, began, “The war in Vietnam is being lost,” and in that vein I wrote the story, while quite convinced that Mohr’s gloomy, and accurate, prescience would not survive the editing process. I was right. The story was entirely rewritten by my senior editor, and then edited by Fuerbringer to the point of saying that the war was not only winnable, but that there was already light at the end of the tunnel. I left Time a few months later. ↩
Dell, 1986, p. 502. ↩
Time ultimately acquired a 20.5 percent stake in CNN, but with only 10.5 percent voting power. ↩
The details in this paragraph come from Reckless Disregard (Knopf, 1986) by Renata Adler and from “New Grub Street” in my book Crooning (Simon and Schuster, 1990). ↩
Connie Bruck, The New Yorker, January 8, 1990, p. 67. ↩
To his credit, the deputy editor, Gilbert Rogin, a gifted short-story writer and former managing editor of Sports Illustrated, later amended his words by saying, “I have a general hostility to appeals to journalism as if it were some kind of religion.” ↩