People said the guy was fearless.
His assignment should have been fairly routine. But Robert Sam Anson was gutsy, the kind of writer colleagues imagined nursed a Hemingway complex. So when Time magazine sent their young New York bureau reporter to cover the training camp preparations for the first Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight many moons ago, Anson didn't just report the news.
"I thought this guy was completely out of his mind," recalls former Time writer Chris Byron. "He got in the ring with Joe Frazier, and I think Frazier hit him so hard with the first punch, he got a broken leg or a dislocated shoulder. That guy hit him into the next county.
"Everybody said, 'Did you hear what Bob Anson did?' "
Anson's taste for reporting without a net had been singeing the grapevine for months. The summer before, he'd been captured by North Vietnamese soldiers while on a story in Cambodia. The experience helped polish his image as an intrepid writer, "the last of a breed of broad-shouldered, bare-knuckled, '70s magazine journalists who will chopper into any hellhole on Earth and come back with an epic story."
Esquire Deputy Editor David Hirshey described him that way in an interview 25 years later, and the 50-ish Anson liked the quote well enough that his new publisher reprinted it to laud Anson's recent debut as editor of Los Angeles magazine.
Indeed, Anson's admirers are hoping that his hiring will put some punch in a magazine that had gotten a reputation as a sleepy sheet for Westsiders.
"I was blown away by how smart a move it was," says Scott Kaufer, a longtime friend of Anson's and a former editor in chief of now-defunct California magazine. "I think he wants to kick ass, have fun and let people know he was here, and the sense I always got from Los Angeles before was their editors wanted to beat the traffic home."
But other former colleagues say his pugnaciousness and passion for a good story go too far. Even some of his supporters describe him as subject to severe mood swings, a fierce temper and questionable judgment. Former staffers complain of inappropriate remarks and humiliating dressings-down in front of peers.
When Anson took over Los Angeles, he immediately announced he was cleaning house, and editors and writers started popping out the door like water beads from a salad spinner. While some people left on their own steam, some of the dismissals weren't pretty. One writer was summarily fired on her answering machine by an Anson deputy. They started calling him "Ebola Bob."
"Robert Sam Anson is a bull who carries his own china shop around him," says former Los Angeles magazine film critic Rod Lurie, who says he quit over editing conflicts.
Critics say they expected change, but not so abruptly and abrasively. Some supporters write off such complaints as sour grapes from disgruntled journalists who didn't make the cut.
"I think when there is any kind of change, you will find some people who are angry, and at this magazine there have been 35 years of no change," says Los Angeles magazine publisher Joan McCraw. "It was a family and it was fun, but it was losing its momentum, and when you break up a family, people get upset."
"I've always found [Anson] to be a very good guy," says Kaufer, now a television writer and producer for Brandon Tartikoff. "If other people have personally witnessed him cook a small child, I've never seen that happen."
But similar criticisms dogged Anson during his many years as a magazine and book writer based in New York. At Esquire, Anson's most recent haunt, staffers placed bets on how long he would last on Los Angeles magazine's masthead.
"Editing Bob is both a rewarding and debilitating experience," Hirshey says. "In the end you get a great piece, but not before you've lost two feet off of your colon."
Anson declined to be interviewed for this story. His stature as the magazine's savior or scourge may be in the eye of the beholder. But he will have to contend with more than the opinion of his peers--there's also the testy court of public opinion. This city has never been fertile ground for magazine journalism. New West and its later incarnation, California, lasted only six years even with heavy-hitting talent.
The latest entry, 5-year-old Buzz, has amassed a circulation of only 100,000 in the bimonthly's campaign to become the New Yorker of the West. And Los Angeles magazine's circulation has slipped from 1990's high of 172,000 to 156,000. Those figures have been tallied against a backdrop of tough times for print journalism generally and city magazines in particular.
"No magazine has adequately captured the place, and you can go back 50, 60 years," says Larry Dietz, former executive editor of New West. "The print reading community is far more fragmented than New York's. There's Hollywood. There's Pasadena. There's the Valley. There are surfers. There are all these different constituencies."