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The 'Lion' in Winter

At 79, a former newspaper editor pitches a quirky story--his own.

April 14, 2002|ALLAN M. JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For more than 40 years, the colorful newspapers that Jim Bellows edited and the iconoclastic writers he nurtured have won most of the glory. Now, the editor has a new angle.

He's pitching a story about a man who openly admits he can't write a lick, yet revitalized underdog papers in cities across America and became the hero of a grand journalism adventure. Supporting parts go to an array of journalistic-literary stars--Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Ben Bradlee, Otis Chandler and others who worked with him, fought with him and generally seem to have come away admiring him. He finds someone to shape this story--his story--into a book. The results are a new memoir (written with Gerald Gardner and published by Andrews McMeel) and a documentary to air on public television. Both have a title--"The Last Editor"--that Gardner modeled on "The Last Lion," as in William Manchester, as in Winston Churchill.

Churchill helped save Western civilization. Gardner's bratty, endearing subtitle supplies the boast of Bellows' career: "How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency."

The self-styled underdog tilted against the dragon of stuffy journalism from the "second paper" in the most competitive news towns in the country. The New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner fought some of their last, best rounds under him before succumbing to strikes, richer competitors and, alas, TV's quick delivery of the news. He took a break from moribund newspapers to work at the Los Angeles Times, shaping its features sections from 1967-75.

Starting in the early 1960s, Bellows marshaled vivid feature writing to arm the "cool" medium of print against the "hot" flash of television. He then leaped to TV, editing "Entertainment Tonight" to relate those Hollywood details everyone needs to know. By the 1990s, he was helping Internet start-ups grab eyeballs.

The idea of making the newspaper a daily magazine didn't start with Jim Bellows any more than "the new journalism" began with Tom Wolfe. But Bellows became a godfather to both. At the Herald Tribune in the early 1960s, he gave Breslin, a sportswriter, a column in which the main character was New York. Wolfe followed the king of Morocco on a shopping trip to buy linens for his harem. Bellows ran it across the top of the Herald Tribune's front page.

"I was using scene-by-scene construction, lots of dialogue, point of view, status details about how people dressed and talked," Wolfe recalls. "That drove a lot of editors crazy in those days. Bellows was open to it."

"'Tell me the details'--that was Bellows," Los Angeles TV reporter Linda Breakstone shouts into her cell phone, rushing to cover Richard Riordan the morning after he'd been crushed in the recent Republican gubernatorial primary. Breakstone, now at KCBS News, was a political reporter at the Herald Examiner. "Today, I'm doing what Bellows taught: What did Riordan eat for breakfast? What color were the walls when he opened his eyes after losing?"

A thin, bent 79-year-old man walks with a contemplative shuffle toward the Herald Examiner building, at 1111 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The exotic 1915 edifice, with vaguely Arabic domes and Alhambra-style arches that Julia Morgan designed for William Randolph Hearst, remains in pretty good shape. Bellows--who lives in Brentwood--edited the Her-Ex from 1978 to 1981, and others took over until it closed in 1989.

He passes empty loading docks from which trucks once hauled seven editions and climbs to the second-floor newsroom, where a dusty stillness hangs over metal desks and computers from the 1980s. Today, they're props for Hollywood crews that rent the place, superimposing a make-believe newsroom over the ghost of a real one. "Type faster," Bellows urges a phantom reporter at an empty desk. "Give me some good ideas."

Without stopping to take off his hat, he peers at walls, out windows. Paul Conrad, a syndicated cartoonist and longtime L.A. Times contributor, remembers a restless Bellows, always moving "from here to there, from there to here." The editor reminds some of the strong, quiet men played by Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda. Conrad compares him to Groucho Marx.

There is a quirky, rebellious comic in Bellows, a man of props. Pressed to sit and talk about himself, he whips out a little white card from his pocket. It says: "This is not a simple life, there are no easy answers."

Other phrases pop out. What did he tell writers seeking inspiration? Dreamily, he murmurs: "Spread your wings and do a thousand things."

It's not easy to reconcile the two sides of his character. He describes himself as "shy ... quiet" and has long seemed content exerting subtle influence through the work of others--yet he's newly eager to make himself known. Asked to explain the contradiction, Bellows gazes through metal-rimmed glasses and says: "You'll figure it out."

Silence.

No other advice?

"You'll do fine," he says.

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