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Jim Bellows, legendary editor of L.A. Herald Examiner, dies at 86

Bellows built a career resuscitating underdog newspapers in New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Along the way, he helped turn Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin into stars.

March 07, 2009|Elaine Woo

Jim Bellows, a legendary editor who built a career resuscitating underdog big-city newspapers from Los Angeles to New York and helped turn Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin into stars, has died. He was 86.

Bellows, a longtime resident of Brentwood, died Friday at a nursing home in Santa Monica, according to his wife, Keven Bellows. The cause was Alzheimer's disease.

Over two decades beginning in the 1960s, Bellows transformed the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner into showcases of sophisticated writing and spunky reporting that often shamed their more formidable rivals.

Bellows could not save the papers, which ultimately sank under long-standing financial pressures. But he helped them shake their bones in their twilight years and revived a spirit of competition in what essentially had been one-newspaper towns. Along the way, he created an early platform for the innovative brand of nonfiction called New Journalism and saw his best ideas copied by the stronger paper across town.

"I have been the luckiest guy in the newspaper business," he wrote in his 2002 memoir, "The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency." "I am never happier than when someone hands me a newspaper that is either not very good or in deep financial trouble."

Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author whom Bellows unleashed on New York 50 years ago, said Friday, "He had confidence, excitement, all the things newspapers survive with and don't have now."

According to Wolfe, the pioneering literary journalist and bestselling novelist, what made Bellows different was a love of battle. "If a week went by and he hadn't caused some trouble somewhere, he was disappointed," Wolfe said.

Even those who had cause to dislike this scrappy cheerleader for dying papers admired him. "I have affection [for Bellows] and respect for him," former Washington Post editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, often the butt of jokes in a Bellows-conceived gossip column in the Star, told the Washington Journalism Review some years ago. "He was a terrific editor."


Cultivating talent

Believing that a newspaper's main job was to "print the news and raise hell," Bellows zeroed in on local news and delighted in stories that challenged establishment views. He attracted talent and let it bloom, cultivating writers who became journalism and literary luminaries, notably Wolfe and Breslin as well as Dick Schaap, Judith Crist, Richard Reeves, Gail Sheehy and Maureen Dowd.

He also was an advocate for women in the newsroom, becoming an early booster of Diane K. Shah, one of the first female sports columnists, and Mary Anne Dolan, who succeeded him at the Herald Examiner and became the first female editor of a big-city daily.

David Halberstam, writing in "The Powers That Be," a history of the Washington Post, Time magazine, CBS and the Los Angeles Times, said that Bellows' success was due in part to the fact that he "was a writer's editor, he loved talent and style, he was at ease with talented people as not many editors were. The more talented and more creative the reporter, the happier Bellows became."

Slightly built, with shoulders perpetually hunched forward, Bellows may not have been physically commanding, but he had a mystique, communicating through mumbles and gestures that writers found both bedeviling and inspiring. "I didn't know what he was saying," Breslin once said, "but I knew exactly what he meant."

Armed with these traits and a decidedly restless spirit, Bellows accumulated what Washington Journalism Review once called the "longest resume in the history of journalism."

He worked on eight newspapers, the most prosperous of which was the Los Angeles Times. After three decades as a newspaperman, he began a second act in television, where he achieved perhaps the only unqualified success of his career: He injected substance into a failing "Entertainment Tonight" and turned it into a ratings leader, now 28 years old.

Then, at an age when he could have retired with honor, he commenced a third act -- on the Internet. There he shaped editorial content for the pioneering online service Prodigy and the search engine Excite.

Bellows, the son of a traveling salesman, grew up "short and shy" in Detroit, where he was born Nov. 12, 1922, and in Cleveland, where his family later moved.

At 18 he was only 5 feet tall. By the time he arrived at Kenyon College in Ohio, he had sprouted to 5 feet 7 inches, but he never stopped thinking of himself as "the runt."


Abused by the Klan

During World War II, he flew F6F Hellcats for the Navy. Then he returned to Kenyon, where a professor in his major of philosophy steered him on the path to newspapering. Dispensing with thoughts of the ministry or a job on Wall Street, he placed an ad in Editor & Publisher, which in 1947 led him to the Columbus, Ga., Ledger.

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