Legendary editor Jim Bellows dies at 86

Saturday, March 7, 2009 | 6:48 p.m. CST; updated 8:03 p.m. CST, Saturday, March 7, 2009

LOS ANGELES — 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 Los Angeles, 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 had been essentially 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.

'He had confidence, excitement'

"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 best-selling 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 people 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."

'Print the news and raise hell'

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."

Newspapers, TV and the Internet

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, as he said, "short and shy" in Detroit, where he was born Nov. 12, 1922, and in Cleveland, where his family later moved. At 18 he was 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."

During World War II, he flew an F6F Hellcat 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.

There, the cub reporter pursued a story about the Ku Klux Klan that ended with angry Klansmen forcing liquor down his throat until he passed out. After his front-page report on the Klan's mistreatment was picked up by Newsweek and Time, the Ledger made him a city editor, launching the ascent that would lead to his big-city-newspaper adventures.

On his first rescue mission

By 1959, after stints at the Atlanta Journal and the Detroit Free Press, he became managing editor of the Miami News, which he described later as "my first rescue mission." Bellows won kudos for steering the paper back to the local coverage it did best, in the process turning the News into one of the country's best afternoon papers.

His efforts there impressed the management at the New York Herald Tribune, a paper with an illustrious past, whose contributors had included Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Eugenia Sheppard, Walter Kerr and Red Smith. But when When Bellows arrived in 1961 as executive editor in charge of news operations, the Herald Tribune was struggling to recoup its losses from a deliverers strike three years earlier.

"It was the top journalistic challenge in the country," he wrote. "It meant competing with the biggest giant of them all, the New York Times."

Bellows, who was 41 when publisher John Hay Whitney promoted him to top editor, knew he could not match the Times' authoritative coverage of national and foreign events, given the Herald Tribune's thinner resources. "Yet we had to establish a niche for ourselves. The answer," Bellows said in his memoir, "was to rediscover New York."

In one of his first moves, he hired Wolfe away from The Washington Post and made him a metropolitan reporter. Wolfe's writing flair and keen eye for the offbeat detail soon was displayed across Page One in stories about a visiting Moroccan monarch's Manhattan shopping spree and anarchy at a debutante party in the Hamptons.

Bellows also hired Breslin, a sportswriter, and made him a columnist. He backed Sheehy in her pursuit of gritty stories about drug addicts, poor women and rent strikers in Harlem that clashed with the traditional interests of the women's page. He created the team of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who established their authority as political pundits in their very first "Inside Report" column predicting the GOP presidential nomination of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Sunday edition makes its mark

Bellows left his greatest legacy in the remake of the Herald Tribune's Sunday edition, of which the centerpiece was New York magazine. To run it, he hired Clay Felker, a gifted editor at Esquire, and granted the staff wide latitude to capture the excesses and eccentricities of the city. The magazine quickly burned a spot on the literary-journalism map with Wolfe's rowdy 1965 profile of The New Yorker's venerable editor, William Shawn.

Shawn tried to have the story squelched, condemning it as "beyond libelous" in a letter to Whitney. Unimpressed by Shawn's fury, Bellows leaked a copy of the letter to Time and Newsweek, whose reports on the feud sent New York's readership skyward.

The magazine survived, but the Herald Tribune collapsed in a merger in 1966. In 1967 Bellows resurfaced in Los Angeles as an associate editor overseeing feature sections at the Los Angeles Times. He started a gossip column by Joyce Haber and oversaw the launch of West, the Sunday magazine.

He was perceived as a leading candidate to replace editor-in-chief Nick Williams, who was nearing retirement, but, as Halberstam noted, Bellows "never quite fit in." He had been married three times, wore his hair long and was outspoken against the Vietnam War, making him too much of a maverick for the Chandler family, who owned the Los Angeles Times.

Bellows began calling the Times the "velvet coffin," believing that the paper's prosperity had dulled its instincts and stifled creativity. He left the paper in 1974.

Luckily, another decrepit paper needed saving.

On to Washington

When Bellows arrived in 1975, the Washington Star, once the capital's pre-eminent newspaper, was losing millions of dollars a day while The Washington Post was riding high on its Watergate coverage. Hungry for a matchup, the Star's new editor quickly hatched an idea that would "get the big fella (the Post) into the pond with us."

Bellows discovered that the city he had thought of as solemn and sober thrived on the silly and scurrilous.

Thus was "The Ear" conceived. A sassy and impertinent gossip column written by Diana McLellan and Louise Lague, it was an overnight sensation that dished on everyone who was anyone in Washington, but especially on Post Editor Bradlee. who was then being portrayed by Jason Robards on movie screens around the country in the Watergate tale "All the President's Men." The column was not always accurate but it got the town talking, a feat that eventually won the grudging admiration of the competition. When the Star folded, the Post hired a number of its writers, including McLellan, and launched its own gossip feature.

Post Publisher Katharine Graham, writing in her memoir "Personal History," called Bellows "a great talent who didn't try to compete with us where we were strong but went under, around and beside us. (The Star) became livelier, more interesting, and scrappier."

But the fun was short-lived. In 1978, when Publisher Joe Allbritton cut the budget and tried to place an editorial on the front page, Bellows headed for the door. The Star was sold to Time Inc., which failed to reverse the paper's fortunes, and closed it in 1981.

Trying to save the Herald

Bellows' next challenge — or "kamikaze mission," as he later characterized it — took him back to Los Angeles, the home of a paper that had once been the flagship of the Hearst chain. Crippled by a 10-year strike, the Herald Examiner was ranked among the 10 worst major metropolitan dailies in the country. Editing was slipshod, headlines screamed, and morale among its underpaid reporters was abysmal. Its largely blue-collar readers loved the sports section but discarded the rest.

"We didn't have a lot of people, and our people didn't make a lot of money," Bellows recounted in "The Last Editor." ''But we were on a higher mission. We were going to save the Herald! We were going to raise the Titanic! And we were going to save L.A. from becoming a one-newspaper town."

Bellows took an ax to the staff and reinvigorated it with new hires, who joined the sinking ship because he promised them wide berth to shape the paper's coverage. Riding into a void in coverage of the city's growing Hispanic population, the Herald ran a series on the exploitation of immigrants in sweatshops that became a Pulitzer finalist.

To help restore credibility, Bellows banned a long-standing practice among editorial staffers of accepting gifts from news sources. He employed some old tricks, such as a writers-in-residence program and a front-page Q&A (which was launched with a Bob Dylan interview), and developed an edgy feature section called Style.

He also instituted a gossip column called Page 2, which took special joy in needling Hollywood's movers and shakers and the Los Angeles Times. He scoured the Times every morning and threw his humble resources on local stories the bigger paper ignored or underplayed.

Joe Domanick, in a book on the Los Angeles Police Department called "To Protect and to Serve," wrote that the Herald's stories set off "a chain reaction of follow-up stories by the Times and the Herald on the LAPD shootings, choke-hold deaths and spying. What everybody in L.A. with an ounce of street sense had known for years was finally being investigated by the establishment press."

Urging writers to open their eyes

Bellows said he left the Herald in 1981 after it became clear that he "had done as much as the Hearst Corporation was going to let me do." The paper folded in 1989. But Bellows continued in peripatetic style over the next two decades, scoring a big success with his remake of "Entertainment Tonight." Other ventures in TV news failed, but he always landed on his feet somewhere — TV Guide, where he was chief of the Los Angeles bureau, the Internet and at a number of other newspapers.

What kept him going was, simply, a love of news.

"I'd urge writers to open their eyes, to seek the new and different. Because news is what is unusual," he once wrote. "That's why whatever success I've had as an editor comes from a catholic interest in things, and the tendency to say, 'Hey, I haven't heard of that before — wouldn't that make a great story.'"

In addition to his wife, Bellows is survived by his daughters, Amelia Bellows, Priscilla Bellows, Felicia Bellows and Justine Bellows Sears; his stepson, Michael R. Sohigian; and 10 grandchildren.


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