Friday, March 13, 2009

The journalism giant who preferred teaching

Jim Bellows: Writers' Conference mainstay dies

Express Staff Writer

Jim Bellows was one of the mainstays of the Sun Valley Writers Conference. Photo by

In the 60 years I knew Jim Bellows, only once did he publicly flaunt his amazing journalism skills as a writer and editor, and that was the title of his 2002 book, "The Last Editor: How I Saved The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times from Dullness and Complacency."

It was really an oblique self-compliment to his editorship of three other newspapers that eventually went under, but which Bellows had transformed into fierce competitors of the dominant New York, Washington and Los Angeles newspapers, thereby forcing them to innovate to be better. That's what he meant by "saved."

Two Bellows trademarks: First, he devoutly cherished being editor of underdog newspapers, which they—The New York Herald Tribune, The Washington Star and The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner—were. Second, he was a master of ideas that perked up eyebrows of editors across the country and sent them scrambling to catch up.

That brilliance has been silenced. Bellows, 86, died last week in Los Angeles. His end was not what a man of his relentless mental energy and curiosity deserved. Alzheimer's disease brought him down in a care facility where he spent his final days.

Fittingly, perhaps, Bellows spent much of his final years away from newspapering, an industry mutated into stock market commodities by corporations that preferred executive suite budget wizards than editors of genius quality. Newspapers had become alien creatures to the Bellows ethos.

For 10 years, until about 2005, Bellows was a mainstay of the Sun Valley Writers' Conference—lecturer, to be sure, but also something other he seemed to prefer—that of mentor and teacher to novice writers seeking a pro's guidance.

Conference co-founder Reva Tooley, who years ago worked for Bellows on editorial pages of the L.A. Herald-Examiner, told me Bellows was "enormously patient with people."

"He not only reviewed their manuscripts, but if they had merit, he worked with them all year and referred them to his (publishing agent). Some were published. He loved to work with individual writers. They never fully realized they were working with one of the great editors."

Jim's beginnings were modest. After college (Kenyon) with a degree in philosophy, The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger hired him on the strength of an ad in a journalism trade magazine. That is where we met in 1949—he in training as state editor of the Ledger, I a reporter-in-training for the U.S. Army and working as a civilian for three months.

Jim was a strikingly handsome man with a resemblance to actor Montgomery Clift. He always walked and sat hunched. His spoken sentences often would drift off into mumbling.

As Bellows began his climb to fame, he mentored and showcased dozens of writers whose names today are gold-plated in publishing—Tom Wolfe, Judith Crist, Jimmy Breslin, Clay Felker and more. While editor of the Herald Tribune, Bellows published a jail-cell letter from Dr. Martin Luther King on page one that created a sensation. He created and launched The Washington Star's deliciously gossipy "Ear" column.

He was the early champion of a more horizontal makeup of newspapers, rather than the stilted, vertical "tombstone" look.

Jim's gifts carried over into television. He took over ABC's struggling "Entertainment Tonight" and turned it into a ratings giant.

Bellows never forgot those he met along the way. When I was in New York City on business, I'd call Jim and we'd meet for a late afternoon libation.

Mutual friends were everywhere. Once on a flight from New York to Phoenix, my seatmate was Gloria Steinhem, the feminist activist. It didn't take long before we realized we were Bellows' pals. I grabbed one of the plane's Airfones and put her on with Bellows at his L.A. home for a long chat at 32,000 feet.

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