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Lewis Lapham Lights Up
The Longtime, Two-Time Harper's Editor Is Retiring, but Not Quitting

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

NEW YORK

Lewis H. Lapham flips up the top of his Zippo lighter, ignites another Parliament and inhales deeply.

At 71, he's about to step down after 28 years as the editor of Harper's magazine, but he's not talking about that right now.

Instead, he's telling the story of his aborted job interview at the CIA back in 1957, when Lapham, after matriculating at Hotchkiss and Yale and Cambridge, hoped for a career as a Cold Warrior.

"The CIA was in temporary buildings, Quonset huts down by the Lincoln Memorial," he says. "The interview was at a wooden table with four guys, all from Yale. They were of a type that I had come to ridicule at Yale -- the George W. Bush type."

What type is that?

"Eastern, rich, privileged, arrogant, perennial cheerleader," he says, the adjectives rolling out in his patrician voice.

He can't resist taking a shot at Bush, which isn't surprising: His cover story in the March issue of Harper's is called "The Case for Impeachment." But it's not only Bush who arouses his scorn. Lapham has skewered every president since Nixon. He's a world-class curmudgeon.

He continues his story about the CIA interview, marveling at the questions he was asked.

"The first question was: If you were standing at the 13th tee at the National Golf Links in Southampton, which club would you use?"

He exhales a stream of smoke. "Now, it so happened that I'd played that golf course and knew the hole. It's a short hole, so if you said 'driver,' you'd be wrong. . . . I said 7-iron, and I got it right."

He's sitting behind a desk that's buried under towers of books. He is, as always, dressed elegantly: a starched white shirt with gold cuff links beneath an impeccably tailored blue suit with a natty paisley handkerchief peeking out of the breast pocket.

"The second question was: You're coming in on the final tack at the Hay Harbor on Fishers Island in the late afternoon -- what tack do you take? I don't remember what the answer was, but I got it right because I had sailed at Fishers Island."

He pauses theatrically, telling his story with the unhurried confidence of a man who is rarely interrupted.

"The third question was: They mentioned the name of a girl who was known on the Ivy League circuit for being a ravenous nymphomaniac. And the question was: Does she wear a slip?"

He takes another drag, emits another cloud. "I didn't know, because I'd never had carnal knowledge of the young lady. I explained that I'd heard rumors of French silk and Belgian lace but I couldn't vouch for my sources."

At that point he walked out of the interview, he says, disgusted with the know-it-all smugness of his CIA interrogators. "I said, 'Gentlemen, I'm sorry I've wasted your time. Goodbye and good luck.' "

Then he went home to San Francisco, where his grandfather had once served as mayor, and he began his journalism career as a reporter for the Examiner.

Wow! What a story! It explains so much. Not only does it hint at why the CIA has screwed up so often, from the Bay of Pigs to 9/11, it also suggests why Lapham -- the blue-blooded great-grandson of a founder of Texaco -- has been lobbing elegantly crafted literary grenades at America's ruling elite for decades.

It's a great story, so great that it sounds . . . just a tad too good to be true. Which calls to mind Lapham's "Tentacles of Rage" fiasco.

That essay, a spirited attack on "the Republican propaganda mill," ran in the September 2004 issue of Harper's. In it, Lapham wrote of watching the 2004 Republican convention and "listening to the hollow rattle of rhetorical brass and tin." Alas, the magazine arrived at the homes of subscribers before the Republicans had actually convened. Bloggers had a blast carving Lapham new orifices.

But he swears his CIA story is really, truly true. And he apologizes for faking his convention coverage. Well, sort of.

"It was a mistake, but to my mind a very minor one," he says. "I put it in to meet the September deadline, to give it timeliness. . . . I wasn't putting words in anybody's mouth or remarking on something that didn't happen."

Besides, he says, smiling wryly, "it was fairly accurate."

Comings and Goings

"The term most people use to describe Lewis is patrician, and he does have that air," says Tom Wolfe, the novelist and journalist. "He's very much part of a social network. He does know a wide range of people in the upper orders. That's why I think he has a lot of fun with his left-leaning views."

Lapham has published many of Wolfe's iconoclastic pieces in Harper's -- "The Painted Word," his 1975 attack on modern art; "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," his 1989 assault on the modern novel; and "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists," his 2000 evisceration of radical English professors.

Wolfe and Lapham share a fondness for shooting spitballs at sacred cows. "He is politically a real maverick," says Wolfe, who believes that attitude improves Harper's: "It's very idiosyncratic, and I mean that in a good way."

Lapham arrived at Harper's in 1971, hired as a writer by legendary editor Willie Morris. A couple weeks later, Morris got fired and most of the staff quit in protest. When the smoke cleared, Lapham was the managing editor. In 1976, he became editor.

In June 1980, the owners of Harper's announced they were killing the magazine, which was losing gobs of money. At the Chicago Sun-Times, a cub reporter named Rick MacArthur read that news on the wire.

"This is terrible," he thought. "It's my favorite magazine."

MacArthur called his father, J. Roderick MacArthur, who happened to be on the board of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

"I said, 'Do you think the MacArthur Foundation could bail out Harper's?' " Rick MacArthur recalls. "And my father, who is a very unusual man, said, 'Why not?' "

So the MacArthur Foundation bought Harper's and set up the Harper's Magazine Foundation to run it. The magazine kept losing money -- intellectual magazines inevitably do -- and in 1981, the Harper's Foundation board canned Lapham and hired Michael Kinsley to run the magazine.

"They fired him and hired me," recalls Kinsley, now a syndicated columnist, "and I met him once when he gave me the key to the men's room."

Rick MacArthur, by then a reporter for United Press International, was irate at Lapham's firing. He took a leave of absence from UPI, joined the Harper's Foundation board and started organizing a counterrevolution. In 1984, he pulled it off: The board fired Kinsley and rehired Lapham.

This time, there was no ceremonial passing of the men's room key. "I just left the key in the drawer," Kinsley says.

In his second coming, Lapham arrived with a plan for radically revamping Harper's, which was born in 1850 and looked it. He introduced three new features: Harper's Index, an ironic compendium of statistics; Readings, a quirky collection of odd items-- letters, transcripts, rants, even suicide notes; and Annotation, a two-page spread with a document in the middle, surrounded by an expert's scathing commentary on it.

It worked. And the Harper's Index became perhaps the most copied magazine feature of the last quarter-century.

"That was a brilliant innovation," says Wolfe. "The Index is fabulous. Those things are antidotes to subscription guilt, like the New Yorker's cartoons: You open the New Yorker and you look at the cartoons and you feel you've read it even if you don't read anything else. The Index and Readings have the same effect in Harper's."

But for Lapham, the heart of Harper's remains the essay -- a writer tackling a subject with passion or wit. "I'm always looking for a voice in writing," he says. "I want to hear what the writer has seen or felt or thought. . . . I'm not looking for data, I'm looking for experience, wisdom, meaning."

He likes to take writers to lunch and get them talking until he learns what really interests them. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich remembers one such lunch in 1998.

"I wanted him to send me to the Super Bowl to study fan behavior," she recalls. "And the conversation went to welfare reform, and I said I wondered how these women were going to make a living on jobs that pay $6 or $7 an hour. I said, 'You should send somebody out there to get those jobs and try to live on that money.' And he said, 'Okay, Barbara, go out and do it.' "

She did, working as a maid, a waitress, a nursing home aide. The result was two articles in Harper's and the best-selling book "Nickel and Dimed."

Lapham published dozens of memorable pieces, including David Foster Wallace on a cruise ship, Christopher Hitchens accusing Henry Kissinger of war crimes, Michael Paterniti on driving cross-country with Einstein's brain.

Quirky, unpredictable and consistently inconsistent, Harper's has won 12 National Magazine Awards during Lapham's reign and is a finalist for five more in this year's competition, the results of which will be announced on May 9. That's the good news. The bad news is that, despite a circulation of 228,000, Harper's still loses money -- more than $2 million a year. But Rick MacArthur, now the publisher, says the foundation will keep paying the bills.

After Lapham retires on March 31, his smoke-cured office will be occupied by Roger Hodge, who arrived at Harper's in 1996 as an unpaid intern fleeing from a PhD program in philosophy at the New School for Social Research. Since then, Hodge has moved steadily up the masthead. In 2000, Harper's published his satire on much-hyped artist Matthew Barney under the delightful title "Onan the Magnificent: The Triumph of the Testicle in Contemporary Art."

Hodge, 38, is practically the anti-Lapham: He grew up on a ranch in Texas and avoids the literary cocktail parties that Lapham loves, preferring to ride his bike home from Harper's Lower Manhattan office to his kids in Brooklyn, where he likes to skateboard at night in Prospect Park. But he says he plans no major changes.

"I love the magazine," he says, "and I don't feel any need to make some big statement because I became editor."

Deciphering the Code

"Lapham is a very mysterious character," says Kinsley. "One of the mysteries is: What the hell is he saying when he's writing? I sometimes feel like I'm in a reading comprehension test and I'll turn the page and there will be questions like: What is the theme of this passage?"

Ouch.

Lapham's monthly essays -- they'll appear bimonthly after his retirement -- are an acquired taste. In 1995, they won a National Magazine Award, the judges praising his "exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity."

But others are not so kind. "They all amount to pretty much the same contemptuous, Olympian jeremiad," Kurt Andersen wrote in New York magazine. To Kinsley, the essays are "dripping with disdain."

"They're missing the jokes," Lapham responds, sitting in an Italian restaurant near his office, a place that appears to have spent a fortune trying to look like a grungy peasant trattoria. "The disdain could be read as comedy. It's satire."

Part of the problem is Lapham's style, which is self-consciously old-fashioned, a cross between Edward Gibbon and H.L. Mencken with a dash of Ambrose Bierce. Here, for instance, is a passage from his column about the funeral of Ronald Reagan: "I was reminded of the resemblance between the countercultural uprising of the 1960s and the Republican Risorgimento of the 1980s -- two troupes of utopian anarchists believing themselves entitled to more than they already had, one of them refusing to grow up, the other determined not to grow old."

Lapham sees his essays as ironic observations of a flawed species. "Human folly is human folly in whatever century it's encountered," he says. "I'm watching fools leap and dance. What am I supposed to do, say they're not fools?"

That attitude pervades Lapham's satirical documentary film, "The American Ruling Class," which premiered last spring in New York and will finally open in Washington on March 31. Lapham wrote the script and he also acts in the film, guiding two actors who play naive young Yale graduates on a tour of America's elite. The movie is not likely to break any box office records, but it does illustrate Lapham's impressive ability to persuade his famous friends to appear on camera: Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Cronkite, Bill Bradley, outgoing Harvard President Larry Summers, former Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration official James A. Baker III, among many others.

Pondering retirement, he does not speak lyrically of spending the golden years with his wife and three adult children. Instead, he ticks off a long list of projects. He'd like to start a quarterly history magazine, and he's got lots of ideas for books: a biography of William Howard Taft, a history of America in the second half of the 20th century and perhaps the rise and fall of America's shipping industry.

"My family has been in the shipping business since the late 18th century," he says.

By now, he has finished his pasta and fish and he's getting visibly antsy, twitching in his seat like a boy trapped in school or a junkie hungry for a fix.

"I've got to take a brief cigarette break," he says.

He strides out of the restaurant, flares up a Parliament and stands on the sidewalk in his spiffy suit, inhaling avidly.

Is this a historic moment? Are we witnessing the last of the great literary smokers?

"Kurt Vonnegut still smokes," he says. "He smokes more than I do. I smoke two packs a day, he probably smokes four."

He takes a final drag, then tosses the smoldering ruin of his Parliament into the gutter.

"Kurt says he's going to sue the tobacco companies for false advertising," Lapham continues. "He says every pack has a warning that says smoking will kill you, but it has failed to kill him."

Lapham laughs. "They'll probably write back and say, 'Smoke more, you crazy bastard!' "

Then he lights up another cigarette and heads back to work.

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