SINCE THE NICKNAME "OZ" in the title is spelled like Frank Baum's mythical kingdom instead of the expected Os flowing from Osborn, one suspects right away that there is as much smoke as hard news issuing forth from this journalist's autobiography. At one point, he recalls greeting a new Newsweek staffer from the Deep South. Extending his hand, the author says, "Oz Elliott." "Ah's Trippett," Frank Trippett drawls in response. The book is a verbal scrapebook of such anecdotes and a colorful collection of quotable memorabilia from the famous. It is an elegant pilgrim's progress through the halls of establishment success: editor of Newsweek magazine, Board of Overseers of Harvard, deputy mayor of New York, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, among others.
Along with a nostalgia for "The Way Things Were" combined with a certain Scott Fitgerald charm, (and charm may be the operative word for The World of Oz), there is a whiff of proper-people smugness and proper-causes self-satisfaction. Elliott (hence Newsweek) discovers the race problem around 1963. Not to detract from the needed emphasis Newsweek placed on Black America, the problem was not born overnight on a cover. One of his chapters entitled "Black and White," details the magazine's efforts to take a comprehensive look at the country's racial strife and the asprations of "the Negro in America." Elliott describes as trip through the ghettos of major U.S. cities as a "life-changing experience," but treats it fleetingly. m
Although Elliott's affection for an awe of Philip Graham (who promoted him to editor of Newsweek when he bought it for The Washington Post Company in 1961) is palpable and apparent, it is equally clear that Elliott relished the freedom and loose rein given him by Graham. Elliott's feelings for Katherine Graham are more complicated. Whereas he obviously admires her personal courage and her commitment to bringing Newsweek into keen rivalry with "Brand X" (Newsweek staffers name for Time), he still nurtures hurt feelings over the way she fired him. Yet his account of that event showers more grace on Katherine Graham than it does on him, in itself an elegant twist from the pen of the dismissed.
A writer with an ear for the epigrammatic, Elliott tells of a London press party given by Lady Pamela Berry, owner of the Daily Telegraph. Elliott was introduced to Jocelyn Stevens "who had recently launched a snippy magazine called The Queen. 'I'd like you to meet the man who killed society,' said Pam Berry acidly, 'and who has been committing necrophilia with it ever since.'"
Later, enumerating the feats of derring-do and journalistic exploits of Arnaud de Borchgrave, senior Newsweek foreign correspondent, Elliott describes a hero's welcome in the lobby of the Newsweek building, complete with a bagpiper playing the Marine Corps Hymn. (This was all after Borchgrave had covered, on the spot, the Battle of Hill 400 very near the DMZ in Vietnam.) "Borchgrave was limping from a sprained ankle suffered a few days before while leaping out of a helicopter. As he made his way into the building and down the ranks of his applauding colleagues, a bunch of flowers in his arms, his limp grew noticeably worse. Or so it seemed to me."
The most moving part of the book is Elliott's careful documenting of how the magazine was remade over the weekend after the assassination of President Kennedy on that Friday in November, 1963. Endless hours, thought, much effort, and even poetry went into that hastily pulled together issue. Performing that kind of task with the attendant emotion is a genuine test for editors, and Newsweek withstood the test well.
While Elliott's admiration for Walter Lippmann is securely grounded, he does nevertheless give us a revealing tidbit. Ed Behr, Paris Newsweek chief, had been ordered by the columnist to make an appointment with Prime Minister Pompidou. With relief at having been able to arrange the encounter for the great man, Behr called Lippmann and told him he had a date for him at 10 a.m. the following Friday. All Lippmann said was: "Tell him that's too early in the morning. Tell him to find another time." Then he hung up. No thanks, no nothing.
Overall, Elliott as editor of Newsweek, presided over some of the most volcanic years in our history: eruptions over women's rights, black despair and frustration, assassinations, the urban crisis, the shattering of national confidence over Vietnam. His story behind these stories is always lively and briskly written. But if the reader wants substantive fare on the lessons to be learned during these years he should dine elsewhere. This is a glossary of personal experiences, no exegesis of an era. One wonders, for example, why Elliott includes an unanswered letter he wrote to Jacqueline and Aristotle Onassis. The names have a high recognition factor, but the text is downright meager.
Perhaps the most enlightenment comes from Elliott's own nine-point Hippocratic oath for journalists, which he says should include:
"The knowledge that the truth is not always what it seems."
"Compassion for those upon whom the world too often heaps indignities."
"Dedication" to the proper use of the English language.
"A sense of humor."
All in all, it can be said that Oz has adhered to his own code. CAPTION: Illustration, Osborn Elliott; Copyright (c) 1980 by David Levine