Rea Hederman, the former editor of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, expects to buy the New York Review of Books for approximately $5 million today.
The Review, a newsprint tabloid that is published biweekly, has a circulation of 120,000 and is extraordinarily influential, especially among academics, intellectuals and writers. It first appeared in February 1963 during a 114-day newspaper strike in New York.
"We hope to have the contract signed by Wednesday," Hederman said in a telephone interview yesterday. "We're very, very close. There are just a few issues outstanding. Just language, legalese. I expect to have it all resolved."
Hederman said the remaining issues are not editorial in nature. "I'd like to keep the Review just the way it is," he said. "I don't know how I'd want to change it. Why change it?"
"I don't think Mr. Hederman is interested in changing the Review," said publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth. "He's interested in its continuance. If the sale were to go through, there would be certain editorial agreements. There would be guarantees that the editors [Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein] would stay on for five more years at least. I would also stay on. There would also be guarantees of editorial independence. If the sale takes place, full and complete editorial control will remain with the editors indefinitely."
Rea Hederman is bidding on behalf of his brother, Robert, and his two sisters, Jan Hederman Lipscomb and Sara Hederman Henderson. Until two weeks ago, the Review had been owned by two classes of stockholders: Class B, or nonmanagement stockholders, and Class A, or management stockholders. The Class A Group -- which comprises Ellsworth, editors Silvers and Epstein, advisory editor Elizabeth Hardwick and Jason Epstein, the editor in chief of Random House and one of the Review's founding editors -- bought out the B Group in order to expedite the sale. If the sale goes through, all five will receive between $500,000 and $1 million each.
Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of the Atlantic Monthly and U.S. News & World Report, and several other investors had previously expressed interest in buying the New York Review but, Ellsworth said, "we are only talking with Mr. Hederman now."
Ellsworth was cautious about "thinking it's done already," saying, "Mr. Hederman is still interested and we're still talking to him, but at this point the sale has not taken place. There are still some open points." Hederman also cautioned, "It could always fall through. That's always the case."
Hederman, 39, was city editor, managing editor and, between 1980 and 1982, executive editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, which his family owned. According to the Clarion-Ledger's assistant managing editor, David Kubissa, "Rea Hederman was instrumental in turning it around down here . . . Rea really took a terrible paper and, practically overnight, turned it into something terrific."
Hederman joined the staff of the Clarion-Ledger in 1973 when the paper's name was still associated with racism in the Deep South. The front page occasionally directed readers to public lynchings and its columnists used to make racial slurs. The Clarion-Ledger, under Hederman's leadership, became a progressive paper and won the Pulitzer Prize for public service last year.
Rea Hederman, who earned degrees at Mississippi College, and the universities of Virginia and Missouri, said he thought about taking a job in finance in New York, but decided to return home. Despite frequent objections from some family members, Hederman recruited numerous young reporters from around the country and encouraged them to write about police brutality, poverty, race and other issues the Clarion-Ledger had previously ignored.
Long working hours, divorce and constant controversy were hard on Hederman and in 1982 he rarely appeared in the office. While the paper's reporters and editors were working on the series that would earn them the Pulitzer, the Hedermans sold the Clarion-Ledger to Gannett Co.
After the many disputes over the Clarion-Ledger, the Hederman family is now deeply divided. Rea Hederman spends most of his time in New York and is active in a cable company he owns, Morningside Management.
His background is mainly in finance and journalism. He majored in English and French literature in college. "Rea was always the literary one in the family," Kubissa said.
"At the New York Review, I don't see myself as being involved editorially," he said. "In Jackson, my job was to create an atmosphere for people to do their best work. It would be the same thing in New York."
The 21-year history of the New York Review of Books is almost as intricate as that of the Hederman family.
For years, a number of New York intellectuals wanted to create a book review to rival London's Times Literary Supplement. Hardwick, in an article written for Harper's in 1959, decried the decline of book reviewing and wrote that "sweet bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene . . . a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns."
The 1962-1963 newspaper strike in New York provided Ellsworth, Silvers and the Epsteins with their opening. With the New York Times Book Review unavailable, the new magazine attracted advertisers easily. The writers wrote for free at first and the founders, all of them well connected to the well-read and well-fed, found investors quickly. Among the authors appearing in the first issue were Norman Mailer, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Mary McCarthy, Irving Howe, Paul Goodman, Alfred Kazin, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal and Dwight Macdonald.
The magazine became so popular so fast that when the strike ended, advertising revenue fell off by only 10 percent.
Philip Nobile, who wrote a book about the magazine called "Intellectual Skywriting," chided the New York Review for using so many English critics and claimed the Review went through distinct periods when it could have been called The New York Review of Each Other's Books, The London Review of Books and the London Review of Vietnam.
The magazine attracted the most criticism when it began to run numerous articles on Vietnam, beginning with a piece by I.F. Stone in 1964. More and more, the New York Review was seen by some as a journal of the New Left. When the magazine ran a schematic drawing of a molotov cocktail on the cover of the Aug. 24, 1967 issue, socialist author and activist Michael Harrington was moved to write, "The whole idea of radical chic was embodied in that cover." Hardwick contended the cover was intended as a statement against violent action.
The Review's attention to literary, political and intellectual debates has been consistent for the life of the magazine. The magazine manages to interest both specialists and more general readers.
In a recent issue, readers opened to an article on the Republican convention by V.S. Naipaul, an essay on Joyce by biographer Richard Ellmann and a speech on religion and politics by Gov. Mario Cuomo. The Review's brittle, literate letters to the editor are the closest thing the intellectual world has to bare-knuckle boxing.
The Review's funniest writing appears in the back of the book -- in the personal ads. Recently, this ad appeared: "Celibate woman of experience seeks reflections from other Walden Ponds."
Hederman said, "I hope this sale happens. And I hope the Review stays the same."