Downtown Kansas City, Mo. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
Columnist

Once upon a time, when the major vices of Washington were sex and cocaine rather than indignation and Twitter, there was a magazine in the capital called Regardie’s. Splashy, sassy and bold, it was the creation of a character named Bill Regardie, who made a bundle publishing bland real estate magazines before deciding that the city deserved a monthly blast of his id.

For a brief heyday, it seemed everyone was reading Regardie’s. (Motto: “Money. Power. Greed.”) Few people actually paid for it, but the glossy rag was thick with ads from the same “fat cats” whose exploits filled its columns.

This was the 1980s, when Washington was rather seedy, with a vaguely Weimar vibe. The mayor was a clubhopper. Hookers accosted drivers a scant mile from the White House. Major thoroughfares were lined with block after block of boarded-up housing, and a congressman was widely believed to have been in flagrante on the Capitol steps. Regardie wore gold chains in a pelt of chest hair. He traveled to lunch at the Palm on roller skates. He boasted the record for the most Dom Perignon consumed in one sitting at Joe & Mo’s steakhouse: 23 bottles for a party of 19.

They had Regardie’s. We have Bannon and Breitbart. It’s hard not to feel that we’ve taken a wrong turn.

But this is the story of a different sort of journey: the odyssey of Henry Fortunato from the pages of Regardie’s to the prairies of the heartland. Fortunato was the first editor of that crazy enterprise, hired in his 20s with zero experience because Regardie wanted someone smart but cheap.

Though not as flashy as his boss, Fortunato was his own brand of original. He did not drive a car, despite having grown up in suburban Long Island. He wore beards and hats: not just ballcaps but fezzes and kippas and berets. He had a way of exclaiming “ooh, ooh!” when he liked an idea, while pinching his fingers and extending his pinky as though holding an invisible Limoges. At a time when many editors were almost ecclesiastical in their disdain for the commercial side of their businesses, Fortunato was a harbinger of today’s savvy operators: He knew that the difference between an advertisement and an article in a shiny magazine was less a bright line than a shadowy frontier.

If that frontier was also a slippery slope, as some finger-wagging critics suggested, it is a slope that nearly the entire journalism industry has slalomed in recent years. Pressured by changes in reading habits and news technology, few editors — print or digital — have not engaged in sponsorships, advertorials or the sort of “native advertising” that resembles real journalism as margarine resembles butter.

By the time that happened, Fortunato was long gone and Regardie’s only a memory. Fortunato was a builder more than he was a manager; he always had one eye on the next opportunity. By a series of twists in a peripatetic career, he found himself living in the Kansas City suburbs.

Again, he put his stamp on a time and place. Having sensed that Washington in the 1980s needed a good slap, Fortunato perceived that this new home needed something more refined. A city once touted as the Paris of the Plains was facing the same hollowed-out urban core and rattled confidence that beset cities throughout the country, especially between the coasts. Fortunato delivered a booster shot of community.

The former editor reinvented himself as the impresario of programming at the Kansas City Public Library. During nine years, from 2006 to 2015, Fortunato built a packed calendar touching topics from international affairs to local history, from economics to space travel, from food to film to fashion. (Full disclosure: I participated in several events.) His weekly email of upcoming highlights reached tens of thousands, and many programs played to standing-room audiences — even downtown and even at night. The library became a forum for discussing local issues and explaining controversies, and won several prestigious awards.

Known citywide for hoofing his way across the sprawling metropolis (he once walked the width of Kansas), Fortunato was launched on a project to improve hiking trails when cancer was discovered last year. He died Monday, having packed the library one last time for his “pre-funeral funeral” in early January, where he basked in the praise of old friends as some 600 admirers shared the moment. He was 62.

You might say his story ran backward, compared with the familiar American trajectory. He started in New York and Washington and made his way to Kansas. But those of us who love the middle of the country appreciate that life is not always linear. The coasts are magnets, yes, but sometimes magnets lose their attraction.

Life is lived in communities, though, and communities must have spirit. I’ve been lucky to live the past quarter-century in two communities — D.C. and K.C. — where the spirit is livelier because Henry walked in.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.