American Pie 17.06.04

Of all the anecdotes about President Reagan, the best, at least journalistically, is probably how he and Nancy and former Daily Express photographer Harry Benson helped save the magazine Vanity Fair. It was 1985 and the magazine which Tina Brown had taken over editorship of a year earlier, was in the doldrums. Pulling some strings, it persuaded the president and his wife to pose for a photo shoot. Benson arrived at The White House, toting a portable cassette player in addition to his cameras. When the Reagans arrived wearing formal evening clothes (they were on the way to a State banquet), Harry flooded the room with that old Sinatra classic Nancy, with the Laughing Face. Nancy said “I love that. Let’s dance!” For 15 minutes they twirled around the room, with Benson clicking away. The session ended with Nancy giving her famous backward leg-kick –and the two of them kissing. The front cover picture of Vanity Fair and a story titled ‘They Could Have Danced All Night’ boosted sales – and helped save the magazine. “It was the kiss of life,” says Brown.

How many times are we going to have to say: ‘There is still life in Life’? For the fourth time since 1926, the world-famous picture magazine is being resurrected. Starting in October, 50 America newspapers including the NY Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald will include a reborn Life. It will have a print of nearly 12 million. It will be competing – at least as far as ads are concerned – with USA Weekend, which runs in nearly 600 newspapers with a circulation of 22 million, and Parade, 36 million, in 350 papers. Some ex-Life staff are unhappy with the move. One former picture editor said: “Why don’t they let Life die a decent death?”

Although still embroiled in a labour battle with its editorial staff over wages and conditions, the Wall Street Journal is considering publishing six days a week instead of five. A prototype has been prepared, and is being tested on focus groups. Projected launch date: early next year.

The news that London is to have a replica of La Floridita, the famous Havana bar where celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway and Errol Flynn used to hang out, reminds me of the day Hemingway challenged a New Zealand journalist called Ted Scott, to a duel.

Scott had written something in a column he wrote for the English language Havana Post that Hemingway didn’t like. Words were exchanged, then threats and finally it was agreed it would be settled by a drinking duel.

That night, with two other colleagues, Iain Aitken of the Daily Express, and Ed Tetlow of the Telegraph, if I recall correctly, as referees, the duel began. It went on for a couple of hours. Daiquiri after daiquiri. In the end neither contestant won. They could barely see each other. The duel was declared a draw.

Almost unnoticed in the marking of the D-Day anniversary was the simultaneous commemoration in a little farming town in Indiana called Dana (pop. 10,000) of the death during the war of one of its home-town boys, a farmer’s son who grew up to be one America’s most acclaimed war correspondents, Ernie Pyle.

Several hundred turned out for the ceremony held in the two authentic war-time Quonset huts, which now house a collection of Pyle memorabilia. Pyle, who wrote mostly about GIs not generals, one visitor noted, was probably the original ’embedded reporter’. For three years he covered WW2 on several different continents and battlefronts until his death from a Japanese sniper’s bullet on a tiny island off Okinawa, in April 1945.

Jeffrey Blyth

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