Oct 03 2007
“James W. Michaels, who edited Forbes magazine from 1961 to 1999, has died of pneumonia. He was 86.”
“In editing the magazine for nearly 40 years, Michaels left an indelible stamp on Forbes, turning it into Americaâ€™s pre-eminent national business magazine.”
If I had a mentor in my life, it was Jim Michaels. I met him twenty years ago next week in his dark corner office with its black leather couches and strange stand-up desk where he stood, owlishly pecking at a green-glowing Atex terminal. Arm garters and a green eye-shade would not have been out of place.
There weren’t many totems framed on the walls, but one, over the couch, a front page, was the biggest story of his life: the assassination of Gandhi.
Michaels was an eyewitness to the murder, a UPI correspondent who decided to stay in India after the end of World War II. His story was the story carried around the world, the only story to be filed before communications were severed between India and the rest of the world.
The story bears reading again today, as I remember first reading in the gloom of his office that October in 1988, kneeling on the couch and making out the words:
“New Delhi, January 30, 1948: Mohandas K. Gandhi was assassinated today by a Hindu extremist whose act plunged India into sorrow and fear.
Rioting broke out immediately in Bombay. The seventy-eight-year-old leader whose people had christened him the Great Soul of India died at 5:45 p.m. (7:15 a.m. EST) with his head cradled in the lap of his sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Mani.
Just half an hour before, a Hindu fanatic, Ram Naturam, had pumped three bullets from a revolver into Gandhi’s frail body, emaciated by years of fasting and asceticism. Gandhi was shot in the luxurious gardens of Birla House in the presence of one thousand of his followers, whom he was leading to the little summer pagoda where it was his habit to make his evening devotions.”
We had India in common after that. He encouraged me when I traveled there in 1991, invited me to meet his Indian friends when they passed through New York, and treated me to a memorable Indian meal one night when he drank me under the table with gimlets, a vile drink that delivers poisonous hangovers.
I jokingly told Tony Perkins at the Red Herring that I called Jim “Yoda” behind his back– more in deference to his age, distinctive voice, and height — but Tony to my horror repeated the remark in his next column.
Jim didn’t care. He thought it was amusing, and for the first years of Forbes.com his 8×10″ black and white press photo was hung over my desk in the first newsroom, a reminder that we were putting his magazine online, not ours. As Forbes wrote in its remembrance of him: “He was one of the earliest and heaviest users of the Internet in the building.”
Story meetings were things of wonder. The entire editorial staff would pile into the lush Forbes conference room, with models of yachts and planes and paintings of founders. Jim sat naturally at the head, his lieutenants beside him, and he’d open with a scathing critique of the issue just closed, a pronouncement about the one to come, and then turn to his managing editors for their news. Brevity was everything. Around the table went the pitches. Some reporters would pass, offering an excuse that they were working on a special project or a potential cover story. Sometimes Jim would snarl that they were slacking, other times he’d tell them to come see him to discuss the big project in private. Babble too long and he’d say “spare me the details” or “I get it.”
The list of great reporters and editors that worked for him is legendary: Gretchen Morgenson, Norm Pearlstine, Allan Sloan, Peter Brimelow, Ed Finn …
It was in the editing that Jim Michaels was renowned. I expect that someone will dust off some of his greatest hits in editorial comments: “That’s not writing, it’s stenography”, his aversion to terms like “corporate culture,” his hatred of weasel words like “however” and “on the other hand.”
I would get summoned a couple times a year, when I had a cover story in the making, and they always emerged from his rewrites a far better piece. Two significant prizes I won in my first years at the magazine should have been awarded to Jim.
He talked me out of quitting twice. He encouraged me with Forbes.com and watched my back in those early, politically fraught days when I was pushing to keep the product free from subscription or registration. He always backed his staff. One reporter, who is still there and who I won’t name, came aboard at my suggestion. He wrote a fairly strong story about a software company that resulted in an utter meltdown by the CEO, threats of pulling ads, lawsuits … Jim called us in, asked us if the story was correct, made us double check the facts, and when we returned with a better story involving resume inflation on the part of the CEO he told us to leave it alone. Forbes was done with the matter.
Ican’t seem to end this because I assumed there was no end to Jim. He was timeless, ageless, like Yoda.
Allan Sloan gives a far better send-off than I.
Here is Peter Brimelow’s
Update: Gretchen Morgenson delivers her send-off in the 10.07.07 Sunday New York Times
My condolences to his wife Jean and his children.