My first experience with a real-life New England editor came in the summer of 1989 when I got an internship working as a reporter at a small daily newspaper in Massachusetts. The city editor in charge of the newsroom was very smart, funny, sarcastic, impatient and, on occasion, cantankerous. I didn’t quite know what to make of him.
Early on he assigned me to interview a lovely older woman whose name would soon grace the new senior center under construction. I crafted a detailed story about her rich life, her many accomplishments, the roots of her activism, hopes for the future, complemented by long strings of quotes.
The city editor sent the story back and told me to cut it in half. I protested, politely. “We’ll save the rest for her obituary,” was his terse rebuttal. He did smile though, or maybe he smirked. All I know is that I received a lesson in humility that I never forgot. Over the course of three months, I also learned that exclamation points are the enemy and deadlines aren’t suggestions.
My favorite work in the PEM exhibition, American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is the painting New England Editor, which is a portrait of George Hough, an old friend of the artist’s from Martha’s Vineyard. Hough worked in the newspaper business in New Bedford for 50 years, most of them as editor of The Evening Standard.
In the painting, Benton depicted the newspaperman seated at a table writing the word “unless” on a piece of paper. Hough was known to proclaim that “unless” a story was correct, it would not be printed in his newspaper and “unless” the reporter had exhausted all possible sources, he wasn’t ready to hand in a story.
The first time I saw the painting I was struck by the subject’s sinewy forearms. I joked that in Benton’s world even the people who lift dictionaries for a living look muscular. Hough appears rugged yet reflective. His painting makes newspaper editors look like heroes and that’s how I have always felt about them.
They taught me how to be skeptical without being cynical, and why adjectives should be used sparingly, if at all. They forced me to stick up for myself when officials refused to release information. They insisted that I ask for the spelling of the first and last name of every person I quoted, even if the person’s name is John Smith because there are Jon Smythes walking around in this world.
More then once, they saved me from embarrassment, gracefully fixing sentences that made no sense and fixing rookie mistakes without shaming the offender — donuts to doughnuts, baited breath to bated breath and intensive purposes to intents and purposes (that one really makes me cringe).
But editors taught me about much more than how to write. They were the mentors who influenced my decisions, both professionally and personally. One editor insisted that family should always come first, and for that support I will forever be grateful. Another editor spoke of how he enjoyed his children at every age, even the teenage ones. He never complained wistfully that they grew up too fast. I think of him often.
Austen Barron Bailly, the lead curator for American Epics, said New England Editor was not on her original checklist but she’s thrilled she managed to have the work included in the show. The Museum of Fine Arts bought the painting in 1946, the same year it was completed. Shortly after, Benton wrote to the MFA director to report that the purchase by the respected Boston institution at last gave him credibility with the old-timers on the Vineyard who still viewed him as an outsider. He also wrote that Hough “is one of the finest down-to-earth Yankees ever to come out of the soil, sharp, witty and smart.”
Looking at the painting, Bailly points out the warm glow on the editor’s face. “It is perfectly illuminated, the way that a master director or cinematographer would be able to do to the leading character,” says Bailly. “What is so important about this painting is that it’s such a prime example of Benton’s ability to take a portrait of an individual and transform it into a kind of type, or an expression of an American experience.”
Most editors I know work behind-the-scenes and their contributions are seldom celebrated publicly. Yet here Benton puts a deserving spotlight on the profession. “Where would we all be without editors?” Bailly asks.
My point exactly.
American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood closes on September 7, Labor Day. See these other blog posts on Benton and the exhibition: