The Sunday Profile : Last of a Breed : Robert Sam Anson would go to hell and back for a good story--a passion that many admire. But some say making him editor of Los Angeles magazine was a risky move.
People said the guy was fearless.
His assignment should have been fairly routine. But Robert Sam Anson was gutsy, the kind of writer colleagues imagined nursed a Hemingway complex. So when Time magazine sent their young New York bureau reporter to cover the training camp preparations for the first Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight many moons ago, Anson didn’t just report the news.
“I thought this guy was completely out of his mind,” recalls former Time writer Chris Byron. “He got in the ring with Joe Frazier, and I think Frazier hit him so hard with the first punch, he got a broken leg or a dislocated shoulder. That guy hit him into the next county.
“Everybody said, ‘Did you hear what Bob Anson did?’ ”
Anson’s taste for reporting without a net had been singeing the grapevine for months. The summer before, he’d been captured by North Vietnamese soldiers while on a story in Cambodia. The experience helped polish his image as an intrepid writer, “the last of a breed of broad-shouldered, bare-knuckled, ‘70s magazine journalists who will chopper into any hellhole on Earth and come back with an epic story.”
Esquire Deputy Editor David Hirshey described him that way in an interview 25 years later, and the 50-ish Anson liked the quote well enough that his new publisher reprinted it to laud Anson’s recent debut as editor of Los Angeles magazine.
Indeed, Anson’s admirers are hoping that his hiring will put some punch in a magazine that had gotten a reputation as a sleepy sheet for Westsiders.
“I was blown away by how smart a move it was,” says Scott Kaufer, a longtime friend of Anson’s and a former editor in chief of now-defunct California magazine. “I think he wants to kick ass, have fun and let people know he was here, and the sense I always got from Los Angeles before was their editors wanted to beat the traffic home.”
But other former colleagues say his pugnaciousness and passion for a good story go too far. Even some of his supporters describe him as subject to severe mood swings, a fierce temper and questionable judgment. Former staffers complain of inappropriate remarks and humiliating dressings-down in front of peers.
When Anson took over Los Angeles, he immediately announced he was cleaning house, and editors and writers started popping out the door like water beads from a salad spinner. While some people left on their own steam, some of the dismissals weren’t pretty. One writer was summarily fired on her answering machine by an Anson deputy. They started calling him “Ebola Bob.”
“Robert Sam Anson is a bull who carries his own china shop around him,” says former Los Angeles magazine film critic Rod Lurie, who says he quit over editing conflicts.
Critics say they expected change, but not so abruptly and abrasively. Some supporters write off such complaints as sour grapes from disgruntled journalists who didn’t make the cut.
“I think when there is any kind of change, you will find some people who are angry, and at this magazine there have been 35 years of no change,” says Los Angeles magazine publisher Joan McCraw. “It was a family and it was fun, but it was losing its momentum, and when you break up a family, people get upset.”
“I’ve always found [Anson] to be a very good guy,” says Kaufer, now a television writer and producer for Brandon Tartikoff. “If other people have personally witnessed him cook a small child, I’ve never seen that happen.”
But similar criticisms dogged Anson during his many years as a magazine and book writer based in New York. At Esquire, Anson’s most recent haunt, staffers placed bets on how long he would last on Los Angeles magazine’s masthead.
“Editing Bob is both a rewarding and debilitating experience,” Hirshey says. “In the end you get a great piece, but not before you’ve lost two feet off of your colon.”
Anson declined to be interviewed for this story. His stature as the magazine’s savior or scourge may be in the eye of the beholder. But he will have to contend with more than the opinion of his peers--there’s also the testy court of public opinion. This city has never been fertile ground for magazine journalism. New West and its later incarnation, California, lasted only six years even with heavy-hitting talent.
The latest entry, 5-year-old Buzz, has amassed a circulation of only 100,000 in the bimonthly’s campaign to become the New Yorker of the West. And Los Angeles magazine’s circulation has slipped from 1990’s high of 172,000 to 156,000. Those figures have been tallied against a backdrop of tough times for print journalism generally and city magazines in particular.
“No magazine has adequately captured the place, and you can go back 50, 60 years,” says Larry Dietz, former executive editor of New West. “The print reading community is far more fragmented than New York’s. There’s Hollywood. There’s Pasadena. There’s the Valley. There are surfers. There are all these different constituencies.”
Whether there’s room for two city magazines may be moot on Anson’s watch. His ultimate boss will soon be someone who has felt the sting of his pen--Disney chief Michael Eisner. Anson, who is contracted to do a book on Disney, has already written pieces skewering Eisner: An article in the New York Observer branded the mogul “Captain Queeg,” and Anson quoted David Geffen calling Eisner “a liar” in Anson’s first issue of Los Angeles magazine.
In a bizarre twist of corporate fate, Disney’s plan to merge with Los Angeles magazine’s owner--Capital Cities/ABC Inc.--technically puts Eisner in the driver’s seat of Anson’s editing career. Media circles are buzzing over whether the Disney mogul will force the first-time editor to make a detour, although Capital Cities/ABC calls such speculation premature. And Disney spokesman John Dreyer said only, “We have to complete a merger first and then we would expect him to make Los Angeles magazine the best magazine of its kind in the country.”
But Eisner told a Hollywood journalist who asked where Anson stood on his list of post-merger priorities: “ ‘Basically it’s the bottom of the heap. It’s something I’ll get around to,’ meaning I won’t scratch that itch right now, but it will be scratched,” the journalist said.
At Pantheon Books, Anson’s editor, Erroll McDonald, has said the publisher plans to publish the Disney book regardless of Anson’s position at the magazine.
Anson was hired by McCraw last spring after, several former staffers say, she forced out editor Lew Harris. McCraw says he wasn’t fired, and Harris says he resigned to pursue journalism opportunities on the Internet.
McCraw had come on board from National Geographic a year earlier with the mandate to shake things up and create a magazine with “regional resonance and national import.” McCraw was a longtime admirer of Anson’s writing and she didn’t consider his lack of editing experience an obstacle, figuring the magazine would benefit from his “fresh approach.”
“He understands how to capture an audience,” she says. “I think he is truly gifted, and my thought was, if he could take that across the breadth of the magazine, we could have a wonderful book here. I also knew he would attract a caliber of writer and writing to the magazine that I thought was really important, and he did.”
Anson had come to the magazine’s attention in part because of his Disney book, which was already controversial. In “The Rules of the Magic,” Anson planned to trace the 10-year reign of Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and the late Frank Wells. But Simon & Schuster dumped the book in the spring of 1993, saying that it was lagging far behind schedule and that key people, including Eisner, had declined to be interviewed.
Anson sued for breach of contract, accusing Simon & Schuster of suppressing the book because it was unflattering to Marvin Davis, then-CEO of its parent company, Paramount Communications, and a former boss of Eisner’s. The suit was settled out of court, and a month later, Pantheon agreed to publish the book for release in early 1994. Anson has reportedly said the book will be published in 1996.
The Disney book lured Anson here from New York four years ago. (He now lives in Santa Monica with his artist wife, Amanda Kay Kyser, the daughter of big band leader Kay Kyser, and their daughter, Georgia Grace. He also has two children from a previous marriage.) He took over the magazine in May, and in his state-of-the-magazine address to the staff, he laid out his goal of turning Los Angeles into one of the country’s best magazines--"indispensable reading” celebrating the city’s “craziness, its contradictions, its fantastic diversity.” And he promised change “over time.”
But time flies at Los Angeles magazine. Anson quickly announced a campaign of editorial cleansing. By the second issue, only two of the 19 contributing editors had survived.
He slammed his predecessors in a staff memo for the lack of “feature inventory,” but sources said he’d spent $50,000 on kill fees, ditching stories a couple of weeks before the deadline for his first issue.
“He told everybody upfront . . . ‘Getting the July issue out is going to make the Bataan Death March look like the Easter Parade,’ ” says a former staffer. “And, indeed, it was pretty miserable.”
Anson outlined his game plan in staff memos. The magazine would borrow in part from Spy and New York magazines. The Prime Finds column, for example, was to be “a frank rip-off” of the weekly New York’s Best Bets. In fact, the New York pedigree of Los Angeles magazine’s new vision has some readers wondering whether the magazine is looking down its nose at Angelenos.
In a letter to the editor, Katherine N. Harter of Toluca Lake groaned about a column comparing the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times: “Perhaps you could find someone to write a column on California who actually likes the state. I’m getting tired of New Yorkers who trash us.”
And Jack Feuer, a columnist for Inside Media, wrote in the trade biweekly that Anson “immediately transformed what had been a delightfully hokey local rag into a pretentious imitation of ‘New York,’ only with less of a sense of humor and far too much of that idiotic East Coast obsession with Hollywood.”
But some observers believe an Ansonian edge is precisely what the city needs.
“In every good way he’s a throwback to the front-page tradition,” Kaufer says. “He has never lost his passion for the chase, and I think that’s rare in this current crop of overly ambitious wienified techno-journalists that seems to have, like so many pods, infiltrated every level of journalism.”
Anson vowed to sweep away the puffy approach to covering Hollywood, the “People magazine-style celebrity profiles.” He quickly made good on that promise with his piece headlined “David Geffen Disses Eisner.” The incendiary interview kicked up a media hoo-hah when Geffen complained about being “sandbagged"--the Dreamworks honcho said he hadn’t given Anson permission to publish an interview he had given for the Disney book.
Corie Brown, a Premiere magazine writer who penned a piece for Los Angeles’ August issue, says Anson’s reputation for being “audacious” is attracting writers for national magazines who wouldn’t have written for the old Los Angeles.
“When he took the interview from David Geffen and put it in the magazine, he knew he’d make him mad, but it wasn’t bad journalism,” Brown says. “David never said he didn’t say those things. But Sam wanted something spicy for his magazine. I expect him to have pieces that I ought to read and I have not felt that way about Los Angeles magazine. . . . I think we’re all too reverential and respectful and he’s not and that’s fun.”
Anson’s taste for an edge has so far produced splashy--and sometimes curious--pieces: Julia Phillips’ take on Hollywood’s “power lesbians”; a lengthy, illustrated discourse on cockroaches, and Jonathan Kellerman’s examination of “The Othello Syndrome,” a form of psychosis that compels some men to murder their wives, which the magazine suggested was considered by the O.J. Simpson defense. There are also first-person pieces about life in L.A. and news bites about tush sculptures, prices for dog massage and other bits designed to show “we are hip to what is going on in this town,” in Anson’s words.
McCraw says Anson’s vision for his first three issues is paying off. Ad revenues for September climbed 17.6% over last year.
But if the magazine is carving out a sharp new profile, some are wondering at what cost. Some current and former employees have been troubled by Anson’s remarks, including those contained in a wish list of potential contributors he distributed to the staff. The list, which included one writer who has been dead for more than two years, went beyond their sometimes blue-chip credentials.
Michael Dinwiddie, an African American formerly with Time magazine, was described as being “great on black topics without being pain in the neck about it.” Anson also suggested that one well-known woman novelist was promiscuous, noting that she “knows--in many cases intimately--every prominent writer and politician in the country.”
In conversation, he has referred to women by their breast size instead of their name, sources said. And shortly after his arrival, Anson told several editorial people over lunch that a certain magazine writer was a womanizer. When a woman at the table expressed surprise, sources said, Anson turned to her and asked, “Would you f--- him?”
“If you’ve been working with someone a long time, it’s one thing to have off-color conversations,” says someone who was present, “but to your staff on Day Two, that seems a little bit out of line to me. . . . He’s the old school, a good old boy. When you have a tense situation where people are fearful for their jobs and you have a guy who’s tough and salty, it adds fuel to the fire. People are fearful. They don’t know where to turn.”
McCraw did not return phone calls requesting comment on the incident.
Former articles editor Terry Mulgannon, who was eventually fired, aroused Anson’s ire when sources wouldn’t confirm that O.J. Simpson’s defense team had consulted an expert on “The Othello Syndrome.”
“Anson decided it was my shortcoming as a journalist that I couldn’t trick this guy into saying he’d been officially consulted,” Mulgannon says. “I tried to do another rewrite. He gets angrier and angrier. He’s huffing and puffing and he follows me into my office. He says, ‘Give me the stuff.’ The guy literally kicks at me. His foot stops an inch short of my face. I’m stunned. He has gritted teeth and is literally seething. His teeth are clenched. His fists are clenched.”
Anson responded in a written statement: “That allegation is absolutely false.”
But Brown says she had a great experience working with Anson and she’s planning to write another piece for Los Angeles.
“They said ‘thank you’ several times,” Brown says. “They paid me immediately. And I felt like I was dealing with great professional people who were respectful of me and I was respectful of them.”
Still, some suggest Los Angeles magazine was hasty in assuming that Anson’s success as a writer would translate into success as an editor.
“He’d be a terrible editor,” says one of Anson’s former editors. “An editor has to be a gyroscopic figure. You have to provide the center for the organization. Journalists work best when they have a feeling of security and stability. I don’t think he could furnish that.”
Others say complaints are par for the course.
“He’s got great energy, he’s got a temper and he’s got that impatience and short attention span,” says author and columnist Richard Reeves, a longtime friend. “He probably has the kind of energy that editors have, but they’re all difficult. I’ve never, ever, ever worked for an easygoing editor.”
Says McCraw: “If someone has a passion, do you consider that difficult or mercurial?”
Robert Sam Anson was born into a Cleveland newspaper family, the son of an editor and publisher. He attended Notre Dame and started his career on a hometown paper, the Cleveland Press. But Anson quickly moved into the big leagues. In the late ‘60s, Time magazine sent him to cover the war in Southeast Asia. On Aug. 3, 1970, he was captured by North Vietnamese soldiers. He described the incident in his 1989 book, “War News: A Young Reporter in Indochina” (Simon & Schuster):
“Grabbing my arms, the soldiers pulled me to my feet and started shoving me in the direction of a freshly dug foxhole. . . . They pitched me feet first into the hole, then threw a small trenching tool in after me. . . .
“I dug for perhaps 20 minutes. . . . My mind was filled with a jumble of things--how I wished they’d kill me on the road so my body could be found; how I’d let down my kids and my wife; how I wanted to be shot in the chest, not the head, since somehow the latter would be worse; how f------ stupid I’d been; how f------ scared I felt. . . .
“Another soldier moved forward and shouted at me to stop . . . I felt . . . the coldness of his AK being pressed against my forehead. I began saying the Hail Mary.
“Above me I heard the metallic click of a weapon being locked and loaded. . . . Then something strange swam into my head . . . the Vietnamese word for peace.
“ ‘Hoa-binh,’ I whimpered. Then louder: ‘Hoa-binh . . . Hoa-binh!’ ”
For the next three weeks, Anson lived with his captors and tried to strike up friendships by trading language instructions, writing poetry about his guards and passing around a journal that everyone doodled in.
“A bond was forming between us,” Anson wrote in Time. “I could almost watch it growing stronger daily.”
The incident helped make Anson’s reputation early on. But some of his former editors believe the experience colored his behavior.
“It could be said the war traumatized Bob in a way that hurt him forever,” says a former Time editor.
Another former editor says, “He’s controlled by his impulses and his rages. He doesn’t think. He just acts.”
Anson spent much of the ‘70s producing for public television and doing hard-hitting pieces for the now-defunct New Times magazine on a broad range of subjects--from the black market for adopting babies to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, whom he alleged in the article used drugs, humiliated his staff, prevailed over chaotic magazine closings and imagined plots against him.
In the ‘80s, Anson cemented his reputation as an indefatigable reporter, writing for such national magazines as Esquire, Mademoiselle and Life.
“He reports up to the last second,” says Terry McDonell, former editor in chief of Esquire. “I remember being happy with all of the pieces. They were big ambitious pieces.”
While Esquire editor Hirshey lauds Anson’s pieces as “definitive,” he says dealing with him was so difficult Hirshey would “husband [his] strength” for an Anson edit no more than once every three months. Hirshey and New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan established “the Bob Anson Support Line"--a pact where they would call each other any time for help.
“I would say he’s a great journalist and an excellent kick boxer, as anyone who’s wrangled with him knows,” Hirshey says. “One of the epic and Ansonian experiences was a piece he did for us in which, in the course of the edit--I have a fax in my file to confirm it--he called me 184 times and sent me 87 faxes, most of them threatening to take his name off of the piece.
“His passion for the truth is as legendary and potent as is his passion for getting things his own way. There was a lot of blood on the walls, most of it mine, but in the end I always got a fax congratulating me on staying in the trenches with him.”
Anson became legendary for his fights. A punch-up between Anson and an editor at Men’s Life at a Sag Harbor hotel five years ago hit the New York Post’s gossipy Page 6. A year ago, at a party at journalist and screenwriter Roger Director’s house, Anson confronted Tony Schwartz, a New York writer working on a book with Eisner about the Disney chief’s management philosophy. Anson accused his rival in the Disney book-writing business of selling out.
“He handled diversity of opinion about as well as Stalin did, and I think that’s what people have a hard time with,” says someone who was there.
In the ‘80s, Anson won critics’ praise for books about his war correspondent years and profiles of Richard Nixon and Edmund Perry, a troubled African American student at Phillips Exeter Academy who was shot dead by a white police officer. But his books didn’t fare well commercially, leading a longtime friend of Anson’s to speculate that the Los Angeles magazine job offered him a high-profile opportunity to catch up with some of his more famous peers.
Indeed, when Anson took over, he was gleeful. He announced to the staff that he’d been anticipating his new post “like a little kid waiting for Christmas morning.” But if his critics are correct that Anson’s ornery past will come back to haunt him, he won’t be the first editor to wear those thorns.
“If you got demerits for being dysfunctional as an editor, it would be very difficult for any of us to pass,” says McDonell, who has dealt with his own career trials. “And wouldn’t it be great if he brought out a real aggressive news sense to that kind of journalism in Los Angeles?”