For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
Through persistence, a lost diamond bracelet, and my best good fairy gift, my incredible luck, I was a real live magazine editor (well, assistant editor), at Viva, a magazine that suffered from multiple-personality syndrome and was losing boatloads of money every month.
The fact that Viva was such as mishmash of a magazine was not due to an incompetent staff. Everyone did their job well; we just had completely different ideas of what that job was.
I thought my job was to get as much free stuff as possible, through mentions in my frivolous little section, “Tattler,” volunteering to model products myself. I was photographed posing in a racing jacket that in real life made me look as if I were swaddled in Reynolds Wrap and running a device over my face that promised smoother skin, and was as effective as a wood sander in removing my epidermis.
The one thing I did take seriously was my responsibility to my first friend at Viva, the down-trodden managing editor, Debby, who was tasked with getting the magazine to the printers. I made sure that my copy had left my typewriter and was at the art department well before it was due.
The person who did the best job was Viva’s extraordinarily talented art director, Rowan Johnson. Through a fog of drink and drugs, and always past deadline, Rowan created stunningly beautiful covers for Viva. Unfortunately, at newsstands in most parts of the country Viva was still thought of as the penis magazine. Rowan’s ground-breaking work was doomed to be wrapped in brown paper and stuck under the counter with Hustler and Club magazines.
Most of the Viva editorial staff regarded their job as ignoring the penises of the past and the still-present soft porn and erotica and transform Viva into a competitor of Ms. and Mother Jones. Between the fashion sections featuring $1,000 dresses and the photos of nude smooching couples were articles such as “Daughters of the Earth: The Difficult Lives of Indian Women,” “Jane Fonda: An American Revolutionary,” “A Guide to Abortion in America,” and “The Facts about Wife Abuse.”
What Bob Guccione, who was footing the bill for this cockamamie magazine, thought of Viva was irrelevant, until suddenly it wasn’t. Guccione happened to pick up an issue of Viva whose lead story was a 5,000-word profile of La Pasionaria, a woman who had fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and was now an infamous Basque separatist.
Bob had taken one look at the wrinkle-faced, white-haired La Pasionaria, photographed in the style of Margaret Bourke-White, and yelled “What the f— is this?” Even if they were brave enough to attempt it, no one around him could have explained to Bob why there was a full-page photo of an 83-year-old Communist wrapped in a black serape in a magazine aimed at young, sexy, fashion-forward sophisticates.
The era of the leftist, feminist attitude of Viva was over. Kathy decided that what Viva needed was an editor who could claw it out of the red, someone to woo advertisers into a magazine that now had a reputation for being not only X-rated but radically left-wing.
Our new editor was Helen Irwin, whose previous job was selling ad space in Tennis magazine. She looked the part — of a tennis player, not an editor. She was Amazonian, tall, blonde, sinewy, tan — I don’t think anyone would have been surprised if she had bounded into the office wearing tennis whites. Helen’s job at Tennis must have been easy: the magazine ran articles on tennis rackets and she sold ads to companies that made tennis rackets.
Helen’s mission was to turn Viva into a “consumer” magazine; at her first editorial meeting she said, “I want more beauty features. That will bring in Revlon and Clairol. Get someone to write an article on setting up a home bar. Check with the ad department to see what liquor companies to mention. And we’re going to do a guide to sports equipment. I have a meeting with Wilson this week.”
Viva had a new imaginary reader: A Babe Didrikson with a fondness for cosmetics, booze, and designer clothes, who was also an adventurous sexual libertine (the last item being the infallible Viva gospel according to Miss Keeton).
Several editors defected after this meeting. My scruples allowed me to stay. I liked my job. I liked getting free stuff and dining out on someone else’s dime. Just that week I had eaten blini and caviar at The Russian Tea Room, washed down with a disgusting shot of newly introduced, vile, and short-lived USA, America’s First Potato Vodka; and I had been invited to a Pernod-sponsored dinner at the swanky French restaurant, Le Perigord, on Park Avenue, where every course, from appetizers to dessert, tasted like Good & Plentys.
Of the surviving Viva editorial staff, I was the first to work with Helen, as I always delivered my copy to the art department well before deadline. Usually my bits of fluff were relegated to the assistant art director, but I was nervous about working with Big Blonde; I had begged Rowan, Viva’s genius art director, to do the layout for my “Tattler” section and to let me review it early in the day, before the bar across the street opened.
Rowan phoned me. “Come take a look, Gay.” I hurried down to the art department, made complimentary noises about Rowan’s work, and promised to never ask him again. I had just finished initialling my “GH-OK” on each page when Helen strode into the art department, swinging an imaginary racket. Rowan cowered as she approached; Helen had a good five inches and thirty pounds on him. With a powerful fronthand Helen slapped Rowan on the back and bellowed, “How you doing there, guy?” almost knocking him into the light table.
Rowan did not respond to Helen’s hearty hail fellow well met; he lit a fresh cigarette from the half-smoked one in his mouth and retreated to his office to find something to recuperate with. I handed Helen my pages of the magazine so she could approve my “Tattler” section and Rowan could get back to serious substance abuse.
Helen flipped slowly through the layouts. She started out obviously upset, and as she went on her eyebrows got higher and her jaw tighter. Helen put the papers down, whirled at me, and said, “You must be the most incompetent person I have ever met.”
I was busted. The editor had no clothes. This sport/sales woman had discovered that I was a fraud. It was like a bad dream, hearing someone vocalize my deepest fear, that I was an imposter, with no claim to being any kind of editor or writer or even a decent secretary. After all, I was only hired in the first place because someone wanted to go to bed with me.
I was so incompetent that when Helen asked me, in the chastising tone of a third grade teacher, “Do you know what you have done?” I didn’t have a clue.
Helen shook the pages at me. “Look again.”
I did and I was still baffled. Helen gave me the glare my mother used to when I claimed I didn’t know how to dry dishes. Helen grabbed the layout from me and started reading aloud. What came out was complete goobledegook:
“Loren ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. In sit amet imperdiet turpis, a molestie elit. This is what you just okayed to run in the magazine,” she scolded.
The oboli dropped. Art directors, back in the pre-computer era, used what was known as Greek type, though it was actually Latin, as place holders for real copy. Greek type came in sheets so it could be cut up, laid out, rejected, re-cut, re-laid out, and eventually pasted down. Once the layout was approved, the actual text replaced the Greek type, the editor cutting or adding words to make it fit.
My brain was still cross-wired with panic, self-recrimination, and guilt and could not stop my mouth from blurting out “Are you stupid?” I may have added the f-word.
I had been working with Greek type since I picked up my first girl set at Oui, but the new editor of Viva didn’t even know what it was? Rowan, yanked from his office sanctuary and opium den, sobered up enough to explain Greek type to Helen. I stomped back to my cubicle, rolling my eyes all the way.
The next day Helen called me into her office.
“You do not fit in with my plans for Viva,” she said and held out a check.
I was convinced that Helen could not possibly be speaking to me but to someone else who had snuck in behind me; I almost looked over my shoulder. Why was I here with this person who was being fired? The check Helen was waving in her hand had nothing to do with me.
Helen had completely flummoxed me twice in two days. But this time my brain synced up to my mouth. I said, “You’re firing me? You can’t fire me.”
I left Helen and went straight to Miss Keeton, who saw my crazed state, pushed me into her office, and shut the door. There was nothing to be done but to tell the truth, and I knew Rowan would back me up.
“I should not have said what I did, Miss Keeton. I love my job and want to be part of the new Viva.” Whatever that turned out to be. “I don’t deserve to be fired.”
I probably did deserve to be fired, but Helen Irwin, basking in her new position of power, had not bothered to let Kathy Keeton know that she was making a staff change. Her mistake trumped mine.
Miss Keeton sighed and said, “I’ll see what I can do, Gay.” I was dismissed and spent the rest of the day drinking alone at P.J. Clarke’s. I did not want to go home to my struggling artist boyfriend, Michael, and have to explain what I was doing at our apartment in the middle of the day or where next month’s rent was coming from.
I received my third and final wish from the magic diamond bracelet: to get a byline in the magazine, to be transformed from secretary to editor, and now, to keep my job.
Helen could fire me from Viva, but thanks to Miss Keeton, not from the company. As there was no way Helen was going to have someone on her staff who had publicly cursed her out, I was dispatched by Kathy over to Penthouse as editorial assistant, a demotion in title but a promotion from a rapidly failing magazine (Viva would close within the year) to one that made millions of dollars every month, the best-selling men’s magazine in America.
I gathered up my things and moved across the office. Two flimsy grey fabric-covered boards were erected for me in the back of a big room where three secretaries sat. Tucked away out of sight, I felt as if I had been smuggled into the Penthouse editorial department.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now