THE OCEAN IS CLOSED: Journalistic Adventures and Investigations is a new collection of work by the late Jon Bradshaw, one of the leading practitioners of magazine journalism during the 1970s and ’80s. (This is the third publication of ZE Books, which produces beautiful volumes devoted to honoring writers and their work.) The articles gathered here, thoughtfully curated and edited by Alex Belth, share one feature in common: they are tales of excess, of personalities who talk too much, drink too much, gamble too much, who often live in a world beyond the boundaries most of us won’t cross. Bradshaw’s profile subjects range from literary figures, such as W. H. Auden, Tom Stoppard, and Hunter S. Thompson, to hustlers, such as tennis showman Bobby Riggs and pool magician Minnesota Fats, to notorious international criminals, such as Andreas Baader, the self-styled revolutionary terrorist and leader of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and Phoolan Devi, India’s “Bandit Queen.”
These are tales of a bygone era — Bradshaw died in 1986, at the age of 48, of a heart attack on a tennis court in Beverly Hills. Most of Bradshaw’s subjects are also long gone (Stoppard and Chris Blackwell are still kicking around, if not raising hell), but it is a tribute to Bradshaw’s storytelling skills that reading his accounts of the exploits of dead outlaws remains entertaining and compelling. Bradshaw’s descriptions at times take on the hardboiled flavor of Raymond Chandler, such as when he says that Bobby Riggs “had the face of a man who sold encyclopedias from door to door; one was suspicious, but never offended,” or when he writes that Minnesota Fats “nursed his reputation like a sore tooth.”
To put all this in context, we are talking about the Pleistocene Era when print magazines ruled: thick weekly or monthly issues, filled with page after page of advertisements, run by storied editors such as Clay Felker (at New York) or the duo of Phillip Moffitt and Chris Whittle (at Esquire). During this era, magazine editors were cultural figures, media-worthy themselves, with Page Six items devoted to their comings and goings and Architectural Digest features on the decoration of their homes. Magazines had hefty budgets and could pay writers a king’s ransom for their work, including the travel expenses, hotel bills, and bar tabs they accumulated in the process. Writers could take as long as needed to report and polish their stories, which could run to whatever length they deemed necessary. It was a golden age of magazine features — of which Bradshaw’s pieces were prime examples.
Bradshaw was an ace in this game. His articles were the result of prodigious research and dedicated reporting, yet they read like extended monologues. The author is often present in these pieces, although usually in the third person, as “the journalist,” someone trying to keep up with the excesses going on all around him. He follows Stoppard from pub to home to theater, effortlessly capturing the voluble playwright’s torrent of conversation. He lets a cranky Billy Wilder make the case that his professional career is merely in a slump, not over and done with — although we understand the great screenwriter/director may be protesting too much. We watch Hunter Thompson — or “Gonzo,” as Bradshaw refers to him — avoid writing an article due on deadline covering an event he failed to attend. He catches JFK advisor Richard Goodwin beaching his sailboat, waiting for the tide to come in — and although they eventually do depart, Bradshaw makes us understand that Goodwin will never regain the luster of his days in Camelot. In Bradshaw’s world, what’s in the rearview mirror often looks better than what’s on the horizon.
Bradshaw had an unerring ability to find himself in the midst of the action, and an admirable willingness to at once wallow in it and share the experience with us mere mortals. He is there at Maxwell’s Plum, the swingles bar on First Avenue in Manhattan that was the Tinder of its time. Then, he’s at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, reporting on a young woman who pays her bills by making herself available to customers a few nights a week. He’s with British gossip columnist Nigel Dempster as he sweeps through New York, or hanging out with Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, most famous for his stewardship of Bob Marley. Here’s how Bradshaw sets the scene for the arrival of Dempster at New York’s Eurotrash nightclub Regine’s:
Regine’s had been open for about a week, and the club is crowded with the usual motley of stupefied white and Third World nightcrawlers. It is practically dark, and against the lac d’ambre plastique walls it is difficult to tell one from the other. Wandering from the bar through the dining room to the discotheque and back again are clusters of starved and foppish girls, hairdressers, actors, designers, entrepreneurs, the idle rich, their courtiers — the sort of people the trendy tabloids have taken to calling the hep elite.
Bradshaw strived to coin the apt phrase or striking simile, saying of the ambience at the Polo Lounge that “[t]he place creates an instant and malign impression on the mind and one turns away as from a lazaretto.” He describes one of his beloved gamblers, Pug, this way: “He had the round mischievous face of an elderly troll, a troll with a fondness for Cuban cigars.”
There are moments chronicled in these articles that would not pass today’s standards of acceptable behavior. For example, Hunter Thompson asks a woman if she would like him to rape her. “You’ll like it,” he tells her. “You have that look about you.” (Frankly, I am not sure how this got by at the time.) Bradshaw casually drops mention of various “neighborhood brothel[s]” he was acquainted with, and he accompanies that young woman at the Polo Lounge bar to her hotel room to complete his interview. Perhaps this is all just Bradshaw’s own nostalgie de la boue, but it reminds us that “the good old days” weren’t so good for everyone.
These occasional dissonances aside, one has to appreciate Bradshaw’s engaging ability to plumb the depths and skim the surfaces of so wide a collection of people and places, and to write in a style all his own. The Ocean Is Closed is a fitting tribute to a writer who might otherwise be forgotten, a magazine writer’s writer, whose talent and personality was such that all doors seemed open to him. Here is his description of backgammon players ending a long night of gambling:
Gathering their coats, they straggled one by one into the street. The player in the dinner jacket threw his umbrella, end over end, into the night. The elderly man thanked them for their contributions. The others exchanged the drawn farewells of truant boys. The man in the dinner jacket wandered south and east, reeling clumsily through the empty streets; he looked like a man attempting to learn the steps of a new dance.
When reading Bradshaw, we are all the man in the dinner jacket.