Monkeys Jumping Out of Boxes: The Editorial Life of Terry McDonell

November 12, 2016   •   By John Tytell

The Accidental Life

Terry McDonell

EDITORS ASPIRE, Terry McDonell advises, to make “monkeys [jump] out of boxes.” McDonell is referring to the new conception of the editor, what the trade now calls the assigning editor, an idea person rather than one who scrupulously scrutinizes language.

As an editor, McDonell has worked for Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated, commissioning pieces from writers like Edward Abbey, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, and George Plimpton. He has been drawn to the contrarian spirit, and to writers who love to hunt and fish in places where “rock and water and sky hammer your eyes.” Indeed, some of the writers he has edited were obsessed with the natural world — like Peter Matthiessen, who voyaged to Mongolia shortly before his death to observe an ancient culture where horsemen hunt wolves using female golden eagles as weapons.

The Accidental Life is one of the most engaging books on editing and contemporary writing I’ve read this year. In fact, I was captivated by its very title, as well as its epigraph — Ezra Pound’s Mosaic law for writing: “Go in fear of abstractions.” McDonell’s deft and charming account of his life in the trade is an example of what Joyce Carol Oates has called “bibliomemoir,” a combination of criticism and biography composed with the intimate confessional tone of autobiography. The book is organized into short vignettes devoted to a single writer, idea, or experience. One key to The Accidental Life is that McDonell has befriended many of the writers he edited. The result is the sort of exact detail and emotional resonance that creates depth and credibility.

McDonell has an informal, anecdotal approach. He is clearly a good raconteur. Some of his tales are little marvels of social recognition, like the one he shares about driving around the Hamptons with Richard Price. A slum kid from the Bronx who wrote best sellers about gang cultures, Price found the ostentation of the beach scene intolerable; he spent the trip entertaining McDonell with painful and comic monologues as fluent as stand-up.

The book shines when McDonell describes writers in conflict with dominant American values, like Edward Abbey. He captures Abbey’s dismay at being lionized by a group of fawning academics at a dinner in Boulder, Colorado. The story ends with an abrupt exit, as does another one about Kurt Vonnegut. McDonell had invited him to a dinner with some editors from Newsweek whose awe and flattery caused the self-deprecating and blunt Vonnegut to leave suddenly before he ate anything. “Drinking was part of everything we did,” McDonell claims, and some of his adventures are plenty rowdy, like one party with Tom McGuane, the actor Peter Fonda, and others that ended with “some of us lying drunk on our backs in the dirt, passed out or just staring up at bright stars in the cold Montana sky.”

McDonell also edited some of the writers who originated the hardcore swaggering bravura of New Journalism — a sustained flight that helped liberate American letters in the 1960s. His narrative is animated with rousing excerpts, such as a passage from Tim Cahill’s Rolling Stone piece about the Jonestown massacre, and the witty devilment of P. J. O’Rourke on political chicanery, which flows with the bitter juice of Mark Twain.

The thread is a meditation on just what constitutes a good editor. Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, once facetiously claimed his job was “quarreling with writers,” but McDonell admits he “doesn’t tamper much with genuinely gifted writers.” His goal from the beginning of his editorial career was to imagine story ideas and convince novelists to write them as nonfiction accounts.

Whenever the opportunity arises, McDonell offers suggestions for editing. His prescriptive advice is based on his experience as editor in chief of magazines like Sports Illustrated, with 50-million-dollar budgets and circulations of over three million. As an editor, his job is to encourage the writer to provide access, narrative, and disclosure. An effective editor asks for more detail and doesn’t try to reform a writer’s sensibility. Sometimes, however, writers need help to “kill [their] darlings,” to eliminate anything that sounds “precious, overly clever or self-indulgent.”

Working for editors like the colorful “outlaw cherub” Warren Hinckle, who edited Ramparts magazine in the 1960s, or Jann Wenner, who created a publishing empire, certainly gave McDonell lessons in journalistic extravagance. But both of these figures seem pallid in comparison to the explosive eccentricity of Hunter S. Thompson. McDonell first met Thompson at a book party at Pete’s Tavern in Manhattan. He had chosen to bring his two young sons, five and seven years old at the time, and the meeting is a droll and compact illustration of McDonell’s touch:

We passed through the bar and went up a steep narrow staircase. Hunter was standing at the top of the stairs, looming and vaguely menacing when you looked up at him. As we climbed, the boys scrambling in front of me, I could see that he was smiling.
“Good,” Hunter said. “Too much fun, eh … ho ho …”
As the boys reached the landing, he squatted like a catcher, eye to eye with them, and presented his pack of Dunhill Reds.
“You guys want a smoke?”

Thompson was the master of what would later be called “gonzo journalism,” a super subjective, amped-up first-person voice (in an industry that, at the time, eschewed anything but the third person). The term had a scatological edge, and the method was to abandon all propriety and protocol. Thompson’s scream of disgust at the false pretentions of the American system would sometimes be accompanied by his banging a Samoan war club, applying lipstick in the middle of a conversation, or spitting the flaming fluid of his Dunhill lighter for emphasis.

The encounters with Thompson provide some clownish levity to McDonell’s book. The most hilarious episode is a golf match with Thompson and George Plimpton in Aspen on LSD. Thompson picked them up before twilight at the airport in his red 1971 Impala convertible, having warned them that he would “beat both of you like mules.” In the golf cart, he had stashed a cooler with beers, bottles of scotch and rum, and a 12-gauge shotgun that he employed during the match to shoo a flock of geese. On the next day, McDonell spent 12 hours interviewing Thompson.

The portraits he draws of novelists like Jim Harrison, Peter Matthiessen, and James Salter are considerably more soulful. Matthiessen and Salter were part of McDonell’s social circle in Sagaponack in the Hamptons. The piece on Salter is particularly touching. Known as a “writer’s writer,” Salter never spoke about himself: “His great confidence had a rightness about it that left him seemingly without vanity.” He would watch McDonell play touch football from the sidelines; sometimes they ate oysters together, or stood silently, shoulder-to-shoulder at cocktail parties. What impressed McDonell most was Salter’s isometric exactness about language. As a small illustration of the importance of self-editing, he quotes from a letter Salter wrote after completing his novel Solo Faces:

It’s astonishing how the crossing out of a line, sometimes a phrase, or the substitution of something right for something false can suddenly let light in on an entire chapter.

Relations with writers like Salter or Richard Ford characterized McDonell’s role at Esquire in the 1990s. With his subsequent run at Sports Illustrated, his path veered closer to what might be called “celebrity journalism.” Throughout The Accidental Life he records experiences with people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Margot Kidder, Steve Jobs, and Jann Wenner, who rented a yacht and took him to lunch with Jackie Onassis in Martha’s Vineyard.

Such conjunctions form bright flashes for the book, but his friendship with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, who co-founded The Paris Review in the 1950s, lends The Accidental Life a more sustained glitter. Plimpton had met Hemingway, who was purchasing a copy of his magazine in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel; he had pitched a baseball to Mickey Mantle; he had played tennis with George H. W. Bush; and he had written about all these encounters with grace and feeling. Plimpton’s curiosity was a primal journalistic priority, and McDonell compares the effect of his frequent questions to bouncing on a trampoline. Suavely self-assured, he was for McDonell the epitome of nonchalance and capability.

McDonell has lots of grace himself, and I liked the way he filters personal details into his narrative. For instance, when describing James Salter, who graduated from West Point in 1945 and learned to fly F-86 fighter jets, McDonell reveals that his own father died as a navy pilot the previous year. More fundamentally, however, the book’s grace is a function of McDonell’s clear and unpretentious style. At one point, he describes the “private thrill that comes from writing a clear and unique sentence.” We feel the reader’s — and editor’s — thrill at encountering such sentences throughout his memoir.


John Tytell has taught in the English Department of Queens College (CUNY) since 1963.