By Ed Odeven
Tokyo (April 11, 2020) — Call him The Curator. He’s earned the title.
With omnipresent enthusiasm and curiosity, Alex Belth curates a jaw-dropping mix of great journalism, obscure literature, hidden gems, long-form reportage on an endless array of subjects, from dozens of defunct magazines (remember WigWag?) to popular publications from yesteryear (True, Look and much more).
The Stacks Reader is one of the best websites about American culture, offering illuminating insights into the lives and ideas of well-known personalities and society at large. Thoughtful reflections from and about movie stars, musicians, authors and athletes are among the website’s trademark qualities.
Belth has a real knack for unearthing long-forgotten stories and introducing them to the general public. It’s not something that happened overnight. You might have seen his work on his hip, long-running Bronx Banter Blog. If you haven’t, dig through the site’s abundant archives. Great stuff. A quintessential New Yorker, Belth provided an outlet for Yankee fans to gather online and share praise and condemnation of the Bronx Bombers years before Facebook and other social media outlets created similar forums.
(My recommendation: Browse the full Interviews section. Read a dozen or so to gain an appreciation for the love that Belth has for the written word and for the process of creating art, as well as for preserving it and sharing it.)
The Stacks Reader’s About page delivers Belth’s mission statement for the website.
It begins this way: “The Stacks Reader is an online collection of classic journalism and writing about the arts that would otherwise be lost to history. Motivated less by nostalgia than by preservation, The Stacks Reader is a living archive of memorable storytelling-a museum for stories. We celebrate writers, highlight memorable publications, honor notable personalities, and produce interviews with writers and editors and illustrators in the hope of offering compelling insight into how journalism worked, particularly in the second half of the 20th Century.”
Belth also posts occasional remembrances pieces from prominent writers on high-profile individuals, such as John Schulian’s splendid essay “Forever John Prine,” about the American musician who died earlier this month of the coronavirus at age 73.
Schulian’s talent as an observer and wordsmith is showcased from time to time on The Stacks Reader. Whenever I spot his byline on the home page’s Top of The Stack, it becomes a part of my required reading for the week.
Without losing my train of thought too much, I wanted to return to the Prine article for a moment.
The next two paragraphs underscore the American original’s approach to music:
“Prine moved at his own pace in music as in life, a sly craftsman who wouldn’t let a songwriting session run so long that his favorite diner might be out of meatloaf by the time he got there for lunch. His was a grace under pressure that he practiced 24 hours a day,” Schulian wrote. “As I once heard him tell a concert crowd, ‘Here’s a song I wrote at four in the morning because I had to record it at 11 and I didn’t want to be late.’
“Behind that what’s-the-rush pose, however, there was an artist who cared deeply about the songs he left us when checkout time arrived yesterday after his weeklong battle (with) the coronavirus. The clerical minutiae that accompanies his death—age 73, twice a cancer survivor, no one lives forever—only gets in the way of our trying to understand how he became an icon of Americana music by writing songs like ‘Sam Stone,’ ‘Hello In There’ and ‘The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.’ Songs that define the genre and should be sung as long as there are troubadours who embrace the human condition.”
Effectively using a pull-out statement to highlight Schulian’s article, Belth posted the following in bright red:
“The songs he leaves behind are a comfort, a source of cheer, a window to specific times in American life and a testament to the breadth of his talent.”
Articles about Mickey Mantle, Richard Pryor, Mister Rogers, Brooke Shields, Larry Holmes, Stevie Wonder, and the surviving seltzermen in the 1960s are examples of the prime selections that tantalize and inform.
Belth divides the website’s entries into a handy collection of categories: Features, Profiles, Columns, Essays, Criticism, Interviews, Fiction and Book Excerpts. There are additional genre and decades categories for perusal, too.
A personal favorite: A 7,600-plus word magnum opus on show biz icon Jackie Gleason (“The Hollow Clown”), which was penned for the January 1964 issue of Show by Alfred Bester.
One particularly interesting section includes these two long blocks of type:
“This is the atmosphere of the American Scene Magazine, a rough, tough, one-man circus, heir to every vaudeville show, every carnival, every burlesque, every nightclub act that ever played the back streets from Schenectady to Sheboygan. It is an encyclopedia, a history, a mausoleum of the situations and sight-gags developed through centuries of clowning. It could have played Hammerstein’s Victoria 50 years ago. It could have played the Theater of Marcellus 2,000 years ago.
“Gleason alone winds the key that sets his golem in action on Saturday nights. He writes, composes, directs, produces, performs and has no compunction about revealing that he neither trusts nor respects his staff. He alone is responsible for the pace and taste of the show, from the June Taylor Dancers who open it with their resurrection of the Goldwyn Follies to Frank Fontaine’s spastic saloon spot that usually closes it. For Gleason, this is meat-and-potatoes entertainment, and 20 million viewers agree with him, at least according to the ratings. But for viewers of any taste or sense, his show is the quintessence of vulgarity.”
Another favorite is Dick Schaap’s column on 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in The New York Herald Tribune in January 1964. Sure, it’s a slice of history, but it’s also timeless.
History buffs can also find Ernie Pyle’s D-Day dispatches on The Stacks Reader.
From June 1944, the Scripps-Howard Wire Service war correspondent began one of his reports this way:
“NORMANDY BEACHHEAD—(by wireless)—Due to a last-minute alteration in the arrangements, I didn’t arrive on the beachhead until the morning after D-day, after our first wave of assault troops had hit the shore.
“By the time we got here the beaches had been taken and the fighting had moved a couple of miles inland. All that remained on the beach was some sniping and artillery fire, and the occasional startling blast of a mine geysering brown sand into the air. That plus a gigantic and pitiful litter of wreckage along miles of shoreline.
“Submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongings were strewn all over these bitter sands. That plus the bodies of soldiers lying in rows covered with blankets, the toes of their shoes sticking up in a line as though on drill. And other bodies, uncollected, still sprawling grotesquely in the sand or half hidden by the high grass beyond the beach.
“That plus an intense, grim determination of work-weary men to get this chaotic beach organized and get all the vital supplies and the reinforcements moving more rapidly over it from the stacked-up ships standing in droves out to sea.”
Another Normandy dispatch, this one from July 1944, is also republished on the website.
Society’s biggest problems from the past have also found a home on The Stacks Readers, providing readers with a glimpse into the issues people encountered.
Case in point: Chip Brown’s absorbing February 1982 article in Harper’s (“A Last Good Place To Live”) about the growing AIDS epidemic. The Stacks Reader summed it up this way: “Inside a residence for the homeless with AIDS.”
I reached out to Alex in 2018 about the possibility of doing a Q&A on The Stacks Reader and his overall interest in curating quality journalism and literature, among other topics. The interview didn’t happen right away, but I’m delighted that it eventually got completed this week.
Growing up in New York, who do you recall as the first memorable newspaper and magazine writers whose work you were drawn to and noticed being aware of the quality of their writing and/or the fact that they were famous writers whose names and prose you recognized? Can you estimate a time, an age, that this occurred?
I wasn’t interested in magazine writers or newspapers writers growing up. I liked to look at the pictures—magazines with glossy paper and color images were the best. I was a sports fan, though, my Dad read the Times so I think the first byline I recognized was probably Murray Chass. And I was fascinated by it because I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce his last name. This was probably in 1978-’79 when I was 7-8 years old. Red Smith, Ira Berkow, Joe Durso, and Dave Anderson. But I never read them with any awareness of who they were. By the time I was in middle school, I read The Daily News when Mike Lupica was their star columnist. He was good. I remember looking forward to his Sunday “Shooting from the Lip” column because it had good one-liners and zingers and “takes” before they were called “takes.” The evolution of Jimmy Cannon’s “Nobody Asked Me, But …”
Why does curating matter to you? How did it become a big part of your life? And do you notice that there’s a growing interest in doing on a smaller or bigger scale things similar to this that you’ve done on the Bronx Banter blog, for Esquire and The Stacks on Deadspin and The Daily Beast and on your most recent evolution of this on The Stacks Reader?
That’s a huge question but an essential one. I recently read an article about how mis-used the word “curated” is these days. I first heard the term a little over a decade ago from an editor at Sports Illustrated, when it was becoming a buzz word in digital journalism. A curator is someone who works in a museum or a gallery. But the part I can relate to is that a curator is someone who takes care of things. That concept, caring for things—in this case, magazine writing and writers’s legacies—is at the heart of what I’m doing. And not just writers, but illustrators, and editors too. Otherwise calling myself a curator is pretentious and wrong.
It’s not just because I am a journalism nut. I’m a culture junkie. I could just as easily been as involved in preserving art or movies or music, it just happened to be magazine journalism, particularly from from the 1950s through the early 2000s. I’m just someone who gets a jones for things and then loves doing the deep dive. Yes, I love stories and storytelling and social and culture history, of course, that is endlessly rewarding on a creative level, but the real thing for me is the connection I’ve made with writers and editors, or, in some cases their family—a wife, a daughter, a cousin. That’s the truth. Offering to care and preserve their work, to honor it and provide a place for it to live, is what I’m after. I mean, that’s the value for me. It’s humbling and also a real nice exchange. The work, the treasures, the objects, are fascinating of course, but it’s this other thing—being trusted to care for a writer’s lifework—that provides so much personal nourishment for me.
As far as the work goes, I’m less motivated by nostalgia than by preservation, refusing to let good things be buried. I’ve also been informed by personal experience. My mother’s parents were from Belgium and after WWII they lived in the Congo for more than a decade, until just before the Congolese Independence in 1960. Before I was old enough to be aware of politics I understood how much my grandparents missed that life on an emotional level. When I was growing up in the ’80s they talked about their days in Africa with great affection. The attic of their home just outside Brussels was filled with old treasures—dusty luggage, broken cameras, movie projectors or lighters than didn’t work. Most of the stuff was busted but the notion of old things holding promise, made an impression on me.
My dad’s father worked for the Brooklyn Eagle as a young man and later was the head of public relations for the ADL for 25 years (1946-’71). He helped prepare the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) statements of Budd Schulberg and John Garfield. He lived an interesting life and was a circumspect, reserved guy. I remember his books—everyone we knew had books in their apartment. I would stare at the spines, bored, but can still visualize them today. My dad had a lot of books too and he was a guy who was more comfortable talking about his interests than his personal life. I learned about the movie stars and theater directors, playwrights, novelists, athletes from his era in a way to get close to him. So the sense of the past being alive and important existed on that side of the family as well.
Did you discover writers on your own or did you have anyone guide you?
Both, but part of my excitement again isn’t just finding the stories, but meeting the writers. And along the way, I’ve met kindred spirits, people who are generous and inclusive and want to share what they know. Glenn Stout, the longtime series editor of The Best American Sportswriting series, for instance, was someone I met shortly after I started Bronx Banter, and he was incredibly helpful. First, because he’s a really good writer and I learned a lot about writing and editing from him, but also because nobody knew as much about sports journalism over the past 30 years and was happy to share his knowledge with me. “Hey, you like David Halberstam, have you ever heard of Bill Heinz?” That kind of thing.
Allen Barra also was a huge help early on. And Marilyn Johnson and her husband Rob Fleder, magazine veterans, who were—and are—so open and enthusiastic. It was through Fleder that I eventually met John Schulian (who Marilyn and Rob call “Professor Schulian”), who, like Glenn, just cracked open my head to a huge world of writers that I’d never heard of. Especially in the sports world, and the newspaper world. John was especially helpful in broadening my horizons away from New York and Boston to great writers all across the country. He introduced me to Richard Ben Cramer and Pete Dexter and Nora Ephron’s essays and one begat the next. Mike Sager is another writer who was generous as hell with me, too. A fantastic guy, huge heart, a real mensch. When you meet folks like this, you just gravitate toward them because that sense of wanting to share knowledge—not wanting to be exclusive and keep it secret—is intoxicating.
You’ve featured some staples of 20th and 21st century print publications — GQ, New York magazine, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, LA Weekly — and past gems like National Sports Daily and Inside Sports on The Stacks Readers. That said, are there some obscure and unheralded publications you’ve been drawn to?
Well, the thing about magazines is that most of them don’t last long. Some only last two issues. Some last a year or two. I mean, there was a cool magazine in the early ’80s called The Movies. Lasted five issues. It wasn’t even great, but it was a good idea. Geoffrey Ward, who has worked with Ken Burns for years, edited a hardcover magazine in the mid-’70s called Audience. I think there are 12 issues all told. Milton Glaser was the art director.
For me, part of the fun is that there are still so many magazines I’ve never read, so many I’ve never even heard of. Most of the ones on the Stacks reflect my particular interests, so I’ll have things from Film Comment and American Film and Premiere, Inside Sports, Sport, and The National, because I’m a movie nerd and a sports nerd. And I’m a New Yorker so yeah, I’m partial to publications from my childhood—I was a junior in high school when 7 Days came out. The SoHo News had been an underground success, Manhattan Inc., and New York Woman, which lasted five years and was the brainchild of Betsy Carter, who had been the executive editor at Esquire. Betsy’s great and her magazine was big fun. I mean, Mirabelle and Jane and Sassy and later Bust are just a few of the cooler women’s magazines that come to mind. I mean, New York Woman was a great-looking magazine, the format was wide and it’s a knockout, still looks great.
I’m reprinting the writing from these magazines but most of the time I don’t have the rights to the images—illustrations or photographs. Photographers are not to be messed with in terms of reprinting their images without consent. They get nuts, and litigious. And that’s their right, so I respect it. So you don’t get the original vibe of a story, how it was designed, the artwork, the deck and the picture captions. And that’s too bad, because I love that stuff too. But if I can’t get permission it’s not my business to go messing around with it. Gotta be respectful. Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know some illustrators—like Jim McMullan, who is amazing, and Robert Giusti, and the daughters of the great Robert Weaver, and Julian Allen’s wife—he died a long time ago. And they are just as fascinating—and often, just as underappreciated, as the writers are.
You’ve interacted with some remarkable writers for the occasional Q&A series on these various websites. From these interviews, and your observations from interacting with them, can you offer an absorbing anecdote or tale (or two) that helps shed light on the immense talent and work ethic of these writers?
Tell you what, one of the most encouraging things I ever heard was from Scott Raab, who is one of my favorite magazine writers and also a real friend, a guy I really adore. He said, “endurance is a talent.” That gave me hope.
Generally speaking, do you find that notable names like Dan Jenkins, Charles Pierce, Peter Richmond, John Schulian, among others recognize the value of introducing their work to audiences — or reintroducing it — is a bigger calling for The Stacks Readers than being a free promotion of sorts for them if/when they have a new book?
You’d have to ask them but my guess is that they aren’t using the Stacks as a huge way to promote a new book or something. The work that is on The Stacks Reader is there because the writer is cool with it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t reprint a story. It is not about stealing someone’s work, it is about honoring it with their blessing.
How would you sum up this labor of love — about the time and effort and satisfaction you’ve gained, and are still getting, in growing The Stacks Reader into a vital spot on the Information Superhighway to read and re-read and become acquainted with a wide range of journalism?
It gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction that I am doing something that is bigger than me. Labor of love is a good term because it’s not financially lucrative, but creatively and emotionally, it’s incredibly enriching. Changed my life. Twenty years ago I would never have imagined this is the course my life would have taken, although as I mentioned, there are hints in my past that led me here. But so many of the writers we’ve discussed have actually become friends, good friends, and I can’t imagine my life without them. And I keep meeting more folks. Just a few weeks ago I talked to Jenny Allen who wrote a bunch of profiles for New York magazine in the ’80s and went on to do other interesting things and she was just fantastic, a where-have-you-been-all-my-life kind of person.
Being able to keep alive the words of W.C. (Bill) Heinz and John Lardner and Leonard Schechter, et al is no easy task. So it must be a fine line between being a perpetual pest and being persistent in reaching out to those with dish out permission to republish magazine and newspaper and book excerpts, too. Isn’t it?
The permissions can be tough sometimes, but the majority of writers I’ve approached have been easy to work with. When I did The Stacks for Deadspin I had an honorarium I could offer. But that’s not the case now with The Stacks Reader, which I look at more as a non-profit, educational venture. If it were up to me I’d pay an honorarium for every story I reprint and sometimes, because I can’t, that means I won’t be able to run a piece. And fair enough.
There is also tracking down the actual story. Sometimes that means going to the microfilm room of the NYPL (New York Public Library), or ordering old issues of a magazine on eBay or a book anthology. Then after I’ve made a PDF, that has to be converted into a text document and copy-edited for errors. It is a cumbersome and pain-staking process and I am grateful to have a few people—one in particular who prefers to remain nameless—without whom I could not get this done in such an efficient manner.
As for hunting pieces and writers down, the quest is fun. Trying to track down a writer or their relatives. Sometimes that can take years and it leads to a dead-end. Other times, it is as simple as picking up the phone. O’Connell Driscoll wrote a handful of beautiful celebrity profiles in the ’70s and ’80s and then all but vanished from the magazine world. He was listed in the White Pages and I called him up. Or, I’ve always heard that Nick Pileggi is one of the all-time mensches of the world. It’s been in the back of my mind to reach out to him one day—sure, to maybe reprint his magazine work, but also just out of curiosity. So I sent a few emails, found a contact for him, sent him an email, and he said, “Call anytime.” And so we’ve had a couple of lively conversations recently that have been terrific. See, in talking to a writer like Nick about his days at The Associated Press or New York magazine, I learn details about how things worked on a day-to-day level that is invaluable. And I think important. So, yes, Nick actually let me reprint his magazine work, for which I am grateful, but he also gave me amazing insight into how things worked. And beyond that, he is funny and smart and great company. And all that took was doing a little digging and then having the courage to call someone out of the blue.
Do you have an all-time favorite jack-of-all-trades journalist? A favorite news columnist, a la Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, from yesteryear or nowadays?
Well, as far as columnists go, Breslin and Royko were giants of course. I am no expert in discussing great columnists because there are far too many that I have not read. But my favorite? That’s easy. Pete Dexter who wrote a column for the Philly Daily News, and later for the Sacramento Bee. His columns are less like other big city columnists and something closer to Flannery O’Connor. It is no wonder that Pete ended up being a great novelist.
It’s interesting to think of a jack-of-all-trades journalist. The proverbial five-tool player. I mean, Murray Kempton wrote a few terrific books—he even won the National Book Award for one of them—and he wrote the occasional magazine piece but mostly he was a newspaper reporter and that’s what he liked best. Red Smith never wrote books. But W.C. Heinz could do it all—newspaper reporting, columns, magazine profiles and features, books, novels.
There are too many generalists to mention but Helen Dudar could write about anything. Helen Lawrenson was a critic and humorist who later wrote celebrity profiles and travel pieces and she was a pioneer and absolutely terrific. As far as someone who can do just about anything and do it well, is there anything Ron Rosenbaum can’t do? Columns, features, profiles, books—great investigative reporter, massively smart but unlike most academics he’s a great storyteller, a ton of voice, he’s a master.
Follow Alex Belth on Twitter: @AlexBelth