Skip to content

From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Time Stamps

It was the golden age of magazines

Robert Lewis

It was a dizzying era to be a reporter for Time magazine. The brand and its history provided a young man from small-town Canada with access to prime ministers and princes, rogues and scalawags. Montreal in 1967 was no exception. The city was abuzz with excitement about the opening of Expo 67, the world’s fair. Time pooh‑bahs, to use one of the magazine’s favoured appellations, spared no expense in attempting to capture the glow for its advertisers and corporate friends: a flat in Moshe Safdie’s futuristic Habitat and an elegant apartment at the posh Port-Royal, on Sherbrooke Street in the Golden Square Mile, to host visitors.

One of the VIPs was Clare Boothe, the accomplished and dashing wife of Time’s co-founder Henry Luce — Harry to insiders. As Montreal bureau chief, I was dispatched to conduct a private tour for her and, because of her passion for scuba diving, arranged for a private demo at the Jacques Cousteau exhibit. For a lavish soiree, the magazine invited luminaries and advertisers to dine at the elegant Hélène de Champlain Restaurant, overlooking Buckminster Fuller’s shimmering geodesic dome, having persuaded the mayor, Jean Drapeau, to authorize a liquor licence there for the first time. And what a party it was. Ask our boss. The imposing editor-in-chief, Hedley Donovan, a Rhodes Scholar and Harry’s able successor, had to be carted off by colleagues to the shuttle bus for his return to the hotel.

Reporting on a previous era of student unrest.

Tim Bouckley

This was the golden age of magazines. Time’s circulation was five million and Life’s was millions more than that. In New York, the brass referred to our highly profitable Canadian edition — with 350,000 subscribers and 2,000 yearly ad pages — as “the candy store.” We enviously called the American edition “the Big Book.” No expense was spared in either case. As a reporter, you didn’t need a receipt for any entertainment chit under $25, and in 1967 two people in Montreal could lunch well for $24.99 (roughly $220 in today’s dollars). To cover the federal election of 1968, my colleague Martin Sullivan and I chartered a small plane for a day-long tour of ridings up and down the St. Lawrence (picking up signs of the coming Créditiste sweep). On closing night — when we sent the week’s issue to the printer — staff from the Windsor Hotel trundled carts of beef bourguignon and fine wine to the newsroom in the attached CIBC Tower, while editors put the finishing touches on stories. For a forty-fifth-anniversary celebration, Time flew us and our spouses to Manhattan for a gala dinner at the Rainbow Room supper club on the sixty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Plaza.

Little did I know then that further wonders awaited: A return to Pierre Trudeau’s Ottawa in 1968, where an earlier stint as a cub reporter with the Montreal Star had kick-started my career. Thence to Boston in 1970 and the chance to prove myself in the demanding American journalistic scene — and in the halls of the Big Book.

Outside our apartment hotel on the Boston Common, with my young wife and new baby in tow, I watched as the Youth International Party’s Abbie Hoffman addressed a massive anti-war crowd. In the shadow of the John Hancock Building, the Yippie activist railed that the nation’s founding father was not “a fucking insurance salesman. He was a goddamn revolutionary — and you should be too.” Later a crowd some 1,500 strong spilled across the Charles River into Cambridge, where the organizers targeted MIT and Harvard as symbols of America’s ills. The so‑called peace march — led by an amalgam of anti-war, Black power, and women’s liberation activists — quickly became a riot, with demonstrators smashing windows, looting stores, and torching cop cars. Police officers, most of them with gas masks but not badges, repeatedly charged the crowd, which had grown to 3,000, wielding their clubs. After five hours of skirmishing, authorities declared a city-wide curfew.

As a reporter trained to check casualty counts, I ventured to police HQ, as we did on the crime beat in Montreal. But this was Boston, home of radical confrontations with the Students for a Democratic Society and police retaliation. Battered and bloody faces were everywhere in the cop shop, and I felt decidedly unwelcome in blue jeans, with my hair spilling over the collar of my army surplus jacket. “Hey, got a live one here,” an officer bellowed as I descended the stairway. Time to go, I decided, making a hasty exit onto the empty streets. I reported no casualty count that Night of the Billy Club, but I later learned the tally: 300 injured, including a dozen police officers. Twelve hundred area cops were called for duty, and 2,000 National Guardsmen were placed on alert. Welcome to America.

It is shortly after 6 a.m. in an elegant Beacon Hill townhouse near the Boston Common, and Ted Kennedy is downing a boiled egg with slurps of hot chocolate while reading the Herald Traveler. I am among a handful of reporters from national publications who are about to head off into the hinterland north of town for a classic day of campaigning, Kennedy-style: a plant gate at sunrise, a school, a seniors’ home, a service club speech at noon — and then the reverse, ending at another plant gate. Before each stop, the senator glances at a big black binder with key names and facts. At a high school, he congratulates the newly elected student body president — by name. He charms residents of a seniors’ home with not a hint of shame when he declares, “I know about the trouble you’re having with a septic tank across the way.”

Why is a Kennedy running so hard in an off-year re-election bid? In Democratic Massachusetts? Quite simply, he is trying to bury memories of Chappaquiddick and the still unexplained July 1969 accident that propelled him, thirty-seven, and a young staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, twenty-eight, off Dike Bridge and into Poucha Pond — she to her death. The senator returned to Martha’s Vineyard, where it took him nine hours to report the incident. That was the year before, and now he knows that 50 percent plus one vote in the 1970 election won’t do.

Our reporting from the inquest has already unearthed suspicions by jurors of a cover‑up by a friendly district attorney. Some of them feel Kennedy got off easily with a suspended sentence, instead of a manslaughter charge, after he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. In the end, Kennedy’s campaign would produce a handsome victory — but Chappaquiddick and the questions it raised about his moral character stifled his presidential ambitions.

Memories of that late night haunt Kennedy even during our bucolic campaign outing in 1970. As the day ends, traffic into Boston has slowed to a standstill. His driver, anxious to get to Logan Airport, eases the nondescript Impala sedan onto the shoulder of the highway, speeding around cars lined up bumper to bumper. From the back seat, the Washington Post veteran Jules Witcover chirps, “Can’t you just see the headline: ‘Kennedy in Car Crash.’ ” With that, the senator sits bolt upright from his reading and exclaims, “Joe, stop the car!”

Two or three nights later, there is a similar message — for me. I am sitting in the back seat with Edmund Muskie, the grumpy Democratic senator from Maine, trying to interview him about his own re-election bid as we speed along I‑95 in the dark. I am not able to take notes during our conversation.* And then the car suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere — and I am ushered out and deposited into a trailing vehicle. End of interview. Like Kennedy, Muskie would be re‑elected handily in 1970, and I have disliked interviewing politicians in cars at night ever since.

The times they were a‑changing. Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese were inventing a “New Journalism.” Television was stealing advertising dollars from print. Life, unable to sustain the costs of printing more than 8.5 million copies a week, reduced its print run to seven million, then 5.5 million, before folding entirely in December 1972: it had too many subscribers, too few advertisers. At Time, the fight to retain readers had already begun. No subject was out of bounds. In addition to the news of the week, the magazine probed the major social issues of the day: the sexual revolution, religion (the infamous all-type “Is God Dead?” cover in 1966), and the pill (another controversial cover in 1967), as well as an entire issue on Black America in 1970.

Yet one subject haunted Time over the decades. The magazine could not come to terms with the quagmire in Vietnam — what the Vietnamese still call the American War — until it was over. It consistently chose the wrong side of history, starting in the 1960s, and the dissonance lingered for years. The long-time journalist Otto Fuerbringer, appointed managing editor in 1960, drove Time to support what he regarded as a holy war for democracy and the totalitarian rule of Ngo Dinh Diem — just as Henry Luce had once inveighed against Chinese Communists and openly tilted the magazine’s coverage in favour of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

Fuerbringer was known as the Iron Chancellor. The nadir of his reign had come when the magazine rewrote reporting by the experienced Saigon correspondent Charles Mohr, who concluded that “Vietnam is a graveyard of lost hopes.” Time substituted wording about the successes of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Then, improbably, Fuerbringer ordered up a slashing story about the misguided American press corps in Vietnam — Mohr among them. The uproar from the staff caused Luce to approve a draft apology — but Fuerbringer killed it before it went to press. Mohr resigned in 1963 and went on to a distinguished run at the New York Times. The incidents were shockingly reminiscent of the dark days of the 1940s, when another conservative Time editor, the Red-baiter Whittaker Chambers, campaigned to prop up the Chiang regime while dismissing Teddy White’s reporting about wide-scale famine in Henan province and the incompetent leadership of the Kuomintang.

After Luce retired in 1964, Hedley Donovan began to moderate the hawkishness at Time about Vietnam. By 1968, even Fuerbringer had conceded the war was not winnable. Still, the old melodies played on. Luce’s gospel of American exceptionalism in all matters continued to permeate the executive aerie of the Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan, where, it seemed, the harsh impact of United States military involvement on the homeland was only dimly perceived. Everywhere else, dissent prevailed. Even the Saigon bureau was split down the middle, with half the correspondents convinced that victory was at hand and the others arguing that all was lost to the Communists. It was left to the bureau chief Marsh Clark, in an internal memo to headquarters in February 1970, to cast what he termed “the tie-breaking ballot” that “substantial progress has been made and that a continuation of this progress bodes well for South Vietnam and ill for North Vietnam.” (Earlier, as the Ottawa bureau chief, Marsh had recruited me to the magazine, becoming a loyal friend and mentor.)

The same divisions dominated the editorial hallways in New York. In early May 1970, several staff petitions urged top editors to support “a withdrawal of all American troops from Indo-China” and to take “a strong editorial stand” against the invasion of Cambodia and the bombing of North Vietnam. Even with his somewhat moderated stance, Donovan rejected the demands. In a memo to the staff on May 20, he said editorial positions would be “based on the views of the Time Inc. people professionally assigned to that topic, working under the direction of the editors identified on our mastheads. . . . It makes for stronger journalism than if our editorial positions were based on samplings of general sentiment within the staff.”

In society at large, of course, the divisions became personal and vivid. In Boston, a friend and neighbour of ours was the assistant dean of students at MIT. Every day, along with his attaché case, he would load athletic equipment into his car, including shin guards and protective cup, ready for yet another anti-war protest or disruption. A former high school classmate from Montreal came for a visit in the summer of 1970, and our dinner conversation quickly turned ugly. The subject was the Kent State shootings, when police had killed four students and injured nine during a campus protest in May. My friend, a lawyer, argued that students took their chances when they went into the streets to protest. I was appalled and unrestrained in the fury of my response. We didn’t talk for months, but, thankfully, the friendship endures.

Just before Kent State, a May Day rally was held at Yale, when threats of death and destruction hung in the air. The Black Panther leader Bobby Seale and eight others had been indicted for murder in an ongoing war prosecuted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI (Seale and four others eventually got off). And Richard Nixon had just ordered the invasion of neutral Cambodia. A coalition of anti-war and pro–Black Panther activists planned a massive protest march in the streets of New Haven. From the news desk in New York came a rocket to get my ass down to Connecticut. An alarmist memo from the magazine’s Pentagon correspondent foreshadowed a night of bombs and shooting, with alleged details of the amount of ammunition being trundled into town. Some 4,000 Marines and Army paratroopers were called into action, as was the National Guard. The royalty of the protest movement showed up: Bobby Seale, William Kunstler (who had defended the Chicago Seven), the Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, and the anti-war icon Tom Hayden. Hundreds of reporters from around the world were there too, including one Canadian with no hostile-environment training or gas mask.

Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster, and the Panther leaders mostly managed to defuse the situation. Brewster opined that Black activists could not get a fair trial in America — provoking the wrath of Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew — and strategically opened the campus to feed and house the demonstrators. The rallies and speeches went on, including a reading by Allen Ginsberg. Some 20,000 people raised their voices — and fists — in anger but refrained from acts of violence. But then, as night fell, a group of white agitators — Brewster suspected FBI plants — stirred up the crowd. As the sixteen-acre New Haven Green filled, rocks and bottles sailed through the air, shop windows were broken. Two bombs exploded at the hockey rink. The troops moved in and secured the area as the air filled with pepper gas and all of us headed back to the campus, choking and wheezing and looking for the kids with their pails of water to relieve our burning eyes. Three days later, those four unarmed students were fatally shot at Kent State. Eleven days after that, two more would be killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

My own encounter with the culture clash over Vietnam at Time came in early 1972. I filed a story from Boston about Marines coming back from the war and acting violently toward family and friends. I had drawn upon research by the Harvard sociologist Charles Levy, who had spent several years studying sixty veterans in a working-class part of town. At one point, he had told a congressional committee about a soldier in rural Texas, who had shot at a friend in a barroom brawl, ostensibly over a woman. “By the time it ended,” I wrote, “the friend lay dead of seven gunshot wounds. The veteran, a former Green Beret, dazed and thinking he had just killed an attacking Viet Cong, was stripping the body so that it could not be rigged with booby traps.” Levy concluded that many other vets were dominated by fear of their own violence and coped by withdrawing from the world.

Levy’s research rang true to me. At this point, we lived in a leafy suburb north of town, where a big white house on one side of the street was home to a family of campaigners who regularly attended anti-war rallies. Directly across from them, a similar house was home to a family whose son had re-enlisted in the Marines and fought in the bloody Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. When he came back, he was a shell of a man, literally fearful of walking our quiet streets at night, the shadows cast by waving trees on the pavement hurtling him from leafy Winchester to the jungles of Quang Tri province.

In New York, the magazine’s editors killed my story — strangely, after soliciting the opinion of the Saigon bureau chief, who questioned the findings. Surely, he cabled, this was a small sample, not representative of U.S. veterans. I was told that one senior editor, in dismissing the piece, declared that American boys, especially Marines, would never behave that way. I fired off a vigorous rebuttal, did more reporting, and reminded my editor that Time had sat on troubling Vietnam stories before. Finally, the article ran in March, two months after I suggested it. The next year, Robert Jay Lifton of Yale literally wrote the book on “fragging” and violence by Vietnam veterans, Home from the War.

When Henry Grunwald took over from the Iron Chancellor as managing editor in 1968, the tone of the magazine became more cerebral, more curious about ideas and trends. One day the Boston bureau — our main beat was the Ivy League — got a call from New York: “Henry wants to meet the thinkers.” There ensued a flurry of invites to academic heavyweights, the dispatching of limos, and the hurried corralling of intellectuals whose egos would allow them to sit at the same table in Joseph’s or the Harvard Club. One of the conclaves took place at a farmhouse south of Boston and featured the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who dominated the discussion with relentless passion about the follies of engaging in a war for hearts and minds in Southeast Asia. Eyes glazed over as the evening drew to a close, I am told. Ellsberg asked Murray Gart, the chief of correspondents, if he and Grunwald could give him a lift home. In the car, Ellsberg told the managing editor he had some papers that he wanted to share. Grunwald recalled the exchange in his autobiography: “They were, he said, writings about Vietnam, some of which, he thought, Time might find of interest. I tossed the papers to Murray Gart and forgot about them.”

Shortly thereafter, on June 13, 1971, the New York Times printed the first part of the Pentagon Papers, which documented lies and cover‑ups about a secret expansion of the war over the previous decade. When Ellsberg surfaced as the man who had given them to the paper, Grunwald panicked. He called David Greenway, the Time correspondent who had hosted the dinner outside of Boston and who owned a cabin where Ellsberg was hiding out. As Grunwald recounted the conversation: “The other night in the car, Ellsberg gave us a bunch of stuff. . . . I can’t find it now. You don’t suppose they were the Pentagon Papers and we didn’t know what we had?” Greenway called back a few moments later to say, “Those were not the Pentagon Papers, just some articles Ellsberg hoped you might publish.” I have no doubt that had Grunwald knowingly received the Pentagon Papers, he would have printed them.

For whatever reason — perhaps the indifference Ellsberg felt in his meeting with the Time brass — the magazine got royally scooped. After the story broke, the Nixon administration sought a publication ban, so Ellsberg gave extracts to the Washington Post, the sister publication of our rival, Newsweek. When the government moved on the Post, Ellsberg began playing whack-a-mole, turning the papers over to the Boston Globe and more than a dozen other outlets. Facing charges of espionage and theft of classified documents, he finally surrendered to federal authorities on June 28 (and was later cleared, after revelations of an illegal raid on his psychiatrist’s office by Nixon’s dirty tricksters).

All the while, we were desperate for something — anything — fresh on Ellsberg. My Boston bureau colleague Phil Taubman tracked Ellsberg home from the courthouse: “Follow that taxi!” he told the cab driver as they careered across the river into the streets of Cambridge. The former fugitive invited him in for a chat and a glass of Coke — and agreed to do an interview the next day after his press conference. With a touch of pride, we informed the news desk in New York. Clearly not wanting to entrust the interview to two juniors, our bosses dispatched two senior reporters who dutifully went to Ellsberg’s. He took one look, noted that Phil was not with them, and closed the door on Time.

My time moved on. The starch was starting to go out of the story, as symbolized by recent developments: the ballroom dancing class had been oversubscribed at MIT, and students at Brown, eager to get ahead, were protesting because the library was closing too early. We were witnessing the ascendance of the non-violent counterculture, what Charles A. Reich labelled the “greening of America.” Besides, as engaged — and sometimes enraged — as I was by the stories I covered, the United States was not my country. I was ready to come home.

In all, I had a satisfying and rewarding eight-year run in four bureaus, including as bureau chief in Toronto, where I could finally run my own show. My many assignments with the magazine ranged from politics and the arts to sports and business; from the first election of Pierre Trudeau to the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov; from Bobby Orr in Boston to Bobby Seale at Yale; from migrant farm workers in Leamington to Team Canada in Moscow. Time’s editorial standards were exacting, the fact-checking relentless (how many hot dog stands at Expo, came one query). It was a culture animated by outstanding — and fun-loving — professional colleagues, by a collective dedication to a vigorous exchange of ideas, and by a commitment to informing a demanding audience.

And until the day I left in 1975, Time never bounced an expense tab.

*Correction: Due to a proofing error, the printed version of this piece mistakenly read “was not allowed to take notes.” It was the darkness rather than the senator that was the issue.

Robert Lewis spent eight years as a Time correspondent and twenty-five years at Maclean’s, the last seven as editor-in-chief.