THE NAMES MOST OFTEN ASSOCIATED with Jim Bellows, the fabled newspaper editor who died Friday at the age of 86, were those of Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe –- the legendary journalists whose early careers he helped shape into the biggest bylines in the country.
But the names I most associate with Jim are those of three artists who became indelibly linked with him in my memory the night he hosted a cocktail party at his Brentwood home for all his new hires at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in February of 1978, not long after he became that newspaper’s editor.
In the broad living room of his impressive house on Rockingham Avenue, the original pop art works of two of those artists immediately bowled you over: Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.
Jim’s lovely wife Keven modestly accepted your compliments about their collection, while -– over the squeals of kids running between them — Jim offered self-deprecating anecdotes of how he had come to know the two artists, stories he delivered in mumbles and with hand gestures while gripping an elegant ebony cigarette holder in his teeth.
The squealing kids were running to their mother, a beautiful, WASPy blonde who happened to be an actress of some fame herself in the 1970s, Blythe Danner. She was there with her husband, Bellows’ friend and producer Bruce Paltrow, the older brother of one of the young reporters Jim had hired.
The Paltrows brought their brood over to introduce them to me and other Herald Examiner staff members, and one of them, even at the tender age of five, had a remarkable presence. Young Gweneth Paltrow would grow up to win a best actress Oscar in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love. Put her up there on the walls with the pop art of Rauschenberg and Warhol.
All of this is to say that my personal recollection of Jim is not so much tied to journalism necessarily as to fame, celebrities and beautiful people. For each big-name journalist whose name is linked to Bellows, you could also find the Hollywood famous. Jim ate it up, which was one of the reasons his Herald Examiner indulged in a Page Two gossip and celebs column long before many other mainstream papers.
Perhaps it is just to underscore that Jim had a unique appreciation for the lines and form of art and of people, which also included stylish writing and a penchant for undertaking underdog newspapers and trying to dramatically turn around their fortunes as if he were journalism’s Rocky.
By the time he attempted to re-invent the Herald Examiner, he was already a legend for being the last editor of The New York Tribune, which many regarded as the ultimate writer’s newspaper in America, in large part because of the emergence of Wolfe and Breslin and the birth of a Sunday supplement which became New York magazine.
Those of us in that first group that came to work for Bellows at the Herald Examiner in 1978 –- those who were at that February cocktail party –- sought desperately to recapture with Jim those glory days at the Tribune, and some of us from that group and from later cadres at the paper reminisce romantically about the greatness of that period.
But the only times that period at the Herald Examiner possibly did recapture such magic was on the day Wolfe, in town to seal his movie deal for The Right Stuff, strutted alongside Jim through the newsroom, or the day Breslin visited the office while in Los Angeles during the 1980 presidential campaign.
Instead the real Herald-Examiner was, as Jim himself put it, playing at being a metropolitan newspaper using smoke, mirrors and Band-Aids. There were big headlines, great graphics, blown-up photos and a lot of stylish posturing with overplayed stories, like the one about Bubbles, the hippo that escaped from the zoo.
Newspapers were information dinosaurs in their late Jurassic period, and Jim may have been the only one among us who knew it. I always sensed his heart wasn’t in the Herald Examiner. Not really, and some of us suspected taking the job at a newspaper that was already near collapse had been his way of getting closer to Hollywood where he later became managing editor of television’s Entertainment Tonight.
Bellows left the Herald Examiner after barely three years and in his final year, 1981, he called me into his office one day. He pulled a wad of newspaper clippings from his desk drawer and handed them to me.
“This is good writing,” he said. “You need to enter this in some of the contests.”
My head was swollen more than usual as I left his office all the way to my desk where, as I unfolded the clippings, I recognized them as a series I reported for the paper – in 1978.
“Oh, that’s Jim,” I recall his wife saying to me when I mentioned this incident to her the next time I saw her. “He doesn’t read the newspaper. He doesn’t have time. He relies on the judgment of some real good friends who give him feedback and tell him things.”
I took all of it then and now for what it was.
It wasn’t so much the journalism, at least at the Herald Examiner, which made Bellows the oversized, almost mythic figure he became in our minds. It was what he inspired through his vision.
He was like that Rauschenberg or the Warhol he had in his home -– an irreplaceable work of art to admire.
Tony Castro was a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner during Jim Bellows tenure as editor from 1978 to 1981.