Goodbye, John Mack Carter: Thank you for the gift of Gold Derby

When John Mack Carter died yesterday at age 86 (read his New York Times obituary), he left behind an impressive media legacy that included his reigns as editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s plus his creation of new magazines Marie Claire and Country Living, and, believe it or not, in an indirect way, GoldDerby, too.

That’s because Mr. Carter – I would never dare to call him John Mack to his face – was my career mentor in the 1980s and 1990s when I worked for Hearst Magazines and, secretly on the side, explored my obsession with Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globes, which he encouraged and even (shhhh!) subsidized.

Technically, I worked for Mr. Carter as an editor of magazine development, but we helped each other out on the sly: I ghost-wrote many of his speeches and he tossed me enough freelance bones to pay the bills while I spent years writing the first books ever penned on the Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes and more.

“I’ll never understand your crazy fascination with those fake gold statuettes!” Mr. Carter often laughed. “But I 100% support your work to preserve their history. You’re doing real journalism, Tom. That’s important.”

My journalism was expensive. I was only paid $30,000 in advances by Penguin Putnam Books, but research cost more than $160,000 as I hired armies of freelance librarians to dig up lists of past Emmy, Grammy, Golden Globe nominations and winners from dusty archives scattered across Hollywood, New York, Washington D.C. and even (egads) New Jersey. Sure, those lists all exist today at IMDB and other media outlets, but I’m the source. I can prove it by pointing to my occasional mistakes that those sources picked up here and there while commandeering my research (ha!) and that’s fine. I’m glad they publish those records and, in some cases like IMDB, I even gave the lists to them.

I also donated complete copies of my research to the Emmy, Grammy and Globe organizations, which, believe it or not, did not have thorough records of their own. All of their archives are shoddy. The reason: Back in the early days, no one, frankly, thought award shows were that important. They weren’t televised. The early statuettes were cheaply made and weren’t even gold-plated — they were spray-painted – and they were doled out at private banquets where industry insiders got drunk, patted each other on the backs and staggered home. While leaving the very first Grammy ceremony, Henry Mancini dropped one of his trophies and didn’t even bother to pick it up – he kicked it to one side and kept going. Afterward, he wrote, “When I think back, I guess the first Grammy ceremony was kind of historic, although at the time I didn’t realize where the Grammys were going. I didn’t know it was going to become such a world-wide enterprise.”

Back in 1989, I was working as a senior editor for Mr. Carter in the original Heart Magazines building (“the castle”) at 57th Street and Eighth Ave. in Manhattan when the idea first struck me to start digging into the elusive histories of showbiz awards. A new edition of “Inside Oscar” by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona had just been published by Ballantine/ Random House and I was eager to snatch up a copy. At lunchtime, I raced over to that creaky old (now vanished) Coliseum Bookstore at Broadway and 57th and, while there, thought to myself: “OK, I’ll also buy copies of the latest books on Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globes, too.”

But much to my horror, I discovered an embarrassing secret: they’d never been written. We’re such a nation of Oscar snobs that no journalist had ever bothered to dig up the histories of these other kudos. And no wonder! At the time I had no idea how difficult it would be to do so.

But never mind all that right now. That epiphany I had while standing in the aisles of the dusty old Coliseum Bookstore that afternoon in 1989 became the ultimate eureka moment of my career. I had stumbled upon an extraordinary journalistic opportunity. The discovery hit me like a thunderbolt and I suddenly found a purpose in life.

Exhilarated, I raced back to the Hearst building to tell my boss/ mentor/ pal/ confidant John Mack Carter. He knew how crazy I was about showbiz awards and I assumed that he, being the real deal as a journalist, would be thrilled to hear about my discovery.

“Mr. Carter! Mr. Carter!” I gasped as I raced into his office. “You’re not going to believe what I just found out! First, don’t take this the wrong way, but I quit!”

“What?!” he roared. “Calm down, Tom!”

I plopped into the chair opposite his desk, struggled to catch my breath and blurted out my crazy scheme: I would quit Hearst to write the first books ever done on the Emmys, Grammys and Globes.

“Hmmmm,” he said. “How are you going to live financially?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find a publisher right away and they’ll pay me a fortune – these books are a great idea, aren’t they?”

Mr. Carter burst into hysterical laughter. Shaking his head side to side like an amused, tut-tutting poppa, he said, “Tom … Tom … You obviously have no clue how book publishing works. Permit me to save you from your innocence. You’re not quitting this job. No. I won’t permit it. If you really want to write these books, I will help you, but that starts with me keeping you here.”

A few months later, once I sold the books to Penguin Putnam, Mr. Carter switched me from full-time status to freelance, saying, “Go off and write your books. Have fun. But keep doing freelance work for us on the side. You’re going to need the money. Here, I’ve got a job for you already.”

He handed me a folder stuffed with scribbled notes and tear sheets about the state of the magazine industry: circulation and newsstand stats, etc.

“I’m giving this speech next week to the Magazine Publishers of America,” he said with a wink. He was the organization’s president, so the pressure was on, but I knew how to cope since I’d done so often in the past. “Can you have it ready for me on Tuesday?”

Therein lies the special, secret connection I had with Mr. Carter. That wink meant he trusted me completely with writing something amazing for him to say before his colleagues. The speech could not merely be good, no, no, not for the great John Mack Carter. He was an icon so awe-inspiring that when he arrived to give his speech at the MPA the next week, you could bet that the whole room would jump to their feet to greet him with due respect.

He was the most classy, noble, witty, brilliant, savvy, nurturing, regal, inspiring man I ever met.

“There are no atheists in magazine publishing,” an exec at rival Time Inc. once told me, “because we have all met John Mack Carter.”

Considering his divine status in the industry, you can imagine how nervous I was the first time he asked me to ghost a speech for him. The American Society of Magazine Editors (of which he was also president) asked him to talk about the impact of new computers on the editorial operations at Good Housekeeping. What a joke! Mr. Carter couldn’t even operate the computer we’d just installed at his desk – it terrified him – but every day we gave him more and more patient lessons. Over time, he would learn to master the machine, but at that point he only knew how to turn it on and off … and on again.

“Mr. Carter is very embarrassed,” confessed his longtime private secretary Margaret Beal, a sweet spinster who’d devoted her life to mothering him. She had sought me out privately and spoke in an urgent whisper. “He doesn’t want to look stupid in front of ASME. You’ve been very kind teaching him how to use the computer so he hopes you can make him sound as smart as you are when he talks about our new computer systems. Would you please try? He doesn’t have anyone else to turn to.”

I was terrified by the assignment – barely slept for days as I wrote and rewrote many drafts – then finally gave Margaret my best effort. She took the pages in hand, smiled politely and said, “Oh, thank you, Tom! Now don’t be upset if he only uses bits and pieces. He’s written the speech he wants to give, but he just needs the right words when he talks about computers.”

“OK,” I said.

Being a member of ASME, I was present at the luncheon when Mr. Carter arrived at the podium, greeted by the usual standing ovation. Then, curiously, he didn’t give his speech – he gave mine – and received another standing ovation.

Afterward, back at work, Margaret ran into my office, shut the door behind her and said, secretly, “I want you to know that I have worked for Mr. Carter for more than 30 years. He’s hired a lot of speechwriters, but frankly, he never used a word they wrote. But your speech – I can’t believe it – he didn’t change a single word. You’re in, kid!”

Margaret and I became best friends after that. She even made dinner for me a few times at her coop apartment (which Mr. Carter purchased for her as a gift) and, when she died, Mr. Carter and I met there privately to divvy up her treasured collection of rare old books about New York. It was the kind of intimate experience he felt comfortable sharing with me.

I did lots of routine jobs for Mr. Carter – edited start-up magazines and special sections, things like that – but he eventually gave me one more trusted task in addition to speech-writing: he asked me to help him with his monthly luncheon known as the New York Media Roundtable. It was his own private clique of the most elite members of U.S. media: the editors-in-chief of Time, Newsweek, People, etc., plus presidents of major publishing firms, TV networks, etc. His roundtable (which was actually square) could only seat 20 people and it was a private affair – everything said was off the record. Attendance was by invitation only and people clamored to get in. Featured at every lunch were three newsworthy guest speakers who were invited, for no fee, to entertain Mr. Carter’s glittering pals with sparkling conversation.

The New York Media Roundtable was a notorious event that went on – hush, hush — for decades as Mr. Carter booked the most buzzed-about media CEOs, presidents and editors. Rumors constantly swirled around it. What were all those titans secretly doing in that room? What were they talking about? The fact that Mr. Carter had the audacity to stage such a thing at all, and put himself at the center of it, helped to cement his legend as the king of New York publishing.

But then one day the king got tired of booking the roundtable every month. It was tough lining up three A-List speakers – too much work – so he asked me to do it and to up our game. Mr. Carter was no longer satisfied to have famous media chiefs at his table. He wanted real celebrities to dance for his friends. Given my connections to Hollywood, he asked me to pour on the glitz.

Yikes! It was a scary request considering how weird celebrities can be, especially when you’re not paying them. Worse, many of the stars I approached didn’t know Mr. Carter or his pals. How could I pull it off? I didn’t want to let Mr. Carter down.

And I didn’t, hallelujah. Over the last few years that I worked for Mr. Carter, I put on a helluva show by hauling in Martha Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Bill O’Reilly, Tom Wolfe, Johnny Cochran, Mario Cuomo, Phil Donahue, Paul Mazursky, etc. I sprinkled them in between the usual lunch menu of corporate honchos – and Mr. Carter was thrilled by it all.

Then one day came my biggest challenge of all. He said, “Next month, Tom, I want YOU to be one of our speakers. Tell us about your adventures on the Oscar, Emmy and Grammy red carpets.”

What an honor! Of course, I gave an Oscar-worthy performance and I even upstaged the other two speakers, one of which was Dan Rather, as I recall. I don’t remember much more than that. It was all so long ago.

But I will never forget the greatest honor Mr. Carter ever afforded me. It came in 1994. I had worked for him on and off, full time and freelance, since 1985 with the title of senior editor, but he didn’t have much freelance work to dole out to me by the mid-1990s. We had fallen out of touch for a brief time as I focused on beefing up my Hollywood gigs. Then one day the phone rang.

“Hi, Tom. John Mack here!” he roared. “We just created a new division here at Hearst exclusively devoted to launching new magazines. It’s set up as a separate company and I’ve been appointed president. You know what that means, don’t you?”

“You’re going to need lots of speeches written, I’m sure,” I said with a chuckle. “Of course, I’ll be happy to help you in any way I can.”

“Well, yes, I will, come to think of it — thank you — but that’s not what I meant,” he said. “This means that, if I’m president, I can’t be editor-in-chief. Will you kindly do me the honor?”

It can be reasonably argued that John Mack Carter was the greatest editor-in-chief of the twentieth century. For him to ask me to be his editor-in-chief was a head smack.

“Yes, of course,” I said, trembling with shock. And so in 1994 I went back to work as his first lieutenant, this time with a more fancy title, and remained at his side until his retirement in 1999. Throughout all of our years together – including those in the early 1990s – he always gave me lots of time off to dash out to Hollywood to do my thing and then return to my “real job” in magazine publishing, as he called it. Usually, he kept paying me along the way, even when I’d vanish for weeks or months, because he wanted to make sure I was OK financially. That’s what a class act he was.

“I don’t understand any of it,” he often confessed with a laugh. “People are so obsessed with celebrities. What am I failing to grasp?”

“Nothing,” I assured him. “It’s all proof of life’s absurdity.”

Months after he retired and we both left Hearst, I called him to let him know that I had just launched a website that I wanted him to check out: GoldDerby.com.

“Fascinating!” he sighed as he looked at it on line while we were still on the phone – Mr. Carter was savvy about computers at that point. “I see that you’ve got it set up like the New York Media Roundtable with media wags from USA Today, AP, Entertainment Weekly, etc., all gathered to predict your crazy awards. I like it!”

“Thanks. Yes, I owe a lot of this to you, Mr. Carter,” I said. “You’ve made my whole Hollywood career possible because of your unflagging faith and guidance. Most of all you taught me how to be a media developer, an entrepreneur, how to create new media from scratch and to be bold about it.”

“I was happy to do it, Tom. That’s why we’re put on the planet, you know – to leave a better world behind.”

John Mack Carter left our world yesterday – the news is devastating to me and to the legions of others who loved him, too – but he left it a much enriched place. Gold Derby would not exist without him. That’s a small thing, yes, but it means lots to us.

Thank you, Mr. Carter. This was my last speech for you – one I got to deliver myself. I hope you still approve. Now I give you a final standing ovation.

 

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