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Life Arts    H4'ed 1/9/10

How Groucho Marx Got Me an Editorial Job at Playboy

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The year was 1971, and I had just graduated from Tufts University with a useless degree in English. My goal was to become a magazine editor, but Nixon's recession was in full bloom and, even in the best of times, getting a publishing job was about as easy as winning a trifecta by betting on two horses. So, after a desolate year of living with my less-than-exciting parents, I moved to Nantucket and rented a shack with my college roommate, Jeff Brawer and three women, all of whom snubbed me.

Jeff was an ardent Marx Brothers fan, and could do a passable imitation of Harpo, which isn't that hard since Harpo didn't talk. Anyway, one day he brought home the latest copy of Esquire, which featured Groucho on the cover. In that particular issue, the magazine's editor, Harold Hayes, announced that the magazine was searching for a new editor. Anyone who was interested was encouraged to submit story ideas or write a convincing letter or throw themselves at his feet.

I had nothing to lose, so I wrote an idiotic letter, outlining how I was totally unfit to be a magazine editor. I added a few completely moronic story ideas, such as a profile of Alfonso Bedoya, the bandit in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who is primarily known for uttering the now-famous line, "I ain't gotta show you no stinkin' badges." My letter must have tickled Hayes because two months later, I received a badly typed letter from him inviting me to come to New York for an interview.

It was raining when I arrived in NY and upon entering Hayes' office I tripped over my umbrella and landed on his desk, suavely knocking over a lamp, a telephone and a loaded inbox. Not a promising start, but Hayes had a sense of humor, because he proceeded to interview me in spite of my maladroit entrance. Apparently, the editor's job had been taken and he asked me if I was interested in a position in the fact-checking department. I said yes I was happy to take anything to get my scuffed Frye boot in the door -- and was lead to another set of offices for another interview.

For some reason, my conversation with the grim head of the research department wasn't going well, until one of the researchers entered the office with a problem. The question that stumped her was this: According to Bishop Ussher a 16th century Irish cleric -- when was the earth created?

The happy coincidence was that I had just seen the movie "Inherit the Wind," on TV, and I recalled the scene in which the sanctimonious William Jennings Bryan (Fredric March) declares on the witness stand to the avuncular but sly Clarence Darrow (Spencer Tracy) that Darwin's calculations were wrong and that, according to Bishop Ussher, the earth had been created on October 23rd, 4004, at precisely nine o'clock in the morning.

I casually offered this tidbit of information to the rattled researcher, as if it were common knowledge. Jaws dropped. Bells rang. I got the job.

I started during Esquire's heyday. George Lois's outrageous covers, many of them inspired by Hayes, were the talk of the nation. It was an exciting time to be there. Writers like Tom Wolfe would pop in periodically. I gawked a lot. Unfortunately, I received the underwhelming sum of $65 a week, which didn't go far in the Big Apple.

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John Blumenthal has been a professional comedy writer for 25 years. A former associate editor and columnist at Playboy Magazine (following a short stint at Esquire), he's written 8 books and 2 produced movies. His films include "Short Time," (major (more...)
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