IRVIN MYLES LETOFSKY
1931 to 2007
By Katharine Blossom Lowrie
In the company of an apostle at the LA Times
Journalists who worked for Irv Letofsky during his fifteen years as editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar were forever changed—in their personal lives as well as their careers. His piquant personality, the expletive-littered asides, the mood-elevating spirit that made you feel you were in the company of an apostle, well, that was Letofsky, a man who loved writers and never worried about political correctness. He died just before Christmas.
Since all the usual suspects have been eloquently presented in a myriad of obits, I’ll touch on just a few statistics here. Born a Taurus in Fargo, North Dakota on April 26, 1931, he graduated with a degree in philosophy from the University of North Dakota in 1954; served as assistant city editor at the Minneapolis Tribune from 1963 to 1976; editor of the arts and entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times until 1991; TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter until 2007, and, in 2003, he co-produced the documentary “All the Presidents’ Movies.” Married since 1978 to beauteous actress Brian Ann Zoccola; father of four children: Laurie, PJ, Cara and Polly (who walked around the world on behalf of breast cancer, a four-year trek her father championed every step of the way), and grandfather of Rosie and Eamon.
Take two aspirin and call me in the morning
Harder to glean, although available in bits and pieces on blogs and such, is a sense of the wonder of the man, his complex temperament and humor. I vividly recall my first meeting with Letofsky (as everyone called him) sometime in mid 1978, this after a year of talking to him on the phone. Smitten before I ever laid eyes on the man, I knew only the vanilla voice, disregard of protocol and fast-draw comebacks—all the things the rest of us think to say three hours after the fact. When I dared complain about his rewriting the lead on one of my stories, for example, he quipped, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”
Few could match him in the rebuttal area.Which brings me back to our first meeting, indelible as hell, even though time has blurred some of the details. Yet, I recall it as vividly as a first love. In a way Letofsky was my first love—the first editor to express belief in me as a writer. (Little did I know he talked that way to all the reporters he took under his sheltering wing.) By the time I started freelancing for Calendar, I had worked for ten years as a staff-writer on three newspapers, so I was hardly a green reporter. What I lacked big-time was confidence, something Letofsky offered like a morphine drip. And, boy, did I get addicted.
A pathetic moustache and an abrupt though joyful manner
It was a psychic phenomenon, it must have been, because someone asked me after I first met him what he looked like. Possibly because I was much too nervous for eye contact, no way could I conjure a face. The impression was of a dark-haired man with a pathetic moustache and an abrupt though joyful manner. Distressingly familiar circumstances had prompted the meeting, problems with the second rewrite of my second freelance story about two Russian filmmakers who had defected from their homeland to make it in Hollywood.
While waiting in the 4th floor reception area, I searched for clues to the man who worked in the hallowed entertainment halls of the LA Times—the epitome of journalistic excellence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, an era now labeled as “golden.” Not until I walked into Letofsky’s office did I spot it, hanging on the doorknob, a beat-up corduroy jacket with shiny elbows and a dangling left sleeve button. Anyone unafraid to display a jacket like that, much less don it as the illustrious editor of Sunday Calendar, I decided, had to be a real person.
He was absentminded and sloppy
Yet, sitting across from the editor I had waited a year to meet, I felt oddly indifferent—as if I’d fallen insanely in love with someone I wasn’t the least attracted to. One thing was clear. He was absentminded and sloppy. His desk littered with manuscripts, photographs and proof sheets, he first misplaced his granny glasses, then my story, retrieving instead a half-chewed chocolate doughnut. He took a bite. Clearly, Irv Letofsky was out to lunch. I wondered why he appeared so at home with himself. When he at last found my story, then his glasses, he settled back and flipped through my pages.“It’s still too goddamn (expletive) long,” he said, breaking into a sweet grin.
I winced at the language but warmed to the smile. “I blew it again, didn’t I.”
The story just needs work
“No problem,” he chirped, never departing from his carefree joviality. “You can fix it.” He allowed the story to flutter atop the heap on his desk. Clasping his hands behind his neck, he reared back in his swivel chair and grinned in a way that transformed all space. For all time. Hell, it transformed me. One foot, and then the other, shot up on his cluttered desk. He had a hole in his left shoe. “The story just needs work,” he said.
Unaccustomed to seeing the axe pause in mid-air, I breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll rewrite it right away.” My voice rang with conviction I didn’t feel. “I can get it back to you in a day or so. In case you want to use it for the next issue.”
“I haven’t time to (expletive) around with it. I’ll have to run it later.” His stare was unabashed. I couldn’t bring myself to stare back. He seemed in no hurry to make small talk. Then, as though activated by a push button, he plunged ahead. “You’ve got to get rid of all that description. There’s too much color. And cut the crap about what people are wearing. Who gives a (expletive), you know? It doesn’t matter. Unless it matters. You know?”
“I know.” I didn’t know.
“Your lead is in the middle of the piece when Rostov or Renfrew or whateverinthehell his name is bites the bullet and takes a flying leap over the Berlin wall. Got it?”
“Got it.” I didn’t get it.
“You can cut three or four pages easy. I’ve marked a few places.”
“I appreciate that.” Frantic to get away, I grabbed my new beige purse that matched my new beige shoes that matched my new beige cashmere.
There’s nothing wrong with clarity, you know
A dazzling grin swept beneath the trivial moustache. “I can always tell when a writer clutches.” Intimate tones caressed his words. “You think you have to write a lot of crap you don’t have to write. You press too hard. What you need to think about is information. Think in terms of lists of things. Like a shopping list. You’ll get plenty of color in. Don’t worry about color. Color is your strong point.”
I had a strong point? Me? The worst journalist to ever set foot in the LA Times had a strong point? “Really?” If I had a “strong point,” baby, I could endure anything.
“Just worry about getting me information. And clarity. There’s nothing wrong with clarity, you know.”
Clarity penetrated. “No,” I said, my laugh reverberating like a hiccup. “There’s nothing wrong with clarity.”
“But you’ve got to trim it way the (expletive) down.”
“I know. You could paper the men’s room with it.”
His response was instant. As if we were a stand-up comedy team whose shtick was second nature. “The men’s room here is a whole lot smaller than your story, kiddo.” He renewed his silent, unrelenting appraisal. Searching frantically for banter, I wondered why he didn’t seem to need to say something. “That’s all,” he said.
It took a minute to realize I’d been dismissed. “Oh. Sure.” I struggled up and out of one of a pair of chairs in front of his war-torn desk. “I’ll get the story back to you next week.”He unwound from his contemplative pose and reached for the phone.
“You can rewrite it here this afternoon.” Flicking the intercom, he told his intern, “Find Kathy Lowrie a desk.” He handed me the story lacerated with pencil edits without bothering to look up.
Don’t give it a second thought
I got the article under control that day, but nearly ended my freelance career at Calendar with my next assignment, covering a triple-threat concert starring then teen idol Shaun Cassidy. Crippled with writer’s block for a full 48 hours after the event, I finally had to call Letofsky and confess that I couldn’t write the piece. It was one of the most painful moments of my life. He hardly paused. “That’s okay, kiddo. I don’t need it. I’ll go with the photos and the review. Don’t give it a second thought. Besides. I’ve got another idea for you. And you’ll have all the time you need to write.”
Any other editor would have dumped me on the spot. I’ve never faced an obstacle since without remembering his kindness, his faith, how he pulled me through.
My first love
I wrote the Cassidy story that same day, as it turned out, and Letofsky ran it the following week. I wrote many stories for him after that, never better. Unlike a lot of my peers who thrived under his now-legendary mentoring (Dennis MacDougal, author of “Five Easy Decades, the Jack Nicholson Biography”; Deborah Caulfield, author of “Smoked: The Inside Story of the Minnesota Tobacco Trial”; Bill Knoedelseder, executive producer with Letofsky of “All the Presidents’ Movies”) I didn’t apply for a staff job, much to Letofsky’s relief, I’m sure. He knew I aspired to a more creative field, that journalism was never my first love. My Calendar editor was my first love.
There was a long line ahead of me.