Victor Navasky, longtime editor of The Nation, America’s oldest weekly (now biweekly), died this past week at 90. It was my great pleasure to know this witty, iconoclastic editor. The occasion was a series of talks about an odd-couple partnership with Seattle Weekly in the early 1990s, when I was still its publisher.
At that time both Seattle Weekly and the always-struggling Nation were casting about for stabilizing solutions. Victor had the idea of invading the West Coast, and so we began some ultimately fruitless and vague talks about combining forces. Eventually, Navasky with some wealthy investors bought the Nation from previous owners, Hamilton Fish and Arthur L. Carter. Navasky, who had earlier started a satiric periodical called The Monocle, went from writing humor to serious political reporting.
I admired Navasky’s approach to a political weekly, well seasoned with sarcasm. Navasky was quoted for his contrarian editorial direction: “I think it was Walter Cronkite who used to end his nightly newscasts by saying, ‘That’s the way it is.’ Well, I wanted to put out a magazine which would say: ‘That’s not the way it is at all. Let’s take another look.’”
The Nation was hatched by abolitionists in 1865, and became famous for its left-leaning opposition to the Vietnam War and stout defense of civil liberties and women’s issues. Navasky had grown up in New York City, went to Swarthmore College, the Army, and Yale Law School. Navasky became The Nation‘s editor in 1977, at which time the struggling weekly sported a tiny circulation of 20,000 (today it’s about 96,000).
Try as we might, Victor and I never found the combination for a combo. Calvin Trillin, whose humor pieces graced The Nation for decades, once praised Victor as “witty and parsimonious,” and both traits characterized our half-serious negotiations. I remember insisting to the very Manhattanized Victor that Seattle was not really “the West Coast” and that Seattle was not fully enamored of Manhattan. Victor ultimately bought out his weekly, and Seattle Weekly ended up selling to the Village Voice. So New York got the last guffaw.
Our semi-merger was a larky idea, but I lament missing the chance to work more with the sparky, wily Victor.
I subscribe to The Nation, mainly for Katha Pollitt’s essays. I rarely read it cover-to-cover, but there are always a few articles and opinion pieces I find interesting. I’m too much a Northwesterner to appreciate all of it and its proudly New York City focus, though. It’d be fair to say that others than Navasky participated in the purchase of The Nation, including Paul Newman (yes, the actor), reminded by Joanne Woodward that he was ‘rich,’ when he commented on the amount of the request Navasky made for his financial support.