Oz Elliott—The Fallback
By Clem Morgello
None of us would have had occasion to celebrate Newsweek’s Golden Years recently had it not been for the wishes of a wealthy widow – and I’m not talking about the celebrated person who owned and chaired Newsweek for a quarter of a century. It’s a little-known story. Indeed, I doubt there’s another person still standing who knows it.
I was brought to Newsweek in 1950 by Dick Rutter, who had himself just been hired to be the magazine’s business editor. He recruited me from The Wall Street Journal, where we both worked on a section of the copy desk that edited the two lead stories running on the front page each day. Rutter was one of the more-experienced rewrite men on the desk; I was a recent recruit from the Canandaigua (NY) Daily Messenger.
I wasn’t Dick’s first choice. He wanted to hire Bob Bedingfield, a more experienced WSJ reporter who covered the railroads, then an industry with considerably more muscle than it has today. But Bob wasn’t about to leave the powerful Journal for Newsweek, an uninspired also-ran to Time. Rutter then offered the job to me, and I became in early 1950 as an assistant editor and writer at the magazine, a swift and heady ascent for someone who only two years earlier had been a rookie reporter in Canandaigua.
Quick Changes: Rutter, who was a skilled editor but smoked and drank too much, didn’t last long. He was followed by Leo John Turner, a round-faced individual who seemed to make a point of telling people that he was a quarter-blood Cherokee. After Turner, for another short stint, came Allen Cleaton, a gentle, courtly person with a considerable magazine background who was aged, stooped and weighed-down beyond his years. I’m not sure whether he was officially business editor, but he edited my stories.
Sometime in 1955 there was an interregnum of much more than a month, and I found myself running the section, but without the editor’s portfolio. I had by then become the writer who more often than not handled the “weighty” stories, but was obviously not deemed weighty enough to hold the title.
Towards the close of one of my long weeks as editor pro tem, Mac Muir, son of Newsweek chairman Malcolm Muir, came to my office. Mac edited Periscope but was also in charge of finding a new Business Editor. He assured me that every one appreciated my efforts. Trans World Airlines, he continued, was putting together a press trip, and perhaps I would like to go.
Great Trip: I was delighted – and quite surprised. This was the kind of junket that editors higher on the masthead usually hogged. It would last ten days or so and take in Ireland, Egypt and Spain. Among those on the passenger list, I soon learned, were Charles Halleck , a powerful congressman from Indiana who at different times was House majority and minority leader; Bob Considine, one of the best known syndicated journalists of the day; and celebrated Broadway columnist Leonard Lyons.
After I thanked Mac, he dropped the other shoe.
“You should know,” he said, “that when you come back you will have a new editor.”
Rogers edited the business and finance section of The New York Herald Tribune, a declining but still important paper. He was of sufficient status that I could hardly object.
Shared Seats: The evening of the flight, TWA held a cocktail party and then we headed for the airport. I found myself seated next to Time business writer Oz Elliott–on the left side of the cabin, I in the window seat.
Early on the first leg I mentioned that Newsweek was looking for a new business editor. I did not let on that I knew who it would be, but added: “I heard that you are in the running.”
Oz, who probably knew he hadn’t been chosen, admitted that he’d been approached and added: “But I really wasn’t interested.”
We did not bring up the subject again on the trip.
After ten rejuvenating days, I returned to our office at 42nd Street and Broadway, in what had once been the Knickerbocker Hotel and where, according to office lore, Editorial occupied the very floor (eleven) on which Enrico Caruso once had his suite. There was no sign of Don Rogers.
Later that day, an angry Mac Muir told me that when Rogers told Helen Rogers Reid, whose family controlled the Trib, that he was leaving the paper, she persuaded him to renege on his commitment to Newsweek. A short time later, Mac announced that Oz was our new business editor. Just as I had been to Bedingfield, Oz was a fall-back choice.
We can only conjecture how good or bad Rogers would have been had he taken the job, but we do know what Oz accomplished after Phil Graham bought the magazine and made him editor in 1961. For which, I guess, we can thank Heaven for wealthy widows.
I never reminded Oz of what he had told me on the plane.
Clem Morgello joined Newsweek in 1950, became business editor in 1959 and senior writer from 1963 to 1974, when he returned to edit the business section until leaving in 1976.