The Riches-to-Rags People Magazine Reunion
Twenty-five years ago People treated its staff to an extravagant Key Largo getaway. A recent get-together proves those days are gone forever
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
I got hired at People in 1984 after spending many years on an afternoon newspaper in San Francisco, where I had to fight for every cab fare. Going to People was like getting off a raft and getting onto a luxury liner.
People's publisher, Time Inc., was an exception in the often frugal magazine world.
My first week there I heard two editors discussing lunch plans in the elevator. “Not the Four Seasons again,” one said to the other with a sigh.
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People made more money than all of Time Inc.'s other magazines combined. You got five weeks of vacation in your first year. If you worked at the company for 15 years, you were rewarded with a sabbatical, which amounted to one year off at half-pay or a half-year off at full pay.
I once forgot to book a car service to Connecticut to interview director Milos Forman about the movie Amadeus. I was told to hail a taxi — round-trip. It cost more than $400. I expensed it.
The first article I reported and wrote for People was about the 100th anniversary of the invention of the roller coaster. When I suggested the story, my editor said I should go around the country to ride other coasters and rate them. “Make our travel department work for you in planning the trip,” she said. “Take a few weeks.” All expenses paid.
The indulgences were excessive, no argument. But we worked hard, often round-the-clock on a breaking story, like a celebrity death. The times were larger then, too. The economy was strong. Unemployment was low. Gas was cheap. The TV show "Dallas" set the fashion: big hair and big shoulders for women. Men wore oversized jackets and suits from designer stores like Barney's and Charivari. Even the hit move that year was called "Big."
The magazine turned 15 years old in the spring of 1988. Jim Gaines, who was managing editor, decided to commemorate the event in a big way — big even for Time Inc. He flew the entire People staff and its U.S. and European correspondents — about 100 of us — to the swank Ocean Reef Resort in Key Largo, Fla. We were there for four days.
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Upon arrival we were given individual credit cards that we could use to buy souvenirs, rent cars, eat at any of the resort's restaurants, play golf, swim with dolphins or take schooner cruises. That I can remember any of what went on from Wednesday to Sunday is a testament to my youth. Let’s just say alcohol was involved. One late night, after too many drinks, the magazine’s top editors thought a golf-cart race around a lagoon was called for. It was at that point that the resort’s management called the police, who arrived with sirens wailing.
A couple of Fridays ago, there was a reunion in New York to commemorate the Key Largo event. I flew in from my home in Minneapolis. The reunion was not held at the Four Seasons, but in a large upstairs space at Burger Haven, a fast-food joint on the Upper East Side. Admission was $55 a ticket, which included burgers and an open bar until 8 p.m. We all paid our own way.
About 100 folks showed up, including ex-staffers who were hired after the Key Largo bash. I felt, as I walked upstairs, that I had just taken a leap over a large body of water. I steadied my legs and looked around to see who else had landed here after so much time.
Co-workers who I hadn’t seen in decades, many of whom I’d completely forgotten, kept appearing before me, as if in a dream. Everyone kept using that image to describe the experience. We had nametags, but I didn’t need to read them. Everyone’s face and name instantly came back to me. Former People managing editor Lanny Jones, who's credited with coining the term "baby boomer," was there. The reunion wasn’t so much about catching up with one another, but about continuing conversations that never really ended. We were more than colleagues. We were trench mates at a young age.
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To me the most amazing thing was how everyone looked. Most were in their 50s and 60s. They looked years younger.
But there was one element typical of reunions that was missing: No one boasted of big career successes or showed off a trophy spouse. Most attendees answered the question “What are you doing now?” with responses like “freelancing,” “working on a book,” “taking on special projects” or “consulting.” In other words, the luxury liner called People had sailed on long ago. Most of us had gone back to our rafts.
If at that Key Largo event we had thought about what life would be like 25 years later, we’d have pictured tropical beaches and paid-off mortgages. For most of us, that future never happened.
But we're boomers. We paddle on.