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The Time of Their Lives

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Walter Isaacson, Stengel, and Jim Kelly at Time in the early eighties.  

“Everybody at Time was so damned smart. We had a glorious time,” says Graydon Carter. “We got drunk constantly. We didn’t have any real adult responsibilities other than showing up at work. It was an amazing group, and we’re all still pretty much friends.” In fact, Carter still holds an annual dinner party for many of the people who worked for Time in those days.

Isaacson was the ringleader of the group, considered by everyone to be the man likely to lead Time someday. He never failed to attend the Saturday-morning media softball game, where he could rub elbows with Mort Zuckerman and Ken Auletta. When Isaacson eventually did become managing editor, he made Kelly his deputy (because, says Isaacson, Kelly made “the trains run on time”). But Isaacson was much closer to Stengel. Both had studied at Oxford as Rhodes scholars; both shared a taste for history and politics and a fascination with the Founding Fathers. Over the years, Isaacson became a mentor to Stengel.

Stengel and Kelly were close as well, until Kelly succeeded Isaacson as managing editor in 2001. The tensions emerged over the prestigious job of editing the “Nation” section. Behind the scenes, John Huey—then editorial director of Time Inc.—had decided that Stengel should rise in the masthead and encouraged him to pursue the position. But Kelly was reluctant to give it to him, according to an intimate, because he thought Stengel wasn’t managerially organized enough to oversee a ferocious presidential-election season. After a protracted search, Kelly eventually gave in but kept Stengel on a tight leash, micromanaging and rewriting him. Stengel chafed. Asked by another editor at the time how he coped with Kelly’s being his boss, Stengel said, “You just don’t be his friend anymore.”

Stengel had left Time on good terms at various intervals over the past 25 years—once to ghostwrite Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, another time to be a speechwriter for Bill Bradley. But when he quit in February 2004, it seemed like it might be for good. Stengel says he wanted to “run something,” and there was no clear path for him at Time to do that. Kelly had selected Steve Koepp as his deputy managing editor, and Stengel reported not to Kelly but to executive editor Priscilla Painton, two steps removed in the chain of command. So he packed up and moved to Philadelphia to become the CEO of the National Constitution Center, a nonprofit museum dedicated to the study of the Constitution, where he invited Isaacson to join its board of directors.

John Huey was not a part of the well-connected Time-magazine club. A former naval-intelligence officer from Atlanta with a feel for the flyover states (he co-wrote the autobiography of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and still commutes to Manhattan from South Carolina) and an indiscreet cutup once known for doing a James Brown impersonation given the right amount of bourbon, Huey runs straight against the tweedy Ivy League type. After an acclaimed run as managing editor of Time Inc.’s Fortune in the nineties, Huey had become the heir apparent for the top job: editor-in-chief of Time Inc. Moving to the executive floors in 2001, he developed a reputation for shaking up the old Luce culture—mainly by tossing out career editors at big magazines like Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly. Huey famously overruled a longtime editor who thought putting George W. Bush on the cover of Time after September 11 was a bad idea, telling him, “What makes you think anyone gives a shit what you think?”

“A disturber of the peace,” says his friend Howell Raines, the deposed editor of the Times, but “a more agile one than I was.”

The place where Huey most wanted to shake things up was Time magazine. And although he was already functionally running the company as editorial director, Time was the domain where his boss, editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine, gave him the least authority. It was a source of constant frustration. In the fall of 2005, as Pearlstine retired and Huey prepared to become the sixth editor-in-chief, he told a colleague, “I can’t wait to blow up Time magazine.” He was finally going to get the chance to make his mark on the flagship publication.

It didn’t take long. On the last day of November 2005, Huey took Jim Kelly out to lunch and told him he was going to hire a new editor to run Time. Kelly would get a job “upstairs,” in the corporate offices on the 34th floor. Given that rumors of Kelly’s imminent firing by Huey had been rampant since Huey became editorial director under Pearlstine, Kelly wasn’t surprised. But he wasn’t happy either. Kelly had spent every day of his career at Time and had run the magazine for five years, managing it through 9/11 and Katrina and earning four National Magazine Awards. He was fiercely protective of the magazine, and had a complicated and wary relationship with both Pearlstine and Huey over their meddling.


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