John Homans died earlier tonight, at 62. He edited features at New York for not quite 20 years, from 1994 to 2014, and because he was not a celebrity editor, he was not particularly well known outside the publishing universe. But let us assure you, because we saw it firsthand: There was nobody quite like him. A disproportionate number of the best things you ever read in New York came through his hands. The shape and sound and worldview and talent pool of this place would be immeasurably lessened without him.
On first encounter, he could come off as a caricature of Wasp indifference: Tall, lean, Bostonian, great strong jawline, wearing khakis and whatever wrinkled shirt he’d grabbed that morning, maybe a little shaggy-looking from a post-basketball-game shower. (The standard description, especially when he was younger, was “He looks like Harrison Ford.” But he didn’t have Han Solo’s sleepy maybe-a-stoner gaze: John’s was more darting and interrogative.) John was, according to various rumors we heard, a member of the third or fifth or maybe hundredth generation of Homanses to graduate from Harvard. He lived in an old loft downtown with his wife, Angela, and they raised their son there, an ’80s-style Soho family that was still in place in 2020. The word “laconic” could have been coined for him. He wrote a book about owning a big dog. He played in a band with other boomer magazine editors — The New Yorker’s David Remnick among them — and it was called the Sequoias. A grove of enormously tall, protected, prehistoric, increasingly rare living things.
One of the distant ancients in his lineage was a doctor also named John Homans, and there exists a particular surgical procedure called “Homans’ operation.” It’s used in cases of lymphedema, and calls for excising a lot of swollen tissue from the limbs. The comparison is apt. John, as an editor, was intense, decisive, and fast. He was a great talking editor: You could come to him with a half-formed idea, and he’d find the story in it and lead you through how to write it before anybody typed one word. Once the typing had begun, he could take a sagging manuscript, whip it through his computer on the day it was going to press, and come out the other end with a piece that crackled. And you never saw anybody work quite the way he did: Slouched deep down behind his computer screen, muttering to himself as he rearranged and rewrote and recut. We all knew when John was beginning to focus on something: You’d pass his office and hear guttural sounds and partial sentences: Mmmhuhhh, okay, what the fuck am I doing now, okay, hmmnk, uhhh, yeah, all right, now what hmmm yeah. (The muttering got more intense after he quit smoking.) The key sentence, the one we regularly heard leaping out of the stream of noise like a breaching whale, was What the fuck? Which meant, Okay, what do I do next?
Journalists — the good ones, at least — tend to be good at avoiding self-delusion, and John was peerless at it. The clarity that served him as an editor perhaps kept him from doing something more lucrative: Some of us always suspected that he might have gone off into media-start-up-land if only he’d been able to gin up a little more fake optimism. Instead, he saw artifice for what it was, perceiving the thinness of fame, of gasbaggery, of promotion. He also knew that some of what we did was froth and some of it was the real thing. Another Homans aphorism, when we were confronted with a project nobody thought was going especially well: “It’s a shit sandwich, and everyone has to take a bite.” After New York was sold in 2004, going from a lousy owner to a great one, we got to do a lot more good work than we’d ever dreamed we’d be able to, and John flourished. Even when he was laconic, he could be exuberant: If you had a story that really got people talking, a book that took off, a movie-rights sale, his pet phrase was “You scored!”
He left New York in 2014, not because anyone wanted him to but because he believed that he’d become, as he said around the office, “a fucking dinosaur.” It was a pleasant surprise, then, when he figured out an afterlife, first at Bloomberg and then at Vanity Fair. In his final couple of years, he got Vanity Fair’s “The Hive” airborne, giving it a big injection of his dino taste and dino skills. It was exhilarating to watch, if also envy-inducing. We missed him.
We’ve invited his colleagues at New York, past and present, to talk about him. Here’s John in their words. We’ll be updating this post throughout the day, adding to it as they respond.
ADAM MOSS (editor-in-chief, New York, 2004–19; also a colleague of John’s at Esquire in the early 1980s): At Esquire, he was a very odd person [to be an assistant]. I mean, the job basically attracted more effete specimens, and John was a Yankee — and super-stylized in his version of that, and very funny. He had a full-blown magazine head, even then — he was a natural. Thought in the language of magazines, and spoke headlines. The sentences out of his mouth were the kind of sentences that enliven, and describe perfectly, in this super-vivid way, anything. It’s true, obviously, of his editorial spirit but also of his conversational spirit. He was a very rich storyteller.
He was a super ally. I never ever ever felt that he was anything but loyal and had the best interests of the organization at heart. He loved it! He loved the whole family aspect of it, and would protect it at all costs.
And the other thing about him — he had an amazingly jaundiced view of everything. He would roll his eyes at it — he was totally irreverent, totally sarcastic — but it was with an incredible amount of affection. It was a strange mix of cynicism and awe. His writers were fiercely attached to him.
JOE HAGAN (writer, edited by John at New York and Vanity Fair since 2007): He helped shape me. He’s a writer’s editor — that’s a thing that you can say, but there are editors who edit from the top. He’s the last of a breed, a vision-quest editor: He gave you a mandate when you were going to write a story, in this sort of oracular style that was hard to describe, to motivate you. He would often say, when I was at my low ebb — tired, depressed, demoralized, as we can all get sometimes — he’d say, oh, this is the sport of kings, man! We’re lucky! We get to go out and do this! This is the great fortune, the world is ours to go have fun with!
He was also a very consistent friend. We talked nearly every weekday, over the last ten years. Every call began the exact same way: Him saying to me “What the fuck is going on?” My kids know him from my talking to him through my car speakerphone. “Oh, he’s the guy who drops the F-bombs all the time.” One piece of his shorthand was “Let’s go down the road.” You’re on a road trip with John. You know how there are certain people of an emotional sensibility like him who don’t express themselves but you know you’re loved? He had that. In your iPhone, you’ll have a picture associated with a contact: For me, it’s John with his feet up on his desk at New York Magazine, flipping me the bird.
For the writers that succeeded with that model, it wasn’t like having any old editor — it was like having a personal editor, someone who knew what made you tick and treated you like he believed in you. Understood that you were talented. If he liked you, and wanted you to be his writer, that imbued you with some kind of special mission. And that’s why people wanted to do great work for him. It was like the stories you read about having an editor! A fantasy editor! This is what you dreamed would happen, that he’d be sort of dry and stoic and cynical and you’d be emotional and needy and desperate — and that’s how it is! And when he’d cheer you up and boost you back up, it was a joke. But on some level it wasn’t.
Here’s the razor’s edge you were on with John Homans: You’d turn in a manuscript to him, you’d be on the edge of your seat, and he’d always say the same thing: “It’s gonna be great!” And it’s the worst thing you can say, but also gives you hope!
GABRIEL SHERMAN (writer, edited by John at New York and Vanity Fair, 2007–present): You’d sit down, and he’d say “It’s gonna be great!” Which means it’s a fucking disaster. But he knows it’ll be great, because he’ll fix it. Other editors project their insecurities onto the writer, which is crippling. With John, I don’t know if he could hide his neuroses or fear, but he projected this all-knowing confidence that he’d figure it out.
Before I was hired, I pitched him the scandal at Horace Mann, which he — in his Homanian way — said “Sounds like a good piece,” and he assigned it to me. And I remember filing it and clicking my email refresh, must’ve been a thousand times, waiting to hear what he thought of the piece. I remember it was a week before closing and I hadn’t heard from him — are they gonna kill it? What’s happening? — and this edit comes back and I mean, considering this was my own work, I’d never read anything so perfect. I still don’t know how he does it. Completely transformed.
Salesmanship and PR — he saw it as a kind of poison in the world, and it was the job of reporters to fight the bullshit machine. New York has always been a little bit of the scrappy underdog, and it was its place to say the truth that other people wouldn’t, to print things other people wouldn’t print. He was the most fearless editor I’ve ever worked with. There was no amount of flacks he ever gave a shit about. He was also the most voracious news junkie you’ve ever met. For someone who made his life in magazines, editing literature, he’s — in another life I could’ve seen him running the metro desk of a big-city paper. He loved gossip, loved news. Whenever he called me I was always on the defensive because he’d be saying “What’s going on there? What’re you hearing?” You’d feel the urge to bring him news. I’m gonna miss those calls just to hear what’s happening.
CAROLINE MILLER (editor-in-chief, New York, 1996–2004): John was brilliant at editing without putting his fingers on the keyboard. If a story wasn’t working, he could talk the writer through how to reorganize or reconceive it, leaving the writer very much in possession of the piece, and empowered to think through the next piece more effectively.
When I would get angry about something that wasn’t working at the magazine, John would say dryly, “Don’t pathologize.” When he, on the other hand, would get angry, he’d storm into my office and yell at me. When there was a pause, I’d point out that, last time I looked, my name was on the top of the masthead. He’d kind of check himself and chuckle and we’d both end up laughing.
In the seven years I worked with John, we dealt with a lot of corporate bullshit that most people at the magazine never knew about — at least we hoped they didn’t. He was a terrific ally, shrewd and irreverent, to say the least.
I was sorry that he didn’t write more in the magazine during my tenure — we were just too busy. When he did, it was usually elegant essayish pieces that held a package together. In the weeks after 9/11 I was especially grateful that he could articulate so clearly what we were going through. He had perfect pitch for where we were psychically, emotionally — which of course was changing all the time.
KURT ANDERSEN (editor-in-chief, New York, 1994–96; hired John at New York): He’s such a kind of old-school editor — not in the self-conscious way that his former boss Peter Kaplan was, but in his old-fashioned, taciturn highly masculine way. The good side of that — the hyper-professionalism. And he was funny: not some Robin Williams trying to be wacky, not a comedian, but funny-at-the-bar-in-1949. I’ll tell you, I always thought there’s a Lou Grant sensibility — a soft heart in there, for all the rugged not so obvious softness on the outside. And when he wrote the dog book, I thought, there’s the gooey center.
I almost hired him years before that, at Spy — we’d talked about it, and we were all ready to, all agreed to give him the job, and then Graydon fell in love with Walter Kirn and we hired him for the job John was supposed to get. But I was always impressed by John. He was a good and tough-minded editor and all that, and also, of all the people I’d ever worked with, he had this ability to write headlines — you know, it seems trivial but it’s not! Beyond all his first-rate yeoman ability at being an editor and nurturing writers, what a magical cherry on top being able to write headlines and cover lines is.
DAVID HASKELL (editor-in-chief, New York, 2019–present): He left New York six years ago, a few days shy of his 20th anniversary here, but he probably still deserves a salary because I think about him every time we close an issue, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. John taught many of us how to be a New York Magazine editor. A few Homans lessons that have guided me in just the last couple of weeks: New York City is a tragic and comic and delicious circus that will always be this magazine’s greatest subject, no matter how far our interests range; stories are built out of conflict and character, and are powered by ambition (ambition creates the conflict, and reveals the personality); vanity is hilarious, and the cause of so much plot; strangeness is great subject matter (that was the beginning of “The Encyclopedia of 9/11”: John pointing out that what was lost in all the drama and heartache and politics of 9/11 was that it was a really weird event!); always strive for the novelistic — but beware of pretension and highbrow silliness and words like “strive”; find the specificity.
He wasn’t easy to pin down. A counterculture guy who sat in the same desk job for decades. An editor who could sometimes be comically incoherent when talking, spinning ideas in circles, but who also said too many memorable things to count and straightened out a piece better than anyone. The definition of aloof (except at the holiday party), and, at the same time, fiercely, endlessly, insanely loyal to his writers.
He was also quite a writer himself, and if you want a perfect dose, I recommend this obituary he wrote seven years ago for his mentor Peter Kaplan. Did Homans know when he was writing it that he was also writing his own? How could he not? The resemblance is uncanny. I remember the day he filed it, in a moment of collective loss, the city’s media world feeling the sudden absence of an historic figure. It was a scary time in the industry, and implicit in the mourning was the sense that the glory days were over and you didn’t make ’em like Kaplan anymore. But all of us at New York knew that wasn’t true. We had John.
GEOFFREY GRAY (writer, edited by John at New York, 2005–2014): We never got much done in his office, even with boots up on his desk. It was always in the steam room after basketball, or in the park after early-morning tennis. Just a few moments — coach to pupil — and in a language only the loyal pack of his writers can understand: Homania!
In John Homans’s code, the goal was always to achieve “good sport” (a.k.a. making your story actually work) and the mistake “never snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” (a.k.a. stop overwriting). But outside these Homanisms, a deeper tutorial was always afoot with John, and outside his friendship, that was his greatest gift to me as a young writer.
Like a trainer on the backstretch whispering to a horse before a race, John had the unusually powerful ability to lead us to our own solutions to complex narrative and tonal issues. How should a story feel? What did it need to do, and when? Only by trusting us to resolve the constant tangle of narrative thorns on our own were we able to truly grow, develop our own voices and confidence to cover even more territory in books (which many of us had him edit too).
Our confidence was propped up, of course. The secret to the Homaniacal method was John’s own insane talent. We were free to resolve problems on our own because we knew he could always fix our biggest mistakes (somehow in only an hour or two before the story closed) and go on to effortlessly line-edit our copy to claim his own good sport, then move on to the next victory.
After I heard how sick he was, I sent John a text message yesterday, a bit choked up, gushing on about how thankful I was for all these things and a few more. Tens of thousands of words we shared over nearly a decade, but my last trickle of copy — and perhaps the most important of all — was too late, the message still and forever marked ‘unread.’
ARIEL LEVY (writer, edited by John at New York, 1996–2008): If you were one of Homans’s writers, he was not so much your editor as your guru. I didn’t just trust him to tell me what to do with a story; I trusted him to tell me what to do with my life. He gave great advice. And, in a “novelistic spirit,” as he would put it, he liked to hear what was up. He was a fabulous gossip. After he told you a particularly good nugget, he’d say, thrilled, “Can you imagine?”
Homans was one of the least sexist people I have ever met. He mentored, inspired, taught, and harangued a generation of female journalists who owe him, big time. It wasn’t always pretty. “You … are … fungible!” he once yelled at me when I was an uppity youth — and he was right! I was! He didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear; he told you the actual truth, which he had an uncanny knack for perceiving, and, obviously, a delightful and singular way of articulating: “He does look like he has the Confederate flag tattooed on his ass,” he told me recently of a mutual friend who’d grown an unfortunate ponytail. Homans was foul-mouthed beyond measure and he loved to talk about sex and sexuality, but he didn’t have a sleazy, #MeToo-y bone in his body. He was genuinely fascinated by humans, and it didn’t matter the varietal.
Besides all his intellect, his sardonic skepticism, and his boundless, knowing cosmopolitanism, Homans had a streak of ’60s-inflected cosmic consciousness. The day before he died, when he told me he had decided to move to hospice care, he said, “Pretty heavy, right? I am going to be another configuration of atoms.”
PAMELA MAFFEI MCCARTHY (longtime editor at Esquire, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker): I only knew John at the very beginning and very end of his time in magazines. When he applied for an open editorial-assistant position at Esquire in 1980 or ’81, John was already a curious and compelling figure. He was lean and lanky and a bit bent over, but at that point it was because most people were much shorter, and not from the wear and tear of living. Just out of Harvard, he had credentials that were stellar, but there wasn’t a whiff of presumption or pretension about him. He was not at all troubled by my description of a job that required many hours a day of typing — in the days before computers, IBM Correcting Selectrics were the tool of choice, and the main work of the editorial assistants was retyping writers’ manuscripts. It was tedious work, typing on special paper and then, with another assistant, reading it back to make sure it was right. John understood that the place and the people were the thing and that there was better work down the road. And maybe he bought my sell (not untrue) that the hours of typing and reading back would let him see what it was that an editor did to a manuscript. John wanted the job. And I wanted to hire him. But there was a problem: He was a lousy typist. The bar was the usual 60 words per minute, but we’d make do with 40 wpm for the right candidate; John scored something that must have been in the 20s, since we both saw that it was not even borderline. Off he went, and then he called a couple of days later: “Are you still interviewing? If I work on the typing, can I come in and take the test again?” I said yes, and he did, and, well, he did miserably, again. About a week later: “Did you hire anyone yet?” Back he came, and this time he squeaked by. When I told him the job was his, there was no cheer, no “Wow,” just a cracking of the craggy face into a smile and a nod as he said, “Well, my roommate is going to be very happy to see the typewriter go back up on the closet shelf.” Classic Homans, though I didn’t know that yet. He was, of course, a superb addition — not the typing, but the modestly offered opinions, the ideas for heds and deks and cover lines, the decency.
Over the next few decades, my John sightings were mostly at magazine events, awards lunches, and book parties. But when he joined Vanity Fair, where I’d worked for almost a decade, I was at The New Yorker, and we had lunch every so often. He was an unusual sight in the Condé Nast cafeteria — he looked as if he’d wandered onto the wrong set. But he was, in fact, in his element: He was still getting to make magazines — more digital than print, but still print too, and at a place that understood what he did and was the better for it. He’d proved himself to be one of the best editors of our generation, but there was still no pretension, no power games. He was still sardonic but good-humored, skeptical but also able to be excited, direct but understated, except of course when he wasn’t and let loose. We didn’t talk about the past much; he was always very much in the thick of this story or that, what the magazine and site were doing, what they should be doing. He showed no interest in transmuting it all into the service of some high-stakes start-up. He was a pure editor. He was a realist, too, keenly aware of, and in the thick of, the challenges faced by what we still called magazines. But he was still able to deploy his remarkable talents in the service of stories, and to have some fun doing it.
HUGO LINDGREN (editor at New York, 1997–99 and 2004–10): Three things I loved about John Homans:
1. He gave the best toasts and speeches at staff good-bye parties. Of course, I can’t remember a single word he said, because we were always drunk. But I can see him standing on a chair, unsteady, blinking, hemming and hawing for a minute or two while he collected his thoughts. He would have an idea and he would slowly build toward it, gathering momentum, pausing to chuckle at his own jokes and, almost without fail, delivering an observation or two about that person that was surprising in its acuity and generosity. Though he often seemed lost in a fog of his own thoughts in the office, he had such a sharp eye and appreciation for people’s talents, quirks, and foibles.
2. He had hidden talents. He was once among a group of friends who made an impromptu visit to my parents’ house, and while we were all sitting in the kitchen talking, we heard someone playing this beautiful jazz on the piano in the next room. We all looked around, like, Who the hell is that? It was Homans, obviously.
3. Speaking of parents, he loved talking to other people’s parents. He would say nice things about you to them that you never knew he thought. My mother probably met him three or four times max, but she still asks about him. As gruff and territorial as he could be at work — you did not want to get between him and next week’s cover story — he had a secret reservoir of kindness, generosity, and incredibly good manners.
JARED HOHLT (editor at New York, 2000–19): Every day we worked together, and whenever we’d see each other or email in the years since, John Homans made me want to be a better editor, though I knew I could never be an editor like him. But it was something to try to live up to, and to admire, always. He came from this kind of tradition — so many traditions really, including some that he’d rebel against — and yet he was sui generis, a “writer’s editor” and then some. And he wrote so beautifully himself. He understood the mood of a story, a place, a city, a fight, a political race, like nobody else. (Also, he looked if not quite like Harrison Ford, then like Harrison Ford’s stunt double.)
He did his job with such wit and sly wisdom. He did it so creatively — and quickly. He yelled creatively.
Whenever John came into my office to pay a visit at New York Magazine, his words usually preceded him. “What the fuck, Jared, what the fuck!” Things were “appalling.” Or “good sport.” Or often both. It was all good sport with him. He could make us see the occasional absurdity of magazine-making, and yet he took it all quite seriously. Stories were everything. He had nicknames for so many of us, or anecdotes that totally got who we were, with maybe just a little topspin. And he nurtured us too.
Sometimes, as he’d start to have good sport with the office, standing in the doorway, booming, I’d try to gesture him inside, and get him to shut the door. I never wanted him to stop talking, though. John left New York Magazine, and everyone kept hoping maybe he’d come back again someday. But he’ll always be its voice.
MARK JACOBSON (writer, New York, 1995–present): Got a text from Homans the other day. Usually he just calls, says “What’s going on there?” But this was a text, and it said, “Looks like curtains. I’m in Sinai.” For a moment I thought he meant the Sinai Peninsula, doing a rewrite of the Ten Commandments, ripping out some of the more arcane numbers. Alas, this was not the case.
I’ve had a lot of editors, but my relationship with John was the longest and in many ways the best. We got along, we liked a lot of the same stuff, loved to argue with each other, and got some kicks making fun of the younger employees we knew would outlive us and inherit whatever was left of our little journo planet. He was a mensch and a good friend. I am going to miss him but treasure his memory. Stay forever cool, big fella.
WALTER KIRN (book critic at New York, 1994–2000): John was, for me, that ideal editor: a writer who was willing, secretly, to pass off his words and his genius as others’ work. He edited my biweekly book reviews for years at New York Magazine. Here is how he did it. Now, say the deadline was 10 a.m. on Thursday. About 2 p.m. on Thursday, he’d call me in Montana to remind me I had a deadline. No pressure, he was just calling to remind me. Most likely, I had finished reading the book by then and started to type something out. Back in New York, he would send me telepathic encouragement for a few hours. Then he would call again, transformed. “We really fucking need this now,” he’d say. “We actually have a magazine to publish.” I would write for another two hours or so, then fire off my sloppy copy, sometimes with missing topic sentences flagged by the letters “TK.” John had standing instructions for this moment: Do all the rest, do it superbly, and don’t show me the edits. (These were instructions he had given himself.) That I let him take over from me in this way, time after time, review after review, indicates the faith I had in him — in his intellect and acuity, of course, but also in his discretion. He never told on me. He never told on any of us. This prince of the page, who let writers use his throne.
ARIEL KAMINER (writer-editor at New York, 1995–99): As others have noted, John presented to the world as a caricature of straight New England multigenerational Ivy League privilege. But he was the most insistently off-kilter, uncharacterizable presence. He was so good at destabilizing expectations — in a story he was editing, but most vividly of all in a conversation you were trying to navigate — that there was nothing to do but accept defeat, acknowledge his superior skills, and laugh at your own feeble attempts.
As a manager, and also as an inveterate gossip, he would absorb vast amounts of shit: the whiny complaints and peevish resentments that fill the air ducts of an industry built on fragile, outsize egos. He would dutifully reassure whoever was generating it that yes, okay, it would all get worked out somehow. And then when that person was an inch out of earshot, he would turn to whoever was standing next to him and, with a laugh, declare: “Drama!”
He found the drama, like literally everything else in the world, amusing. “Good sport!” he’d say, both a knowing send-up of a Hemingway-era stuffed-shirt editor and an accurate expression of his view on the world. It was all good sport. He had a dauntingly huge brain and could arm wrestle with any of the celebrated intellectuals he sometimes assigned articles about, but earnest he could not do.
When John told me about his cancer, I was caught up short. We were at a party, as he always seemed to be, and he was juggling some number of glasses and snacks and sort of almost spilling them, as he always seemed to be. I didn’t know what the proper way to reply was. I expressed the things I would express to anyone else: shock, concern, sorrow. They seemed so tedious and literal-minded. John shrugged and said he’d sailed through chemo and it was no big deal. John said it, so I believed it. Who could resist seeing the world the way he did?
CHRIS SMITH (writer, edited by John at New York and Vanity Fair, 1988–present): Homans seemed too big for the office. This was 1994, and New York Magazine occupied a fairly small, somewhat fusty space at 755 Second Avenue. Kurt Andersen had hired him as one of the key people to transform the magazine’s personality. In those days Homans appeared outsize — not physically, though he was more than six feet tall, and not because he called attention to himself. It was John’s presence — smart and conspiratorial and demanding and playful and snarky and thoughtful. It was intimidating, at first. Here was this ruggedly handsome guy with an incredibly quick mind who had gone to Harvard, was a talented basketball player, smoked weed, and played guitar in a band with other cool-guy writers and editors. He always seemed to have just returned from some kind of manly urban outdoor adventure. I remember something about him rowing to a party out under the Verrazzano Bridge. Though he certainly didn’t tell you those last several things; you just kind of found them out. So when Homans strolled around the corner of your desk and announced himself with “What … is … happening?” you wanted to be ready with a piece of news that made him laugh or pissed him off.
As an editor, Homans immediately spotted the weak stretch you were trying to hide in a story; better yet, he knew how to fix it. He could protect you from an angry source or run interference with an editor-in-chief; he also knew when to say your writing was lazy.
The appearance of a story with his own byline was a rare and beautiful thing. No one wrote with greater clarity or perspective about 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy. He also somehow wrote a lovely book, What’s a Dog For?, while doing his day job and almost never mentioning his side project. John’s love of the city came through every story that touched on New York; I will always wonder if that love also eventually made him one more victim, given that he lived downtown during and after 9/11.
Homans came up with brilliant ideas. He was a deft line editor. But probably the largest sign of his gifts is how many talented people wanted to work with him and how many young talents he nurtured, at New York and at Bloomberg News and in the past three years, under brutal journalism business conditions, at Vanity Fair. Man, was I looking forward to writing a Hive story for him on November 4.
Anyone who worked even briefly with John can cite Homansisms. The two most common are probably “Excellente!” and “Then we’ll be winning the game.” I hear two others in my head every time I sit down to write. When I was learning to become a political columnist, the whole having-an-opinion-and-making-a-point part was often a struggle. Homans told me, “It’s good to be right. But you always need to be interesting.” The second saying is more enigmatic. “What a world,” Homans would mutter. Three words, but in them, spoken with the underlay of a Boston accent in his voice and a gleam in his big brown eyes, you could feel and hear the pain of inexplicable loss — including of our great colleague Sarah Jewler, gone too soon to a rare blood disorder, and of his neighbor Nicholas Cleves, killed by a terrorist on the West Side Highway — but an even greater share of irony and amusement and joy and wonder: at a grand black hawk making sudden repeat appearances on his deck, at a piece of juicy political gossip, and especially at the love of his wife and son. What a world, indeed.
SUSAN CHUMSKY (colleague of John’s at Manhattan, Inc., 1987–88): I hope it’s okay if I share a quick story that’s not about John Homans’s superhuman editing prowess. One day in the late ’80s, some of the truly fine ladies of Manhattan, Inc. found ourselves rating our male colleagues’ looks. We were ruthless. One editor had a fat ass. Another looked like Fred Flintstone. We all agreed emphatically that Homans, while not the prettiest, took the prize for “animal magnetism.” No contest.
REBECCA MILZOFF (fact-checker, editor, and writer at New York, 2004–15): You can tell a lot about editors by how they treat their fact-checkers. In my many years at New York, giving changes on a big feature —that is, going into a room with some of the smartest editors and writers in the industry and basically saying “Here are all the things you did wrong!” — could feel a bit like going into battle.
But with Homans, a fact-change session always felt like a strangely fun honor. With his feet kicked up on his desk, he’d inevitably greet you with an emphatic “What is going on?” He’d give you a front-row seat to Homans Theater: the many varieties and timbres of his classic “What the fuck?” (sometimes a bellow; other times a pensive question asked while squinting at his computer screen and tap-tap-tapping at his keyboard). He’d listen to every change you gave, no matter how nit-picky, with total calm and respect. And above all, he’d make you feel welcome, not a third wheel, in his partnership with his writers — people like Joe Hagan, Mark Jacobson, Vanessa Grigoriadis, and Ariel Levy, whom I grew to think of as “Homans People,” which is to say that they like their editor were whip-smart, no-bullshit, and hilarious, and always treated me as an intellectual equal.
One of my first memories at New York is of an after-work summer happy hour at our old Madison Avenue office. As we sipped margaritas on the terrace, the other fact-checkers and I gathered around Homans as he regaled us with stories of his life in Magazine Land. We likely looked up at him (he was tall!) with evident adoration — I remember Ari Levy creeping up to join us and immediately jokingly cooing, “Oooh, John, tell us more stories, you look like Harrison Ford!” It was a funny moment, but she’d also hit upon something true: Homans was unlike anyone else at New York Magazine, and most of us, really, wanted to be like him.
I only got to work with him as a writer once, on a music issue. I was conducting interviews with 1950s and ’60s pop icons like Burt Bacharach and Dion, and worried that they might not be up to Homans’s standards, or at the least to his level of cool. But he geeked out with me over each one, wanted all the details, smiled ear to ear talking about the Brill Building. The guy who everyone said looked like a movie star was, it turned out, a music nerd, just like me. It’s that excitement and smile that I’m remembering right now: the guy who, after all that time in Magazine Land, still loved each new story. The editor I still want to be when I grow up.
JENNIFER SENIOR (writer, New York, 1997–2015): When I first saw him, he struck me as this funny cross between Indiana Jones and Mumbles from Dick Tracy. He was very handsome but so socially maladroit — and seemingly involved in a conversation only with himself (one that was inaudible a lot of the time) — that I found him both intimidating and remote. It took a long time for me to register on his radar, and I remember being very pleased when I did — he was the kind of person you wanted approval from. I realized how wicked his sense of humor was early on, when we were in this large staff meeting, and someone mentioned that Thursdays were the new Saturdays. He shot back, totally deadpan, something like, Great. Maybe we should also write how 6 is the new 9.
He was the first person who gave me a sense of the aesthetic of magazine life. I showed up from Washington in ridiculous power suits—that D.C. power drag, you know? — and he, more than the really spectacularly turned out women around me, showed me that there was another way, with his low-key shabby Wasp style.
He was an astonishing diagnostician. I remember the first feature he ever edited of mine, which was a long story about Hillary Clinton — I think I cut 300 words of incomprehensible dreck and substituted them with three quick phrases, maybe even between em-dashes, from a conversation I had with him. His observations were models of compression and economy.
Adam Moss once said something to me that was striking: ”You know, John is smarter than I am.” He said it so casually that I thought, at the time, it said a great deal about Adam — that he had the ego strength to say that about his deputy. And it did. But I later realized that it said something about John too. It’s a real testament to his personality and his character that he never clubbed you over the head with his intelligence, how unobtrusive it all was. I mean, it was always there, humming in the background, but it was never the loudest component of his personality. If you were ignorant or clumsy or (frankly) just plain stupid, he would never make you feel like the deficiencies were yours. He was very, very generous that way. With his mind.
I owe a great deal of my career to him. He had the imagination to see me doing stories I’d never have selected for myself, and he had the imagination to see, in the stories I personally pitched, exactly what I wanted to say. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. He told me what my own strengths were before I could identify them, really. I’m guessing many of his writers will say the same.
ERIC KONIGSBERG (writer, edited by John at New York, 1996–2000, and at Vanity Fair): Some of us called John a magician for what he could impart to a steaming pile of copy — voice, an essential idea, structure — while still making it feel like the thing you’d have produced naturally if you’d had more time and kept your wits about you. Other stories he could transform with the simple prescription, “Just cut out all the boring parts and you’ll win the ball game.”
There were so many expressions of his that still ring in my head with any new project. “It’s a straight shot” meant to just report the hell out of something and the material would point the way. “As an activity, it’s a bowl of candy,” was a way of reminding you to have fun — with a particular piece, or just being a writer in New York. Figures of prominence he thought were overrated had “high production values.”
The aloofness amounted to a powerful sort of charisma. I think all his writers realized how blessed we were to have him, that holding his interest — managing not to bore him — was the challenge he issued with every assignment. If your piece could captivate Homans, what couldn’t it do?
AMY LAROCCA (writer, edited by John at New York, 2000–14): Quickly after arriving at New York in 2000, I knew I wanted to be one of John Homans’s writers. He was incredibly smart, and hilarious, and he was super-weird. I had never met anyone like him; It’s been 20 years and I still haven’t. It is still his voice in my head when I write.
Instead of going into your draft and mucking around, he’d wander over and say, “So you’ve just got to do [an incredible amount of work] and then you’ve won the fucking game!” And if you were ever stuck, he’d say, “Look, it’s gonna be great,” leaving unsaid the part about how it wasn’t yet. I’m not much of a shouter, so we never got into his legendary scream-a-thons, but I was a great fan and admirer of listening in when he did. “Take some fucking words out,” he shouted at a writer. “It’s like a fucking Victorian living room in there.”
For a while a really unpleasant person worked at the magazine, driving everyone nuts. When this person left, there was much rejoicing. Homans said: “You know, it’s really a shame. It was very good for staff morale to have a common enemy.”
Fashion people like to send flowers to each other, and any time he spotted a big, fat arrangement on my desk he’d wag his finger and say: “That just tells me you haven’t done your job.” He had no time for ass kissery.
I met John when I was very young, and it’s hard to parse out how much of the way I write, edit, say fuck, and evaluate the world comes from him. It’s a tremendous amount. I was in his office at 444 Madison when the towers came down on 9/11, and on that hot summer day a few years later when all the lights went out, he walked me home. Mostly though it was the zillions of other days: sitting in his office flipping through other magazines and gossiping and living for the moment when I came up with something — an idea, a story, a bit of dirt — that would make him crinkle up his whole face and shout.
CARL SWANSON (writer-editor at New York, 2000–1, 2004–present): Our dogs were never friends. They hated each other on sight, in fact. They’d pace around at a wary distance, looking for the other to make the first move, or just make the first move toward making the first move, when we’d all find ourselves — John, me, Stella (his dog), and Kira (mine) — at the Tompkins Square dog park, usually at night, and usually after John had had a couple of glasses of wine (or maybe was a little stoned?). He was looser then than he was in the office, but even more elliptical, as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to translate all he saw, and saw through, into 33-rpm human terms for me.
Tompkins was not the closest dog park to his loft: Washington Square Park was far closer to Noho. But I guess something put him off about that prissy collegiate park, or it never occurred to him to go there, and no doubt the (younger and more varied in their metropolitan delusions) people-watching was better in Tompkins. Maybe it reminded him of the punkier version of the city he first moved to, full of different possibilities and impossibilities than this pleasant lifestyle village that (until COVID) had mostly replaced it.
But things like this change, and Homans was no nostalgist. There was no prelapsarian longing. He’d adapt; he was too interested not to. He lived his life as mostly an editor and a reader, but he thrived on the sometimes off-kilter ambition of others, shaping it, making it make sense so they could go like a bullet through their lives. He was never, ever, a hater. He was never so witheringly dismissive of me as when I was being a hater. His attitude seemed to be: Do it yourself, if you can — you might not have the talent, but you might.
A certain kind of person amused him: the nearly comical in their brazenness, the can’t-help-themselves type. He was curiously inhibited. A friend of his once told me that he ought to run the world — look at him — but couldn’t quite be bothered to try. He’d rather read or play some music or go to the gym to play basketball at lunch, as if he’d never left college. And he told me that he had the best job, and at New York he had basically the same one for 20 years. He made writers who had what he wanted — provided what he wanted, and maybe needed — better, saw what they could become, played man-doula to their obsessions. I wished I’d been edited by him more when I was younger, though he pieced together (out of reported fragments) the first cover story I did, in 2003, about the fall of the Times editor Howell Raines. If he liked something you did, he’d call it “poetry,” which was the highest compliment. Even if he doled it out sometimes too off-handedly, you still believed him.
The last time I saw him was for lunch — January 24, says my text-message history. It was at P.J. Clarke’s on the ground floor of the mall over which we both ended up working. I never really got advice from John — truth be told, I’m terrible at taking advice — but if he was amused with you, or if you happened to be amusing, he’d talk things through with you. That day, he walked in a bit off-kilter; for someone who used to run across the bridges and play basketball at lunch, his body wasn’t entirely cooperative any more. But he was proud of his son, wry — if not terribly specifically gossipy — about the ego war inside Condé Nast and the tottering fortunes of our entire industry. It seemed perfectly appropriate to me that he’d seemed to have beaten cancer, possibly because he couldn’t be bothered with it. I thought about how for years he’d had a copy of the two-volume slipcased 1,700-page Robert Musil novel The Man Without Qualities — set in Vienna shortly after the turn of the last century, with a reluctant aloof aristocratic protagonist who just couldn’t be bothered to commit to the tumult around him — in unbroken shrink wrap on his shelf. He told me that the point of it was that it sat there, sealed, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world.
JONATHAN VAN METER (writer, New York, 1998–present): For seven years I lived on Great Jones Street, next to the firehouse. And John Homans lived in the building on the other side of the firehouse. Was it right next to the firehouse? Maybe two buildings over? Sheryl Crow lived in the building that was right next to the firehouse, so John lived in the building that was right next to the building that Sheryl Crow lived in. Noho … ugh …it was once so wonderful.
Laurie Jones, the managing editor of Vogue, lived in the same building as John Homans, the building that may or may not have been directly next to the firehouse. I have spent most of my adult life writing for both Vogue and New York Magazine, so it was crazy and amazing that the No. 2 editors at both of my jobs lived not just on my block but in the same building. That is the creepy magic of Manhattan: one block, your whole life, just right there. Some days I would walk out my front door on Great Jones Street and see Laurie … Jones … scurrying into a Town Car that her assistant had ordered for her so she could get to the Condé Nast Building, which at that point, in the mid-to-late two-thousandzies, was in Times Square. Once, she shrieked at me in her Texas … drawl? Accent? Am I allowed to even point out that sort of thing these days? Am I speaking in a voice that is not my authentic? She is a white lady from Texas and was once a cheerleader. In any case: She shrieked something about her hip surgery and having done too much aerobics, which is why her hips were so fucked.
But sometimes I would run into John Homans: walking his dog and smoking a cigarette. Early in the morning. Or in the gloaming. He was always so happy — to see me? I was never certain, but there was this look in his eye. Maybe he was reflecting back my joy to have run into him.
He’s dead now, and I’m heartbroken. But what he always did when I bumped into him on Great Jones Street, where he lived in the building next door to the building where Sheryl Crow lived, which was next to the firehouse … what John always did was screw up some kind of effort to get out the words, like he was saying something that was hard to say, because it was always deeply personal and private, and it was always surprising. It was always funny and kind and smart and true.
MICHELE PARRELLA (art director, New York, 1998–2004): Baptism by fire is how John and I would describe our first encounter at New York. I was designing the 30th-anniversary issue on my first day on the job in 1998, and John was the editor. There was a terrace outside my office where he’d go to smoke and pace between edits until finally he’d just shifted to smoking and pacing in my office. In the years that followed I worked closely with John and Rob Patronite, who was then the assistant managing editor; we’d meet daily in my office to work out story deadlines and word counts for that week’s issue. He “affectionately” referred to us, respectively, as Mussolella (his take on my last name) and the Corporal. He didn’t often meet the deadlines that Rob and I proposed, so I had to make my way down to his office, where there were coffee stains on the wall above his trash bin from all the cups he’d thrown in. His shirt was wrinkled, his hair mussed from running his hands though it; he’d be tapping his fingers, his feet kicked up on his desk, cursing, muttering. Finally, he’d give up that story he was editing with the caveat that it was a bit over.
It was a give and take, the design-and-editing process. John knew how to write a headline for a story that both an editor and an art director could love (not an easy feat). He knew not to have a drop-cap paragraph start with the letter “I”. He knew how a good photo or illustration would draw in someone to read the incredible writing he had edited, and I suppose he, in his own way, cared about deadlines. In his words, “I like to help Mussolella keep the trains running on time.”
But my fondest memory of John was when Charlie, his young son — now Charles and a college graduate — would come into the office. John would light up, delighted, as he watched Charlie play in the art department. I’d keep Charlie entertained so John could, I hoped, meet his deadlines so I could then start designing. One time when I returned Charlie to John’s office I found John playing with his mouse on his Ouija-board mouse pad. I asked, What does the Ouija board say, John? He jerkingly moved the mouse and pointed to the letters T-H-A-N-K-S as Charlie jumped on his lap, both with gigantic smiles on their faces. If I had his Ouija-board mouse pad now, I’d point out the same letters to him before pointing to the G-O-O-D-B-Y-E at the bottom of the board, and add, John, you will be missed.
STEVE FISHMAN (writer, edited by John at New York, 1997–2014): So many things I will miss. I was so lucky to have John, a once-in-a-generation talent, as my editor. The kind who took my inchoate thoughts — the ones I didn’t yet know I thought — and put them on the page and made them sing. Anything good that I produced at New York had his hands all over it. And John performed much of this magic with infuriating effortlessness. He was the most distractable person I’ve ever met, flipping through magazines while discoursing on a draft. It’s gonna be great, he’d say. Which meant that, at the moment, it was useless. But he believed in it — and in us, his writers — and, don’t worry, he was going to fix it. Oh, wasn’t it great to be in his circle of writers! His writers.
He was protective of his writers, another reason we clung to him. Once I made a decision that some journalists might not have made. It was brought to light, and the magazine’s communications person came barging into John’s office to say, in effect. What the hell. And John, well, he defended me. He told the communications person, Hey, this is how the sausage is made, and then, I imagine, he told the person to shuttle on and do what needed to be done, and to let us get back to work. I didn’t hear about the issue again.
Sometimes he did lose his cool. Then he’d wag a finger at me — it wagged from just under his chin. And then he’d spit fire about my rough draft or the state of journalism. Once, we argued about a single word. I don’t recall which — just a word in my draft. He fumed. (It wasn’t the best side of him, but then, as John liked to say, Talent comes in inconvenient packages.) I shouted too. It got so loud that it frightened the interns who sat outside his office, as they later told me. John calmed them. Hey, you want to be part of big-city journalism, don’t you? I imagine him saying. Our spat blew over. We did pushups in his office. Of course, he could do so many more than I could. He could do a pushup for every year he’d been alive. And touch his toes too. Yeah, he had it all!
I think what I’ll miss most is his love. John looooved the work — the outbursts were always about the work. He loved journalism, which he called the sport of kings. He got a huge thrill watching his writers worm their way behind the scenes of whatever matter was at hand. At its best, New York Magazine revealed how the machinery of power worked (really worked). Oh, John loved when we got all the way in. He loved the scoop. And he loved exposing the puffery, the apparatus of manipulation. And the intrigue — who was leaking the info, and who was stabbing whom in the back, and who was indulging in Schadenfreude this time. John didn’t necessarily enjoy the discomfort that journalists endure and provoke. He was, despite appearances, a bit shy. But, oh, he loved to hear stories. And like all his writers, I loved to bring them to him. He was my first call if I scored, as he’d say. Like the time I snuck into a prison, or the time the notorious Bernie Madoff called me from prison. John appreciated the dark arts of the craft, and he loved the gossip. He was a connoisseur of it, and had high standards. If I got a word of appreciation on whatever nugget I’d dragged in, oh, that was a good day. When John left the magazine for other parts, we had a little dinner for him. We told some stories. John soaked them up. And then he turned to me and wagged his finger and said, I loved every minute of it. And that’s what I’ll miss most. His love.
CLAIRE LANDSBAUM (writer at The Cut, 2016–17, and Vanity Fair, 2017–present): When I started at Vanity Fair I was terrified of John Homans, the rumpled guy who shuffled down the halls muttering, hooked up to what looked like a fanny pack of chemo drugs and giving a barely discernible ’sup nod if you made eye contact. Then Jon Kelly — who had hired me and served as a personal guiding light — left, and I found myself in Homans’s office wondering out loud what was going to happen. Feet up, a YouTube video about surfing paused in the background, he told me I could shape my own path at the magazine. We mapped out possible futures. I’m sure he said something Homans-y, but I can’t remember what.
Months later — after we had moved floors and Homans went from his walled office to an open-plan bullpen with the rest of us — I started to pick up on his personal lexicon: “What the fuck am I doing?” as he line-edited stories; “What the fuck is up?” as a phone greeting, especially and often to people he liked. “That’s money” when a writer pitched a good story, often before they had even finished the sentence. “Harsh toke” was any time something went wrong. “Eggsellent” and “totes” were frequent Slack messages. “A piece of journalism” was a piece of journalism, but to his standards, which were just that much higher than anyone else’s. Once, during a meeting, he called me a “young person going places,” which rankled at the time, but which I later deciphered as Homans-style praise. I started to take notes. When Ross Perot died on July 9, 2019, he told some lucky person over the phone, “That giant sucking sound is Ross Perot being sucked up to heaven!” I teased him by talking about astrology, which he hated (classic Taurus). Astrology, he held, is the opposite of journalism.
And I learned from him, never in deliberate sit-down sessions — who has the time? — but through osmosis, like a sponge. I’d forward ideas from writers I worked with, he’d say something brilliant and far-reaching about what the story should be, and I’d try my best to translate, ears still ringing. It went the other way, too: He asked for my opinion, and not just for show. Asked me to read every headline he wrote, Slacking, “Could prob be better.” (Sometimes he was right, other times not so much.) Then there were the unexpected parts of him: how, when I told him about Pose, he told me to watch Paris Is Burning. How, when I walked into the office with dyed black hair for the first time, he shouted, “You look like you’re in a movie!” and then forced me to watch several scenes from Cabaret. He used to say, of a certain media mogul, that she “became exactly what she was meant to be.” It was classic Homansism, equal parts sardonic and admiring. I told him that, one day, I hoped he’d say the same about me.
MICHAEL TOMASKY (writer at New York, 1995–2003): I spent part of Thursday afternoon scrolling through John’s New York author archive. What a delightful garden of little surprises. John was a magazine man of the magazine era, which I mean as the greatest sort of compliment.
By “magazine era” I mean that period from roughly 1960, when Esquire published Norman Mailer’s “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” that Ur-piece of New Journalism that marks as good a starting point for the era as anything else, up through the mid-to-late-’00s, when the lapidary longform essay finally lost the fight against clicks and Search Engine Optimization. By “magazine man,” I mean a certain type of omnivorous generalist who considered it his duty to know something about an astounding range of things. Politics? Of course. Literature? Given. The markets? Impressive. The downtown theater scene? Wow.
The topics on which he wrote — and he didn’t write as much as one wishes he had; he was such a cyclone of editing — reflect this breadth. The history of the New York pop-music scene. The Knicks. Truman Capote. The Times. Oliver Stone. Annie Proulx. Julian Schnabel. Richard Ford. And on and on.
I was scrolling through, stopping and reading every so often, even allowing a smile to cross my lips, when one headline brought me up short: “In Remembrance: Sarah Jewler, Colleague and Friend.” Sarah, New York’s managing editor, died in 2005 at age 56. She, like John, left us far too soon. Why has this happened twice?
I had left the magazine by the time Sarah died — had left New York City, in fact. But I have often thought of those days. Sitting in John’s office, watching Bernard Shaw deliver some news flash (John had one of the few TVs), reading the morning papers, growling about Rudy, listening to John refer drily, in a phrase I will never forget, to one writer’s “uninfectious enthusiasm.”
We were back in touch not too long ago for something or other and had some drinks one night when I was in New York. It was 2015, I think, but within minutes it could have been 2000 all over again. I think he even walked into the bar and greeted me in his customary way — pointing at me, smiling, and remarking, “There he is!”
JOSHUA GREEN (author, writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, 2011–20): John came to Bloomberg after 20 years at New York, his reputation preceding him for the few of us in the building who were die-hard magazine junkies. He took bottomless delight in the daily comedy of being plunked down in the middle of our buttoned-down corporate megaplex. Gruff, learned, sardonic, bohemian, forever hiking up his slouching jeans, he couldn’t have been less of a natural fit — and of course didn’t make the slightest concession to his new environs. On rare occasions when a company man would interfere with his fiefdom, complaining that one of his writers had strayed onto someone else’s beat, or offended some source or flack, Homans would stand up and shout until the person scurried off, bug-eyed with fright (this wasn’t the “Bloomberg Way”). I witnessed it. Then he’d saunter back, giggling, “Can you fucking believe it?”
Word of his genius got around. You started steering pieces his way, and bringing him pieces that others were editing for a secret backread and a dose of the ashram wisdom and casual encouragement he was always dispensing to his flock. (Imbuing confidence in neurotic writers was a Homans superpower.) After a while, he became my full-time editor, pulling me into the great adventure of being in his constant orbit. I got to experience the journalistic life cycle that began with “This is gonna be great” and ended — you always hoped — with “You fucking scored!”
His loyalty was a prize. Once you’d earned it, it was like being inaugurated into a secret society of all the writers you most admired. He never boasted or name-dropped or, to my knowledge, moved on from someone he liked, despite moving on to new jobs and collecting new devotees. His capacity to absorb them was boundless. You’d often discover them only because of the paternal pride he took in celebrating their achievements. I’d wander over to discuss a draft and find him editing so-and-so’s book manuscript and think to myself, “Well, of course she’s a Homans writer.” His relationships were seamless in that way: He’d edit your story, which would become a book, and he’d edit that, too, and eventually it didn’t matter whether you worked in the same office anymore because the conversation was forever ongoing and always wonderfully the same — the familiar laconic voice, tinged with mischief, wondering “What the fuck is going on?”
SARA CARDACE (assistant and writer, New York, 2000–2008): The Homans I knew was brilliant, fun-loving, foul-mouthed, sardonic, sage, and kind. Also kind of a hippie. I have no idea what made him want to hire (much less hang around with) a socially awkward, impossibly green 20-year-old who showed up for her interview in a suit and bad shoes, but once I was hired I was the envy of the other assistants. While they were asked to juggle tedious administrative work and other onerous tasks, Homans didn’t really care how I spent my time so long as I didn’t let any undesirable phone calls through.
I was his assistant for four years. He lost his temper often, but never at me. Our days began with “What fresh hell?” and ended on “Fucked up again, Cardace!” — the latter of which didn’t generally bear any relationship to whether I had actually fucked anything up. The one time I did fuck something up pretty badly — a bitchy email sent in error to one of his favored writers — I thought I might get fired, but John was tickled: It gave him a fabulous piece of gossip to share in the editors’ morning meeting.
When there were writers in our circle he didn’t like, he would lean over my desk and whisper, “He couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag,” the insinuation being, at least in my interpretation, that I could write my way out of a paper bag! I’m sure he knew how much this thrilled me.
I must have written hundreds of headlines trying to impress him; probably a dozen made it through. I eventually started to despair of being an assistant (though never of being his assistant), and I’m sure it was thanks to him that I was offered a contributing-writer gig at the magazine. I worked for New York on and off for years before leaving journalism for a big job on the West Coast; it was only when Homans made a surprise appearance at my going-away party that I had a moment of hesitation.
My devotion to him, as was the case for most of the young staff, was total. He was my benefactor, teacher, shield, critic, and friend, and he set the bar unreasonably high for all of my future editors and bosses to come.
JON GLUCK (editor at New York, 2002–2013): John Homans was everything all of the many people writing tributes to him have said he was — brilliant, deeply in love with his work, loud (he was really very loud). But he could also be sensitive and kind, not that he wanted anyone to know it.
I started working at New York Magazine in 2002, and had been there for just seven months when I was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer. When you went into John’s office to talk to him, he would normally half-talk to you and half-look at whatever was on his computer screen. (He was a multitasker before it was cool.)
When I told him why I had been out of the office and what was up, he stopped looking at his computer. His whole aloof, alpha-male affect changed. And then he said, “You poor guy.”
I barely knew him at that point, and that was it. Just those three words. You. Poor. Guy. Yet somehow it was one of the more comforting things anyone had said to me. It was simple and direct and got straight to the heart of things. It had a certain tone, at once intimate and distant, that was uniquely his. Those were all qualities that characterized his work, but in this case he was using them in the service of pure human empathy. He had a heart and a brain.
Later, after we had both left New York and he got sick, we exchanged emails and talked on the phone from time to time. The conversations were mainly about everyday work matters, but we’d also gossip a bit and invariably one of us would ask how the other was doing and vice versa.
A few years ago, we ran into each other on our way out of an industry event. John was on a crowded elevator and spotted me waiting among a group of our fellow editors for the next available car.
“Jon Gluck!” he yelled. “Let’s have lunch! We can talk about how fucked we are!” He cackled as the elevator doors closed.
That’s how I’ll remember him: telling it like it is, and laughing just the same.
PETER WILKINSON (contributing editor, Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, and author; longtime North Fork summerhouse-sharer with John): Nobody cooked a better nine-pound slab of sirloin, under the stars that hung over Peconic Bay, with small waves tiny against the beach.
Nobody ever cooked a better leg of lamb, on that grill and others, for Thanksgiving, and fretted for days and days about its internal temperature.
Nobody swore so much, or threw his racket more, on the tennis courts of the North Fork. “Fuck!” And, on any ball he missed: “I had it!”
Nobody could go fishing with more drama and calamity: a sunken boat (his own), a dead engine, a fishing lure plunged straight through his thumb, a near capsize in the churning waters of Plum Gut. And then an emergency-room visit for cutting his foot on a clam shell.
Nobody was kinder to dogs. At his place in Martha’s Vineyard, year after year, John repeatedly warned a friend’s Labradoodle, “Murphy, I will not throw that damn tennis ball, ever again!” Year in, and year out, Murphy waited a beat, because John would chuck that damn ball toward the ocean for an hour or two.
Nobody else co-wrote a song, with a 12-year-old, that, over and over, mentioned toe jam.
Nobody else, when invited to play charades, bellowed, “I will not be a clue, and I will not be guessed!”
He was a man who never suspected he’d be hit with a diagnosis of stage-four colon cancer at the age of 60, with no family history of the disease, having to go through radical HIPEC surgery, hip surgery, and then have the cancer spread like a motherfucker, within months, throughout his body — brain, stomach, bones, liver, lungs. He stayed alive in hospice for 55 minutes.
Days before, he wrote, nakedly about himself, which he never did, “I’m fucking sick. Totally off wine, heroic effort to work, super weak, no nice days for a while.”
And hundreds of shining days left behind, thinking, “eating like kings,” drinking, fishing, playing his Gibson guitar and some Bud Powell on his piano, washing every dirty post-dinner party dish.
“Excellente,” Homans. “Excellente!”
EMILY GREENHOUSE (co-editor, The New York Review of Books; worked with John at Bloomberg Politics, 2014–16): I cat-sat for Ariel Levy so I could score an introduction to John Homans, whom she described in rabbinical proportions; when it came my day to meet him, I understood why.
I worked with John, for John, at Bloomberg Politics, a misbegotten digital-magazine project that suited neither of us. He called the Bloomberg offices the space barge; we laughed at the fish tanks and the biometric devices we had to wear around our necks. John loved to take the piss, and he was good at it, but for all that cynicism, I found him more open to the new thing than I was. He might be called old school, but he didn’t insist on the rungs of duty, which surprised me in a blue blood with a Kennedy impression sharpened by time spent with actual Kennedys. It was about the work, he could spot talent where it grew, and if he thought you had it, he’d get frustrated until you untangled your thoughts and did yourself (and him) justice. He never talked down. He would fight you and make it better and teach you. You just wanted John to think you were good.
“What’s on your horizon,” “What’s the agenda,” “How’s the repoeticizing,” “I wonder if there’s a way to score,” “Maybe something here.” And “What the fuck,” always, palm open and phone in hand, flipping mindlessly, or staring blankly at the computer screen — although never mindless, never blank. He demanded ideas first thing in the morning, some short clips — what he called “snackable” content — some underwater journeys. He sent me to Trump Tower to cover the launch of Trump’s campaign. I talked to teenage girls shopping next door at Tiffany’s who told me they were given campaign T-shirts and paid to join the cheers. John approved of the phrase “performatively escalatoring.” It did seem funny then, unfortunately. He watched Rihanna videos all the time.
He wore a messenger bag and his jeans like no one I’d seen, straight out of some Bowery music club in the ’70s, more rock star or rascal than any editor I’ve ever met. But there was a tenderness to him: when he talked about his dog, or his son. We worked together as Charlie was applying to colleges, and he seemed so in awe of this person he and Angela had made, now becoming an adult.
After I left Condé Nast, I no longer saw him in the elevators or cafeteria (he’d announce those of us he knew by our full names, with an exclamation point at the end). Then came a night last December when we got to share arancini at a dinner with Don DeLillo, whom he called his “all-time literary hero.” They discussed Great Jones Street — DeLillo’s book about a Dylan guy on his very street — and Homans, who could come off as jaundiced, practically twinkled. That night, he seemed satisfied.
A few weeks later, we had lunch in the Village, to debrief about DeLillo and our old workplaces. John is my elder and my superior, and I felt sheepish afterward — maybe I’d said or asked too much? When I emailed him apologetically, he immediately reassured me. “I love gossip, it’s not bad (this is how we use and enhance our understanding of people!).” John understood people.
MAER ROSHAN (editor at New York, 1994–2001): For most of the seven years I spent at New York, John Homans was my confidant, co-conspirator, and closest work friend. At the time New York was housed in a tower high above Madison Avenue. We’d venture out together for caffeine or bagels or cigarettes at least ten times a day.
John was a Waspy, weathered Brahmin in a battered Brooks Brothers jacket and wrinkled chinos. As a gay Iranian from Long Island, I was partial to more stylish attire, which amused John no end. “Ahhhh — was there a sale at Zara yesterday?” he’d ask as he stepped into my office in the morning. “Fuck you, John!” I’d reply. “I’m not taking fashion tips from Mister Rogers!” Then we’d laugh and make our way to Starbucks.
We always seemed to be laughing back then. We laughed at the strange eccentricities of our bosses and the pretensions of our colleagues and the sad sex lives of our assistants. We marveled at the exotic neuroses of our writers, most of whom, we agreed, were clinically insane. But mostly we laughed at each other. Fucking around with Homans was lots of fun — he had this old-world aversion to oversharing and cheap sentiment that sometimes made him turn bright red. But for the most part, he was one of the most chill, least judgmental people I’ve ever known — endlessly tolerant of the foibles and anxieties of his writers and his friends. He exuded a paternal quality that made everyone try to do their best for him. Many of the writers and editors he mentored and championed would eventually land plum posts at the best publications in the country. He delighted in their success.
In the last century, editors at New York used to get six newspapers delivered to their desks every morning. Most of them ended up unread in the trash, but John tore through all of his in an hour. He was the ultimate generalist — insatiably curious and well informed about a broad range of topics: politics and books and birds and basketball and music. He had a Balzacian fascination for the city’s social maneuverings and its endless quest for status.
New York felt like the center of the world back then — a circus of preening egos and outsized ambitions — and we both knew how lucky we were to have a front seat for the show. On most days we’d stay at the office until 7 p.m., and regrouped hours later for the evening festivities: a book party for Ivana Trump, dinner with Ed Koch, a field trip to Cokies in Brooklyn with “the kids.” (To his credit, Homans always made it home before I did.) Once, when he was searching for an assistant, Homans interviewed an earnest Harvard grad who assured him he was in bed every night by ten. “Actually,” Homans replied, “we don’t hire anyone here who’s home before midnight.” He wasn’t kidding. We worked for New York, after all. Going out was part of the job.
One New Year’s Eve, a few hours before the new millennium, a bunch of us were dispatched throughout the city in rented black Town Cars on the condition that we’d return to the office by 6 a.m. to close a special issue that Homans was overseeing. Things didn’t go quite as planned. A copy editor phoned in sick. Our computer system crashed at midnight. One of our writers, still recovering from a bad Ecstasy trip, barricaded herself in a closet and refused to come out. But somehow it all came together, as it always did. One writer threw up in a wastebasket as Homans put the finishing touches on his copy. “Oh, this is going to be great!” he said.
A few months later, I left New York to take a new job, a decision I’d agonized over for weeks. Leaving the magazine felt like leaving my family — and telling Homans was the hardest part. A night after he hosted my going-away party, I called to tell him I’d changed my mind. He wasn’t having it. “Don’t be ridiculous!” he said. “Go! You can do this anywhere!” He was wrong. In the 20 years since I worked there, I’ve tried to replicate its particular magic, but it’s never been quite the same. In an era of shrinking budgets and cancellations, media seems less interesting now — so cautious and sensible and safe. Of course, we’re all older now. And of course, Homans wasn’t there.
For several years after I left, John and I continued to talk every week. After I moved to Los Angeles a decade ago, our calls became more infrequent. A few months ago, he phoned me to catch up on some gossip, and we soon found ourselves laughing again. “Look, we really have nothing to complain about,” he said before we hung up for the last time. “It’s been great! We were there at the pinnacle! The kids will never know what fun they missed.”
CHRIS NORRIS (writer, New York, 1994–98): I imagine lots of other New York alumni are privately embarrassed by how much John Homans gave us. How fundamentally he reframed our ways of thinking about writing, criticism, art, literature, the city, America, often with just one or two of his sui generis phrases. He had this loose-limbed cowboy grace unseen in letters since Sam Shepard. He’d walk around the offices with a prince-in-exile vibe he probably had since grade school, and the star power was especially confounding in someone whose quiet, behind-the-scenes heavy lifting made him a true GOAT of publishing. His ear is still a mystery to me. Unlike many brilliant members of publishing’s Ivy League upper strata, Homans came to whatever cultural subject you brought him pre-tuned to its frequency. You didn’t have to explain what was good about J Dilla, My Bloody Valentine, Geri Allen, or Michael Haneke. He knew, as a fan, without condescension or a gatekeeper’s indulgence of whatever’s trending.
You’d turn in an 8,000-word slush floe of scenes, voices, and ideas and he’d pull out one 50-word section, say “There’s your piece,” and be right, every time. He’d edit by example — thinking aloud in your presence, floating certain phrases, models, or comparisons and listening for the ones that rang true, showing a writer’s ear for prose whispering that unlocks you. He’d say “Just … erm, imagine you’re … James Wolcott writing on Old Dirty Bastard.” You’d leave his office shaking your head and by the time you reached your desk have the lede graf in your head.
“Lede graf.” Does anyone use terms like this anymore? Homans was a product of print’s earlier age. Having him as formative editor is both blessing and curse. The curse is obvious. Think of 17-year-old Darryl Hannah landing her first big film role in Blade Runner: acting with Harrison Ford, getting directed by Ridley Scott, coming to work each day at Oz and thinking “So this is how moviemaking is” — and then spending the next 25 years learning otherwise. The blessings are far greater and longer-lasting. You write better, read better, and think better, and you don’t take anything too seriously, even writing. You remember that it’s possible to be both enraged and hilarious at the same time (though I never saw anyone else pull it off). He’d treat you as a peer even when you clearly weren’t, correct appalling cultural illiteracies passingly and without comment. He’d end the death-row vigil that you’d spent waiting for him to read through your draft by coming to your desk and saying, “Welp, it’s fabulous” — before he got into it. Seeing him do this over and over while producing great work showed what little harm it does a project if someone is encouraging, even extravagantly so, early on. The variety of people who trusted him with their most fragile rough-draft selves testifies to something nobler than magazine craft at its highest level. I’d say it proved “love” or “humanity” if I didn’t hear Homans guffawing as I type the words. He’d nix the win-it-for-the-Gipper bathos, and deflect the praise to someone else.
JADA YUAN (writer, New York, 2000–18): Homans hated this stuff, or at least he said he did. Teary tributes. I know this because, at his going-away party from New York Magazine, when so many of us stood up to make heartfelt speeches, he said, “This is like a fucking wake. I’m not dying.” Then, of course, he stayed the whole night.
The thing is, Homans was so good at handling death. He seemed to have to write so many obituaries of friends, a cruel number, these soaring encapsulations of lives well lived, with an overtone of heartbreak. Especially the one he had to write one morning in January for Sarah Jewler, a recovering hippie, enigmatic hard-ass, and dear friend of his who died far too young of a rare blood disorder. I was Sarah’s assistant for four and a half years, and nearly every day, Homans would rush into her office to boom about some outrage or cackle over a piece of gossip. He was kind enough to let me tag along with him and Peter Kaplan (another friend whose obituary he’d write) when they visited Sarah in the hospital.
Sure, he yelled, and in fact he was the first person who yelled at me in my adult working life (quite the honor!). But he was also a rock who held people together: his group of friends, and me, in those sad days after Sarah died. A buddy at her funeral, who’d tolerate me moping around in his office, and agreed that this was indeed the pits.
His desk at the magazine’s old office on Madison Avenue looked straight out onto mine and Sara Cardace’s. There were no doors, so every time I’d look up he’d be typing furiously but staring straight ahead, murmur-yelling, “What fresh hell is this?!” All of us assistants wished he were our boss (Cardace, alas, won that lottery), because the duties mostly consisted of lying to whomever called and saying he wasn’t there when he was very obviously right there, or maybe not there and playing basketball. He was generous to the young people, as he called us. He dispatched me, an assistant, to report on 9/11 and he made me (let me?) edit a random submission from Hunter S. Thompson. Me, at 23! I thought it was a privilege till the 10 p.m. phone calls started rolling in. Oh, did Homans enjoy that disaster. He sent all of us running around the city documenting the indie-rock scene for what went down as one of the worst-selling issues in the history of the magazine. It was a blast. Fearless leader that he was, he stole a $90 (or was it $150, or $500?) Michael Kors candle from Joanna Coles’s office to lead the entire office 13 flights down a darkened stairwell during the blackout of 2003, all the while making jokes about how fucking expensive the candle was and who the hell has one of those just lying around in their office. He talked proudly of Vanessa Grigoriadis, who’d been his assistant, and how she’d been so completely awful at all administrative tasks that she’d had no choice but to become a great writer. I think he was giving me a road map to follow, though it took me eons to figure that out. I wanted to write for him, and I craved his no-bullshit approval, but I knew every step onto that wheel risked flying off with a withering critique. He tore apart the first piece I ever wrote — which, granted, was a caption I turned in at 250 words, but still! Withering.
For a long time, I thought a mentor had to be someone deeply invested in your career who helps you plot your next step. But John did something different. He didn’t see limits or labels around people (unless he’d determined you were an absolutely terrible, or worse, mediocre, writer). He gave chances. His was a universal, gender-neutral, age-agnostic sink-or-swim policy. If he found you at all semi-capable and you came to him with an idea, his general response was “Why not?” Which is what he said when I was a party reporter and casually mentioned I wanted to cover the 2008 presidential conventions. I’m pretty positive no one else would have given me that chance and had the clout to make it happen. And it is one of the few instances I can point to and say that someone’s faith in me changed my life, from the confidence boost to the unforgettable experience, getting me to what I do now, writing about politics. He was consistent, as a friend, as a champion for the 20 years I was lucky to know him. Even last year when he thought the fucking cancer was gone and we went out for fancy cocktails to talk about my coming to work for him. “Well, what do you want to do?” he said. And when I didn’t take him up on it and went elsewhere, I was scared to call him, and he couldn’t have been nicer: “Well, that’s fantastic, Jada. You’re a star. You’ll be great. Have fun.” He didn’t really have goals for you. He wanted you to jump in and then be delighted with where you wound up.
JON KELLY (founder, Vanity Fair’s The Hive; worked with John
2017–19): It was approaching early evening on Memorial Day, COVID-19 edition, and I was hanging out on my deck, blithely ignoring my kids, when the phone rang. It was Homans. I admit I’d been thinking about John a lot during the pandemic, peppering him with texts — flirtations for gossip that were really thinly disguised attempts to see how he was faring. After all, it’d been some two years since he called me one Saturday afternoon to tell me he wasn’t feeling well, and needed to go to the hospital — that, in a classic Homansism, everything was fine, but maybe it wasn’t, who the hell knew. As it turned out, that was the beginning of his cancer. So when I saw his name on my iPhone, my chest tightened.
But on this Memorial Day, just a mere two months ago, everything was fine, or at least it seemed that way. Homans declared himself healthy and well. He was heading back from a long weekend on the North Fork, and had a couple hours to kill. He wanted to bullshit, and despite some obstacles — hungry kids, a put-off wife — I did, too.
As an editor, Homans knew that a long, rollicking telephone conversation was just the antidote that every writer needed in order to get moving, that sort of intellectualized pep talk that spun them up, that allowed them to proceed with a whisper of his voice in their ear. Long before CMSes, TikTok, and paywall-trial conversions — when magazines seemed like their own perfect little technology — those conversations were the coin of the realm. Back in the early 2000s, I recall seeing firsthand how those exchanges drove the enterprise. “Hi Wayne, it’s Dominick Dunne on one”; “Aimée, I have Hitchens for you.” In those days, editors talked and talked and talked, and somehow those conversations sparked the magic that manifested itself in the work. The exchange of ideas, the foundation of trust: It’s what allowed the best editors to partake in the silent collaboration at the heart of the mission. I’d heard all the great ones yammer, but no one did it quite like John. We stayed on for a good hour that day. The world may have been rotting, but we laughed like boarding-school roommates.
I can’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember what I thought when I put the phone down. I flipped the charred burgers off the grill, poured myself a heavy-handed drink, and pined for the old days more than just a little. Of course, I had been living through them, myself.
VANESSA GRIGORIADIS (writer, edited by John at New York and Vanity Fair, 1996–present): The first time I walked into New York Magazine after graduating from college, I heard John Homans screaming at some hapless writer on the phone. I vowed to steer clear of him, which didn’t work so well after Kurt Andersen was fired, my boss Michael Hirschorn left the magazine, and Homans inherited me as his assistant. Luckily, I learned that he yelled at his writers out of love (usually), and mostly spent his time making prank phone calls to the New York Observer. At night I would go into our publishing system and read the stories that had been filed to him, and then I would read the revised story when it came out in the magazine. He didn’t always get deep in copy, but when he chose to rewrite, it was like angels singing in heaven. He could drop three sentences into an eight-page piece and transform it.
I thought we had a lot in common (we liked the same authors; we had a similar sarcasm, or at least I imagined we did), but it took a long time and a lot of prodding to get him to pay attention to my writing. One day he noticed I had a book entitled LSD Psychotherapy on my bookshelf — just for educational purposes! — and I think that helped. The fact that I loved gossip definitely made a difference. I’m not talking about gossip about celebrities or reality-show stars, but gossip that I picked up from calling or just being around powerful people, like lint. Homans liked gossip that was about the central irony (at least metaphorically), as he saw it, of New York City: The richest people in the world live here, and we are all in some ways their serfs, but because we get to decide who and what they are in the public square, we’re also kind of their overlords. For years, Homans’s main note on my stories was, “Make it a social comedy!” Everything was a comedy. Everything was “good sport.”
Of course, many more serious things happened through the years, but Homans and I still motored on, working together. I wrote dozens of pieces for him. I also spent many days of my life on a knife’s edge, waiting to hear what he thought of a piece I’d filed. When he called, you wanted him to yell “You scored!” or “This is pure poetry” instead of “It’s like nail soup, Vanessa. Just keep working on it and eventually we’ll have soup.” He made a speech at my wedding describing me as an excellent collaborator, and I will never forget how proud I was of that — all I wanted for so many years was to be seen that way by him. I wished that the people who owned magazines would realize he was the celebrity editor-in-chief they were looking for, and I think he did, too, at various points, but he was never quite suave enough to pull off any sort of business meeting. He couldn’t fake anything. Not only that, but he lived somewhat vicariously through other people, mainly his writers’ adventures and exploits. The truth was that he loved the North Fork and animals and a quiet life spent sort of mirroring us. He acted, in some ways, as both our interrogators and our subconscious — an external voice when the internal writing voice failed us.
In more recent years, I wasn’t as nervous about getting Homans’s calls after filing a piece as I’d been before. I pretty much knew what he was going to say. I knew whether my story was good, or bad, or even unprintable, and when it was unprintable we’d have a fight and he’d say things like “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” And then a few hours later one of us would apologize and we’d make up. Homans became, if not quite my equal, one of my dearest friends and confidants. I wish we had more time together, but most writers don’t get 24 years with an editor, let alone an honest, loyal, kind friend. When I called him this week, he picked up the phone and promptly announced, “I’m fucked. I’m a goner.” And though our relationship has been one of the great blessings of my life, and I can’t imagine many parts of my life without him, we both knew it was true.