RIP: Jack Lewis, Tough Hollywood (Former Boss)
June 30, 2009
I had the good and interesting fortune to get my first magazine editing job back in 1982 with Jack Lewis and his stable of outdoor sports mags.
I was graduating the next year from MSU with a journalism degree and a longtime interest in outdoor magazines. So I thought it would be neat to get a summer internship. I wasn't on the inside at the J-School, but there wasn't any official career help for students in any case at that time. We were also in the middle of a recession and the only career talk I recall was hearing from professors that we didn't have any hope for a real journalism job. So I sent out my own "job homing missiles," I called them, with a resume and samples to every outdoor magazine. I got a few nice replies from bigshot editors but no bites, so I started phoning them.
I got one bite.
Jack Lewis from California hired me at a low wage to be assistant editor for his magazines "Gun World," "Bow & Arrow," and "Horse & Horseman."
I drove out in an old Vega (at about 45mph so as to not stress it). I stopped in at Boulder, CO, and watched a couple stages of the Red Zinger bicycle stage race, which hooked me on bike racing and Boulder, too.
When I arrived in Cali, Mr. Lewis asked me where I was going to live and I said "In a tent on vacant land somewhere, with a solar shower. I brought everything with me that I'll need." He said he'd find something. I ended up renting a room from him at his house in San Clemente.
He was a tough, gruff old cowboy who filled his office with blue cigarillo smoke and had steely, squinty blue eyes.
He was also a Marine. He was in his late 50's. He was rather unique in that he had served active duty in WW2, Korea and Vietnam---that's 3 big wars. He also only hired Marines. But I was gungho enough myself that he let me in for that summer.
Dang, that was a fun summer. I worked in an old paste-up style office full of guns and bows and got to ride wild horses on the weekends. There was a staff of about a dozen friendly folks. I body-surfed at famous beaches, rode my old Gitane to work, learned how to fly up the steep cliffs to my boss's neighborhood overlooking the I-5 (I'd never seen a steep road before). I house-sat for a week for a co-worker who had a lighted kidney-shaped pool---bliss. On other weekends I drove north to Hollywood to party with my uncles and their friends and got another eyeful. (My uncle rented a room below their bungalow for 30 years to a Hollywood newspaper columnist. I'd hear his typewriter clacking away down there in the un-air-conditioned night. Yet another slice of romantic journalism.)
Lewis was an active reserve Lt-Colonel who seemed to be darn busy with military work at the nearby base at Camp Pendleton. At the time he was peeved that he'd just been passed over for Colonel. I suspect he had more on-the-ground experience than most Generals at the time. But, as I recall, he was an up-from-private guy, not a college-boy, and so was snubbed. That didn't stop Generals from frequently calling the house asking for his help at their nearby base at Camp Pendleton. It was interesting for me to take messages from such calls---"Helicopter down, call General so-and-so right away," "Urgent troubles with fighter jets, call asap."
Lewis was also a Hollywood screenwriter and had pals that included John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Slim Pickens. He had good stories to tell. He'd been a stuntman, a private eye and steelworker as well. He had a glamorous young wife even, who was nice to be around.
He finally wrote a book of his Hollywood memoirs that I just checked out of the library: "White Horse, Black Hat." Great stuff about old-time two-fisted manual typewriter Hollywood and the Westerns era.
Lewis was a Depression-era bootstrapper from a poor family. He said he viewed his role as taking care of people and especially as giving opportunity to Marine vets after their service. He hated an empty fridge, kept his full and told me to hit it as hard as I wanted. His view of war was the grunt's-eye, a workingman's. The officers weren't their natural friends. His military role was to keep the men from being killed by their officer's bad ideas. He seemed to have the approach of "War is hell, but once we're in it how can I best get my guys out of it in one piece." I never heard ideology from him. Yeah, he was a bit jaded and a hard drinker. He'd been through a couple wives already, too, as I recall.
He let me use his green-keyed noble old manual Remington typewriter in his home office.
That summer I helped produce most of the issues of his magazines plus a couple books.
Working for Jack gave me a sense of connection to old-time Phillip Marlowe Hollywood, to the Westerns, and to pulp journalism.
I saw Jack again at a book trade show a decade later. A friend was with me and I whispered, "Come here, I want you to meet a guy who I think you'll find stands out. Tell me what you think." So we went and I said Hi to Jack. He squinted out from under his black cowboy hat, blew smoke from his cigarello, and rumblingly said sure, he remembered me, "We got a lot of work outta you that summer. Cheap." After we left my pal said, "Yeah, he was old school, all right. Like meeting a mafia don!"
I have a pic somewhere that I took of him in his office back in the day, with all that smoke. I should scan it in here. I also have an old gun book somewhere with his "young days" mugshot in it, looking steely, with a jaunty old tough-guy bio-blurb.
Later on I saw in some report that he sold his magazines after "publishing wasn't fun anymore."
But I kept seeing his name on bylines in the gun mags.
Jack Lewis died at the end of May in Hawaii, age 84, soon after marrying his ?th wife.
I found out while we were on our family road trip and were in Hollywood. I went down to the big, old roadside newstand on Cahuenga Ave. that I used to frequent in those long ago days and flipped through a few gun mags --- and saw that Jack had stories in 2 different mags and even a head-shot, in cowboy hat, on one cover.
Dang, a prolific writer to the end. He wrote thousands of magazine articles and hundreds of books.
So, while other, famous Hollywood people died last week, I said goodbye to the fighting tinsel cowboy patron who I got to know one summer.
Here's a sample of the obits that ran across the US, if you doubt me. This one from the other side of the country from where Jack lived:
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