Melvin B. Shestack, “master of the gentle con,” spent a lifetime in magazines. There were specific fellows in the industry who were like modern-day Talmudic scholars. They spent decades behind typewriters with sheaths of clippings and papers, instead of scrolls. They moved beyond questions of faith, immersed in the study of subjects ranging from sex to The Three Stooges.
Shestack, who passed away in 2005, was a witty cartoonist, and editor extraordinaire at dozens of publications. There’s no telling how many potboilers Shestack may have been involved in. But he was the author of Encyclopedia of Country Music, How’m My Doing: the Wit and Wisdom of Ed Koch, and a generic book title that must have appeared thousands of times: Secrets of Success. My interview was conducted in 1984. Question: What was your specialty at Magazine Management?
SHESTACK: The Adventure Jobs [features chronicling dangerous lines of work]. I made them all up. That was a real problem because people used to call and ask, “Where do I get a job milking snakes?” There was big money, you got $50 every snake you milked the venom out of in Ocala, Florida. I came up with another great job: keeping the whores in good shape in Las Vegas by being their masseur. The best one of all was a job where you make $50,000 marrying hookers to save them, through a foundation out West that I made up.
Q. Did readers call in on that one?
SHESTACK: One day there was a man, nine feet tall, all neck, hands big as tennis rackets—a California State Trooper. He said, “I wanna marry one of them hoores.” He had the clipping. He said, “You G. G. Burke?” We all had pseudonyms, that was mine. He said, “I’m ready, I don't even care about the money. Fella I know married a hoore and she’s a great wife.”
I looked at him and said, off the top of my head: “God, ya know, hundreds and hundreds of men have called—you're late, when did you read the issue? Our office has been besieged, I’m here weekends lining them up and we’ve run out of whores.” I said, “Give me your address, there’s a list of 326 guys before you. When your name comes, believe me, I'll call.”
Q. And he fell for it?
SHESTACK: Yeah, of course he fell for it, they’re dorks.
Q. Did the publisher, Martin Goodman, know these were fake jobs?
SHESTACK: I assume he did not.
Q. In which mag were the fake jobs described?
SHESTACK: True Action. It was my favorite. It was a magazine of phenomenal unimportance, that’s what I liked about it. Nobody would ever check facts. Bruce [Jay Friedman] eventually turned it over to me entirely.
Q. So the nature of your articles was to con the readership? Did that carry over to the staff?
SHESTACK: I would say to some extent.
Q. Could you recall a few? How about the time you had [Mario] Puzo waiting on some dock at 3 a.m. for a shipment of silk shirts for 50 cents?
SHESTACK: About 80 percent of the time I came through. I had an uncle in the shirt business. It started out real, like all of them, and then something happened in the middle—I either can't do it, or it doesn't work.
Q. But you never warned the recipient once the deal fell through?
SHESTACK: No. . . I can’t for the life of me remember things I did, but I only did it to people I had a great affection for. People who should really be angry still invite me to dinner. Everybody was so damned tolerant. It was a company of flawed geniuses. Everybody had his idiosyncratic behavior, yet it worked together like a team. Everybody liked his fellows for what they were and didn’t dislike them for what they were not. A great deal of affection.
Q. How was the money there?
SHESTACK: Our salaries were low, but you could make a hell of a lot freelancing. You got paid for everything you wrote, above your salary. It doesn’t happen anywhere like that today. That’s why everyone was so happy there. You learned to write fast. We went out to great restaurants on Fridays. I remember I wanted to go to Montreal for a weekend—I knew if I stayed up that night and wrote some stupid story—I said, Bruce, I need a story. He knew what I could do and said you take this one. In the morning I’d turn it in, he’d look at it, write $350. Friday I’d have $350, which was more than enough in 1962 to take a plane to Montreal and have money left over. You could plan your life. It was magnificent.
Q. This was no Mary Tyler Moore newsroom, it was a large organization.
SHESTACK: There were about 60 people. And then a constant stream of artists and writers and schleps and friends came through. Gloria Steinem used to come up, she thought it was quite wonderful. It was in the pre-liberation days, maybe ’63, she was new people. I think she wanted to write for it; she also looked outasight. Wallace Markfield came up to do a story on Magazine Management for some literary-type magazine. Markfield loved it so much, he stayed a second week. It was Good Friday and I remember him saying, “God, we’ll be off tomorrow,” as if he became part of the thing.
Q. Do you recall Fellini’s visit?
SHESTACK: One day Fellini came into the office with, I believe, Mr. Rizzoli [Rizzoli Books and Films], to see Marvel Comics. There was a secretary who worked for Stan Lee named Fabulous Flo Steinberg. She said, “Stan, there’s a Mr. Fellini on the phone, you wanna talk to him?”
Stan said, “Who’s he with?”
She said, “Rizzoli Films, can he come up, he’s a comic book fan?” There stood [actor] Alain Cluny, Mr. Rizzoli and Fellini, wearing white socks, his shirt was open. Whoever was at the front desk wouldn’t let them in. I remember walking out and saying, “Don't you know who this is?”
Fellini said, “I’m just a guy who likes comic books.”
He used to do fumetti and I think Mr. Goodman sat down with him and made some kind of deal to distribute magazines from Italy. It was the height of Fellini’s fame. He met with Stan Lee for a few minutes, but he got more interested in us—he spent some time with us because we were more interesting. We were living comic books, those were just on paper.
Q. What kind of photo sessions did you arrange for True Action?
SHESTACK: I never was involved with girlie pictures, not once. I set up pictures of people robbing, pick pocketing, breaking into apartments. They were all posed by friends. Once [Playboy Executive Editor] Arthur Kretchmer posed breaking into my Mercury in a parking lot for a Beware-of-Guys-Who-Break-Into-Cars story.
I was into making the impossible believable. One minute, we’d be dealing with World War II, then we’d be doing T.S. Eliot imitations. These were very witty guys, well educated, and everybody had great ambitions. Ernest Tidyman, who won an Oscar for The French Connection, Martin Cruz Smith did Gorky Park, George Penty, who wrote the first book on the Kennedys in the ’50s, he edited For Men Only, and of course, Bruce and Mario.
Q. Even Mickey Spillane and Elizabeth Hardwick were nine-to-fivers at Mag Management in a previous era. Would you like to see the old team back together again?
SHESTACK: I don’t think it ever could happen. Hollywood, maybe. They were looking for Bruce to go into The Saturday Evening Post as editor-in-chief, but he never wanted to be an editor—if he had brought us, the magazine would not have died. It was the best group of imaginative minds that I have ever seen. Mario once told me—or maybe I just think he told me—if you want to write about Eskimos, study the customs of the Samoan islanders, then say it’s what Eskimos do, it works. It’s credibility, not reality, credibility. He was the C.B. DeMille of men’s mags. I think he was the only one there who’d really been in World War II, but it didn't matter, it became Mario’s World War II. He could take his imagination and make it credible. My God, I think he created the mafia, I don’t think the mafia was ever like that, but it is today. because he did it. The Dirty Dozen and The A-Team are absolute direct rip-offs of Mario’s Magazine Management stuff, everything they do, the way they carry their guns. . . .
Glenn Infield wrote great stories about aircraft that were created specially to be used in World War II—these planes could pick cotton and blow your nose. George Fox had Nazis boiled in chocolate, they’d fall in a vat and go down eating to their death.
Q. Men’s adventure mags were a large genre by the early ’60s, before Vietnam spoiled our enjoyment of war. How did yours rate in the pantheon?
SHESTACK: Ours were the best, the diamonds, the platinum. We had these wonderful illustrations of women in the Aleutians, and there’d be Japs in heavy furs with icicles coming out of their nose. But she’d be wearing a new mini-skirt with high heels, carrying a sub-machine gun, her parka open with no brassiere, popping out. And yet it seemed real, you believed that it happened. There’d be a ragtag band of guerrillas in the fiction, and there was always a sergeant or a mechanic who ran things, never an officer. He’d meet the boss’s daughter who was visiting from Vassar and she’d be a real bitch. He’d screw her in the back of a car, always in a garage where the car’d be on a lift, and she’d get no pleasure out of it.
Q. Always written in symbolic, not graphic language?
SHESTACK: Oh, yeah. She found a real man, and boy, her life changed, then she went off her way.
Q. You loved everything you read?
SHESTACK: I edited that stuff, I read it all. I went from that to The Saturday Evening Post. The very first day at the Post I edited a piece by John O’Hara and Hannah Arendt. She said, “Come on, vat are you doink?”
I said, “You’re okay Arendt, but you’re no Walter Kaylin.”
© 1984, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman