Monday, March 15, 2010

Magazine Management (Part VI): John Bowers

John Bowers

At Magazine Management in the early ’60s, novelist John Bowers specialized in what now seems like such an innocent brand of sin. His civil war books, Stonewall Jackson and Chickamauga/Chattanooga, defined the genre before it became trendy in the Ken Burns era. His new coming-of-age book, Love in Tennessee, is a sure bet to reside in the grand canon of Southern Lit. Other novels include The Colony and No More Reunions; non-fiction books include In the Land of NYX: Night and Its Inhabitants and The Golden Bowers. This interview is also from 1984.

John Bowers in the Mag. Management era

Question: How does Magazine Management stick to your bones?

BOWERS: If you worked there even a year, you were inoculated for life. You were doing free-lance stuff later, you knew people who went on to other magazines where you got assignments, or you gave them work. Symbiotic relationships. Nine-to-five, I worked there only two years.

Q. What titles did you write for?

BOWERS: Male, Men, True Action and all the specials we did.

Q. Wasn’t your specialty in the romantic vein?

BOWERS: Well, that’s putting it gently. I did the “Rock Around Dolls of New Orleans,” the “Promiscuous Women of D.C.,” I did the hotsie-totsies in all their forms.

Q. Hotsie-totsies?

BOWERS: Girlie copy.

Q. Did you write copy for the models?

BOWERS: We didn’t do that so much then. But I did everything, as we all did—blurbs, captions, picture selections, book cutting. I did at least one original article each month. And if I had to pay for a suit or if a girlfriend cost me a lot of money, I could always get another assignment.

Q. Since you were restricted to phrases like “dark triangle” and “heaving chest,” did you feel held back?

BOWERS: No, in a way it was an art form. It was like Kabuki theater—you had a certain ritual, a certain type of lead, certain characters, you meshed them into a beginning, middle and end, and it worked. I couldn’t have done it if I’d used my full range of imagination. It was suggestive, and women were vehicles for pleasure, they weren’t full-rounded characters. They were always ready, gripping, sexed-up. It’d wear you down if this were in actuality, you’d be fucking morning, noon and night.

Q. How did you come by this formula?

BOWERS: I may have invented it. Bruce had a genius for figuring out where guys’ talents went, what their interests were, how they would operate best. He figured out that Mario was an adventurer, he could spin a yarn and was partial to Moby Dick or War and Peace. He knew I was interested in women and the things that make sexy copy. I came from a fairly repressed, puritanical background, that’s always been a breeding ground for lurid writing.

Q. Where are you from?

BOWERS: I grew up in Tennessee. I worked in the State Department previous to Magazine Management. I jumped from a buttoned-down world—which was far crazier than the ostensibly wild and woolly Magazine Management—into working at the magazine. It was the only place I ever felt total simpatico with everyone, no one seemed like an out-and-out boss. We were all writing novels or screenplays, and had our sights on something else.

Q. Did you improve at writing while working there?

BOWERS: Oh, yeah. I learned how to cut copy, which is the main thing to learn as a professional—least copy makes the best copy, and don’t overwrite, learn to cut out adjectives. At Magazine Management we learned to make things move, action, a terrific lesson. That’s why The Godfather and Gorky Park [by MM alums Mario Puzo and Martin Cruz Smith, respectively] worked so well. They have characters that are involved in action, they’re not cerebral people wondering whether they’re going to have a cup of tea for 20 chapters, like in Henry James.

Q. Does any piece you wrote stand out best?

BOWERS: You know, they all sort of mesh together. The first one I remember was on the women of Washington. I’d throw in little touches of my own to keep it fun.

Q. For instance?

BOWERS: An in-joke, like giving the name of my old high school coach for a villain.

A representative scene from the Bowers canon

Q. How specific, in the early ’60s, could you write about sex in Male? Could you list the address of a whorehouse?

BOWERS: You’d just say these women were available and leave it to the readers—you could find them in government offices, bars, on the street, horny and ready to go. Here was what happened at a diplomatic party, and it never came out in the press.

Q. How factual was this?

BOWERS: It was total entertainment, we made everything up. The funny thing was, a lot of people out there believed us. We’d make up a battle in World War II where they had a counter-attack on roller skates against a giant tank armada. Readers who I met in Tennessee, where a lot of copies sold at train and bus stations, said what they liked about the magazines was they were real, factual.

Q. Any particular sources of inspiration for your hotsie-totsie stories?

BOWERS: Just my own natural horniness. You had to be a little horny, you had to like women. I was not married, I was gallivanting around, the ’60s were made for me.

Q. Did you go to model shoots back then?

BOWERS: Yeah. It was exciting, I’d never seen anything like it. The guy that shot the pictures did work for Magazine Management, but in this case he wasn’t.

Q. You mean they were shooting real nudity for Nugget, as opposed to the bikini pix of Swank?

BOWERS: Yeah, he never knew, he would take a set and hustle them as a freelancer, same as today.

Q. What do you recall about out an early ’60s photo shoot, compared to today? What's the difference between a nude model of 1962 and one from 1984?

BOWERS: The women were dolled up, their hair lacquered, even though nude, and you wouldn’t recognize them off the set. The women were narcissistic, and after they appeared they lost interest in it. They were exhibitionists and they wanted people to look, but once they’d done it, the thrill was gone, they went on to other ways of being narcissistic. It’s taken more for granted now, there’s no inhibition, everyone connected with it now is more self-assured. Back than it was done sneakily, and as a result, it was more exciting, because it was hidden and outrageous.

Q. What was your reaction the first time seeing a naked broad on a set?

BOWERS: Nearly fainting. I almost keeled over. To introduce myself, the photographer let me hold a camera to pretend I was part of the team, not just a voyeur.

Q. How do you see the men’s magazine fantasy machine differing from that time to now, having stayed close to the business?

BOWERS: It always fits in with the climate of the times. Back then, we skirted around the issue, but it was a more puritanical society. Bruce always said, and he said he heard it from Jim Bryans, give them Big Emotions. If someone steals money in a story, don’t have them steal $15 off a cab driver, have him steal millions off a company. If someone parachutes out of a plane, don't have them do it from a Piper Cub at 500 feet, have him parachute out of a supersonic jet 30,000 miles in space. And that’s what today’s magazines do, they try to go the limit. Given the culture of the time, Magazine Management went to the limit.

Q. Where is the progression of men’s magazines headed?

BOWERS: We may now be seeing the last of girlie magazines. How many nude women can you see? This era will die, and all you’ll have to do is go to some back issues of Screw or Playboy, which we’ll have as a record, just as Victorian porn is always available. Magazine Management was not an outgrowth of Playboy at all, they were never true girlie magazines. They were in the tradition of the old pulps. Yarns and stories, heroes people could identify with. It was so wonderful that other things don’t quite live up to it. Like your first girl who was perfect, but you left her, then you keep romanticizing her. Some guys are still lost back there, expecting a rebirth, not able to move forward. They’re still writing about the Second World War, locked in that time warp. I think the world for the pulps died, and when it did, Magazine Management folded.

© 1984, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman

Visit John Bowers online here.

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