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Let Us Now Praise Sir Harry: American, Iconic

December 22, 2009, 7:56 PM
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Let us now praise Sir Harry Evans. Why not? We thought we knew him, but now we know so much more. Memoir is best when performed by those who did things, knew things, and still kept their hubris in check.

Here are some things we love about Harry Evans: he is cool. He became an American citizen, and then the Queen knighted him anyway. He has stayed with the business of writing and writers throughout his career, even as it is likely other avenues were open to him. He is proud about his roots. He elected to marry, and then remained married, to a very strong, smart woman. He seems like the kind of person who would not dismiss a young writer, but who might be willing to give advice, and the advice would be ambitious. It might even be something like, What you do can change the world.

Harry Evans believes journalism can make a difference, and he has put that belief into practice throughout his life. His work saved lives. The Harry Evans known to those New Yorkers who moved to town in the last fifteen years is vastly different (vastly less?) than the full man, now known to us via his memoir, My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times. If you only heard about Evans in his last "chapter" (the metaphor is unavoidable) you might recognize a specific picture: the charismatic, cool--and, to many, enviably English--Publisher of myriad blockbuster books at Random House. He was the man who dreamt up--and realized—the Random House Modern Library's celebrated One Hundred Best Novels, chosen by a celebrated panel of authors and scholars. He was the man who seduced Colin Powell into writing his memoir, and then provided the celebrated title, My American Journey. And he was the man who made the Random House Breakfast at Barney's an "event" that people wanted to attend, even as its feel was explicitly literary, and relevant. Because its feel was explicitly literary, and relevant. There are few events now about which one could say this.

Evans understood that marketing was a weapon, if one easy to dismiss. And, at the time, he had the financial power to make marketing matter. He was the center of the perfect storm: intellect, timing, power, potential. 

Evans is famously married to Tina Brown. Famously, because together the two are emblematic of an elusive mathematics: the finest romantic matches are those in which one plus one equals three. Together, "Harry and Tina" managed to retain an element of entrepreneurial cachet through myriad upheavals their business—and their business, after all, is ideas. Without knowing them, one might say that what they care most about is what is new but look closer, and consider the facts: this is a couple who seems, moreover, to care about reaching the people who matter with the news and thinking that matters. This is influence. This is easier to discuss than to possess. 

When Evans ran Random House, Brown ran The New Yorker, and despite her detractors she created a legacy directly connected to the magazine today: incorporating photography. Making writers stars. Hiring David Remnick. (One might love her for this last choice, if nothing else.)

Enough has been written about the Harry-Tina wattage but Simon Winchester's review of Evans's memoir in today's Times reminds us that we all have many chapters in our life, and Sir Harry's were uniquely compelling to understand his time as an intellectual and as a editor before arriving in Manhattan.

If we consider Evans a leading public intellectual--or perhaps, someone with a record of producing leading public intellectuals--it is worth reading about his passion for another era in journalism, and asking whether that era has, in fact, passed. Are we too ironic to care about news? No. But were Harry Evans starting his career today, would he have chosen the same path? Is that path available? And, ok, should we care?

Yes. We should care because history is biography, and Sir Harold Evan's memoir is replete with lessons as well as fun. Fun takes the shape of Other People, or gossip. A powerful mind and a viable network: it is a potent combination.

 

Let Us Now Praise Sir Harry...

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