Question: What was your first job at the New York Times like?
Wolff: Well it was the only job I ever wanted to have, I wanted to
work for the New York Times and that seemed to me the zenith of anything
that you could accomplish and so I was quite pleased to have gotten
this job. Now, oddly for the zenith of all things to accomplish, I sent
them a letter and said I'd like a job and 24 hours later I got a phone
call from them and they said, "When can you start?"
So life was
different at that point in time. But I just felt on top of the world
when I got this job and I arrived there and within 10 minutes I knew
that this was all wrong. I had miscalculated everything. I never
experienced a more depressing place, and I can remember it still vividly
of gray filled with smoke up and row upon row of editors all seemingly
with facial tics. And I thought, not only if this is not for me but if
this is life I knew I was not going to make it.
Did you learn anything there?
Michael Wolff: You
know, I'm struggling now to remember. What could I have possibly learned
except the really most important thing, which is that I did not want to
work at the New York Times? Beyond that, I learned how a newspaper
works. I learned that a whole set of skills which have not been the
least useful in my professional life.
did your story on Patty Hearst jumpstart your career?
Wolff: Reaching back. I was working at the New York Times ruing
every second of my life, thinking how was I ever going to get out of
here, and thinking that one could only do it the way newspaper people
have always done it. I needed a scoop and I would go out and I would
dream upon coming upon fires or the sky falling in front of me or
anything. And lo and behold, one day my mother called me; my mother was a
newspaper reporter herself, and she said, "Did you see the news?" I
said, "I probably had but what did she have in mind." And she said
Angela DeAngeles, who was a girl who grew up with me in my hometown of
7,000 people in New Jersey kidnapped Patty Hurst. "She's the girl who
kidnapped Patty Hearst," my mother said. And I said "Whoa!" and my
mother said, "This is your article!" which had not crossed my mind. And I
kind of just stopped and I thought, "My God, maybe it is." The newsroom
at that time at the New York Times was on the 3rd floor and I ran up to
where the magazine was, the New York Times Magazine, which was, if I
remember correctly, the 9th floor. I knew one of the editors there and I
went and I was very young; I was 19 years old actually. I quickly told
him this story and he said, "Okay. We'll commission it."
that was it. And I wrote this story; it actually turned out to be a very
successful story and I sold the movie rights and it gave me actually
the wherewithal to leave the Times and become a freelance magazine
writer, which I seem to have been ever since.
Recorded on May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman