Thomas L. Dybdahl | Longreads | June 2018 | 18 minutes (4,642 words)
This article was co-published with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
In early June 1958, 25-year-old John Leo Brady was in love. He was also in some trouble. His sweetheart, Nancy Boblit McGowan, had just told him she was pregnant, and he was the father. But she was only 19, married to another man. And Brady was broke.
He’d never had an easy life. He grew up poor in southern Maryland. His young parents, scraping their living from a small tobacco farm, couldn’t cope with a fussy baby. They gave him to his paternal grandparents and his Aunt Celeste, who raised him. From infancy through his late teens he suffered from serious otitis media, and his ears regularly oozed a thick, vile-smelling pus. At school, his classmates called him “stinkears.”
Brady gladly dropped out during the eighth grade to work full-time on his uncle’s farm. At 19, in 1951, he enlisted in the Air Force and served as a military policeman at bases in Washington state and Greenland. Then, over the space of four years, his otitis stopped, he got married, left the service, earned his high school equivalency, got divorced and returned home to Maryland.
In March of 1958, Brady met Nancy and her brother, Donald Boblit, because their parents were good friends with his aunt. Donald was 25, gawky, lonely and barely literate. Nancy was “just a dumb, good-looking blonde,” according to a friend, in the pre-feminist jargon of the ‘50s. Although both she and her husband, Slim, were living with her parents, they hardly spoke, and she let everyone know she intended to do whatever she wanted. Brady and the two siblings soon became close, and he and Nancy fell in love. Then Nancy got pregnant.
Brady didn’t know what to do. He was working at a local tobacco packing company for $1.50 an hour. He had recently bought a maroon 1947 Ford and was behind on his bills. But he wanted Nancy to know how much he was committed to her. She had planned a trip to New York to visit family for a week, leaving on Monday, June 23. That Sunday, when they were together, on an impulse he wrote her a check for $35,000, post-dated to July 6.
It was a dream sum—a huge number just pulled out of the air that he guessed could solve all their troubles, if he could only make it real. Nancy asked no questions; she put the check in her purse. Brady reminded her to wait. “Somehow,” he said, “in two weeks it’ll be in the bank.” Read more…
Before I depart the subject of spin-offs, let’s look at a lesson to be learned from a conglomerate mentioned earlier: LTV. I’ll summarize here, but those who enjoy a good financial story should read the piece about Jimmy Ling that ran in the October 1982 issue of D Magazine. Look it up on the Internet.
Through a lot of corporate razzle-dazzle, Ling had taken LTV from sales of only $36 million in 1965 to number 14 on the Fortune 500 list just two years later. Ling, it should be noted, had never displayed any managerial skills. But Charlie told me long ago to never underestimate the man who overestimates himself. And Ling had no peer in that respect.
Ling’s strategy, which he labeled “project redeployment,” was to buy a large company and then partially spin off its various divisions. In LTV’s 1966 annual report, he explained the magic that would follow: “Most importantly, acquisitions must meet the test of the 2 plus 2 equals 5 (or 6) formula.” The press, the public and Wall Street loved this sort of talk.
In 1967 Ling bought Wilson & Co., a huge meatpacker that also had interests in golf equipment and pharmaceuticals. Soon after, he split the parent into three businesses, Wilson & Co. (meatpacking), Wilson Sporting Goods and Wilson Pharmaceuticals, each of which was to be partially spun off. These companies quickly became known on Wall Street as Meatball, Golf Ball and Goof Ball.
Soon thereafter, it became clear that, like Icarus, Ling had flown too close to the sun. By the early 1970s, Ling’s empire was melting, and he himself had been spun off from LTV … that is, fired.
Periodically, financial markets will become divorced from reality—you can count on that. More Jimmy Lings will appear. They will look and sound authoritative. The press will hang on their every word. Bankers will fight for their business. What they are saying will recently have “worked.” Their early followers will be feeling very clever. Our suggestion: Whatever their line, never forget that 2+2 will always equal 4. And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is—zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.
-From Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.
Ben Huberman | Longreads | February 2015 | 13 minutes (3,354 words)
For the past ten years Frank Warren has been collecting and publishing other people’s anonymous secrets, sent via postcard, on his blog, PostSecret. The stories behind the postcards span the entire spectrum of human drama, from tales of petty revenge to accounts of abuse and severe depression. This richness of experience — along with the secrets’ visual design, by now a recognizable mishmash of Americana, well-executed kitsch, and ironic arts & crafts creations — has kept the site popular through multiple waves of internet fads. Originally a local mail art project in suburban Maryland, the site has spawned several books, including The World of PostSecret (released in November 2014), as well as a play, a TED talk, and numerous live events. Read more…
In 2013, Mark Warren wrote in Esquire about how, at age 30, he finally experienced a father’s love through Dieter, his father-in-law:
A few years ago I was working on a book project, and the deadline was crushing me. I hadn’t given myself enough time to write, and I was panicking, so I left Jessica and the kids in New York and moved out to Princeton with Dieter for a month, to race the clock. I quickly established a routine of working day and night, and without a word being said, Dieter made himself my twenty-four-hour valet. Every morning as I awoke, he’d bring me a cup of coffee. “Would you like to see the menu?” he’d ask. “Or shall we just have the chef whip up something for you?” If I fell asleep on the couch, he would cover me with a blanket. It was the fall, and every morning he and I would take a walk in the changing colors, and we would talk through the day’s writing, and every couple days, Dieter would read pages for me and tell me what he thought.
He knew that I’d given up on my own father, and he looked on me with a kindness for which I was not at all prepared, that it seemed he had been waiting for just this moment to bestow. Sometimes it was almost too much for me to bear. As he made us dinner, he would ask me about my life and say such encouraging things with love and without qualification, and I would look at him and think, Are you real?
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The Times hired Chivers at age thirty-four in 1999 to cover war. That was the handshake, he says. A former Marine officer, he might know how to handle himself in a war zone, the paper figured. What the Times could not have known was that Chivers would develop a brand of journalism unique in the world for, among other things, its study of the weapons we use to kill one another. After reporting on a firefight—whether he was in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Ossetia, Libya, or Syria—he’d look for shell casings and ordnance fragments. If he was embedded with American soldiers or Marines, he’d ask them if he could look through what they had found for an hour or so—”finger fucking,” he’d call it—and ask his photographer to take pictures of ammunition stamps and serial numbers. Over time and in this way he would reveal a vast world of small-arms trade and secret trafficking that no other journalist had known existed before.
—Mark Warren, writing for Esquire about how C.J. Chivers become “the best war reporter in a generation,” and why—after 14 bloody years of covering conflict—he decided to give up the beat.
“His name was Ross Cagan. He did not work for Schadt; he worked as a professor at Sinai. But they met every week, and after Schadt called on October 1 to tell Cagan about Stephanie Lee, he listened to Cagan’s idea for her. A month earlier, Cagan had started doing something that he said ‘had never been done before.’ He started creating ‘personalized flies’ for cancer patients. He took the mutations that scientists like Schadt had revealed and loaded them into flies, essentially giving the flies the same cancer that the patient had. Then he treated them. ‘Why a fly? You can do this in a fly. You can capture the complexities of the tumor.’
“A day after Cagan spoke with Schadt, Stephanie became the fifth person in the world to have a fly built in her image—or, rather, in the image of her cancer. In an ideal world, Cagan would have created as complex a creature as possible, burdening the fly with at least ten mutations. He gave Stephanie’s fly three, because ‘Stephanie is on the shorter course. We’re making the fly as complex as possible given her time.’ By October 11, however, Cagan already had ‘one possible drug suggestion for her’—or one possible combination of drugs, since he always tests at least two at a time. ‘In this center, the FDA will not allow us to put a novel drug in patient. To get a novel drug into a patient, we have to do a novel combination of [known] drugs. We have to use novel drug combinations that people have never seen before'”
– In Esquire, Mark Warren and Tom Junod tell the story of an Iraq War widow named Stephanie Lee who was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, and how scientists at Mount Sinai are using her genetic data to find personalized treatments for her. Read more stories about fighting cancer.
Photo: John Tann
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Nicholas Jackson is the digital editorial director for Outside magazine. A former associate editor at The Atlantic, he has also worked for Slate,Texas Monthly, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and other publications.
I was going to give this two-parter from the always-great Pamela Colloff (seriously, go back through her 15-year archive at Texas Monthly for compelling narratives on everything from quinceañeras to school prayer to a piece on David Koresh and the 1993 Branch Davidian raid that should serve as a model for all future oral history projects) the award for best crime story, but it’s so much more than that. The tale of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years wrongfully imprisoned for brutally murdering his wife, has been told before, in newspapers and on television. But it has never been told like this. Over two installments across two issues—who does that anymore?—Colloff slowly reveals the cold details and intimate vignettes that only months of hard reporting can uncover, keeping the reader hanging on to each sentence. You already know how this story ends; you’ve read it before. And that might make you wonder—but only for a split second—why it was assigned and pursued. For the handful of big magazines left, this is as compelling an argument you can make for continued existence: only with hundreds of interviews, weeks of travel, and many late nights can you craft something this complete and this strong. It’s a space most publications can’t play in; it’s prohibitively expensive—and a gamble—to invest the necessary resources. You may be able to tell Morton’s story in book form, but you wouldn’t have the tightness and intensity (just try putting this one down) that Colloff’s story has, even at something like 30,000 words. And you wouldn’t want to lose her for a year or two anyway; we’re all anxiously awaiting her next piece.
Best Crime Story of the Year
”The Truck Stop Killer” (Vanessa Veselka, GQ)
Who is Vanessa Veselka? A self-described “teenage runaway, expatriate, union organizer, and student of paleontology,” she’s relatively new to the magazine world. (Her first novel, Zazen, came out just last year—and won the 2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize for fiction.) But she’s spent years building up a lifetime of experiences that, while many of us may not be able to directly relate to (and would never hope to), we all want to hear about. This, her first piece for GQ, takes you back to the summer of 1985, when Veselka hitched a ride with a stranger who may have been Robert Ben Rhoades, the sadistic killer who has admitted to killing three people, including a 14-year-old girl in Illinois, and is currently serving life sentences.
Best Profile of the Year
”The Honor System” (Chris Jones, Esquire)
Chris Jones, who made a stink on Twitter (he’s infamous for making stinks of all kinds on Twitter) when his excellent profile of Roger Ebert wasn’t named a finalist for a National Magazine Award a couple of years ago, must really be bummed to learn that the American Society of Magazine Editors, the awards’ governing body, has killed the category entirely this year. I’ve had some public clashes with the guy—he can turn your mood cloudy with 140 characters or less—but on this I do commiserate, because “The Honor System,” his profile of Teller (you know him as the silent one from Vegas superstar magic duo Penn & Teller), would have finally brought home that statue of which he was robbed. And rightfully so. This story, which revolves around Teller’s attempts—legal and otherwise—to put an end to trick theft, a commonplace practice (who knew?) in that community, will leave you believing in magic.
Best Reason to Never Skip a Service Package Again
”Daddy: My Father’s Last Words” (Mark Warren, Esquire)
Magazines are filled with service content: How to do this, when to do that. Readers love it, no matter what they tell you. That’s why every single month Cosmopolitan is able to convince its readers that there are 100 new things you must know about how to please your man. And why Men’s Health‘s website isn’t really much about health at all, but about lists and checklists and charts (most of them having to do with sex). Esquire‘s Father’s Day package was packed with similarly light content: how to plan for a visit from your now-adult kids, what to get dad on that special day, etc. But tucked between those graphics and croutons (the term some of the lady mags use to refer to those bite-size bits of content) was a knock-you-on-your-ass piece from the magazine’s long-time executive editor, Mark Warren, on the long and trying relationship he had (we all have) with dad.
Best Technology Story of the Year
”When the Nerds Go Marching In” (Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic)
He’s been called the first social media president and he’s even done an Ask Me Anything on Reddit. You know all about Barack Obama’s Internet prowess from the 2008 campaign: his ability to get young people to follow his every word on Twitter and donate in small amounts—but by the millions—to his election fund. The presence of Chris Hughes, a former Mark Zuckerberg roommate and a founder of Facebook, during that first cycle solidified this position for Obama. (That he was running against a 72-year-old white dude from Arizona didn’t hurt). But there’s a whole lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. In “When the Nerds Go Marching In,” Madrigal, a senior editor and lead technology writer for The Atlantic, pulls back the curtain, introducing you to Harper Reed, Dylan Richard, and Mark Trammell, Obama’s dream team of engineers, and makes you wish you would have sat at the smart table every once in a while in high school.
Best Story About Child Development of the Year
”What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” (Ruth Padawer, The New York Times Magazine)
Best Story I Thought I Would Never Like
”What Does a Conductor Do?” (Justin Davidson, New York)
If, like me, you’ve never really appreciated classical music (and statistics show that you are, in fact, like me—at least when it comes to Mozart), you’ll probably never feel compelled to click on that little link up there. But I have an obsession with Adam Moss’ New York magazine, which is certainly the best weekly currently being produced today, and I dogear my way through a stack that slowly grows as new issues arrive until I’ve read every story and every page. That’s how I came to read classical music and architecture critic Justin Davidson’s first-person feature story on stepping up to the podium to lead an orchestra on his own. You may not have the same compulsions I do—this is where we differ—but trust me on this one.
Best Adventure Story of the Year
”Four Confirmed Dead in Two Days on Everest” (Grayson Schaffer, Outside)
Earlier this year, we sent senior editor Grayson Schaffer to Everest Base Camp for a climbing season that turned out to be one of the deadliest in history. For six weeks, he reported from 17,000 feet while body after body fell (10, by the time the season came to a close) as a record number of climbers attempted to summit the world’s tallest peak. Everest, over the years, has become something of a sideshow, with sham outfitters promising to take anyone with a fat checkbook to the top, regardless of experience or ability. But it remains a powerful symbol, and as long as we desire a challenge (or just an escape from day to day drudgery), it’ll continue to lure people in.
Best New Writer Discovery of the Year
”Riccardo Tisci: Designer of the Year” (Molly Young, GQ)
A little bit of post-read Googling (and messages from a couple of Twitter followers) quickly alerted me to the fact that Molly Young, with past pieces in New York, Elle, and The Believer, among others, isn’t all that new to the game. But I had somehow never recognized her byline before. After reading her profile of Riccardo Tisci, the Italian fashion designer who currently serves as the creative director of Givenchy (“Across from me a nucleus of attendants has formed around Amar’e Stoudemire, thanks less to his fame (there are better celebrities here) than to his height, which gives him a reassuring lighthouse quality.”), I’ll make sure to never miss it again.
Best Trainwreck of the Year
”In Conversation: Tina Brown” (Michael Kinsley, New York)
I was going to select a piece from Newsweek for this honor, given that this is the last year the publication will technically qualify (it’ll morph into a new product, Newsweek Global, when it transitions to online-only next year), but it hasn’t published anything this year that could crack my top 10. What does, though, is the interview between Newsweek‘s top editor, Tina Brown, and Michael Kinsley that ran in New York. It’s not great in any traditional sense—after every page you’re left wondering when Kinsley will ask this question or that question, and he never does—but it’s compelling from the first question to the last because of the oversize roles both subjects have played in our modern media.