City Desk

Von Drehle on Henry Allen and Manuel Roig-Franzia

David Von Drehle is a former Washington Post editor and staff writer—one of the paper's towering figures. He left the paper in 2006 for Time magazine but is always worth consulting about things that go down at the Post. I asked him for his take on the Allen-Roig-Franzia fracas and got quite a few thoughts. I was going to pick and choose some things to quote, but there's no point in filtering this stuff:

You saw what Gene Weingarten posted on his chat site, right? I think he pretty much nailed it—starting with his excellent description of Manuel Roig-Franzia as a top-notch journalist and writer. On the surface there is something sorta old-school cool about a fistfight in the newsroom. It takes us back to The Front Page, to Breslin in his prime. Was it ever really like that? Who knows. What we can say for sure is, it ain’t like that no more.

But after inhaling deeply as the last whiff of a long-lost musk fades from the business, what I felt mostly was sad. Of all people to be drummed out of the Post newsroom. Henry Allen was the most dazzling and original talent I’ve seen in 30-plus years in the journalism business. His was one of the truly great Post careers, and he’s my ideal of Style at its best. When I try to unpack the reason I once dreamed of a place at The Post, it has to do with the sense of experimentation, of risk-taking, of form-busting that defined The Post in the glory days. People tried to capture the spark by saying that The Post was the ultimate writers’ newspaper. But what we were really getting at—even if we didn’t realize it—was that The Post was Henry Allen’s newspaper. He took newspaper journalism to places no one realized it could go, and thereby filled a lot of us with big ideas about what the business could be.

When I had my stint as an editor, one of the goals I set for myself was to force the Pulitzer Prize board to give the man his due. It was a scandal that the best newspaper feature writer, probably ever, was shut out year after year for the sin of pushing the envelope. I mean, it was such a cramped and crappy little envelope in so many respects, the industry should have cheered every time he ripped the fiber. I finally figured out that we needed to package Henry in a form that the board could understand, a form less challenging and less threatening, a form that did not loom like an indictment over the sorry mediocrity of so much of what we settle for as journalists. So for a couple of years we rebranded him as an art critic, on an accurate hunch that brain power and original spark could be tolerated in an art critic.

Anyway, I was sad because instead of being banned from the building, Henry should have a statue in the lobby—and yes, it should have prickles all over it and a grumpy look on its face.

Today I’m coming to a slightly different conclusion, as my sadness mellows into something more worthy of Henry. I’m thinking maybe this is a good thing. You know: not with a whimper but a bang. In these parlous times, how do you put the last exclamation point on a fearless career spent smashing limits and efforting the impossible? No damn sheet cake for Henry Southworth Allen, nossir. He’s left us with one more story that we’ll never forget.

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  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist Amanda Hess

    Next time somebody tries to give me a dumb cake, can I just punch them in the face instead?

  • postreader

    could someone please define more precisely this "golden age" of the Post?

    what are we talking about? the 80s? the 90s? lot of rose colored glasses i think. yeah watergate was great and all but most of the women in the newsroom weren't reporters, but secretaries and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn't a white male in charge.

  • John Ludwigson

    David:
    --- Is there an archive or compendium of Henry Allen writings somewhere?

    --- Is there perchance a biography of Henry Allen?

    If there isn't either or both, might you consider writing/compiling one yourself?

    I have met Henry, but only briefly in a social setting, and had no idea of what he had achieved that would correspond to your assessment. Maybe I'm not the only one. And now I'm curious. And you might be just the person to help out here!

  • Lynn Darling

    Thank you David, for giving the man his due. Henry, together with the late, great Henry Mitchell, was the very best the Style section, or any section of any newspaper ever produced. He was a giant among pygmies, and, as someone who had the honor to be one of those pygmies, (and yes a female one for the reader who thinks that that issue has anything to do with what we're talking about) I learned more about writing and courage from him than from any other source. His writing isn't hard to find: Google. Lexus. Nexus. The library. Read his stuff. It's worth the time and trouble.

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