September 10, 2016 by John Wilcock
Like most of the people who aspire to write for newspapers, the column has always been my favorite mode of expression. For too many writers though, it offers an easy way to merely document, continually, their interests and obsessions. More often than not, they repeat the same basic thoughts over and over again. What’s essential for my kind of column is an agile mind—kept active by constant discussion and reading. Otherwise you run out of original thoughts fairly quickly.
I have been a columnist for more than half my life and as I’m still producing a weekly column today, it’s how I define myself. Apart from my years with Penthouse magazine, the most I have ever been paid for my column is $30, this from the Montecito Journal for which initially I wrote free, at the invitation of publisher Jim Buckley.
As I have always been a newspaperman, my type of column is rarely opinion, almost always a series of facts, even the travel essays. I peruse around 40 magazines a month to extract items that appear prophetic in some way, stories that have legs or indicate trends or even recount something so unlikely that the reader hopes that it might happen (or not happen) here.
My favorite genre is what’s always been known as the three-dot column pioneered by Walter Winchell and other New York scribes—such as Jack O’Brien, Louis Sobol, Hy Gardner, Dorothy Kilgallen ,Earl Wilson—back in the 40s and 50s. Many of them wrote “gossip” columns about showbiz figures, but better columns eschew trivia in favor of real news. The three dot-column is a wonderful way to convey vast amounts of material in a very short space. We’re talking about something about 600 words long, with items only a sentence and a half at the most, and two words at the least; all arranged in an order that has some rhythm to it, not just random things all thrown together.
The rhythm is choreographed, it’s like if you were standing at the side of a river with somebody and you suddenly grabbed them and pulled them into this boat and then you go charging down the river to the white water rapids and it goes up and down and levels out, and up and down, and so on. So choreograph your 20 or so items to make some sort of sense in the order they’re in. One of the tricks, of course, is that if you have something inflammatory to say, sandwich it between a couple of calmer items. And disguise items, tuck them away, hide them so that people notice them only subliminally. In my early Voice columns, whenever mentioning something, I would give the address to which to write for it. This was more or less banned elsewhere, on the grounds it would be ‘free advertising.”
My three-dot column started as a one-subject column. The early Voice was a new kind of paper, the first in America that was unlike the conventional small town weekly newspaper which mostly covered women’s institute and local weddings. People started to send my column nuggets of sometimes improbable information and soon there was so much stuff it had to be accommodated as tersely as possible.
Items for a three-dot column must excise every extraneous word, yet always remembering that one colorful word in a sentence can bring the whole thing to life. Whenever the obvious word comes to mind go to the Thesaurus and find a really good replacement. My aim has always been for my writing to be interesting. That’s the foremost thing that drives me when I write stuff. I want it to be interesting, preferably to be totally new to the reader.
There is never a shortage of material. A medical journal or psychiatric publication or other trade magazine left in the post office or a coffee shop. I retrieve it and explore it minutely in search of something offering new insights. Advertising Age and Publisher’s Weekly are two of the best sources of news about what’s going to happen next. (Neither will comp me and I can’t afford subscriptions).
Most of the time I try to quote sources that the average reader will not have read. An admirer of the late Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I’ve always made a practice of reading everything I could find. On a press tour to somewhere such as Eastern Montana, I would peruse the local papers, free papers, the alternative papers. The letters columns always get my attention. Letter writers offer impractically imaginative ideas which are never heard from again. One man writes: “All this fuss about trying to get rid of nuclear waste, why don’t we put it on rockets and send it out into space?” That’s a neat one-sentence item.
My column, magazine and the cable show all are a column—an extended journal with a succession of different items. At the Voice, I didn’t want my readers to have the faintest idea of what the next column would be about, the reverse of columnists who rework their favorite subject ad infinitum.
My career began on a paper with five million circulation and has gone down and down and down over the years. Now there are 400 intelligent readers who read and hopefully appreciate my magazine, the Ojai Orange. I never print more than 300 copies of my personal journal that I can cope with on my color copying machine.
Many readers assume that by reading the daily newspapers they’ll always learn the latest about everything, but the truth is that many scoops emanate from magazines like the Atlantic or Harper’s. These devote time and money to exploring some story in depth which then turns up as a front page newspaper piece weeks later. With the help of the magazines, my column can scoop the papers often.
During the years I have been writing my column, I have quoted from a wide array of magazines. Some have been free (media comps) from the beginning, others have responded in recent years, although many more simply ignored my request to be placed on their mailing lists. The courtesy of William Buckley brought me the National Review from the beginning. After quoting it for many years I wrote him a note to say that although I had not become a Republican after reading hundreds of issues of his magazine, I was certainly more sympatico to the Conservative viewpoint than I had been originally.
“People of many political stripes came to see his life as something of an art form” said Buckley’s obituary in the New York Times, which described him as the “liberals’ favorite conservative” and certainly he gained many admirers when he advocated the decriminalization of marihuana. It might be presumptious to guess that he was a smoker himself, but his tolerant attitude towards this and so many other things pointed that way.
Fame and fortune have never been my aim. What I have sought is validation, my argument being that at my own expense and perseverance I have reported faithfully and reasonably objectively on the sociological zeitgeist as I have passed through it. My only needs were enough financial support to pay my way. In return I believe I have laid out a great deal of useful information.
From the very first thing I published, I’ve been in the habit of sending copies to all nearby (and some distant) editors, as much a fraternal acknowledgment as anything else. There is no ulterior motive, and if there was it wouldn’t be very successful, seeing as less than 1% of my recipients ever respond. I don’t know where most people find friends and like-minded acquaintances if, like myself, they don’t work in an office, but where I seek them is among literate folk. If I like what somebody writes I often send them the latest issue of my magazine.
My career, at least so far as my income is concerned, has been that of a travel writer. I have written 38 books—hack works full of helpful facts soon out of date—invariably aimed at making it as easy as possible for visitors to quickly orient themselves in some foreign place as easily and cheaply as possible.
But the main love if my life has been writing a column which I have been doing on and off for 54 years, never making a living from it and rarely finding anybody willing to pay for it. The major mismatch of my life is my belief the column is interesting vs. the actuality that nobody wants to reprint it.
No newspaper seems to want a column of factual briefs today. What became defined as a column was somebody’s personal feelings or comments, stretched out for 1000 words. Pre-blogs.
A rare exception was the short-lived Bold-Face Names that Joyce Wadler wrote for the New York Times. It was exclusively about celebrities, whereas my 3-Dot segment is about ideas and often not-famous people.
A few years ago, I put together a selection of recent columns concentrating on ones that contained exclusive items that hadn’t yet surfaced in daily papers in the West. Consulting the masthead of the Los Angeles Times, I found 13 editors listed. So I made up packages which I sent to each of them, with the suggestion that they start running a column like this, although not necessarily mine.
Newspapers get so much stuff sent to them. I used to know an editor on the Observer in London and I’d see stuff on her shelves and I’d say, “Wow, this is fascinating, you ought to write about it.” She’d say, “No it’s not worth an item.” And I’d say, “Well, can I have it?” “Sure, you can have it.” It made a noteworthy 30-word item.
Editors are still hung up on the idea that if something is not worth a story, how can you write about it? Even though the essence of “the story” would stand out in a column of a dozen similar items. But newspapers can’t be made to see that, so I sent this package and explained this theory to LA Times editors and within 24 hours I got a call from the executive editor’s secretary, a very condescending call, saying “the editor told me to tell you we don’t use this kind of thing.”
When I told this tale to Sasha, he gasped: “But that’s phenomenal that you would get a reply like the very next day, you must have pushed somebody’s buttons?”
Well, I said, what I think happened was that this editor realized that I’d sent it to all these other editors and cut me off at the pass immediately. I mean I got a call rejecting that idea probably even before two or three of the other 13 editors had received it from the mail room. No chance of it being discussed.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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Now Available in Print!!
Don't let a real-life comic strip sneak by unnoticed. This one's too unusual (and brilliant) for that!
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my books, and thank you. —JW
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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”