By Pam J. Hersh
“The great thing about journalism is that it lets us indulge all of our curiosities,” said Landon “Lanny” Jones, Princeton University alumnus (class of ’66), a renowned, award-winning Princeton-based journalist, author and editor.
I got to know Lanny several decades ago in his role as a “helping dad” at the cooperative Cherry Hill Nursery School, where two of his three children and my two children were pre-school buddies.
Curiosity was what led me to reach out a few weeks ago to Lanny, the former head editor of People magazine and author of the book that coined the phrase “baby boomer.” I wanted to know about his kids, grandkids, his next writing project and how he was using his extraordinary talents to prevent democracy from dying under the weight of a sustained assault on media.
My curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but did wobble me a bit. Lanny provided in his cheery, nonchalant manner updates on an exciting new professional project – as well as a daunting new personal challenge. While continuing to write articles and columns for national publications, he is beginning work working on a book about how celebrities influence culture.
The publication of his book on celebrity culture, however, has to be postponed several months. He signed a book contract in July 2018, with an initial completion date of September 2019 that now has been extended a year until September 2020.
“I have to have a medical procedure that will delay things for a while,” he said with the casualness of how I describe having my teeth cleaned. But his procedure is a bone marrow cleaning, as in bone marrow transplant, necessitated by his leukemia.
After I uttered a very unprofessional “oooooyyyyyyy,” Lanny went on to explain.
“I will be in the hospital for a full month after the transplant — then two to three months in isolation/quarantine in New York. They want me close to the hospital, so I can’t even come back to Princeton. Worse, in New York, I cannot go to museums, to the theater, to restaurants — and I cannot order in restaurant take-out,” said Lanny.
“I am gathering some music I want to listen to … often transcendent — Mozart, opera, Mormon Tabernacle Choir — music that is uplifting and inspiring. I have piles of books. And I have a fantasy that I will be working on my own book.”
He described this upcoming “adventure” in a manner that reflects his philosophy of writing. “I keep coming back to George Orwell’s comment that ‘good writing should be as clear as a window pane.’ I strive for that — clarity and simplicity. If I cannot say it simply enough to explain to a child, that’s an indication that I must not understand it myself.”
With simplicity and clarity, Lanny told me he is “alive and well ….(He) will go into the belly of the beast in mid- or late March….” Responding my question regarding writing about this experience, he said, “I will try it, I know.”
Preferring, however, to dwell on non-illness related writing projects, Lanny said he “felt empowered to write a book exploring celebrity culture when Donald Trump got elected. The intensity of celebrity influence corresponds to the decline of the status of heroes in our culture.”
He has had a career immersed in celebrity culture, including directing the editorial planning and launching In Style (1994), the successful celebrity lifestyle monthly.
“I have been quite lucky with my jobs in that I loved them all …. (When editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly a few years after he graduated), I was a one-man show, a majority of one, and the whole university was my subject. Then at Time magazine … I worked with some wonderful writers who were very smart people …. At Money magazine, … I admitted that I was ignorant about finance and delegated everything to smarter people who did understand it…. At People, which was so successful, it was like riding a rocket ship. I could indulge all my curiosities.”
His professional job highlights over the course of the past 50-plus years have included editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly a few years after he graduated from Princeton University; writing for Time magazine and People magazine; head editor of Money magazine; and head editor of People magazine at Time Inc., the most successful magazine in publishing history. In his author role, he wrote “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation,” which coined the phrase “baby boomer,” and was nominated for an American Book Award in 1981. And when he “retired” from his head editor stints, he showed his skills as a researcher and master story teller in “William Clark and the Shaping of the West,” a biography of William Clark, joint leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
“I believe people will help you, if you give them a chance. I never give up,” said Lanny. And those words apply to the next chapter in his life during which he vowed to continue to be “productive and curious.”