Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
Frank Sinatra Has Pneumonia
And I have a nasty case of burnout.
I realize that in my last newsletter installment I overstated my departure from journalism, altogether, in the fall of 1996.
Yes, when I left my job that year I did retreat and shift mainly into ghostwriting. My painful experience in a cut-throat environment, with a boss who loooooved _______ , but bullied me, left me feeling inadequate, and afraid of staff jobs.
Instead I juggled writing other people’s books with occasional freelance writing/reporting gigs I’d established years before.
Of all my journalistic side-hustles, I was most excited about my work writing articles for The City section of the New York Times, and reporting for other writers while on the Metro section’s “legwork team.”
One Saturday in early November, 1996, my pager went off, alerting me to a legwork assignment for the Times in Hoboken. The city was commemorating the life of Frank Sinatra, its most famous native, by installing a plaque in front of the boarded-up space where his birthplace once stood, and celebrating with a block party.
Sinatra was sick at the time. He’d just left the hospital in L.A. after an eight-day stay for what his publicist called a pinched nerve, but was rumored to have been a life-threatening case of pneumonia.
I hopped on the Path train to capture some man-on-the-street interviews.
This assignment gave me a little thrill because as a kid, I’d been in love with Sinatra. At 30-and-change I knew what a chauvinist jerk he was, and had come to feel differently about him. But in 1975, at 10 — while my peers were swooning over Sean and David Cassidy and Davy Jones — I was writing fan mail to Ol’ Blue Eyes. (“He” replied with the autograph-stamped photo up top.)
Sinatra wasn’t even my first age-inappropriate celebrity crush. Before him, when I was all of 4, there was Andy Williams. I would sit, rapt, through his variety show every Saturday night, usually in the company of a babysitter, and then for the rest of the week, go around singing the songs I’d heard him croon. I was so smitten, I named my favorite stuffed animal — a turtle — “Andy Williams.”
(It bears mentioning that my father is a crooner, and that before my parents split in 1976, the voices of Sinatra and Williams emanated regularly from our record player. I grew up hearing only opera, classical, and old standards. I didn’t even know who the Beatles were until the summer of ‘79, when I was about to turn 14 and a boy made me a mixtape.)
The crowd at the Sinatra gathering was colorful. I recall talking with a guy named Lenny Luzzo who insisted he wasn’t worried about Frank surviving whatever he’d just been hospitalized for. “I don’t know — [it’d] take a lot to take Frank down,” he said, matter-of-factly. (Sinatra would live another year-and-a-half before suffering a fatal heart attack in May, 1998, at 82. Tough guy swagger isn’t much of an antidote against cardiac arrest.) Unfortunately, Lenny’s comment wound up on the cutting room floor.
In 2001, the Times retaliated against freelancers like me — deleting from their archive all the pieces we’d published there, removing our additional reporting credits — because we’d participated in an Authors Guild lawsuit against the paper. Their crime: reusing our print pieces online and selling digital advertising against them, but not paying writers any additional funds.
In the early days of the internet, it was not yet customary for newspapers to post articles from their print editions to their websites. It was considered a shady practice for publishers to double-dip, offering writers one flat fee for a piece they would then repurpose and remonetize without sharing some of the take.
That was the basis for the Authors Guild’s 17-year-long battle with the New York Times and other publishers, a suit involving close to 3,000 writers, including me. I remember attending a big meeting at The Half King, a journo bar in Chelsea, where the launch of the suit was announced. In 2018 the Guild finally prevailed, and the Times returned to the archive some but not all of the pieces they’d removed.
It had been a huge bummer, between 2001 and 2018, not to have access to all the Times pieces I’d written between 1994 and 2001. The worst part was that I couldn’t easily use them as clips to get other work.
Speaking of other work…
Some good news: I’ll soon be a contributing editor at the wonderful Catapult Magazine. That is, once I recover from a serious case of burnout. I’ve known for a while that I am fried from my last job, but I didn’t realize just how fried until I considered a few pieces and tried to edit them. My brain basically went on strike. So, I’m not taking pitches right now. I’ll announce it when I am.
I’ll also finally be working on my memoir in essays for Heliotrope, a small indie publisher in Manhattan’s East Village, my old stomping grounds. It’s the first book I’ll fill entirely with my own writing, instead of the work of many contributors. At 54, it’s about time.
I’m both thrilled and anxious. All those years I was working on other people’s memoirs I thought, “I’m going to need someone like me when it comes time to write my own book…”
So, once I’ve had a little more time to clear away the cobwebs in my head, I will “ghostwrite” my memoir — little by little, day by day, until it’s all done.