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so what do you do?

So What Do You Do, Art Cooper?
The people in your media neighborhood.

BY NICOLE BELAND | On January 29, 2003, longtime GQ editor-in-chief Art Cooper will receive the most prestigious honor the American Society of Magazine Editors grants — he'll be inducted into the Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame. Nicole Beland joined him for lunch at the Four Seasons to find out what kind of guy can survive two decades of Condé Nast and come out smelling like a rose.

Of all the events that led to your becoming editor of GQ, which had the most impact?
The first was becoming editor-in-chief of Penthouse in 1975. I was an associate editor at Newsweek, a mid-level writing job, when I got a call about a features editor position at Playboy. I wrote a five-page memo detailing how Playboy could become more relevant, but didn't get the job. So I expanded the memo to 30 pages and sent it to Bob Guccione. Penthouse was terrible at the time. It had nothing going for it but the babes. A week later, I was having one of the most bizarre experiences of my life in Bob Guccione's office. It was more of a monologue than an interview, and at the end of it he said, "You've got the job." I said, "What job?" He said, "You're the editor." Suddenly, I had gone from associate editor to editor-in-chief.

The second was an interview I did with Richard Nixon when I was editor of Family Weekly. I wasn't supposed to bring up Watergate, but that morning Time had printed an excerpt from John Dean's book identifying Deep Throat as Alexander Haig, and I felt compelled to ask him about it. Nixon responded by calmly explaining why that was impossible. Then I took the even greater risk of asking, "Why didn't you burn the tapes?" He looked at me for what must have been five seconds but felt like five minutes. And if looks could kill... But then he said, "Well, I should have," and went on to give several reasons why he didn't. It was the lead story on CBS radio all day long. The next day I had an interview at Condé Nast because they were looking for a new editor-in-chief at GQ.

What was it like being editor of Penthouse?
It was like playing the piano downstairs at a whorehouse. Whatever Bob was doing upstairs was a separate thing. I had nothing to do with the pictures. But being editor was fabulous. All of the writers whose books I had reviewed favorably at Newsweek — Philip Roth, Nicholas Von Hoffman — agreed to write for me at Penthouse. I was 35 and thought I was old.

Did it affect your marriage?
At the time I was in a bad marriage — she's a wonderful woman but we were completely wrong for each other — and we had already split up. If you've got a bad marriage, becoming editor of Penthouse isn't going to help it.

Why did you leave Penthouse?
Hustler, a disgusting magazine, was starting up and Bob was afraid that it was going to do to Penthouse what Penthouse had done to Playboy. He planned to make Penthouse trashier to prevent that from happening, and I didn't want to go in that direction. It was at that point that I moved to Family Weeky.

When it comes to women, a similar "trashier than thou" trend is happening now among Maxim, FHM, and several other men's magazines. How have you handled including women in GQ?
When I first started editing GQ, it gave the impression of being, and in fact was, a gay magazine. There were female models in it and there were women on the cover, but the boys were always much, much more beautiful than the girls. There was never any eye contact between men and women, and never any tension on the page. What I wanted to do in repositioning the magazine was make it very clear very quickly that this was a heterosexual magazine. I'm sure we have a large gay readership, and I want anyone who enjoys the magazine to read it. But the message I wanted to send was that it's not aimed at a gay audience. But I didn't just add women to the pages via beautiful photographs of them, I added articles by women, expressing their points of view.

A lot of women read GQ and I've talked to women about it and they love the writing. They love the journalism. So often women have said to me that they wish there were a female GQ. But the point about journalism is that it has no gender. A well-written piece, whether it's written by a man or a woman will appeal to both.

Apart from looks, what makes a woman attractive to you?
Self-confidence is very sexy, as is wit and intelligence. A healthy appetite is something else I find appealing. When I was a young man, I had a mentor on women and he said when you meet a woman that you think you like, don't ask her for a drink. Take her out for a bowl of soup. Because a woman who can enjoy a bowl of soup is bound to be more interesting. One other thing that I find extremely attractive in a woman is the fearless capacity to flirt.

You wanted to be a novelist. Why have you put your writing aspirations aside for all these years?
I found out when I became an editor that editing is a lot easier and a lot more fun than writing. Of course, it's very different. The highs and lows of a writer are more extreme. You get no high as great as having written a great piece. But the act of writing, facing the tyranny of the blank screen, is incredibly difficult. Red Smith said it best: "Writing is easy. All you have to do is open up a vein and let it bleed."

What qualities do you look for in your editors?
Whether it's an editor, writer, or an assistant, the one thing I look for across the board is passion. In younger people, it's passion and self-confidence. Which reminds me of something George Burns said: "The most important thing an actor can have is sincerity. And once you learn to fake that you've got it made." So my advice to young people is to learn how to come across as self-confident even if you're not. Besides passion, I look for curiosity and, obviously, intelligence, and experience.

What about freelance writers who pitch you stories out of the blue?
Often we'll take a chance on a writer who has a really interesting idea or who has had the courage to do something on spec. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't. More often than not we'll get a pitch from a writer that's so compelling, we have to do it. So we assign it and then the piece comes in and it has no resemblance to the pitch whatsoever. The problem usually comes down to a writer being overly optimistic about gaining access to difficult-to-reach people or exclusive information.

Is it true that the best way of working your way up the ladder in a magazine is to leave and come back?
It always helps. At GQ and many other places, there aren't many mid-level positions. I believe in being top-heavy, which means getting as much talent as possible at the top of the masthead — the managing editor, executive editor, and senior editors. Without those intermediate steps, it's difficult to grow an editor where someone will start off as an assistant and then move up the ranks. But there are exceptions to the rule. Caroline Fennessy Campion was an assistant and brilliant, so I promoted her to senior editor. She's just one of those special people. There's no doubt in my mind that someday she'll have her own magazine.

It's also true that companies have a hard time putting value on the people who work for them. What happens is that when someone else comes after your employees, then you realize that they must be pretty good. Often the offers will be such financial increases that people will choose to leave. And then you want them back.

What myths about the publishing industry would you like to dispel?
First of all, I think it's a myth that the media-press is a flesh-eating pack of rats. In truth, they're mice studying how to be rats.

Okay, the myth I'd really like to dispel is that people don't want to read magazines. That they just want to look. That they just want sound bites. We're underestimating a large segment of the reading public by giving readers what we think is the only thing they want. That's the drug-pushers argument: "Give 'em what they want." There are people out there who are hungry for articles that provoke, that are intelligent, that make readers think about events and issues, that take them to other places. It's wrong to think that those readers aren't out there.

How have you managed to stay on top in this crazy magazine world for 20 years and still be happy?
Because for 20 years, GQ has been very successful and as long as you're successful, you're going to be okay. When I first came here people said that Condé Nast is the best place to be an editor if you're successful, and the worst place to be an editor if you're not. And I think that's pretty true.

By now you must have heard every fashion and grooming tip there is. Which, if any of them, has stuck?
One grooming tip that really works is to put cucumber slices on your bloodshot eyes the morning after a long night of partying. Alka Seltzer works, too.

Do you have a signature style or accessory?
If I have a signature, it's the skull and crossbones. I have ties, cuff links, suspenders, and even a pair of velvet tuxedo slippers with the skull and crossbones on them. I think it's the buccaneer in me.

What is the most sinful indulgence that you'd admit to?
The occasional martini.

Any regrets?
My only regrets in my career are that I never spent any time overseas as a reporter, and that I was never a Washington correspondent. Outside of work, I wish I had spent less time on the baseball field and more time learning how to play the piano. I also wish I had learned to dance earlier in life.

What has been the proudest moment of your career?
My proudest moment was when the company celebrated my 15th anniversary five years ago and there were several hundred people there — friends, colleagues, and advertisers. I felt very proud to have been here for 15 years and for the magazine to be so recognized.

Another thing that pleases me is that the term "very GQ" has become part of our culture. All magazines reflect the culture, but only a few become part of it. We've accomplished that and that's very satisfying.

Can you imagine what your life might be like after GQ?
I've often thought about what life will be like when I leave here and I don't think I'll have any problem leaving. There will be things that I'll miss, but the success I've had here has given me such a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction that I could leave, spend my time traveling and writing, and be very happy. I've had a remarkable and extremely enjoyable career.

So What Do You Do? appears on Tuesdays.

Photograph by Fred Woodward.

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