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The Boss: Personal Indulgences No. 21

Just when the Seventies were starting, I looked up from my overlapping worlds of academia, motherhood, and housewifery and decided I wanted to write about dancing. Having managed to publish two pieces—both, fairly accidentally, about Twyla Tharp’s early ventures—in little-read journals, I proceeded, with the faith of the innocent, to disperse these samples among the bigger guns, offering them my services.

Bill Como, Dance magazine’s editor in chief, as a staff member told me later, rescued my maiden efforts from the pile of unsolicited manuscripts about to be returned to sender and said, “Have this girl come in and see me.” Apparently, he was in the habit of browsing through the slush pile, as it was called, to see if there was anything worth retrieving. (My informant and I decided not to get all feministic about his applying the word girl to me, although my old-fashioned c.v. indicated that I‘d earned the right to be called a woman.)

So there I was, sitting across the wide desk from him in the old West 47th Street office, staring down at the little silver buttons on my emerald-green Marimekko (my best dress), because I didn’t have enough chutzpah and professional sophistication even to make eye contact while he asked me, “Well, what else can you do?” I can cook, I thought wildly to myself, I’m absolutely terrific with small children, I have this original idea about the relation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet . . .

Suddenly some force with which I had little conscious acquaintance at the time made me transfer my glance from my lap to his suave, Italianate face and bluntly name half a dozen dance figures—the handful I knew anything about. “I can write about them” I declared, simultaneously realizing this was just about the biggest lie I’d ever told. “Write about these three,” Bill ordered, naming his choices, “and don’t bother me again until the articles are done.” Brusque words, belied by eyes that were kind. Then he stood up, indicating that our brief interview was over.

What with my ties to my university (where I was crawling toward a Ph.D.), family life (which included a boy and a girl child, still quite small), and a case of writer’s paralysis that was part Mallarmé’s terror of the blank page and part appalling inexperience, the assignment took a year and a half. It was, however, the beginning of my professional career.

Bill took chances on people, you see. He could sense something in a neophyte—a spark of talent coupled with huge measures of desire and tenacity. On the basis of that, as I often said in the busy years that ensued for me as a regular contributor to the magazine, he gave me enough rope to hang myself. He let me write in my own peculiar way and trusted me to teach myself, with time, to do a little better. He let me take on subjects no other editor in the field would have considered, let me indulge my obsessions, let me see the dance world from my own idiosyncratic angle. I’ll never cease to be grateful to Bill for “finding” me—plucking me out of nowhere, as it were—and for the magnitude of the opportunity he offered me, the generosity and trust it implied. Along the way he counseled, heartening and admonishing; he talked dancing to me; he encouraged me to appreciate the beauty of the simple declarative sentence. Most apparent, though, was his gift of the space—in both its literal and figurative meanings—in which to write.

Toward the end of the Seventies, he gave me another substantial opportunity—editing the criticism for the magazine. I did possess editorial skills, acquired through work on high school and college publications, and I was obviously a reliable type, but I hardly think Bill realized as he took this second chance on me, that I had visions for the department far exceeding the matter-of-fact job description. Included in my probably impossible dream were: a significant upgrading of the writing; the development of the writers by considering with them what they might like to write about, including genres that were not in their area of expertise; a concerted effort to have an ethnic mix among the reviewers; and so on. And on.

My tenure certainly caused Bill moments of exasperation; I hope he thought the results weighed favorably in the balance. For me it was a heady adventure. My nine-year editorial stint with the magazine taught me a great deal about writing, collaborative effort, and the harsh practicalities of keeping a publication viable. In the course of it, I got to work with writers like Joan Acocella, David Vaughan, Mindy Aloff, Sally Banes, Jennifer Dunning, and Eva Yaa Asantewaa—to name just a few of those singular voices whose contributions I looked forward to each month as if they had been written solely for my edification and delight. Throughout, Bill’s patience and permissiveness were extraordinary, and when I finally left the job for new and grander commitments, he had the grace to treat my move as a manifestation of growth, not disloyalty.

In temperament and the conduct that exposes it, Bill and I were at opposite ends of the spectrum. He had a terrible temper and thought nothing of letting his high-voltage tirades spill over the low partitions of our office, where the staff worked in small cubicles. (Only he and the publisher had spacious, individual offices.) One day, Bill suddenly became furious with me and, for the first time in our acquaintance, let ‘er rip, shouting (abusively, I thought) about my allowing—indeed, strongly encouraging—the reviewers to be fully truthful in their evaluations. Of course my stance was central to my strategy of making the magazine’s criticism independent of influence—from the companies being reviewed and, for that matter, from him. Ears perked up all around us.

“Can we go into your office?” I asked Bill quietly. Turning his back on me, he headed for his station of command. I followed.

Once inside, I asked, “Can we close the door?” He nodded his consent, no doubt baffled by my behavior.

I closed the door firmly, then said to him with equal firmness, but without raising my voice, “I’m willing to discuss policy with you whenever you like. You are my boss. But nobody is allowed to speak to me the way you just did. Nobody. Except my mother, and she usually thinks twice about it.”

With that curtain line, I turned my back and left the room. From then on, Bill treated me with careful respect.

Admittedly, Bill and I were an odd match. We must have disagreed about three-quarters of the issues that came our way. Our artistic taste was light years apart. Just for instance, he was a Béjart guy; I was a Balanchine gal. (Need any more be said?) We had radically conflicting views about the function of the critic (reporter or supporter?), about aspects of professional behavior, about what a magazine might be and how it should be run.

Ideally, what would follow here is the assertion that we respected each other’s opinions. I can’t say that. I think we often thought the other was either as wrong as anyone can be or, more charitably, crazy, and that he/she would suffer the dire consequences of these misguided views or, more charitably, eventually see the light. No, what we felt for each other wasn’t anything as morally elegant as respect. It was unabashed love. As far as I can explain it (there’s a primal level on which love is blessedly unfathomable), it was based on the thing that had brought us to our respective trades—a guileless, ecstatic passion for dancing. We recognized that in each other immediately, honored it for nearly two decades, took a pleasure in sharing it that increased in resonance with passing time. It kept, and continues to keep, our connection unbreakable, surviving even his death.

© 2012 Tobi Tobias

Comments

  1. Lovely memories and so true. I only knew him a bit, but I recall his temper. You nailed it. And a great history of the magazine as well.

  2. Thank you. Please write more about stuff like this. “This,” being, I think, people you’ve encountered who mattered.

  3. I worked for him too; because of you, Tobi, and the writers you assembled, the magazine had become a place where one wanted to write, though I came in as you departed. But Bill let me write, and keep writing, even though “my” covers were the worst selling issues in Dance Mag history, until I hit the jackpot with Mark and Mischa.

    Bill was one of the funniest men alive–a grand raconteur–and his humor extended to himself. He once told me–and the then managing editor Richard Philp–about an awards evening to which he’d worn some sort of fancy formal suit, rather snug fitting, with a thong underneath. Mind you, this was quite some time ago, but also remember, he worked at “After Dark.” While recounting his evening out, he rose from behind his desk to demonstrate how, after his pants split, and given a jacket rather too short to be concealing, he had hugged the walls for the rest of the evening. Of course it was one of the gambits of the plot of “Bringing Up Baby,” but it was true. I actually rolled off the sofa onto the floor I laughed so much, and Richard had to use his asthma inhaler.

    Bill was, I think, above all things, a kind man. He was sentimental. And he was at times wistful: He once asked me why Arlene Croce had disciples, and he did not. “Well, you have me, “I offered. He was nice enough to be satisfied by that.

    He had a reported loathing for the notion of decomposing (the body, not the writing), and I was told purchased for himself an extremely elaborate system of interlocking coffins. So we can imagine him, if we are so inclined, suitably attired still, resting peacefully. In his thong.

  4. I think so many of us writers have had a similar experience way back when: one person said yes after most others said no, and it changed your life.

  5. What a heartfelt and truly beautiful tribute! I never knew him but after reading this I feel like I do.

  6. Sandi Kurtz says:

    I was glad to hear your stories about Bill Como. I never met him, but he certainly looms large over our field.

  7. Eva Yaa Asantewaa says:

    Thank you, Tobi, for this honest, beautiful, big-hearted remembrance of Bill Como. It brings back my own memories of the man and of the times. I am grateful for the start that you–and Bill–gave me at Dance Magazine. It opened up so many worlds, and my continuing goal is to open these worlds for my readers and students.

  8. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thanks for this, Tobi. You were the editor who took a chance on me, first in college, where you published my poetry in Focus (the only editor to do so I might add), then at Dance Magazine, when you asked me to write an essay-review on post-modern dance in New York in 1979.

    I never saw you in the DM offices, so I didn’t meet Bill Como, although I saw him from afar at one of the performances I covered in that essay–Dana Reitz’s I think, though I wouldn’t stake my life on it.

    I met him in San Francisco ten years later, roughly, at the “Swan Lake” conference, where he reminisced about Siegfrieds he had seen and known, demonstrating for the bewitched audience how Nureyev had turned his back on HIS audience at a performance in order, and I quote, “to display his pretty little ass.”

    Your account of your first interview certainly brought back many memories of many interviews in which I lied in my teeth about my abilities in order to get a job. And my failure to meet the interviewers’ eyes because I was shy and terrified. Nobody who knows me now believes this. We’ve come a long way, baby, and let’s not let the current crop of politicians take us back down that rocky road.

  9. Ann Ilan Alter says:

    This Personal Indulgence is lovely. What a wonderful reminiscence about becoming a dance writer.

  10. I’d have to be grateful to him if only for being able to enjoy your writing for so many years.

  11. Tobi, your description of your exchange with Bill Como on what’s “allowed” in reviewing reminded me of a recent (and possibly current) dispute on book reviewing (with which I am more familiar). Here’s how I described it in a weekly book news which I compile: A literary punch-up has arisen among readers, authors, and agents on Goodreads’ reviews in the YA field, with readers clashing with publishers. Are reviews a sales promo tool or an honest assessment by someone who has read and digested the work? The issue of reviews as promotion or honest assessment obtains, no matter which area of the arts is under discussion, alas.

  12. Martha Ullman West says:

    Oh God yes, Brenda, you are so very right. My first writing job was as a visual arts critic for Manhattan East, a now defunct weekly paper covering the upper east side of NYC, and therefore many, many galleries. I only reviewed exhibitions at galleries that advertised in the paper and was not therefore permitted to slam some very slam-worthy work. I soon developed considerable expertise in describing the frames, or the palette, or even the subject of someone’s work. And soon after that, I quit because I felt so dishonest. Years later I had pressure put on me by another newspaper editor to go easy on bad choreography on the grounds that the publisher of that paper was on the company’s board and they needed to sell tickets. So yes, I couldn’t agree with you more.

  13. Sandra Hammond says:

    I loved your tribute to Bill Como. We should all so acknowledge those who inspired us and fostered our nascent efforts. Thank you for doing just that, and so eloquently and honestly.

  14. Iris Fanger says:

    Hi, Tobi, I just came across your tribute to Bill Como. As you know, he was my great mentor and dear friend. I loved him. Despite occasional spats, he respected me and I, him. He and Richard Philp, for many years his second in command, put out one fine magazine. I was proud to be part of it.

  15. The piece about you and Bill Como was beautiful and moving, and reminiscent of what many of us have felt for someone. (Not always love though.)

  16. Though months delayed, this posting fell into my lap at exactly the right time. Thank you. I thoroughly enjoy your work.

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