A Man Of Laughter And Grace

Insecurity is the natural state of journalists. Insecurity makes us edgy, curious and competitive; also, nosy and pushy. Newsrooms are hotbeds of neurosis and jealousy. Reporters often do their best reporting on the personal lives of their colleagues.

In our world, Kenneth Auchincloss, NEWSWEEK's editor-at-large, who died last week at 65, should have been a misfit. He respected privacy. He loved a good story and he could be wickedly funny, but he was not very interested in the latest gossip about who was up or who was down. Working at a magazine that aims to be hip and ahead of the curve, he was a little clueless about pop stars and sometimes happily behind the times. Once, when NEWSWEEK was debating whether to do a story on Mick and Jerry, he asked, "Who are Mick and Jerry?" For an American raised in Manhattan, he was a bit of an aristocratic toff. He had gone to Groton, Harvard and Oxford, wore English tweeds and collected rare books. He wrote as easily as he breathed. He should have been resented.

He was beloved. During Ken's 37 years at NEWSWEEK, he was admired by his friends and by the people who might naturally have been his enemies. He was egalitarian in the truest sense. As an editor--an extraordinarily versatile one who served the magazine in top jobs (national affairs editor, executive editor, managing editor, international editor)--he never picked favorites. He edited the copy, not the byline. He never hogged credit or handed off blame. He was urbane and sophisticated; when NEWSWEEK's late owner, Katharine Graham, wanted someone to travel with her to see a head of state or to pick art for NEWSWEEK's hallways, she looked to Ken. Yet Ken was equally comfortable hanging around with twentysomething writers, laughing uproariously and teaching them to appreciate Scotch whisky.

Ken was a contrarian, but never as a pose. He knew what he liked and disliked and he was honest about it. Just after the September 11, 2001 attacks, during a story meeting at NEWSWEEK, the editors were going on about how everything had changed: how irony was dead, how pop culture was irrelevant, how no one would want to see movies that were gross or violent. Ken quietly, respectfully listened, and then spoke up. "I'm sorry, but I'm not feeling any of this," he said. He was right, of course, and everyone knew it, even if they couldn't or wouldn't admit it. Ken's manners were perfect, even genteel, but he was in no way priggish. "They shouldn't do anything about the violence in movies," he would interject, "because violence is entertaining."

Ken had an enormous appetite for the large and small joys of life: a big plate of bacon at breakfast; going to the movies (as often as possible); traveling (he visited more continents during his stubborn two-year battle with liver cancer than most healthy people do in a lifetime); his wife Lee and his children Malcolm and Emily. A few years ago, when NEWSWEEK ran a paean to the convenience and ease of online Christmas shopping, Ken wrote a vigorous defense of going to the stores. He always wanted to be out and savoring life.

Ken Auchincloss was an elegant writer whose sense of pitch and tone were perfect. As a young star writer at NEWSWEEK in the late '60s and '70s, he helped make the magazine a "hot book" by perfecting a style that was lively and irreverent. The week of 9-11, when Editor Mark Whitaker chose the writer for the magazine's opening essay, he did not hesitate to pick Ken. But it was Ken's grace that we will remember. The '70s and early '80s were turbulent at NEWSWEEK; the magazine went through a half dozen editors. Each time an editor was fired, it was Ken who would host the dinner and buck up spirits in the hallways and reveal not a flicker of bitterness that he had not been given the top job.

In August of 1998, after Bill Clinton had finally 'fessed up his adultery with Monica Lewinsky to his wife and the nation, the First Couple took their customary vacation on Martha's Vineyard. At the time, Ken happened to be walking down a beach on Martha's Vineyard when he saw a couple coming his way, engaged in serious conversation. When Ken realized it was the Clintons, he turned around rather than intrude on their private moment. A NEWSWEEK editor later asked him, hadn't he been tempted to keep going, to see the body language and maybe overhear a word or two? "Hell no," said Ken, with a twinkle but also his instinctive decency. "They were on vacation."