Remembering Ken Auchincloss

From the other end of the telephone line, it sounded like a party was raging at Ken Auchincloss's home on Tuesday night. I could hear laughter and loud voices.

The scotch was flowing--Macallan, one of his favorites--and cigars were turning to ash. In about 15 minutes, Ken's son Malcolm told me, the whole family planned to gather around the TV to watch "24," the show where Kiefer Sutherland saves the world. Ken hated missing an episode, but he would've hated even more the idea of loved ones missing it on his behalf. After all, he'd insist, there was nothing wrong with them.

Well, nothing and everything. About three hours earlier, Ken Auchincloss--father of two, beloved husband, NEWSWEEK legend and dear friend to me and countless others--died after 65 of the richest, most life-affirming years a human being could possibly enjoy. He had been waging a brave and stubborn battle against liver cancer for two years--brave in that he never once allowed the disease to change who he was, and stubborn in that he refused to let it change how he lived. Ken traveled to more continents while stricken with cancer than most people do in a lifetime of good health. He didn't see the point of sitting still. He kept eating big meals, drinking delicious wines and starting off every day with an insane pile of bacon, just like every other day of his life. About his final moments, I am happy that I can write the one thing we all pray will be written about us someday: he died comfortably and surrounded by his family.

The celebration at Ken's place began shortly after. He wouldn't have stood for speeches, or tears, or--worst of all--silence. So his family, God bless them, put aside the pain of losing a man who deserved 50 more years and instead filled that apartment with story after story.

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I have a few of my own.

In Ken's 37 years at NEWSWEEK, he was known for his intellectual independence, his scorn for polite nonconfrontation and his uncanny ability to know exactly what he thought about a given subject in a matter of seconds. He didn't care if everyone thought the Gettysburg Address was a great speech--he thought it was lousy. After a movie screening last fall for NEWSWEEK editors (a movie that most of us enjoyed, by the way) Ken called out as the credits rolled, "Well, I didn't like that one bit!" Just after September 11, during our weekly story meeting in the NEWSWEEK conference room, editors talked about all the things we talked about in those days: how irony was dead, how pop culture was suddenly irrelevant, how no one could stomach violent movies or gross-out comedy anymore. Ken listened in respectful silence for a while and then said, "I'm sorry, but I'm not feeling any of this." Soon enough, of course, neither were we. He had a way of taking impolite, un-P.C. positions and defending them with such clear-eyed simplicity that you felt like a fool for not seeing the truth sooner. After Columbine, when everyone was urging Hollywood to dial back on the violence in its movies, Ken was aghast. "They shouldn't do anything about the violence in movies," he insisted, "because violence is entertaining." Try arguing with that.

It's worth noting that Ken was 40 years older than me, that his career at NEWSWEEK began before my life did. Our friendship started about three and a half years ago, when I was an obnoxious junior writer in the Periscope department and Ken was in charge of special projects for the magazine. For some journalistically questionable reason, another Peri writer and I decided to stage an office golf tournament in conjunction with a nationwide competition being sponsored by Glenlivet, the scotch-maker. Ken volunteered to be our official scorekeeper. At some point during the tournament, Ken discovered that neither I nor my partner in NEWSWEEK adolescence, Bret Begun, knew a bloody thing about scotch. He set out immediately to correct this embarrassment. We began going out for steak dinners every month, capped off with scotch lessons--a tradition that lasted until this past fall, when Ken's condition finally became too grave to accommodate it. Ken loved the dinners and planned them carefully. One itinerary he e-mailed to us ended with the following entry:

"Approx. 2200 hours: Repair to bar of Morton's (or other favored, well-stocked establishment) for extended survey course in single-malt scotches. Cigars too. Ice water permitted at this stage."

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I never got the hang of scotch, but Ken didn't seem to mind. Pretty soon, we were having dinners at his apartment and going on long weekends with his delightful family, his wife, Lee, and his two grown children, Malcolm and Emily. Ken lived a luxurious life--the fruits of his decades of journalistic labor--and his generosity was truly effortless. From the outside, the sight of a 66-year-old man palling around with a pair of wiseass twentysomethings must have seemed curious. The relationship must surely have been paternal, or perhaps educational--an older man imparting his wisdom to the young bucks. In fact, it was so much less complicated than that. We were simply friends. We joked around, we laughed, we went out, we drank, we looked out for each other.

In addition to being a gifted editor and all-around voice of reason in the NEWSWEEK halls for all these years, Ken was also one of the magazine's most graceful writers. His devotion to words was so deep that his obsession even extended to the fonts they were printed in. Whenever NEWSWEEK considered a visual redesign, Ken was the typeface guru. He could look at an alphabet printed in a new font and tell you exactly why the "w" didn't work. (Because, duh, it didn't match the "q.") I've been told by colleagues that when Ken was the magazine's managing editor, he waged war against certain figures of speech overused by writers in their stories. He especially hated the phrase "the end of an era." "An era isn't over," he wrote in an all-staff bulletin years ago, "until I say it is." Sorry my friend, but this time, I'm saying it for you.

Remembering Ken Auchincloss | News