In August 1980, in heat that would be considered mild only on Mercury, I shuffled into Gilbert Rogin's office in midtown Manhattan for a job interview. He was then the 50-year-old managing editor of Sports Illustrated, and I was a 28-year-old unemployed writer.
A nightmare job applicant, I had never heard of Gil Rogin. Nor had I read his magazine, much less the wildly praised sports features, novels and short stories he wrote. In fact I had covered only one sporting event in my life — a 1978 pigeon race in Shapleigh, Maine. I was astonished that my woefully thin résumé had made its way to his desk.
As I walked into Rogin's office, I found him struggling with a jar of orange juice. "Here," he said, "open this and you can have the job."
I did so with a twist of the wrist, then handed back the jar and asked, "When do I start?" (As it turned out, the following week.)
Such was my first encounter with "Rogie," who, at 80, remains one of the most sublimely idiosyncratic characters in the history of New York publishing. Rogin's 38-year career at Time Inc. — he retired as corporate editor in 1993 — took him from copy boy to copy czar, a job in which he oversaw People, Life, Fortune, Money and many other popular magazines. He also helped launch the hip-hop quarterly Vibe with Quincy Jones.
When I joined the staff of Sports Illustrated (SI), the editors were generally writers whom no one really wanted to see write anymore. "Except Gil, who was more deftly literate than anyone on the writing staff," says Alexander Wolff, an SI senior writer whom Rogin hired in 1980 straight out of college. Wolff can recite, from memory, parts of Rogin's 1961 magazine profile of prizefighter Floyd Patterson. His favorite passage:
"After dinner Buster came to Floyd's house to take us back to Ehsan's in his precious Cadillac. Nobody said much all the way back: a long, private ride. Floyd slept, sunk in the front seat, his head against the door, as the car passed through Brooklyn, through the late, peculiar light of summer evening. In front of the dark red tenements of Atlantic Avenue, children in their undershirts turned grave cartwheels."
Turning "grave cartwheels" pretty much sums up the sad beauty and dark wit in Rogie's body of published work. He's a man of enormous gifts, the greatest of which involve short-story writing. He's also a man of enormous conflicts, the greatest of which involve short-story nonwriting. From 1963 to 1980, thirty-three of his comic meditations appeared in The New Yorker magazine, the pinnacle of success for an American short-story writer. His central characters were invariably middle-aged Jewish Manhattanites with second and third thoughts about everything — just like their creator.
In the spring of 1980, a few months before I went to help Rogie out of his orange-juice jam, New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell rejected his latest submission on the grounds that its author was "repeating himself." This wasn’t the first time The New Yorker had passed on one of Rogie's stories, but Angell's appraisal hit him like a punch in the gut from Floyd Patterson.
"I was shattered," he says, leaning on a walker in the kitchen of his home in Westport, Connecticut. "Maybe I knew I was all used up." His eyes — sometimes tranquil, sometimes full of tempest — are green, the nose strong, the mouth richly expressive. "Maybe I knew I'd exhausted the fiction vein. The idea had always been in the back of my mind. For whatever reason, after Roger voiced that opinion, I literally couldn't write fiction again. Not a single word." If you haven't got a scorecard, that's 30 years and counting. (Angell, nearing 90 and still a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker, is baffled by all this: "I wanted Gil to write!" he once protested.)
World-class mullers and brooders, the protagonists of Rogie's stories — his paper Rogies — ponder the pull between the world, with its temptations of shallowness and distraction, and the self, with its dangers of solipsism and isolation. One character, named only Albert (a near-replica, you'll note, of "Gilbert"), measures his penis against a baseball ticket — and, to his chagrin, comes up short. "It was a World Series ticket," the author says in defense of his fictional proxy. "They're longer than regular-season tickets."
Rogie's onetime protégé Kenny Moore, an Olympic marathoner-turned-journalist, calls his mentor's fiction "a miracle of deepening disappointments. This is a man who judges a new edition of the dictionary by counting its synonyms for 'sorrow.'"
The late John Updike once lauded Rogin's stories as "a rocket streaming through The New Yorker of the '60s and '70s." Updike marveled at their uncanny light: "They were ruthlessly exact and amazingly surreal and utterly convincing."