THIS WASN’T the first time Henry Muller woke up on the shoulder of the information superhighway. The first time-in March of 1989, as word leaked about the secret plan to merge his employer, Time, Inc., with Warner Communications, the entertainment conglomerate-Muller, then the editor of Time magazine, was sipping a sunset cocktail at his vacation condominium in Switzerland when his boss rang to tell him the rumor was true.
Muller’s caller, Jason McManus, the editor in chief of all twenty-four Time, Inc. magazines, was the classic organization man, a thirty-seven-year Time veteran and the company’s fourth editor in chief, the latest in an orderly succession dating back to 1964, when Time’s founder, Henry Robinson Luce, stepped down. So it was seen as extraordinary that early in 1994, two full years before his contract expired and five years before mandatory retirement would have dispatched him, McManus suddenly announced that he’d had enough. He says he left prematurely for a simple reason: For the first time in seven years, nobody was hounding him. During those years, Time, Inc. had suffered an unprecedented slide that saw the company lose luster, money, employees, readers, advertising revenue, and, finally, its way altogether. After the Warner merger, power shifted from Luce’s gentlemen journalists and button-down business types to the opportunity-hungry protÅ½gÅ½s of the late Steve Ross, the master manipulator who’d built a chain of funeral parlors into an entertainment conglomerate that ultimately gobbled up Time.
Although Time bought Warner, Warner’s high-performance, high-tech ethic quickly overwhelmed its parent’s genteel pace. Time, Inc. floundered, the bad years culminating in 1992’s redesign of the flagship magazine. The bean counters were demanding a more “user-friendly” Time; McManus’s response was to appoint a committee. Muller commandeered the undertaking, bringing to life what he thought of as his dream magazine-which was ballyhooed by the business side as a rebirth but seen by outsiders (and some insiders, too) as well-intentioned but disappointing, just like the leadership that produced it. McManus started paving the way for his own exit: He promoted Muller to editorial director and replaced him with another Time, Inc. stalwart, James Gaines.
Now Muller and Gaines looked like the only serious candidates for McManus’s job. The cool, composed, Swiss-born Muller, forty-seven, started his career as a Time intern and never left, rising smoothly from the ranks of foreign correspondents. Gaines, also forty-seven, came to Time later in his career (after being fired by Newsweek) but distinguished himself in a dozen years at People, where he rose to be top editor before moving on to Life and Time.
In June, McManus told the two that they were the leading candidates to replace him. By July, insiders were handicapping the race, and even the company’s managing editors, the people who actually run People, Life, Fortune, Money, and the rest, were chasing leads like eager reporters. The first glimmer of an upset came on Thursday August 25, when outside reporters began calling in to Time. An editor in chief’s name was circulating-and it wasn’t a Time, Inc. name.
And so, once again, Henry Muller was in the Alps when his fate was sealed. He was out hiking as Friday dawned back in New York City, and his fax machine started to whir and spit out a story from that day’s Wall Street Journal. “According to people familiar with the situation,” the journal article said, “Norman Pearlstine, former executive editor of The Wall Street journal, is the leading candidate to replace Mr. McManus.”
Even when he read the faxes, Muller didn’t believe it. He’d taken the flak over Time’s redesign. He’d taken McManus’s word that he wasn’t seen-inside Time, at least-as damaged goods. But as he returned the day’s calls from New York, Muller started hurting. And what hurt most was the message that hadn’t been left. If the leak had been wrong, McManus would have called to say so. But his voice was conspicuously absent from the answering machine’s tape. So Saturday morning, Muller booked a flight back to New York.
Monday, he was in his spacious office on the thirty-fourth floor of Time, Inc.’s mid-Manhattan headquarters, staring down through the top of his glass coffee table at a traffic jam of brightly colored toy trucks on the shelf below. He was hearing the bad news, finally, from an unimpeachable source. Time Warner’s chairman, Gerald M. Levin, was telling him that the journal had it right. Just like those trucks, Henry Muller would be parked where he was for quite some time.
Like Muller, his successor as Time’s managing editor, James Gaines, was on vacation that August week but was spending his at home, working the phones, tracking the progress of the succession. So when reporters started calling that Thursday, seeking confirmation of the rumor, Gaines wasn’t entirely surprised.
The hard truth is that both men were likely out of the race before it even began. When McManus announced his retirement, he was not granted quite the same freedom to pick his replacement as his predecessors had been. Time Warner’s board had “suggested” that he look at outside candidates-“as a reality check,” he’d later say. His predecessors had been permitted to rewrite the editor in chief’s charter-a formal corporate document meant to set the mandate for the incoming leader. But this time, Levin and Don Logan, Time, Inc.’s newly appointed chief executive officer, also had a hand in drafting the charter. Time’s next leader, McManus told his staff in his announcement memo, had to embody all the old virtues and have what it takes to drive “the growth of our new businesses in the multimedia age” and be “a frequent and forceful public spokesman.” Everything, arguably, that McManus hadn’t really been. The wheels had actually begun to turn two years before McManus retired, with a conversation that took place at Time Warner, not Time, Inc., during which Gerald Levin asked Norm Pearlstine a tantalizing-hypothetical-question. Pearlstine made a guarded-but unmistakably eager-reply. Two years later, on September 14, 1994, Time Warner’s board gave its blessing to Levin’s brainstorm.
* * *
SEVERAL DAYS AFTER his appointment, Norm Pearlstine meets a visitor in a windowless office off one of the featureless hallways that characterize even the executive floor at Time, Inc. At first glance, he is, as an ex-Wall Street journal reporter puts it, “a nerdy guy,” with rosy cheeks, bulgy brown eyes behind studious glasses, sensible shoes, and black hair that looks as though it’s been matted down with a wet palm. The overall impression of callow youth is heightened by his posture, which alternates between good-boy erect and bored-boy slouchy.
He claims to be biding his time, doing little until the new title is officially his, on the first day of 1995. “As excited as I am about the job, and as lucky as I am to have gotten it, I’m not exactly sure what it is,” Pearlstine says, but that’s probably in deference to his outgoing-but-not-yet-gone predecessor, McManus. In truth, he’s already making his presence felt in large and small ways. (How small? In his first weeks on the job, he examined layouts of People’s special section on teenage pregnancy and asked the editors, “Where are the fathers?”)
He’s inhabiting this monkish cell only until he’s moved into the lavish suite he’ll occupy and the boxes from his old job catch up with him. It was through that job, as managing partner of Friday Holdings, L. P., an ambitious media-investment boutique he formed in 1992, that he got to know Gerald Levin. Their prior relationship seems to be a sensitive subject to everyone involved in his appointment. Levin didn’t respond to requests for an interview. “Reports of their intimacy are greatly exaggerated,” insists McManus.
Still, Pearlstine acknowledges, the Levin connection has “been raised in enough places, so let me react appropriately.” He’d met Levin before, but not, he stresses, at the two schools they both attended at different times, Haverford College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Why is he answering a question that no one has asked? “As you know,” he says, “nobody has a thinner skin than an editor.”
Ultimately, though, Pearlstine doesn’t downplay the role their previous ties played in his appointment. He says they first bumped into each other in the mid eighties, on Haverford’s board. They met again when the first try at a Time Warner merger was derailed by a hostile bid from Paramount, and Wall Street journal editor Pearlstine lunched with Warner’s Steve Ross and the troika that ran Time-Dick Munro, Nick Nicholas, and Levin.
In the summer of 1992, after he resigned from the Journal, Pearlstine “approached every imaginable source” of backing for Friday Holdings, including Rupert Murdoch and the heads of Hearst, ABC-Cap Cities, Times Mirror, and the Washington Post Co. He also saw Levin, who asked why he was leaving Dow Jones and what he wanted to do.
“I am really interested in the migration of information from print to electronic distribution,” Pearlstine told the man who first put movies on satellite. Levin declined to invest immediately but said he’d like to hear more.
Pearlstine liked Levin. They had a lot in common. “He’s brilliant and hardworking, but he’s also very eclectic, and he pulls tangents out of the air that seem random-and sometimes they are random, but sometimes they’re not,” Pearlstine says. Levin tantalized him with one such tangent, asking whether his departure from the journal meant he’d turned his back on editing forever.
“I’ve already had the best job in journalism,” Pearlstine replied.
“Well,” Levin wondered, “isn’t the editor in chief of Time, Inc. a better job?”
“I sort of stopped in my tracks,” Pearlstine says. He asked Levin if the question was hypothetical.
“Of course,” Levin replied.
Pearlstine then said, “If you’re asking if that’s a great job, and if it ever became available, and if you were ever willing to look outside, would I want to talk about it, then the answer has to be yes.”
Two years later, when Jason McManus announced his plan to retire, the hypothetical became actual. Though other names had been bandied about, only one was taken seriously. “I think there are a number of people who might have raised my name,” Pearlstine says. “I hope that Gerry Levin would have been one of them.”
* * *
ASSIMILATION INTO OTHER, stuffier cultures appears to be a Pearlstine family trait. He was born in 1942 and raised in tiny Collegeville, Pennsylvania, one of several children in the only Jewish family in town. Norm’s father, Raymond, a lawyer for clients including Collegeville’s Roman Catholic church and the Philadelphia Eagles, read The Wall Street journal religiously. Norm didn’t. “I had sort of almost counterprogrammed myself to do other things,” he says.
He chose to attend tiny Haverford College on Philadelphia’s Main Line after learning that its football record was one of the worst in the nation. He figured he might make the team. (He did not. It was an early sign of the canny opportunism that has marked his career. Which is not to say that he was consumed by ambition.
“There were other compelling things,” he admits. “I learned to drink; I learned to go out and party. I thought of myself more as kind of a screwup than someone who was overachieving.” Haverford allowed women visitors in dorm rooms until 2:00 A.M. Pearlstine, who admits he’d “had very few dates in high school,” started taking as many classes as he could at the nearby all-female Bryn Mawr and ended up secretly marrying a student there named Charlene.
His professional life began after his freshman year, when he won a Dow Jones-sponsored summer internship at the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Evening Chronicle. After a second summer there and a final undergraduate internship as a police reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, “the bug really bit me,” he says. In 1964, he was en route to the Columbia School of journalism when he changed his mind at the last minute and went to law school. “I was susceptible to family pressure,” he explains. “I decided that a law degree was consistent with a career in journalism but that a journalism degree didn’t give you much mobility.” Three years later, he won a job as a news assistant at The New York Times.
Unfortunately, the day he arrived, he was told he’d be a copyboy instead. The difference was as fine as that between an amoeba and a paramecium-but it mattered to Pearlstine, who rebelled by bungling simple tasks. “I was really itchy to start writing,” he says.
An acquaintance from prep school arranged an interview that led to a reporter’s job at The Wall Street Journal. Early in 1968, Pearlstine arrived at the journal’s bureau in Dallas. He was twenty-four and single, his college marriage having failed in his last year at law school. Six weeks later, he was sent to Memphis to cover a garbage strike. A few days after that, the strike became the backdrop for a fateful moment in American history when James Earl Ray shot the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Pearlstine covered the assassination and its aftermath. Back in New York, he was noticed.
Pearlstine soon developed an MO that has become part of his reputation to this day. He liked cultivating friendships with news makers and getting close enough to feel on the inside of events. He moonlighted as a baby-sitter for one businessman he covered, an up-and-comer named H. Ross Perot. When he wrote a story on hippie icon Wavy Gravy and his Hog Farm commune, he “ended up staying close to a month and, frankly, had a crisis about whether to stay” he says. He candidly admits that he lent one of the Hog Farmers his Pontiac Bonneville for a drug run. “I don’t know whether bringing peyote and mescaline over the border from Mexico was legal or not at that point,” he notes. But it proved a turning point. “I decided to clean up my act,” Pearlstine says.
In December 1969, he transferred to Detroit, but less than two years later, the Los Angeles bureau needed an investigative reporter, and he applied for the slot. Just as he would be two decades later at Time, Inc., Pearlstine was something new in the modest, middle-American culture of the journal, where top editors never preened or partied but rather “prided themselves on making the 6:26 to Ridgewood, New Jersey, every night,” he says. He was hop, skip, and jumping the queue, snaring choice assignments. “The system was a free market,” he observes shrewdly.
When he wasn’t covering the aerospace industry, the record business, or Howard Hughes’s days in Las Vegas, Pearlstine could often be found with his new best friend and Malibu neighbor, James Brooks, a writer for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “One afternoon, we tried to imagine what the world’s greatest job would be,” Brooks recalls. “It had to have authority, freedom, social utility, impact, and money. We both ended up voting for his job.”
Pearlstine also met his second wife, Adele Wilson, a teacher from Massachusetts, on the Malibu beach. Soon after, the journal offered him a Tokyo slot, and with Adele in tow, he crossed the Pacific in 1973. Two years later, he covered the fall of Saigon and made the front page over and over with his dispatches. “It was a week when a lot of people took notice,” he says. One was Peter Kann, who’d won a Pulitzer for the journal for his coverage of the war in Vietnam. Assigned to start the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Kann chose Pearlstine as his deputy.
There they conducted themselves like young lions who would remake the institution someday. As they sifted through the copy generated in New York, deciding what they wanted for their paper, they often found it wanting-so often, in fact, that they had a rubber stamp made that read AWSJ KILL. But before Pearlstine would rise any higher in the journal hierarchy, Forties offered him the job of executive editor, based in Los Angeles, his purview being the West Coast, Asia, and the Pacific. He thought he had a shot at running Forties one day, so he walked out on the journal. “Through his whole career,” says Peter Kann, “Norm’s been different from those of us who stayed in one place.”
Eighteen months later, though, Pearlstine was back. “The journal at its best could do every story Forties wanted to do, but you couldn’t say the reverse,” he explains. Adele stayed in California when he returned to New York in June 1980 as the journal’s national editor, with a mandate to change the inside of the paper. `And I did that,” he says. But the changes-for the journal and for Pearlstine-had hardly begun.
* * *
AAH, THE JOY of seduction! To take a man, lay him down and you on top, orchestrate his sounds of slow surrender with the shifting of your weight, the forbidden dirty words whispered in your female/mother voice, watch his gradual loss of control-no, control his loss of control until ultimately, with the pressure and release of delicate vaginal muscles on his swollen penis — he comes.
-NANCY FRIDAY, FROM WOMEN ON TOP
Back when Norm Pearlstine was still picking up coeds at Bryn Mawr, Nancy Friday, five years his senior, was already a working journalist. After a stint as a reporter at the San Juan Island Times, she became editor of a travel magazine in 1961 and lost her virginity to its publisher, Michael Butler, who later gained renown as the producer of the sixties “love-rock musical,” Hair. Friday described Butler in her most recent book, Women on Top, as “an extraordinary man … my sexual emancipator.” The feeling is mutual. “Nancy was fantastic,” Butler says. “You knew you were in the presence of somebody.”
In the midsixties, she left San Juan for New York and became a self-described thrill-seeking adventurers. “What I wanted was … freedom to pursue men at a moment’s notice,” she once wrote. So she got a PR job that gave her time to dance at the hippest discos, sleep with drunken poets, and fall in lust with a man she calls Jack, who had a wife, three children, and several other lovers. Jack introduced her to marijuana and the joys of uninhibited, lingerie-less eroticism. “I walked around in a state of semiarousal in those days,” she wrote, “always conscious of what I didn’t have on.” When their relationship ended in a haze of “enough booze, grass, hallucinatory drugs, and available sexual partners to sate the greediest,” she took up with one of Jack’s friends, Bill Manville, a bartender-turned-Village Voice “Saloon Society” columnist and novelist.
Friday and Manville sailed to Europe in 1967, where the couple married and settled for the next half-dozen years. Manville wrote for Cosmopolitan. Friday wrote travel pieces but didn’t blossom until the couple came back to New York in the early seventies. She published My Secret Garden, a collection of sex fantasies that, as Newsday later put it, “launched a new and extremely lucrative career for Friday, establishing her as the liberator of the female libido” and a talk-show celebrity. My Mother, My Self-a pop-psych text, her third book-legitimized her.
The Manvilles’ apartment overlooking Central Park was the subject of a 1978 New York Times Home story that dwelled on their Sheridan sofa, Georgian silver, seventeenth-century Italian columns, and Victorian sideboard with the same acute attention to detail that Friday lavished on the masturbation fantasies she collected, polished, published, and vigorously promoted. With the proceeds, the Manvilles bought a house in Key West, Florida, where they established a salon that became a center of the last resort’s literary, libidinous, and intoxicating lifestyle.
“Nancy created a wonderful, romantic aura of her and Bill as a couple,” says a Key Wester. But in their subsequent divorce, Friday would say that they hadn’t had sex since 1976, and in 1980, they separated. Manville stayed in Florida. Friday took New York. Friends there thought she was single. In Key West, she was still Mrs. Manville. “Whenever Nancy came to visit, there was a great deal of swarming about as a professional happy couple,” says an observer. “But they never touched, never spoke.” Like many in Key West, this source speculates that Friday’s 1985 book, jealousy, explained the charade. “There was a million-dollar contract,” she says. “The book had to be produced and wouldn’t have been without Bill. Whenever Nancy came to Key West, there would be two chairs hunched in front of the computer.”
When she filed for divorce in 1986, it crushed Manville. “Inside the woman to whom he was married was another he had never known,” he writes in “The Unattainable Woman;” an unpublished novel that he’s said is “about a New York couple, a guy married to a beautiful best-selling writer and TV personality, who may or may not have gotten her start by fucking (among others Johnny Carson.” His evident anger suffuses the manuscript. The lead female character is Jean Deaux, but the name Nancy turns up, too, as an acronym for “Not Another Nagging Controller, Yes?” Two Pearlstine surrogates also put in appearances: one a rag doll named Norm that belongs to a King Charles spaniel called the Sex Criminal; the second, Jean Deaux’s engagingly eager fiancÅ½, investment banker Peregrine Epstein.
Even excepting the eighteen-page sex scene calculated to recall My Secret Garden, with its adventurous dildo and gynecological table equipped with velvet handcuffs, Manville’s novel wants to make the case that he was Friday’s collaborator. “If I talked my ideas out loud, you could organize the material,” Deaux tells her husband. “If you could find the words when I’m stuck, you could help me become … the self I’ve always wanted to be.”
The question of who wrote her books was part of their bitter breakup. But among documents about interminable squabbles over property, there’s one in which Manville concedes that he “never was in any sense a collaborator or coauthor” of “works published under Nancy Friday’s name,” and that “any statement or suggestion to the contrary … are [sic] untrue.” He promises never to make such statements again-a vow he seems to be testing with his new novel-and concludes that his retraction “partially induced Nancy Friday to enter into the property-settlement agreement” that ended their relationship after their December 1987 divorce.
Nancy and Norm had already been together for years. They met at a 1981 dinner party for James Brooks, who’d used My Mother, My Self as a touchstone for his film Terms of Endearment. “She’s wildly intelligent, a Club Med for the brain,” he says enthusiastically. Norm and Nancy each called Brooks about the other after that dinner. Attraction turned to action the next year. Pearlstine was a tricoastal man, commuting between Belgium, where he was launching the European Journal; New York, where he still held the title of national editor (and had just ended a brief affair with one of his reporters; and Los Angeles, where his relationship with his second wife had, he admits, gotten “pretty strained.” At a lunch with Brooks, he learned that Friday and Manville had separated. “We ended up going out to dinner and have been together ever since,” he says.
* * *
IN THE RUN-UP To the launch of the European Journal, Norm and Nancy didn’t see much of each other. Pearlstine’s brief now was to start a newspaper from scratch; he and his crew got it up and running in four months from a suite in the Brussels Hilton. “He was extraordinarily driven at that point,” says journal editor Marty Schenker. “He was always first in and stayed the latest. It was insane to try and keep up.”
When Pearlstine’s appointment as the journal’s managing editor was announced, he was taking over a slightly weary, tradition-bound giant rather like today’s Time, Inc. “He took an insular, self-referential institution and made it a happening place,” a reporter says. He broadened coverage of the law, media, marketing, advertising, technology, personal finance, and small business; made it possible for reporters to look beyond the companies they covered and write about whole industries; and introduced a three-section paper (though he really wanted four) with a sports page. He hired so many new writers and editors that Warren Phillips, then the Dow Jones chairman, would joke that Dow Jones gave Pearlstine an unlimited budget and he exceeded it. “Budgets are for wimps,” Pearlstine would reply.
Reporters were his biggest fans. They found him an involved, inspiring, imaginative, interesting, skilled, and unselfish boss. “You’d walk off a cliff for Norm,” says Kathryn Christensen, his London bureau chief. “He’s ahead of most curves I’ve ever been aware of.” Norm raised salaries, promoted women, recruited minority reporters, and “fostered a climate of creativity and opportunity” says Bryan Burrough. He, James Stewart, and Susan Faludi blossomed into marquee names; Stewart, Dan Hertzberg, and Faludi won Pulitzer prizes. But Pearlstine’s attention wasn’t reserved for his star performers. He made a point of congratulating all reporters on their first bylines (and regularly took them out drinking). On a trip to Houston, he went to the famous Gilley’s with a bunch of reporters, rode the mechanical bull, and when he was thrown, got on it again. He never let on that when he’d fallen, he had torn ligaments in his thumb.
* * *
THE GOOD TIMES rolled as Pearlstine led the Journal through the heady eighties. Circulation peaked at just over two million. “They were turning away advertising,” a reporter marvels. “Norm was the right guy for those times-a big guy with the big picture doing big stuff.” But there were little niggling hints of things to come, even in the office of capitalism’s community newspaper. Early in March 1984, Pearlstine got a call from John Fedders, head of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking about a journal reporter, R. Foster Winans, who was suspected of insider trading. A few weeks later, Winans confessed. Pearlstine knew his paper would be judged on how it covered the story. “I felt it was an absolute obligation to be totally straight with our readers,” he says. `And I didn’t want to be in a position where Business Week was printing scoops about what Winans did at The Wall Street Journal.” It was a move that stands in marked contrast to Time’s decision to cover its own merger with Warner two weeks after the fact-and only in an editor’s note.
As he’d done in Dallas with Ross Perot and Wavy Gravy Pearlstine sought relationships with the decade’s star characters, people like Donald Trump, Revlon’s Ronald Perelman, Henry Kravis, and James and Linda Robinson, the former chairman of American Express and his press-agent wife. Some called Pearlstine a star fucker. He says he was cultivating sources. Either way, he and the journal were in the center of the arena. He even bought property in chic northwest Connecticut, where a barn from Fort Ticonderoga and an old Vermont railroad station had been trucked in to make “a fantasy house, rather than a conventional dwelling.”
As he ascended from news gatherer to slightly public figure, the era that made his reputation began to wane, and some of the luster faded from the journal as well. Circulation stopped growing, there was more competition, and advertising growth stalled. Not Norm. “You could see him going Hollywood,” says a reporter. He cut back on his hours. Standards slipped a bit. “He probably did become less obsessive about the job,” says Marty Schenker. “That was probably a function of his relationship with Nancy” They were married in 1988, at a Rainbow Room ceremony attended by Trump and Perelman as well as such power literati as Michael Korda, Gay and Nan Talese, and Friday’s agent and bridesmaid, Lyn Nesbit. “Everyone processed that as a move deeper into those circles,” the reporter said.
Inevitably, some blamed his wife’s influence for Pearlstine’s love of the spotlight. In 1989, he was named editor of the year by the National Press Foundation; his acceptance speech, a listener recalls, acknowledged that Friday “had taken him places he’d never been before. It was touching and out of character.” Also out of character was Pearlstine’s alleged behavior on Friday’s Women on Top publicity tour. He ended up on the New York Post’s Page Six for threatening to publish “negative stories” about the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel after Friday found their suite wanting. (He denied it happened.)
He also committed a lapse in judgment that a rookie reporter would have known to avoid when he and Nancy accepted a free helicopter ride to a heavyweight-title bout in Atlantic City from Donald Trump. “Trump!” a reporter gasps. “Of all people! The most transparent slime!” The incident slimed Pearlstine. A well-connected Wall Street trader remembers, “The word of mouth was that Norm was always sucking up, pulling stories to help his friends.”
Pearlstine says he consistently recused himself from coverage of friends like Ron Perelman, for whom Nancy Friday worked as a consultant. He admits that the ride on Trump’s helicopter was a mistake and adds that since leaving the journal, he hasn’t socialized with “the business restructurers of the eighties” at all. Friday, who has been known to accessorize her designer outfits with a studded dog collar, has said she was “sidetracked” by the values of that time. No, Pearlstine insists, it was he who dragged her to all those glitzy parties.
The serious charge that Pearlstine went easy on his nouvelle pals isn’t supported by any available evidence. “People he was friendly with got very tough scrutiny” says Warren Phillips. “He said let the chips fall as they may, and the chips fell.” The journal’s scorching, prosecutorial coverage of the decade’s end led to two best-sellers, James Stewart’s Den of Thieves and Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate. Jim and Linda Robinson, Pearlstine pals burned by Burrough’s subsequent coverage of American Express, actually stopped talking to Pearlstine. “He never wanted to go easier on anyone,” says Burrough. “His seders at the Perelmans had no impact on the work.”
The Journal’s Washington bureau chief, Al Hunt, tells a tale of Pearlstine’s integrity involving the SEC’s John Fedders, the man who’d warned Pearlstine that Foster Winans was trouble. Hunt recalls, “Six months later, I called Norm and told him I got a helluva story-a high official was an active wife-beater. He asked me who. I said `John Fedders.’ He gulped and said, `Keep me posted.’ We ran the story. Norm didn’t blink. The test is, did his relationships ever affect coverage? The answer is demonstrably no.”
Pearlstine’s fortunes at the journal may have been damaged by a relationship within the paper, though. Peter Kann, who’d been made publisher, married Karen Elliott House, the journal’s diplomatic correspondent, in 1983. The next year, Pearlstine named her foreign editor, and in 1989, she was promoted again, taking charge of all Dow Jones’s international operations, including some that Pearlstine had previously supervised. Over time, reporters came to see House’s ascent as a marker of Pearlstine’s decline in Kann’s affections. “Karen would criticize Norm quite openly and in a manner that got back to him,” a journal staffer says. “She thought Norm was not sufficiently loyal and serious. And I’m sure she and Nancy Friday had no use for each other. They’re creatures from different planets.” Kann calls this theory “total bullshit.” But Pearlstine admits that the Kann-House merger made him uncomfortable. “I’d hear from one of them at nine o’clock and the other at ten, and I’d wonder, Whose idea was this?” he recalls.
Promoted in 1991 to executive editor after expressing an urge “to be entrepreneurial,” Pearlstine never found an adequate new outlet for his energy. He tried developing a weekend magazine, a southern business magazine, and a Journal book imprint, all to no avail. Pearlstine, a man who sleeps only four hours a night, found himself stymied. “They . didn’t tell him to leave,” a reporter says. “He had nowhere to go.”
Thus, in 1992, at age fifty Pearlstine fell prey to an occupational hazard-he decided to become one of the people he covered. He pitched Dow Jones an idea about forming a company dedicated to acquiring and starting new media ventures. When Peter Kann declined, Pearlstine quit. Not long after, Texas investor Richard Rainwater, QVC (which was run by Barry Diller, a friend of James Brooks’s), and Paramount Communications all agreed to provide working capital for a first look at Pearlstine’s ventures. Nancy Friday bought part of Rainwater’s interest, and her husband named the firm after her: Friday Holdings, L.P.
In one sense, Pearlstine’s timing couldn’t have been better. He formed the company just as the buzz of interactivity, convergence, and multimedia became audible, and leveraged it on his backers, powerfully wired pooh-bahs whose names were on everyone’s tongues. But as he looked for businesses to buy, he says, he found mostly half-baked ideas and overpriced concerns. Then, four days before Friday Holdings’ first partners meeting in August 1993, Paramount chairman Martin Davis learned that Diller’s QVC was about to make a hostile bid to break up his purchase of Viacom. “So I found myself in September with two strategic partners not speaking with each other,” Pearlstine says. They never had a second partners meeting.
Even so, Pearlstine pressed ahead. “Our idea was to create a pyramid, based in low-priced, mass-appeal information services and building up to customized electronic information delivery,” says Denise Caruso, a technology writer who became Friday’s first employee. In March 1994, she started Technology & Media Group, Inc. In early August, Pearlstine announced that he was “going to dissolve the partnership and try to sell the assets,” Caruso says. Instead, he shut the operation down in September, just after Time Warner’s board approved his appointment.
* * *
“I’LL GET ALONG WITH NORM,” Henry Muller says in the weeks after Pearlstine began his new job. “This place needs a burst of energy desperately. That is more important than who gets to do it.”
“Time has always been in the hands of people bred to survive at Time,” says Landon Jones, the managing editor of People. “The Time way was the right way. But it became an albatross. There’s a sense of opening. There are a lot of new avenues.”
Of course, it may be unrealistic to expect that the lifers at Time, Inc. would be anything but enthusiastic about their new boss. But even among the elders of Henry Luce’s church, there’s an admission that it might be time for a change.
Richard Stolley, the founding editor of People and now a Time, Inc. consultant, says of Pearlstine’s appointment, “I was against breaking tradition. For emotional reasons, I preferred we stick with what had been successful in the past. Every boy can grow up to be president. I wanted to keep that dream alive inside Time, Inc. Younger staffers presumably, in the backs of their minds, had aspirations to be evaluated by traditional Time standards. All bets are off now.” But even he finds a bright side: “Things could get less predictable around here, and that might be fun.”
Indeed, instead of seeing Pearlstine as an invader, Time’s staff seems to be breathing a sigh of relief. And so, for that matter, is Pearlstine. Though he won’t admit that Friday Holdings was in any way a failure, he leaped back into front-line journalism with an eagerness that indicates where his heart really lies. Only a few days after moving to Time, for instance, he called his not-so-old backer, Barry Diller, and began peppering him with questions about the new movie studio being formed by David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
“I started pushing him on it,” says Pearlstine, who repeats Diller’s response with a certain glee.
“God,” Diller said, not bothering to hide his disdain, “You sound like an editor again.”
©1995 Michael Gross