Coppola’s Descent into Journalism: Apocalypse Then

by Stephen Schwartz, February 10, 2010

Three years ago an unusual volume was issued by Crown Books. It was signed by Cathie Black, presi­dent of Hearst Magazines, and titled “Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life).” Presented as a chronicle of how one woman broke through the glass ceiling to attain eminence in her career, it appeared to be an extravagant exercise in vanity publishing. Inspired, perhaps unconsciously, by the luxuriant fantasies and journalistic misadventures of William Randolph Hearst himself, the volume was distinctive in its design, as well as its notably disar­rayed content.

Cathie Black is known mainly for her work at women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Town & Country, and even O. So one might assume that the glass ceiling is more resistant to fracture than sug­gested. But Black also boasts executive experience with New York and, in the book’s jacket copy, “is widely credited with the success of USA Today,” where she was president and publisher for eight years beginning in 1983.

“Basic Black” was some kind of success. In 2009 I found that it had been translated and published in, of all places, Bosnia-Herzegovina. But for me, its most interesting element was a set of throwaway lines, left unelucidated. Thirty-five years ago Cathie Black was employed in advertising sales at Ms. in New York when she heard that Francis Ford Coppola was about “to launch a new magazine in San Francisco” — not quite a correct report, as will be explained. After 25 pages, she announces that, within three months of moving to the Bay Area, she “could already tell [Cop­pola’s] magazine wasn’t going to survive.” Eight weeks later she went on a skiing vacation and, while away, was informed that “the magazine had been shut down, with only a note posted at the entrance telling employees that the last issue had been printed, and they didn’t have jobs anymore.”

The liquidation of a publication without notice might seem an excellent lesson for someone with a future at the Hearst Corporation; but more peculiarly, Black never mentions the name of Coppola’s maga­zine — City of San Francisco — or its weekly fre­quency, or its flamboyant but ingenious editor, War­ren Hinckle III. These lacunae could be blamed on poor editing; but as a former staff writer at City — as it was universally known — I know a different version of the Coppola saga.

Cathie Black blames the collapse on an inability to generate readership, advertising, or profits. Yet Cop­pola’s City was anything but a circulation flop; its boldly designed, oversized issues flew off the news­stands. Further, ad sales and profits were irrelevant because City was a vanity effort for Coppola. He had just gotten extremely rich off the first two Godfather films and had yet to embark on his longer financial and artistic rollercoaster ride. He would soon shower cash on such pictures as Apocalypse Now and The Cotton Club, but also on such best-forgotten projects as One From the Heart (1982) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988).

In 1974, when the magazine came into view as his new toy, he was the monarch of San Francisco’s de facto statelet, and Coppola’s City seemed intended as something akin to a single-party organ in a totalitarian society. He resented the established San Francisco media for what he perceived as their slights of his grand conceptions, and he voiced his desire to buy the main local paper and “fire everybody.” Coppola’s am­bitions have always had their own Hearst-like aspects. He did not launch City of San Francisco; he took over a smaller and more modest weekly, City Magazine. But he imagined himself as a parallel to the communi­cations magnate depicted in Citizen Kane, remarking to one crony, as he swept through the offices of the reorganized magazine, “It’s fun running a newspaper, Jedediah” — a reference to the sidekick, portrayed by Joseph Cotten, of Orson Welles’s fictional protago­nist.

Like Charles Foster Kane, Francis Ford Coppola seemed consumed by a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt, barely hidden under an expansive personality. He was said to be jealous of his not-so-well-known older brother August, a professor of comparative lit­erature and father of Nicolas Cage. (Cage had fled the advantages of association with his uncle by changing his surname.) Francis Ford Coppola long appeared obsessive about flattering, and involving in his pro­jects, San Francisco’s local celebrities, much as any potentate would confer favors on selected cultural personalities. These included the actor Sterling Hay­den, who played the corrupt police captain shot by Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”; the late rock promoter Bill Graham, and the late Michael Smuin, a ballet showman prominent in San Francisco in those days.

Coppola took inordinate pleasure in doling out attention to this band of petty notables. But he also craved their approval, and idealized San Francisco as a city of poets — contrasting it with Los Angeles and the hard-headed studio elite. He grinned like a clown in the presence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But he acted similarly when dealing with Hollywood. His casting of Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino as incarnations of the Corleone crime family was unarguably brilliant. But he also turned his repre­sentation of the real-life Meyer Lansky into Hyman Roth, played by the acting teacher Lee Strasberg in “The Godfather II.” Strasberg had nurtured Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Paul Newman, and others, and Coppola seemed to possess a need to outdo Strasberg by recasting the great drama coach as an actor.

The same anxieties seemed obvious in Coppola’s recruitment of family members (such as his sister, the “Godfather” black widow Talia Shire) and old college friends, some of them notably eccentric, in his crea­tive enterprises. But as much as Coppola talked about wanting to meet poets and encourage new writers, he was ill at ease and resentful when deprived of adula­tion, and found the rambunctious, aspiring versifiers of San Francisco distasteful and irritating. He was, and remains, a promoter of his family and clique rather than a discoverer of genuine talent.

When “City of San Francisco” was founded, Cop­pola began the enterprise by reviving the career of the Depression-era screenwriter John Fante, gushing over the opportunity to publish a Fante novel, “Brother­hood of the Grape.” And at the same time as he resuscitated Fante he called on all Bay Area writers to submit articles. The magazine was swamped with thousands of manuscripts. Many unfortunates believed that entry into City would lead to, say, a movie job; but alongside Cathie Black only a few peo­ple benefited from involvement with City. Coppola’s curious form of communitarianism in soliciting con­tributors anticipated the current era, in which stan­dards and achievements in journalism and criticism are often set aside in the interest of improvised obser­vation. But when City of San Francisco sank, few of the region’s denizens blamed Coppola’s ego or pub­lishing economics; instead, they blamed its editor, Warren Hinckle.

Warren Hinckle III had become famous as editor of the leftist monthly Ramparts, but while he exploited anti-American conspiracy theories and allied nonsense to sell magazines, he was no ideologue. Ramparts had something in common with Coppola’s “City,” in that Hinckle had taken over a Catholic lit­erary journal and transformed it. But Hinckle, whose restlessness and raptures made Coppola appear monastic, has always seemed concerned mainly to establish himself in the annals of San Francisco lore, perhaps as a successor to Ambrose Bierce.

Hinckle made “City” controversial and readable, but he came to the magazine some time after Cop­pola’s makeover. His incompatibility with the time-servers (exemplified by Cathie Black), and his free hand with Coppola’s money, undercut his ambitions. The magazine’s staff split almost as soon as Hinckle arrived, divided between those interested in flattering Coppola and those who wished to produce an actual magazine, if only a museum of faded sixties radicals with a frantic method of assembly. Coppola’s fans obstructed its production by capriciously removing telephones, stalling payments for writers, and other­wise borrowing from the methods of sabotage employed by producers to obstruct film projects. You could take Coppola out of Hollywood, but you could not take Hollywood out of Coppola.

Finally, Hinckle submitted to Coppola and purged the writers he had recruited to work with him, installing the leftist demagogue Robert Scheer, a Hinckle accomplice from Ramparts days, as hatchet man. Scheer began his tenure by publicly (and without irony) comparing Coppola with Fidel Castro; but behind the backs of Coppola and Scheer, Hinckle continued commissioning and encouraging original work.

The experiment, however, was about to end.

More than three decades have passed since the fleeting incidents here recounted. At the time Cop­pola’s reign over San Francisco’s cultural circus seemed a new and rich chapter in California’s pageant of nonconformity, but we now know it was something else: the tail-end of sixties’ radical culture. Parallel with Cathie Black, another City veteran, Susan Lyne, went on to found “Premiere” magazine and served as president of ABC Entertainment. (She was later chief executive officer of the Martha Stewart empire, until 2008.) Susan Berman, daughter of Las Vegas gangster (and Bugsy Siegel successor) Davey Berman, worked previously as a feature writer for Hearst newspapers and published several books until she was mysteri­ously shot to death in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

A number of the men who passed through “City” graduated to work for Larry Flynt. Warren Hinckle continued writing books while serving as a reporter and columnist for various San Francisco dailies and weeklies. (He briefly returned to public attention last year with the publication of Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever. Hinckle had married Cheever’s daughter Susan, and Cheever had referred to Hinckle as a “wretched buffoon.”) For my part, I learned to appreciate Hinckle, and remain grateful for his encouragement. While I was at “City” he commis­sioned — and paid for — my first study of the Com­munist party in California, which was eventually much extended and published.

Coppola exercised control over “City,” which had its editorial offices in a onetime red-light district, from his flatiron building at the intersection of Columbus and Kearny streets, on the edge of China­town. The lobby now houses a restaurant, the Cafe Zoetrope, named for the early motion-picture tech­nology that Coppola honored when he established his American Zoetrope studio. Walking by this building not too long ago, I noticed a plaque at the entrance, celebrating the building as a workplace for a quartet of directors: Coppola, Werner Herzog, Carroll Bal­lard, and George Lucas.

What does that roster comprise? A man with two major successes and numerous embarrassing failures; an undeniable genius (Herzog) whose connection to San Francisco is limited at best; a maker of animal pictures, Ballard (The Black Stallion); and Lucas, who has probably done more than anyone to destroy the art of cinema in America. Set in the dilapidated core of early San Francisco, that plaque could also summa­rize Coppola’s legacy, in which City magazine was just another concept pushed too high to fly.

Stephen Schwartz, a frequent contributor, is the author of “The Two Faces of Islam” and “The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.”

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