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Victor Navasky, R.I.P.

One fine day in the Winter of 1958, two oddly dressed men appeared in the narrow doorway of my office in the Yale Daily News building. The office was small, despite my grandiose title of Managing Editor. But my responsibilities were large: I had to “manage” over a hundred writers, editors, proofreaders, and photographers. I had to open dozens of envelopes with press releases, essays, letters to the editor, and suggestions for columnists. I had to coordinate with the advertising department on the floor below about how many ads had been sold,. These determined our “news hole.” 

Then I had to communicate with reporters about when their stories needed to be submitted so as to avoid late night jams when there wouldn’t be enough time to typeset. We had only recently gone from “hot type” to “cold type,” and mechanical breakdowns were endemic.

The two guys in the doorway - one very tall, the other very short, were Larry Pearl and Victor Navasky. Pearl went on to a lifetime as a widely recognized judge in Washington. Navasky went on to become THE Victor Navasky, longtime editor and publisher of The Nation, author of “Kennedy Justice,” a historical biography of Robert Kennedy, and “Naming Names,” an in-depth narrative of the Hollywood blacklist, as well as memoirs and interviews that now fill volumes.

Pearl, as I recall, did the talking, his eyes darting around the room as other people frantically sought my attention. Navasky smiled and mumbled a few words. Pearl handed me a small pile of oddly shaped, stapled together papers, with a title on the first page in bold letters, “Monocle.” He asked if the “News” might do a story about it.

I don’t remember if we ever did. But a few days later Pearl called me. There was going to be a “hot” lecture in the Law School auditorium that afternoon, which he thought the News should cover. The speaker, Law Professor Vern Countryman, had been attacked by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s super-nationalists. They wanted him fired from his tenured Professorship. His crime was to have spoken and written in support of the activists, including Martin Luther King, who had begun what would become the 60’s Civil Rights movement. .Yale would have risked a school-wide uproar had it tried to fire Countryman, a tenured Professor, for his politics, so the protests against him went nowhere.

I went to Countryman’s speech. Before leaving, the Law School where a packed audience had given Countryman a standing ovation, I spotted Pearl – easy to do, he was well over 6 feet tall, with a distinctive drawn, thin face, not unlike the haunting countenances of concentration camp survivors, whose images people of our generation had grown up with.

With Pearl was Navasky. They asked me to stay for dinner in the Law School Dining Hall. I pointed out that I had come from my residential college five blocks away, and would have to run back and get a coat and tie, which were required for admission to college dining halls. They laughed! This isn’t a kindergarten they said.

And it wasn’t. It was a mind-blowing room full of guys without coats and ties (women weren’t admitted to the Law School until much later) loudly arguing and laughing, waving their arms, jumping up and down. And the food was edible, with as many seconds and desserts as you wanted. Unlike the college dining hall where we in our coats and ties were offered a plate of “mystery meat,” gravy covered mashed potatoes with boiled carrots and peas. No seconds, 

Victor and I turned out to have a lot in common. We came from immigrant families. We knew the Lower East Side. We knew about the Holocaust and its traumatized survivors. We had mothers and grandmothers and aunts who held families together. And we read enormously: newspapers, magazines, leaflets. We hung out in Jewish delis and bagel shops. We were New Yorkers.

Victor Navasky

And we both wound up in our native city – he with his law degree from Yale, after a couple of less than fulfilling years in the military; me with my prestigious B.A. from Yale, after a lonely year as a graduate student in English at the University of Minnesota. Although Victor had grown up in the middle class, largely Jewish, Upper West Side and I was a native of middle class, largely Jewish central Brooklyn, we both knew who ran this country and its media. And since we both wanted to work in media. (not for the money, but for a “right livelihood”) New York was our place.

But it turned out that although we shared a common deep dislike for reactionary political views and politicians, we were very different kinds of people. Victor was a born, and then very well trained, as a detail hound. (See the recent documentary “Turn Every Page”’ for other exemplars, Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, of this practice. 

Victor was quiet of voice. You had to pay attention to see how he was funnier and friendlier than I was. And he thought Big Name Places could be influenced from within. I already suspected, and had my suspicions confirmed by working at two of them, The New York Times and Random House that they weren’t going to change quickly enough and profoundly enough to a part of the solution, rather than a big part of the problem. 

But we continued to be in touch, sometimes saw each other at parties or rallies. I never wrote for The Nation, the few times I tried brought me into conflict with their frustrating editorial process. The “underground” press, in New York and later San Francisco, was much more to my liking. You wrote, you submitted, they printed. I now wish Monocle had grown into what it never tried to be, a mass circulation publication like the New Yorker. 

We needed, when Victor and I were starting out, a strong voice against injustice, bigotry, materialism, and selfishness. Victor led an exemplary life, with a wonderful family, countless friends and acquaintances. He won many well deserved awards. But the country and the planet we worked all our lives to improve remain mired in deadly and dangerous conflicts. 

We needed, and need, many more Victors with much longer lives.

(Larry Bensky can be reached at

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