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Millionaire Publisher Declares He’s Broke (1974)

On the night before the Thanksgiving of 1964 I was comfortably seated in the neo-Edwardian lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City having a drink with Ramparts Magazine publisher Edward Keating.

The occasion was pure ambrosia. I had just declared to him in an outburst of statistical euphoria that we had “almost doubled” our circulation—from 2,200 to 4,000 readers. The transformation from a 2,000-plus-copy quarterly to a 4,000-copy monthly magazine was taking place under my aegis, for which purpose I had just taken a six-month leave from my secure job as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. It bothered me not a whit that we had to print 50,000 copies to sell 4,000. That was the publisher’s problem. Ramparts was his own expensive toy, but within the somewhat stormy confines of what I took to be the natural eccentricity of the very rich, I was being given reasonable access to play with It, too.

Ed Keating’s eccentricities were not of your ordinary common garden variety .One day a strange bill crossed my desk. It was an invoice for $47 from a shoemaker, across which Keating had scribbled, “Editorial expenditure.” Since I was nominally the executive editor, I asked him what it was about. He confided that he had sent a young civil rights worker on a secret undercover mission to Louisiana. His assignment was to dig up proof that Leander Perez, the notorious segregationist czar of Plaquemines Parish, had “colored blood” in his veins. The proof was among some papers that Ed had heard an old slave had hidden under a floorboard in one of Perez’s dungeons. Our spy was to infiltrate the dungeon, find the floorboard and get away with the goods. The $47 was for special alterations to his boots—the heels had been hollowed out and a metal file and a compass hidden inside. If he was captured by the evil Perez and locked in the dungeon, he could saw his way out with the file and use his compass to escape through the swamp.

I knew the legion of stories about the wacky ways of rich publishers, and I doubted that there was anything Ed Keating could do which would surprise me. 

I was wrong.

A glance across the table alerted me to the fact that my sense of well-being was not shared by the man who was providing for it. Ed Keating was crying.

I did what any sensible coward would do and pretended I hadn’t seen. I reached over and rang the little brass bell on the battle-scarred oak cocktail table that summoned the waiter to bring more drinks, which he eventually did, but that did not effect any change in Keating. He was still crying.

I had never seen a millionaire cry. Finally, curiosity got the better of prudence. I asked Ed if there was anything wrong.

Keating looked up from the spot across the lobby where his blank gaze had been fixed.

“I’m broke,” he said quietly.

“But Ed,” I said, “you can’t be broke. You’re the publisher.”

His abrupt statement was as immediately incomprehensible to me as the national debt. Ed Keating was rich. He was famous for being rich. He owned the magazine. I knew that he had poured a lot of money into the quarterly Ramparts, but he still had to be rich because he had just turned it into a monthly. He had hired me. I had hired a staff. We were publishing. We had all kinds of stories in the works. There were subscription ads in the newspapers. At that moment there were thousands of copies stacked in trucks on the way to the newsstands. We had another issue going to press in two weeks. This was crazy. It couldn’t be. He couldn't be broke.

“But Ed,” I tried again. “You're a millionaire.”

“I used to be,” he said. “But I spent it. It was my wife’s money.”

The business about the wife was equally unexpected and, for one of the few times in my compulsively chatty existence, the cliché was reality; I became speechless.

Keating asked what I thought he should do. My shock became part residual disbelief, part resentment that he might be telling the truth. I suggested that he should shut down the whole shooting match that very night, fire the staff by telegram, and see if he could get his deposit back from the phone company.

Keating glowered as if I were the one bringing him the bad news. He sat up, clanging the bell for more drinks, and began an impassioned speech, without any awareness of melodrama: “I just couldn’t bring myself to close the magazine. It’s too important to the Catholic Church. I must go on. There must be something that can be done to save it. There must be someone else who would be willing to put money in it besides me. Isn't there some way you can find someone to help me?”

I said that as improbable as such a likelihood was, even miracles took time, and it would be clearly impossible to do anything if we stopped publishing, which we most certainly would have to do if he couldn’t even pay for the drinks we had just ordered.

I repeated, in a kind of dumbfounded rote, “You mean you really don’t have any more money?”

Keating brightened a bit. “Well, I do have one shopping center left…”

I suppose I looked a little blank. Keating, explaining, became almost chipper: “It’s only a medium-sized shopping center, It’s in Santa Clara. It’s got a mortgage on it, and there’s a lawsuit I’d have to settle with one of the tenants, and I'd have to fix the air conditioning before I could sell it. But still in all it should net a little over a $100,000 after that.”

I said to the publisher that I did not want to be the person who told him to sell his last shopping center. But…

I found myself experiencing something of the peculiar merriment Jack London described as possessing men who are facing disaster. Back in a dark abscess of rationality I knew I should be mad as hell at the deadbeat millionaire sitting across from me who deliberately signed me up as first mate in the launching of a journalistic Hindenburg. 

But there was something so pathetic and principled in his willingness to throw his last shopping center into the pot that I instead told him to cheer up, I'd think of something, it wasn’t that bad, it could be worse, everything would somehow work out all right. The Optimist’s Rosary: the five Euphoric Mysteries of Comfort.

Perhaps Keating saw the gleam of the disaster-lover in my one good eye, or perhaps he was suddenly fatigued and drained by his disclosure, but I noticed that his spirits were falling almost inversely as mine were rising. “If you only knew what hell I’ve been through, carrying this secret by myself,” he said. “You can’t even imagine how exhausting it is.” 

Keating slumped in his chair. I waved at the waiter to bring the check, and told Ed he should try to get a good night’s sleep, even think about taking a few days off to get some rest. I was a little surprised to find myself suddenly a combination father goddam and co-conspirator. Keating kept looking at me as if I didn’t really understand, and I guess I didn’t. “I can never get away … from the stress … no matter where I go, the stress is always with me.”

I was about to suggest another drink for his stress when the waiter came with the check and a small incident occurred that was characteristic of the ambivalence, deference, envy, suspicion, and finally pathos of my extraordinary relationship with Ed Keating over the next several years.

I picked up the check, signed it, wrote a handsome tip on the back and handed it to the waiter, who nodded a gracious assent and left us in silence.

Keating stared across the table at me. “Thank you,” he said.

I thought he was being sarcastic; but no. He seemed genuinely grateful that I had signed the check.

“But it’s your money Ed,” I said. “What are you thanking me for? I just signed my room number. You're paying the hotel bill.”

“I know, I know,” Keating said. “But I just like the way you do it. You just pick the check up and … and sign it. I could never do anything like that.”

I shrugged and mumbled something incoherent about there really being nothing to it.

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