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In September 1978, a living room full of New York writers hatched a scheme. For around a month, they put their lives on hold and devoted their imaginative powers to a secret.
During a strike by pressmen that shut down New York’s major newspapers, this group wrote, designed and distributed a satirical replica of The New York Times. Newsstand shoppers were fooled into thinking it was the real thing before looking closely at its title: Not The New York Times.
In one parody column, the writer, walking past a pile of skulls to interview Genghis Khan, praised his ability to “get things done.” It took a “six-month investigation by a team of 35 Not The Times reporters” to determine that cocaine “appears popular.”
This paper caper featured writing by the likes of George Plimpton, Terry Southern, Nora Ephron and her then-husband, Carl Bernstein. Long before The Onion or “The Daily Show,” it set the standard for news parody.
Yet in spite of the project’s illustrious contributors and adoring readers, its inner workings have not been put on the record until now. Nor have former New York Times journalists publicly acknowledged their involvement.
The following oral history gathers reminiscences from the contributors who are still around 42 years later. These are edited excerpts from a series of interviews.
This ‘genius gang’
Conversations among friends about the newspaper strike and the discovery by an acquaintance that The Toledo Blade used similar fonts to The Times put the project in motion.
Rusty Unger, 74, former film executive columnist for The Village Voice I was talking to my friend Chris Cerf, saying it would be so great to do a parody of The New York Times while it was on strike. He said, “My friend Tony Hendra [an editor at National Lampoon magazine] and I were just talking about the same thing.”
Christopher Cerf, 78, former songwriter for “Sesame Street” I remember I’d been thinking of Victor Navasky’s parodies of The New York Post and The Daily News ever since they came out. He took advantage of an opportunity that the world handed him of a newspaper strike [in the early ’60s]. I always thought that was brilliant, and I just filed that fact away. I remember Victor saying that they couldn’t do The Times because they couldn’t match the typeface.
As we talked about this, we got quite excited. We thought, “I wonder if we could get some of our friends, writers that we know, involved.”
Unger Between the three of us, we probably knew every writer in New York — and, you know, all the funny people.
Frances FitzGerald, 79, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Rusty would call people up and say, “We don’t know what we’re doing exactly, but come help us.”
Cerf The real fun was when we began to find that all the people from The Times wanted to do it.
Steven Crist, 63, former Times horse racing writer I graduated in June of ’78 and went to work at The Times as a copy boy, which was the lowest rung, entry-level job. After the paper went on strike, I started going to the racetrack and tried to make a living betting on the horses. And then along came Not The New York Times.
Richard Yeend, 75, former Times designer I had no food at the time. I figured this might be an opportunity to have a free meal. I learned that was exactly what this was.
Glenn Collins, 75, an editor and later a longtime reporter at The Times How could you not want to jump in with this genius gang of pranksters?
Cerf It only took a few meetings. The minute we had Nora [Ephron] and George [Plimpton] and [Carl] Bernstein, who wouldn’t want to do that?
Unger We were turning people away — I remember Scott Spencer, who I’d never heard of. I was very cavalier: “We don’t need you.” Later, he wrote that incredible novel, “Endless Love.”
Crist A lot of those big literary names dropped off one piece. It wasn’t like Jerzy Kosinski [the novelist whose books include “Being There”] was sitting there for a month. But everyone who was asked and heard about it was: “Oh, let me write something. I want to be a part of it.”
Carl Bernstein, 76, renowned reporter and author It became a more disciplined operation — if you can imagine such a thing — when it moved into the offices and auspices of Plimpton.
Cerf We were all set up in George’s living room. We had dozens of people there every day. We had lots of tables and set it up like a newsroom.
Collins The work environment in the Plimpton townhouse was spontaneous. We didn’t check in. You just showed up. You find a typewriter. There are these old clunkers on exquisite desks. So we’re all in our little universes, writing our own stories. .
FitzGerald People were kind of figuring out what to do, and how it should look, and dividing up the pieces, and sort of sitting on the floor. It was like a middle-grade school project.
Bernstein It caught fire through the spontaneity of the collaboration.
Crist I was sort of the baby of the staff. I was 21. I remember being holed up in Plimpton’s townhouse for the better part of a month. You’re three months out of college, and you’re surrounded by these luminaries and idols. Simultaneously, it seemed there was always a cocktail party going on. You would have people in fancy clothes, hors d’oeuvres and Champagne. Meanwhile, you’re sitting at a typewriter in the billiards room knocking out parodies of obituaries and classified ads. For a 21-year-old just out of college, it was pretty heady stuff.
Cerf I’d get up in the morning and go there and stay there till it was time to go to bed, day after day after day. I got very little sleep.
Stings and silliness
Some articles poked fun at giants of The Times, like the editor and columnist James Reston, or elements of the paper itself, like The Living Section, which the group changed to The Having Section. Other pieces targeted the snobbery of New York’s social world, lampooned journalistic clichés and concocted playful absurdities, such as the pope giving battle orders to the Swiss Guard.
Unger The first person I called was the New Yorker writer Veronica Geng. She said, “Oh, I think I have something in my drawer.” She came over and handed me the piece on the front page, “Carter Forestalls Efforts to Defuse Discord Policy.”
FitzGerald I wrote the James Reston column. It wasn’t entirely about him, but it was about [the foreign correspondent and columnist] Cy Sulzberger and people like that who have this rather elevated view of the world, and were always meeting with princes and presidents, and giving the authoritative word on what’s going on.
Unger One person who wrote some of the funniest things of all was Jeff Greenfield. He’s a serious pundit now, but he was hilarious.
Jeff Greenfield, 76, Emmy Award-winning journalist and author One of the pieces I wrote was that Studio 54 burned down. When the firefighters show up, the owners say: “No, no. Bridge-and-tunnel people, you can’t come in here.”
Collins Chris [Cerf] had a list of articles they wanted to do. I saw one I thought was funny about the Vatican. I was thrilled that they ran it on Page 1.
Two years later, they gave me the incredible gift of being a reporter at The Times. From then on, for 30 years, I was always trying to get on Page 1. And in Not The New York Times, I had already been on Page 1 — only it was Not Page 1.
Unger Nora [Ephron] wrote in The Having Section — which is my title — she wrote the one in that called “Private Lies.” It was a take on that columnist John Leonard [who wrote about family and work life in “Private Lives”]. He used everything he could possibly use to make a column.
I wrote the food column, the Craig Claiborne. His recipes at the Times were so overly erudite. I just kind of copied his style.
Cerf The headline on the cocaine piece [“An Exotic Drug ‘Cocaine’ Appears Popular”] may have been the single best thing. That’s just so Timesy.
Greenfield Part of it was, “We’re onto you guys at The Times.” But it was not hostile. There’s a fair degree of affection. It was like, “These are some of the quirks of this newspaper.”
The Times touch
The collective effort produced a robust paper — three full sections. Times journalists gave it verisimilitude in tone and design.
Crist There was an air of secrecy about my involvement. I’m sure I told my parents, but not many other people. There was a great fear that The Times was going to hate this, and they would go off on some Trumpian purge of employees who’d had anything to do with it.
Yeend It sounds silly, but it was very secretive. I worked at The Times for another nine years, and I don’t think I told anybody.
Collins It was not secretive. I never thought about that. The Times was not some sort of a Gestapo. I just wanted to play with the other witty kids.
Yeend I don’t think we would have been fired. You’d end up in a corner, without an office, licking stamps.
Unger The art direction, the whole layout and design, came from a New York Times guy.
Yeend That was my job, to make it look like The Times. I think the most difficult thing was the lowercase ‘t’ on the masthead. All the other characters were “The New York Times,” but the lowercase “t” [in Not] had to be made up. I think we just photocopied it, blew it up, touched it up and shrank it back down again.
Cerf Al Siegal helped me a little. He was the assistant managing editor. I would call him. It was like, “I can’t believe you’re doing this, so you’re not doing it.” The whole joke was always that this wasn’t happening.
Yeend It was written by satirists, but it was edited by Phil Drysdale, who was an assistant editor of the Op-Ed page. He was critical to it reading like The New York Times, and nobody knew he worked there.
Bernstein I hadn’t dreamed it would look as brilliant as it did.
‘It was a phenomenon’
Ringleaders of the project got copies on Oct. 14. It was distributed to newsstands in New York and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, according to contributors and media coverage from the time.
Greenfield So one day New Yorkers — for whom The New York Times, as you know, is the drug of choice, for a lot of them — they’re seeing what looks like The New York Times on their newsstand. It’s like, “Thank you, God.”
People snatched it up, I think, in part for the sheer pleasure of holding something that felt like The New York Times. They’d been out. It was a fix.
FitzGerald It was a phenomenon. The reading public, the Times reading public, really enjoyed it.
Unger We were stars, and everyone wanted us to go on television, and all the rest of the media were calling, but we were so nervous about admitting who was involved, especially the people who worked for The Times.
Greenfield The fact that Not The New York Times became this event, starting from zero — no publisher, no money and no focus group. No nothing. People said, “Let’s just do this.”
It was like all the old MGM musicals, where Mickey Rooney says, “Hey, my dad’s got a barn, let’s put on a show.”
Unger It was the high point of my life. I used to be embarrassed to say that, but there was never anything as fun as doing Not The New York Times, and pulling it off.
Bernstein I can’t imagine everybody’s reaction not being the same as mine about what a joyous moment this was.
Cerf This group did not take themselves seriously. We didn’t say: “We’re doing an important parody. We want to make fun of the news and it will change the world.” We said, “This is a hoot, and we hope everybody thinks it’s funny.”
Unger Nobody was being paid and nobody was going to get credit, and there was never a better atmosphere of creativity and freedom and camaraderie. Where are you going to find those parameters again?
Cerf Other things I’ve done have been really fun, but this one was perfect. I don’t get to work with people of that talent as a group very often. To have all of them! There were dozens of them, scores of people, that aren’t all famous, but all of them were brilliant and having the time of their lives.
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