Icon (Close Menu)


Remembering Publishing Giant Bill Whitworth

5 min read

Arkansas and the planet lost a tremendous wordsmith on March 8, when William Alvin Whitworth died in Conway.

Whitworth was a beloved writer for the Arkansas Gazette, The New York Herald Tribune and The New Yorker magazine, and then one of the publishing industry’s great editors. He died as he had lived for 87 years: with little fanfare.

“Bill consciously was not a really public figure,” the writer James Fallows told Arkansas Business. “He thought that the highest compliment to an editor was to say the editor’s work could go unnoticed while bringing out the best in writers. He could have gone on TV or talk shows, but he wasn’t a talk show kind of person.”

Still, the publishing community mourned the loss of a jewel; his obituary in The New York Times ran nearly 1,400 words.

Born in Hot Springs and schooled at Little Rock Central High and the University of Oklahoma, Whitworth rose to fame in New York. Eventually an editor, he was expected to succeed the venerable William Shawn atop The New Yorker. But he sidestepped foreseen headaches to become editor in chief at The Atlantic in Boston in 1981.

He quickly revived the august monthly, which in the mid-20th century retained an air of fustiness from the previous century, when it published Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe. 

Under Whitworth, The Atlantic won nine National Magazine Awards, including the 1993 prize for general excellence. And when Whitworth retired in 1999 and returned home to Little Rock to edit books, The Atlantic named him editor-in-chief emeritus.

I met Whitworth and Fallows, one of his better-known proteges, on a September night in 2018 at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock. Fallows was promoting his bestseller, “Our Towns,” and Whitworth joined him after the book signing. Ernie Dumas, Whitworth’s colleague as a young man at the Gazette in the early 1960s, was also there.

Dumas wrote a marvelous and rollicking obituary for Whitworth in the Arkansas Times, describing how the Little Rock native followed Arkansan Charles Portis to New York before Portis became a national phenomenon with his novel “True Grit.”

After sharing space in the Herald Tribune with writers like Dick Schaap, Tom Wolfe and Homer Bigart, Whitworth wrote laugh-out-loud pieces in The New Yorker before talking Shawn into letting him become a full-time editor.

I talked on the phone last month to Fallows, who won a National Book Award for nonfiction for 1981’s “National Defense,” to discuss Whitworth and his legacy.

He recalled a patient, humbly intellectual journalist with a gift of asking simple, clear and persistent questions to get to the heart of a story. Whitworth, Fallows said, had a meticulous editing style that paid strict attention to every word choice and phrase. He loathed cliches and pompous language, and insisted on precision and accuracy in every article.

“The one notable book that [Whitworth] wrote was ‘Naive Questions About War and Peace,’ based on interviews with Eugene Rostow [the under secretary of state for President Lyndon B. Johnson and a Vietnam War defender],” Fallows said by phone from Washington, D.C. The book illustrated Whitworth’s approach to storytelling.

“It was, tell me what this means, and why is that so?” Fallows recalled. “And if that’s right, what happens next? Bill had a willingness to ask simple, clear, basic questions and send a reporter in that direction. He wanted to know what’s going on, why does it matter, how does this work? And what more do you need to know?”

Whitworth’s notes on galley proofs were often pointed, but they cut to the core of issues, Fallows said. That reflected what Dumas called Whitworth’s reputation as “publishing’s fussiest, most meticulous editor,” a journalist willing to put writers through multiple drafts and dissect almost every sentence.

But in person, Whitworth was gentle, never hectoring, Fallows said. 

“He preferred plain language. When he came to The Atlantic, he could tell that some writers felt they had to put on a three-piece suit, button up their vest and be in a stuffy, late-1800s mode when writing some Atlantic essay. But he said, no, just tell them what you have to say. So that’s what I saw as a writer, because I was never in the boiler room of The Atlantic’s Boston office.”

Whitworth’s passion, beyond literature and journalism, was music. He was an accomplished jazz trumpet player and a longtime friend of Dizzy Gillespie, the great bandleader and jazz composer, but Whitworth lacked faith in his ability to make a career out of music.

“He didn’t talk about his musician’s life much when he was editing pieces for the magazine,” Fallows said. “But I’m sure that was part of the rhythm and sensibility he applied. 

“He had a real sense of humor that he shared with his Arkansas teammates and some of his favorite writers at The New Yorker, too.”

Fallows wrote in a Substack post that his first impression of Whitworth as a soft-spoken, buttoned-up editor quickly proved false. At their first meeting at The Atlantic, Whitworth asked Fallows about the magazine, how it worked, how much he was paid and what he knew about the incoming Ronald Reagan administration.

“Thus also began many decades of my valuing his judgment about writing above anyone else’s, and relying on him as a dear counselor and friend.”

But buttoned-up?

“Hah! I didn’t realize that he was also a jazz trumpeter, nor that he had been a New York newspaper writer alongside Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin, nor that in other ways he lived a surprisingly colorful life. (One of his post-Atlantic projects was editing Anjelica Huston’s autobiography, and Conrad Black’s. Weirdly he also became a day-trader-style stock-picking buff, and a health-supplement expert.) Somehow I’d missed that his own writing for the New Yorker included some of the magazine’s greatest comic pieces — ones that were actually funny, as opposed to ‘clever.’”

Fallows praised the Dumas obit’s “detail about the colorful early Bill,” and recalled Whitworth’s “polite but relentless insistence on how things should be said in the clearest, least stuffy way.” Sometimes at the end of a galley, Whitworth would write “good piece,” and Fallows said it was the greatest compliment.

I asked Fallows how Whitworth will be remembered.

“I think he will be remembered within the business with reverence and amazement, in the company of other great editors who made articles and books better than they otherwise would have been,” Fallows said. Whitworth’s name may not be known to the reading public, but “he will be remembered by the people who know and care as one of the best who was ever involved in this kind of work, this kind of art.”

Send this to a friend