An ending or a new beginning? The diary of Harold Evans, 691/2

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The Independent Online
The news that Harold Evans was leaving the biggest book publishing job in New York, prompted a flood of gossip, vindictiveness and media obituaries. But Evans told a different story: he was off to the `Daily News'. But, asks Peter Pringle, what is the real news?

What a relief to wake up after the Thanksgiving turkey and find, at long last, that the exhausting speculation about Harry Evans's future had come to an end. He was no longer to be the bad boy of New York book publishing.

Under pressure from the money men, Evans finally left his job as president and publisher of Random House and found refuge, again, in the media cluster of the New York real estate tycoon Mort Zuckerman. It was from there, in 1984, that Evans began his American odyssey as editor-in-chief of the small Atlantic Monthly Press and editorial director of the weekly middle- America magazine, US News & World Report.

For seven years, Evans has dominated publishing news and gossip with his literary breakfasts at Barney's department store, and his multi-million- dollar book deals with famous people that have not always lived up to the exorbitant advances. At publishers' lunches, Harry's future in the business was a constant topic. An outsider, he became the convenient symbol of everything that ails the stagnant publishing industry. Such was the level of resentment that old timers were asking, why wouldn't he do the decent thing and return to England?

The bulletin from Random House said that he was to become, among other things, a "czar' at New York's Daily News, where once again he would be wielding his well-known magic as a newspaperman, turning the troubled tabloid into a great newspaper. Any hint that Evans might have been pushed, or nudged, or even pointed in the direction of the door at Random House, was swiftly quashed by his own medley of self-serving explanations.

It was not true, he claimed, that there had been any tension between himself and Ann Godoff, the younger executive who had slowly taken over his territory, and who will now replace him. He could have stayed on; he had a new three-year contract which he chose not to take up.

The feeling in the drawing-rooms of Sag Harbor and the Hamptons, where New York book editors spend their weekends, was one of immense relief. Harry's cheque-book publishing and publicity gimmicks had been altogether too much for them. His departure, they hoped, might signal a new era for the industry; one of less glitter, less Hollywood and more real America, leading even to one of growth beyond the dismal 1 per cent or less now being recorded.

As the industry went into a slump, so did Evans's fortunes at Random House, although he never showed it. He had some spectacular successes - the presidential tease of Colin Powell, My American Journey ($6.5m advance); and Primary Colors by Joe Klein, under the pseudonym Anonymous; and some spectacular disasters, such as Behind the Oval Office by Dick Morris, the disgraced presidential adviser (advance $2.5m); and Marlon Brando's autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me (advance $5m). As the Newhouse company is privately owned, no one could tell for sure what the balance sheet looked like after these literary detonations. Harry talked it up, and others, who thought they knew better, talked it down. At the same time, Tina Brown's New Yorker continued to lose millions. The couple seemed to be cornered in the Newhouse stable.

Wild rumours spread of their returning to London, with Harry, or Tina, or both, performing some official job to do with arts in the new Blair government. Tina was even tipped as the next British ambassador to Washington. In a flurry of Blair-chic, with champagne at Pravda's, a trendy bar in Soho, Harry raised pounds 10,000 for the then candidate Blair from British expatriates in New York. The idea of Tina filling the Washington post seemed briefly credible, to some gullible Yankees.

In the end, however, it all came to nought. Harry's oft-mentioned lack of fiscal discipline, relentless self-promotion, Hollywood publicity advisers and coterie of Manhattan celebrities was either not enough, or too much, for the star-struck billionaire owner of Random House, SI Newhouse. Evans's successors have already made it clear that never again will rows of limousines be lined up outside Random House waiting to transport the glitterati to Fred's, Aria, the Royalton or the Hamptons for the publishing industry's traditional three-day summer weekends. No lunches or brunches, no schmoozing or musing.

Enter the clean-up crew; the Thrift Brigade. At Random House, it was they who persuaded Mr Newhouse (who also owns the New Yorker) to squeeze Evans out of the operating seat, Bottom-line bores now lurk in the shadows of every publishing company in an industry which last year did so badly that it destroyed more than 40 per cent of the books it produced.

Evans rode the storm, darting around Manhattan in a stretch limousine driven by Boris, his 6ft 6in Russian chauffeur ("He won't hurt you, Peter," Evans once kindly explained, "he's a White Russian"). More recently, I bumped into Harry in a roomful of important people at a summer party in the Hamptons. "Of course I don't want to the chairman of the Arts Council, I love America," he said. Just as he loves journalism, now more than ever.

What on earth he will do to "enrich", as he puts it, the 77-year-old Daily News is a mystery to most people. It's not exactly his type of paper, with its highest circulation in the boroughs outside Manhattan. And Evans arrives at a time when it is waging a fierce circulation war with Murdoch's New York Post. As his appointment was announced last week, grim faces huddled in the News editorial offices, where Evans's arrival was only the latest in a string of recent upheavals.

In September, Pete Hamill, a popular New York newspaperman, resigned as editor after a bitter feud with Zuckerman over the number of gossip columns the paper should run. Zuckerman wanted more gossip, apparently to compete with the New York Post, which consists of one scandalous titbit after another. Only last month, Debby Krenek became the first woman editor- in-chief at the Daily News. Now she and Zuckerman's co-publisher Fred Drasner will answer to Evans. Why is this 69-year-old person coming to take over, they were asking.

But then again, why not? You might have thought they'd be pulling out the welcome mat for an editor such as Evans, with such a proven genius for redistributing other people's wealth in the name of journalism. Evans has long known how to spend rich men's money on worthy campaigns for social change, attacks on institutional fraud, reining in rogue industries and financial rascals, and exposing political scandals. Among his backers have been Lord Thomson (at The Sunday Times), then Rupert Murdoch (who fired him after he had edited The Times for a year), then Zuckerman. Now, it's Zuckerman's turn again.

Will Zuckerman let Harry do what he wants? Zuckerman is known to be a prickly employer, quite difficult to work with whoever you are, and much more right-wing than Harry. Clashes are inevitable, one would have thought.

Evans's denial that settling an old score with Murdoch is on his agenda assures that it will be, of course. It's only a matter of time before the Rupe 'n' Harry fight gets a star billing, and Harry is once again the news.