A story begins with an idea. If it’s a good idea, the editor gets it from the headline and a sentence. A question: “A Thousand Dollars for Your Dog?” That’s simple and funny. Good idea. “Approved.” Go around with $1,000 in your pocket and try to buy shit from people — wallet, cell phone, wedding ring. You have to give it to me now, though. You might even try to buy somebody’s dog. What starts out as a stunt becomes a very profound exploration of what it is that people value.
The best story ideas are those that are imagined, though; they come from the writer’s and editor’s intuitions about how a situation may unfold, rather than events that have already occurred. A writer reads in the news that an abortion doctor in Florida has been murdered, and he wonders what it would be like to be the person who replaces him. So he makes phone calls, writes letters and knocks on doors until he finds the new doctor. The story wins the National Magazine Award for the best feature writing.
A good editor must have lofty goals. He knows that serious stories risk changing something about the writer. If the story risks changing something about the writer, it could possibly change something about the reader. It’s not enough, after all, for a story to be only theoretically interesting.
The best stories, the editor knows, are those with a lot at stake. The writer follows the news as several women’s bodies turn up on a beach in Long Island. Several years later, a woman goes missing from Marietta, the writer’s home town. He wonders, “Why are all these women going missing?” He begins his reporting. He knows that at some point he will have to go into rough neighborhoods to report, so he isn’t in any great rush. The writer asks the editor, “When will it be published?” The editor says,
“When you find the girl.”
How most of us know David Granger is rendered in black and white, wearing a gray pinstriped Dunhill suit jacket with peak lapels, crisp white shirt, black tie with diagonal matte black stripes, white pocket square just barely showing, black jeans and rimless rectangular glasses, his bald head cleanly shaven and tilted a few degrees forward, eyes looking directly into the camera with an expression that if you were not careful you might describe as expressionless. But it’s better described as equanimity. The way you know that is from the other significant characteristic of the photo: Granger grips the right lapel of the suit jacket with one hand while the other arm is fully outstretched to his left. He is either taking the jacket off or putting it on; if you try to recreate it — Jerry Seinfeld once did, when they bumped into each other on the Upper West Side — it’s impossible to tell which.
One may take the liberty, sitting down to enjoy the latest edition of Esquire, to imagine that Granger’s next move after the photo is either to remove the jacket and get down to business as the editor in chief of this classic men’s magazine, or to put the jacket on and go out to a bar for his usual drink, a blanco tequila with a wedge of lime, or to get in his dark gray Mercedes-Benz CLS550 and drive one hour north up the west side of Manhattan and, depending on traffic on the Saw Mill River Parkway — past towns with funny names like Dobbs Ferry and Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow — to his wife and home (his two daughters long since moved out), in Croton-on-Hudson, a ride over the course of which he will sometimes pull off the road into the Met Cloisters, park the car and find a quiet path in Fort Tryon Park where he can take a leak.
““David really wants magazine stories to matter,” Junod says. “I don’t even mean to the reader — to matter.””
In either scenario, at work or leisure, he appears composed, assured, engaged. Unlike a typical magazine cover, which is emotive and kinetic, this photo that accompanies the “Note from the Editor” each month is characterized by a large amount of hidden, potential energy. It is graceful in its spareness, its physical tightness.
Granger, 59, is dressed nearly identically to the picture today, a Thursday in mid-March, sitting at the bar at Da Tommaso, a three-and-a-half-Yelp-star Italian restaurant on 8th Avenue and 54th Street, walking distance from his office at Hearst Tower. The cuffs of his white shirt are unbuttoned and hang slack from his suit sleeves. His hands cradle a tumbler of Don Julio blanco tequila on ice with a wedge of lime. His face is a slightly toughened by time; he has a red patch on the right cheek and he’s a few pounds heavier than in the photo. Otherwise, he looks healthy and fit — a regular tennis player and a golfer with both a personal trainer and a physical therapist.
“Tommaso, who is Paul’s cousin, is just a great fucking cook,” Granger says, referring to the gray-haired owner behind the bar. “Anything that’s Italian-American — he’s just the fucking master. The menu is huge. Bruno, who isn’t here, will come out and sing the specials. It takes a full five minutes to get through the specials, which are usually the same fucking specials, and he always ends up with the same joke: ‘And of course, a confusing menu.’” He gets a laugh out of that.
This kind of place suits Granger. It opened 1988, tucked in a strip mall between Ms. Buffy’s Cleaners and a Gristedes grocery, all three with identical red awnings with white lettering. The windows are partially covered by heavy beige curtains and inside the lighting is dim. It would be a caricature of an Italian restaurant if not for the fact that it seems just authentically, unironically, what it is: deeply reddish-brown tufted leather banquettes around the walls, with floral glass sconces above them, topped by paintings of things like Roman ruins and Adriatic coastlines. White tablecloths and a bar separated by three heavy wooden wine racks. Beef carpaccio, fettuccine with tomato and basil, penne alla vodka, chicken picatta, that type of thing. The place has character and an enduring quality that appeals to Granger — son of Ben, a social worker and professor, and Georgia, who started an organization that arranges for the therapeutic use of animals, both concerned about the underserved or badly treated in society — who does not believe that you accomplish great things through irony.
Granger does not outwardly offer a wide range of emotions. He doesn’t readily opine about other people and their business. One of his contributions to Esquire‘s “Rules,” numbered bits of wisdom that appear throughout the magazine, is “Number 659: The dumber the man, the louder he talks.” Granger has no Facebook profile, no Twitter, no Instagram; aside from the editor’s letter once a month, he hasn’t grabbed the megaphone that could rightly have been his and shouted about much of anything. But 19 years is an awful long time to be in any job, especially a job where you’re asked to speak fluently the language of popular culture and predict the zeitgeist months in advance. It’s a job he’s kept longer than any previous editor of Esquire by a margin of seven years, including both Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor, and Harold Hayes, who oversaw Esquire at the height of its 1960s New Journalism glory. You don’t do that unless you wield influence in force.
Granger’s influence originates in his loyalty to ideas. Yes, he’s an ideas man. Not the ideas man in the pejorative sense of the term — the dreamer who balks when it’s time to execute, or the $500-per-hour hack recycling ideas at a PR brainstorm — but a guy who believes that ideas and stories truly matter. You might not know it from the covers of Esquire, which are almost exclusively photos of celebrities, but open up any issue and there are stories of substance: interviews with a sitting president (October 2013) and a past president (October 2009); a story about a cancer patient and the personalized medicine used in an attempt to save her (December 2013); an inside look at Karl Rove during the Bush presidency (January 2003); a heartfelt story about how to give a eulogy, which has since become a textbook for funeral directors (September 2006); fiction by David Foster Wallace (November 2000). These ideas aren’t a given. It takes work and practice to arrive at them, develop them with a writer and bring them to the pages of the magazine with the hope that they will entertain, educate, enlighten. Granger has spent a career mining bigger, better ideas.
“I had one of the most embarrassing job interviews of my life,” he says, reflecting on the time when he moved to Chicago with a recent graduate degree in English and tried to get a job with the Chicago News Service, a local broadcast news-gathering agency. “This guy says, ‘I’ll give you a few sets of facts and you tell me what the story is.’ He would tell me about a murder or some other event — he’d lay out the facts. Every time I told him what the story was, he said, ‘Nah.’”
“I wasn’t born with it,” he says.
Granger developed an eye for good ideas in the world of sports journalism, where he also met many of the writers and editors who he’d recruit in later years. He moved with his wife Melanie to New York in 1982, and over the next 10 years he had seven jobs (Muppet Magazine, Family Weekly, Sport, Sports Inc., The National Sports Daily, Adweek and Mediaweek) and two freelance stints. At Sports Inc. he met Craig Reiss, an editor who became one of his mentors, and began to understand better what a story was. “We had to produce so much crap — ‘What’s the story? What’s the story?’ — and through him I had to learn how to rewrite entire pieces of shit that would come in,” he says. “They’d have to be rewritten in fifteen minutes from top to bottom. You tend to learn, what’s the story, what’s the nut, in this pile of shit reporting.”
After Sports Inc., Granger moved on to The National Sports Daily, known to sports fans as arguably the most beautiful experiment in the history of American sports journalism: a daily newspaper financed by Mexican billionaire Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, which started in 1990 and closed in 1991 after burning through $150 million dollars. Granger ran the features department there, producing five magazine-length pieces each week. He then went to work for Reiss again, who was running Adweek and Mediaweek, but trade magazines didn’t suit his penchant for deep storytelling; plus, he was tasked with producing a weekly magazine on a razor-thin staff.
“It was just giving me a heart attack,” he says. “The second day I was there, feeling like my heart was going to burst out of my chest because I knew I couldn’t do this fucking job, I got a call from Art Cooper who was the editor at GQ, and he said ‘Everybody tells me I have to hire you — John Walsh, Eliot Kaplan, Frank Deford’ — and within a month I told Craig I was bailing on him and going to GQ, the promised land, glossy magazine pages. It was amazing.”Interviews with a sitting president and a past president; a story about a cancer patient and the personalized medicine used in an attempt to save her; an inside look at Karl Rove during the Bush presidency; a heartfelt story about how to give a eulogy, which has since become a textbook for funeral directors; fiction by David Foster Wallace. These ideas aren’t a given. It takes work and practice to arrive at them, develop them with a writer and bring them to the pages of the magazine with the hope that they will entertain, educate, enlighten. Granger has spent a career mining bigger, better ideas.
Interviews with a sitting president and a past president; a story about a cancer patient and the personalized medicine used in an attempt to save her; an inside look at Karl Rove during the Bush presidency; a heartfelt story about how to give a eulogy, which has since become a textbook for funeral directors; fiction by David Foster Wallace. These ideas aren’t a given. It takes work and practice to arrive at them, develop them with a writer and bring them to the pages of the magazine with the hope that they will entertain, educate, enlighten. Granger has spent a career mining bigger, better ideas.
While Granger was working as the executive editor of GQ in the early ’90s, Esquire was thought by some to be no longer viable. An article in The New York Times titled “Has Esquire Gone Out of Style?” suggested that the editor at the time, Edward Kosner, was on his way out the door, and questioned the viability of a men’s-interest publication that didn’t have a niche. That was exactly the point of the magazine: “Esquire aims to become the common denominator of masculine interests — to be all things to all men,” Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor, wrote in the first issue of the magazine in 1933. But Esquire‘s circulation — which, along with the number of advertising pages, was and remains an important barometer for judging its viability in terms of audience interest and finance — was at 698,937, down from 752,567 the year before. (At one point in the 1960s, it had hovered around 1,000,000. Today it’s roughly 736,000.) Gay Talese, author of arguably the most famous Esquire story of all time, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” who had started writing for the magazine again under Kosner, admitted in the New York Times story that a man’s world had become “very vague indeed.”
Granger, meanwhile, was succeeding at GQ under Cooper. Cooper, like Granger, believed in returning narrative journalism to top form, but Granger was the one with the editor’s toolkit and the passion to dig in deep with writers to make it happen. At GQ Granger first met and edited Tom Junod, the only writer he has edited directly throughout his entire tenure at Esquire. Granger worked with Junod on serious profiles of an abortion doctor (“The Abortionist“) and a serial sex offender (“The Rapist Says He’s Sorry“), stories that won National Magazine Awards for feature writing in 1995 and 1996.
“David really wants magazine stories to matter,” Junod says. “I don’t even mean to the reader — to matter.” (Later, at Esquire, Junod and Executive Editor Mark Warren became deeply involved with a woman named Stephanie Lee who was the subject of a story about personalized medicine. Ultimately, they became her medical decision-making proxies. “One of the reasons David gave so much support to Mark and me with Stephanie Lee is I think that David felt that not only was it the right thing to do, but it escaped the tight boundaries of magazine journalism,” he says. “We were trying to save this woman’s life who we had come to be friends with and love. I don’t know of a single other editor in the magazine world who would have published that story or given us such leeway.”)
When Cathie Black, then the president of Hearst Magazines, was finally looking to replace Kosner with a new editor in chief capable of overseeing “blockbuster journalism,” Granger was at the top of that list; in fact, he’d previously walked a letter declaring his interest right over to the Hearst building and asked that a security guard deliver it to Black.
“David wrote this spectacularly beautiful letter about what Esquire meant to him as a magazine,” Black says. “What it stood for, its memorable writing, the stories that had become movies. He went on and on in a very compelling way. When it came time to look for a new editor, he was first on my list to talk to in a very serious way. He was David. He was Esquire.” After Black hired him in 1997, she remembers him arriving to work at 5:00 a.m. and taking manuscripts to a nearby diner. “He’d get so taken with the quality of the writing, he’d have tears in his eyes. The people at the diner must have thought, ‘Who is this weirdo?’”
Granger took with him a significant portion of GQ‘s staff, the writers and editors that would be with him for most if not all of his tenure at Esquire: Charles Pierce, Scott Raab, Junod, Mike Sager, Lisa Hintelmann, John H. Richardson, Cal Fussman, Scott Omelianuk. Others were either already at Esquire or came soon thereafter: Peter Griffin, Mark Warren, John Kenney, Tom Chiarella, Chris Jones. With the exception of Omelianuk, these writers and editors worked with Granger right up until his final issue.
“There was a shared belief, which existed at GQ, too, that magazines really matter,” Raab says. “A lot of people at that time were talking about ‘We need to restore narrative journalism’ — no one said ‘long form’ then — but Granger really wanted to do it. People were worried that they weren’t doing worthy, in-depth stories that would make an impact. When I first met with Granger, which I think was ’92, my impression was that there was a yearning for substance. And he was willing to take chances on people who weren’t well-established magazine writers.”
“And maybe it was a little Ocean’s 11,” Raab says.
For Granger, the best way to create a successful magazine was to give his staff room to take chances on stories they might not otherwise pursue as one-off projects for other publications. He also liked to work with people he trusted, or thought that he would come to trust. “It sort of almost seems contradictory that a guy who essentially kept the same staff together for twenty years was an enemy of the status quo, but on a story-by-story and an issue-by-issue basis, he was,” Junod says. At this year’s Ellie Awards Annual Dinner, held at the Grand Hyatt New York in the first week of February, Granger’s accomplishments were spontaneously recognized by the most respected members of the publishing community. He received a standing ovation from the entire room when he walked to the stage to receive a National Magazine Award on behalf of Esquire in the “Essays and Criticism” category (for “The Friend” by Matthew Teague), the 17th such award Esquire has won under his leadership.
On stage, he said, “I’m so happy about this, I’m just going to quit.” The joke, as everyone in the room well knew, was that Granger had been fired from his job just days before.
At Da Tommaso’s, Granger leaves the remainder of his tequila on the counter of the bar. He picks up his phone and thanks the bartender, who reminds him that she’ll see him tomorrow, when he has dinner reservations with his wife and two of his best friends, Ron and Cornelia Suskind. He walks a few blocks up 8th Avenue to a parking garage, gets in his Mercedes-Benz CLS550, takes a few pieces of Eclipse mint gum out of the center console, and makes the hour drive through an unseasonable thunderstorm, past towns with silly names like Pleasantville and Briarcliff Manor, to his home in Croton-on-Hudson, a drive he’ll make routinely for just one more week.
The first time the editor reads the story, the only thing he sees are the problems with it. Well, he remembers the one time a perfect story came through the fax machine, about an abortion doctor. He read it and just cried right there at the fax machine. Usually, the story needs work. It does not spool ineffably into that place it needs to go, which is hard to define but you know it when you see it. He makes notes in the margin. He says that this section of the story seems to be going somewhere but it has no point right now. It needs a different narrative approach, more of the writer or less of the writer or something else.
The writer asks the editor, “What are you doing this weekend?” The editor says, “I’ll probably play golf, spend some time with my family, work in the yard and drink a few beers. What are you going to do?” the editor asks.
The writer says, “I’m going to rewrite this fucking story!”
It’s windy and raining like hell at the very western edge of Chelsea, an avenue away from the Hudson River. A bar called Porchlight is crowded with Granger’s friends and colleagues tonight for his going-away party. The lighting is a glassy amber glow familiar to cocktail bars in New York; it’s loud enough that you can only converse with the person directly in front of you, but not uncomfortably so. Granger wears a gray pinstripe blazer with a white shirt, gray knit tie and black jeans. He’s drinking a “Granger Manhattan,” made with añejo tequila instead of whiskey. Raab, now 63, once a shoe salesman in Cleveland, sits at a table in the corner of the bar wearing a Hawaiian shirt, which exposes the tattoos on his forearms. He’s the author of the long-lived “Answer Fella” column and specializes in celebrity interviews, LeBron James and various “fill the well” reportage pieces ranging from a series about the building of One World Trade Center to a profile of a suspected Nazi living in Ohio. Raab owes Granger one for securing him a job with benefits and a pension. He once smoked a joint with Tupac while trying to track down Mickey Rourke. He is, currently, a little bit high. (“Wait, don’t tell anyone I said that. Actually, nevermind — I don’t care.”)
Junod, 58, a former salesman of women’s handbags, is tall. He looms over the bar in a gray suit and a red pocket square that belonged to his father. Junod handed in his final story for Esquire before the party, 4,000 words above the assigned word count. (“I walked into the party and Granger says, ‘10,000 words?’ Classic.”) He’s currently drinking a Granger Manhattan, worried about what Granger will think of his story.
“So after the piece comes out, and another piece, the Bush White House is ripshit,” Suskind says. “They go after me. But what do they run into? They run into Dave.”
Chiarella, 55, he’s at the bar, too. He’s been a writer-at-large for Esquire for two decades. He looks goofier in pictures than in person, where he’s dressed handsomely in a black turtleneck and a blazer. Chiarella specializes oddball celebrity profiles — for his profile of Halle Berry, Berry wrote the profile and he wrote the footnotes — and life advice, including that piece on how to write a eulogy that’s become required reading for funeral directors and for which he has received at least a full drawer’s worth of thank-you notes. He’s a little somber tonight. (“It’s a great party, man, but people are dying here. I’m heartbroken.”) Chiarella used to sell women’s clothing.
And Chris Jones, 42, a two-time National Magazine Award winner for feature writing, first in 2005 for a story about the astronauts stranded in space when Columbia exploded (“Home“), then in 2009 for a story about the return of a soldier’s body from Iraq (“The Things That Carried Him“). He used to be a baseball and boxing reporter; before that he sold scuba gear and underground sprinkler systems. (“One of the reasons we were so loyal is that we feel we were rescued from obscurity, from a less prolific career.”) Jones suggests that maybe Tom Chiarella slept with Halle Berry.
Of course there are others — the whole Esquire editing, writing and art masthead — and not just the inner circle. Jim Nelson, Editor in Chief of GQ, gives Granger a mafia-like embrace. Alan Richman, the GQ correspondent and 14-time James Beard Award winner, knocks an empty highball glass over at the bar. “I’m not drunk,” he says. “It’s my eyes. I’m getting old.” Cal Fussman, master of the “What I’ve Learned” interview, in his signature fedora. Andy Ward, Editor in Chief of the Random House book imprint, just being a plain-old nice guy in the company of Mark Warren, Esquire Executive Editor, John Kenney, Managing Editor, and Peter Griffin, Deputy Editor. Robbie Myers, Editor in Chief of Elle. The authors Lee Child and Colum McCann. Granger’s wife and two daughters. An editorial assistant, who lights a joint before a member of the Porchlight staff strongly suggests that it be unlit.
Around 8:00 p.m. the toasts begin. Ron Suskind, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his work at The Wall Street Journal, wrote five stories for Granger at Esquire. “Dave is, I think, the greatest writer’s editor of this era. That’s clear,” Suskind says.
“After 9/11, Dave calls me and and says, ‘We need to talk. Something is going on. Reporters are being accused of treason for asking the questions reporters ask, by George W. Bush. That’s different, wouldn’t you say?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Definitely. Different. Problem.’ Dave said, ‘I want you to write about what’s happened in this era.’ So off I go to write about George W. Bush, and let’s be clear: George W. Bush has never read a policy paper. You know that from Dave. You know that George W. Bush is a guy who goes on instinct — from Dave. These stories weren’t in The New York Times, they weren’t in The New Yorker. They were in Esquire. Because of Dave. Dave said what Dave says: ‘This is a story that no one else saw.’ Because Dave is self-directed, powerfully, a curmudgeon, and kind of a son of a bitch in all the ways we love. Sons of bitches are what journalism is all about!”
Suskind is referring to two articles he wrote for Esquire in the early 2000s about two of President Bush’s closest advisors, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove. The Hughes article (“Mrs. Hughes Takes Her Leave“) happened to include unusual candor from Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff, about the dynamics of the relationship between Hughes and Rove, which prompted the administration to accuse Suskind of fabricating some of the quotes. (“We’re going to get a pool of money together to buy Ron Suskind a tape recorder,” Suskind recalled then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer saying at a press conference.) But it was the second piece, “Why Are These Men Laughing?” that really set off a firestorm. In it, John DiIulio, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, reveals that the administration cares little for substantive policy discussions and coins the term “Mayberry Machiavellis” to describe their power politics combined with their incompetence with policy.
“So after the piece comes out, and another piece, the Bush White House is ripshit. They go after me. But what do they run into? They run into Dave. That mug. You know — a little unemotive sometimes. Just kind of looking at you. He says, ‘We stand behind this story and this writer.’ Basically he’s saying, ‘Screw you.’ That takes courage. That takes cojones. That takes all the things we admire. That’s our guy: Dave.”
Suskind’s point is that Granger and Esquire offered him shelter, literally — office space to work and think — and in speaking to the media on his behalf. Suskind’s toast thus illustrates concerns the writers and editors have about Granger’s departure: that his absence will lead to a serious drop-off in the magazine’s journalistic consequence, and more broadly, that Esquire will lose the editor-writer bond of loyalty that allows risk taking, journalistically or creatively.
Just days after this party at Porchlight, Granger will be replaced by Jay Fielden, the editor in chief of Town & Country, a magazine that focuses on what you might call society, or upper-class, lifestyle. Fielden also ran Men’s Vogue, a brief experiment in men’s fashion from Condé Nast (which publishes GQ) that existed from 2005 to 2008. In a press release issued by Hearst, Fielden is credited with overseeing a period of growth and innovation at Town & Country and, according to David Carey, president of Hearst magazines, “taking on politics, wealth, society, celebrity — all with the tempo and effervescence of the best dinner party in town.” (Carey, who fired Granger and hired Fielden, declined to be interviewed for this story. So did Fielden.)Granger embraces GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson.
One Esquire writer called Fielden “the anti-Granger,” pointing to his perceived lack of interest in stories with substance and the writers who pursue them. Whereas Granger is well known for disliking magazines that are “safe” or “responsible” — saying something is a “magazine story” is one of his classic insults — Fielden is considered someone who is quite safe (Town & Country has never won a National Magazine Award; Esquire has received 17 under Granger). Another pulled up Fielden’s Twitter account and asked, rhetorically, whether he’d want to work for an editor who, during a recent Republican presidential debate, tweeted almost exclusively about the candidates’ choices of neckwear. (“One thing Trump and Reagan have in common — the half-Windsor knot. Look at those geriatric silk knots!”) Granger and his writers share a certain blue-collar quality — beyond their former jobs selling bags and shoes — that’s always relatable, even when it reaches intellectually. There is the sense, perhaps unfounded, that Fielden’s milieu is more fashion and celebrity, less journalism.
“I wrote it down, fuckers, because it’s that important to me,” Mary-Louise Parker says, taking the microphone from Suskind. Parker, best known for playing the lead role in Weeds, has been a contributor at Esquire, writing about being a single mother, posing half-nude holding a fruit pie and offering advice on how to get laid on Valentine’s Day. The presence of a celebrity adds dimension to the party. Instead of being the subject of a profile, here, she is just part of the entourage paying tribute to Granger. Colum McCann, author; Colby Buzzell, soldier-turned-writer; Dave Wondrich, cocktail guru; Charlie Pierce, politics whiz; and Mary-Louise Parker in a backless red shirt and snakeskin heels — all under one roof. Tonight, Granger is the one being profiled.
Parker has an image of Granger she wants to share from a Christmas past at the Brandy Library in the Greenwich Hotel. Granger was sitting there in a distressed club chair wearing his usual — a blazer, tie and a white shirt with his cuffs unbuttoned.
“He was holding this cocktail,” she says, “leaning forward with that Granger pose: elbows on knees, rapt interest with a little bit of suspicion, the same way when he sits back in his chair with his hands behind his head, like ‘Show me,’ and you want to show him, because he’s probably the reason you did it, probably the reason you’re doing it for the fourth or fifth time, or at all. I see him sitting there so sweetly, and I say to whoever I’m with, ‘Oh wow, that’s David Granger,’ because I want everyone to hear that I know him, even if they don’t know who he is — because even if you don’t know who he his, you know who he is.
“He’s holding a glass and leaning forward in a chair and making it a better chair because he’s sitting in it, talking about things he’ll actually do, things he’ll make happen because he’s David Granger, and I look at him and I’m like, ‘There it is. Where is it better than that, Man at His Best. There it is.’”
Granger is the last to toast. He isn’t known for his public statements or appearances. Junod likes to say that Granger has a huge interior life that he expresses in a small handful of ways, one of which is the magazine. He didn’t have a frontman style as an editor at GQ; he developed one at Esquire through minimalism. “David became enigmatic, people wondering what he’s thinking, very sparing in his praise or his displeasure,” Junod says. “That’s a style that he developed over the years. His increasing confidence was matched by his decrease in gestures. He’s trimmed it down.”
Granger puts his drink down on the railing. “I’m one of the few people who got to attend his own funeral,” he says, getting a good laugh. “I love you people. The reason that each of you is here is that in one way or another, you made it possible for me to keep this job for nigh on nineteen years. I owe everybody in this room a debt of gratitude. I asked you to come here so I could say thank you. This job made my life as much as any job can make anybody’s life. It had almost nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with what you guys did under my watch. People keep asking me, ‘What do you want to do?’ That’s the absolute hardest question. I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, for the last nineteen years. It’s going to take me a little time. I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
He pauses for a beat to think. “For the final time, I should probably say this thing.”
The “thing” he’s talking about is something he started saying as a toast and rallying cry during presentations to sales and marketing people during all of those meetings at Da Tommaso. It’s a toast worthy of printing in a guide to toasting at parties. And during that pause, which maybe lasts for a few seconds as he looks around the room and sees Pulitzer Prize winners, National Magazine Award winners, a smoking-hot celebrity, his family, the editorial assistant who lit up a joint, and more than a few teary eyes, it perhaps crosses his mind that there’s a broader meaning to this phrase he’s about to say. It applies to the writers, editors and readers — but also to anyone who thinks that the stories in magazines have the potential to change the way we understand the world around us.
“Here’s to us,” he says, “which turns out to be a fuckload of people — and fuck everybody else.”
For the writer, it doesn’t always work out as planned. You get the assignment to go profile the frontman of R.E.M., say, and he turns out to be a totally shallow, foppish, inauthentic dilettante and he offers you nothing — no material at all for your story — but you’re on the hook for this, and you’re being paid thousands of dollars for it, not to mention your travel out to Los Angeles and the nice hotel you stay in. Let’s face it: not many writers command that kind of money anymore. It’s not a seller’s market. And you owe the readers a good story. So you make up a story about him eating an entire dispenser’s worth of sugar at a diner and putting pennies on his eyes when he sleeps. You send it to your editor, who loves the story and is quite surprised at how it turned out, given the limited access you got. You tell him you made it up. There’s a pause, a few beats.
The editor says, “Fuuuuuck.”
Granger is the trapdoor master, Junod says. “There’s never been a person better at slipping out of the room at what you think is the height of the moment. You look, and Granger’s gone. You’re like, ‘Granger’s missing this.’ But that’s the whole point. I mean, David trapdoored my father’s funeral. He did. I swear to God.”
Granger insists he missed the after-party to his going-away party because of a dinner he’d planned with the Suskinds.
“But that is my normal method of leaving,” he says. “Who wants to say good-bye? If you’re gonna go, you’ve got to go. I have a deathly fear of staying at an event after its peak. Usually when an event is peaking, that’s when I leave. I don’t want to be a hanger-on. When everybody is at the peak of their experience, when I’ve experienced the best of the party, it’s time to go.”
“Granger likes to be underestimated on the course; it’s part of his minimalism.”
Now he is gone from Esquire. It’s his third day of unemployment, an unseasonably warm and sunny Wednesday during the last week of March, the sky an Easter-egg blue. He’s standing in the tee box at the first hole of Sleepy Hollow Country Club an hour north of Manhattan, on the east bank of the Hudson River. Beyond the 27 holes of golf here, there are also 10 tennis courts, two swimming pools, four squash courts, four platform tennis courts, a 40-horse stable, two indoor riding areas and shooting facilities for skeet and trap. Even this early in the season, the place is beautiful. A membership here goes for $100,000, plus yearly dues.
Granger likes to be underestimated on the course; it’s part of his minimalism. He plays dated golf clubs and uses a women’s driver most of the time. His golf shoes are well worn, and none of his clothing is made of technical fabrics. The first time you see him swing a golf club it has the terrifying quality of an impending traffic accident. You’re concerned that he may not even hit the ball. Granger once had a lesson with Hank Haney, then-coach to Tiger Woods, who told him that he had one of the four worst golf swings he’d ever seen — and he couldn’t remember the other three.
He approaches the ball on hole number one, a par four that doglegs ever so slightly to the right 417 yards out. His stance is narrow, left toe pointed out a bit dramatically. His swing is reminiscent of professional golfer Jim Furyk: a vertical backswing in which he doesn’t rotate all that much, followed by a brief pause at the top and then a downswing in which the club articulates a sort of looping arc, the hands coming close to the body and his left foot lifting and moving forward when he follows through. The overall impression it gives is more like a baseball pitch than a golf swing.
Granger laces his drive down the fairway.
And then he’s looking at you, like, “Show me” — that mug — on the tee. Just like his writers for all these years, you understand the full meaning of Granger’s equanimity, which includes a combination of the trust that you’ll achieve great things and an implicit promise to help you get there. So when you skull your first shot from the tee, it’s not an especially good feeling.
“Take another one,” he says.
No, you’ll play that one as it lies, you say calmly, chin up. It’s in the fairway. Second shot: thin and hot, but at least not shanked off the hosel. For chrissakes, anything but a shank.
“Chris Jones was practically shaking when he played here, he was so nervous,” Granger says. “He could barely play.”
Your second shot on hole two is blind and from the rough, about 180 yards out. You turn down a fairway wood in favor of a five iron and stick the green, 10 feet from the pin. Granger gives you a pound. “You really melt those irons,” he says.
Hole five: Granger talks about playing with Chiarella. They like to bet, usually following the classic Nassau formula, also known as a “2-2-2” or “Best Nines.” The way it works is that there’s money on the front nine, the back nine and the overall 18. Scoring is match play, meaning that each hole is simply won or lost (as opposed to stroke play, which is a cumulative total of every shot). A player who is down by two holes or more may “press,” which is a double-or-nothing bet on the remaining holes. In the Esquire editor-writer Nassau bet, you may also “air press,” which is an additional double-or-nothing bet, made while the opponent’s drive is in the air, presumably heading for trouble.
Does Granger want to bet? He does not. He would rather just have fun, which he seems to be, though he doesn’t pump his fist when he rips a drive down the center of the fairway or saves par with an up and down from the rough or the trap, which he does often. Granger seems to derive his fun from being engaged in the language of golf. Hole seven is not a par three that slopes down to the right; it is a reverse Redan and if you hit it left and allow it to funnel down right toward the hole you’ll be in very good shape. Granger sticks the green 10 feet to the right of the pin. You hook it well beyond the Redan.
“Okay,” Granger says, teeing up on hole 10, a downhill par three protected by a water hazard in the front and a bunker on the left, about 170 yards. “We’ve only got nine left so we’ll do a half Nassau, presses if you’re down by two. Ten bucks? And what do you think, Marcian,” — his caddy — “give him four strokes? Not on this hole, though.”
You pass on the strokes and Granger doesn’t argue. He’s not the kind of guy to protest when you’ve made up your mind about something like not taking strokes or picking up the tab. You lose 10, tie 11, then go down by two on 12. Press on 14. Granger is a master of the short game and maniacally consistent. Bump-and-runs, flop shots, anything inside 100 yards is deadly accurate. Press again on 16, then again on 18. Looking to win anything, you bet one final dollar you can chip in from the rough, but you catch a bit too much turf.
“Another dollar, with ten to one odds?” Granger asks.
In the clubhouse, a white-haired bartender named John keeps the otherwise empty bar open for Granger, who orders a vodka soda in a water-sized glass and suggests the “Summer’s Evening,” a cocktail he sometimes serves at his home to guests, with rum, tonic and pineapple juice. It’s served in a very large Chardonnay glass but is delicious and refreshing, like a summer’s evening, as promised. It’s a nice consolation for losing $32 on the back nine.
You get the sense that Granger is still processing his forced retirement, but it’s not the first time he’s thought about job security. During his first few years at Esquire, he thought he might be fired at any moment. “Hearst used to have this policy where they wouldn’t fire anyone between Thanksgiving and New Year’s,” he says. “I was just sure when I got back from the holidays I was going to be fired. I remember being in my yard — two and a half years in — doing some kind of manual labor and just resolving that if I didn’t get fired on January 4, I was only going to do things that would make me proud.”
He doesn’t complain about Carey’s decision to let him go, or run through scenarios of what he could have done differently to avoid it. Besides, like most things, the obvious answer is usually the correct one, and in this case it seems that his passion — richly reported stories — is inconsistent with Carey’s vision of growth for Esquire and Hearst, which will mainly happen through increased web traffic. (With the exception of a few writers, the web team is an entirely different staff from the print team at Esquire, and they don’t report to Granger.) That’s not to say that Granger didn’t embrace the Internet. Esquire.com launched under his watch in 1998, as did the iPad edition and the first-ever magazine to use e-ink on the cover. But the language of production has changed. Black hired Granger because she was looking for “blockbuster journalism.” In interviews, Carey describes Hearst as “a content company, operating with a platform mentality.” Granger doesn’t use the word content — ever. He talks about “stories,” “ideas” and “writers.” Carey talks about “content” created by “content producers” and “content teams.”
Granger’s proud of what he’s accomplished, but he isn’t an especially nostalgic person, recalling the past as facts of record rather than emotional vestiges. He doesn’t talk about the awards he and his team have won. He does not believe in legacy; what we do is ephemeral. He is, maybe, the faintest hint bitter about this whole thing. He’s not happy that his firing also means that others will lose work. Peter Griffin and Ross McCammon, a senior editor, have both been fired. Raab, Jones and Junod all decided to move on to other projects. But this is familiar territory. When Granger joined Esquire, he let go a significant portion of the staff to bring in his own.
Granger admires men who navigate the world gracefully, and this is what he’s doing. He’s engaged in the present, taking meetings with a few media types working on a model whose success isn’t purely based on web traffic (he doesn’t know what that looks like yet). He’s heading down to Rio to do a preview of the Olympics for Golf Digest. He’s concerned that he’ll get in his wife Melanie’s way around the house. Plus, he’s got a wager with Bill Murray, who along with George Clooney is on the cover of his last issue. Whoever takes work before September owes the other $500. He was concerned that he’d be restless, but now it seems a few weeks off wouldn’t be the worst thing.
That will give him some time to leaf through his final issue of Esquire, May 2016, which reads as an homage to his career at the magazine. It’s a good way to go out, complete with bylines from his whole crew; not by accident, it’s almost preposterously filled with stories that matter, about war, road trips, fighting and women who go missing. And on the last page, where Raab writes an homage to the magazine, there’s a photograph of Clooney sitting on a motorcycle with Granger in the sidecar, a studio backdrop of an empty two-lane road ahead of them. Both guys look back into the camera — Clooney with a half grin and a furrowed brow, and Granger, this time not with a look of equanimity, but wearing a pair of sunglasses and a big smile.
Report by Jeremy Berger, Photos by Henry Phillips for Gear Patrol