On “The Ocean Is Closed” by Jon Bradshaw

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THE OCEAN IS CLOSED: Adventures and Journalistic Investigations is a new collection of works by the late Jon Bradshaw, one of the leading practitioners of magazine journalism in the 1970s and 1980s. (This is the third publication of ZE Books, which produces beautiful volumes devoted to honoring writers and their work.) The articles collected here, carefully selected and edited by Alex Belth, share one thing in common: they are stories of excess, of personalities who talk too much, drink too much, play too much, who often live in a world beyond borders that most of us will not cross. Bradshaw’s profile topics range from literary figures, such as WH Auden, Tom Stoppard and Hunter S. Thompson, to con artists, such as tennis showman Bobby Riggs and pool magician Minnesota Fats, to notorious international criminals, such as Andreas Baader, the self-described revolutionary terrorist and leader of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and Phoolan Devi, the “bandit queen” of India.

These are stories from a bygone era – Bradshaw died in 1986, at the age of 48, of a heart attack on a tennis court in Beverly Hills. Most of Bradshaw’s subjects are also long gone (Stoppard and Chris Blackwell are still playing, if not doing hell), but it’s a tribute to Bradshaw’s storytelling skills that reading his tales on the exploits of the dead outlaws remains entertaining and compelling. Bradshaw’s descriptions sometimes take on the harsh flavor of Raymond Chandler, as when he says that Bobby Riggs “had the face of a man who sold encyclopedias door to door; one was suspicious, but never offended ”, or when he writes that Minnesota Fats“ has healed his reputation like a sore tooth ”.

To put it all in context, we’re talking about the Pleistocene era when print magazines ruled: thick weekly or monthly issues, filled page after page with advertisements, led by editors like Clay. Felker (at new York) or the duo of Phillip Moffitt and Chris Whittle (at Squire). By this time, magazine editors were cultural figures, worthy of the media themselves, with articles from Page Six devoted to their whereabouts and whereabouts. Architectural summary features on the decoration of their homes. Magazines had big budgets and could pay writers a royal ransom for their work, including travel expenses, hotel bills, and bar bills they accumulated in the process. Writers could take the time necessary to relate and polish their stories, which could last as long as they deemed necessary. It was the golden age of magazine articles, of which Bradshaw’s articles were prime examples.

Bradshaw was an ace in this game. His articles were the result of prodigious research and dedicated reporting, but they read like long monologues. The author is often present in these plays, although usually in the third person, like “the journalist”, someone who tries to follow the excesses that surround him. He follows Stoppard from the pub to the house to the theater, effortlessly capturing the chattering torrent of the talkative playwright. He lets a cranky Billy Wilder argue that his professional career is simply in the doldrums, not over – although we understand the great writer / director may be protesting too much. We watch Hunter Thompson – or “Gonzo,” as Bradshaw calls him – avoid writing a due date article covering an event he didn’t attend. He surprises JFK advisor Richard Goodwin stranding his sailboat, waiting for the tide to rise – and though they do eventually leave, Bradshaw makes us understand that Goodwin will never regain the shine of his days in Camelot. In Bradshaw’s world, what’s in the rearview mirror is often more beautiful than what’s on the horizon.

Bradshaw had an infallible ability to be in the middle of the action and an admirable willingness to wallow in it and share the experience with us mere mortals. He’s there at Maxwell’s Plum, the swingles bar on First Avenue in Manhattan that was the Tinder of its time. Then, he’s at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, reporting on a young woman who pays her bills by making herself available to clients a few nights a week. He’s with British gossip columnist Nigel Dempster as he sweeps New York City, or hangs out with Chris Blackwell of Island Records, most famous for his handling of Bob Marley. Here’s how Bradshaw sets the stage for Dempster’s arrival at New York’s Eurotrash nightclub, Regine’s:

Regine’s had been open for about a week, and the club is packed with the usual motley of stunned white and third world nightcrawlers. It is practically dark, and against the amber lake plastic walls, it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. Groups of girls, hairdressers, actors, designers, entrepreneurs, the idle wealthy, courtiers – the kind of people the trendy tabloids have taken to call for help go from the bar to the dining room. eat through the disco and vice versa elite.

Bradshaw went to great lengths to invent the appropriate phrase or striking comparison, saying of the ambiance of the Polo Lounge that “[t]this place creates an instantaneous and malignant impression on the mind and one turns away like a lazaretto. He describes one of his beloved players, Pug: “He had the round, mischievous face of an elderly troll, a troll who loved Cuban cigars.

There are times recounted in these articles that would not exceed the standards of acceptable behavior today. For example, Hunter Thompson asks a woman if she would like him to rape her. “You’re going to love it,” he told her. “You have that look on you. (Frankly, I don’t know how it went back then.) Bradshaw casually drops the mention of various “neighborhood brothels.”[s]He knew, and he accompanies this young woman from the Polo Lounge bar to her hotel room to finish her interview. It may all just be Bradshaw’s mud nostalgia, but it reminds us that “the good old days” weren’t so good for everyone.

These occasional dissonances aside, one has to appreciate Bradshaw’s engaging ability to probe the depths and brush the surfaces of such a vast collection of people and places, and to write in a style all his own. The ocean is closed is a beautiful tribute to a writer who might otherwise have been forgotten, a magazine writer, whose talent and personality were such that all doors seemed open to him. Here is his description of backgammon players ending a long night of play:

Gathering their coats, they dragged each other down the street. The tuxedo player threw his umbrella down, end to end, into the night. The old man thanked them for their contribution. The others exchanged the farewells drawn from the schoolchildren. The man in the tuxedo wandered south and east, staggering awkwardly through the deserted streets; he looked like a man trying to learn the steps of a new dance.

Reading Bradshaw, we’re all the man in the tuxedo.

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Tom Teicholz is an award winning journalist and bestselling author – just google him.


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