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Dead Dogs in Space

By Eugene Vail

A Holiday Fable of Family Failure

In 1957, my grandfather Wendell was fired from his job as director of publicity at Newsweek for circulating an offensive Christmas card. In his brief, unpublished “Biography of James Wendell Sether,” he wrote, “This was when Sputnik was launched, carrying a dog. A freelance cartoonist submitted a card design showing the Russian Sputnik in orbit, with the dog sitting at a big window reading Newsweek. Everybody thought it was hilarious, including [Newsweek publisher, Ted] Mueller. But then the Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere taking the dog with it. That day I came to Ted’s office and he failed to greet me. Instead he looked at me with a horror-stricken face and said, ‘The dog is dead.’ I said, ‘That’s what I hear.’ He said nothing further but he seemed upset during the conference, and I got the feeling he would not like to have the dog on the Christmas card. But I sent out the card anyway.”

I feel a deep connection to Wendell, but I didn’t know him well. His Parkinson’s disease was fairly advanced when I was born and by the time I was old enough to hold a conversation, he could barely speak. He was frail and shaky, and he drooled. I was ten years old when he died, but it has become evident in recent years that Wendell passed down plenty of his genes to me.

In September 1930 Wendell entered the University of Southern California on a journalism scholarship and was later editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan. After graduation he took a job as editor of the Southwest Broadcaster, a weekly newspaper in Los Angeles. He was there only a month before accepting a job as assistant picture editor at the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express, a Hearst publication that was then the largest newspaper west of the Mississippi. Wendell stayed there seven years, until a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when he went to work for the Office of War Information, which later became the CIA.

In his writings, Wendell recalls a phone call from his friend Vincent Mahoney: “He said that he had just joined something called the Coordinator of Information which was to engage in psychological warfare, and it needed trained journalists in a hurry. A staff was being built up in San Francisco, he said, and he would highly recommend me for this somewhat mysterious operation. He had recalled discussions we had had on the ‘nature of the enemy’ and he knew that I would not be fooled by enemy propaganda. After thinking it over for a few hours, I decided to leave the Herald and I flew to San Francisco that afternoon.”

At this point in Wendell’s narrative, he digresses from his career accomplishments to mention that he had a wife, Hallie, my grandmother. Hallie was the daughter of a wealthy New York patent attorney named Clair Fairbank. In August 1939, Clair was trying a case in the Federal Court in Los Angeles, and Hallie and her mother came to visit him. On her last night in town, Hallie went on a blind date, set up by a mutual friend, with Wendell, and the two painted the town red. “I met Hallie at the Zeman apartment,” Wendell writes. “After cocktails we visited Olvera Street, the Mexican tourist trap in downtown Los Angeles, and then went to Hollywood, where we had dinner at Sardi’s and visited Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the place where all the movie stars have their footprints in cement.”

As Wendell drove Hallie back to her hotel, they heard on the radio Neville Chamberlain’s famous radio broadcast declaring war on Germany. Wendell writes, “It was an historic occasion, we agreed.” Six weeks later Wendell took a vacation in New York but didn’t work up the nerve to call Hallie until his second weekend there. They had a day in the city, and then Wendell drove Hallie back to school at Connecticut College. They wouldn’t see each other again until Christmas, at which point they got engaged. They were married six months later, in June 1940.

Wendell and Hallie were in San Francisco for only one month before Wendell was transferred to the OWI office in New York. His job, as he describes it, was to “obtain enemy propaganda, usually from broadcasts, determine on the basis of previous knowledge, what the propaganda meant and what its purpose and directives were, and to write reports for the higher-ups.” In early 1943 Wendell was transferred to OWI offices in England, where, except for six months in 1944, he remained until the end of the war.

Back in New York, he took a long series of public relations jobs, including the Newsweek position from which he was fired. He seems to have had a knack for joining companies just before they folded. A typical entry in his memoir goes like this: “In 1963 the American Press was sold and its new owners moved it to Chicago. But I joined the General Foods corporation in 1963. General Foods was notorious among public relations people as a shop which had turnover every two years, and I found this to be no exception. I left in 1965.” He held six different jobs between the end of the war and his retirement, and spent one year freelance writing. This doesn’t sound as remarkable now as it must have then, when men found a job and stuck with it until they died. Wendell had many hobbies, including photography and architecture, and he loved doting on his three daughters, the youngest of which was my mother. I like to think of him as a man who wasn’t defined by his job; he was an iconoclast, if a mild one.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that Wendell married into money. The Fairbanks, as you can probably guess from the name, were loaded. Family lore has that (a) Wendell supported Hallie and the children, but it was Hallie’s money that financed their many trips around the world, and (b) Wendell was forced to cut ties with his relatives because they constantly hit him up for cash. So I probably have cousins I’ve never met.
Is it any great mystery why I identify with my grandfather Wendell? I too began my career in journalism, although I never earned anything as prestigious as a journalism scholarship.

My entrance into the world of news holes and dangling participles was at the Weekly Alibi, a feisty alternative rag in Albuquerque, New Mexico. First they hired me to compile their calendars, and then, for some reason, they made me their food editor, a position for which I was ill-suited. I hated writing restaurant reviews, so instead I turned in columns on mystery ingredients most people aren’t aware of, like the mashed-up cochineal beetles that make pink lemonade pink. After two years at the Alibi I grew bored and moved to New York, where I was hired and, three months later, fired, by a huge, Hindenburgesque dot-com. That’s when I started writing porn.

“Proofreaders wanted for explicit adult material,” said the ad in the Village Voice. I had been laid off from my job, I had an arthritic black Lab to care for and I was something of a pervert. Why the hell not? I went in for an interview and a man bearing a strong resemblance to Tom Arnold informed me that, “sometimes we like to get a little creative; sometimes you can have a guy with a huge cock, but he only dribbles a few little drops of jizz—and then some guy with a tiny cock swaggers in and comes buckets all over the chick’s face and tits.” I nodded and smiled and tried not to blush.

The job wasn’t proofreading; it was rewriting. The copy was from ancient tomes of bad erotica originally published a decade or so earlier, which needed considerable touching up. Which I did. And I was apparently so good at it that the Tom Arnold look-alike was fired and I replaced him. My hours and responsibilities grew, as did my paychecks. Soon I hired Josh, a young man from Ohio who is now the editor of this magazine. Together we edited reams (excuse the pun) of the raunchiest words ever put to paper. Then the boss, an alternately sweet and demented Jamaican lady, announced that we were entering the mainstream and publishing a black version of Maxim. We immediately dubbed it Blaxim.

These were unhappy times for Josh and me. We had no idea what we were doing, and we also felt that Maxim clones were more of a blight on society than actual pornography. Wendell was roughly the same age as me when war called him away from a job he didn’t like (“I was not given the good assignments,” he writes of his tenure at the Herald-Express). But I wasn’t so lucky. Josh and I, virtually alone, created and launched what is today one of the world’s worst magazines. Before the first issue hit the stands, I quit. Josh stayed on for a few months, and then he quit too.

After leaving that job in summer 2001, I floundered. I worked as proofreader at New York Press for a while, which I enjoyed, but that comprised only two days a week. I did some freelance work—everything from writing erotic poetry to researching government contracts—but mostly I sat around, wondering what to do with my life.

In February 2003, I married a woman in Texas whom I’d visited only three times. On the first visit, a massive flood raged through town, which isn’t as monumental as England declaring war on Germany, but it’s a nice parallel nonetheless. My grandmother Hallie was, to put it nicely, a battle axe, and I don’t like to draw comparisons between she and my wife. But it is fair to say they are both powerful, stubborn women (my wife holds a Ph.D. and takes no guff), and that they both married intelligent men who often have their heads in the clouds. Also, they’re both Democrats who married non-Democrats. (Wendell was a staunch Republican and, while I don’t identify myself as such, I do have libertarian leanings—I’m glad I have health insurance but resent that it’s necessary.)

Now I live in a small town in Texas, with my wife, in the old farmhouse she purchased before we met. I am staff writer for the daily newspaper, and my salary just about covers the housekeeper and the payments on my 1998 Volvo station wagon, which I purchased with the intention of eventually filling with my whining offspring. In my new hometown I’ve done some freelance writing, web design, and, like Wendell, public relations, but my clients are few and far between and I am spiraling into debt. The dozens of resumes I have sent into Austin and San Antonio have, so far, generated nothing. I am growing desperate. I want to be called on a secret mission, one in which my unique talents are drawn upon to serve the greater good. I want World War III, and I want it right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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