Byron Dobell occasionally likes to talk about the Old Editors’ Home, the big red-brick Georgian building up in the Finger Lakes on whose porch veterans of this profession while away the days recalling past triumphs—a particularly felicitous caption, the perfectly seductive subhead—and trying to catch each other misusing the word coruscate or fortuitous .
Well, you won’t find Byron there. When, a few weeks back, he said he had decided to step down as editor of American Heritage, it was not to join colleagues from Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post but to become a portraitist. For years he has been a highly skilled amateur painter; and now the “amateur” will drop away from that description.
Byron came to American Heritage eight years ago, bringing with him the knowledge gained on half a dozen first-rate publications, including Esquire in its glory days during the late 1960s when it was a magazine—the only one—my college friends and I actually awaited impatiently each month. Under his direction American Heritage three times won the National Magazine Award, our Oscar.
There’s a mild implicit irony in the fact that I’ve been chosen to succeed Byron, because my career is so utterly the obverse of his. He’s worked everywhere; this is the only job I’ve ever had. I first came to American Heritage in the summer of my senior year of high school. After a six-week career as the world’s most inept mailboy, I was transferred for a week to the editorial department, where David McCullough was putting together our World War II book. I had a kid’s sharp eye for machinery and spotted an anomaly in the caption on an Imperial War Museum photograph. This got me asked back the next summer—and every summer thereafter, all through school, until in 1970 I joined the staff full-time.
I’ve been happy in my parochialism; in what tends to be a peripatetic trade, I’ve managed to stick at a place where I wanted to be from the start. I’ve been fortunate, too, in the amount of American Heritage history I’ve seen. I can remember, for instance, our founding editor Bruce Catton feeding his typewriter sheets of yellow paper and pulling out copy so finished and fluent that it went directly to the typesetter without the slightest editorial intervention; and getting a glimpse of Warren Harding’s exuberantly explicit love letters to his mistress before the family got them sealed until the next century; and a thousand other things, pleasing and irritating, lovely and funny and stupid, that make up the life of an organization.
None of my memories, though, are more gratifying than those of working with Byron—a good boss and a good friend—and we will miss him. But if you’re in the market for a portrait, move quickly: you have the chance to commission one before Byron becomes as renowned a painter as he is an editor.