I was a cub reporter for Entertainment Weekly. Now and then, I got juicy feature assignments such as the review of Saving Private Ryan on video or a rare interview with Christian Bale, but as a cub reporter, I was more often asked to create those little sidebars and boxes that the more experienced staff writers had no interest in doing. Today, twentysomething idealists sweat at long benches, hammering out posts to chase the day’s hot search terms. But then, I worked the phones for “Rent Check,” in which I asked famous people what movies they had rented recently. It was a grind and pretty dumb stuff, but there were fringe benefits.
I talked to some good people. Jerry Springer told me about his family’s tragic history with the Holocaust. Alex Trebek cryptically alluded to a dark period in his past. Don Knotts passed, saying he’d let the younger folks have their say, but my favorite “get” was Ann B. Davis.
In her own way, she was more reclusive than even Christian Bale. She had found God, retired from the rigors of television, and spent most of her time dwelling with an Episcopal community in Pennsylvania. She seemed mistrustful of secular life. This interview thrilled me: In middle school, I watched 90 minutes of The Brady Bunch every day on Channel 56 in Boston. I could tell you within two lines of the opening which episode it was. I even kept a handwritten checklist of them all. Ugly Aunt Jenny? Hatch mark. Bobby loves Jesse James? Hatch hatch. Cousin Oliver the Jinx? Hatch. (I hated that one.)
Anyway, I interviewed Ann and asked what she had watched recently. One of her answers was Tender Mercies, and the reason she gave was that Robert Duvall plays a man who faces difficult choices and makes the right one. Duvall was a good Christian man, she told me, and being a Christian woman, she admired his work and would see anything he was in. Her sense of faith, decent but not preachy, permeated her responses, which I appreciated, since I knew there were millions of Americans that would identify with her thoughts. Her movie selections felt as nurturing as Alice herself.
I turned in my little tidbit, and on the day it was poured onto the page and went through copy editing, I was shocked to see that the editor had eliminated Ann’s mention of Christianity. The published version simply said she liked Robert Duvall. I asked why, and I was told by that editor that I had done a good job, and the fact I was able to land Ann B. Davis was really great, but people’s religious beliefs were not the theme of the magazine. So we’d use everything else she said, but not that.
I understand the reasoning now. A magazine is a product, and products are designed to please their audience. I also don’t think that any editor at EW would necessarily make the same choice today. But then, I thought it was dramatically unfair. Here was a woman who for years had pointedly avoided giving any interviews to the press, and when I managed to land one, my outlet wouldn’t let her say exactly what she wanted to say. It censored her.
That broke me. I invited this reclusive woman to speak, and having coaxed her out of privacy, I excised the core of what she wanted to say. Although I had nothing to do with the decision, and although Ann never said anything about the omission, I felt responsible.
A few weeks later, Time Inc. did something I thought was even more unpleasant. It put a bunch of us on furlough — conveniently, right before it would have had to pay us benefits. (In 2000, it settled a lawsuit over the practice for $5.5 million.) The Ann B. Davis incident had fertilized the new soil of my skepticism, so when I was denied healthcare as a full-time worker, my careful mistrust for rigged systems was able to grow strong. In many ways, I still have that appraising eye for all things. (Every service journalist needs it.)
I used my unemployed months to clear my head, and to put some space between me and corporate media greed that, I now knew, I would always have to endure. My journalism school idealism would clearly not be workable in the real world — at least, not in its pure form.
I readjusted by trying something new. I backpacked through Europe — I saw Prague not long after the Velvet Revolution. Using the tourism office, I rented bed and board from an elderly woman who needed the money. She lived in bleak Communist-era flat on the outskirts of town. The lights in her stairwell were on a timer, and they were never lit long enough for anyone to find the keyhole on the front door. She spoke no English, I spoke no Czech, but we both spoke a few words of disastrous French. She insisted that I call her “Madame.” I slept on her chaise in view of reddened 1970s snapshots and in the morning she gave me toast and coffee. Everything about her hinted at a deeper, sadder story that I would never be privy to learn.
When the furlough was over, I went back to EW — soon as a staffer with actual benefits. I got the respect I had long deserved, but it was too late. I had changed. I was now a questioner. A new world had opened in me. I became a travel writer, a skeptic, and a storyteller.
Thank you, Ann B. Davis.