In Memoriam: Alan Halpern

"Terrific! Terrific! Terrific!"

On December 13th, Alan Halpern, editor of Philly Mag from 1951 through 1980, passed away. He made this magazine America’s most honored regional publication and, along the way, created the city magazine genre. The author, a Halpern protégé and currently a correspondent for GQ magazine, remembers the man and his vision.

He was my mentor. And my tormentor.

And those were just two of the reasons why I loved Alan Halpern, why we all loved Alan Halpern, even when we wanted to strangle him. Like a great many others, I owe my career to the man. Because he never let me forget how good I was. Or how bad I was. That was Alan’s gift.

“Dear Lisa,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “I saw you on TV. What crap.” Then two weeks later: “Happy Thanksgiving!” with a cheesy Jacquie Lawson e-mail card and a dancing turkey.

I was 21 years old when I first entered the Alan Halpern orbit, joining a cult of writers who considered him their guru. It was a privileged and bizarro group, consisting of terribly talented (and fucked-up) writers all over the land who had one thing in common: Alan’s acceptance. There are dozens of us, some successful, some not, some dead, some who just seem to be. Alan didn’t care. He didn’t care if you hung a bamboo swag lamp in your office and slept there at night (you know who you are), or if you had sex with each other on the office sofa. As long as you had “nifty ideas” and cared about this crazy world of magazine journalism as much as he did. If he liked something you wrote, you’d get a “terrific!” in the margin. If he liked it a lot, two terrifics. And if he loved it, “Terrific! Terrific! Terrific!”

I lived for three terrifics from Alan Halpern.

He taught me all the important things: That the only person I was writing for was the reader. Not my editors (not even him!), not my friends, and not the subject, either. That it was okay to fall in love (metaphorically, of course) with my subject, as long as I divorced him at the typewriter. And that you should never have lunch without a cocktail.

Alan used to say (long before anyone else did), “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” The journalism police didn’t like that very much. But Alan was correct. In his brilliant, iconoclastic way, nothing was more important than the telling of the story.

His was one that should have been told a hundred times, and in regions far beyond Broad Street. Alan invented city magazines, but never got the credit. He put up with our demanding chairman, Herb Lipson, for years — decades! — and lived to tell the tale. Actually, deep down, I believe Alan always secretly loved Herb; like all great love affairs, it was terribly complicated. He never did get over the fact that he created this magazine, but was forever banished from the kingdom after 30 years. Two months before his death, Elliott Curson, his lifelong pal the ad guy, sent a breaking-news e-mail out. Alan and Herb, photographed together, having a make-up lunch at the Palm. It only took them 25 years.

He nurtured me and tortured me, too, since that day, 23 years ago, when I went to work for $50 a week at Atlantic City magazine, for one reason only: I had heard he was “consulting” on this goofy little magazine, and I was determined to work for the Legendary Alan Halpern. My first day on the job, he instructed me to “go walk up and down the beach and interview the lifeguards.” Great work if you can get it. He ended up running the results of my hard labor as a cover story on “the Myth of the Atlantic City Lifeguard.” Alan saw a story in everything. And, for better or worse, he made me look at life the same way.