Less than 15 pages into Mislaid, a novel by Nell Zink, our heroine, Peggy—a white girl growing up in small-town Virginia in the 1960s—has realized “she was intended to be a man,” come out to her pearl-clutching mother, headed off to fictional Stillwater College, and met Lee Fleming, the all-women school’s infamous gay poetry professor, with whom she falls into a torrid affair and ends up “fixing to have a baby.” Another 15 pages in, Peggy has morphed into a disgruntled housewife who vengefully drives her husband’s VW into a shallow lake. To say Zink careens through her characters’ lives is an understatement.
The pace noticeably slows through the rest of this comically named (Mislaid—get it?) domestic novel gone wild, but not before Peggy reaches a breaking point: She flees her marriage, leaving behind her son but taking her toddler daughter, Mireille, and assumes new identities for them both—as African-Americans.
Zink presses on her readers a strange narrative conceit, albeit one based in a disturbing truth. Racial identity in 1970s Virginia, despite the civil-rights agitation of the time, wasn’t an individual’s prerogative (unless you were white).
As Zink writes, “Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people. Virginia was settled before slavery began, and it was diverse. There were tawny black people with hazel eyes. . . . Blond, blue-eyed black people resembling a recent chairman of the NAACP. The only way to tell white from colored . . . was the one-drop rule: if one of your ancestors was black—ever in the history of the world, all the way back to Noah’s son Ham—so were you.”
Anyone who raises doubts as to the authenticity of Peggy and her daughter’s race, such as the registrar at Mireille’s school, quickly gives in to innate prejudices: “The daughter was one of those pallid, yellow-haired black kids you sometimes see. . . . Probably anemic and undernourished—a lot of rural black kids had worms . . . .”
As Peggy and her daughter settle into a community they can’t possibly understand, her estranged husband and their son, Byrdie, float through life as shabby blue bloods, occupied with yacht-club dinners and boarding-school high jinks.
It’s only then that Mislaid reveals its fundamental preoccupation—with the unexpected, grievous intricacies of life in the post-civil-rights-era South. More particularly, it’s an examination of Virginia itself: a resolute bastion of Southern sentiment, a verdant landscape that simultaneously harbors horseback-riding patricians and the nomadic hallucinogenic-mushroom dealers Peggy falls in with. It’s a world of don’t-know-better racism where the school “like[s] to know who’s black so we can help them out with affirmative action and a free hot lunch” and considers a class with only two African-American students properly desegregated.
Zink’s sly banter about these serious topics will leave readers gasping at her insouciance but gripped by the realization that her fiction is not, alas, stranger than truth. Racism is personal and anecdotal, as in Peggy’s father’s pride “because he was descended from a family that sheltered John Wilkes Booth,” but also structural: Lee Fleming’s fight, in his cozy, white world, is with college feminists who want to take over his poetry magazine, while Peggy battles to become the artist she wishes to be in a culture of getting by: “As a writer, she was struggling. As an accomplice to the wholesale drug trade, she was setting new benchmarks for excellence in felony crime.”
Bizarre as its plot is, Mislaid is more damning than any straight-faced, shame-inducing diatribe could be. Changing our attitudes about race is slow and unsteady, as often absurd as it is sad. But evolution in hearts and minds, Zink seems to say, can and does take place.
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
When I reached Sally Mann by phone, she asked me to wait a few minutes before we talked. “I’m in the darkroom,” she explained. This might be expected: If Mann isn’t out shooting in her mobile photography lab—a converted GMC Suburban—she’s holed up on her Virginia farm, making print after print until she’s achieved her signature imperfect perfection.
The resulting body of work is a testament to her breadth as an artist and her abiding ties to the Shenandoah Valley: nostalgic landscapes, unsettling but intoxicating portraits of decomposing bodies, including still lifes of her own dog’s bones.
by Joseph J. Ellis
In 1776, the 13 Colonies declared their independence from Britain, formed a nation, and fought a war to gain their sovereignty. Right? Wrong, according to historian Joseph J. Ellis, who puts to rest one of the most persistent myths of our national history: that the United States was founded in 1776. Instead, he explains, the US of that pivotal year was never meant to last—the Union was merely a stopgap measure put in place until after the British were defeated.
by Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus with Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
For ten years, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were kept chained up in the home of a school-bus driver who raped and regularly berated the girls. In that time, Berry kept a diary, which forms the basis of Hope. It’s told in conjunction with one of her fellow captives and two Washington Post reporters. The result is a profoundly disturbing tale, told with astonishing candor.
by Andrea Mays
Shakespeare did not die a famed, lauded genius. It took two friends several years to assemble his plays in book form (now called the First Folio), ensuring that Shakespeare’s legacy not only survived, but flourished. Without it, he might still be considered a minor author skipped over in most high-school literature classes. And without Henry Folger—who helped run Standard Oil in its heyday but lived for Shakespeare memorabilia—the largest collection of Shakespeareana in the world, in DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library, might not exist. Mays traces these two stories at once.
Hillary Kelly is a freelance writer in Washington.
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
If it weren’t considered the federal government’s factory town, Washington might be known as a literary capital. But never mind—the two are interrelated: The intrigue that happens here daily is a fine muse for novelists, in particular David Baldacci. The author, who lives in Northern Virginia, has produced one bestseller after another, dating back to Absolute Power in 1996. He wrote his latest, Memory Man—as he did some two dozen of his 30 novels—in this cozy nook in a nondescript office park off Fairfax County Parkway in Reston. Odd location? Not for Baldacci, who says: “No matter where I am, I can write, but the office is quiet and I can be creative here.” He’ll write out the first chapter and edit it by hand. For the “big edits,” he moves to the contraption opposite him on the round table and sits in the “Hemingway chair” (right), an homage to the writer Baldacci says was a model for him.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Before people began not only to eat kale but to drink it; before “locavore” came into popular usage; before “free-range” and “cage-free” showed that there’s fine linguistic nuance to the conditions under which laying hens are kept; before suburban farmers markets became a thing; before Whole Foods; before Fresh Fields, even; before Mark Bittman started writing about food policy; before Michael Pollan started writing bestsellers; before Trader Joe’s spread east; before that episode in Portlandia where two foodie diners ask a waitress to recite the life history of the chicken they’re thinking of ordering; and way, way before Michelle Obama picked up a trowel and told a nation to change its eating habits, there was Nora Pouillon.
Pouillon—who launched Restaurant Nora on the outskirts of Dupont Circle in the late 1970s and turned it into one of the city’s leading power-dining establishments—was an early adopter of the pesticide-free, humanely raised, locally sourced food ethos. Such an early adopter, in fact, that on her original menus she struggled to find a description for the food Restaurant Nora would be serving. Fearing that most diners circa 1979 wouldn’t know what “organic” meant, she came up with the rather wordy and unappetizing “new American food with additive-free ingredients.”
We learn from her memoir, My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today, that Sally Quinn—the journalist and socialite who along with her late husband, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, was an early patron and financial backer of the restaurant—advised her to play down that good-for-you part: “Don’t mention anything about being healthy and natural.” Pouillon ignored the advice. In fact, she became so obsessed that at one point, in the quest to make her establishment the nation’s first certified-organic restaurant, she ordered 1,000 pounds of organic sugar (the smallest amount she could obtain) and had to dedicate nearly a whole room to storing it.
Pouillon’s spare, clearly written memoir is built around two complementary narratives. One involves the culinary journey of a country where you can now buy organic sugar by the bag at your neighborhood grocery. The other involves her more personal journey from ingénue housewife to self-made restaurateur. While never as famous as Alice Waters of California’s Chez Panisse, Pouillon had as much influence on our local culinary landscape as, say, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had on our physical one. She was so ahead of her time that you feel she hasn’t gotten enough credit. Who knew that Pouillon was a driving force behind the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, which, unbelievably, some merchants at first resisted? Or that she was part of the political movement for national standards for organic certification?
Without being preachy, her memoir is also the story of an uncredentialed female cook making her way in the sexist high-chef culture, the story of a natural-born problem solver working to build a small enterprise before there was talk of start-ups or woman-owned businesses. It’s also a testament to the personal consequences—not good ones—for a wife and mother who succeeded at becoming a breadwinner before that, too, was a thing.
• • •
In the annals of food history, the most famous culinary epiphany is the one experienced by Julia Child when she tasted sole meunière in France and understood just how good food could be. The Austrian-born Pouillon had what you might call the reverse epiphany: On arriving in the US in the 1960s—her French husband had landed a job at Voice of America and the couple rented a small house in Tenleytown—she was so appalled by the local supermarket’s iceberg lettuce, processed cheese, and packaged, precut beef that she understood for the first time just how bad food could be.
She sought out alternatives, educating herself by prowling ethnic markets, talking with the proprietors about how to use lemongrass or feta or cilantro or queso fresco; by showing up early to dinner parties and watching what the host was making; by hunting down a farmer who sold grass-fed beef out of the back of a van, at a time when doing so was furtive and illegal. Restaurant Nora grew out of her perambulations.
That said, the most evocative parts of the book come early. Pouillon was born in 1943, and her father, an Austrian businessman, sent his wife and three daughters to wait out the war on a mountain farm that was a two-hour hike from the nearest village. Nora lived there, on and off, until she was eight, reveling in Tyrolean farm life: the picking of wild mushrooms, the making of fresh butter, the baking of sourdough, the resourceful consumption of all parts of the animal. “[S]he’d cut off the head and legs, pop out the eyes, put water on to boil . . . [then] cut out the tongue and the comb for a special omelet,” she writes, casually, about her grandmother’s approach to a freshly killed chicken.
Later, Pouillon came to savor the urban sophistication of Viennese restaurants and cafes. None of this prepared her for the shock of encountering Wonder Bread.
The book conjures what it was really like—and often still is—to eat and socialize in Washington. During their early married life, she and her husband, Pierre, attended the kind of informal dinner parties that many of us do: non-expensive, non-famous, nothing high profile, just somebody cooking in a small apartment kitchen, drinking wine and using whatever cutlery happens to be in the drawer. She also took advantage of some uniquely Washingtonian opportunities, picking up tips from the expats in their circle and sourcing good wine—once so hard to find—from barrels at the French Embassy.
As she gained confidence, Pouillon began giving the dinner parties. When she realized her husband’s salary had topped out, she went to work to help support the family, which included two young sons. She started catering and gave classes in how to cook on a budget, which she learned by reading James Beard. She was invited to launch the restaurant at the Tabard Inn; after a successful year in which the N Street lunch crowd learned that BLTs taste better with local Virginia tomatoes and house-made mayonnaise, she decided to open her own place.
Before it became a gustatory headquarters for Clintonites, Restaurant Nora got its start as a lower-priced establishment catering to journalists and aficionados who were allowed to run up a tab, in part because Pouillon couldn’t afford credit-card fees. Restaurant Nora, at first, was almost a club. When Pouillon went upscale and white-tablecloth, some regulars were offended and were replaced by an expense-account crowd.
• • •
People who come to this memoir hoping for insider tidbits will be disappointed, however: Part of the author’s success arose from her discretion. While she mentions her excitement at serving Meryl Streep or Baryshnikov, the closest she comes to gossip is revealing that Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein had an argument at her restaurant—hardly surprising. But to be present when a spat between those two happened! It seems at this point historic. You feel there should be a commemorative plaque at the table, like the one in Georgetown’s old Au Pied de Cochon (now Five Guys) marking where former KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko re-defected.
But a feminist thread also runs through this story, and it’s kind of a sad one. Some of Pouillon’s early influences were women’s-libbers, friends who told her she was too good and too smart to be spending nights getting drunk at parties. Not all aspects of ’70s culture were so encouraging: When she was getting started, she recalls, “I’d talk to the fishmonger, and he’d say, ‘Hey, babe, because you’re so sweet, I’ll sell it to you for $6.50 a pound.’ ” Her male partner would be quoted a price more than $2 cheaper. “They thought I was naive and helpless,” Pouillon notes. “. . . [H]e seemed to have a lot more buying power as a man.” Yet she remained committed to local purveyors. To ensure farmers could afford to raise the beef she wanted, she would agree to buy the whole animal, even though it meant she had to convince diners who wanted New York strip to take the lesser cuts as well—ground beef and the like—not to mention things like pork jowls and ears, which went into terrines. She’d give farmers imported seeds for arugula or Italian parsley and commit to buying their whole crop, even if the insects got it.
Her husband’s response as she began to find her calling was to have an affair with the au pair. She had a retaliatory fling, moved out, and began dating a younger hotel manager who became her business and life partner. They had one child and adopted another. Decades in, she says she learned he’d been having a long-term affair with their children’s piano instructor. By the end of the book, she’s 70 and alone. Workaholic females, beware! “I am a mature European woman,” Pouillon writes, sounding brave but also poignant. “. . . Being separated and single has been a big change for me.”
If it seems glamorous to have a restaurant named after you, Pouillon reminds us that it’s crushingly hard work. She remembers mixed or bad reviews without apparent rancor—though she does remember them, including from this magazine—and seems to have a healthy tolerance for failure, maybe because she grew up skiing and knows that falling, as the instructors say, means you’re learning. There are times when she sounds demented—at one point, she’s determined to have all-organic tablecloths—but visionaries need to be obsessive.
In the end, Pouillon reflects that what she has tried to do is restore us to the way people ate before the war that defined her childhood—before the era of the atom bomb and better living through chemistry. She has tried to recreate the farm food she knew growing up, to take us forward by going back.
Finishing the book, I knew where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Restaurant Nora and see what she’s been up to.
Liza Mundy is a Washington journalist and author.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The Road to Character
Washington’s David Brooks—the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator whose measured calm gives punditry a good name—offers the building blocks of a meaningful life in The Road to Character, interweaving profiles of mostly non-sexy but inspiring exemplars (New Deal Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin, Ike Eisenhower, to name a few) with his own reflections and analysis.
The Language of Paradise
“James left for Boston on April 30, a day of soft beauty, the sky a new blue and a green haze frothing the trees.” If that sentence doesn’t describe the day you’re reading this, it will soon. It’s from The Language of Paradise by Annapolis’s Barbara Klein Moss—the story of a 19th-century minister’s daughter, the offbeat theology student she marries, and his effort to discover the tongue Adam spoke in the Garden of Eden.
Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters with their Teacher
Former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy has taught peace studies at AU, Georgetown, and Woodrow Wilson and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools, among others, for 30-plus years. The often intensely heartfelt correspondence in Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters With Their Teacher includes moments both light and unexpected—such as his recommendations of local country clubs to try for a summer golf-caddy job.
Washing the Dead
Glen Echo writer Michelle Brafman’s novel, Washing the Dead, is about a woman returning to an Orthodox community for a burial ritual, years after her mother’s affair separated her from it: “My mother’s mood hovered over us, a mist that could either turn to rain or vanish into the sunlight. During our family walk to Shabbos services, I saw her eyes honeying over, the first sign that at any moment she could dip away from us, into that place inside herself.”
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Attending every powerful man or woman in Washington is a host of enablers. At the top of this class are clerks at the Supreme Court, legislative assistants on the Hill, and special assistants throughout the federal government. They have important work to do—overseeing schedules, providing counsel, relaying confidences from other bigwigs. But a large part of the job is managing the ego of the man or woman they serve, anticipating their boss’s needs, accepting his or her disdain, imparting bad news—rarely. Suffering these indignities is the price of proximity.
Among the coolest and most humbling of these gigs is the personal assistant to the President, better known as the “body man.” Invariably the young man (if Hillary is elected, the gender will change) makes sure the leader of the free world’s water is carbonated, not still; sees that his suits are pressed; and hustles him to his next meeting. Body men keep a low profile, endure a good share of abuse from a tired boss, and are granted a remarkable view of history.
Though essentially factotums, body men—who usually carry over from the presidential campaign—are political animals, climbers who graduate to fine business careers. Kris Engskov, one of Bill Clinton’s body men, is a Starbucks executive in London. Jared Weinstein, who worked for George W. Bush, runs a capital firm in New York. But because they tend to fade into the background after their presidential tenure is over, we rarely hear from them again.
Until now. Reggie Love, a body man from the 2008 presidential campaign through the first years of the Obama administration, has made headlines since leaving the White House in 2011, once revealing that he played spades with the President while Navy SEALs hunted Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Now Love has released a memoir, Power Forward: My Presidential Education. The title is a triple entendre, playing on Love’s athletic career (he played basketball and football at Duke and was briefly enlisted by the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys), his rise from middle-class kid to presidential body man, and his things-I’ve-learned counsel to the rest of us.
Much of the last of those three hits somewhere between Tony Robbins and a TED Talk. “Every day doesn’t end or start with a slam dunk,” Love consoles those of us who would settle for toothbrushing. His big finish aims to inspire: “ . . . I know there is no music as beautiful as the swish of a net, that there is nothing we can’t achieve, if we just stand tall, take the ball, and power forward.”
As White House memoirs go, Love’s isn’t scholarly hagiography, like Arthur Schlesinger’s JFK Oval Office account, A Thousand Days. It lacks the ungrateful barbs of George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, about the Clinton years. Love’s recollection is more akin to Ten Minutes From Normal by Karen Hughes, the longtime George W. Bush adviser, whose most mundane moments seem meant to impress, as when she shares how bizarre it is to be shopping for produce while taking a phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Love’s humblebrag comes one morning on the campaign trail, when Obama walks into his hotel room while the body man is entertaining a, um, guest. In Love’s telling, his date has the sheets up to her neck and Obama politely apologizes. Love, who seems to want us to know both how tight he is with the President and how he can score on the road, comes off as less modest.
Other tales speak piquantly of the longueurs of the job—watching the health-conscious President pick M&M’s out of his trail mix, nearly getting fired for misplacing Obama’s bag. At one stop, Love has tossed out the taquitos Obama is craving. Fortunately, the body man finds some at the next stop. “I earned some respect that day,” he writes.
J. Alfred Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. For the body man, it’s about sticks of meat and cheese.
The Case of the Missing Taquitos will be enough to tempt political junkies to buy this book. But a close reading offers a glimpse into Obama’s character as well. Love doesn’t get into it directly, but you can see why the two men became so close.
Yes, the President famously loves basketball and loves his guy Friday’s ability to talk hoops at all hours. The two share other bonds, however. Each went, with considerable financial aid, to private school—Obama to the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, Love to Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each went through a bad-boy phase before settling down.
This common history throws their differences into relief. As a basketball player at Duke, Love lived the life of a rock star. At Columbia, Obama was reclusive, by his own account, residing off campus in New York City’s then seedy Morningside Heights. I was a year behind him, Stephanopoulos a year ahead; neither we nor any of the future pols on campus I’ve since asked ever knew the President-to-be.
Love’s African-Americanness, too, must have appealed to Obama, in the same way eventual First Lady Michelle Robinson’s did. Love had none of the dreams-from-my-father angst that plagued “Barry” Obama as he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia of mixed race and with multiple caregivers. Love’s touchstones were church, rootedness, and middle-class values: “. . . [T]he things that give me satisfaction don’t change. Sweet tea. . . . The stirring swell of a church choir. . . . My mother saying she’s proud of me. My father shooting hoops with me.”
Love emerged from that upbringing with a mix of hubris and modesty that’s simultaneously endearing and infuriating. To his credit, he’s quick to say he has screwed things up, from a DUI at Duke to being a jerk to flight attendants aboard the campaign charter. It’s a rather self-deprecating account for someone whose college years were rife with friends and hangers-on.
At times, he can appear blind to himself and the culture of Washington. At one point, Love invites friends to a DC bar to celebrate his birthday, but when word gets out, a crowd of nearly a thousand people shows up, desperate to touch a little power. Love is stunned by this throng.
He shouldn’t be, as he himself is a bit like the crashers. Had he not wanted to get close to Obama, Love’s followers wouldn’t be following him. But when it comes to his desire to cozy up to Obama, his candidness dissolves into “aw, shucks.”
Love—who left the White House before the President’s term ended (most body men do)—got an MBA from Wharton and is now a partner in Transatlantic Holdings, a financial holding company in DC. His ambition and smarts would likely have gotten him there anyway, together with his standing as a commanding athlete and his Duke degree. But his life has been supercharged by a superb ability to manage up and render himself indispensable. That makes Love a lot like the rest of us who harbor ambition and chirp, “Great idea, boss.” We’re all body men.
In January of last year, Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, founders of the literary agency Javelin, purchased a 6,000-square-foot building in Old Town Alexandria, setting up their office one flight up from a ceramics showroom. The space is bright and airy and minimally decorated, with graphics intended to be representative of the various services Javelin provides its clients: a computer, for website design and digital marketing; a radio mike, for media deals; and a typewriter, for ghostwriting.
“One of the first things we discovered about the publishing-agent industrial complex, or whatever you want to call it, is how absurd and outdated it can be,” Latimer says. “Like, as an agent, this idea that you do not do promotion for your clients. Or that you do not help them create websites. It seemed silly, so we thought, okay, let’s just reinvent the whole process of being an agent. Let’s reinvent it and see what happens.”
Latimer is 40, with graying hair, Peter Gallagher eyebrows, and cheeks the hue of Fuji apples. A former speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush, he left politics in 2008 to write a tell-all called Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor. The book sold briskly and earned him a spot on the New York Times bestseller list as well as the enmity of a few Bush-administration colleagues, who felt Latimer had aired too much dirty laundry.
About two years later, he opened Javelin with Urbahn, 30, another former Rumsfeld speechwriter. The two took the firm’s name from the Secret Service handle for Rumsfeld’s wife; they liked how “distinctly un-Washington” it sounded, Urbahn says. Neither Latimer nor Urbahn—an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve—had a lick of agenting experience. Still, both were consummate readers and experienced writers, and as successful entrepreneurs often can, they’d spotted an opening.
“We knew that typically, with political books, the publisher puts it out there and gives it a week of attention, but if something big happens three weeks out that could help benefit the book, it’s like, ‘Oh well—too late,’ ” Urbahn recalls. “We’d gotten to know all these Washington reporters, and our thinking was that we could use that to help publicize books. And we could use our experience as writers to collaborate with authors, or even book-doctor some projects, if we needed to. That was going to be our niche.”
Their first client was their old boss. Latimer and Urbahn had helped write Rumsfeld’s previous book, a memoir called Known and Unknown. Washington superagent Robert Barnett had handled the sale. But according to Latimer and Urbahn, Barnett had been unenthusiastic about the new project, a compendium of flinty Rumsfeldian wisdom. (Barnett did not comment for this story.) Barnett believed Rumsfeld would be “lucky” to get $200,000 from a publisher, Urbahn says. Sticking a thumb in Barnett’s eye, Javelin sold Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life to HarperCollins for nearly $1 million. It also organized a social-media campaign, arranged TV bookings, and built a website with a searchable index of sources.
“What impressed me was that they were able to leverage all this technology in a way that most people my age couldn’t,” Rumsfeld says. “There are few agents who know anything about promoting in the 21st century. Keith and Matt did.”
In May of 2013, buoyed by a glitzy television tour—“I see you as ‘Yummy Rummy,’ Today’s Kathie Lee Gifford purred to the former Defense Secretary—Rumsfeld’s Rules debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. Latimer and Urbahn had made their bones, and Washington was taking note.
A string of high-profile projects followed—a big book by Fox’s Lou Dobbs, another by Washington private investigator Terry Lenzner. In April, Javelin took a memoir by Texas senator Ted Cruz to auction in New York, reportedly winning an advance of about $1.5 million. (Urbahn says it was “not [Javelin’s] place” to discuss specific advance amounts.) The Washington Examiner breathlessly noted that the advance was the largest in years for a conservative politician—bigger even than the $1.25 million paid to Sarah Palin in 2008.
“It’s extremely impressive, what they’ve managed to do,” one DC literary agent says. “I think maybe there was some skepticism at first that these guys could compete in Washington, but then the Cruz deal happened and everyone sort of sat up and went, ‘Okay, maybe this is actually legit.’ ”
And if it is, the hoary old model of Beltway book dealing could be in for a big change.
• • •
In Javelin’s early days, Latimer and Urbahn worked out of a one-room office in Arlington’s Courthouse Square. Latimer says he’d come into the office thinking, “This might not work. We might not be here at the end of the year.”
A lawyer by training, the Michigan-born Latimer prepared himself for the possibility that the venture could fall apart. For his part, Urbahn, who grew up in Connecticut and studied religion and Arabic at Yale, told me if he hadn’t started Javelin with Latimer, he would have applied to business school. (His father is an airline executive.)
“Back then, we laughed at ourselves,” Latimer says. “We had no illusions. We didn’t go to agent school, you know? We were totally figuring it out as we went along.”
He says purchasing an office instead of renting—it cost more than $2 million—was an investment decision, but he also describes it as a bit of a professional motivator: “A permanent office was a big step, because buying an office meant a mortgage and a real commitment to fill the space with people.”
Today Javelin has ten employees, including a booking expert and several PR specialists. The team oversees a rotating stable of roughly 30 authors. Once a week, staffers gather to run air-traffic control. This fall, they invited me to sit in on one of the meetings. Rachael Dean, a PR manager—and former press secretary to John McCain—was on hand, as was Javelin staff writer and onetime Supreme Court clerk Justin Walker, who beamed in via webcam from his home in Kentucky.
Dressed in a pink button-down and slim-cut jeans, Urbahn called the meeting to order. Compared with Latimer, he’s serious and serene—the natural choice, Latimer says, for president of the company. (Latimer’s title is founding partner.) On this day, Urbahn appeared fatigued. A week earlier, he and Latimer had signed Barbara Bowman, one of the women to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault. So far, Javelin’s PR team had agreed to an NBC interview with Bowman, declined one with Entertainment Tonight (“diminishing returns,” Latimer said with a wave of his hand), and was weighing another with 20/20.
The book-sale prospects were also looking good. “We’ve got seven publishers that have already signed nondisclosure agreements to read the proposal,” Urbahn said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a few that want to fly Barbara to New York for a meeting.”
Next up was a children’s book on free-market economics—“It could find an audience with parents who think their kids aren’t getting a good education on Hayek and Friedman and all that stuff,” Urbahn said—and even more promisingly, a new title by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.
“The editors love him,” Latimer said of Jindal. “He’s got enthusiasm. On one of his calls, he talked for 45 minutes straight!” (Jindal’s project, tentatively titled Hinges of History, sold in December for a mid-six-figure advance.)
Dean, the PR manager, jumped in. The next morning, she was scheduled to fly to Nova Scotia for the Halifax International Security Forum, where she hoped to obtain a few new clients. “I’m kind of obsessed with two women,” she said, smiling. “One is Alaa Murabit, a women’s-rights activist from Libya. She was on Qaddafi’s list of the most wanted. She’s young and smart. She’s been out there a bit, but she hasn’t written a book.”
Urbahn was skeptical: “We’d have to find the larger story there. The bigger narrative.”
He was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of securing an audience with Tulsi Gabbard, a personable 33-year-old Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. A surfer, an Iraq veteran, and the first Hindu in Congress, Gabbard had recently been appointed vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “I wonder if we could get her to write about the future of the Democratic Party,” Urbahn said.
For a literary agent, no skill is more important than the ability to find talent before the other sharks in the tank take notice. But for Washington agents on the make, this doesn’t always involve scouring literary journals for some unknown gem. In fact, it’s not that different from the work of the political pros Urbahn and Latimer used to be: They’re seeking rising stars whose electoral potential or cable-TV appeal could keep them in the news—and their books on bestseller lists—for decades to come. Though the agents want to expand into history or culture books, their main skill is identifying people, not authors.
Latimer asked Dean how she was planning to approach Gabbard’s team. “Well, I don’t know how this is going to go down,” she joked. “Who knows what might happen if the lobster keeps flowing.”
“I’d go with the soft sell,” Latimer said. “Just tell them about the books we’ve done and ask for another conversation.”
Meeting adjourned. Or almost: Latimer had one more point to bring up. For months, he’d been trying to make contact with Joe Biden, whose 2007 campaign tome, Promises to Keep, had sold poorly and earned the then senator a relatively measly $112,500 advance. Latimer believed he could help Biden craft a blockbuster post-White House book. He’d already penned one letter to the VP without any luck. But he’d recently made contact with a relative of Biden’s and was now preparing a second note. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think if we can get this in front of him and detail all these new projects, we’ve got a shot.”
Later, Latimer told me Biden was more than a white whale—he was an opportunity to boost Javelin into a class of agents currently occupied by only one other person.
“We’d love to represent Biden. We’d love to represent Obama,” Latimer said. “People think it’s crazy to say that, and I imagine Bob Barnett will probably do Obama’s next book, but why? He doesn’t have any special talent that we don’t have. Why shouldn’t it be us?”
Literary agenting in Washington is a big-money game, and no DC agent in history has earned more cash for his clients than Robert Barnett. His run effectively began in 1985, with a seismic $2.4-million deal—$5.3 million in today’s dollars—for David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director. Barnett’s track record since then would take pages to recount. It’s probably best to stick to the highlight reel: Edward Kennedy’s memoir True Compass ($8 million, reportedly), Bill Clinton’s My Life ($10 million, ditto), Hillary Clinton’s Living History ($8 million, ditto), Tony Blair’s A Journey (roughly $7 million, ditto), George W. Bush’s Decision Points ($7 million, ditto), and Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, a book that has helped make the President a very wealthy man.
Barnett has represented Amanda Knox, the college student accused and acquitted of murder in Italy; Queen Noor of Jordan; Prince Charles; thriller novelist James Patterson; and bestselling author Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runner fame. But his real brand is American politics, a world in which he’s seen as both powerbroker and—per Mark Leibovich’s not particularly flattering portrait in This Town—the epitome of “the Suck-Up City operator who plays all sides, is tireless in his self-promotion, and is mercenary in his alliances.” (It may be worth pointing out that Latimer and Urbahn, who secured their first deal, and thus their reputation, by dint of their association with Rumsfeld, have benefited from their own type of insider alliance.)
A Democrat, Barnett has sold books by Karl Rove and Sarah Palin. He has also leveraged a network of industry contacts to negotiate extremely lucrative media deals, including a $3.4-million exit package for outgoing Wall Street Journal editor Marcus Brauchli, who eventually wound up, for a time, atop the Washington Post. (Soon thereafter, Leibovich points out in This Town, the Post published a sugary profile of Barnett.)
Traditionally, a literary agent takes a 15-percent commission on all royalty and advance money. A lawyer at the white-shoe Washington firm Williams & Connolly, Barnett charges an author a flat hourly fee, allegedly in the neighborhood of a grand. Big bucks, obviously. But considering the amount of money he’s able to get from publishers, he probably often saves his clients money. After all, 15 percent of $8 million is $1.2 million, and Barnett almost certainly charged Hillary Clinton less than that for his work on Living History.
Barnett has said he represents almost 300 authors, but in an average year he’ll close only a dozen deals—another sign, in a way, of his prestige. He has no need for the small deals that sustain other agents. He gets to pick and choose his bets, and he almost always chooses right.
As PublicAffairs founder Peter Osnos has argued, “Nobody games the system better than Bob Barnett.”
Indeed, to speak to other agents about Barnett is to hear a mixture of naked jealousy and grudging respect: The man, whatever his faults, gets it done. Not only did he essentially create the market for big-money political memoirs, but he has kept it cornered, year after year.
“You learn to think that there are the type of clients that you’ll be able to snag and the type of clients that are going to go for Barnett,” one young DC agent says. “Basically, there’s a momentum that accrues—if you’re a retiring politician and Barnett has made millions for all your friends, you’re going to sign with Barnett, too. I don’t take offense at that. I adjust.”
Compared with New York, with its dozens of agencies, literary Washington is a claustrophobic place. There’s Barnett, there are a couple of one-person operations, there are some New York agencies with DC offices, and there are Sagalyn Literary Agency and Ross Yoon—two local shops with deep benches of author talent. But although Sagalyn and Ross Yoon sell big political books—Sagalyn did the bestselling George W. Bush-administration history Days of Fire by Times scribe Peter Baker; Ross Yoon handled Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room, about Roger Ailes and Fox News—neither has demonstrated much success with the politicians and heads of state who constitute Barnett’s client base.
That’s the market Latimer and Urbahn want.
• • •
Once there are alternatives out there, I think Barnett is going to have a harder time,” Latimer told me. We were sitting in the office he shares with Urbahn, drinking coffee. On the wall behind him, alongside a bottle of ten-year-old Bulleit bourbon, hung a framed version of what he considers his most effective speech—a 2007 George W. Bush number honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.
“This was my one moment I was proud of in the administration,” Latimer said, flushing.
Latimer had suggested that the President salute the airmen, a gesture that provoked tears from the assembled pilots. “President Bush later asked who was responsible for that salute idea and said, ‘Tell that guy he’s a genius,’ ” Latimer remembers.
Javelin’s proposition to authors is that it can offer them that same type of genius. Other agents might tweak a proposal and get it to the right people, but Urbahn and Latimer are available, for a fee, for chapter editing, full-on ghostwriting, and occasional stagecraft.
“We come at it like we would a campaign,” Latimer says. “Months ahead of time, we’re thinking, ‘What is our strategy for the rollout? What about leak strategy? And what reporters do we need to get interested?’ ”
It’s also a different economic model in that fees vary depending on the needs of the client. With some authors, they’ll take the standard 15 percent. For others, they’ll charge an hourly rate for proposal writing, or a higher commission if a lot more work is needed on the manuscript.
“Sometimes we’ll say to people who have never done a book before, ‘We’ll help you with the writing, we’ll help you with editing and the drafts and the research and the copyediting, we’ll help you organize it and structure it,’ ” Latimer says. “Of course, a lot of young or starting-out writers don’t have a lot of money to do this, so basically, in place of giving us a big flat fee, we take a larger percentage of [the sales].”
Urbahn and Latimer say they earned $4.6 million in advance money for clients in 2014, with the average sale in the mid-six figures—a pittance by Barnett standards but no small deal in an era of shrinking publisher budgets.
For the time being, literary representation is the largest single component of Javelin’s business, but the firm is expanding into other sectors: Javelin has overhauled Foreign Policy’s website and built the magazine a new digital press kit and helped design and brand a blog for the John Templeton Foundation. In October, Latimer and Urbahn arranged a deal that saw political reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin move from the Daily Beast to Bloomberg View.
Lake and Rogin are, in a way, ideal Javelin clients: young, energetic, and on the rise. They represent an investment of the kind that a Bob Barnett would never have to make. “The hope is to go out and find the people who are going to be reporting and telling stories about Washington for the next 20 years, the next 30 years,” Urbahn says. “To find the talent early and to stick with them.”
There’s a reason most agents have been content to stick with the straightforward 15-percent commission: It can be easy work. You send out a proposal to publishers, you sit in on conference calls with editors, you collect your cut of the advance, and you move on to the next sale. It’s a model that—to use a trendy 2014 term Urbahn and Latimer aren’t afraid to deploy themselves—is begging to be disrupted.
Of course, there are legions of would-be publishing industry disrupters who’ve gone belly-up over the years. Will Javelin’s bet—that writers will opt for a one-stop shop offering a much broader array of services at occasionally higher prices—pay off? To continue to grow, they’ll have to add clients consistently, both up-and-comers and established ones
Perhaps more pressing is the question of how Javelin will define itself. Latimer and Urbahn are conservative; they came up through conservative administrations, and most of their clients are right-leaning. Neither founder is unaware of this: In fact, Urbahn credits it as part of Javelin’s appeal.
“There are a lot of people in this town who became our first clients because they didn’t feel that literary agents gave them the time of day, and yes, sure, a lot of them were sort of Republican conservative center-right,” he says. But he and Latimer hope to broaden Javelin’s reach.
“I could write just as good of a speech for Barack Obama as I wrote for George W. Bush if I knew what he wanted to say, if I knew how he talked,” Latimer says. “The same thing goes for our clients.”
Among Javelin’s newest signees is Tim Naftali, a left-leaning historian who is currently working—with right-leaning reporter Jamie Kirchick—on a book about gay life in Washington. “Intellectually honest people can sell a project that doesn’t necessarily align with their interests,” Naftali says. “To me, the important thing was that Keith and Matt really got the idea and were very enthusiastic. Because let’s face it, if your agent doesn’t believe in a project, editors are going to sense it.”
Others are more skeptical about whether Javelin can attract a broad cross-section of clients.
“In a sense, a lot of DC agents have it pretty easy: They don’t have to hustle, they have a couple big clients—they’re incumbents in the market, if you will,” one Washington editor told me. “That means that a disruptive outsider can come and eat their lunch. But the idea, to me, of Javelin going bipartisan is slim. With that client list, are they really going to be able to come to a Democratic event and schmooze and convince liberal politicians to sign with them? I’m not sure.”
He paused. “Then again, there’s more conservative media in Washington than there’s ever been: the Daily Caller, the Washington Free Beacon, and so on. There’s a huge pool of conservative writers that they can tap into, and in that sense, they may not even have to go bipartisan.”
On a stormy night last fall, a hundred-odd Washington grandees gathered at the Georgetown residence of Michael Pillsbury, a former senior Defense Department official, and his wife, Susan, an arts patron. The occasion was the release of Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington by TV reporter Sharyl Attkisson. In March, Attkisson departed CBS News in circumstances allegedly related to her work on the Benghazi attacks and the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act; later, she claimed that the government had hacked into her computer in an effort to silence her. (Reports in Vox and the Washington Post, among other places, questioned whether Attkisson’s computer had ever been hacked.)
Outside the house, a line of drivers waited to deposit their BMWs and Benzes with the valet. Inside, there were waiters in white jackets, carting flutes of Champagne, and a chirpy bookseller armed with an iPad and a Square credit-card reader. Budget warrior Grover Norquist was on hand, as were Howard Kurtz and Juan Williams from Fox. Darrell Issa, the House Republican who led an investigation into the Benghazi attacks, gave a short speech praising Attkisson’s tenacity.
Latimer and Urbahn looked on. This was largely a scene of their construction: Pillsbury was a Javelin client, as was Attkisson, whom Latimer and Urbahn had approached, cold, when she was still at CBS.
“She was like, ‘Well, let me think about this,’ ” Urbahn recalled of their first meeting. “But she’s a very fast writer and she pounded out a proposal in four or five days and sent it to us. We gave her some edits and feedback, and then we were ready to go.” Javelin sold the Stonewalled proposal to HarperCollins for a deal in the “healthy” six figures.
“Her story is much more than the stuff that’s made headlines,” Urbahn told me. “It’s actually the story of the decline of investigative journalism in America and the PR flacks who make sure their bosses never hit the news.” He did not note that “PR flack” was a large part of his former job description—and that those dark arts remain part of what Javelin sells to clients.
Latimer cut in: “It’s also about the rise of a mentality which was present in the Bush administration and the Clinton administration and now the Obama administration, which is by all accounts worse than ever, of just denying reporters access to information.”
Attkisson was doing the conservative-media rounds, from the Daily Caller to The O’Reilly Factor, and her book had made a strong showing on the Amazon charts. But Latimer and Urbahn, who had been advising her on the publicity campaign, thought it could shoot higher still. A couple of days after the book party, Urbahn e-mailed me to say “we’ll see on NYT but looking pretty good”—a reference to a possible debut by Stonewalled on the New York Times bestseller list. Sure enough, by mid-November there it was, occupying the number-five slot, just above Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.
But Latimer and Urbahn were already thinking ahead. Ideally, Latimer told me, “Sharyl would have a very successful first book, and then she’d do a second book where she’d talk about the same themes some more and discuss stories she hadn’t shared in the first book. Or she could take it another direction and give speeches. No problem there—people want her to give speeches all over the place. She could craft a reputation and career on being the whistleblower, if you will, of modern investigative journalism.”
Attkisson could build a brand, and Javelin would help her do it.
A staff writer at Smothsonian, Matthew Shaer has written for magazines including GQ, New York, and Wired.
This article appears in our February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Middle-school English teachers and other book lovers are rejoicing today in the news that Harper Lee, the author of the 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, plans to publish a second novel later this year. Lee's new volume, titled Go Set a Watchman, was actually composed in the 1950s. But Lee, according to a statement from her publisher, had assumed the galleys had been lost to the years.
Still, a new book from one of America's most celebrated 20th-century novelists is cause for celebration, and, more obviously, lame attempts at Twitter humor. Loads of users, possibly before discovering the name of Lee's upcoming release, came up with a title on their own:
2 Kill 2 Mockingbird— Simon Maloy (@SimonMaloy) February 3, 2015
2 Kill 2 Mockingbird— Asawin Suebsaeng (@swin24) February 3, 2015
is it too late for me to make a “2 kill 2 mockingbird” joke or nah?— kelly cohen (@politiCOHEN_) February 3, 2015
2 Kill 2 Mockingbird— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) February 3, 2015
2 Kill 2 Mockingbird— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) February 3, 2015
2 kill 2 mockingbird— martin rickman (@martinrickman) February 3, 2015
The preceding tweets come from journalists affiliated with, in order, Salon, the Daily Beast, Washington Examiner, the Washington Post, National Review, Jezebel, and Sports Illustrated, all of whom apparently wanted to convey to their followers their deep admiration for the second entry in the The Fast and the Furious film series, the nimbly titled 2 Fast 2 Furious. Great job, folks. In fact, the Beast's Asawin Suebsaeng was so pleased with his quip, he repeated it in an attempt to surpass the others.
ok fine we ALL made the "2 Kill 2 Mockingbird" joke but mine was superior because i love Paul Walker more than u— Asawin Suebsaeng (@swin24) February 3, 2015
Suebsaeng's love of the late Paul Walker notwithstanding, the repeated joke is not even a fresh concoction. Patient Zero for "2 Kill 2 Mockingbird" appears be a user from Perth, Australia, who on October 27, 2011, tweeted it at Bill Boulden, a Buffalo, New York-based deejay who goes by the nom de club Spruke.
@rtassicker Delayed reaction here but 2 Kill 2 Mockingbird is so deliciously plausible I was giggling about it all night— Bill Boulden (@Spruke) October 28, 2011
To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies since it was first published. Lee's publisher, Harper, plans to print an initial run of Go Set a Watchman of two million copies.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter, not making the same dumb Harper Lee joke as everyone else, at @brfreed.
Did being famous for being famous—credited to reality stars like Kim Kardashian—actually start in Washington?
On January 24, 1882, at the Arlington Hotel on DC’s Vermont Avenue, an uncomfortable meeting took place between British aesthete Oscar Wilde and novelist Henry James. At the time, Wilde—who had yet to write anything of note—was drawing huge crowds to his lectures on art, and in society he was cutting a lascivious figure in tight velvet coats and lavender gloves. Author David Friedman, who tells the tale in his new book, Wilde in America, says James and his friends disapproved of Wilde. Clover Adams, a Washington socialite, referred to Wilde as a “noodle”—a sly knock on his masculinity. Friedman suspects James went to the Arlington Hotel anyway because “he knew this was a dividing line between the past, when you became famous for what you did, and the new age, in which you could be famous just for existing.” James’s visit, Friedman speculates, was a genuflection to this new mode of celebrity.
It seems a kind of historical revisionism to link Wilde with the likes of the Kardashians, but the hallmarks of his approach are certainly still visible. Wilde cozied up to the right sort of people, only to create a commotion—Friedman compares Wilde’s lectures to comedian Russell Brand’s 2013 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, when he ripped his interviewers for their shallow questions. Lady Gaga or Ellen DeGeneres would recognize in Adams’s nervousness about Wilde the power of forcing people to face their prejudices.
What Oscar Wilde had that today’s “famous for nothing” may lack is an endgame. After his successful US launch, Wilde leveraged the attention into an enduring literary career as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, one of the funniest plays in English. Kim Kardashian’s endgame, by contrast, is already—so to speak—behind her.