Colin Walters, the Books Editor of the Washington Times for the past 21 years, passed away from cancer recently, causing me to reflect somberly on the complex relationship between writers and editors. Colin had regularly run my reviews of books about the West in the Sunday Book section for the past five years.
Colin was one of those expatriate Brits who populate American Journalism in increasing numbers and bring to it that urbane erudition common in England (Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan most readily come to mind), and lacking amongst our own homegrown "J" school graduates. Reading his own elegant pieces gave you the impression that he had read widely in what Edmund Wilson called "the main departments of human thought." Though like many of his ilk -- even American ones -- he had a view of the American West (which I'm guessing he never visited) based on the John Waynesque myth.
I jokingly refer to these editors as the guys who are just nuts about assigning me reviews of what I call "bandit biographies," the more shoot 'em-up bloodshed the better. If western writers and readers think that East Coast editors inhabit an insulated cluelessness concerning the true history, culture and contemporary political machinations of the American West, well, it applies to the Brits doubly so. I'm sure while growing up in England, Colin saw his share of Saturday matinee American horse operas.
When it came to my reviewing chores, his was such a pleasant voice over the phone that I couldn't say no (granted, book reviewers know it's bad luck to say no). Ever. I couldn't say no when he asked me to review a boring history of American agriculture because a small part of it dealt with the West. The book was full of manure, in more ways than one. I rolled my eyes but in the end couldn't refuse the opportunity to review a tome about a Montana town famous in the annals of coal mining, or the idiotic essays about the region penned by a popular academic feminist from Colorado. I cringed, but said yes when offered the volume detailing the history of the early 20th century American Chautauqua movement because Colin had discovered that washed-up, alcoholic Shakespeareans, and the young ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy were wildly popular in the frontier Dakotas. A dull history chronicling the rivalry of two 19th century paleontologists who hated each other was mostly set at the Smithsonian, but the dinosaur skeletons had been discovered in Montana, hence the hook. There were some frankly bad novels by the likes of Thomas McGuane and Annie Proulx. But there was also an excellent biography of John Wesley Powell, and an interesting critical study of the tandem careers of Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner, among a few other worthy titles. I dutifully read (well, that's the party line among book reviewers anyway) and reviewed them all. They are the odd ducks on my shelves, sharing space with the bandit biographies.
Colin's own work habits were well known at the Washington Times. He himself reviewed two or three titles per month, plus editing his many staff and freelance contributors. He was an editor with a light touch, at least from my experience. If you worked hard on a piece, it would pretty much appear in the paper as submitted. He left well enough alone.
Near the end he kept a good face on concerning his cancer. On the phone a couple of months before his passing (and the last time I spoke to him), he wouldn't go into detail about his treatment, but in his stiff-upper-lip British way simply said that he was "feeling quite frisky" lately. As I said goodbye and hung up, I took this to be small cause for optimism, but still hoped and prayed.
As with most of my editors, I'd never met him. Being delightfully marooned in Wyoming means that I rarely have the opportunity to mix socially with my fellow hacks and hackmasters. From seeing a bookchat mugshot atop his column in the National Weekly edition of the Times, I knew Colin had a cheerful, cherubic face and white hair. Other than that there was the crisply economical British accent on the phone. I suppose my memories will be auditory.
One of those calls came -- coincidentally -- on Election Day 2000. An offer to review what I'm sure was probably a bad book, opened with an enthusiastic: "Good morning, Bill! Have you saddled up and ridden to the polls today?" Like most westerners, I don't even own a horse, but went along with the joke.
"You bet," I said. "I've had Democrats for breakfast, and when the polls close there's free whiskey down at the saloon. Gen-u-ine Republican whiskey."
"Well, good!" exclaimed Colin, and we laughed heartily.
Like many editors, he always sent along his business card with each book. I have thirty-odd of these held together with a rubber band in my desk drawer, and will save them. They all bear roughly the same personal message scribbled across the front: "Bill, Thanks for taking this one on for us. -Best, C.".
No maestro, thank you.