Here I am with my wife at a memorial for my dear friend and colleague, Jim Bellows, at the Westwood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. Jim died about a week ago of Alzheimer’s at 86. He was a sprightly, lively, imaginative, courageous fellow, and I knew he was ill, but I did not know how close to the end he was. Naturally, I am sitting here crying my eyes out, racked with sobs, and I mean uncontrollable shivering sobs.
Jim was a friend. Not just a good friend, but a great friend. The world knows him as the last editor of the New York Herald Tribune, the Washington Star (well, not quite the last, but close to the last), the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, also not quite the last, the man who put Entertainment Tonight on the map and kept it there for decades, big power at Prodigy, author and raconteur, ace golfer and wit.
Again, to me, Jim was primarily a friend. He hired me to write a guest column at the Herald Examiner for four weeks and I stayed for nine years.
Towards the end of his life, when his disease was eating him up little by little and in fits and starts, I was nowhere near as good a friend to him as I should have been. It was hard for me to deal with having conversations with him and then having the same conversation a few hours later or days later and then getting a call asking to have the same conversation again. That was stupid and unfeeling of me. My day will come, too.
And as I thought, in between sobs, of Jim and his 32 years of kindness to me, I thought that I would mentally compose a letter to him of what I so much wish I had said to him when he was alive.
“Jim, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Thank you for keeping me on at the Herald for all of those years. Thank you for backing me up when big names in LA were angry at me and wanted my hide. Thank you for letting me publish pieces that we both knew were likely to get picked up for movie deals and then for letting me keep all of the option money and not making me split it with the Hearst Corporation. Thank you for letting me write the best thing I ever wrote — with the wind of the gods at my back — ‘Ludes, about a young couple in Los Angeles addicted to life in the fast lane, based on my life and the life of a couple I knew well.
“Thank you for letting me have lunch with you all of those times at that restaurant near the Herald, where I would have a ginger ale and you would have three, yes, three martinis, smoke cigarettes and then get much more done in the afternoon than I did.
“Thank you for coming to lunch with me on my 41st birthday at a dive in Westwood not far from where we are today, and giving me straight talk. I asked you what I should do with my life now that I was 41. You answered, with perfect brilliance, ‘Live to be forty-two.’
“Thank you for being so brave as to fly in Navy carrier fighter planes in World War II in the Pacific. Thank you for your unbelievable modesty about it when I praised you for it. You simply said, ‘I just saw a few Zeroes way far in the distance. It was nothing.’ I don’t believe you, Jim, and you are a big time war hero to me now and forever, like my wife’s amazing relatives and my father’s father. Brave and modest, a combination generally unknown outside the military.
“Jim, this is how I see you: the brave young man flying in the Pacific sky, barely out of school, barely out of the South Kent School you loved so much, and then bravely flying in the bright blue sky of freedom of speech and of the press and of no laws restricting the free exercise of same.
“Jim, again, I am sorry I did not return your calls as soon as you called me in your later years. I travel a lot and that’s a BS excuse and I am just plain sorry. Our mutual friend, Larry Dietz, a far better friend to you than I was, kept me posted but I should have been a better friend.
“Jim, thank you for sharing talk of our dogs. How well I recall your dear Brindle and your love of animals. Your wife, the always radiant Keven, tells me, told everyone, your last words were, ‘Where is my dog?’ These are the words of a man who knows what’s important. Dogs are our best friends and I am certain yours will be with you in eternity.
“God bless you for never needling me about Nixon even though I know you did not like him (maybe that’s putting it mildly). God bless you for not being afraid to tease Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn back in the Washington Star days. God bless you for taking on the Klan in Columbus, Georgia, in the late 1940s when that meant something.
“As far as I recall, you never said a discouraging word to me. Not ever. Encouragement and merriment were your watchwords. Now, you are gone, cruising the skies, looking for Zeroes, looking for Ben Bradlee, looking for the Whale of what used to be the Los Angeles Times, coming to rest occasionally with your dogs. We here on earth will not see your like again.
“I know you didn’t like my hero, Richard Nixon, but some words he said when he left office in 1974 still ring in my ears and they apply to you and all of us who loved you so much, who still love you so much. ‘This isn’t good-bye. The French have a word for it. “Au revoir.” We’ll see you again.’
“Au revoir, Jim.”
The service was the best prayer service I have ever been to, including an electrifying speech by Jim’s dear friend and successor, Mary Anne Dolan, a really smart and eloquent woman. My wife and I stood outside talking about Jim with our pal, John Mankiewicz, a brilliant writer, whom I got a job at the Herald as a rock critic long, long ago. Then we went to a small reception at the Bel-Air Country Club, a club Jim was always trying to get me to join. Keven Bellows sat at the table with us, still beautiful despite her torment and torture and grief. My head ached so much from crying that I asked Alex if we could leave.
I kissed Keven good-bye and headed out into the Los Angeles traffic. Good-bye, Jim. You remind me so very much of my pal, Peter Flanigan, another fearless, fiercely loyal Navy carrier pilot from World War II. What will we do when your generation is gone? What will we do now? Where is my dog?